Limiting God

March 1, 2024 by Andrew Garland Breeden (Tennessee)

As a child, I remember thinking that God was an old man with a white beard who lived in the sky. It was a mental picture shaped by art, storybooks, and my own imagination. As I’ve grown to know God in the years since, I have, of course, come to see God quite differently. 

I think we all have ways of picturing God that help us to feel closer to God. Scripture is full of images and metaphors that point to God and to God’s amazing attributes — a pillar of fire, a mother hen, a rock, a fortress, to name a few. They are compelling and comforting. They can even lead us to a deeper connection to God and to God’s love for us. They make God relatable and give us a window into God’s vast and awesome character. Recently, I came across a verse in Deuteronomy that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. It’s a reference to the Israelites’ encounter with God at Horeb. It says, “Then the Lord spoke to [the Israelites] out of the fire. [They] heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (4:12, NIV). What caught my attention were these words: They . . . saw no form. I was immediately struck by the beauty of this turn of phrase and challenged to imagine God appearing to the Israelites “without form.” Reading this verse made me pause and think about how I picture God in my mind now. It made me wonder why I am drawn to certain images and also wonder which of them are helpful, and — maybe more importantly — which ones aren’t. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that God appeared to the people at Horeb without form. On this occasion, God was reminding the Israelites to observe the Ten Commandments, one of which prohibits idolatry. I don’t think it’s wrong that we imagine or picture God in certain ways — it’s how our brains work. I do think, however, there is danger when we try to confine God to one image, to shape God into the one form that we think God should take. And it becomes even more dangerous when we start to believe that God thinks just like us and has the same partialities and biases that we do. In our hearts and minds, God might even begin to harbor the same grudges that we do, dislike the same people that we struggle to love, and share our prejudices. 

After reading Deuteronomy 4:12, I have wondered if one of the biggest reasons for God’s many warnings against idolatry is to keep us from confining God. Maybe it’s to keep us from imagining God in ways that limit what God can do in our lives and in the lives of others. And maybe the warning against idolatry is to make us aware of images of God that are potentially harmful — to ourselves and to others. The Bible reminds us time and time again that there are no boundaries on what God can accomplish. The narrative arc of scripture shows that God is beyond anything we can conceive and that God acts in astounding and mysterious ways. This should come as wonderful news to all of us. And it should come as particularly good news to anyone who thinks God is distant and uncaring or who has ever been told that God does not love them or want to have a relationship with them. God is bigger than our best efforts to fully understand or explain. God is infinitely larger, more loving, and more compassionate than what we might ever think possible.

Questions for Reflection:

1. When you think about God, what images immediately come to mind for you? Why?
2. When have you encountered a depiction of God (in art, on television, in a movie, etc.) that you thought was unhelpful or potentially harmful? What about it did you not like?
3. Make a list of the five attributes, images, or metaphors that you think best describe God. How do they comfort you? How do they challenge you?

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Image by: Guy MOLL