When Moses stood barefoot upon the holy ground he asked two questions of God. First, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). The second was similar, “Who are you?”
“But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’” (Exodus 3:13).
These two questions: “Who am I” and “Who is God” are the foundational questions of faith. It should come as no surprise that both questions lurk within the stories of Scripture. Take a moment to think about your favorite Bible story. You may be surprised to find out just how much that one little story colors the way you see not only yourself, but the way that you see God.
While both are questions of identity, the way we use Scripture to answer these questions is very different. With the question of “Who am I?” we should use Scripture as a mirror. We do best when we see ourselves, our fears, questions, and frailties reflected in the stories of the faith.
While this is helpful for answering the first question, it is inadequate when it comes to the second, “Who is God?” For this we need to think of Scripture as a window. This window opens us to a faithscape that contains varied ways in which God has revealed God’s self. These images or word pictures of God help us to understand God through the power of metaphor and simile. The images themselves cannot capture the fullness of God, but they give us insight into God’s nature. As we mature, our primary images of God often change. (back to top)
God as father
The first image I had of God as a child was that of God the Father. Jesus also used this powerful image. When teaching his disciples to pray he instructed them to address God as Father, or Abba in Aramaic. Abba while meaning father may be closer to our term Daddy. We know that God is beyond gender, but this image of God as Father speaks to God’s ability to protect us and keep us safe. Perhaps you have a memory of running into your earthly father’s arms to be reassured in times of need. This image makes it easy for us to think of God as that perfect heavenly father whose arms are tender enough to offer an embrace, but strong enough to keep us safe from those things that go bump in the night.
Unfortunately, because of the reality of brokenness within families, for some this image of God as Father is unfathomable—if not oppressive. We must remember that while our images for God are helpful to us, we need not insist that they be equally helpful for everyone. I remember having a conversation with a person who was struggling with this image of God as Father. Because of her experience in an abusive home the idea of connecting the word father with God was inconceivable. She could intellectualize what the image was supposed to portray, but such intellectual consent couldn’t overcome the betrayal she felt when the word father was connected with God. (back to top)
God as judge
As I think upon my childhood, the image of God as judge came next. As a child I heard this image of God being recited Sunday after Sunday in the words of the Apostles’ Creed: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Of course this is in reference to Jesus, the second per son of the Trinity, but for me it spoke of God as Judge. And this Judge was not pleased by sticky fingers, wandering feet, or dirty mouths as proven by the Sunday school song, “O be careful little hands what you do. For the Father up above is looking down in love,” and this little fact helped my fledgling conscience develop a sense of right and wrong. As an adult, I kind of quiver in my boots with this image of a God who spends every moment keeping track of my triumphs and indiscretions. And yet this image of God helped me to understand that I was morally accountable and as such had a responsibility to stand on the side of good.
What I have found is that some never dare to see God beyond these first two images, God as Father and Judge. As we grow and mature in faith our images of God expand and mature as well. (back to top)
God as shepherd
I remember my grandmother asking me to memorize the 23rd Psalm. The psalmist begins, “The Lord is my shepherd” and to this day I can see the silhouette of the solidary shepherd standing against the Judean hillside. This was a powerful image for me as an adolescent. The shepherd is there to protect and guide the sheep, but the sheep have plenty of time to wander off and get lost! I often talk with people about the ‘faith sabbaticals’ that many of us take as teenagers or young adults.
In the words of musician John Ylvisaker, we might “wander off where demons dwell” (“Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship 732). And yet it is exactly in these seemingly godless places that God enters in to search us out and bring us home. In this image of God as shepherd one begins to realize the depths of God’s love and the lengths to which God is willing to go in order to reunite us wandering sheep into the master’s fold. It’s probably no wonder that one of the earliest depictions of Jesus in the church is that of him as the good shepherd. (back to top)
God as potter; God as rock
As my faith grew I yearned for more than a shepherd who would rescue me, but for a God who would mold me. In Isaiah 64:8, we read: “… we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
I imagine God at the potter’s wheel, those strong skilled hands smoothing the bumps and imperfections, while shaping the piece of clay that is my being. There is an intimacy in this image that is not found in father, judge, or shepherd, as there is both an awareness of one’s shortcomings and a hope that God is still at work fashioning me into the person God would have me become. This image of potter connects my relationship with God with the world that God loves. In the potter’s hands, I am intention ally made not to serve myself but to be of use in the world.
Of course, the world is often an unkind place and it didn’t take long for me to develop chips and cracks in the clay of my existence. If God was the potter, I had hoped that God might have used a little stronger clay! As I found myself navigating the rather chaotic world of everyday life—which is no place for a finely made piece of clay; I found that I needed not just a potter to mold me, but a rock to hold me. But not just any rock, I clung to the image of God as MY ROCK!
In Psalm 28:1, David declares: “To you, O Lord, I call; my rock.” This image of God is not as intimate as the potter, but it provides a sense of grounding. That God can be trusted and that God’s word to me in the midst of the chaos will not be subject to the same chips and cracks that define my existence but will be the solid footing upon which I can depend. (back to top)
God as paradox
Of all the images of God there is one that has become my favorite over the years. It is in some ways also the most puzzling—the Agnus Dei. In the Gospel of John, the Baptizer proclaims: “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29).
In Revelation, this image is extended as John weeps because no one can open the seals of the scroll in the heavenly throne room. But John is told to take heart as the Lion of the tribe of Judah—the root of Jesse—will be able to open the scroll. John writes in 5:6: “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…”
We are expecting a lion and we get a lamb. And more to the point, we get a lamb that looks as if it had been slain. Here is an image of God almost too wondrous to behold. The paradox of lion and lamb is heightened by the fact that this lamb, defenseless by nature, has been stripped of any ability to defend or provide for itself. It is an image that calls forth the sacrifice of the lamb of Pass over; but also an image that brings me to the foot of the cross to imagine a God who would empty God’s self to the point of death, even death on a cross in order to bring all people to God.
Here is the image of sacrificial love that knows no bounds, that enforces no conditions, that is simply given for me and for you. Here, the image of God as mother hen that Audrey West so eloquently introduces us to in this month’s Bible study session reaches its fullest expression—for the maternal instinct will stop at nothing to save her chicks, even so God will stop at nothing to bring us back into relationship with God. This final image, while the hardest to understand, seems to be—for now—the most compelling.
The images we have of God are powerful markers along the way that help us grow in faith and love toward both God and neighbor. We must allow our images of God to change and mature. It’s not that our earliest images of God are wrong, but that God is dynamic and we are called to be in relationship with this living, and therefore changing, God.
I need not abandon my earliest images of God. There are times in the silence of the night that I long for the loving arms of my heavenly father. But to limit God to that image alone would be to limit God.
Jesus himself, the one in whom God has revealed God’s self fully, used many different images—the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate for the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection, the way the truth and the life, the living vine—all in order to help us gain a deeper understanding of our Lord.
So what images of God have captured your heart and how have those images helped you along the way?
The Rev. Jeff Frohner lives in San Clemente, Calif., with his wife, Kelly, two boys, Andrew and Aaron, and their Labradoodle, Pickles. He serves as pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and School and is coauthor with Brian Whelan of the book, The Exchange: Thoughts on Faith, Art, Science and Culture. (back to top)