If we are a follower of a spiritual path then our images of God (or the sacred) are key. When we try to pray, we must have some idea of God in our minds, and this idea will influence how we pray and whether we pray. It will also influence our behaviour and ethics, often without our conscious awareness.
But our images of God are not the same as our ideas about God. Images are pictures not abstract ideas; they are a powerful combination of thoughts and feelings loaded with potent emotion that are often mediated to us in our formative childhood years. Our images of God, therefore, may not be the same as our doctrinal affirmations about God. We may affirm that we believe in a God of love and grace, but our inner image of God may more truly be that of a vengeful tyrant. And the image of a tyrant is likely to have a more powerful impact on our emotions and behaviours than our doctrinal statements.
Our image of God is crafted, often unconsciously, from a range of influences including:
Ideas and thoughts about God as shaped by the teaching of our particular faith community
Our feelings about God, for example our anger at what is seen as God's 'failure' to answer prayer
Cultural influences such as the dominance of patriarchal systems
Our individual and corporate religious experiences
Representations of God in paintings, music, sculpture, art and film
Life events, especially major transitions such as death, grief, aging, birth
The names others use for God eg the 'guy upstairs'.
Arguably, however, the most significant factors shaping our image of God are our early childhood experiences and the way power was exercised over us by influential adults.
When we examine our private images of God and discover significant distortions, we may feel alarmed at the thought that we could harbour such negative images of the divine. But these distortions have often been given to us by our care-givers in childhood; childhood experiences such as cold, unfriendly churches; or from teaching in spiritual communities that sadly perpetuates disturbing, sub-Christian images of God.
Such discoveries can be painful at first, but to become aware that we have a distorted notion of God is to make progress on our journey towards the divine. We need to explore these images of what we understand of the sacred because they can keep us locked in self-destructive behaviours and profoundly impact our spiritual well-being. When our images of God are distorted, our whole relationship with God can become distorted. We may secretly spend our time cringing, hiding and running from God - or anxiously performing to earn God's approval. If we have highly negative images of God we will most likely experience a great deal of spiritual distress.
We need also pay attention to our images of God because they can be directly
related to our image of ourselves. I have often observed in my work that for every distortion of God someone suffers there is usually a corresponding self-distortion. If we see God as a vengeful, punishing God, we are likely to see ourselves as bad and deserving of punishment. If we see God as a person with impossible expectations, then we will likely see ourselves as a failure and not good enough. As Richard Rohr (a well-known Franciscan monk and spiritual teacher) says: 'Your image of God creates you.'
Each person's images of God are uniquely personal and reveal part of their individual life story. However, there are some general categories of distortions that are useful to outline: -
God may be seen as some sort of great celestial policeman figure whose predominant interest is our faults, and who disapproves of most of the things we like and whose expectations we can never meet. Someone who judges and rejects us for being less than perfect.
For others God is seen as unsympathetic and emotionally distant; someone who can't understand our problems or how we feel and is removed from 'earthly' life.
Others still may see God as too busy with important things to care, or listen to, our troubles. It's as if there are a long line of people waiting to see God and we are at the end of the line.
Other people see God as abusive, as a bully. This is the God who carries a big stick and enjoys using it to control, threaten and punish. It is often a distortion abuse survivors experience.
Still others see God as unreliable, someone who can not be counted on. One day God may be loving and unaccountably angry the next. God may make promises, but they won't be kept. Or, God may be weak, passive or unable to provide the help and protection we need.
God may also be seen as a God who abandons. Those who fear this abandonment may try hard to please God hoping he will not leave.
There is also the notion of the 'Santa Claus' God, a benevolent figure who enters our life occasionally to give us presents. He is nice to have around as long as everything is going well, but when disaster strikes we give up believing in him. This image is closer to God, who is love, but bears little relation to the God of scripture who 'counts the very hairs of our head' and who 'created my innermost self and put me together in my mother's womb.'
There is also the issue of gender in our images of God, which I will explore further in an article looking at feminine metaphors for the divine. Examining these may be vital for those who are struggling with the often patriarchal structures of institutional Church, or who are working through the distress of abuse by a male perpetrator that leaves them struggling with the dominance of masculine images for God.
In all these distorted images you can see and understand how the impact of negative childhood experiences, and family dynamics, can shape and distort our developing inner picture of the divine. They clearly reveal the link that exists between our personal psychology and spiritual understanding and growth. If parents or care-givers use God as a club to control their children, telling them God will punish them if they do not comply to commands, this will have an impact on a child's images of God. If parents are cut off from the emotional or relational realities of life and hide behind some form of rigid religious practice, this will impact on the child's image of God. If care-givers are rarely available
because they are too busy at church or in ministry, this will impact on the child's images of God. If a child feels rejected in some way by those seen as spiritual authority figures, this will carry a deep sense of inner rejection by God. And, of course, when a child is emotionally, physically or sexually abused by a religious parent, or religious authority in their life, this will have a profound effect on how the child experiences God. In these dynamics God is assigned the role of abuser, punisher and controller.
Neither in my experience do these influences on how we imagine and relate to God stop at the end of childhood. Authority figures in our spiritual communities can also go on impacting our understanding of God both positively and negatively,
particularly in the way any 'power' is exercised over us. As I said earlier, we may
affirm an intellectual belief in a God of grace and love, but our felt inner lives, emotions and behaviours are more influenced by the inner images of God we subconsciously develop through our life experience - please see my article on spiritual abuse.
In part 2 of this article looking at the spiritual life and our images of God, I outline some ways we can start to explore our own images of God buried within us and begin to heal any distortions we find. Our inner life is complex with conflicting desires and emotions. It can be tempting to ignore and even suppress it, but it will still go on influencing the whole of our lives and, if not brought into our awareness and integrated, may unexpectedly take us by surprise, sometimes in ways that can harm both ourselves and others. Our journey to spiritual holiness necessarily involves our journey to psychological wholeness - please see my article: 'Knowing God: Wholeness & Self-Knowledge.'
I also look more deeply at how our own inner psychological material can influence our spiritual path in my article on spiritual pathology. And look into the world of our emotion in relation to our spiritual path, and journey with God, in my series on the Spiritual Life & Our Emotions.