I have a childhood memory of praying to a God who appeared to be a large, severe-looking grandfather, with unruly white hair, sitting on a throne which rested on a cloud high above me in the sky. I prayed to him, but I felt nothing for him, nor did he seem to feel anything toward me. I don’t know where this picture of God came from. Neither of my grandfathers resembled it, but the fact that both of them died before I got to know them probably contributed to the sense of emotional distance. Perhaps I had seen a photo of Michelangelo’s great Sistine Chapel painting of a white-haired God creating Adam. Most likely a well-meaning Sunday School teacher had unwittingly planted this image in my six-year-old-mind by putting up a flannelgraph depiction of God dispensing final judgment from the Book of Revelation.
I also remember when I gave up that picture. It was sometime during my teens when I faced the fact that I could not pray to the God I was visualizing. He didn’t seem interested enough in me to get up off of that chair to help me. He didn’t seem even to be looking at me. Fortunately, I was learning more from the Bible and from my own life, and I was beginning to see God in new ways. It especially became clear to me that in sending Jesus God was trying to make himself more knowable and approachable. This God I could pray to; he cared about me and wanted to help me.
But I still visualized him. Sometimes I saw him as Jesus, teaching, reaching out to the poor, suffering on the cross. Yet, the fact that Jesus himself prayed to the Father caused me to develop new images of God. They weren’t always the same, and many times the focus was unclear, but I was very relieved to be liberated from the austere grandfather on the distant cloud-throne.
I believe that visualizing God as we pray is not optional. It’s inevitable and essential that we have a picture of the One we’re approaching in prayer. If we try to pray to an Ethereal Moral Being or an Infinite Life Force, we find we can’t focus. Our attention drifts to our own thoughts and feelings, or to the thing we are asking for. We soon find that we’re involved in an internal debate with ourself, rather than in prayer to the One outside ourself who can help us.
I also believe that our visualization of God should be a journey. It’s spiritually healthy to find him looking a little different every time we pray. Yes, he’s the same yesterday, today and forever, but our experience of him, our understanding of him, our ways of attaching to him should be ever emerging and evolving. That’s a demonstration that we are growing in our spiritual sensitivity and capacity.
At the top of the list of the Ten Commandments is the warning against making and worshiping idols. Quaintly called “graven images” in the old English versions, these are an abomination to God. This is not because they are attempts to picture God; as I said above, the human mind can’t avoid doing that.
Imagination, the creative formation of images in our minds, is one of the most uniquely human qualities, and God doesn’t want to stifle it. What he warns against in the Ten Commandments is graven images, carved from stone or wood, which attempt to lock God into one posture, one expression, one aspect of his being. In this way worshipers try to contain and control God, making him more manageable and predictable.
God is infinitely multifaceted. If the way we visualize him in prayer changes from one day to the next, that seems healthy, as we are constantly experiencing new facets of who God is. But if a person has the same mental image of God as they did when they were praying twenty years ago, they may be guilty of a form of idolatry, trying to keep God trapped in a familiar, but limited, aspect of his self-revelation. Maybe he wants to surprise us every time we encounter him in prayer. Are we open to it?
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For further study: Here are some interesting things I discovered as I was preparing this article:
(1) An interesting article, in the Princeton University literary journal, by a young man who grew up as an Orthodox Jew and wrestled with whether or how he should visualize God http://www.nassauweekly.com/visualizing-god/
(2) Some interesting lines from Edward Fitzgerald’s famous 19th century English translation of the “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam:
Whose secret Presence through Creation’s veins
Running Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;
Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi and
They change and perish all-but He remains.
(3) A great scene from the movie “Talladega Nights,” in which Will Ferrell explains why in his prayers he always addresses God as “Dear Lord Baby Jesus.”
— Pastor George Van Alstine