At one time in my life, when I was in the midst of a very difficult time, I recall an argument that I had with a self-proclaimed “born again Atheist” friend of mine. Before he and I had crossed paths, he had at one time been a very conservative Evangelical Christian, but had since abandoned any type of Christian faith or belief in God whatsoever. The reason he cited was that “his prayers were never answered, bad things continued to happen to him (although he chose to view these events as “tests of his faith,” he said he was growing weary of these), and it had just “led to more pain and misery.” At the time, he was angry that I continued to be a Christian, especially a very liberal-minded Christian, and was encouraging me to follow his lead of giving up my faith, or, as he called it, my “theological fantasy world.” Looking back on the incident, I now see that although he had left fundamentalist Christianity, the fundamentalist mindset of, “You must believe exactly as I do or my faith will be threatened and fall to pieces,” had carried on with him to his non-belief; either that or he was masking that he was envious of the fact that I was trying to maintain my faith during a very tough time where he had chosen not to.
His argument was that despite the good things I was doing in my life, my struggle to always do the “right” or “ethical” thing as opposed to the “easy” thing, despite my remaining committed to the ethical and spiritual teachings of Christ, despite my keeping faith in the face of adversity, things were still not working out well for me at the time with my job, with my friends, and other things that were going on in my life. He argued that the exact things I had hoped and prayed for were not coming to pass, he said that I was holding on to the idea of there being a God as a crutch to avoid reality and deluding myself in the process, and he insisted that if in fact there were a God, God must not like me very much as I continued to face adversity in my life. He claimed that God must be doling out punishments because of my lack of Biblical literalism, my sexuality, and sexual orientation. Despite these allegations, and his voicing of these opinions, I insisted that I knew that God loved me and there was no possible way I could not believe in God or abandon my faith.
He asked me the usual question of, “How could I prove there was a God?” to which I responded as I always still do: “Every time I open my eyes and look around, that’s all the proof I need.” He then referred to some tragic and less tragic but still unfortunate events which had happened not too far before this argument, and said, “Well, you were devastated when that happened. Where was your ‘God’ then?” To that, I just pointed at my chest and said, “In my heart. Always as close as my heart. Besides, what happened was not God’s fault. It was my own in some of those instances, and the others were just things that happened. But God was my only strength through all of them.” He did not think this was an acceptable answer, and that I was just “looking for a reason to cling to my faith” and that I “just wanted something to believe in.” I explained that the concept of Atheism to me personally was as impossible to grasp as fundamentalist, legalistic Christianity to me; neither way of thinking made rational sense to me. To me, God is not black and white or gray but every color of the rainbow and everything in between.
That friendship eventually dissolved, and although I did not see him much after that, I sincerely hope that he eventually found happiness and peace with himself and with God, and that he understood that God was not absent, or silent, or out to “get” him. He seemed convinced that God was one of three things: A harsh judge that was nearly impossible to please and that seemed to obtain some sort of sadistic joy in demanding his belief and then constantly testing the validity of that faith through submitting him to consistent situations that challenged his faith; as a force that Created the Heavens and Earth but had since gone on an extended, if not permanent sabbatical from caring for that Creation and those who lived in it; or a capricious trickster who seemed to take delight in worship and adoration but would pull life destroying practical jokes at will. I hope that something eventually did get through to him to enable him to know that God is none of these things – that God was not responsible for the hardships in his life, and that God was still there for him without question.
These days, at least in recent years, it seems to me as if God is getting a lot of bad press, not unlike the accusations my one time friend had made. God has, in recent years, been accused of allowing the tragedy of 9-11 to happen as a “punishment” for things such as women’s rights, LGBT rights, and respect for other religious ideas and freedoms than conservative Evangelical Christianity or concepts such as not allowing the government to make decisions leading to the legislation of one particular brand of faith. God has been accused of being the king of all homophobes by many Christian groups who have remade God in their own image to reflect their own ideas and fears, as well as non-Christian groups who feel that there is no black and white-that either everything the Biblical Literalists say is true or that God must not exist at all.
And finally, more recently, I was shocked to see that God had been accused from both sides – the far politically right and the far politically left – of the destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf States by Hurricanes and storms. Those on the far right attributed the devastation of Katrina to everything from to gambling casinos in New Orleans to LGBT people living and gathering there to one group who interpreted a photo of the eye of the storm to resemble a fetus in the womb, and said that this was God’s revenge for the government protecting a woman’s right to choose. Then there were some on the other side of the political arguments who viewed the damage to the United States as God’s punishment for innocent civilians killed in the Iraq conflict, for corruption in the current government, and for being a “greedy” nation.
I did not for a moment need to see proof that these were not only scandalous, ridiculous, and completely unfounded allegations, but those who might have considered there being any rational validity to them did not need to look too far at the plain facts to see the folly of these events being attributed to “the wrath of God.” If God was out to get anyone who was not a fundamentalist, why were fundamentalist churches in Biloxi tragically ripped to shreds? If God were in fact targeting the LGBT Community, why did others who were not a part of the Community suffer tragedy and loss? If God were making this happen in a protest of “pro life” versus “pro choice,” why would God lay waste to thousands of human lives in the process to make a point? And if on the other hand, God were in fact displeased with the state of the way the country was being run, why attack New Orleans rather than Washington, D.C.? When looked at with a rational mind and discarding negative images of God, one can see how ludicrous some of these accusations directed at God are.
I do not mean to stir up wounds or offend by any of these examples, I am merely trying to illustrate the horrible disservice we do to God as well as Christianity by some of the things, traits, and acts we attribute to “God’s Work” or “God’s Revenge” or “God’s Wrath.” In my opinion, when tragic events take place, rather than seek God for support, there always seems to be a contingent that wishes to assign God an emotion (in many cases, emotions which are a mirror of their own) and what would be perceived as a human emotional response to attempt to rationalize what there seems to be no rational explanation for. The difficult facts are that sometimes there will never be an explanation or a black and white answer to every situation for some things; but the good news is that no matter what transpires, God is there for us.
But Who is God? What is God? Where is God? Those are the questions that, while there is no definite, set-in-stone, one-size-fits-all answers, there are some hints. But along the path to seeking those out and finding them, there are many “faces” of God that must be sifted through, sorted through and examined to determine which are bringing us closer to God or creating more distance, which ones are wheat and which ones are chaff, and which are instances of a compass leading to a better understanding of the Creator (as much of that as we can attain in this life) and which are a part of our imagination, borne of our weaknesses, fallibilities and fears.
It would take me an entire book to write exactly what I feel God is, or might be, or what my understanding of God is in detail, and in fact sometimes I attempt to capture my own feelings about God in one statement: “God is.” This is often followed by the word “love,” “life,” “being” and other things I will get to shortly. I can make general statements about what I believe, such as “God is in everyone and everything” or “God is Love and the Source of all Life” but in my honest opinion, none of those really come close to vividly describing all that God is. Sometimes it is easier for me to pinpoint what God is NOT to me rather than what God is.
But to do that, I want to first take a few minutes to talk about what I call, “the many faces of God” or better yet, “the many ways that God is often seen” or that “we choose to see God,” be they valid or invalid.
I will start with what I personally feel are unhealthy ways to think about God. Please note that while a few are exclusive to Christian thinking, others are present in other religious paths as well. I am embarrassed to say at one time or another in my own life before I began to earnestly seek to better know and understand God that I have shared a few of these:
God The Lazy Landlord
This is one I hear frequently from both Agnostics as well as Christians: the concept that yes, God did in fact create everything, and all of life, be it through evolution or Creation or some combination of both ideas (my personal belief in Creation is that evolution was the means of Creation), but once everything was done, God moved on and gave it to us with a “you mess it up, I’m not fixing it; and here it is, you are on your own now” policy.
The idea behind this thinking is that while God exists, God Created us and then gave us the reins and vanished. I can understand why people might come to this conclusion, but to me, if in fact God had Created the Earth and then just left us, I just don’t think that we would have lasted this long. For I feel it is only through God’s guidance that we have been able to overcome so many fears and learn so much about the world that God Created. That, and the fact that Creation and the evolution of humankind in our thought, understanding and knowledge seems to be an ongoing process-which to me indicates that God is still very much a living part of that.
God The Cosmic Policeman/God The Judge
This is one that seems to predominantly be the domain of literalistic fundamentalist Christians, who feel that every single detail about God is only to be found stuck in between the pages of their individual Bibles, crammed into a tiny box and suffocating between the pages. Many people who hold this image of God appear to feel that the Bible itself holds higher precedence than the actual teachings of Jesus Christ and that no matter what He said, if it contradicts the letter of the Law (or what parts of the Law suit their own individual interpretation or their personal opinions, political stances and prejudices), then “it must be a parable or a metaphor.”
Anything, no matter how Christ-like, loving or kind it may be which runs contradictory to this understanding is the work of “the devil,” who often in their conversation and understanding seems to be more present and powerful than God, seeing as how everything outside of their individual understanding of Scripture is “a temptation of the devil.” In this idea about God, the devil seems to lurk in everything from innocent children’s books about wizards to Democratic Presidential candidates to same gender intimacy between people who they do not even know to tempt them. Not only that, God is constantly monitoring their every thought, feeling, word, action and move, keeping score in some sort of cosmic “nice and naughty” list; those who obey and adhere rigidly to certain doctrines are blessed, while others are cursed and evil is allowed to befall them. This idea of God is somewhat of a bizarre cross between the Santa Claus legends and that of a very demanding and strict father figure.
Yet, ask someone about how they feel about this God that is intolerant of any form of Scriptural deviation, and that is to be both loved and feared, and many respond that this is a loving God. Yes, God is all loving in their eyes as long as you do exactly as God says, and fear Him or He (their idea of God is universally a stern male father figure) will throw them (or leave them to fall) into the torturous fires of hell for all of eternity. To me that entire idea is not just primitive and unfair, but rather sadistic and brutal. I’d hate to see their idea of an unloving God.
To put that into perspective, if a man considered to be a loving father professed that he loved his wife and children unconditionally, but if they did not pay homage to him correctly and fear him, obey his exact rules to the letter or believe every word he says without question (and even went so far as to allow one of his former employees to run around and tempt them to disobey him), he would not just kill them but cast them out to be brutally tortured forever with no reprieve, we would rightfully have him put away for the rest of his life.
I personally think it is time we do the same thing with the idea of God The Judge that would cast anyone into eternal torture, for any reason-put it away-for good. Even the strictest and most well meaning yet however misguided of parents would not even dream of such an unjust form of punishment. This to me is the one of the unhealthiest possible ways to think about God, as it is completely based in fear, and not in “love” at all.
God the Vindictive/God the Great and Terrible
This one is closely related to God The Cosmic Policeman/God The Judge, but this one is not focused on punishments meted out for failing to live up to a certain specification in the afterlife, but this life. This is often demonstrated in comments after natural disasters such as storms, earthquakes, and other events, as well as unnatural events such as the absolute horror of the attacks of 9-11.
Some examples of this are Pat Robertson speaking of hurricanes heading towards Florida because of Disney World having “Gay Days,” and the same gentleman and his cohort Jerry Falwell blaming 9-11 on America’s move towards equal rights for LGBT people and better women’s rights and so forth (I found it both sickening and morbidly amusing that the same type of radical fundamentalist thinking that inspired the terrorists was being used to explain their ghastly actions), and Fred Phelps blaming misfortunes in society to the fact that LGBT people are allowed to live in America. I have also heard ideas of a God who would deliberately bring famine or disaster upon a country which is of a different religious faith than what we know as the Christian faith.
There are other instances, not as on a grandiose scale, but still equally as unsettling: those who teach that AIDS is a “divine punishment” for those who are not heterosexual. Those who see those who are jobless and homeless as being so “because of their sins” while absolving any other factors which might have contributed to their plight. There are those who are told by others when they suffer the loss of a child or a loved one or their health that this is “God’s punishment ” for “something they did” or “not being close enough in their walk with God.” And tragically, those who individually attribute traumatic events in their own lives to their “lack of faith and worship” or “sin;” I recall a vivid conversation once with someone who was convinced that God was dissolving his marriage as revenge for his abandoning a church that was preaching hate.
I have seen this concept in God present in all lines of religious thinking, both Christian and other faiths, as well as Agnostic beliefs. Regardless of where it is borne from, to think of God as a deliberately destructive force is definitely not a positive image of God. To think of God as consistently meting out punishments for failing to meet certain standards can also produce negative results in human relationships: I have known of many instances of child abuse where the abusers held to this idea of God and seemed to employ it as a rationalization for harsh punishment of their own children. In any case – while I am constantly in awe and reverence of God, I think that the idea of a God which is to be feared is a recipe for a life lived in a fearful state – which can in my experience prevent us from truly knowing or experiencing God’s Love at all.
God the General
This idea of God is certainly not a new one, and has carried forth through the ages: the idea of God being a powerful military force or a force empowering a group into a cultural war. Take for example this verse from the writers of the part of the Old Testament: “The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name; Your right hand O Lord, Glorious in power; your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy, In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries; you sent out your fury; it consumed them like stubble” (Exodus 15:3, 6-7). Or look at some of the concepts expressed by the writers of the Psalms, some of which call upon God for victory in the face of enemies.
While most will simply use this idea to support their views about war and politics, or to give individual and group commentary on social and cultural issues, some have even taken the concept of God the General to dangerous levels. I can think of three examples; those who quote Scripture to support wars against certain groups of people based on their religious faith, or in some cases their skin color, sexual orientation or beliefs and choices. I recently saw a disturbing film about a group calling themselves the “Army of God” who were responsible for the murder in cold blood of doctors working at Family Planning clinics and the fire bombings of said clinics, and I am sure all of us know about Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church who wield just as scarring weapons as guns and bombs with their signs and words filled with hatred of the LGBT Community and others as they picket funerals of those who have been taken by AIDS, and consider this their God Given duty in the “war for souls.”
God the General taken to the extreme leads to events such as 9-11, when fundamentalist extremism leads those holding this idea that God is actually encouraging them to go to war, to commit horrific acts of terrorism and genocide, and rise up as a force to attempt to obliterate whom they perceive to be their “enemies.”
Say for a moment there are two countries, and both feel as if God is leading them to destroy the other; both sides pray fervently for the defeat of the other, and both feel as if God is right there with them at the turrets as they go into battle. My question is this: if both sides feel as if God is on their side (and believing that ultimately God in fact does not even take sides), helping them to crush defeat and kill those on the other side, who actually wins? In my eyes, nobody. Everyone loses, and loses badly.
God the Puritan
This idea of God is sometimes intertwined with God The Policeman/Judge or God The Vindictive/Great And Terrible, but this one is specifically obsessed with sexuality – not just the sexual behavior of the one who subscribes to this concept of God, but even more so the private sexual lives of everyone else.
Sometimes, this imagining of God prohibits anything other than married heterosexual sexuality for the sole purpose of procreation or the “woman’s duty to please her husband.” Others, it only prohibits any sort of same gender sexuality or certain types of same gender sexuality. At times it proscribes certain sexual expression, even shared between caring, consenting adults as “unnatural.” And at other times, it prohibits certain types of relationships while allowing others. I have had other gay and lesbian Christians chastise me for being a bisexual in relationships with both a female and male partner and I have had friends in certain parts of the gay community be chastised for being “too comfortable” with their sexuality, or labeled as having “abnormal” desires by other members of the LGBT Community.
But the key concept is instilling guilt and shame about natural, God-given desires in an effort for unhealthy sexual self repression and to an even greater extent, the sexual repression of others. I cannot count the number of virulently homophobic and bi-phobic individuals who later on came out to me as homosexual or bisexual. Interestingly, I have also seen that those who subscribe to the concept of God the Puritan and attempt to enforce their self inflicted shame about sexuality or certain types of sexual expression upon everyone else or outright obsessing on the sexuality of others often are trying to hate in others things which they have not accepted about themselves.
This is not to say that sexuality is not a sacred gift to be used responsibly and with love, caring and respect for others, because it is, just as is the case with the multitudes of things God has given us. But to think that God would create us with certain urges, impulses and feelings and expect us to repress what are in fact very natural desires for us is not an image of God which is conducive to inner peace, a sense of self worth, and ones overall well being.
God the Cruel and Capricious Trickster
This idea of God seems to me like it would not be all that common, but I have seen and heard it more times than I wanted to. This is an imagining where God sometimes blesses people and then, just when life is going well, figuratively pulls the rug out from under them and in their thinking, “creates” disaster for them be it through a tragic event or merely putting a multitude of obstacles in their path to create misery for them personally as an attack or a sick kind of joke.
Examples of this would be a situation where a person is in love with someone, but cannot afford to marry them; suddenly, the day after the promotion comes and they purchase an engagement ring, the other person leaves them and they then assume that God must have it in for them. Or the person who suddenly gets a new job and quits their old one, only to find a day later that the new company they were working for went out of business and then rather than turning to God for hope curses God for doing this to them. Or a person who gets a sports scholarship and then suddenly has an accident and as a result, becomes paralyzed and assumes that “God took this away from me,” and resents God and abandons their faith totally.
These are horrific, tragic events that can be devastating on a personal level; and unfortunately things like this do happen. When they do, people search for meaning, and reasons to cope however they can, and I do understand that. But to call such instances the deliberate work of a God “having fun” or “having in it for them” is just not right at all, and definitely not a healthy or positive way to think of God in my opinion.
God the Indifferent/Absent/Silent
This is an image of God somewhat like God The Lazy Landlord, yet somehow worse to me. This concept is one where sometimes God decides to show up, sometimes God decides to care, and other times, God simply ceases to exist for a time or goes on extended vacation.
One example of this I have seen in those who feel as if they are owed something by the world, and feel as if justice and karma is theirs to dispense, even in situations when they are hurting someone back rather than forgiving them. One person told me that they had planned a hurtful act of revenge on a person who had hurt them in the past. I pointed out that although it was not my place to judge, didn’t they think that perhaps a better thing to do would be to pray for the strength to forgive this person and move on? Their reply was that God would understand and turn a blind eye to it and let them do it or even assist them in the process.
Another example is when an event will happen that people choose to play “the blame game” with, as in “blaming” God for events in their lives when the reality of the situation most times is that they wish to avoid personal responsibility for a mistake or a slip up of some kind. (I guess you could call it a subcategory – “God The Scapegoat.”) I am ashamed to say I did this once many years ago. I begged and pleaded with God to restore a relationship that had ended due to a mistake I had made; one of not listening, or being attentive to her needs, and not being honest with myself or with her, and the entire time I claimed that “God was mad at me and had taken her away.” It was not until I was able to accept the mistakes that I had made and move on that I was able to begin healing and resolve not to make the same mistakes in the future.
God the Avenger
The idea behind this concept is not of a God that necessarily has the judgments of God the Judge, although sometimes that is the case. This concept of God is similar to God the General, but more akin to the idea of a big brother or sister that beats up on those who persecute you. For example, the person I met once who told me that they in fact prayed constantly for God to murder or at the very least create problems and obstacles for those who had wronged them to and “bring them to justice.” Probably my worst encounter with a person who held this image of God was the person who told me they would pray that God made certain I contracted AIDS for being a “filthy bisexual sodomite.”
This concept of God is frequently echoed in the Old Testament, expressed in many places, including Psalms: Psalm 109 is a “Prayer For Vindication and Vengeance” wherein the writer implores of God to “Let them curse, but you will bless; let my assailants be put to shame” and Psalm 94 is even more blunt in saying of the writer’s enemies that “God will repay them for their iniquity; and wipe them out for their wickedness; God the Most High will wipe them out.” Psalm 83 seems to be a request for God for the enemies of Israel “to be terrified with God’s hurricane” and Psalm 58, a “Prayer For Vengeance” comes right out and asks God to “break the teeth in their mouths.” Psalm 140 implores of God in regards of enemies, “Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise!” (These are the Psalms you don’t hear as much about in Sunday School!)
Contrast this with the teachings of Jesus, who advised that we love our perceived enemies, and pray for, rather than against them, and turn the other cheek. I like His ideas a lot better.
It isn’t just fundamentalist Christians or fundamentalists of any religion who think this way. I personally get upset when I hear people who are not legalistic Christians or who engage in persecution of the LGBT or any other community wishing that those who are will be judged by God and end up in an eternal hell for being judgmental of others (take a moment to allow the irony of that to sink in). I just don’t see the idea that there has to be an “other” or an “enemy;” those are ideas that we ourselves come up with rather than God. I have always been fond of the saying: It is a pretty safe assumption that when God dislikes the same people that you do, that you have recreated God in your own image.
Yes, there are those who we might perceive as enemies because their actions might make us afraid, but many times they are doing so because they are hurting, afraid, or fearful in some way which causes them to respond to others this way. Jesus knew that returning hate with love would eventually lead to the destruction of the hatred, as it is a lack of love which causes people to act in hateful ways.
These days, when I pray for those who persecute me, it is very simple: I don’t pray for them to “see the error of their ways” and “get what they deserve.” I don’t pray for the ideas or thoughts or feelings or beliefs that they hold which may be different from mine to change; I don’t need anyone to change to accept them as a Creation of God. Instead, I pray for God to surround them and fill their lives with love, so that they may feel peace and closer to God and cease feeling the need to hurt others, regardless of who they are, what they believe, or how they are different from me.
God the Vending Machine
It works like this: insert prayer, worship, and alms and then sit back, and wait for the results. In many instances, those treating God in this manner in addition to sometimes setting themselves up for disappointment are also wishing to absolve themselves from responsibility.
There is an old joke about the person who every day prays to God that they will win the lottery. Each and every day, they go to a cliff, and plead to God that they will win, and after a month of doing so, they fall to their knees and cry out again. A booming voice answers back, “Every day you pray the same prayer – when are you finally going to buy a ticket?”
Now, I’m not much on gambling or the lottery as having lots of money is very low on my list of life’s priorities, but I do see a grain of truth in that. So many times I talk to people who pray to God that they will get a new job, a new relationship, new opportunities for friendship while not taking the time and effort to go out and look for these things. I have seen instances where people have had the very things they were praying for right in front of them yet were too busy beseeching God for these things that they did not realize how blessed they already were.
While I truly do believe that with faith, all things can be possible (as I believe Jesus Himself was teaching in Matthew 21:22 when He said, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive”; more on that in a minute), I have witnessed many who seem to expect God to give them preferential treatment over others when even in more traditional thinking about God, God does not play favorites. I feel that Jesus illustrated this point quite well in Matthew 5:45 when He stated that, “God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” in support of His teaching that we should love, and not hate those whom we perceive as our enemies and to illustrate that we are all Children of the same God.
I think that God can give us the guidance to discover what the desires of our hearts and the things that we truly seek are and to bring those things into being through faith and what God has blessed us with. But I feel that when we treat God as if we are somehow better than any of the rest of God’s Children and seek special favors because we feel we are “more deserving” than the next person, or to seek out more and more when God has already blessed us all with so much is not the best approach. We are all equal and deserving of love and grace in God’s point of view.
God the Voice Inside One’s Head
I saved this one for last, for a few reasons. First of all, I feel that God actually does “speak” to us, perhaps not in a direct voice, but in other ways and I feel that the Biblical writers were referring to insights and feelings in prayer and meditation rather than God actually verbally “speaking” audibly to them as a voice in the clouds. I feel that God still speaks to all of us that way today, within our hearts and consciousness. What I am referring to here is those who claim to speak directly in a verbal conversation with God, one where God tells them to tell other people what to do and how to do it; this is not an image of God seen too often nor taken very seriously by many, but it does exist.
This can be something as minor as the person who tells their friend, “God told me to tell you to stay away from those people, they are negative influences on you,” which I did to someone at one time in my own life during my brief venture into fundamentalism. Looking back, I feel it was wrong and arrogant to claim to another person that God was giving me directions to give them. Taken to the extreme, the concept of one perceiving God as speaking to them in a verbal voice inside can lead to something as horrible as the person who claims that “God told them” to bomb a Family Planning Clinic or beat an LGBT person in a “gay bashing” or murder someone.
Something I have learned in my life, and seen many times: if someone feels that God is verbally or in any other way telling them to do deliberate harm to another person for any reason, it’s definitely not God.
Those are but a few of the many ideas of God I have witnessed or had to some degree at different times in my own life, or seen and heard about in the lives of those around me. Are any of them valid, or real? Well, I can say this for all of them: all of them to some extent are based in negativity and most of all, real fear-which is an emotion which very seldom yields positive, productive, and peaceful results.
The opposite of that would be ideas which are based in love rather than fear, and love has the exact opposite effect of fear. A person’s ideas about God do not always point to a clear picture of God, but can be indicative of that person’s feelings being based in love or fear. The types of ideas one has about the nature of God are important, as they can shape everything, including influencing whether we relate to one another in positive and loving or fearful and negative ways. So much depends on our individual concept and idea of God – a healthy and positive image of God is to me even more important or at the very least equally as important, essential and imperative to our well being as well as those around us and the collective of society as a positive self image. In fact, when negative images of God are replaced by positive ones, so often I see that a person’s own sense of self worth and their valuing the feelings and well being of others around them truly seems to transform. There is some truth to the saying, “As we think and believe, we are.”
In my opinion, no human definition or role which we can attempt to assign to God can paint an entirely complete picture of what God really is. I feel that the truth of the matter is that we can get close, and come to some safe general assumptions based on what Jesus and other spiritual teachers taught, on what we know, and based on personal experience and faith, but that God is as much a mystery and a source of wonder to us today as God was to many of those in Biblical times. Take a look at the varied ideas about God in the Psalms, and the evolving picture of God from the beginning of the Bible to the end, and beyond, as God is still writing the story and it is easy to see that it is rather difficult to pin down solid, etched in stone ideas about everything that God really is. But in life, I have come to the following generalizations that give me a rough sketch about what I think God is, and these are the positive, love based (although still to some extent vague) conclusions that I have found to be true in my own life.
God Is The Creator
I don’t need a voice or a face from the clouds, or a registered letter from God to know that God is real. Exactly what God is; well, that’s a different story. I don’t think God is a physical “person” as we understand people, and I think God is far beyond any human constructs of male or female “gender” that we have. God is somehow both loving Father and Mother and everything in between, and for lack of a better term, a Loving Creative Energy and Wisdom to me – a never-ending thread holding the fabric of all life and existence as we know it together, and woven throughout the tapestry of all of Creation and in all of life, both male, female and all points in between and beyond. God is the Great “I AM,” and all that was, is, or ever will be; the beginning and the end, and everything before, after and in between, on to Infinity. That’s about the best I can describe how I feel about “what” God as Creator is in words.
To try and recreate God in our own image and in a form we can relate to is only natural. Whenever I think of God in human form, I think of Jesus, as I feel that God was speaking to us all directly through Jesus, giving us the keys to happiness, peace and a fulfilling life. However, I also feel that God still speaks through many others today as well; and that whenever we allow our ability to love to reach out and touch another person, God is manifesting in us.
I do know in my heart that every time I open my eyes and take a breath, I am reminded of God’s Existence. Every time I share an intimate moment with one of my partners. Every time one of the cats curls up in my lap and falls asleep purring contentedly. Every time I see a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Every time I see a work of art another person created, a song that someone wrote moves me, or I hear of someone accomplishing what at one time may have seemed impossible or through their faith and perseverance, overcoming what seemed like insurmountable odds. Every time I feel love or share honest, unconditional love, or joy, I feel God.
I know that God Created me as I am, and others as they are. Do I know or understand why God did or did not do certain things, or did things a certain way? No, and thank God, my faith is not dependent upon that knowledge. Do I know how God did everything? I think that there has been much discovery as we have grown in knowledge over time, but I think that those answers are beyond anything we can comprehend. Such is the wonder of God.
Do I know the reasons that everything happens-good and bad? No, and I do not always feel the need to know answers, and choose to simply trust. But I know that God is somehow there, and I can feel that Presence at all times.
God Is The Source Of Life And Joy
There is a verse in Ecclesiastes that I was reading the other day that I found interesting:
“This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom God enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil-this is the gift of God. For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joys of their hearts.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20).
There are many different ways that verse could be interpreted, but I think that something a great many people often neglect to do is to be able to is to be able to find the sacred in the everyday, the simple joys of everyday life. I know that sometimes being able to “accept our lot” or “finding enjoyment in our toil” is not always the easiest thing to do, but there is something to be said for embracing the simple, everyday blessings of life.
Everything that we know, and feel and have came from somewhere, and I never could subscribe to the concept that things “just happened.” I honestly feel that all of the things which bring us joy, such as love, awe and laughter, things that intrigue us, or make us smile-are all pieces of the things God Created for us to enjoy-and those things are the real “wealth and possessions.” Whether it is a kind word that someone says to me or a co worker who made me laugh or a song so beautiful it brought a tear to my eye-these to me are all expressions of God, and gifts to be cherished and grateful for. God can sometimes be viewed in the most seemingly unexpected places.
God Is The Provider
I think that prayer is a very natural and healthy way to relate to God. But at one time, when I was trapped in the idea of God as vending machine, I would ask for this thing and ask for that thing rather than the really important things. Eventually, and thankfully I grew out of those types of ideas. There are a few things over time that I have learned about prayer. While I do wholeheartedly agree with Jesus that, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive,” and “Ask and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7), I also believe that a great deal of that responsibility is on us. But look at all God has already given us-incredible minds which have done what at one time would have been deemed impossible; knowledge about ourselves, each other, the world around us and the ability to learn; the ability to express and articulate ourselves and create; a life filled with potential and limitless possibilities for expression; the ability to love and be loved and countless other blessings!
Over time, I instead learned to pray prayers of gratitude for all I had already been blessed with, having dreams and ambitions and desires, and the strength to turn those into reality to the best of my ability. When I learned to stop praying for just this or that and instead for the strength to achieve what was possible, the awareness and alertness to see opportunities (not just opportunities for myself but opportunities to be loving and helpful to others)and open doors in life, as well as the patience, perseverance, and dedication that realizing dreams and goals with love and respect for others and the determination required, and a sense of peace about the things that I had no control over, I began to really open my eyes and truly see all of the miracles in everyday life and all of the wonderful blessings God had already given me.
When I pray for others, it is not so much for a specific “thing” or “event” most of the time. While I feel that we are all a part of God and God is a part of us, none of us are God, and therefore cannot always know what exactly what God’s plan is for others. While I may be connected to others that I pray for, I am not them and cannot clearly see the deepest longings of their soul as God can, so I cannot know what is best for them personally. I find myself most times praying merely for God’s Love to surround them and help them to find the Highest love, joy and happiness possible for them. The one and only person that I feel God grants us control over is ourselves and how we choose to respond to the free will we are gifted with, and one of the few prayers I still pray for myself is merely, “Help me to always find the way to fully live the truth of who I am in a way which is harmful to no one and helpful to as many others as possible along the way.”
But prayer can be more than merely meditation and “talking” to God; it can be a way of life. Rather than praying and thanking God for our blessings, what better way than to put our gratitude in action by sharing God’s Love with others by treating all others with love, compassion, kindness, acceptance and respect? Rather than asking God for things to be better, what about going out and making our best efforts with the gifts we have been blessed with to do what part we can to make them better? This to me is the highest form of prayer.
God has blessed us with so much ability, life and the capability for hope that so many seem to take for granted. When we are at peace with ourselves and with God, these things come even easier, even in times of trial and difficulty.
God Is Ever Present With No Limits
Psalm 139 (one of my favorite Psalms) speaks of “The Inescapable God,” and Jesus Himself taught that Heaven is within us. While I do not believe that there is some central location where God takes physical residence, I think that there is truly nowhere where God is not.
Some of the traditional images we see in paintings or hear described in art and literature portray an interpretation of God as a wise man with a long white beard residing on a throne in a city in the clouds. And I do think that God lives “in the clouds” – but not the way you might think. I can certainly understand why the imagery of God living in the clouds came to be a part of our consciousness. Ever see a sunset, or a rainbow, or a day when rays of sun came through an opening in billowing white clouds? Magnificent and majestic beauty. I have at times felt closer to God watching a sunrise than I ever have in any church.
But it is so much more than that. Yes, God is in Nature. But God is also in all of us and in the ways that we express ourselves. God is in the creative impulses we have, in the things we accomplish to make this world a better place and help one another through the challenges that life brings. God is in all people, those who we are close to and those who we are not; and there is no place we can go where God cannot reach.
There is one place where I have always been able to find God if I briefly fear I have lost touch with God, and that is by listening to my heart; that is where God has always “spoken” to me the loudest and the clearest.
God Is Always There For Us, If We Listen, and Especially in Times of Need
Another Psalm I love is Psalm 121, where the writer states, “God is your keeper; God is your shade at your side.” Seeing God in everything, and feeling God in my heart, I can relate to this sentiment. But even though I know God’s Presence is always near, there have been more than a few times that I have called on God in a time when there were no easy answers, to somehow be there for me in a more tangible way than merely my faith, or what I believe. I think God is always there, and that we can somehow become more aware of this Presence in times of great need – but it is how we choose to understand God being there for us that makes the difference; God comes to us through others who are there for us. I can think of a few cases where this has happened to me.
One was the unexpected passing of a close friend and former girlfriend of mine that I cared about very deeply at one time, and who had been addicted to intravenous drugs for most of her life prior to when she and I met. After our relationship had ended years ago, she had relapsed into abuse again. We remained friends, and I tried my best to help her however I could, but the addiction was far too strong and we lost touch for a long time. About a year ago, she had finally gotten clean of the drugs and gotten her life together, gotten married, and was happy and trying to make it. Then suddenly and without warning, she was struck with a viral infection from the years of abuse that led to heart failure and sudden and unexpected passing. At her funeral I was hurting a great deal and I could not find a sense of peace about it. Could anything I have done as a friend helped? I prayed that I would be able to somehow find peace about this.
Shortly thereafter, several of her friends and family contacted me and told me how much they appreciated all I had tried to do for her, and how much she had told them she appreciated all I had tried to do, even though she never told me directly. According to what I was told, I brought her great happiness. They took the time to let me know that nothing I could have done would have prevented what had happened, and to try to move on and know that my being in her life had brought her some of the happiest times she had had and where she had felt loved.
I recall vividly another time when I had just come out as a bisexual and was seeking friends, support and acceptance. I knew that bisexuality for me meant that I had the need and desire for two relationships-to be in an honest and caring relationship with both a woman and a man, and there were so many who persecuted me for feeling this way and would not accept this about me-not only among those who were homophobic, but others as well. Not only that, they were attempting to tell me that God, or their understanding of God, would never accept this either.
I recall praying for strength, support and to know that God did love and accept me as I was as I was torn between my old ideas and concepts of God, and trying to find a way to live the truth of who I was in a way that was not harmful to anyone. I remained open to the inner feeling that I was acceptable to God, and was able to find friends and other Christians who were bisexual and in the same types of relationships and understood how I felt and were accepting of these things about me. I was also blessed by finding those who may not have understood, but accepted and supported me just the same and did not try to make me feel unworthy of God’s Love. I then came to fully embrace the fact that God had created me as I am – my thoughts, feelings, beliefs of my heart as well my sexuality and sexual orientation, and given me the courage to live the truth of who I am in a way which is loving and respectful of others, and there was nothing unnatural or immoral about who I am nor any of my relationships.
Finally, and most notably, there was the time in my life when I was struggling with the very idea of God, due to being involved in a branch of Christianity which seemed to embody nearly every negative image about God I had ever entertained or that I spoke of earlier. At this point, I was praying that maybe there really was a better way of thinking about God, a different way, a more positive way.
It was then that I was able to be aware, and seek, and find a church filled with people who encouraged me to rethink the negative ideas I had, and replace them with positive love based ideas. People who did not judge, or attempt to force their opinions about what God is and is not upon me, but instead practiced the teachings of Jesus of love, acceptance, and compassion – which led to my being able to redevelop a real, honest and since relationship with God as I understood God as Jesus taught – a belief based in love. And that has made all the difference in my life.
I truly feel that God does show up when we call on God; but God does not always show up the way that we anticipated. God is nearly always in the disguise of those who allow unconditional love to flow from God, through them in their support, compassion towards, and acceptance of us. In reality, I think God was always there, but it is through expanding our thinking about how we will see God that we are able to.
God Is Within All of Us , and Has Empowered and Called Us to Share Love
I am fond of the saying that God has no hands, voice, feet and body in this world but ours; and I feel that what we are actually doing in embracing the Greatest Commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is to assist in manifesting and physically actualizing God’s Love in the world, through letting ourselves be vessels of God’s Love to all the rest of God’s Children. God has empowered us not only with the ability to realize dreams and aspirations. Through the teachings of Jesus, God has also given us the keys to solving our problems and the conflicts which can befall society. God is in all of us, and we are God’s Hands in this world, an expression of God in this world. I think that the way we really begin to connect and become closer to God is in trying be more like God, forgiving, compassionate, life-giving and hope-giving rather than destructive in our ways.
Yes, sometimes we do fail. Sometimes we do have times when we allow ourselves how to operate out of fear rather than love and act in ways which are hurtful to others and ourselves and as a result, face the natural consequences of our actions. Do I see these instances, be they Divine “justice” or “Karma” as “punishments” from God? Absolutely not. I see them as what they are: consequences; cause and effect; action and reaction. As we sow, we reap.
When tragic events do happen, how do we respond? Do we implore to God, “Why did You let this happen?” or curse God for doing this or fear God and think it is a punishment of some kind? Those are all fear based responses, and they are all natural responses in the face of terrible events, but what I feel in my heart that we are supposed to do is call on God for support through these times. It might not show up how we expect it, but it does show up.
At times, tragic events which are blamed on God are events which have occurred as consequences for things that we can control and the result of a lack of attention to the warnings that were present, while others there is seemingly no rational explanation and these are the most difficult to comprehend. Many times I have witnessed such incredible outpourings of love in the aftermath of tragic events which has reconnected people with the feeling that God is watching after them somehow. While I certainly do not think that God made tragic events occur to facilitate this, I do know that God is always there to help us recover when they do transpire.
God Is Wondrous
One of the teachings of Jesus was “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3). By this I think He was telling us that we needed to not look for explanations for everything, but merely to seek God with a sense of child-like wonder; one that does not need to know all of the details or rock solid evidence to believe in God or trust in God’s Love.
That makes sense to me as well; I have not seen many little children who have the same types of fears about God, or have an idea that God is laden with judgments and prejudices that many adults have, with the possible exception of when their parents are teaching these ideas to them. Their images of God are often filled with a sense of wonder accompanied by an eagerness to learn new things as well rather than fear, terror, judgment, or wrath.
Keeping a sense of wonder is one of the key elements to me about maintaining a healthy image of God and a more tangible spiritual connection with God, and being open to the new Wisdom God is constantly blessing us with.
God is Mysterious
To say that God is mysterious is a major understatement to me.
Even in the Bible, there seems to be as many varying ideas about what God is as there are in these modern times. Although the sciences in my opinion have enabled us to learn vague details about how everything we know came to be, and why some things are the way they are, so much is still unknown although I feel certain that God will Bless us with more understanding over time.
We may not always understand why things happen, and we may not ever find the reason that some things take place. There are things that we just do not, cannot seem to find explanations or answers for at times, and those are the times that I think that faith and a positive way of thinking about God is probably the most important of all, for often that is the time when we have the inner need to connect with God more than at any other time.
God Is Infinitely Creative
God’s Creativity never ceases to amaze me, in nature or in people’s individuality. People seem so often to oversimplify things by seeing the world in terms of black and white but God Thinks and Creates in a prism of colors too numerous to count. It seems to me as if God gave everyone a different path and a different purpose, even though ultimately we are all on the same path together; what is right for one person may not be right for another. I like the saying, “My way is not a better way, merely a different way” to describe differences in spiritual thinking, individuality, and different paths.
Those of us who are LGBT can take comfort in knowing that no matter what opinions others may hold about whether being LGBT is a “choice” or the way we were made, we are just another expression of God’s Creativity and love of Diversity. Each of us, however different, is a unique inspiration of God.
God’s obvious limitless Creativity expressed in our own unique individuality – all the way down to individual fingerprints and DNA – is another reason that I think Christ taught it is so important not to judge others. Even though we were all cut from the same cloth, God made us all a little bit different, and I think that is the way it was intended to be. The real key to me is in learning to accept one another despite our differences and try our best to live in harmony as we are all children of the same God and Divine Creativity.
God Is Love, and Love in Action
Love is sometimes mysterious, awe-inspiring and can even be a little scary at times, which is a little bit how even those of us with positive concepts of God can feel about God at times. But for me, love – and I am not speaking merely of romantic love or parental love or the love of friends, but unconditional love – has always offered my greatest feeling of connection to God; both giving and receiving unconditional love.
I am speaking about the kind of love that is expressed when someone for no apparent reason or motive pays a kindness, or when someone does something meaningful for someone else merely to experience the joy that can only come from being able to help someone in need. The kind of love where people may not understand one another’s differences care for each other equally just the same and treat each other with love and respect regardless of varying opinions.
Love in action is God actualized in what I feel is the clearest form of the energy that God is that I can think of. When we forgive rather than hold anger, when we love without question or condition or judgments, when we love both those who love us as well as those who hate us, I believe it is then that we are closer to God than at any other time It is only when we have fully embraced ourselves as the people who God Made us to be, however that was done, and learned to embrace all other people as equally valuable that we can truly begin to connect with God’s unconditional Love for us all.
Those are just some of the core beliefs and ideas that I have embraced about God over time, and those have helped me. Many are influenced by my understandings of what I believe Christ taught; some are influenced by ideas others – both other Christians as well as those of other religious faith backgrounds have shared with me – some are influenced by real life experiences balanced with all of the above knowledge.
One lesson I did learn about the difference in between clinging to fearful concepts of what God is and loving concepts is that fearful ideas about God only serve to obscure an clearer image of God. Fear creates an illusion of distance between us and God, and only turns a vague image into an even more unclear, inaccurate, distorted and even muddier picture that we cannot make out at all. A God of fear leads to a sense of disconnectedness from God, which ultimately leads to tendencies of disconnectedness and brokenness with in our relationships with the rest of God’s Creation.
Some choose ideas about God that are merely a mirror of their own individual thoughts, opinions and beliefs. Through time, some have recreated God in an image which is tragically an ugly one that embodies humankind behaving at its worst, succumbing to its worst fears and weaknesses. Sometimes we are merely projecting our own personal fears and insecurities onto God; many who visualize a God of anger are angry themselves. Sometimes we hold to fearful and negative images and dress God up in these imagined, frightening costumes in our own lack of perception and understanding at times because of the fact that God’s Universe is so vast and there is so much that we do not have solid answers for that it can be intimidating. Some choose black and white understandings of God because of the sheer brilliance and the limitless diverse amount of colors in God’s Palette is overwhelming.
I will not judge those who choose different images of God for themselves, but I feel that there are consequences that arise from negative thinking about God-and not just in one’s own personal life and sense of well being. The way in which we perceive God has an influence on the way we relate to and interact with others. An image of God which embraces some and excludes others can result in a mindset where they themselves behave in the same manner towards others.
Our attitude about God can ultimately shape our attitude about everything else in life as well. In the parable of the Fig Tree, where Jesus makes the tree wither, I feel He was demonstrating the power of both positive and negative patterns of thinking: with faith, all things are possible. If our faith is in constructive, positive things happening, those are the results our faith will yield in life, whereas if we put our faith in negative, destructive things happening, the opposite effect can occur.
The best way I have found to get rid of old, negative thought patterns about God is to start anew with new and positive ones, and then reinforce those constantly when the old ideas start to come in again. Just as the negative images are ingrained from constant repetition and reinforcement, so are positive ones. And regardless of how positive our concepts of God might be, we can only obtain a vague picture of God at best from our interpretations. The rest is a matter of faith, and our perception of God still continually evolves as we evolve in our understanding.
As vast and to a great extent incomprehensible as our current understanding of God is, if we open our hearts and minds, we can hone in a clearer focus upon it. If we cease to allow God to be limited to a religion, or confined to a narrow box we occasionally allow fear to create in our minds, allow ourselves to see God in the sublime as well as the majestic, trust the process and cherish the journey, and try to see everyone and everything else as an integral if however mysterious part of God’s Creation, we may find it easier to see that God in reality is as close as every heartbeat, every breath, every moment.
At that time, no searching or seeking God is necessary, for we finally embrace the fact that there was no need to search for the Loving God that has always been there. We can allow God’s Loving and Creative Spirit to flow freely to us to others and feel the sense of being One with our Creator. God then does not need to be defined as anything nor is there any need for definitions as we are One with God. God is not anything or any person and does not need to be.
God simply IS.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.