In life, change is necessary. If there is no change, there is no progress, and there is no growth. If we were to stay infants forever, we’d never know the joy of childhood, and if we stayed children forever…you know what, as an adult, I’d say being stuck in childhood wouldn’t be that bad.
But seriously, if we never mature from children to adolescents and then adults, we wouldn’t be able to learn to live on our own. We wouldn’t learn to think for ourselves, to problem solve, to make our own choices and live our own lives.
And as life changes, for some who profess religious faith, perspectives on God change. In this season of my journey now, what God looks like, who God is (in short, God’s self), has gone through some dramatic changes.
When I was a child, God looked a lot like a man on a cloud in a big robe with a white beard. He mostly resembled God as depicted in Michelangelo’s painting The Creation of Adam, and I thought of God as someone who was ok with you as long as you were good most of the time, kind of like a divine Santa Claus.
When I reached adolescence, God still kind of looked that way, only I began to struggle with him more. I wanted to know why things I liked, like Harry Potter and other books I read in school, weren’t “OK” by his standards. As my anxiety started to peak and I began to feel more self-conscious and insecure in who I was, I got angry with God. I wanted to know why I was feeling this way, why my family wasn’t perfect like everyone else’s, why I didn’t feel like people loved me the way they loved others. I knew deep inside that God loved me, but I didn’t always feel it. My own fears and insecurities weighed me down to the point that following God by being good all the time didn’t seem worth it anymore. I wanted strong relationships with others, to be the center of attention and be the most loved. I didn’t know if God would want that with me.
When I started college, God was my BFF. I had struggled through insecurities and fear, and finally I felt like I had a real relationship with him. In fact, I felt so secure in my relationship with this God who loved me and was almighty and all-powerful and simply perfect in every way, that I decided I wanted to go into ministry. I studied my Bible to see what God had in store for my life, attended retreats to encounter God in more spiritual ways, and became involved in all types of ministries, from Christian camps to drama teams. I had finally found a God who loved me and wanted to make my life awesome, and I was pretty stoked for the future.
By my senior year, all of that changed.
Our topic for Senior Seminar that year was “Clashes of Culture.” This was basically a less blunt way of saying “Challenging Conservative and Fundamentalist Viewpoints, Especially in Christianity.” That meant reading books by atheists who presented some convincing arguments that made God and “his people” seem like monsters, writing papers that made me challenge my mostly literal interpretation of the Bible, and discuss whether or not religion, even one I loved so much, should be as influential as it had been in the past.
My entire foundation, which had been rooted in the idea of a God who was way beyond our understanding and did things for his glory, crumpled like the walls of Jericho. I was terrified.
Suddenly, the God who had once loved me for who I was now hated everyone who wasn’t on his “team.” The God who was everywhere for me was gone when people were sick, starving, and dying. The God who was just let his people destroy Creation, and all in his name.
Suddenly, it seemed like everything I had ever believed and held dear was all a lie.
That’s the odd thing about doubt, though. I grew up thinking doubt was something everyone inevitably went through at points in their life, but it was something you got over once you had all your answers figured out. However, when I was stuck between staying with my image of God as a lordly old man and actually opening my eyes to the world, when I let the doubt challenge me to think for myself and open my mind to the world around me, God began to look more…human. More vulnerable and even a bit more like me.
Because that’s when I started seeing God in the most unlikely places and the most unlikely people. I was finding God in kids who wanted to know they were loved, in refugees in need of shampoo, and students who were also wondering exactly who God is. I started finding God in the news, the good, bad, ugly, and hopeful. I starting seeing God not as some being who did as he pleased for his own glory. No, God started looking like the Love that is with us in all things. I started seeing God in baby showers celebrating life and people bringing casseroles to people who had a death in the family. I started seeing God in the words of professors who challenged me to think critically, in the arms of loved ones as I poured my anxieties out to them and they held me, in hands and feet and love in action.
God wasn’t so frightening as he once was. Now, God just looks like Love to me. In fact, there’s a big part of me that wants to believe God is the force of Love that holds this universe together, that to be made in God’s image is to carry that love inside of us and show it to the world every chance that we can.
I look at Jesus, and the love he embodied, and it looks nothing like this scary god I’ve conjured up in the deep, dark pits of my own pain. Jesus makes God into someone who loves the world, and who loves me for who I am and as I am. And because he was somehow able to understand and embody this deep love of God within him, we are also to imitate his example to release the source of divine love within us.
Still, my human mind wants God to have a shape, even a gender, some type of category I can put him in. Then maybe I could pray more easily because I’ll know what the being on the other end is like. Maybe I could stop questioning so much and start living like I used to, even if I don’t want to backtrack. Maybe I could figure out if God is really some big, divine, Creator being, or a Spirit of Love that dwells within us and somehow also made everything the way it is now, and somehow this Love holds it all together.
So, I still don’t know what God “looks” like in a physical sense, and maybe that doesn’t matter. Being made in God’s image doesn’t mean I carry a physical essence of God; it means I carry what makes God the loving being God is within me.
If that’s not a great mystery, I don’t know what is.