QUESTION: When I’m praying, I wish I could get this image I have of God and of Jesus out of my mind. You know the long hair and perfect face with an awesomely groomed beard? I don’t think that’s what he looked like at all but that’s the image that pops in my mind when I pray. Or a body with a sun for a head that’s too bright to look at. I wonder if it’s wrong to have these images on your mind when you pray to God.
RESPONSE: Don’t be too hard on yourself when you pray with images in your mind that you know are inaccurate or even, dare I say it, somewhat idolatrous!!
Please understand, I don’t mean idolatry is ever good, but I think we must acknowledge that if idolatry is to worship something LESS than God, then we’re all guilty of it. Who could ever say they have a perfectly right image of God at all times? If we don’t, and can’t, then every imagining of God we can muster will be inaccurate in some way, and less than God’s perfect Self.
This kind of “idolatry” is not intentional and it really can’t be helped – we are physical creatures after all, and every way we have of understanding something is in relation to some physical thing we know or see. So how can we know how to accurately imagine a God we can’t ever fully know or see?
You see this dilemma playing out in the great vision of God that Ezekiel had. Listen to his language the closer he gets to seeing the actual presence of God himself. Language utterly fails him. He says things like “the image of the likeness of the appearance of the Lord”. !! He’s using all these things he knows to describe what he’s experiencing, like animal heads and geometric shapes, but while doing it. he KNOWS it’s inaccurate, this is the “appearance” only. It’s just these words are the closest he can get in his human mind to conveying what is completely beyond description.
So the best thing we can do, is to follow the example of Israel which was the only ancient people whose Temple was empty!! That’s kinda funny when you think about it, and profound. Every other nation had temples full of images. The Jews had this amazing Temple… full of nothing! Well, not exactly nothing, the ark of the covenant, a couple of angel images, but definitely no image of Yahweh. It wasn’t allowed, because any set image reduces God.
So we can tell ourselves that no image we have of God is adequate and then try to keep the Temple in our minds as empty as possible… but like Ezekiel, when pushed, we will grab for metaphors for God’s likeness that are not accurately God, but convey something about his true nature to our souls.
For example, this Zeus thing we all have in mind, big guy, white beard, is not accurate, but it does convey something about wisdom or power or authority or personhood. The idea of a throne of light, is also not exactly what God is, but it conveys perfection, truth, purity. You see?
It’s OK that we let many of these images pass through our minds in prayer to convey something about God that is true to our spirits, even if the image itself is not. Just don’t settle on any one image.
Ironically, both the Mormons and the Muslims settled so hard on that Zeus-like thing, that they do in fact imagine that God is corporeal, with a real human face and body. Needless to say, this reduces God’s majesty to imagine that God is no more than what we are.
However, having said that, we Christians must never forget that God did in fact, become a man. And so if we see a man, Jesus, in our minds when we pray, this cannot be idolatrous, since the early church prayed to “the Lord” and it was Jesus they had in mind (Acts 1:24). So God is not different than we find in this man, Jesus, for God revealed himself in the Son.
And maybe, part of the reason for the incarnation was that, in the fullness of time, we really did need to see and touch and feel God. He gave us an image to worship, since our hearts through all ages did crave that exact thing… So now we have Jesus to imagine when we need an image of God, and this cannot be idolatry because all the fullness of the Godhead was present in him (Col 2:9).
The incarnation is God condescending to our need, for a Savior certainly, but also to see the object of our worship! In past ages, the Jews knew, anyone who sees God will die. But in Jesus, God veiled himself in flesh, and by mercy made us right, so that we fallen sinners could see God, and live!