Imagine getting a handwritten invitation from God the Father requesting your presence for a meeting. You quickly get ready, and you’re on your way. When you arrive at his door, you knock twice and hear, “Come in.” You turn the knob, push the door open slowly . . . and there he is.
But before you enter, let’s back up a second. How’s your imagination? What kind of invitation did God send? What about his handwriting? What sort of clothes are you wearing to your meeting? Formal? Business casual? Shorts and flip flops? And his door, is it simple or ornate? What kind of voice does he have? And what does God look like?
For many years, I could most easily picture God sitting on a throne, an ancient sculpture come to life. He had long hair and a long beard, and he must have been at least 10-feet tall, as he was large enough for me—even as an adult—to crawl up onto his lap and burrow my face into the billowy robes that flowed down from his shoulders.
I like that image, and it still gives me comfort. But it’s not always the one that now first comes to my mind. Instead, I sometimes think of God standing before me with his arms crossed, a disappointed look on his face. On a particularly bad day, he uncrosses his arms to shake a finger at me. This change in how I view God seems to have come about sometime overseas, when I realized that my accomplishments and abilities weren’t matching my own expectations and what I thought were the expectations of others.
What does God look like to you? I’m not talking about God appearing in a bona fide vision. I’m thinking of how your imagination pictures him being present—right in front of you. It’s an interesting question for missionaries, relief workers, and the nationals next door. It’s an interesting question for all of us, because the answers we give tell a lot about who God is to us and about how we see our relationship with him—about how we see ourselves and think God sees us. Does he resemble your father, president, prime minister, or king? Does he look like a church leader or a boss you’ve known? Does he give you his full attention, or is he busy with the crowds around him? Does he have your features, or is he a foreigner?
In Anatomy of the Soul, neurologist Curt Thompson presents a meditation exercise based on Jesus’ baptism, as presented in the book of Luke. He suggests you imagine yourself in a beautiful and tranquil place and then “allow yourself to sense God’s presence.” Next, imagine God calling you by name and saying, “You are my daughter [/son], and I do so love you. I am so pleased with you and that you are on the earth.” Thompson writes,
Sense, if you can, God looking you directly in the eyes as he says these words. Do not turn away from his gaze. Do not resist his voice. Allow yourself to be in his presence for several minutes. Do not leave this place in your mind quickly. What do you feel? What do you feel God feeling as he looks with tenderness and strength into the windows of your soul?
(Mandy Smith, writing in Christianity Today, includes this exercise in “The Pastoral Work of Reshaping Imaginations,” as one of her five tools to help those who are not convinced of God’s unconditional love.)
But Thompson doesn’t stop there. He challenges us also to hear God singing, with each of us as a one-person audience. He quotes Zephaniah 3:17:
The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.
“Is he a baritone,” Thompson asks, “a tenor, a soprano, an alto, or perhaps some blended combination of vocal beauty that is impossible to describe? The point is, he’s performing the opera in your honor because he takes so much pleasure in you.”
Henri Nouwen, in A Spirituality of Living, paraphrases God’s words to Jesus—at his baptism in the river valley and at his transfiguration on the mountaintop—as “You are my beloved Son, on you my favor rests. I declare you to be my Beloved, the one in whom I pour out all my love. You are my favorite one.” He urges us also to meet God on the mountain, in prayer, because
it’s the place in which we can listen to the voice of the One who calls us the beloved. Jesus says to you and to me that we are loved as he is loved. That same voice is there for us. To pray is to let that voice speak to the center of our being and permeate our whole life. Who am I? I am the beloved. If we are not claiming that voice as the deepest truth of our being, then we cannot walk freely in this world.
It is this voice, says Nouwen, that can overcome the raucous chorus of words in our lives that “touch our hidden insecurities and drive us to become very busy trying to prove to the world that we are good people who deserve some attention.”
Nouwen then goes on to praise Rembrandt’s painting Return of the Prodigal Son, with its depiction of a father showing his ardent, enduring love for his wayward child:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
It’s this story from the Bible that has helped me most in visualizing God’s acceptance of me. But in my imagination, God isn’t running down a road to meet me. Rather, I see him rising out of his chair, eager to welcome me, eager to be with me, eager to give me a long hug.
On a particularly good day, he’s wearing a broad, bright smile.
And when I don’t feel the part of the Prodigal, when I’m more the older brother, hurt because my father seems far away and my efforts haven’t brought him closer, I can hear him reminding me, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
Everything. The hugs, the kisses, the acceptance, the love, the words, and the songs.
(Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships, Tyndale Momentum, 2010; Henri Nouwen, A Spirituality of Living: The Henri Nouwen Spirituality Series, John Mogabgab, series editor, Upper Room, 2012)
[photo: “Peek,” by Wesley de Ridder, used under a Creative Commons license]