What is God Like?
By Dan Clendenin
From Our Archives
Over the 4th of July holiday our family rented a big house for the long weekend. With seven adults, three grandchildren, and three dogs, I joked that we were testing the limits of holy chaos. For the kids, the biggest hit was the swimming pool. For me, it was reading books with our granddaughters while cuddled up under “blankies.”
I especially appreciated a children’s book by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Turner called What is God Like? (2021). I thought it was a fantastic effort to introduce children to that most natural, most complicated, and most important of all questions that people throughout history have asked: what is God like?
The philosopher John Hick once observed that if you collected all the images of God that have been created by humanity, they’d form a book the size of a telephone directory. I remember walking through the Egyptian section of the British Museum a few years ago, where, for example, I met the god Sobek, pictured as a man with the head of a crocodile. Or consider the Hindu fire god Agni, who has two faces smeared with butter, seven tongues, gold teeth, seven arms, and three legs.
Is that what God is like?
Despite our many divisions, one liturgical confession has united all Christians for two thousand years. Every Sunday, virtually every Christian in every country around the world prays the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples in this week’s gospel: “Our Father in heaven.”
Luke writes how the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Implicit in that request was their admission that there were things that they didn’t understand about prayer. I’m sure they saw Jesus praying, and perhaps they wanted to imitate him. Jesus didn’t commend any technique or regimen. Rather, “when you pray,” he said, trust in the character of God. Trust what God is like.
Three readings this week give us glimpses of what God is like that encourage us to pray.
Jesus says that God is “in heaven.” He’s infinite, mysterious, and beyond human comprehension. This spatial language about God “up there” warns us of any casual presumption, and of our chronic inclination to create God in our own earthly image “down here.” I love how the Jewish tradition refers to God as ha-Shem, “the Name,” precisely to avoid even pronouncing his name in a sacrilegious manner.
Here’s a little test. If God loves all that you love, and hates all that you hate, you can be sure that you’ve created him in your own image. The frailty of our prayers will always flirt with blasphemy and idolatry, said CS Lewis, and so he commended what he called “A Footnote To All Prayers.”
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
The Preacher similarly cautions us: “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2). Isaiah wrote that God is “high and lifted up.” No one has ever seen God, says John.
But this transcendence of God doesn’t mean that he’s remote or unknowable, like the impersonal and absentee landlord of eighteenth-century Deism. In his compassion and condescension, says Lewis, God “translates” the “limping metaphors” of our prayers. He’s a God of “magnetic mercy” who draws us to himself.
There’s no need to stress or strain, to grope in the darkness, for as God’s created offspring he’s near to each one of us, as close as breath itself. In fact, you couldn’t escape his presence even if you tried, says the psalmist. Before God we are nakedly revealed, fully known, and lovingly protected.
Jesus says that God is not only high and lifted up “in heaven,” he’s also near and dear as a loving father to every person. God is infinite, yes, but he’s also intimate. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he’s the “father of every family, in heaven and on earth.”
And so, the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father.” God is like a tender and protective father, said Jesus.
Paul says the same thing in Romans. We shouldn’t relate to God as a slave who fears a master, but as a child who feels safe with a parent: “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6).
Abba is the Aramaic word that Jesus used that means something like “Papa.” The word is used only three times in the New Testament, and conveys a shocking sense of human intimacy with the divine Infinite. It’s a word that little children first learning to speak used for their father, and that Jesus himself used to pray to God in the Garden of Gethsemane.
This picture of God as a tender father always reminds me of another museum. During the four years that my family lived in Moscow (1991–1995), we would take the overnight train to St. Petersburg. There, we visited the Hermitage Museum, which houses Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son (1636).
The painting is enormous (262 X 205 cm), and full of deep, dark reds and browns. In it, the stooping father embraces his kneeling son — with compassion, with tenderness, and without any judgment.
The real prodigal here is God the father — wildly extravagant or “prodigious” in his love. While his son was still “far off,” the father dispensed with all decorum, and instead ran to meet him, embraced him, and kissed him. He then threw a lavish party for him.
Then there’s the prophet Hosea, who pictures God as a spurned lover. He compares God’s love for Israel to the raw emotions of a jilted lover. Despite his pain at the unfaithfulness of his woman, he can’t help himself because he loves her so much. He won’t give up, even on a one-sided relationship.
To communicate the radical nature of his love, God commands Hosea to enact a living parable or symbolic act, something like street theater. He instructs Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer. The point of this shocking act is simple but powerful: “Go, love the harlot Gomer; love her just as the Lord loves the Israelites even though they turn to other gods.” (3:1).
Israel had prostituted herself in many ways — religiously, politically, and economically, but God still loved her. He longed to woo her, to “speak tenderly to her,” and to “show her my love.” Three times he still promises to “betroth Israel to me forever.” In a beautiful play on words, the Hebrew reads, “I will show my love to the one called ‘Not my loved one’” (2:14–23).
Hosea’s God is very different from Homer’s gods. He’s like a patient and forgiving spouse, who keeps loving us no matter what we’ve done or how badly we’ve failed in our relationship.
Finally, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 for this week, so infamous for its fire and brimstone, portrays God as an extraordinarily lenient judge. Abraham intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah, but there’s a catch. He asks God, “will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham wasn’t concerned for the wicked, he just wanted God to spare the righteous.
God responded: “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” (Genesis 18:26). Abraham kept haggling with God, wondering how low the crazy moral calculus might go. In the end, God promised to spare the entire city if there was but a tiny handful of righteous people. Whereas Abraham wanted to protect the righteous, God wanted to save the wicked.
Because God is like a tender father, a crazy lover, and a lenient judge, Jesus invites us to pray. Keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking, he tells us. If a person will answer the door at midnight when a visitor knocks, how much more will God respond to our prayers?
And when a child asks for food, like a fish or an egg, no parent would ever give him a poisonous snake or scorpion. How much more will God give good gifts to his children, says Jesus.
In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, there’s a story about Macarius the Great (born c. 300), a former camel driver. One day someone asked him how to pray. “There is no need at all to make long discourses,” he advised. “It is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say, ‘Lord, help!’ He knows very well what we need and he shows us his mercy.”
The psalms for this week thus encourage us to trust ourselves to the loving providence of a good God: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me… The Lord will indeed give what is good” (Psalm 138:8; 85:12).
This is my prayer —
That, though I may not see,
I be aware
Of the Silent God
Who stands by me.
That, though I may not feel,
I be aware
Of the Mighty Love
Which doggedly follows me.
That, though I may not respond,
I be aware
That God — my Silent, Mighty God,
Waits each day.
Quietly, hopefully, persistently.
Waits each day and through each night
For me — alone.
From Edwina Gateley, There Was No Path So I Trod One (1996, 2013).
Dan Clendenin: email@example.com