As a parent of a pre-teen, I’m constantly unearthing pithy and extremely unhelpful phrases. These limerick-like zingers came from various adults in my life. My parents used them sparingly, but youth leaders and teachers did their part as well. I give them credit: they were simply interested in my becoming a healthy person.
One phrase that comes to mind is this: If you lie down with dogs, you’ll end up with fleas.
Suspend for a moment the way this reflects on the image of God in another person. Dogs, really? But the heart of the statement is that you will become the kind of person (or people) you hang around with. I once heard, and I know I’m misquoting this, that we will become the average of the five closest friends in our life.
I can see the wisdom here.
In recent days, I have also turned that thought towards the way we are being formed spiritually. Not only that, but the God in whose image and likeness we are reshaped. My friend Paul who is a incredible potter would say this is where we are taken off of the potter’s wheel. We are then returned to a round and smooth ball, then re-centered for the purpose of being reshaped by the potter’s careful hands.
But what if the potter is a dog, if I may so ruthlessly mix the metaphors? Hold that thought for just a moment.
Reading and writing in the spaces of spiritual formation and discipleship, I hear people suggest so many different candidates for “the greatest spiritual/discipleship challenge.” Just a few weeks ago someone suggested stewardship as the greatest discipleship challenge.
I don’t doubt the heart of the person making this statement, or the reality of how our relationship with financial resources affects the whole of our lives. I simply don’t believe that stewardship is the pinnacle of the challenge. Instead, I believe this:
The greatest challenge to our spiritual formation is our image of God.
Everyone that I respect in the dialogue about formation, from Dallas Willard to James Bryan Smith and countless others, begin the spiritual journey with our image of God. Even A.W. Tozer is best known for this quote:
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.
The picture of God is critical because everything from stewardship to sexuality to racial reconciliation checks up to the image we have of God. This is true of both communities and individuals, but the reality of life with God is that it is always “I” before “we.” So what impact does this image have on our lives? Very simply:
We are becoming like the God we imagine.
However, by imagine I don’t mean “create without any proof or surety.” I mean the way we construct, define, and understand God in our minds and consequently in our communities.
If we imagine God to be punitive, angry, and wrathful then it isn’t a stretch to see those characteristics alive in us.
The protesters chanting that “God hates (someone)” or “You’re going to hell” believe in a punitive God and therefore they become punitive people. Of course, God isn’t punitive to them because they have figured it all out.
If we envision God to be distant and uninvolved, then our relationship to the world and to others can easily become detached and disinterested. There is an interesting dynamic at work here as well: I’ve found atheists (specifically those for whom there is no God to “image”) are far more connected to serving their communities than those who have an image of God that is distant and uninvolved.
We are becoming like the God we imagine.
You can take this line of thinking further and further into the details as well.
Often when believe God created women as beneath men, we become the kind of men that find ways to put women beneath us. While this isn’t always true individually, it is hard for a large group to refrain from making this structural and ethical leap.
If we believe America alone is God’s “chosen people,” then our politics will heartily support that theory.
When it comes to our memories, if we believe God is helpless to do anything with our past hurts we will live at their mercy.
The reason I believe our image of God is the biggest challenge to spiritual formation is that it is very easy to construct an image while ignoring a salient piece of information.
Namely, when we develop an image of God without Jesus our image is misshapen and destructive.
Paul in Colossians says that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1), so that whatever we see in Jesus is true of God. Writer and theologian Bradley Jersak calls this the “Christlikeness of God.”
So, when we shape our lives around the person of Jesus we are also choosing to invest in a particular image of God.
In Jesus, God is in the margins.
Through Jesus, God speaks to the outcasts.
With Jesus, God is non-dual and exists both for the righteous and the unrighteous.
Perhaps that final statement is the most important. With the aforementioned sign-toting Christians, I know they believe in a God of grace but it is grace only for those who tote signs.
The image of God in their minds is that God wants us to yell condemnation. The image says God is a God who yells condemnation.
Therefore, their habits and words fall into that divine pattern. They give up their Saturdays for the ultimate goal of street-corner beat downs. I came eye to eye once with a particular sign toter in downtown Chicago. He shouted, quoted the imprecatory Psalms, but deep in his eyes I saw only anger.
Our image of God shapes our journey of becoming because it shapes what we choose.
We choose grace when we see a God who is grace, in Jesus. Hope flows through us when we are rounded by the Spirit into the Jesus who spoke to the unspeakable. We can navigate through embracing our depression and mental illness, knowing that Jesus didn’t abandon those like us. For Jesus, His presence was a primary method of healing.
As we look at our picture of God, we need to ask ourselves one simple but profound question:
What is the image of God we hold and how is it shaping our attitudes and actions today?
I’m not really sure about the dogs and the fleas, honestly. But there is something about the images we spend time with. What do you think?