Updated: Feb 7
I like containers, baskets and boxes. I like things to be organized and have their own places. "Everything has its place, and everything is in its place," as the old Finnish saying goes. (Paikka kaikella ja kaikki paikallaan.) And still I spend unmentionable amount of time looking for things around the house on a regular basis. And every time I move houses I rediscover stored away boxes that I hadn't looked at for years (nor missed) but still insist bringing along with the next move.
I wonder, how much of the same is true with the images of God that we form and file into our neat "God-boxes"? God simply doesn't seem to stay in our boxes nor do we always seem to find him ― maybe because we don't often know where, how and who we are looking for. God keeps surprising us, and challenging our perceptions of him. He reveals himself to us in unexpected ways and places. It is no wonder that the seekers of God have described this hiddenness of God with the idea of God inviting us to play hide and seek with him.
Our Images of God
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
― A.W. Tozer
If you close your eyes, and imagine God, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? What do the eyes of your imagination first see about God?
Starting at our early spiritual formation, we have been constructing and adopting images of who God is and what he is like. These images are shaped by everything and everyone around us, not just what we are told or read about God.
No image of God in itself is complete or fully accurate, but each of them shows something about the way we understand who God is. And perhaps even more importantly, they show how we feel towards him, and about ourselves in the eyes of God. Our images of God shape our prayers like nothing else does. What we believe and feel about God determines largely how we relate to him. Regardless of our theological training or intellectual constructions about the Divine, the way how our "inner child" or the deepest, truest part of us feels toward God, and expects God to feel when he looks at us, seems to fuel our spiritual lives more than our well articulated beliefs about the character of God.
Crafting and Unpacking Our God-Image Boxes
When we first start our search and exploration of who God is, the crafting of "God-boxes" (by which I mean categories and definitions for God) is extremely useful and even necessary part of the journey. It is exhilarating to explore the Scriptures, icons, read what other seekers of God have written about him, converse and debate with others about God's nature, wrestle with difficult questions, and search images of God in the natural world. The journey is endless. Before long we realize that have been invited into a lifelong seeking and finding of God.
As the time goes by, perhaps we have collected boxes full of God-images neatly categorized, filed and stored up. Those of us who have been collecting, framing and holding onto images of God for decades might feel attached to some images and a need to review and "update" some of the images. It might well be that some images of God that we hold onto have long lived their significance to our current life with God, and instead have become hinderances for us to live the way Jesus calls us to at our current stage of life. Wherever you find yourself on this journey, it is worth taking the time to pause and reflect what your lived and felt images of God are like. As most of our true, functional images of God stem from our early formation, I will offer some childlike, creative exercises for your exploration of your currently held images of God.
You can do any of these exercises alone, with others, and with children among you. If you do the exercises with children, (some require slight modifications) resist the urge to correct them. Your young companions have only started their joyful exploration, let it flourish and deepen! You will also likely to be surprised by their fresh spiritual eye sight.
1. Collect 'Images of God Box'
Find an empty box (shoe box or a smaller box) where you will collect different objects and artifacts that represent your images of God. You can start this by making a list of Biblical images of God (Dove, Fire, Mother Hen, Water, Lion, Wind, King, Vine, Bread, Love...) or searching Jesus' "I am" statements in the New Testament (The Good Shepherd, The Way, The Light of the World...).
Once you have collected several images and placed them in the box, take them out one by one considering how that particular image of God might sound like. What does it reveal about God? What are you drawn to, and what do you resist about the image? Finally, perhaps you want to choose one or two objects that you relate most strongly to right now and place them in your prayer space. Allow the image to teach you about yourself and your relationship with God. What does this image of God offer you that you need and desire from God now?
2. Make a Personal Shrine or Altarpiece
Take some time to journal and reflect on your early experiences of God; places, sensations, feelings, memories, people etc. Move along your personal timeline and note how your image of God has changed over time. As a result of your reflection create a personal altar painting, collage, sculpture or tapestry of your image of God. You may want to use an old picture frame or even a window frame to frame your art and place it in your prayer space. Alternatively, use an old wooden box (e.g. a drawer) or cardboard box and create an altar shrine of your image of God, and how it has evolved over time. Consider including objects that remind you of your image of God in the past (childhood illustrated Bibles, prayer bracelets, artifacts from nature, photographs etc.) and present. Allow this practice to draw you to prayer. (Adapted from "Awakening the Creative Sprit" by Christine Valters Painter and Betsey Beckman)
3. Read Picture Books about God
Slowly read picture books about God (some examples listed below). Pause when something catches your attention. Notice what memories, wants, fears, and hopes surface. Stay with an image that speaks to you. Listen to what God might want to show you through the image.
Picturing God by Ruth Goring Images of God for Young Children by Marie-Hélène Delval God Is Like: Three Parables for Children by Julie Walters
God is Like a Mother Hen and Much, Much More by Carolyn Stahl Bohler
Pictures of God: A Child's Guide to Understanding Icons by John Kosmas Skinas
What Does God Look Like? by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Karen Kushner
Is God Nice? by David Nagai
Jesus Showed Us! by Bradley Jersak
Everything a Child Should Know about God by Kenneth N. Taylor
Drawing God by Karen Kiefer
4. Draw an Image of God
Take a sheet of paper and cut it into two halves. Choose a medium that you like: pencil, water colors, pastels, crayons etc. Draw an image of God with your dominant hand. This shows the image that you are familiar with and feel comfortable and confident with. Then use the other half of the paper to draw an image of God with your non-dominant hand. Drawing with a non-dominant hand allows you to draw more intuitively and freely, without worrying about the end result. It is also more vulnerable and shows what you don't know and what you have no control over. Look at the two images next to each other, what do you see?
For further inspiration, and especially for those accompanying children, see images of author Karen Kiefer's "Drawing God" project here.
5. Imagine God through the Senses
Fill in the blanks of the sentence starters below. Then explore your answers and allow your desire to lead you into a bodily response. You might want to write a poem or song based on your answers, draw something, dance, cook or bake, go out on a walk outside, listen to a song, call a friend...
I know God when I see... I know God when I taste... I know God when I hear... I know God when I smell... I know God when I touch...
Alternative prompts for the exercise: Today I knew God when I saw..., tasted...., heard..., smelled..., touched...
When I was a child, God looked like..., tasted like..., sounded like..., smelled like..., felt like...
Now, God looks like..., tastes like...., sounds like...., smells like..., feels like...
I long to see God..., taste God..., hear God..., smell God..., feel God...
(Adapted from "Awakening the Creative Sprit" by Christine Valters Painter and Betsey Beckman.)
6. Practice Visio Divina "Holy Seeing" of Icons, Religious Art or in Nature
People across the ages and cultures have been fascinated by images of God, and tried to create art to show what God is like. In fact, many of our images of God have been shaped by the kinds of religious art we have been exposed to. Visio Divina is a way of praying with an image that invites God to speak to us through the senses. I have collected various images of Jesus and more on my Pinterest board which you can use for this kind of prayer.
7. Explore God's Feelings Explore your images of God's emotional life. Close your eyes and become aware of your breathing. Imagine God looking at you. What does his presence feel like to you right now? How does he feel when he looks at you now?
Paint a watercolor painting reflecting your experience of God's emotions towards you. Trust your intuition, let the colors reveal your soul. Allow the act of painting be a prayer; your spirit communing with God's spirit.
To further explore your ideas of God's feelings, make a list of the kinds of feelings you think of when you think of God's emotions. If you want, you can search through the Bible scriptures that talk about God's feelings. What do you notice? Does anything surprise you?
Use the following prompts to explore God's range of emotions.
God feels delighted when... God feels content when... God feels grieved when... God feels angry when... God feels proud when... God cries when... God laughs when... God feels amused when... God feels...
8. Create 'Out of the Box God' Pocket Box
Find an empty match box. Cover it with a decorative paper and write on top of it "Out of the Box God". Prayerfully go through magazines, old pictures, etc. and cut out small images that show pictures of what God is like for you. Do this intuitively, trusting your first reactions and feelings. Try to stay away from thinking whether your image is "correct" or not.
Once you have a stack of small images, place them in the decorated match box. Open the box and slowly take out one image at the time. Notice your reactions to each image. Ask God to show you if there are images that are "out-dated". Set aside images that you don't believe in anymore, or that you don't want to carry around anymore. Ask God if there are any new images that he wants to reveal about himself to you. Search for those images (or draw them) and place them in the box.
The inspiration for this practice comes from The Instant Comfort Pocket Boxes by Dutch illustrator Kim Welling.
9. Call God by Name
We all address God in prayer in different ways. How do you address God in your personal prayer? What does the way you call God tell you about your image of God? If your native language (or the language that you pray in, if it's not your native language) has formal and informal pronouns, which one do you use?
Read the list below of various names of God. Use different tones of voices when you call God by these different names, depending on how you image you would address God who carries each particular name. Your voice might sound like you are in danger, searching, in awe, longing, in love, timid, desperate... Does your image of God change?
How do you imagine God's own voice sounds like depending on the name or "title" he is given? Which name of God are you the most drawn to? Are there other names for God that speak to you now? How does that name lead you to pray?
If you write your prayers, experiment starting your prayer with writing different names of God at the beginning of the prayer.
Yahweh / the LORD
Creator God Abba / Dad Lord Jesus King Jesus The Holy Spirit
Spirit of God Jesus my bother and friend The Good Shepherd
My Savior and Redeemer Father God Mother God
The Lover of My Soul
Download the YHWH / LORD poster by The Bible Project here. Which particular image on the poster are you drawn to?
When God calls you by name, how does his voice sound like then? By what name does God call you? Does he always address you with your first name or do you imagine him sometimes calling you by a unique pet name?
Follow-up and Spiritual Accompaniment
These exercise might stir up big emotions and wonderings. I encourage you to share your experiences and discoveries with a compassionate spiritual companion. Spiritual directors are trained spiritual companions. Feel free to reach out to me if you want to learn more about what a spiritual director could offer you as you continue exploring your images of God and self. I have created tactile prayer tools that each include an illustrated prayer card of a different image of God and a prayer guide. You can purchase the illustrated cards also separately. You will find them on my Etsy shop.