“What does God look like?” That was the question asked during the children’s sermon at the church my son and I attended Sunday (where our family often visits when my husband is not preaching elsewhere, though on this occasion he was filling in for a pastor who does two services on Sunday morning, at different locations, which is why we didn’t go with him).
It’s a question I imagine most children have wondered about, at least those who grew up with some kind of religious faith. I don’t remember ever having a specific mental picture of God, because one of the earliest lessons I remember learning was that “God is everywhere.” I don’t know if I also was told that God is invisible, but I know I always thought of God that way – after all, if a God who is everywhere were not invisible, how could I possible see anything else?
I don’t know what other children think when being told God is everywhere, but I concluded that it meant God inhabited every cubic inch of the universe. As a young adult I puzzled over what meaning there could be for the Holy Spirit to live in the hearts of believers in Jesus Christ. If God was already everywhere, how could He not be in every person, as well as every tree, rock, and single-celled organism?
Because I had been taught that God is specially present in believers, I believed it, but I couldn’t make logical sense out of it. My husband was the one who finally pointed out that saying God is omnipresent does not mean He is literally present everywhere. It means that there is no limit to where He can be, no place too far away or too hidden for Him.
Pastor Jen asked the children if they thought God looked old or young. I think it was my son who answered “old.” What did they think God was wearing? Someone said a white robe. What about blue jeans? No, none of them thought God wore blue jeans. (If you’ve never read Joseph Girzone’s Joshua, it makes very interesting reading, depicting a town where the Son of God comes to live for a while in modern times, as a carpenter named Joshua. Having read that, I can certainly imagine Jesus wearing blue jeans.)
I don’t remember ever thinking of God as an old man with a long flowing beard, which is how I have read that some people imagine Him. (I don’t think I can think of anyone with a long flowing beard, outside of movies, so that image may be less prevalent today.) I really cannot bring any visual image to mind when I think of God the Father, which is how I have been taught it should be.
That is why I was very surprised when Pastor Jen concluded the children’s sermon by giving each child a piece of paper and crayons and instructing them to go back to their seats and draw a picture of God. It’s understandable that children will sometimes attempt to make a picture of God, and I wouldn’t scold a child for drawing one – I’d want to use it as an opportunity to talk about what God is like. But to actually tell children to draw a picture of God – that goes against what I have been taught is the purpose of the Second Commandment.
As a child I thought the commandment was just about not worshipping idols – supposed gods made of stone or wood or metal. I wasn’t quite sure what was the difference between the first and second commandments, since the first already said not to worship other gods. (This is apparently a common point of confusion among Protestants; Catholics number the commandments differently and do not have this issue as they group together into the first commandment what Protestants understand to be the first two.)
As a young adult I read a book that explained a deeper meaning. It’s not just physical representations of false gods that are wrong, but also physical representations of the true God, because such representations inevitably limit our mental image of God. As the site linked above explains, “He does not want us to perceive Him as frozen in one trait of personality or character to the exclusion of His many other traits.” Even a mental picture, not a physical one, can have this same limiting effect.
Unlike some Christians, I do not have the same problem with making pictures (or movies) depicting Jesus. We don’t know what he looked like, but he did have a physical body. Rather than try to avoid any physical representation of him (which is pretty hard to do considering the history of Western art, as well as the ubiquity of pictures of Jesus in Bibles and Sunday School rooms), I think it is better to have a multiplicity of representations of Jesus.
We don’t want to see him just as a gentle Shepherd, though he certainly was gentle with those who were hurting. He was anything but gentle when he cleansed the Temple, so it is right to have a picture of an angry Jesus also. Some of the most common depictions are of Jesus suffering on the cross, and those are entirely appropriate. But we also need to see pictures of Jesus alive and whole again after the Resurrection.
There are many depictions of baby Jesus in the manger. There are pictures of him as a boy in the temple, as a teacher speaking to the crowds, and of him alone in prayer. What is harder is to find a picture of Jesus laughing, though there are indications in the Gospels that he had a healthy sense of humor.
Pastor Jen’s sermon to the adults also dealt with how we see God. It was based on Moses’ experience seeing God’s “backside” (Exodus 33). Seeing God’s face, in all His glorious holiness, would be deadly to a sinful human being. But what God let Moses see was His “back” – His goodness and mercy, according to how God described Himself to Moses as He passed by.
I have no idea what Moses actually saw. But, as Pastor Jen explained, we see God’s goodness and mercy principally through Jesus, and through other people. (And in a sense we see Jesus only through other people, as we have only the written words of other people to tell us the account of his life, ministry, death, and resurrection.) On a daily basis, most of what we receive comes through other people – the source of all good gifts is ultimately God, but they come to us by the hands and work of other people.
Several years ago, I got an idea to put together a collage to try to “picture” God. (I didn’t get very far on it, but I still would like to someday make it.) As with what I mentioned about pictures of Jesus, the idea would be to have a multiplicity of visual images to represent many different facets of God’s character and work. There would be some traditional Christian symbols – such as the cross, the fish, and the Greek letters alpha and omega. There would be photos of nature – and not just the more conventional beauty of flowers or sunsets, but also the starker beauty of a thunderstorm or a desert.
There would be some music – perhaps a favorite hymn. There would be a Bible verse or passage, though I don’t remember if I figured out what passage I would want to use. There would be scenes from the Bible, using a variety of art styles. And perhaps some abstract art.
One thing I also decided was that there would be some photos of people. A photo of Billy Graham, to show God speaking to people through preaching. A photo of Mother Teresa, to show God working through people to reach out to the most needy. I don’t remember if I came up with any other specific ideas, but to give such examples of seeing the “image” of God in other human beings.
I wondered why I would draw if I had been given a piece of paper and crayons and asked to draw a picture of God. I could draw a cross, a heart, and a fish, but my artistic skills don’t extend to drawing most of the other ideas from the collage. I could imagine myself turning in a blank paper and explaining that I refused to violate the Second Commandment, but that might be a response more of frustration and anger than of love for God’s law.
If I didn’t have time and resources to make the kind of collage I have imagined, though (and somehow in however many years it has been I haven’t managed to make time for the project), a blank piece of paper might be the best I could do. Because otherwise I focus my mind too much on those aspects of God I feel able to depict adequately, and by neglect I miss out on a great deal more.