I’m in a spiritual direction cohort, and we recently had to read Distorted Images of God, by Dale and Juanita Ryan. Here are a few thoughts I had in reflecting on the book, and on ways I might unknowingly harbor destructive distortions in my imagination of God.
I do not struggle to see God as merciful, or as loving. Or gracious or generous. I live, most of the time, in the expectation of abundance, and am surprised when gifted with dearth. Surprised, but not terribly shaken, except in situations of some extremis. I find I think Jesus is not just kind, but right, and I think my view of the world, and people, isn’t disastrously far off his own. I do, however, have a couple of places where my imagination of God is quite far from his.
As I approached the Ryans’ book, even it’s title, I could see the sandpaper stubble on the jaw of a face, not glowering at me, but seen in profile. Not looking at me at all. The God whose interest or attention I had to capture. The disinterested, engagable-but-not-naturally-engaged God.
So, as I approached the book, I wasn’t surprised that chapter 3 jumped out to me – The Disinterested God. But I was a little surprised that The Emotionally Distant God also rang true.
First, the Disinterested God.
The first time I was asked to consider God’s face, I instantly saw a black-and-white profile. Stubbled jaw, deeply interested in something else. Not withholding attention, per se, but attending to other things. I wasn’t forbidden to try to get his attention, but the initiative lay with me. I recall, as a very small boy, holding my sisters’ faces in my hands when I was speaking to them and they were watching TV, wanting their eyes. Not believing they were listening unless they were also looking.
A vision I had ten years ago, wherein God told me, “I know, son. I love you,” has done a lot to uproot that God-in-profile, but I can still sense it when I go to pray in the morning, especially if my disciplines or my obedience have been spotty. It’s almost as if I assume God’s as into it as I am, and no more. I can get his attention, but he’ll be only as attentive as I am. I think that’s why I am so drawn to the first two verses of Psalm 139. It’s not, “You’ll search me and know me,” but rather, “You have searched me and known me.” Before I attended, I had his attention. Past perfect. When I show up, He’s been seeing me, looking at me, searching through me. That helps.
I find my mind also turning to the many times I’ve given deep, undivided attention to people, and seen them change in the being seen. I know what it’s like to love someone enough to give them all my eyes, and I can believe God is better at loving than I am. It gives me another alternate image, along with the vision from a decade ago, that I can push into place, displacing the God-in-profile.
Second, the Emotionally Absent God. God has never seemed emotionally distant. But I notice how important it is to me that friends ask after my heart. If they ask, it’s a gift like sunshine on my soul. If they don’t, it feels like a withholding. Like being robbed in the friendship. That’s too much – an inordinate amount of loss felt, so I know it goes to something in me, perhaps more than to something in them.
My mom was emotionally a train wreck. I don’t ever remember being asked how I felt. And connecting with her was like connecting with a tornado of flash bangs and vertigo. My dad had been tamed by the time I was born, and mom vilified him quite a lot, so I never permitted myself deep connection with him, in solidarity to her.
This one, though, is not so operant anymore. I think it’s because of this thing I think God does with me sometimes. Occasionally – no, often – I think God lets me in a little on how he feels about things. He lets me feel with him some of his affection for persons in moments. That is an intimate thing, and it’s impossible to feel like he’s emotionally absent or distant when that’s happening. But this false-God’s ghost can still show up in certain ways. Like the way I can feel like God is only as emotionally present as I am when it’s just him and me. In the absence of a better model, I paint him in my image, just for a moment.
The book references Hebrews a few times. What moves me most about those passages is that God became Jesus so he could know. God wanted to learn, by experience, what it felt like to be Jesus, and Aidan, and Annie, and each of us. All he suffered before the cross was so he could know, so he could be emotionally empathetic. Earned tears. I love him for that. He’d be my king forever, just for that. Just that.