Dear Pastor Lawyer,
I like reading on your blog your answers to questions people ask, and I was wondering if you could answer one for me about images. The second commandment says that we’re not supposed to use images of God, and the Westminster confession says we can’t even have mental images of God, but the Bible has so many images of God that it’s impossible for me to read it without getting pictures in my head! The one I struggle with most is the image of God as a father. I used to imagine all the time that God picked me up and hugged me and kissed me like a little daughter, but now every time I start to picture that I’m afraid I’m committing idolatry. And then I get really confused because when I block out that picture I feel like I’m blocking out God’s love. It used to be easy for me to believe that God loved me, because I had that picture but now it’s really, really hard to believe it. So my question is, is it wrong to have images of God that match what the Bible says about him? And if it is wrong then how else can I learn to feel like he loves me?
Thank you, Gloria
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:4-6
The second command tells us not to carve for ourselves an image of God in order to worship it. The problem we humans have is that we want to be the ones who decide what or who we ought to worship. We don’t want anyone else telling us what to do, which is a sure sign that we are in trouble right from the get go. This blasphemy shows itself subtly at first; we make gods that represent the true God. And we tell ourselves that they are not gods, but reminders of the one true God. But then we forget ourselves and begin trusting in the thing we’ve created and end up worshipping the created thing instead of the creator. It is a delicate thing, but at the same time, a very blatant thing. It is very much an “in your face” kind of sin. It is all a lie, but we’re good at lying to ourselves when it comes to being in charge of our own lives. Sin knows no logic.
One the other hand, God tells us how to think about him and this is a totally justified and right basis on which to worship him. The Bible is full of metaphors and these are there in order to help us to worship God rightly. When he tells us he is our Father, to use your example, we are to think of him as a loving, personal, gift giving father. Our human fathers are supposed to reflect this aspect of the image of God so that we can understand God rightly according to his word. And so we see our fathers imitating their Father in heaven and we know a little bit more about and God and worship him based on the reflection we see in our human fathers.
A word of caution here: it is right and proper to honor our fathers for this and to worship the God who made him this way. But we want to be careful to not make our fathers into gods. Nor, in the case where our fathers do not represent God well, do we want to use that as an excuse to not worship God rightly. Our human fathers can never take the place of God in our lives. If we view our fathers in this way, they become an idol and we fall into the sin of breaking the second commandment.
The best way to keep from doing this is to maintain a good relationship with the God of the Bible. We do this in several ways: First, by attending and participating in weekly corporate worship. Meeting with the saints, hearing the word preached, eating at the table of the Lord all combine to feed our souls and to keep us focused on the one true God. This helps us keep a balance in our worship and helps us avoid creating our own gods.
Second, we maintain a good relationship with the true God by reading our Bibles and noticing all the various metaphors God uses to reveal himself and to notice how those metaphors are being used. For example the names of God are always used in biblical situations where that name is being acted out in the lives of those who use those names (cf. Gen. 13).
Finally, be careful not to camp on any one metaphor for too long. The metaphors are meant to be taken together so that they represent a whole picture of God. Like the blind men and the elephant, any one idea of God taken by itself can lead to imbalance and thus idolatry.
The goal is to know God in every way that he reveals himself in the word. Let that knowledge of him color your relationship with him so that your worship will grow in depth and breadth and so that you will be a more effective servant of the living God.
I hope this helps,