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Paul Graves: What is your picture of God?

Paul Graves

How old were you when you found out Santa Claus isn’t real? How old were you when you discovered that God isn’t Santa Claus?

Oops! Did that question surprise you? You didn’t know? Oh sure there are some characteristics of Santa that we might easily think started with God. But personally, I don’t think Santa’s “checking his list twice to see who is naughty or nice” is one of those. Many people think God’s character is like that, but I’m definitely not one of them.

One of the basic affirmations in Christianity, Judaism and Sufi Islam is that human beings are made “in the image of God.” I heartily agree. Too often, however, we tend to start with humanity and project human behavior onto God.

That’s the wrong place to start. Since God was “first,” it’s wise to begin with God.

To even imagine the character of God, let’s not begin with human behavior. Let’s begin with God. When we have started to understand God’s character, then we have a better sense of what image we humans are called to live out.

The difficult part, then, is to imagine God’s character. It quickly goes beyond any words we have to describe it. Yet we have some clues. Jews look to the Torah and other books of what Christians call the Old Testament. Christians have both the Old and New Testaments to seek clues. Muslims study the Quran for their clues.

These books are indeed holy, different from other books. They will provoke in our imaginations the metaphorical pictures of God that can shape who we believe we can be as God’s images.

But stay alert! Don’t find one God-picture that fits your already-formed opinion, and think that is the only way to imagine God.

Religious people who become extreme in their behaviors seem to fixate on a very few God-pictures, then demand that is the only way God can be understood. Wrong!

Do you see God-pictures that disgust you, that you reject as not “the God” you believe exists? I certainly do! I reject that God is a god of war, a god who is some kind of cosmic policeman, a god who is a puppeteer directing every bit of human action and interaction, a god who wants to be treated and feared only as a king. The list goes on.

It is easy to compile a long list of the god-images I reject outright, or am simply uncomfortable with. You may have your own long list, and one different from mine.

But I think it is much more important to decide which pictures of God’s character actually fit with how we see God’s actions in our world and the biblical world.

For me, my deepest understandings of God emerge from times I better understand Jesus’ understanding of God’s character. Yes, I know that we can see Jesus in different ways. But Jesus’ humanity is the place to start.

He was boldly compassionate with people who experienced injustice and inequality. He loved even those persons he challenged to live their religious beliefs with less rigidity. He reluctantly chose to sacrifice his life even though God wasn’t ever (in my reading of the Bible) ever into sacrifice of body and objects.

Bottom line: Jesus was embraced by the God of Radical Hospitality, where unconditional love exists for each human because each human’s essence is created by that God. I trust this same God embraces us all. Jesus’ actions and attitudes reflect the character of God that makes sense to me and I try to live. And you?

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is the founder of Elder Advocates. He can be contacted at
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