Faith and Life - What is God Like?
What's your picture of God?
Sometimes children at school are asked to draw a picture of God. If you have any teachers in your group they may be able to share some personal memories of the pictures resulting from such an exercise. Not surprisingly, the children find it difficult. Often an 'old man in the clouds' is the result.
Christians often use familiar biblical words to describe God. They are a kind of shorthand. We sometimes become so familiar with them that we forget what they really mean. Let's try to get behind the words to a real understanding of God. Take a moment to think about how you would describe God, and then share your descriptions. Try to avoid familiar or biblical words. Imagine you are trying to describe God to someone with no knowledge of the Bible.
God in the Old Testament
The attitude people have towards God and especially the name they give him tells us a lot about what they believe about him. You will need a Bible for this bit. We are going to look up some Old Testament passages which use different names for God. Look them up one at a time and after each one ask 'What picture or image of God does this name convey?' Share your observations as you work through the list.
Exodus 3:1-6, 13-15
How many names for God are here? What does each one tell us about him?
What does this tell us about God?
Deuteronomy 32:3&4, 39
Remember that it's people's experience of God that shapes the way they describe him.
Almost all his prophecies begin with, or contain, the words 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says...' you can thumb through the book and see how many you can find! What does this title tell us about the way that Ezekiel thought about God?
What's in a name?
Does it really matter what we call God?
In biblical times a person's name had particular significance. It was not just what they were called. It was meant to convey something of the person's nature or character. Something of this is still with us. Most of us have, in our minds, a picture of the kind of character which ought to go with a particular name. Sometimes we meet people whose name and character do not seem to fit. 'She's not a Mildred', we say.
In Genesis 32:22-32 we see Jacob wresting all night with a mysterious stranger. The demand to know his name was expressing a desire to know his nature. We must understand John 14:14 and similar verses in this way. To ask in the name of Jesus is to ask according to his nature or character. The biblical names for God tell us a lot about how people thought about him
How did Jesus speak about God?
It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus stood in a unique, personal relationship with God. He spoke of God in a new way which demanded a revolution in people's thinking. By the time he was twelve years old he was referring to God as his Father (Luke 2:49). When he prayed he called God 'Father' (Luke 10:21). A quick scan through any of the Gospels reveals that Jesus saw himself in a most intimate relationship with God. It was this one thing, more than any other, which led to the conspiracy that resulted in his death (John 5:18).
Further, in his teaching Jesus spoke of God as the Father of the ordinary people who were listening to him speak (Luke 11:13, 12:30,32). When his disciples asked him to teach them to pray he told them to say 'Our Father...' (Matt 6:9).
Was Jesus suggesting that everyone could have the kind of relationship with God which he had?
It is clear that the way in which Jesus spoke of God as 'Father' set the tone for the rest of the New Testament writers. Paul clearly sees this kind of relationship with God as a possibility for every Christian (Romans 8:15&16).
Facing the problems
To speak of God as 'Father' in a 21st century Western culture is not without its difficulties. For some the problem is that 'father' is a male term. Others have suffered bad relationships with their natural fathers and so their concept of fatherhood is damaged. There is always the danger of losing a sense of the holiness and majesty of God, even becoming 'chummy' with him.
Are these problems real for members of the group? If they are not real for us personally, how sensitive do we need to be to others within the local church? To what extent should we modify our language in order to avoid causing hurt to others?
You and him - and them!
When Jesus taught his followers to pray 'Our Father...' he was indicating not only a new kind of relationship with God, but also a new kind of relationship between the disciples. The Lord's Prayer is all in the plural - us and our, not me and mine. When individuals from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures know God as Father it establishes a new relationship between them. If God is our Father, then we are siblings; so don't let's feel embarrassed about calling each other 'brother' and 'sister', for that is what God has made us.
Some questions to consider (if you have time)
- Do you think of God as awesome, to be revered, or approachable, offering his friendship?
- The balance between God's holiness and approachability is a delicate one. How do we preserve this balance in our private devotions and public worship?
- The Bible has other pictures or metaphors for God. Can you think of any which you have found particularly helpful? You may want to make a list of the various titles that the biblical writers give to God. Psalm 23 may be a good starting point.