How We Imagine God Matters
It's normal to personify God in worship and devotion. But we shouldn't take these personifications literally
From beginning to end, the Bible is the story of God.
Of course, the Bible is not God's story of God. Rather, the Hebrew Bible is ancient Israel's story of God, and the New Testament is the early Christian movement's story of God, especially as revealed in Jesus.
How did these two ancient communities see the central character in their story? How did they imagine God, and God's relationship to the world?
The Bible does not provide a simple answer, but instead imagines God in two very different ways that stand in tension with each other.
On one hand, the Bible often uses personal imagery to speak of God. God is spoken of in anthropomorphic images as being like a person: God as king, lord, father, mother, warrior shepherd, and potter, to cite a partial list.
The sheer number of images points to the fact that they are metaphors. God is not literally any of these, but is like a king, like a parent, like a warrior, like a shepherd, and so forth.
But when we take these anthropomorphic metaphors literally, we generate a way of seeing God commonly called "supernatural theism." That is, we see God as someone "out there" who created the universe a long time ago as something separate from God.
God's relationship to the universe is seen this way: from "out there," God occasionally intervenes, especially in the more dramatic events reported in the Bible. And most of the time, God is not "here," but "out there." God is "our father" who is "in heaven," to echo familiar words.
On the other hand, the Bible also describes God's relationship to the universe as "right here" as well as "more" than right here. This way of imagining God sees the deity as the encompassing Spirit: a non-material dimension of reality that surrounds us and everything around us.
Acts 17:28 describes God this way. In words attributed to Paul, God is "the one in whom we live and move and have our being." God is not somewhere else, but all around us: we live and move "in God."
The same can be said for Psalm 139. The psalmist asks, "Whither shall I flee from thy Spirit?" He then imagines journeying through the ancient three-story universe: ascending into the heavens, descending into Sheol and traveling to the furthest corners of the earth. His refrain about God is constant: "You are there."
How is that possible? Because there is no place we can be outside of God.
Some of the meanings of the biblical words for "spirit" also suggest this same way of seeing God. In both Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma), the words which we translate as Spirit also mean "wind" and "breath."