In this post, I’d like to share with you the way I imagine God, the way I attempt to wrap my mind around whatever it is we are referring to when we say that word. This is a task that we rarely undertake. Perhaps we simply assume that we know what we mean. Perhaps others assume the referent of the word “God” cannot be known. In any case, as I describe my own way of making some sense of what this word means, I invite you to contemplate whether this understanding also resonates with you, and where you see important differences. The diversity of our understandings of God is just as important as the task of considering who or what God is, because it is in these diverse images and metaphors that we can come to a greater overall picture of the vastness of the divine life.
I want to begin with Jesus’ words from the gospel according to John, in 10:14: “I know my sheep and my sheep know me. In the same way Abba God knows me and I know God.”
When we consider the great vastness of the divine life and the infinite mystery that accompanies the divine be-ing, those words of Jesus seem utterly scandalous. Just as Jesus’ disciples know him and he knows his disciples, Jesus says, “God knows me, and I know God.” The first part of that sentence, we may not have any trouble with. That God knows us intimately, knows the number of hairs on our heads, knows the ins and outs of our lives, knows the past and holds our future—these ideas we are familiar with, and they comfort us. But to claim that a human being could know God in the same way that we know other human beings is another matter. Almost all of us would agree that God is beyond our understanding. But amidst a resurgence of interest in mysticism and the apophatic, it is also important to recognize our faith that by knowing something about Jesus’s life and message, and through the indwelling of Christ’s Spirit among us, we can know something of God. In Jesus, the divine is present with us in a way that we trust—scandalous though that may be.
Both in this scripture from the gospel according to John and in the beloved Psalm 23, the image of the good shepherd are used. God in the psalm and Jesus in the gospel both provide for their sheep and protect them from danger. This is, of course, a metaphor. God does not have a rod and staff, and we are not sheep. What’s more, we must honestly admit that God does not protect us from all danger. As creatures, we are very vulnerable to poverty, sickness, heartbreak, and death. So after setting out my basic understanding of the word “God,” I will circle back to the meaning of God as our good shepherd.
To my way of thinking, the word “God” refers to the force or energy that is responsible for everything that exists—creation’s existence and preservation—and for the way things are within creation. “God” refers to whatever it is that makes the grass grow just this way, that makes the planets circle in the orbits they do, that makes the apple fall from the tree rather than float away into the air, that makes the sun and moon to rise and set each day. “God” refers to whatever it is that holds this universe together, and that makes things the way they are. But God is not simply a force or energy that could be indistinguishable from the laws of nature. To my mind, God is also personal. “God” refers not just to a something that got this world going and keeps it afloat, but “God” refers to a force of love and wisdom that is active in relation to the whole. While it would be unduly anthropomorphic, in my view, to think of God as “a person,” I do think that God is “personal” in the sense that God intends our good and knows how to achieve our well-being.
When I was in my early 20s, I had the pleasure of serving as a bridesmaid for one of my closest friends in my hometown. Ashley (all names changed to protect anonymity) and I had grown up together, having gone to the same church all of our lives—on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, and at church camps and so on. Ashley was getting married to John, a man she met at college. John had two sisters who were also bridesmaids, and they were even younger than we were—they were in their teens. All of us bridesmaids were getting together at a local restaurant the night before the wedding just to catch up a bit and to get to know each other a little bit better. Ashley, my friend Ruth, and I sat ourselves down at the restaurant and proceeded to catch up. What was new? How was your college graduation? What are you going to do next? We talked for a good twenty minutes, as cars came in and out of the parking lot, and trucks, cars, and other vehicles raced passed the restaurant just beyond the lot. There was no sign of Ashley’s new sisters-in-law. At first, we weren’t too concerned, but after thirty minutes, forty minutes, we started to worry. And then a police officer entered the restaurant. He took off his hat and told Ashley, gently, that the girls had been in a terrible accident on the way there, and that both of them had died at the scene. Our hearts ached. We were in shock, and didn’t know what to do. We quickly dispersed. Ashley went with the officer, who took her to her fiancé and his family. On my way home, I wondered what Ashley and John would do. Would they be forced to turn this wedding into a double funeral? Would they send everyone home and hold a small wedding sometime later? To my utter amazement, John’s family collectively decided that they wanted the wedding to continue. They thought John’s sisters would want it that way, and they wanted to celebrate life even in the midst of death. I honestly can’t imagine, and I suspect they were all in shock. But with the days, months, and years, this family continued to retain their hope and their trust in God. They continued to witness to God’s love and wisdom in their lives, and they continued to believe that God—the one who is responsible for the flittering of butterfly wings and also for the world in which the deaths of their children occurred—that this God still has a heart of love, still wisely intends their good.
I tell this story because I think that whatever we say about God—who or what God is—must be able to be said in the presence of horrors like these. To say that God is the loving and wise energy from whence all of this has come is another way of saying that life, for however long it lasts, is good (cf. Sallie McFague). It is to say that when we feel that everything is chaos, that death and destruction are everywhere, that injustice is on the rise, that diseases are here to stay, that life does not seem worth living; yet we trust deep in our guts and hearts that while it may not be today or tomorrow, while we ourselves or our loved ones might not live to see it, while we may not experience all the joy we would like to experience in this life; we trust that this life is still good. To say that God is the loving and wise force who is responsible for all of this is to indicate that life is worth loving and preserving, and that there is a secure basis for our love of this life. In The Meaning of God, Robert King writes that “the person who says that God is love is not simply declaring [their] adherence to a policy of love; [they are] expressing [their] conviction that there is an ultimate basis for this love” (SCM, 1974: 82).
Further, to say that God is the loving and wise energy who is responsible for the universe in its entire compass also means that God is not “out there,” far away in some unknown realm, but that God is in our midst, in the natural world and even and especially in our human world – in the loving of our neighbors, in the generosity of thankful hearts, in the justice work of activists, in the love between romantic partners, in the friendships that last a lifetime or just a few years. God is here, in the eating of bread and the drinking of wine. The personal force that is responsible for all of life is present here, even among us, at our weddings and at our funerals and all the moments in between.
What then might it mean to say that God is our “Good Shepherd”? Perhaps it is simply to say that God goes with us as a creaturely family, wisely guiding us toward our good. A new metaphor might be needed in a non-rural environment, in which most of us do not know any shepherds or keep any sheep. But the basic meaning remains. For me, “God” refers to the force of love and wisdom that is responsible for all of creation and is active in bringing about its well-being. This way of making sense of the word might speak to you as well, or perhaps not. In either case, taking a few moments to try to state as clearly as possible what the word “God” means for you is an exercise worth undertaking, and I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments on this post.