(Note: this is a slightly edited version of a post first published in December 2013.)
When I was a child, long before I came to faith, I used to imagine God in one of two ways. Sometimes, I would think of Him as a disembodied, all-pervading force that was mainly benevolent, always mysterious and sometimes capricious. Other times, I saw Him as an old man up there in heaven, kindly enough if you caught Him in the right mood, but equally prone to crankiness if you didn’t.
You may have noticed that these two childish but still very prevalent views of God share a common thread: in both of them, God is distant and remote. We are down here and He is up there, and that’s just the way it is.
Now, if you’re a long-time believer, you might well scoff at these uninformed, immature pictures of God. But the truth is that images formed in childhood have tremendous power, and often continue to influence how we relate to God and each other throughout our lives.
Seeing God in these kinds of ways – detached and aloof – tends to force us into a certain posture towards Him. Prayer becomes either an attempt to shout loud enough to catch His ear or an effort to strike the right tone and say the right things to impress Him into giving us what we want. Salvation becomes a momentary event in which He reaches down and slides us across from the “lost” camp into the “saved” camp before returning to whatever He was occupied with before. And the Christian life becomes an ongoing process of trying to second-guess His moods, decipher His will and stay on His good side.
This may sound like a caricature, but I would submit that it is, in fact, a reasonably accurate portrait of how many of us go about our Christian lives much of the time.