The Otherness of God

Reflected Tree

How knowable is God? How like God can we be? If we are in the image of God then why do we seem so unlike God much of the time?

As human beings, we are created in God’s image and designed to bear that image, somehow reflecting God to all around us. By our likeness to God we are to make God known to the world. In Christ we are to grow in likeness to the one who is the perfect image of God in man. But, is this a simple linear development? At what point do we stop taking on God’s qualities?

God is different from us. As well as being revealed to us in creation and most specifically in Jesus, God is at the same time also concealed from us. God is not a man, nor is God a physical entity like anything we know from our experience of the world. We can never fully understand or know God as our minds are just too small.

Theology is built on a great deal of analogy and expanded metaphor. God is said or shown to be like something we know, but then the boundaries of our previous knowledge are shown to be too small when we come to consider God. We can understand something of “love”, but when God is said to be “love”, this challenges our pictures of love. In what sense is the love of God like or unlike our experiences? There is both a sense that, yes God is like this, but God is also so much more.

Each metaphor, each analogy or image can help shed light on who God is. Yet, because they are limited not only by our humanity but by our cultures and even our personal thought processes they fall short. For example, God is like a loving father, but at the same time God isn’t a loving father in the sense that we have ever known. Likewise, God is like a king, but also unlike our ideas of what it means to be a king.

The potential danger behind the very useful side to Christian spirituality that speaks about us being like God and growing into God’s likeness further is that we think we’ve got God figured out too much. Little room may be left for mystery. It is problematic simply to take human concepts or attributes and assume that God is just a nice neat version of them. It is dangerous to assume that we can become so God-like that we no longer see the distinction between Creator and the created.

So, perhaps we might benefit from bringing a little doubt into our theology, allowing room to say “I don’t know” and space for God to move outside of the boxes we try to put everything in. Maybe we could say that as an image of God, we are a little like a reflection in a river. We will never be the real thing, but depending on how good the conditions are, we can bear a good resemblance.

Yes, the water will be disturbed sometimes and the reflection become less distinct. But, even when blurred, it is still a reflection of the reality that lies beyond. At the same time, the reflection may reveal much of the truth, but it will always be just a reflection. It is like but also unlike the original.

How happy are you with the idea of aspects of God being unknowable? Can you see how using metaphors and analogies brings clarity yet also leaves openness with unresolved tensions? Do you think that your ways of thinking about God are too limited, too human or do you perhaps worry that you stress the otherness of God so much that you feel you don’t know God at all?

© Joe Lenton, March 2013

(Image – “Reflected Tree” – used with permission –

Called to be you

Vocation/calling is a concept that often plagues us. Some might be tempted to dismiss the idea as relevant only to those who are to work in “full-time church ministry”. Others of us may spend anxious hours worrying over the possibility that we somehow missed our vocation, failing to hear God’s call at some point and so doomed to a second-rate life.

The Bible does indeed contain many stories of individuals who heard and responded to a “call” from God to go and do something specific. But, this doesn’t exhaust the idea of what we might understand as “calling/vocation”. It is something that seems to manifest itself on both broad, general levels as well as the more specific. We are “called” to be human beings in the image of God, followers of Christ and pointers to the new creation as well as to our own individual roles.

Once again, our individualistic culture tends to encourage us to think of vocation in individual terms – it is all about me. We also can get caught up in focussing too heavily on its possible relation to tasks – what we are to do. Whilst it is true that tasks and our personal roles matter and can be considered part of vocation, they do not tell the whole story.

The first notion of vocation in the Bible comes in the creation story in the opening chapters of Genesis. Human beings are made in God’s image and tasked with looking after the Earth. Now, we might easily recognise the instructions given by God as a kind of vocation, but what about being in the image of God? Is our nature our vocation?

In one sense, we already are in the image of God; it is part of who we are. Yet, in another sense, it is something we are to aspire to be; it is something we can fall short of. By our choices, we can either become more truly that which we were created to be, or allow that image, that vocation, to wither and become difficult to recognise.

Being in the image of God is a common human vocation, not just an individual one. It is something for all of us to learn about and seek to maintain and grow in to. There is a strange paradoxical sounding element to this, but it is one that re-emerges in the New Testament and is important to begin to grasp; we are to become what we already are.

Moving into Paul’s letters, we often find passages that base their reasons for doing or not doing certain things on this kind of argument. For example, in Colossians 3:1ff, Paul says that as believers have been raised with Christ they ought to think and behave in ways that reflect that. Similarly, in Romans 8, the readers are said to be in the realm of the Spirit, yet are still encouraged to live accordingly. There is a sense in which Paul is encouraging people to become more fully that which they already are.

Ethics and the idea of character formation are certainly not to be excluded from the concept of vocation. God is not interested in simply getting a bunch of tasks done and recruiting us to help. Our calling, first and foremost, is to be or to become more like our God as revealed in Christ by the Spirit’s power. This is a common calling that we learn about and live out together.

All of this comes before we even start considering the idea of individual calling to specific roles. We have a foundation of our calling to be in the image of God and to become what we already are in Christ that we need in place to give our own individuality, our own particular vocations a solid platform.

What if we feel that we haven’t ever had a “call” from God? Well, as we’ve seen, there are plenty of things to get on with being and doing which are all part of our common vocations. Nobody can say they are truly without vocation as that would say that God asks nothing whatsoever of them.

One possible reason that we might not sense God calling us to something is that we are doing ok and don’t need a drastic change. Another might be that the “call” is more subtle, perhaps, or coming in a way that we don’t recognise as a vocation. For example, perhaps you find certain tasks easy and can take it for granted that you can do them well. Maybe you have a real passion for something which has encouraged you to spend more time doing it. These could be ways in which God is revealing to you who you are.

Rather than being suspicious of our desires, maybe we need to reconnect with them to discover more about the people God has made us to be. Not all desires are sinful by any means. Many can reveal facets of our personalities, areas of concern where we may be more effective, or latent skills waiting to bubble up and be discovered.

It is important to remember too that vocation need not be tied up with earning money. In many cases this will be the case, but it is not always so. For a start, some of us may be called away from paid employment to do other things. Moreover, it is possible to have more than one “gift” or “vocation” and use them in different contexts, some of which may be employment related whilst others are not.

If we equate vocation with paid work or a lifelong career then we risk getting very frustrated at God. If we are waiting for a particular life-changing task that we have been made to do then we also risk missing the point. God is calling us first of all to be someone. Yes, that does involve doing, of course, but it prioritises character over tasks. It is also something we can and should be getting on with every day, not just waiting for a bolt from the blue to orientate our lives in a new direction.

Perhaps, as with our vocation to God’s image and Christ’s likeness, our own vocations can be discovered as we find out more about our nature. We are made to be human – we are called to be human. We are in Christ and part of the new creation – we are called to act like it! What has God made you to be? He is calling you to be you.

© Joe Lenton, February 2013

Working like God

In the opening chapters of Genesis humanity’s dignity and pride of place in creation is affirmed – we are described as being “in God’s image”. We are also created to be workers, whose job is to rule over other creatures and till the land. In some sense, we might say we are “co-creators”. We establish and maintain order as God did and does, making it possible for life to flourish as God intended.

If we are indeed created in God’s image and to be workers, what might work in God’s image look like?

Firstly, it could suggest that work is something that is done in community. God as Trinity is one but also “communal”. Human beings are in God’s image together as men and women, not simply on our own.

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27, ESV, emphasis added)

Similarly, humans are not designed to function as islands, but to be together:

“The Lord God said, “It isn’t good for the man to live alone.”” (Genesis 2:18, CEV)

So, perhaps the first thing we might say about working in God’s image is that it means work should not always or primarily be viewed as something we do on our own. It is important for people to work together and to understand that the greatest tasks we have been given by God can only be fulfilled corporately. We all have individual parts to play, but work is healthier in community of some kind (e.g. in teams).

Secondly, the creation account of Genesis 1 suggests very strongly that God is a God of order. He assigns each element of His creation a particular place and role, bringing a sense of order out of the primeval chaos. The God of the Bible is not chaotic.

This suggests that some structure to our work is useful. We should be establishing and maintaining order in this world and need structure ourselves to do so. This is not a rigid, inflexible order that stifles, but one that enables creation to flourish. Chaos and randomness are not God-like qualities, so working like Him would involve some sense of bringing about a benevolent order that benefits all.

Thirdly, God is a creative God who brings about new things and enables His creatures to flourish. This might suggest that our work could and should involve creativity in various forms. We can bring “new things” into being, whether they are ideas or objects, following in the creative footsteps of our God.

Work that removes all possibility of creativity is, therefore, dehumanising. If we are simply cogs in a machine, slaves to procedures, not allowed to think outside the box or do anything other than repeat what we have always done, we will not be acting in God’s image and be fully human.

So, we might say that healthy work environments require (amongst other things, this is not an exhaustive list!) some degree of communal/team work, a sense of order and structure as well as the freedom to be creative.

What do you think? Is this your experience of work? When one or more elements are missing, how has it affected your work?

© Joe Lenton, October 2012