Why Your Mental Image of God Matters So Much

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What is it you love about your best friend? Why did you pick your spouse? That may be complicated, but it’s safe to say you had (have) a positive mental picture of your spouse or friend. You know they’re not perfect, but what you noticed and focused on made the difference. Your mental image of God matters even more. (And He is perfect.)

Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38) You can only love God with that wholeheartedness if you see Him as good – all the time. And I hope you do.

But if part of your mental image of God is that He is in some ways not good, your heart will be divided. You’ll see bad things that happen as evidence that God is absent, or powerless, or vindictive. When you mess up you’ll run away from Him instead of to Him. You won’t trust Him when He tells you something you don’t want to hear.

Intellectual knowledge about God is important, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the God you see when you think of Him, the mental image that comes to mind. If that mental image of God and your intellectual “beliefs” about God are in conflict, you’ll respond in line with your mental image of Him every time things get rocky.

So I invite you to examine what you think about God – not what you’re supposed to think, but what your heart imagines when the idea of God presents itself to your mind.

Where Your Mental Image of God Comes From

For almost all of us, our first mental image of God is very similar to our earthly father. If your father was absent or unavailable, you’ll see God the same way. If he was performance oriented, always pushing you and punishing you when you didn’t measure up, the God in your mind will be the same. Or if you were blessed with a father who believed in you and prepared you well for life, you’ll find it relatively easy to experience God like that too.

Then of course comes your experience with others who spoke in the name of God, or who represented God to you. I heard from a young woman this week whose pastor publicly paraded her sins in front of their church; is it any wonder she struggles to want to be close to God? Or the young man I talked with a couple days ago who vacillates between feeling overwhelming condemnation and congratulatory self-righteousness depending on how well he’s currently managing the sin list his church espouses.

Especially tragic are the countless people who have been abused and harmed in the name of God. When God-talk is mixed up with exploitation, manipulation, or abuse of power it exponentially complicates the path to healing.

As Dr. Diane Langberg said in a recent conversation we had about spiritual abuse of authority, “Such a person needs a new God.”    Tweet that.

It’s not “God” who needs to be different; it’s your mental image of God that is faulty. Who you imagine when you think God may need to be dismantled. You may need to meet the true God for the very first time.

You Become Like Who You Worship

A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. … We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.”

Said another way, we become like the One we worship and admire.   Tweet that.

If your God, or more correctly your mental image of God, is unreliable, unavailable, quick to punish wrong, demanding, or strange, you’ll become like that too.

But if you come to know the real God more and more, who loves you unconditionally just the way you are, and who also loves you too much to let you stay that way, that’s the kind of person you will become.

Perhaps my favorite verse in all of Scripture is this: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

As we look at Jesus more, we become more like Him. As we hang out in the presence of God, our inner being becomes changed.

Growing a Right Mental Image of God

So take some time to evaluate your mental image of God. Does it line up with what is true?

If you see God the Father as absent, or vindictive, just waiting for you to mess up, if, as one of my friends struggles with, you see Jesus as giving you endless tasks to do, who will exploit you for His pleasure, if you see the Holy Spirit as weird, ready to take over your mind and body and make you a joke, you need a new God.

You may need to unpack your mental image of God with a trustworthy person who has been walking with God themselves. Look for someone who you would like to be more like, whose “goodness” is not a defensive cloak but is an attractive fragrance. Talk with them if you can. Follow them as they follow Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1) This may be a long journey. Know that God is patient with you.

Only when you have a mental image of God that lines up with who He truly is will you be able to love Him wholeheartedly.

And you’ll also be able to attract others to Him by who you are. It will be able to be said of you what God said to Job’s friends about Job: “for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7)

Wouldn’t you love to be able to say of God what is right?

Your Turn: What is your mental image of God? How do you think it effects your life currently? Leave a comment below.

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  • Your mental image of God makes all the difference. You will only love God wholeheartedly if you see Him as He is. Does your mental image of God line up with reality? Tweet that.

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