Luke 11:1-13 invites us to reflect on our mental image of God. A mental image is an internal representation of the world. We form these internal representations over time based upon our perceptions and experiences. For example, we all have mental images of “summer” and “winter,” formed over many years of experiences of the naturally occurring patterns in the weather. Similarly, we all have mental images of a wide variety of things, based upon our perceptions and experiences — schools, grocery stores, hospitals,marriage, the government, the legal system and on and on.
Young children do not yet have these mental images. They form them, gradually, as they have experiences and interact with their environment. It is interesting to note our mental images vary somewhat based upon our experiences. For example, the mental image of “winter” is likely different for someone that grew up in and lives in Alaska as compared to someone who grew up in and lives in Arizona or New Mexico. It is also interesting to observe that one way to think about “mental health” is the degree to which our internal mental images correspond with “objective” reality. A mentally healthy person will have internal images of grocery stores, hospitals, the legal system, etc., that are relatively accurately, whereas a less mentally healthy person will have images that are distorted, if not completely inaccurate. Finally, it is interesting to note that our mental images shape our behavior. How many of us begin to “prepare for winter” even when the weather is still warm and there is no hint of winter in the air?
We all have mental images of God. Like our other mental images , our images of God have been shaped by our perceptions and experiences. These images may be more or less “accurate” (i.e., we may have relatively accurate images of God, or relatively distorted images of God). One sign of genuine growth in the spiritual life is that our image of God gradually changes, and becomes more “accurate.” We may begin to let go of childhood images, perhaps of God as a kind old man with a white beard, like Santa Claus; or perhaps as a mean, punitive judge who is ready and waiting to punish us for every mistake or imperfection, no matter how minor.
But, we are perhaps at a loss here. What is a more “accurate” image of God? What image should be developing and forming as a result of genuine growth in our spiritual lives? Our Gospel reading for today gives us some insight into Jesus' mental image of God. As Jesus has proven to be a meaningful and helpful model of human behavior in so many dimensions of life, perhaps we can also consider his experience as a meaningful and helpful model for us in this dimension. Perhaps we can hold out the mental image of God that Jesus had as the general direction we are moving toward as we grow in the spiritual life.
And, what was the image that Jesus had? We see in our reading today that Jesus referred to God as 'Abba.' Abba is an Aramaic word that most closely translates as “Daddy.” It signifies the close, intimate relationship of a child with her father , as well as the childlike trust that a young child puts in her “daddy.” Later in the reading Jesus states: What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you who are imperfect, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
So, Jesus' image of God was as an intimate, caring, gracious and loving parent. Consider, for a moment, the very best parent that you have ever known; someone who might exhibit to an exemplary degree the combination of unconditional love, appropriate affection, accurate empathy, deep compassion, never failing patience, gentle encouragement — all of those personal characteristics and traits that are part of exemplary parenting. Jesus' image of God is that God is like that person, and more.
Now, let us each consider our own image of God. And, then, let us each consider how close our image of God is to Jesus' image of God. And, realizing that Jesus' image of God was shaped through his experiences (such at his baptism, when he experienced God communicating that Jesus was God's beloved child, in whom God was well pleased), let us each ask God to give us the types of experiences that we need so that our image of God may continue to evolve, and gradually become more and more like Jesus' image of God.
Rev. Thomas Altepeter is an Ecumenical Catholic priest and pastor of St. Clare Ecumenical Catholic Community in Spokane.
He is also a licensed psychologist and has previously served as pastor of an ECC community in Wisconsin, been employed as a university professor, served as a director of a large behavioral health department, and worked in private practice as a psychologist.