We all form ideas of what God is like. Then those ideas control our perception of God and our responses to Him.
Our ideas of what God is like are influenced by our experiences with other people—especially our parents. There is even academic research on the way we form god images and the way those images impact our well-being.
Unfortunately, the people who create our God images are human and imperfect. When we base our God images on the people in our lives, those images will fall painfully short. Let’s consider three examples.
God as an indulgent father
Some people have parents who were indulgent, making minimal demands of them. Those people then carry those experiences into their view of God. Some see God as a person who wants very much for us to like Him. He winks indulgently as we gossip about others, cheat to get ahead, and carelessly break commandments. He makes suggestions about how we should live, but He doesn’t follow through.
The Book of Mormon vividly describes this view of God.
And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God. (2 Nephi 28:8)
God as a stern taskmaster or angry, demanding sovereign
I grew up thinking of God as something of an accountant who kept close track of my good deeds and misdeeds. Since I routinely fell short on my aspirations, I was sure that I was running a terrible deficit in heaven. I was sure that God was disappointed in me and would have to withhold His blessings.
Some see God as a stern judge, continually disappointed and angry at our weaknesses and failings. Even if we make progress in living one of His teachings, He is looking over our shoulder to notice the next time we fall short—which we inevitably do. Those who have experienced relationships in which they felt continual pressure to live up to expectations might be particularly vulnerable to this view of God. As a result, some of us struggle to trust Him or His love for us.
God as indifferent, unavailable, and distracted
Some of us had parents who were busy or distant. We may not have felt valued. Some may feel that they must handle life on their own. They might extend these experiences into their relationship with God. They may think that while God cares about the major aspects of their lives, He isn’t really interested in their day-to-day cares and concerns. Perhaps they believe that while He makes himself available for significant crises, they should not expect Him to become involved in the details of their lives. They feel like they must lean on themselves rather than God.
The Reality—God is a devoted, loving Father who seeks to guide us
While we may imagine the God who indulges, the God who punishes, or the God who cannot be found, the Restoration declares that we have misunderstood God. The truth is that He is so gracious that He would visit a confused 14-year-old, dramatically enlarge the sacred library, weep at His children’s struggles, and show up for each of us in our day-to-day journeys. He is literally the Father of our spirits and is infinitely and eternally invested in us. Terryl Givens suggests that the Restoration “collapses the sacred distance” between God and man. The God described by Joseph Smith is a being who wants to participate actively, lovingly, helpfully, and regularly in our lives. He is committed to blessing us with experience AND bringing us home to His arms.
The fact that the clear teaching of the Restoration is of a devoted, loving God who seeks to guide us does not mean that a typical saint experiences that God. For each of us, discovering the true nature of God is not an academic achievement; it is a personal and progressive revelation. I suspect that the revelatory process is different for each person. Yet, some of my discoveries may be helpful to you on your journey.
1. Experiencing God
I was a naive kid when I departed to Florida for a 2-year mission. I knew almost nothing about theology—but I believed that we Latter-day Saints had an important message. As we taught and loved and served, we experienced God more and more. I remember times of immense joy! As we serve Him and love His children, we are filled. I came to love Him and love His work. But, even after two years teaching and serving, I still knew very little. I just felt deeply that God is amazing, and He loves His children.
The best way to begin learning of God’s true nature is to experience Him. We spend time with Him. We look for His presence in our lives. We see how we feel as we respond to His invitations to serve and grow in our discipleship.
2. Learning to trust Him
Nancy and I started having miscarriages after our Emily was born. We had lots of them. We lost count at 20-something. After the first few, we rallied our spiritual and personal resources. We prayed. We fasted. We got medical input. We got priesthood blessings.
Yet the miscarriages continued. At first, I felt hurt and angry. Why wouldn’t God fix this? Didn’t He care? With time, I discovered a different mindset. I decided to simply trust Him. I decided that He didn’t have to explain things to me. I decided to be grateful for every experience He gave us. That change of mindset—total trust in God—brought immense peace and joy.
To truly come to know God, we learn to trust Him. We remember that our understanding of life is limited while His is infinite. We remember that He has promised to work all things for our good. As we face trials and challenges, we look for His comfort and peace. We seek His friendship even in the face of our struggles.
3. Encircled by His love
I was serving as a bishop in my mid-thirties when I got another major installment of God’s tutoring. A young woman came to see me. She told me a tale of misery, abuse, and ugliness that stunned me. She had been both victim and perpetrator in a stream of awfulness. I could not imagine any hopeful counsel to offer her. It seemed that her only hope was to pray that her life would swiftly end so that the hosts of heaven could sort her out in the spirit world.
The dreaded moment came when she asked me what God would have her do. I heard myself telling her that there were three things God would have her do. I had no idea what they were. Yet, as I heard myself say, “The first one is . . .” words of specific and loving counsel streamed from my soul. Likewise with the second and third message. God had a message of wisdom, encouragement, and love that exceeded anything I could have imagined.
When our meeting concluded and I was alone in the office, I fell to my knees and prayed, “Father, I just didn’t know how much you love your children!” For decades I had believed that He loved all His children—except me. I knew that I regularly acted selfishly and foolishly. I was quite sure that God could not love me until I got more serious about living as I should. God had broken down my stubborn resistance by letting me deliver His message of love to one of His children whose life was a mess.
Lehi’s life summary gained new resonance for me: “But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15).
God invites us to transcend our mortal experience of imperfect people and look into the radiant faces of our Father and our Redeemer.
God had still more lessons for me.
4. Throwing myself on His merits, mercy, and grace
I expected that somewhere in my 40’s I would be settling into spiritual maturity. So, I was disheartened and even distraught when I found that I still made selfish and foolish mistakes. My self-improvement program was failing.
I remember one time in particular. I felt that I had acted foolishly and didn’t know what to do. So, in desperation, I decided to try Alma’s formula. I found a quiet place. I laid on the floor facedown. And I cried from my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” (Alma 36:18). I was stunned by Heaven’s response. Rather than a stern chiding and an injunction to do better, I instantly felt loved, embraced, and lifted up.
I protested. “I should be put in timeout for a decade!” But the love continued, and the message came through: “When you throw yourself on the merits, mercy, and grace of Him who is mighty to save, I wipe you clean. And, when you are clean, I come in and dwell with you.”
God does not ignore our sins. He invites us to come to Him so He can remove them. Satan’s counsel when we make mistakes is to hide ourselves and our sins. God’s invitation is to come to Him, be healed by Him, and be renewed in our covenants. He is our faithful friend.
These four lessons surprised me. God did not operate in the ways I expected. The same may be true for you. Even if you were surrounded by the godliest of people in your childhood, they could not fill you with an understanding of God’s amazingness or the fullness of His love. I invite you to seek after your own lessons in coming to know Him. May you discover many glorious surprises that create a true image of the God who counsels, “be of good cheer, for I will lead you along. The kingdom is yours and the blessings thereof are yours, and the riches of eternity are yours” (D&C 78:18).
As we go to God, He will teach us of His goodness until we rejoice with Ammon:
Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel. (Alma 26:16)
As we open ourselves to loving and trusting—even adoring—God, we will come to know His heart, His goodness, and His beloved face. Experiences with God can help us to create an accurate picture of God that truly represents our gracious, loving, and kind Father in Heaven.
Recommendation: I encourage everyone to read Believing Christ by Stephen Robinson.
Thanks to Barbara Keil and Annie Foster for their insightful help in improving this article.
A few references related to academic work on god images:
Dickie, J., Eshleman, A., Merasco, D., Shepard, A., Wilt, M., & Johnson, M. (1997). Parent-Child Relationships and Children’s Images of God. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36(1), 25-43. doi:10.2307/1387880
Vergote, A., Tamayo, A., Pasquali, L., Bonami, M., Pattyn, M., & Custers, A. (1969). Concept of God and Parental Images. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 8(1), 79-87. doi:10.2307/1385256
Hertel, B., & Donahue, M. (1995). Parental Influences on God Images among Children: Testing Durkheim’s Metaphoric Parallelism. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 34(2), 186-199. doi:10.2307/1386764
Potvin, R. (1977). Adolescent God Images. Review of Religious Research, 19(1), 43-53. doi:10.2307/3509579
Bradshaw, M., Ellison, C. G., & Marcum, J. P. (2010). Attachment to God, Images of God, and Psychological Distress in a Nationwide Sample of Presbyterians. The International journal for the psychology of religion, 20(2), 130–147. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508611003608049
Ali Akbar Haddadi Koohsar, Bagher Ghobary Bonab (2011). Relation Between Quality of Image of God and Mental Health in College Students. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences,
Volume 29, 247-251.