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The God of Head and Heart

It’s hard to get our heads around God . . . 

When you think of God, what images come to mind? An old man with a beard? A beautiful creation scene? Michelangelo’s depiction of God reaching down to create Adam? What images of God do you envision

When you pray, what names for God do you use? Father, Creator, Jesus, Son, Redeemer, Spirit of Love? What are your favorite names for God?

The movie The Shack depicts God in some surprising ways. In some scenes “Papa” is depicted as a black woman played by Octavia Spencer. In other scenes, Papa is male – portrayed by Graham Greene. The shifting images make us think and evoke emotional responses that may intrigue or even jar us.

Names and images count. Jesus refers to God as “Abba” – depicting an intimacy that today we might translate as “Dad” or even “Daddy.” As a child, my notion of God as Father or Dad was problematic because of the issues I had with my own father. I knew he loved me, but when alcoholism took control of his life, he was largely unavailable and unapproachable. Even during his attempts at recovery, our relationship was an awkward mix of love and uncertainty.

The God I related to during my childhood was concerned with rules, obedience, and wanting me to be a “good boy.” I thought God, my parents, and Santa Claus all worked together – making a list, checking it twice, and deciding whether I was naughty or nice. My own desire to be accepted and loved led to following the rules and trying to be good. Without realizing it, I was living with a too-small view of God.

When our view of God is too small, there are several ways we can respond. One is holding on to our too-small view and letting it stunt our spiritual growth. Another is rejecting that view and with it any effort to cultivate a relationship with God. The third response is asking questions that launch a quest to discover a more compelling and meaningful understanding of God.

I tried the first two responses: first clinging to a small notion of God and then avoiding any effort to cultivate a relationship with God. Both left me empty and unsatisfied. Somehow, I was given a spiritual gift. For some wonderful yet mysterious reason, I opted for the quest to find a more compelling notion of God. As a young adult, I began to take a more in-depth look at Jesus and the God that he reveals. Along the way, I found myself identifying with Nicodemus.

A number of Gospel stories depict people struggling to understand God, but Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus is unique. (John 3: 1-15) Like me, Nicodemus was struggling to get his head around God. His experience of Jesus had both confused and intrigued him.  He saw the signs that Jesus performed and recognized that “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” But he had all kinds of questions.

Nicodemus wasn’t about to go public with his questions, so he went to Jesus at night. During their meeting, Jesus used images to describe the kingdom of God that left Nicodemus baffled. Jesus told him: “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” The too-literal Nicodemus questioned how someone who has grown old can once again enter his mother’s womb. In the encounter, we see a teacher using images to stretch Nicodemus’ thinking. In contrast, we see Nicodemus’ failure to grasp Jesus’ meaning. Rather than explaining his first image, Jesus used others: being born with water and the spirit . . . and the wind blowing where it will. Jesus repeatedly tried to open Nicodemus to a new way of seeing, but Nicodemus can’t get his head around it. He’s left with a vexing question: “How can these things be?” 

What Nicodemus and I have in common is looking for the God of our heads – a way of grasping the nature of God and understanding who God is. While that is an element of the search for a compelling and meaningful notion of God, it is not enough. Both Nicodemus and I need to move beyond our literalism and open our minds to images and mystery. Then, we need to take an even harder step. We need to join G.K. Chesterton when he urges: “Let religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”

The search for the “God of our head” can keep us thinking and analyzing. It can lead us to struggle with theory, dogma, and theology. While these have their place, authentic discipleship is a love affair that is rooted in our hearts. It involves passion, commitment, and love. Ultimately, our search is for the “God of our heart.” We are called to entrust our hearts to God and embrace wholehearted surrender.

My lifelong spiritual journey has become a quest that engages both my head and my heart. Along the way, I’ve come to realize that my heart and my head can be in different places. I may be able to “think of God” as merciful, forgiving, and loving. Yet, at a deep, emotional heart-level, I’m still afraid of entrusting the broken places within me to healing and reconciliation. The God of my head is starting to get it, but the God of my heart is still hanging back.

The gap between my head and my heart is in me, not in God. My mental image of God is one thing, my emotional readiness to accept the divine presence is quite another. God isn’t holding back; I am.

When we experience a gap between the God of our head and the God of our heart, we need to be patient with all that is unsettled within us. The God Jesus reveals is ready when we are – waiting and watching like the prodigal’s father. (Luke 11: 15-32) God dwells deep within us – infinitely patient, understanding our hesitation, and waiting until we are ready.

The quest for God requires engaging both our head and our heart. Our minds seek divine wisdom, yet we need to acknowledge that God will always be beyond our comprehension. Our hearts long for a love that is unconditional and never ending, so we will never be satisfied until we rest in God. As disciples, our lifelong spiritual journey calls us time and again leave our too small notions of God behind. It calls us – head, heart, and whole self – to embrace discipleship as a love affair. The spiritual journey urges us to let God permeate our entire being and every aspect of our lives. It draws us ever deeper into the divine presence with our whole mind, our whole heart, and our whole being.

Questions to Ponder

Here are some questions to help you reflect on the God of both head and heart.

  • What images of God are most meaningful to you?
  • What names of God do you evoke in prayer?
  • In what ways do you experience a gap between how you think of God and the deep emotional feelings you have about God?
  • In what ways do you need to be patient with your heart and all that is unsettled within you?
  • How does your quest for God engage both your head and your heart?
  • How are you being called to:
    • Leave your too small notions of God behind?
    • Embrace discipleship as a love affair?
    • Commit your mind, your heart, and your whole being to God?