Ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God has hidden himself from humanity. This has led humanity to resort to its own devices to portray God. At first glance it seems that this poses a great challenge: instead of God being available to us and knowable, He seems remote and inaccessible. We quickly learn that the image of an old man with a long beard that we had a child is inadequate to say the least.
Yet, we long for a concrete image of the One we are told to love above all things. Even paintings or literary and film representations of Jesus – God made physical, perceivable man – are usually inadequate, or only offer a snapshot of one moment that is hard to extrapolate from. The goal is not just to know about God, but to love him, and at most we can only appreciate a work of art that depicts God – you can’t show your love for a painting in the same way as you can for a person. Yet, if we try to give God attributes like “kind”, they seem too simple, too human, and capture only a fraction of who God is. But, if we give up any attempt to describe God in specific terms and opt for a completely abstract version of Him as a “perfect substance”, we still tend towards words like “vast” and “formless,” and risk ending up with what C.S. Lewis says is a vision of tapioca pudding. Rather than trying to tell about God directly, we may have more success with showing indirectly, through symbols and metaphors.
Symbols and metaphors don’t simply exist in novels written by people, but in the real world and its history, which is written by God. He appears as a burning bush that is not consumed by flames, a dove that flies over Jesus at his baptism, and a blinding light to Saul. Symbols are rich and versatile, and can give us insight into God’s complexity and power to be all things. He is awe inspiring and lively like fire, stunning as symbolized by the light that brought truth to Saul, and peaceful like a dove. Once God takes human form He does not offer symbols but a myriad of metaphors for Himself and His relationship to humanity. He is the bread of life, the good shepherd, He is the vine and we are the branches. These natural metaphors were accessible to the farmers, shepherds, and fishermen of Jesus’ time. They show that God can nourish and guide us, and that as extensions of God, through our faith we will “bear much fruit.” Perhaps most profoundly, Jesus tells his disciples about the necessity of His death long before they understand when he says, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). This metaphor explains the nature of Jesus’ sacrificial love for all of humanity: Jesus died to overcome sin and death so that everyone could live.
If we want an image of God we need look no further than the person closest to us, for God created man in His image. Unlike a work of art that depicts God, a person is a living being with which we can interact and to which we can show love. Humanity’s diversity and abundance shows us God’s creativity and fertile love. Jesus tells his disciples that God will honor those in heaven who showed love to people on earth saying, “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me’” (Matthew 25:35-36). He explains this by saying, “to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” Matthew 25:40. This is not just a list of specific instructions, but a revelation: There is no need to draw up an image of God or lament that we cannot show Him love because He is not tangible because there are billions of images and opportunities to show love on earth. The answer is simple – Victor Hugo wrote “to love another person is to see the face of God.”