What Does Your God Look Like?
Regardless of our religion or lack thereof, most of us have an image of God. For some, it’s a benevolent older man—maybe surrounded by clouds and lots of sunlight. For others, it’s a more of a disciplinarian—maybe God has a direct gaze and there are some lightning bolts thrown in. Boston-based therapist Aimee Falchuk calls this our god image. The third god image that’s common, says Falchuk, is God as aloof or absent. And she believes that most of us form these images of God very early in childhood. The images, Falchuk finds, are projections of our early beliefs about authority, which we develop based on our experiences with the first authority figures in our lives—often our parents.
God images are adaptive—they help us make sense of the world, bring structure to it, and manage the pain of the human condition. But Falchuk says that these images can also be incredibly limiting if we let them color our life without examining the feelings that gave rise to them, feelings that we may have worked very hard to contain. For Falchuk, confronting her god image was one of the most difficult—and liberating—experiences of her life.
A Q&A with Aimee Falchuk
We project our experience with authority onto an idea of God. Our parents are typically our first experience with authority. And we often extend this experience to God, whom we may understand as the ultimate authority. It’s not just parental influence that forms our god image, though. Other environmental influences can be political, economic, and religious.
If we view authority as permissive or indulgent, we may form an image of God as permissive and indulgent, a god that is giving. If our experience with authority feels authoritarian or punitive, we may form an image of a punitive and abandoning god. Or if authority feels absent from our life, we may form an image of an aloof or absent god, a god that is not attentive or simply not there. These images are important to bring to consciousness as they often influence how we feel and act throughout life.
An image is a belief—a conclusion or generalization about ourselves or others or life that is often formed in childhood. As an example, a child who gets love and affection from a parent when they succeed at something may believe that in order to be loved, they must achieve. The image they form shows that love is conditional. Another child may experience some form of rejection or abandonment if they express anger or assert themselves. The image of the relationship they form might be that it is me OR you rather than me AND you. To be in the relationship, the child thinks they must give themselves up.
“They instead internalize the experience and come up with the most logical explanation they have the capacity to form. In this way, image forming can be seen as a survival strategy—a way to manage the pain of experience.”
These images are not totally devoid of logic. The child experienced the affection or rejection of the caregiver. The associations were actually experienced. It is the conclusion and generalization about life that is erroneous and limiting. But children need a way to explain the unexplainable. And they don’t have the consciousness to understand the limitations of their caregivers. They instead internalize the experience and come up with the most logical explanation they have the capacity to form. In this way, image forming can be seen as a survival strategy—a way to manage the pain of experience.
Our images are not conscious until they are unearthed through a process of self-confrontation and discovery. This process includes exploring patterns in our lives, where we seem to repeat experiences that create unease and problems in our lives. It asks us to look at where our beliefs feel fixed. In the absence of an image, our thinking is flexible and dynamic. With a fixed image, it is static and inflexible. You are most likely in the throes of your images if you find yourself saying something like: This is just how it is. Love is conditional. There is room for only one person in a relationship.
Indulgent or Permissive God
If you see authority as indulgent or permissive, this image might make you less fearful in life—for God is friendly and gives you stuff.
There is a shadow side of this, though. That might be a sense of entitlement that leads to a certain lack of personal responsibility in life. An energetic or spiritual laziness can emerge. On some level, we know better: that there is a spiritual law of personal responsibility, that our life is ours to make something of. This inner knowing can lead to feelings of guilt or insecurity. Questions arise, like: Have I really earned what I have?
When the reality of life happens, when life isn’t so permissive or giving, when there is hardship, it may not land well. There may be confusion and frustration if your resilience and tolerance to discomfort are low. You might find yourself easily ungrounded.
Punitive or Unjust God
If our experience of authority was punitive or unjust, we may form an image of God as punitive or unjust. The Pathwork—a series of spiritual lectures that inform my work—refers to this as the Monster God. The image of the Monster God may be one that keeps score, watching us to make sure we are good all the time.
We may have a fear and mistrust of life. Unlike the person who has an image of God as indulgent or permissive—who may therefore shirk responsibility—the person with the Monster God image may be overly responsible. If they’re not responsible, they fear they’ll be punished. They may live more from their idealized image or their superego, fearing that anything short of that will result in retribution or abandonment.
Aloof or Absent God
A child whose experience of authority was one of absence may form this image. They feel like no one is in charge—that life is totally random. This person may be controlling or develop compulsions to create some semblance of order. They may feel unsupported or that they are in this alone. That they are not supported by something greater than themselves.
My interpretation, which draws from Pathwork, is that our god image is dependent on our understanding and acceptance of the spiritual laws of cause and effect and personal responsibility. If we understand these laws, we are less apt to blame our god image when life doesn’t go our way. If I am not willing to look at my part—if I am not willing to actively see where I am creating my circumstances—then I will tend to seek blame. This could be blaming myself, someone else, or God.
“With the disillusionment of god images, we experience the disappointment of discovering that something is not what we believed it to be.”
Here’s a personal example: When it came to intimacy and relationships, and more specifically to being chosen, my belief was: God didn’t want me to have that. My image of God was a man who was a scorekeeper. He was busy and aloof. God had minions whom he would tell, “Give her anything she wants, just not that.” So off I went into the world feeling frustrated and confused by God’s decision to withhold the opportunity to experience intimacy.
As time went on and I experienced a pattern of disappointments in my relationships, I started to explore my part in it all. I felt trapped in this belief that God was withholding. There was no way out of that trap except to keep bettering myself so that I might convince this God that I was worthy of being chosen. And this strategy wasn’t working—all it did was wear me out and make me resentful of the constant need to prove myself.
Finally, I started on a different path where I began to discover my own withholding, my own resistance, my own inability to receive. I discovered inner conflicts about intimacy. And I discovered all sorts of beliefs I held about intimacy—that it would take away my freedom, that I would be exposed for my humanness, that it would be humiliating. I discovered that to be intimate, I would have to accept that to love would also mean that I would one day lose, and I didn’t want to feel the pain of that.
As I separated myself from this image of God and examined my beliefs, it became apparent that it wasn’t God that was keeping me from intimacy. It was me that was keeping me from intimacy. The question wasn’t how God was obstructing my light and life but how was I obstructing light and life.
Dissolving our god image is not just an intellectual exercise. It’s also, and perhaps mostly, an emotional and energetic one. As we let go of the concept of our god image, we likely come into contact with deep feelings. We need to feel those feelings that formed our god image. We have to let ourselves feel whatever the image helped us manage or contain. This often includes rage, terror, sadness, grief, despair, and disillusionment.
With the disillusionment of god images, we experience the disappointment of discovering that something is not what we believed it to be. Disillusionment can be one of the most significant yet perhaps most painful, difficult, and disorienting periods in our awakening. It is the place where our images are shattered. Even though the images were distorted, they created a certain world order, a structure of sorts. And structure provides a sense of safety. In the phase of disillusionment, there is great uncertainty. All the things our image had us busy feeling, doing, and chasing are no longer applicable.
Energetically, disillusionment can feel frenetic and ungrounded. It can feel like shock. It can feel like there is nothing but hopelessness and pointlessness. It can feel like you can’t even be in your own skin. It challenges our faith.
If we can stay in the discomfort—soliciting the support we need from therapy and others and connecting to certain truths we know we can trust in our lives—we can climb out of our disillusionment.
I have come to believe in the Pathwork’s description of God as “a current of electricity with supreme intelligence.” How I use that current is up to me. My free will gives me the choice to use it toward creation or destruction, toward connection or separation, toward my evolution or regression or stagnation.
My god image is slowly being replaced with the symbol of energy, a power current. Now I tend to ask myself more: What do I want to do with this energy I’ve been given? I don’t place as much blame or feel victimized by an aloof and withholding god. I see now that the power current is my life force, and what I do with it is dependent on my level of consciousness. The more distorted my consciousness—in the form of fixed images or thinking—the more likely I will misuse or abuse this current of energy.
“As we mature into our adult selves, we no longer see others, including God, as being there to serve our needs.”
There is a great deal of narcissism in our god images. It is the narcissism of the child. Children think they are the center of the universe and have not fully distinguished self from other. Dissolving the god image is therefore part of the process of healing the narcissistic wound, which allows for our individuation and maturation. And as we mature into our adult selves, we no longer see others, including God, as being there to serve our needs. Instead, we begin to see mutual relationships as part of a larger awakening.
Draw it—put your image of God to paper. Ask: Where did that image come from? Who influenced this image? How does that image mesh with your experiences with authority like parents and teachers?
How does this image affect your behavior? How does this image affect your relationship with life—does it feel hopeless? Do you feel unsupported? Do you fear life? Do you trust it? Are you overly responsible or not taking any responsibility for yourself?
Do you blame this god image for the parts of your life in which you feel dissatisfied? Where? And where are you not taking responsibility for your part?
If you did not hold this image of God, how would your life be different? How would you be different? What might this image protect you from?
Have you ever felt the presence of something that has felt like a spirit or God or an energy or the universe? Perhaps it’s a deep sense of oneness or connection—a felt sense your humanity. Perhaps it’s a feeling of awe or gratitude. Perhaps it’s in a moment of synchronicity. Notice how these moments differ in energetic quality from your god image.