Who is God… really? This is the one big kerfluffle–among other kerfluffles–entertaining Christians on social media, or distressing some, as the case may be. Some are intrigued, some are distressed, and some cry heresy and apostasy. But what does God say, when He speaks for Himself?
Personally, I’m fascinated by the question, and have been for many years. It started when I was 21, a conservative Mennonite Christian, shocked by such a representation. To say it out loud felt particularly scandalous and disrespectful, because God was a ‘He’–and not only in the pronoun sense, but in a male-gender-specific identity. All my life He had been this big man in the sky with a powerful stick. I feared Him. But never for a day in my life did I wish Him to be female. And I still don’t. But my reasons are entirely selfish; I’ll be honest. Too many women with influence and power in my early life were manipulators and in my mind it was much harder to deal with than a big, mean–even violent–male, who is at least predictably harsh and unkind. That was my view of men, generally, and women, just as generally. Why would I want a God with female attributes? A cosmic manipulator? Yeah… No thanks.
And then I read the Bible and things started jumping out at me differently; a God with feminine characteristics and attributes, but not a manipulator. I had read the verses before, but my conditioning had caused me to miss what was right there. When I read the first part of Genesis, over and over, picking through it with a fine-tooth comb, trying to grasp everything in it. Creation. Man. Woman. Mankind. In God’s image and likeness. Both of them. A reflection of the Almighty… Me? You? I found it hard to absorb that He had made females in His image and likeness, as well as males. (Image: צֶ֫לֶם noun Masculine. Likeness: דְּמוּת noun feminine… not to mention the very direct wording.)
The thought of God looking at me as His reflection rocked my world and gave me a sense of eternal identity like nothing I had ever known. For many years I had believed that God was/is male, that men are made in His image and likeness, and women are… well ‘the refined version of man’, made in man’s image but prettier, softer and curvier. Someone had actually made a statement to this general effect when I was a preteen or teen, and I bought into it as truth. (Coincidentally, moments after typing this a friend private messaged me on Facebook–not knowing I am working on this blog, and that I just wrote this–and said: “I thought woman was in the image of man to be his help mate”. Clearly I am not alone in this belief/teaching.)
Reading the first few chapters of Genesis as though I had never heard them before, and re-reading it numerous times, what stood out was Genesis 1:26-27 where God clearly states making ‘male and female’ in His own image. If we, God’s daughters, are made in the image and likeness of God, it can mean only one thing; the triune God has feminine characteristics. Some insist it is only the Holy Spirit who displays feminine attributes–the nurturer who comes and comforts–others say the whole thing is heretical, at best, and anyone who ascribes to such a belief is an apostate who no longer believes in the One True God. But when I read my Bible, with no agenda, as it is written, I see over and over again that God is shown “…as a mother…”, and “…as a father”, and Jesus is always “the Son”, therefore to refute any feminine characteristics in God is to refute parts of the Bible. Even so, when I ‘picture’ God, I don’t get the image of a female. Ever. But I no longer get an image of a male either. I get a sense of mystery and wonderment. A God who shows up in a burning bush… in a dove… through a donkey–and a female donkey at that… It begs the question, what have we done to femininity and womanhood to find it the one ‘vessel’ unfit for God? Why is this the one thing by which we are so offended? Is a female donkey really so much more sacred than a woman made in God’s image and likeness? Or has religion warped our view of femininity to such an extent?
Frankly, it disturbs me that the Bible gives examples of God showing up through objects and creatures, and no one finds it scandalous, and yet when the Bible clearly states it, those who accept at face value that God has feminine attributes are silenced, judged and slandered. What a shame and tragedy.
Do I believe then that God is female, as opposed to male? Maybe both? Or neither? Here is what I believe, without apology: God is neither male nor female. He is generally portrayed as a Father, sometimes a husband, sometimes as a mother, and in Jesus He is male (and a brother). He is not limited to ‘form and body’, nor is He ‘gendered’ or subject to the terms we assign Him based on our limited human understanding. He is simply the Great I Am. The “I Am that I Am”, who enters our broken experience in whatever form He chooses. As His daughter, made in His image, I do not think He finds femininity repulsive or beneath His dignity; I believe it is a part of who He is. I reflect that part of Him, and He quite delights in me.
And my husband, who has loved me well, and reflects God beautifully…. I think God is kind of like that, just more perfect, holy, and without flaw or weakness. A ‘male’ God doesn’t frighten me, but limiting God to such ideologies is not biblical and I won’t pretend it just to win a crowd.
~ T ~
This was a very good read. Thanks so much for taking time to write.
My favorite…”when I picture God…I get a sense of mystery and wonderment”!! Yes! He is so big, so amazing, He cannot be completely reflected by only one person, gender, race, nationality, denomination.
My question is why does that make us so uncomfortable? Why not simply embrace the awe and wonder of God?!!
I think it gets scary when God is ‘unmanagable’. We let Him out of a box and then what? Our world unravels because it’s not easy to say, (what the Bible already says: Job 36:26), “God is beyond my understanding and comprehension”. The faith this requires–and the trust if I might have it wrong–is territory humans shy away from. We want to have faith that leans harder on what we know or think we know, than this mysterious wonderment of a Being who cannot be contained or limited. At least that was (and sometimes is) my struggle
Love, love, love. You are a lioness 😉
How do I make a heart in a reply? Thank you Abby!
One comment. Scripture does not say The burning bush was God, but rather He spoke through the burning bush. I believe your article states “God shows up through a donkey.” The fact that God is able to speak through a donkey simply illustrates his sovereign power over all his creation. God doesn’t tell us why he chooses in every instance in the Bible to refer to himself using a masculine pronoun, but he does. As such, we should be careful to not go beyond Scripture describing God in ways He does not describe himself. Clearly Scripture affirms both men and women have been made in the image of God. This is a beautiful biblical truth. And yet, with recent discussions of the Trinity, prompted by The Shack, we must remind one another to shape our understanding and descriptions of God biblically. Since the Scriptures do not ever refer to God using the feminine pronoun then as Christians, neither should we. God declares Himself and describes himself. As Christians we must cautiously limit ourselves to His own self-description.
The quote you refer to in my blog is, “A God who shows up in a burning bush… in a dove… through a donkey–and a female donkey at that…” I do not say God is the burning bush, but ‘shows up in’ it, just to make sure we are on the same page. My point is that God is able to embody any form He needs/wants/chooses, for His purposes. As for the pronoun in the Bible, I would use caution on that front too, in using that as an indication that God doesn’t have feminine qualities and attributes, as women are also referred to as ‘he’ and ‘man’ generally throughout the Bible. Also, if you go back to a variety of verses using both “God” and “He”, and study the meaning and pronoun use, you will find that the original text uses gender neutral words and meanings in some cases, but not in others.
An image is a reflection, as in when I study my face in the mirror, and likeness is having characteristics and qualities. If I bear the image and likeness of my heavenly Papa (and since some find that offensive too, it’s Bible; Romans 8:15, “Abba Father” being endearing term for “Papa”), then indeed these characteristics, qualities and resemblances must first reside in God. In Genesis 1 God makes ‘man’ in his image, “male and female created He them”. There isn’t a way around this, biblically, that I can see. And unlike people’s deep fears, it doesn’t lead us down a slippery slope; it gives us as women the identity and meaning we were given in the Garden. As a woman I don’t know how to explain it well, but if I am ‘made in the image of a man’; albeit a refined version, then somehow my meaning, identity and fulfillment need to come from him. (And we both know how that works out; she gets needier and he gets more exasperated. That’s not effective). And as I try to get my needs met by this being (man) in whose image and likeness I am supposedly made, I get preached at that ‘God is my identity and God should fulfill the needs’. How does that work, exactly? If God is the source of my being and identity, then He alone can meet the needs because He alone understands them. If man is my source… well, for starters we have big issues across the world. I think it is our lack of understanding (or at least accepting the mystery of this) that contributes to a lot of confusion in the church, and unfulfilled women. It’s not the sole contributor, but it is a huge contributor.
As for The Shack… I’m not threatened by it. I’ve read many a book and article that was interesting, but not theologically ‘accurate’ or provable–whatever that means, since Christians don’t even agree–but didn’t go ‘wow, a new theology’, and God used them to speak to me. I’ve seen this kind of hype before, and all it accomplishes is free advertising, and creates deeper ruts on both sides, therefore deeper division in the body of Christ. (Personally I wish Tim Challies had found something in my book worth criticizing… I could have used the advertising. But my book was doctrinally sound, healing and draws people to Christ, and therefore wasn’t worthy of scandal or promotion. That’s a hard fact. Christians inadvertently promote that which they don’t believe in.)
All around, I think our lack of trust and our fears end up feeding the wrong thing… that’s my stand. And I still don’t think God is a female or a male, but someone who evokes a ‘mysterious sense of wonderment’ in every way.
This I absolutely agree with. Humans who were created in the image of God, both male and female, are themselves most easily and creatively confused when they limit His image to either gender! I’m wondering how often some of the most confused of us read our Bibles willing to have our views and borders enlarged. We all were created in his image. Every one of us. Therefore, portraying such a wonderful image includes opened eyes and hearts and a willingness to be radically altered, perceptions and all!
I must admit, the title of the blog caught my attention, and perhaps initially even “prepared me for battle” as it were. However, the primary point you make about each and every one of us being created in the image of God and our primary purpose being His image bearer to the world is one if properly taken can and will have a dynamic effect within the body of Christ! Additionally, I know that I struggle to reflect specific attributes of God to the world around me. I can be very matter of fact and at times can make decisions without the emotion that I feel like I should be expressing. At times, I envy my wife’s ability to empathize with someone who is experiencing a deep heartache that I’m struggling to connect with. To me, in those moments, she is a much better reflection of the image of Christ than I am. Perhaps, I am all wrong, however, The Bible says, almost directly after we were created in His image that they two became one flesh. Is it possible that the best reflection of Christ to the world is found in our united efforts to bear His image? You mentioned a sense of God being a man with a stick. To me, that speaks of law, but John says, “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ”. His image represents the balance of both attributes. We need one another to completely reflect His image to the world. Another thing I noticed when looking more closely at the word help meet was that other then the 1st two times, almost all if not all uses of this specific word describe God as being our help. Interesting, that he chooses many times to reflect his assistance to us using the same word he uses to describe the initial calling he gave women at creation. And, I might add, the description he uses for this help implies that without His aid we would certainly fall. This would seem to place a critical importance He has called each one to fill. So that together we might reflect His image to a lost world.
A very insightful comment, Karl. Thank you. I think the marriage relationship is deeply symbolic of God’s relationship with us, of intimacy within the triune God, of creation before Eve was formed and that desire to be so intimately known that our hearts beat as one… among other beautiful things. And, yes, in my experience that relationship seems as perfect an image of God as I can imagine. That said, for those who remain single, I see them as individuals reflecting God just as completely and perfectly, yet the loneliness some of them share with me is deep and real. That part I don’t always know where to place in this ‘perfect image’ picture that marriage presents. I also like the way you explain the ‘helpmeet’… another picture of the completeness that we find when we work well together as husband and wife.