I was having breakfast with a good friend of mine, and we were catching up on our professional and family lives. He asked me what I was researching these days, and I told him I was researching how people imagine God to be and how they interpret life events based on their perceptions of Him. His eyes got wide as he sat up, and he disclosed a sensitive encounter he recently had.
“You know that my wife and I have wanted kids for some time but that we are having trouble conceiving. The other day, one of our family members was talking to us about it and said, ‘God must be punishing you for something you did.’ Hearing this caused my wife so much pain.”
I sat there a bit shocked, empathizing with my friend as I reflected over how this person must have imagined God in order to interpret life in such a fashion.
People imagine God in vastly different ways. Some people imagine Him to be incredibly kind and loving, whereas others perceive Him as angry and punishing. What are the consequences of how we imagine Him to be? Does it matter if we feel He is intimately close or distant? Does it matter if we believe He loves to help us or if we believe He is a divine proctor watching us take the test of life alone? Yes! It absolutely matters. In fact, there is perhaps nothing more important in life than our perception of who God is. We make sense of the world based on how we imagine Him to be. We see and interpret the events that unfold in life through our God image filter. If we imagine Him as beautiful, we will see beauty in the world. If we imagine Him as merciful, we will see mercy all around us. If we imagine Him as loving, we will see His Love everywhere. Unfortunately, if we imagine Him as harsh, we will see harshness everywhere.
Our image of God shapes how we see ourselves and it shapes our relationships with others. People who imagine God as loving see themselves as more loveable. Those who imagine God as forgiving are more forgiving of others. Those who view God more benevolently have better self-esteem and fewer religious doubts and struggles. God is very concerned with our perception because He knows the devastating effects of having a distorted image of Him. He informs us that many people have a distorted God image, saying,
“In no way have they estimated Allah in His true estimation.”
He is telling us that He is far more majestic, beautiful, sublime, and wise than people imagine. In essence, Allah wants us to always have positive assumptions and expectations of Him because He knows that is essential to our thriving.
So how do we form our God image? We believe that our God image comes from two sources of knowledge: the head and the heart. Head knowledge refers to what we have been intellectually taught about God, such as theological beliefs derived from books, lectures, and school. It also includes messages about God that are promoted in popular culture, such as music, movies, and social media. Heart knowledge refers to what we have emotionally and relationally experienced about God. Unfortunately, people often experience a mismatch between their head knowledge and heart knowledge.
In other words, they know that the Qur’an says that God is compassionate, but they don’t feel His Compassion in their lives. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?
Our ongoing research into this topic suggests that our emotional experiences with God (i.e., heart knowledge) are influenced by our relationships with human beings, especially our parents. We often project onto God what we experience with our parents. If we felt our parents were loving, forgiving, and helpful, we are more likely to imagine God as loving, forgiving, and helpful. If we felt our parents were strict, cruel, and unfair, we are more likely to imagine God the same way. In fact, we even find that parents’ God images predict their parenting behavior. Parents who imagine God as warm and supportive are more likely to report being warm and supportive of their children. Parents who imagine God as strict are more likely to report being strict and controlling with their children. As parents, we have a tremendous ability to teach our kids who God is through our actions and words. We should also remember that actions speak louder than words.
Regardless of how we imagine God to be today, there is always hope to restore a healthy and accurate image of Him. One of the most important things we can do is to develop a relationship with a murabbi, a person whose knowledge, character, and behavior teaches us about Allah intellectually (head knowledge) and relationally (heart knowledge). To learn relationally about Allah through proper companionship (suhbah) means to learn from someone whose character is molded by intimate knowledge of the attributes of Allah. A murabbi is someone you build a personal relationship with through frequent interactions. You are most likely to find such a person in your local community.
Spending time in the pursuit of a benevolent God image is one of the most satisfying pursuits in life. The more positively we imagine Allah, the deeper our bond and attachment to Him will be. Once we form a bond with our Creator based on obedience and love, we will experience the gardens of this life before the gardens of the hereafter.
To learn more about God image and attachment, read The Alchemy of Divine Love: How Our View of God Affects Our Faith and Happiness.