Psychology, The God Image, and Forgiveness

God ImageA God image is something each of us carries around in our minds.  It’s a psychological construct packed with emotional components and profoundly impacts our spiritual and psychological lives.  For our purposes we’re going to explore how our God image impacts our ability to be a forgiving person.  By no means am I saying a God image means there is no God.  I am also not saying we have no way of knowing the true nature of God and therefore construct a God image to take God’s place.  What I am trying to make clear is because of sin we construct a psychological representation of God which is usually incorrect and keeps us from experiencing God as he truly is.  When sin impacts our understanding of God’s loving and forgiving nature it distorts our ability to draw on him as a source of grace, love, and forgiveness.

According to most psychoanalytical traditions, we develop our God image from a variety of sources.  These sources include experiences with various authority figures over our lifetime.  It may involve experiences with family, friends, parents, and official religious representatives.  The God image is shaped by religious traditions, practices, and culture.  Additionally, the God image may include projected material; the things about ourselves we have difficulty accepting and more easily attribute to God.  These attributes don’t have to be negative in nature, just something we have difficulty attributing to ourselves.  For example, a man who is tender hearted may not often show that side of himself because when he does he believes he is being weak.  He wants to be known as tough, rugged, and stone hearted so any behavior contradicting that image of himself cannot be a part of his nature but rather God working in him.  All of these sources are said to converge upon the individual’s psychological world and form a God Image.

It should be noted the God image is different from the God concept.  The God concept is the intellectual understanding of God and His characteristics.  To describe things more simply, we might say we can have an idea of who God is in our minds but it may not fit well with our God image, the psychologically represented God directing our unconscious inferences and tensions.  While our intellectual understanding of God can be consciously recalled to formulate apologetic arguments, our God image has the potential to subconsciously direct how we engage our inner and outer world.  Our God image may infer a positive, supportive and perhaps challenging God or it may offer our psyche a God who is punitive, distant, and uninvolved.  This distinction is important to remember as we explore our topic of forgiveness.   While we may understand the characteristics of God as they relate to forgiving others, how we engage God, his grace, etc., these may not be congruent with what we know about God.  Remember the reciprocal relationship of feeling forgiven and forgiving others can really impact how we live a life of forgiveness.  If I cannot accept that God forgives me even though I can intellectually understand he is all forgiving my God image impacts my ability to exercise forgiveness.

A God image can be quite diverse.   Many psychoanalytic researchers believe it can become compensatory in nature or correspond with parental characteristics.  For example, as an individual develops the God image may provide a parental presence when one was absent.  Additionally,  the God image can correspond with a proactive nurturing parental image in a family structure where parents provided appropriate care and attention.  Yet, the God image may also correspond with negative experiences creating in the individual a concept of God as punitive, uncaring, and angry.  Ultimately the God image tends to fall into three categories.  The first is one in which God is active, benevolent, guiding, stable, omniscient, and omnipresent.  A second views God as severe, wrathful, and condemning.  Lastly, God is thought to be distant, uncaring, deistic-like, impersonal, passive, irrelevant, etc.  This last category regards God as a supernatural force.  While these are general categories it’s not uncommon to have some crossover between them creating multiple configurations of a God image.  These different God images can impact a number of behaviors and attitudes expressed in our lives.  If God is good, benevolent, and a guiding force one tends to exhibit pro-social and positive relational characteristics when interacting with others.  If he is distant, irrelevant, and impersonal, God is viewed as a force to be manipulated or ignored and therefore interactions with others become utilitarian and unimportant.  Of course these are general observations, but none the less the idea remains if we carry around a particular God image there are ramifications in the manner we engage the world around us.

Why is this important for our discussion about the gift of forgiveness?  if we are carrying around a poorly formed God image, we may not exercise forgiveness in a biblical or psychologically healthy way because we have a skewed understanding of the gift giver.  If I experience God as uninvolved in the created order and simply that magical clock maker setting things into motion, how can I believe he is personally involved in forgiving me?  From there I might ask why then, should I care if I forgive others?    If God is Involved in this world but wrathful and condemning, then I better cower under his punishment and work really hard to follow his law.  It’s not up to me to forgive others, only God does that and if he is a God of wrath, they better make good on what they’ve done.  If I’m made in the image of a wrathful God then the forgiveness I extend must reflect the forgiveness of the wrathful king I know him to be.  I must be just, swift in execution of punishment, and only forgiving once justice has been satisfied.  If you follow my example you find there is no unconditional love in this wrathful God image, only juridical satisfaction.  So yes, God image is important for us to understand because it impacts how we execute and extend this gift of forgiveness.

So, what is a healthy God image?  I think we have touched on that already, but let’s sum things up again so we can explore a Biblically correct God image reflecting who God really is.  Many people like to turn to the old testament to justify a wrathful and punitive God image.  They argue we cannot ignore Biblical verses like these:

“I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful punishments. Then they shall know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance on them.” – Ezekiel 25:17

“A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies.The Lord is slow to anger but great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry, and he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither, and the bloom of Lebanon fades.The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger. His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces.” – Nahum 1:2-6

The bible is full of images like these.  Does that mean we settle on this characteristic as representative of God?  Do we form a God image based on the idea that he is wrathful and punitive?  If you combine that with life experiences in a home where  parents are distant and punitive, or in work conditions where authority figures lord their power over you insisting on rules regardless of the context of a situation you may create a punitive wrathful God image that reflects these scripture passages.

Scripture paints another picture of God as well.  In other parts of the Bible we find a loving God who treats those he loves tenderly.  Again, here are a couple of passages from Scripture giving us another picture of God:

“I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. – Isaiah 63:7

“they refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them; but they stiffened their necks and determined to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” – Nehemiah 9:17

In these passages we encounter a God of love and mercy.  This image of God leads us to be people who forgive unconditionally extending love in the same way this God has extended it to us.  While this approach sounds good, it can also be taken too far making us seem like people high on some chemical responding to unjust acts as if we were numb to the pain they cause.  Someone who only focuses on the loving image of God might walk around saying “It’s okay, I understand and forgive you.  God is love and that’s all that matters.”  Love , love, love, mercy, mercy, mercy, that’s all God is.  We run into a multitude of problems if this is the only God image we have because then there is no sin; nothing damaging our relationship with God and one another.   No matter how much we sin, God is there to forgive us whether we ask for his forgiveness or not.  No matter how little we repent or are convicted of our sin, God is there to forgive us.  This God image can be as damaging as the one where God is completely punitive in nature.

Given all of this, how can we really understand what God is like?  I specifically chose passages from the old testament to describe God because while these passages speak the truth about God’s characteristics, they are incomplete.  Christianity proposes if one is to fully know God they must come into a relationship with Jesus Christ.  When we know Jesus Christ the Holy Spirit convicts us of the true nature of God.  To know the Father, we must know the Son.  By knowing the Son we have access to the Father.  If our God image is skewed it’s because it’s incongruent with knowledge of Jesus Christ the full revelation of God.  Jesus reminds us no one knows the Father except the Son and those the son chooses (Matthew 11:27).  When asked to show the disciples the Father Christ reminded them to know him is to know the Father (John 14:7-8).  So if we really want to know the characteristics of God we need to know Christ.  A perfected God image is one focusing on Christ.  Let me briefly examine who Christ is particularly in the context of our topic, forgiveness.  In this way we can have a clear Biblical understanding of the giver of this gift of forgiveness.

Why is it important we develop a healthy God image in our vocation of forgiveness?  As noted above, the God image impacts a number of ways in which we think about ourselves and other people.  A healthy God image is associated with a number of things important to our topic.  Remember, the God image works somewhat unconsciously so it informs that “gut” reaction we have toward ourselves and others in different circumstances.  If God is characterized as punitive forgiving others (or yourself) won’t come easily because our first reaction is to seek justice and punishment for what we believe is unjust.  If we characterize God as overly loving our first reaction toward hurtful individuals might be to overlook the damage their behaviors caused to the relationship and leave open wounds were healing is needed.  If our God image reflects a hyper-rational God we look for logical explanations for behaviors before we can forgive them for what they’ve done.  The point I’m trying to make is that an unhealthy God image creates an unhealthy preconscious drive concerning how to exercise the vocation of forgiveness. The Christian needs to form a healthy God image, one congruent with the characteristics outlined above from the scriptures.  By meditating on the person of Christ as revealed in the Bible it is possible to form a more accurate God image.  I urge you to spend a great deal of time reading through the new testament to understand who Jesus Christ is.  By knowing him you can know the true character of God thus forming your God image more accurately.


Experiencing Pain – Starting the Forgiving Process

SorrowWhen developing a plan of forgiveness, I ask people to think about someone who hurt them in the initial stages.  I want them to experience the pain caused by those who treated them badly, not because I am sadistic, but because it starts the healing process.  I know it seems like I’m being cruel, but our natural tendency is to back away from pain keeping us from addressing the actual problem.  Just like when we suffer from physical issues, we prefer to modify our lives to accommodate the immediate pain rather than do what needs done to resolve it for good.  No one likes to address pain.  If you have a problem walking because your leg hurts you tend to keep from walking great distances.  If you’ve experienced difficulty in a past relationship you tend to avoid intimacy in other similar relationships.  The physical and psychological experiences of pain are the same and how we resolve physical and emotional pain is not very different.  For example, if you have something physically wrong with your body you go to a doctor and the doctor explores that pain with you.  He or she may ask you to go through procedures that inflict more pain, but in the end the hope is you will recover.  Our natural inclination is to run like crazy from that experience but we know if we persist in the treatment working through the pain we gain a healthier body and a more fulfilling life.  This is the same experience we have when healing spiritually and psychologically.

I also like to make it clear to my clients that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.  If you were abused by someone dangerous or toxic I’m not suggesting you reestablish a relationship with that person.  There’s always the possibility it could occur, but it’s not essential for healing and requires both parties to make significant changes to begin trusting one another again.  Forgiveness is an act of love and goodwill extended to someone who hurt you, not necessarily the reestablishment of a relationship.  Remember, because we’re created in the image of God we were created to receive and give love.  This action of giving and receiving love is the very heart of who God is.  This internal life of giving and receiving love is expressed in God’s trinitarian nature.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in a continual act of giving and receiving love.  We were created for the same type of existence.  Whenever we withhold love or don’t receive it from others, particularly from those closest to us, we experience pain.  This self-giving and sacrificial love demonstrated by the life of God is called agape love.  Whenever human beings serve others selflessly they exhibit this type of love.  So forgiving someone means extending good will toward an individual who has hurt you.  It means embracing agape love.  Yes, this is a difficult and painful process and it’s my hope those seeking to overcome their anger and depression can embrace it, but it often requires work with a trusted adviser, therapist, or spiritual director.  It takes time and I know at first the goodwill you extend toward someone who hurt you is small, but with practice it can grow.

Let’s get back to the first step I talked about which is thinking about a time when you were hurt.  This step involves revisiting the wounds inflicted on you by another person or group of people.  Take some time to reflect upon and re-experience the emotional difficulties still existing because of the wounds you carry around from that encounter.  Is there one person who hurt you the most?  Is there any one particular incident standing out above all others?  Don’t deny the pain, be honest with yourself about how you feel and how intensely you feel about it.  Explore the pain and any other negative feelings that arise.  Do you experience guilt because of what happened?  Do you feel shame or embarrassment?  Because our emotions are a component of being a holistically integrated person does it appear these negative emotions are impacting other parts of your life?  Are they impacting your physical health, mental health, relationships, or spiritual life?  Has this experience changed how you behave and act in the world?  Would you rather be acting and behaving differently?  What might that difference look like?

This is the beginning of exploring your wounds.  Just like a medical doctor takes time to explore a fracture or tumor in your body, you must probe the painful areas within your soul.  It can be painful, but take the time to explore the wound and get a real sense of the many areas of your life it impacts.  Again, this can be traumatic so I suggest you do this with a spiritual director or good therapist.  Just as you wouldn’t perform surgery on yourself for a very drastic medical problem, don’t try and perform spiritual and psychological triage on yourself.  However, some wounds can be treated by taking the time to reflect on them and experience them by yourself.  The determining factor is measuring the pain associated with the recollection.  If it’s too much find someone who can walk with you in the dark places we sometimes have to go.

Continuing with this process of forgiveness requires one to transition from experiencing pain to recognizing you’ve never been alone in your suffering.  Visualize the people who have walked with you through your painful experiences.  They may not have known how helpful they’ve been to you in coping with your situation but you know who they are and what they’ve done for you.  Think of the people who have unconditionally loved you and allowed you to love them back.  Recognize the love they’ve shared with you and the love you’ve given them. Explore how this has helped you cope with your situation.  Remember, the Christian walk is a walk of love.  Be thankful for those who’ve been there for you.  Then, think of Christ in the midst of this painful situation.  See how he continually stayed with you and suffered with you.  He has not been a passive onlooker but rather suffered every wound you experienced as well.  If we’re his body as described by St. Paul then when we suffer he suffers as well.  Christ is God present within our human condition, even the painful and cruel experiences we inflict upon one another.  This is your love story.  Embrace it even though it includes some hurtful experiences.  Come back to those who have loved you through this story as often as you need to recognizing there has been goodwill extended to you.  Sometimes you’ve been loved even when you may have hurt others.

Lastly, I want you to think about how strong a person you are.  I want you to recognize even in the midst of all this pain you continue to survive.  You are not a victim, you are a survivor.   While you may not be functioning as best as you can, you are surviving and that speaks a great deal to how you allowed the Grace of God to empower you.  When we open ourselves to God’s love we find a resilience that transcends all our abilities.  Embrace that love.

Practice this for a couple of days.  Each time write down who hurt you and the particular incident that’s most painful.  Write down who has been there for you through it and how Christ has felt your pain.  Reflect and pray about this.  If the pain is too much consider looking for a spiritual director or a therapist to talk with, you don’t need to tackle the most painful experiences right now and on your own.  Be mindful of your level of suffering because you must be ready to take the next step which is difficult.  The next step is deciding to forgive the person who caused you so much pain.  As you know by now, that means extending love and good will to someone who has profoundly hurt you.  Can you do that?  It takes courage.  It’s just like deciding to go into the hospital for surgery.  It will be painful but if you can do it you will experience healing and health.

I have written previously about making this choice to forgive others here.  Review this post and ponder it in the context of what we have been sharing here.  I would love to dialgue with you about it so your comments are very much appreciated.


To Forgive and Love – God Commands it – We must Obey

Forgive 2I have been saying forgiveness, like love is a choice and I want to make that point in this post once again.  This time I want to look at it theologically.  I have said previously forgiveness is not something that comes naturally to us rather something we must learn to do.  Just as we love because God loved us first (1 John 4:19) we forgive because we have been forgiven first.  Because God has blessed us with a free will that free will must be exercised in a manner giving glory to Him.  We do that by choosing the things that reflect who he is in our lives.  In a sense, forgiving is a free will choice intimately connected to love.

I used to enjoy arguing with people who did not believe in the gospel as fervently as I did.  I was less an evangelist in these situations and more of a gospel terrorist.  My life changed drastically when the very church I was defending turned on me and treated me very callously in a time of need and vulnerability.  It made me think really hard about how to treat other people, particularly those who did not believe as I believed.  It made me realize I needed to start by loving them first.  I made a decision that no matter how different they were from me or how much they did not believe as I did, I would love them first and then allow God to use me as he desired.  Forgiveness is a similar process.  Forgiveness requires us to make a choice to extend love and good will toward another person.  It requires finding a way to love the person first and then to let God do what he will in their lives.

When we forgive, we extend as much love and goodwill as possible toward the one who hurt us because God requires it.  In this way we are exercising our vocation to be images of his love in a world of hurt and destruction.  Forgiveness is an act of obedience.  It’s a choice to do something our natural self believes foolish.  Forgiveness is intimately connected to the commandment to love our neighbor, even when that neighbor is acting unjustly and hurtfully.  That’s why forgiveness comes from a heart of obedience, because our natural tendency is to hurt the one who hurt us.  In Colossians 3:13 Paul clearly asks his community to be forgiving in obedience to God.  He writes:

“Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

And to remind us that forgiveness is a process of growing in grace and not a natural choice rather one coming from God, Paul writes the following to the Philippians (1:6):

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

So at this point we can appreciate that God asks us to be obedient to him and just as we are charged to love those who love us so are we charged to extend this love and goodwill to those who have hurt us.  Christ reminded us in Matthew 5:47 that to love only those who love us is nothing special, even the gentiles do that.  To love those who are unlovable, that is the Christian vocation.  This extending of good will and love is forgiveness.

But in the end remember this.  When we forgive it may feel like we are giving in to something or saying what someone did to us is “okay” and that’s not what we are doing.  By forgiving someone we are really saying “I will no longer let you have control over me.”  Forgiveness is a path to freedom.  We must embrace that path by choosing to walk on it one step at a time.  In all my workshops the hardest step for someone to take is this first one.  Choose to forgive, it is Godly, liberating, and allows you to live a flourishing healthy psychological, spiritual, physical, emotional and relational life.

Choosing to Forgive – Making the Hard Choice


“Thus, the authority of compassion is the possibility for each of us to forgive our brothers and sisters, because forgiveness is only real for those who have discovered the weakness of their friends and the sins of their enemies in their own hearts, and are willing to call each human being their sister and brother.”

– Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer

Forgiveness is a choice.  Why is it a choice?  Because as much as it hurts to admit it, forgiveness is an extension of love and good will toward another person; probably a person we hate.  When you think about someone who hurt you my guess is the last thing you want to do is extend love and goodwill toward them.  That’s why forgiveness must be a choice.  The act of forgiveness requires us to overcome our natural inclinations to be angry and hateful and instead embrace a life of grace responding with good will toward people who hurt us.  When we talk about extending good will we must first establish empathy and compassion for the individual who wronged us.  It takes a person of great strength to choose to forgive someone so be ready to do a great deal of work.  You’ll become emotionally exhausted as you walk through the process, but you will grow tremendously in body, mind, and spirit.

In the above passage from The Wounded Healer Nouwen reminds us there’s authority in the virtue of compassion.  The authority of compassion makes it possible to see one another through the eyes of Christ.  In fact, it allows us to see ourselves through the eyes of Christ.  Compassion is the fruit of empathy.  Psychologists see the emergence of empathy as a key developmental milestone in children.   Those who struggle to develop this psychological construct struggle to develop a number of human virtues, one of these being compassion.  To have compassion for someone is to recognize their human dignity.  Seeing other people as human beings is a key element for developing a forgiving spirit.  In fact, when we think about the word compassion we find its latin roots teach us a great deal about this very virtue.  The two words combined to create the english word compassion are cum, meaning with, and passio, meaning suffering.  Together the intended meaning is “to suffer with.”  To have compassion for another person is to be willing to “suffer with” them.  This isn’t easy to do even with those who have never hurt us and even more so with those who have.  Yet, if we want to escape the prison of anger we must begin to have compassion with those who hurt us.

In Matthew 18:21 we read the following:

“Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.…”

Forgiveness is not reconciliation.  In the above passage, Jesus doesn’t say Peter must reestablish a relationship with one who has offended him (remember, that’s reconciliation).  He also doesn’t say any losses incurred should not be repaid.  What Jesus does say is Peter MUST forgive his brother meaning he must extend love and goodwill toward him.   By extending love and goodwill Peter doesn’t allow himself to treat another human being as an object.  This is your challenge.  It may not be time for you to forgive someone who hurt you, but if you want to be free from the chains of anger and depression you’ll have to at some point.  Forgiveness is a choice and only you can make it.  Before you can heal you must make that choice.  Choose to forgive, embrace the authority of compassion, and begin to see the one who hurt you as a person.  Like you, they have human dignity and when seen as another hurting individual you can begin the forgiving process.  To start, all I want you to do is try and see the individual that hurt you through the eyes of compassion.  Be willing to look at them and realize they too have pain, are hurting, and are human beings.  This isn’t easy, and we are not making excuses for what they did to you, but it has to start here if you are ever to be free from the turmoil this has caused in your life.  Perhaps you start by at least recognizing whatever they did they did because the human dignity they “should” express has been marred by someone in their life.  Do what you can to begin seeing them as human beings and extend some form of goodwill to them, even if it is just recognizing they are struggling with things in life just like other people do.

I applaud those of you making this brave choice to embrace the pain this process evokes as a way to stop the hurt from impacting you and others in your life.  Remember, to heal we must hurt, but only for a little while.  When you go to the hospital to get a fractured bone reset it hurts.  You could ignore the broken bone and try living with the damage, but that leads to more pain later in life.  It’s better to begin acknowledging your pain and allow yourself to heal.

You may find you can only extend so much goodwill and love to the individual who hurt you.  That’s okay, it is a start.  I simply ask you to make that start today and let me continue to walk with you as you heal yourself.  Take time and reflect on this awhile before moving forward.  Remember, we are not making excuses for the individual or ignoring what they did was wrong, we are merely trying to see them as they are, weak fallen and broken human beings.  Stay tuned for more later in this series on becoming a forgiving person.

How Can I Forgive?

forgivenessProbably one of the hardest things to do is forgive someone who hurt you.  In my many years as a therapist and pastoral counselor I’ve helped people struggling with divorce, grief, recovery, and victimization of sexual abuse.  They all shared horrific stories about someone who hurt them in ways most of us find terrifying.  It leaves an individual with wounds so close to the surface of who they are they quickly break down at the mere hint of the painful event.  The emotional reaction is often anger, depression, or fear.  There is no doubt in my mind sin continues to impact the human condition every time I enter into the sacred space of the counseling room and engage in a conversation with a suffering soul.

A consequence of being wounded is the fact the pain we feel is often inflicted on those close to us.  I am not saying it’s intentional, but it seems the hurt we carry within us causes us to wound others.  The women emotionally abused by an alcoholic parent has difficulty making herself vulnerable to her husband.  Without a comfortable sense of vulnerability one cannot truly love others.  The child abused  by his father grows up believing the only thing anyone wants to do is beat him down.   He believes he must lash out at others before they strike him.  We perpetuate the wounds we experience because it’s too much pain to carry around alone and it needs to come out somehow.

Overcoming this pattern of hurt requires forgiveness.  Forgiveness is necessary for many reasons, but I want to focus on its power to stop the wounds we experience from impacting those we should (and can) love.  If we can look at those who hurt us in a forgiving way we have a chance to stop the wounds we carry from becoming wounds in others.  That requires a great deal of spiritual effort and many of us are not prepared to engage in such grueling and demanding disciplines, but it’s not an impossible task.  It takes courage to forgive, a spiritual and psychological courage transcending our very nature, but one any of us can do with the proper guidance.  It means we can only truly forgive by trusting God will be with us through the process.

If you’re interested in learning how to be a forgiving person this site can help you do that.  Through direction, guidance, patience and a commitment to live your life in a passionately loving and merciful way you can become an agent of forgiveness.  In the next few posts I will share some techniques and concepts to help you escape from the prison of anger and pain to the freedom of forgiveness.