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.


3 thoughts on “Psychology, The God Image, and Forgiveness

  1. Thank you Dominic for this fascinating post! Reading your posts on forgiveness has enlightened me and reinforced my understanding of God’s place in our lives. The above post has helped me also to understand why I was so reticent in reading the Old Testament trying to work out how to appease a God who sounded so disagreeable and angry, vengeful and violent all the time. I often thought what’s the point if i could never please him…so I turned away. For a long time. Then you speak about an all- loving all-embracing and benevolent God. He appears to be a one-dimensional figurehead. Not altogether whole. Then there is Jesus Christ his Son and our Saviour in the New Testament. He is sent to us as a bona fide human being. Who is without sin? Jesus is real, he gets angry and frustrated, he loses his temper in the temple, he threatens and cajoles, he heals and brings Lazarus back from the dead. I could go on. Is he the personification of his Heavenly Father in the flesh as it were? If this is so then he is forgiving, loving, kind and nurturing as well as angry and frustrated and sorrowful toward the end. He sounds more balanced than Our Lord of Old. He is everything God was not in the Old Testament.

    Am I take it from this post that we need to have a more balanced view of God? Think of him in a more holistic way and then we may be more ready to forgive. So if we read both the Old and the New Testaments we would we have a better sense of who God is and so far our sense of who he is up to now is fractured or not entirely whole?

    I hope my post makes sense and that you can understand what I am trying to say. Thank you again for your posts. My hope is to work in Pastoral Care in the near future.

    God bless


    1. Sandra, what you describe is what so many of us struggle with. What do we do with these images of God in the Old Testament that strikes terror in the hearts of people? Is this God or is this something else? Well, we cannot ignore the Old Testament, that would actually be heretical. But Christians do have to understand the revelation of the Old Testament remains “incomplete” and doesn’t tell the whole story. For the Christian, that fullness of revelation; the key to understanding and making sense of what’s in the Old Testament is found in Jesus Christ. Jesus reveals the fullness of who God is and what God expects from his followers. The God of the Old Testament is truly God and perhaps in that period of salvation history the justice and might of God was most prominent because of the depth of sin and a lack of understanding of Gospel values (I am speculating, it’s really the only thing we can do). In the spiritual life there are times we must be content with mystery and when we read the old testament there’s a great deal of mystery we must be content with. Yet, we cannot ignore the theological truths it provides. In the end though, the Christian must seek to know Christ if they are to truly know God who is not merely all just, but also all merciful. Thanks for taking the time to read the post, I pray God continues to bless you as you walk with him.


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