Image of God and Stage of Faith

We’ve been talking about knowing God and God knowing us. 

Every believer and even every nonbeliever has his or her own picture of God. For many, God looks just like me: white, male, with a well-trimmed beard, vigorous and youthful, with a head, a back, arms and legs, and, of course, a heart. But he’s obviously much bigger than me, much faster and stronger and smarter, more patient, more compassionate, all-knowing, all-wise, and present everywhere. Unless of course, you’re a nonbeliever, an atheist; in which case God looks like a blank wall. 

As we were wrapping up our discussion last week, Carolyn asked why the God of the Old Testament is so different from the God of the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament seems harsh, judgmental, and punishing. Jesus seems so loving and long suffering and merciful. Which of these is the true picture of God? This is all the more confusing when you consider Jesus’s response to Philip who asked to “Show us the Father.” He said: “Philip, when you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:8-9). 

Our ideas about God the Father and Jesus are usually quite different. We see God the Father as a judge to pass strict judgment on us. We have a picture of Jesus pleading with the Father to forgive us and to accept his blood on our behalf. But this is all the more confusing when you read:

On that day you will ask in My name, and I am not saying to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf;for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father. John 16:26-27)

Is it possible that it’s not that the Old and New Testament Gods are different, but rather that we are seeing these gods through different lenses? Could it be that the writers of the Old and New Testaments saw God completely differently? Jesus implies this in the Sermon on the Mount: 

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be answerable to the court.’But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be answerable to the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be answerable to the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Matthew 5:21-22)

He then goes on to talk about adultery… “…and they say this, but I say that” and  about an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, making vows, and about loving your neighbor. In the passage, he contrasts what you were told, what you’ve been taught—in short, what your picture of God is—with his view. The contrast is quite extreme. Jesus is saying that the Old Testament lens that you had was good, but not good enough, that you need to look at God in a different way, to have a different expectation of what God is. God is not different, but your way of seeing God needs to be different. The Old and New Testament God is a product of who is explaining God, not of different Gods. The apparent discrepancy between the Old and New Testament God is not a difference in God but a difference in what we see in God.

Stages of Faith

The images of God that we construct, teach, and write about depend, in my view, on the stage of faith we are in. We have talked in depth about the stages of faith, but here is a refresher:

The theory of psychological development posits that children should develop skills and coping mechanisms for life which are observable and measurable. This is the well known work of Piaget and Erickson and is part of classical study in basic psychology. The works of James Fowler, a theologian who, in the 1970s and 1980s, studied and then described faith development using similar matriculation points is less well known. Just as our life-skills mature, so too, is there a maturation of our faith that is both measurable and predictable. 

Foster initially proposed six stages of faith, from very primitive, self-centered faith all the way to a mystical, otherworldly kind of faith. The popular writer and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck simplified Foster’s academic work into four stages of faith development. They are descriptive, implying no judgment concerning God’s love for people in the different stages or whether you’re matriculating in the way that you should. God loves and saves people from all stages. 

The stages change how one responds to various crises in life. Stage 1 is a childish kind of faith, rooted in the self. It is self-centered and antisocial and while it is appropriate for immature children to be in stage one, an adult in stage 1 is considered to be antisocial. These are people who can only focus on themselves, their moral compasses weak. Everything they do is centered on the question “What’s in it for me?”

Stage 2 is entered when stage 1 individuals undergo some kind of transformation and have an epiphany that life is not meant to be chaotic and antisocial and self-centered. In religion, we call this conversion. They come to be driven by cause and effect, by the consequences of their lives. In religious terms, they are people who play by the book. They highly value values. Indeed, they seek regulation, they value rules and spend their life learning the rules and living by them, practicing the rules religiously. They they take great comfort in boundaries which are easily and often willingly set up by the church. 

Stage 2 faith is transactional, contractual, between God and man. “If God does this for me, I’ll do this for him. If I do this for him, he should do this for me.” Churches are essentially full of stage 2 people. Tell them what to do and they will comply. They ask questions and memorize key text responses. They’re dutiful, predictable, and form the pillars and backbone of every church. Many are so comfortable with this stage that they remain in it forever. 

But along the way, for some in stage 2, the answers to their questions no longer make as much sense. They begin to have doubts concerning what they’ve been taught and what they’ve learned. Some things no longer make very much sense to them. When the cause and effect doesn’t seem to work out as they expect and had relied upon, they enter into stage 3. 

Stage 3 is the stage of skeptical faith. But—and it’s important to emphasize this—it is still a stage of faith. The fact that the answers don’t always resonate as they once did does not mean that they are faithless individuals. Indeed, their faith is vibrant and deeply rooted. It just doesn’t look like everybody else’s faith at church. This is a common stage for adolescents, and the stage when many of them leave the church. In my view, this is one of the greatest faults of the church. 

How do we deal with individuals who have stage 3 faith? Where is the place for stage 3 individuals to rest? And how can they find a spot in the organized church? Their doubt and skepticism threatens and undermines the certainty of the stage 2 person and creates behavioral and theological conflict. Finding no place to turn to and feeling as if they have lost the faith, stage 3 people often leave the church and feel isolated from religious company. 

But these people have not lost faith, they have not lost God. They are in a struggle for faith, for what they are and who they are spiritually. They are often excellent parents and spouses, honorable and honest citizens. They are concerned about their neighbors, they volunteer in a lot of wonderful organizations, they respect and protect the environment. They are interested in animal rights and the earth. Unlike stage 1 individuals, they’re not the slightest bit self-centered. They are in fact seeking God, they just don’t know that that’s what they’re doing. 

Not understanding that it’s God they’re seeking, the church labels them as apostate backsliders. The only ministry that we have for stage 3 individuals is to try to press them back into stage 2. But many stage 3 individuals never get out of stage 3, because they don’t know the way out. They don’t know that doubt and skepticism can be a certain path to enlightenment. They don’t even know all the good that they’re doing or that everything they’re seeking is really their quest for God. 

More importantly, they don’t know that God is seeking them. The struggle that they’re in is a struggle with God Himself, a struggle for their spiritual identity. Organized religion has not thought enough about doubt and questioning and skepticism, and about how to provide a safe haven within its community of faith for people transitioning to stage 3. But if they keep seeking, and they keep walking in this earnest way, they will enter stage 4. 

Stage 4 is a return to God but in a completely different way. Stage 4 people enter a faith that values questions more than answers, that values mystery more than certainty, and sees God as a journey to be explored rather than a destination to be reached. They often return to church but with a freedom and without the constraints that makes those who are still there in stage 3 very uncomfortable—the order of service, for example, the type of music, the liturgy, the new translations of the Bible, women in ministry. 

All stage 4 people are open to debate and ideas that should be explored. They can be highly disruptive to the stage 2 way of thinking and way of life. Stage 4, says Peck, is the mystical or communal faith of people who have actively sought truth and now, out of love and commitment to something bigger than themselves and bigger than what they have been before, have developed the ability to transcend the constraints of their religious and social backgrounds and upbringing and acculturation indoctrination and have turned instead to a more global view of who God is, and what he is interested in. 

They no longer see themselves or their religion as the center of the universe but as a participant in the larger community of faith, consisting of all people who see a transcendent God, or not looking for clear cut answers, who find questions more interesting and compelling and rewarding than answers. These are the opposite of people in stage 2. 

They enjoy meditation, contemplation, study of things of the spirit and prayer, they achieve communication with the inner light. The ironic thing about individuals in stage 4 is that the internal reconnection with God is a track that often leads them back to establishments they had transitioned out of. They return to church and come to view God and church and liturgy and rituals as the language of faith—but not to ascribe to these entities the same kind of importance and necessity as people in stage 2 do. 

They often find comfort in the community of faith and thus find themselves seeking freedom and mystical transcendence and enlightenment about the greatness and universality of God even while sharing a pew with stage 2 people seeking certainty and clarity and sectarian rules and dogma and doctrine by which to govern their lives. This of course creates tension in the church as stage 2 people cling ferociously to new points of liturgy and doctrine, and what hymns to sing and so on. 

Fearful of contamination and ultimate destruction, stage 2 people feel under threat from stage 4 people who don’t care one whit about these things. This is key to our discussion. To stage 2 people, the Old Testament God is so great and so distant as to be almost unapproachable, a God who measures us carefully by our behavior. Stage 4 people see the opposite: They see Jesus a God who was immanent, in-dwelling, the God of the Holy Spirit and the inner light, the God of mercy and the God of grace. 

The best biblical example of the transition from Phase 2 to 3 to 4 is found in the life of Job. Verses at the end of the Book of Job encapsulate it thus: 

“I know that You can do all things,
And that no plan is impossible for You.

‘Who is this who conceals advice without knowledge?’
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I do not know.

‘Please listen, and I will speak;
I will ask You, and You instruct me.’

I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear;
But now my eye sees You;

Therefore I retract,
And I repent, sitting on dust and ashes.” (Job 42:2-6)

Recall that Job went back and forth between his friends, who were arguing for cause and effect, and his own uneasy feeling that they were missing something of fundamental importance. This was his period of doubt, his transition from Stage 2 to stage 3, until he got it—until he saw the spirit behind the word rather than just the word, the law, itself. In other words, until he transitioned to stage 4. 

Jonah was a stage 1 individual. He pretended to be interested in the Ninevites and even to be a prophet of God, but at heart he was antisocial, selfish to the core and expected everyone to accept his view. 

Gideon’s prayer showed him to be firmly in stage 2: There’s either dew on the fleece or no dew on the fleece—it’s a black and white situation. But God responds even to prayer such as this. It matters not what stage of faith one is in— God will respond wherever he finds you. He tried to move John out of stage 1. Jesus’s relinquishment of his will in the seminary prayer defines him in mortal terms as being solidly stage 4. 

It is not a given that everyone goes through all these stages of faith. One can be arrested at any stage and stay there. We all know people who perhaps are arrested at stage 1 or stage 2, and one can move back to a previous stage. We all waver in our faith and sometimes seek more certainty or seek to avoid our fears. 

People at lower stages of faith are threatened by people at higher stages of faith, but not vice versa. Stage 2 people view stage 1 people not as threats but as opportunities for conversion. But stage 3 people have rejected them and (maybe worse) stage 4 people have infiltrated their church and are undermining the very foundations right under their noses. Just to rub it in, the stage 4 people seem to be so much more joyful and to have none of the fears and concerns about the destruction of their faith held by those in stage 2. Stage 3 people are afraid of stage 4 people because the latter are just as skeptical as the former but evidently have found something the former still must seek. They have embraced mystery and uncertainty, and yet still find peace. 

It is difficult to minister to people more than one stage below oneself. A stage 3 individual, who has rejected the rule of law, can hardly make a difference to a stage 1 person who has little concept of the law anyway. Israelite writers of the Old Testament were solid stage 2 believers: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” they proclaimed (Exodus 19:8). This is the mantra of the stage 2 individual. Their relationship with God is contractual: “I’ll do this for God, if God does that for me.” 

The God of the Old Testament is put on display by writers who were solidly stage 2. That was their image of God. They use semiotics to portray a God whose face cannot be seen as a God of thunder and lightning and fire. This view contrasts with the picture of Jesus as a loving Shepherd carefully tending his flock; it is institutional, fundamental, and based on principles of law. Jesus came to present a different picture of God—a God of the inner light, a God of mystery, a God of grace and mercy, a stage 4 God. 

The judgments of God as portrayed by those stage 2 writers are a picture of God turning man over to his own devices, as Paul talks about in Romans 1. A picture of a God giving up on Man is a frightful image, to be sure, but it’s the natural consequence of turning one’s back on grace. Even so, if you want to find grace in the Old Testament, it is everywhere. Adam and Eve’s nakedness was covered with a robe made by God’s own hand; Abraham learned that God would provide; Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, as did Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Gideon, Hosea, Gomer, and of course, don’t forget Daniel in the lion’s den—just to name a few. 

So what is your image of God? Can you see the relationship between your image of God and your stage of faith? How can you change your image of God? Do you need to change your image of God? Is there a right or correct image of God? Is there a wrong image of God? What kind of picture of God do you share with others? Are you like the Old Testament writers, or is your picture of God like Jesus (“if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father”)?

David: I was delighted last week to get an email from Chuck Shanley, who used to participate occasionally in this class. He mentioned a Scriptural passage that we have missed: 

No one has seen God at any time; God the only Son, who is in the arms of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:18)

Contradictions are all over that sentence alone.

As for stages of faith: I wonder if people today have the kind of leisure or even desire for the kind of meditation and deliberative thought that goes into becoming a stage 4 person. Maybe we need a different stage, a new stage 4 or 5, something to account for the fact that the world has changed and there are no longer people working out In the fields with time to sit back and chew on a hay stalk and ruminate about the world. Those days seem to have gone with the rising of TikTok.

Carolyn: There’s contradiction too in God’s annihilation of whole cities that were very evil and against what God was trying to do, on the one hand, and searching for that one lost sheep, because he doesn’t want to lose even one, on the other.

Jesus very readily stretches out his arms, but with God, it was cut and dry: Get rid of them. And there were children in those cities. If they were our own naughty children, wouldn’t we like them to be pleaded with rather than annihilated?

Donald: We’re using language about the image of God, the picture of God, and how we relate to God. I think it might be wise for us to consider the idea of semiotics, if we can accept the idea of the three in one, which is not what this discussion seems to be about. They are all one. We can’t get our heads around that. So from a semiotic point of view, maybe we shouldn’t be talking about it in terms of our image. They are characteristics as we understand them, of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

We would probably describe God most of the time as caring, violent, forgiving, merciful. These are words that as a photographer, people might come to me and say: “This is what I want this product to say in an advertisement.” Those words—caring, violent, forgiving, merciful—are not something I can pick off the shelf and plop into a picture. We are confusing what the image of God is and looking at it as three rather than one. 

And don’t we really mean to say the characteristics rather than the image of God? We really don’t know what God looks like. I really think it’s the characteristics that we’re exploring (or need to explore) and are intriguing.

Reinhard: Jesus claimed that he and the Father are one. So Jesus is like his Father. The picture of God is very much in Jesus. If Jesus would have come in the Old Testament times people would still have rejected him. God knew what mankind must go through before Jesus came, and it took 1500 years after the Lord God gave the law through Moses on Sinai, laying the foundation for how to live the right life, how to live as people in the eyes of God.

The Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah happened long before the law. After the law, God stopped such wholesale destruction except for once during the Exodus when God killed 23,000 Israelites for worshiping the golden calf. 

No matter what stage of faith someone is in, they can see in the Bible the hand of God leading the people. So to me, God had to give the law through people—through Moses—until Jesus. Unfortunately, the Pharisees took the law to extremes, forgetting about God’s love of humankind. It is written in the Old Testament to love God with all your heart and strength, but it doesn’t mention about living Man. It demanded a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, a life for a life. Jesus added: Love your neighbor as yourself, just like you love the Father. his is a contrast but not a discrepancy. It’s the way God wanted to make his law work and to inspire people to do his will. 

After 1500 years with the law, God came again through Jesus, who is the face of the Father and in whom is the character of God. Jesus showed this is the true life and tried to straighten up the wrong practices of the Jewish people, those who would not even look at their neighbor, being so conceited, condescending, and uncaring. 

Even the Ten Commandments don’t include one to love your neighbor, though the last six are about respecting other people’s rights and not hurting them. It was Jesus who proclaimed in a more clear way that you should love your neighbor as yourself. 

Through the Israelites, the chosen people, God told the world how to live the right life, how to behave, and how to worship him in the temple of God. After all, we are all his creation, He wants his people to act the right way. The wicked people in the Old Testament—before and for long after the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah—had no guiding law, and there is supposed to be no sin without law. 

In fact, God once wanted to wipe out the whole of humanity. He regretted having created us. But again, we know his plan of salvation, and we who live today have the benefit of historical hindsight, of being able to look back to the time of Jesus and before, when people didn’t really know exactly what God wanted. As well, the apostle Paul complemented Jesus’s teaching, to our benefit. We can better differentiate, we can better discern what God wants and what we need to do.

Michael: It’s surprising that the image of God in the Old Testament is not always consistent. Some books display him as maybe more vengeful, some books display him as more loving. And it might be not up to God — it might be up to the person writing the book! For example, Isaiah seems to display a really great image of God compared to other books. So what they write about about him might be up to how the writer saw God. 

Don: Might we say that Jesus came to correct a faulty picture of God? And if the answer to that is yes, then do you say that the picture of God in the Old Testament is faulty?

Reinhard: Not necessarily faulty. I think that’s the way God knew he had to be with the people in Old Testament times to get them to go the way he wanted, to correct their behavior to live the right life. Jesus came as a person to show the God of love, to complete the mission, so people will know that God is love and not just punishment. We can see that good and innocent people may be punished in life but will be saved for eternal life.

Rimon Safadi: When Jesus said “If you see me you see the Father” might he means that if you understand and practice the teachings of Jesus, you will see the Father the way Jesus sees the Father?

Jay: Any given stage of faith is not better or more right than any other. Because we number them 1 through 4, we tend to assume the higher number is a higher rank, that 4 is better than 2 is better than … etc. For me, the stages of faith is just a construct by which we can categorize our faith relationship as well as categorize how we relate to God. Just because you’re in stage 4 doesn’t mean you’re going to be saved and somebody in stage 2 isn’t going to be saved, or just because you’re in stage 4 doesn’t mean you’re able to pass along grace better than somebody who is in stage 2. I think that’s an important construct point to remember as you’re looking at it. 

But there’s no doubt in my mind that the stage of faith definitely impacts your perception of what God is, of the characteristics of God. Therefore, it’s possible that if you are seeing a disconnect between the Old and New Testaments, maybe you’re seeing people relating to God who may be at different stages of faith. I would propose that in stage 2, there’s a very clear right, a very clear wrong, and very clear rules to follow, and when you’re outside of those rules or outside of those definitions of right and wrong, your relationship with God can be categorized as “I’m an in” or “I’m an out.” You tend to see that kind of construct a lot more in the stories of the Old Testament relating to the people of that time, how they’re relating to God and how they’re relating to other people. 

When you transition into the New Testament, what you really see is that those lines become very blurred. For now the message—the gospel—isn’t for a distinct group of people, it’s for all people, and because of that the rules and regulations grow fuzzy. What should you eat? Is that important? How you should you be baptized? How should you be circumcised? These things are no longer a very clear right or wrong, yes or no, black or white construct. It seems as if the people of the New Testament are relating to God through a different kind of faith construct, a phase 4 kind of construct. 

It doesn’t make God a different God in the sense of one God of the Old Testament and one God of the New Testament. People at that time of the Old Testament were relating to God through what looks like a specific faith construct, as opposed to the New Testament people who are relating in a different faith construct.

In recent history, to bring it home to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, you can see this. Faith organizations tend to start out as very phase 2 because they are defining themselves and trying to understand the parameters by which they exist, but as those entities evolve over time, there tends to be a transitioning through stage 3 to stage 4, back to stage 2, and so on. 

So really, it’s not about “Why is God in the Old Testament different than God in the New Testament?” I think the question is really about how is God being perceived in the Old Testament. The authors are trying to relate to God and they’re showing their relationship to God through some kind of faith construct. Is that a different faith construct than what you’re seeing in the New Testament?

We want God to be so absolute and definable. But there couldn’t be a more abstract thing, and the only way for us to relate to that, to talk about that, is through a human construct. I think we have to be mindful that we’re doing that. 

I’m not trying to disregard inspiration and enlightenment and God reaching out to us to say, “Let me help you shape the picture of me.” I’m not trying to take that out of the mix at all. But we have to own that with everything, and the more abstract they become, the more our own biases are implied to help define what it is.

David: It’s a pity we don’t have one of our Muslim friends here to talk about why Islam does not allow images of God. Maybe Islam’s founders had this debate hundreds of years ago and decided that since we cannot possibly picture God, we should not even try. We are bound to get it wrong and thereby do God a great disservice. So let’s prohibit it.

Don: It certainly hasn’t prevented us from trying. We are very happy to tell everyone what God looks like and what he expects. We’re even happy to speak for God. 

Donald: Jason was right that when an organization independent of Adventism tries to construct itself and define who it is and what it’s about, it has to get something down on paper, otherwise it’s not differentiable from the one next door. In doing that, you’re defining yourself as an organization in stage 2. I guess my question would also be then, does an organization really want its people to move on to stage 3 and 4?

Jay: I would say that depends on the culture of the organization. I think there are plenty of organizations looking to broaden and be more enlightened and believe that they aren’t strictly defined. It’s a curious point that our own organization, on paper, says it’s one of those. Our organization says it has no creed except the Bible itself, premised on increasing knowledge. This is part of our history. 

C-J: To me, this is not a fast “This is all there is to it.” You can see that in the Catholic church, as Popes have moved through. I feel like I can see how a pope is relating to God and how that shapes the organization. If you look at the most recent Pope, you would call him pretty liberal compared to Popes throughout history, and the entity itself takes on some of that culture, some of that relationship, just to shape itself. These are not steadfast “always will be” constructs.

Jay: When I say the culture of the organization, if you want to take this to an organizational level, then you really start talking about leadership being the major component of establishing the culture of an organization. What state of faith is the leadership relating and proceeding to God from? Depending on where leadership finds itself in the shaping of that culture, is really how the entity itself is going to relate to that culture. 


Talking about the face of God, I’d like to cite two points in Scripture: First, concerning Moses:

Then Moses said, “Please, show me Your glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion to whom I will show compassion.” He further said, “You cannot see My face, for mankind shall not see Me and live!” Then the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:18-23)

So clearly, Moses never saw God’s face, only his back. 

The second point is when the angel comes to John, and shows him the river of water of life and what is surrounding the throne: 

There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him;they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. (Revelation 22:3-4)

Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden, so they must have seen him if they were walking with them. But once they became sinners—a tendency we inherited—God’s purity would cause them (us) to be destroyed. But then, according to what the angel told John the Revelator, in heaven, we will be able to see Jesus and the Father as well.

Don: Of all the things that identifies something and someone, if you want to know something about them, it’s their face. You can line up all of us on the back side without any clothes on and it might be difficult to tell one from the other. The really defining characteristic of identity is your face. And here God is saying “You can’t see my face.” 

It goes back to the observation that no one can know God. Are we are we really purveying in an area that we shouldn’t even be purveying—that of trying to explain God, trying to know God, trying to get to understand God, when in fact, we can’t see his face—the defining characteristics of him—until as Robin pointed out, the earth is made new? It’s an interesting thought.

C-J: I don’t think it is our face, because as we age, our faces change. I think it is our character. In the Muslim faith they have a list of 99 characteristics or attributes of God. I think God is much more interested in us having relationship with him through that lens—who is God, not by the way he appears, and that’s the danger of icons. God really wants relationship with his creation.

Donald: There’s a movie coming out with Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) who plays a pastor. It’s called The Jesus Revolution. It follows reality. It’s based on the “Jesus freaks” who followed the hippies. Where were they to be found? What organization took them in? Pastor Kelsey Grammer values their perspective. 

Don: I think we’re in that context, we have a difficult time. We are trying to describe a God that looks like us because we’re egocentric, and we’re trying to describe God in a way that helps us to understand him. But we need to be sensitive. Everybody has a culture and our perspectives change based upon our experiences, and we need to be cognizant of that.

* * *

Leave a Reply