How do you imagine God? When you picture God in your mind’s eye, what image i present?
Does God appear to you as the classical Zeus-like figure, sitting upon a throne with a long white beard and flowing white robe? Or does your image of God look more like the tranquil good shepherd?
When I posed this question to over 50 children as a part of my spiritual direction certification final project, I was amazed at the images they put on paper.
My work in ministry has been in the area of faith formations and much of that time has been with children. Over the years, I have studied faith education and spiritual direction.
I have observed children at play and at worship. In recent years, it dawned on me that the work of my ministry – every children’s sermon that I have preached, every Bible lesson I have taught and every camp I have directed – has largely been about guiding children to see God.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr said, “God is reality with a face – which is the only way most humans know how to relate to anything. There has to be a face!” We need and want to put a face on God, but what we might not realize is that the face we create for God as children will have a spiritual effect on us into adolescence and adulthood.
In recent years, my ministry focus has shifted to the area of spiritual direction. As a spiritual director, I have become more conscious of the role that our God-image plays in our spiritual development as adults. This raised in me a curiosity to study children’s images of God and the role that parents and spiritual leaders play in shaping that image.
In most cases, our working image of God comes from our parents or some other authority figure. That image is often a combination of those adult role models.
If those adults are nurturing and caring, then we will see God as nurturing and caring. If those adults are strict and withdrawn, then we will assume that God is strict and withdrawn.
If churches reflect a God that is impersonal, judgmental, and out to punish us, then we will carry that image with us. That is why I believe that the work of teaching good theology and demonstrating creative spiritual practices are important in the faith development of children. If we fail to teach children and teens how to turn inward spiritually, then they will settle for a faith stuck in their childhood God-image.
For my project, I enlisted the help of parents and children’s ministers. They were given instructions to guide the children to draw a picture of what they think God looks like or what they picture in their minds when they think about God.
Some of the children who participated in the project were children I knew personally, but many I did not know. However, after studying their drawings, I felt a sense of connection with them.
I concluded that imagining God together creates that connection. It became meaningful for me to see God through their eyes.
Victoria, a six-year-old, drew one of my favorite pictures in the collection. In her comments, she said, “I think God is related to me … I think of him as a never-ending mother because moms are so nice and fun and helpful and never leaves you and that’s what I love about God.”
I loved her run-on sentence because it felt enthusiastic and genuine. I was also pleased that she expressed and recognized the feminine side of God.
The mother image ran through many of the drawings. In her picture, Victoria didn’t just talk about God as a mother, she drew God that way with pink pants, brown pigtails and large brown eyes. I would assume that Victoria’s mother looks much like this image.
Seven-year-old Davis’ image of God depicted the earth as God’s eye. He said that he imagined God this way because he believes that we are a part of God.
George is a curious, smart, and kind eight-year-old boy, and his image resonated with me. He said that he sees God as a “never-ending light,” and his picture was simply a big, bright, yellow light.
George also wrote on his picture that “God talks to me when I pray.” I believe that George has a deep connection with God.
Of course, the collection included its share of pictures depicting God on a throne with a long white beard, and there were the typical biblical images of Jesus in a robe and sandals. There was even a classic Casper-like ghost drawing with the caption, “Spirit/Friendly Ghost.”
This project gives me hope that those of us who interact with children, whether we are ministers, parents, or teachers, will consider how we affect the God-image that children carry. I hope we will examine ways to be more intentional in presenting sound theology and good spiritual practices, and that the face of God we present will bear an image of grace and love,
From Macon, Georgia, DuCharme has served for over 30 years as a children’s minister and associate pastor of faith formation. Her new ministry is providing one-on-one and group spiritual direction, retreat leadership and pulpit supply