“Let us pray to God that we may be free of God.” —Meister Eckhart
“Your image of God creates you.” —Richard Rohr
I was raised with a precise and comprehensive picture of who God is. If anyone had asked me to describe God when I was ten, fifteen, or twenty years old, I would have rattled off a list of divine attributes as readily as a kindergartner recites the alphabet: “God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He’s the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer. He’s immanent and transcendent, incarnate and divine. He’s holy, perfect, righteous, and merciful. He’s the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
If anyone had pressed further, I would have revealed more telling details — the unofficial and contradictory ones I internalized by default along the way: God is male, God is white, God is American, God is victorious. God is untouchable, God is intimate. God is “out there,” God is right here. God respects our freedom, God directs our lives. God loves everyone, God picks favorites. God blesses and curses, forgives and punishes, cures and kills.
In other words, I might have insisted that I had God more or less down, and that whatever gaps remained in my knowledge would be filled in along the way — the point of the Christian life being to grow in absolute certainty about God.
So reality has been a rude shock. I didn’t understand until recently that my life with God would actually be one long goodbye. That in fact, to know God is to unknow him. To shed my neat conceptions of the divine like so many old snakeskins, and emerge into the world bare, vulnerable, and new, again and again. I didn’t know that the shedding would take so long. Or that it would hurt. Or that there would be a complicated joy — layered and bittersweet — in this pain.
“Let us pray to God that we may be free of God,” the 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, implying that our conceptions of God must always fall short, always fail. Let’s name honestly, he suggested, the imposter gods we conjure because we fear the Mystery who really is. Let’s admit that we shape these gods in our own image, and that they serve us as much as we serve them. Let’s dare to commit ourselves to the long goodbye.
Well, I’m trying, but I won’t lie: it’s hard. Some gods slough off easily. But others cling. Here are the ones I’m struggling to prise off now:
The god who bargains, transacts, and seals the deal: if I do A, then god does B. If I behave, then I’ll be loved. If I mess up, I’ll make god angry. If I work hard, I’ll earn forgiveness. If I’m the best, I’ll earn a blessing.
The god whose omnipotence guarantees my safety: the god who spares the children, cures the cancer, stops the rapist, and defuses the bomb. Who conquers depression, ends anxiety, eliminates terror, and postpones death. The god who explains satisfactorily when things go wrong.
The god whose perfect will controls everything: the god who secures parking spots, pay raises, soccer victories, and SAT scores. Who controls my choices and directs world history. Whose desires order all things, always, such that nothing happens unless this god wants it to. Who runs the universe on a Master Plan.
The god who makes faith easy: by providing answers, erasing doubts, planting signs, and peddling miracles. By coming when called, and leaving when dismissed. By parting all clouds, and enabling me always and everywhere to feel his presence.
These are just a few of my current imposters. I’ve had others, and I will again, I’m sure. Layer by layer, I work to peel them back. The difficulty is, these gods don’t look ugly or sinister. They look beautiful. They speak kindly and make the most alluring promises. They pretend to make the world less scary, more manageable, more tame. They play tricks on my tired mind. Worse, they take hold of my deepest hungers and promise feasts beyond imagining. I’m afraid I’ll starve if I let them go.
So I pray and wait, wait and pray. I ask for the courage to say goodbye again and again and again, and I mourn the deaths of these gods, even as I recognize them to be fake. I pray to God to be free of god — of all the gods who keep me from apprehending the One who really is. And then I pray to know the God who dwells in mystery. To love that God. To embrace that God. To thrive under that God’s care. I pray for what will come after this long and arduous goodbye. I pray to know the God who IS.