I think in pictures.
Always do, always have. Maybe it’s a writer thing. So it is not unusual for me, when I pray, to visualize God as I pray. Most often, I visualize Him as Jesus – because Jesus was here on earth as a man, and His personhood is something I can wrap my head around. When I imagine God the Father, I don’t bother trying to imagine what it must be like to perceive Him – because who could? – but I generally think of a throne, and fire, and rainbows, and glory: all the wonderful descriptions in Revelation and the prophetic books.
But now I present to you something I didn’t realize prior to now: when I pray, I always visualize God as being up there. Not down here.
When I pray, I pray up. To where I have the habit of assuming God is: to heaven, to the throne of glory, to Jesus. Up there. And I tend to visualize Him up there listening to me down here: bending His mighty ear to this earth which, to Him, must appear as little more than an anthill.
I never realized I did this. On any normal day, of course, I will tell you that I believe God is omnipresent and always right beside me. But I still visualize Him up there. And without me even realizing it, that up-thereness creates a sense of distance. I am always yelling up; He is always bending down.
I have been reading Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy lately (review forthcoming!), and one of my takeaways from that book, and Willard’s teachings, is that God is of course omnipresent, that God is of course always with us, and that we need to seriously contemplate what that actually means.
Willard points out that, indeed, God is “up there.” God does reign in heaven. God is present in the firmament, beyond all our conceptions of what “the world” is. But it is also true that there is nowhere in all of creation that God cannot be found. God is present everywhere. He is up “there,” yes, but He is not only up “there” – He is also right here. The Spirit is right here. Yet in our mundane lives we tend to separate the natural from the supernatural: we put the supernatural “up there” and the natural “down here” and we don’t really comprehend the entire of the fullness of God.
God is divine, but He is also right here with us in this flawed world – not in a metaphorical, abstract sort of way, but in a real and concrete one. Realizing my innate assumptions and how I tend to visualize God accordingly has wrecked my prayer life in a wonderful way.
Oh, I know a lot of people visualize Jesus hanging out around them in the day-to-day when they pray: they imagine Him eating McDonald’s in the car with them, hanging out in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, sprawled on his stomach across the bed. I always struggled with that, personally – I worried about my temptation to emphasize His humanity at the expense of His godliness, to treat Him like a friend rather than my friend who is also All of All.
In truth, that way of picturing Jesus also threatens my understanding of God’s omnipresence. When I imagine Jesus as A Dude In My Car, I am visualizing Him as an entity entirely apart from God on the throne, as someone who is bound by temporal rules and laws and not as the Lord of All: a lot more person, a lot less God. And I don’t want to do that.
So when I say I’ve rebooted my prayer life to fall in line with who I know God is, I don’t mean that I have started picturing Jesus in the passenger seat (although I encourage you to do that if it works for you!) Rather, I mean that I’ve tried to visualize what it means for God to be “up there” and also “down here,” for He is everywhere. What does it mean to look up to the throne of glory and see Him there, but know He is nearer than my own heart?
It changes things. I am no longer “yelling up,” but looking up and really understanding that a whisper will do. If I pause in any moment to realize that God is present right there in all of His triune fullness, it broadens my conception of Him: the God of vastness who reigns over the firmament is also fully with me simultaneously, engaged in an intimacy that does not require me to shout or wave my hands.
I think it’s hard to hold those two things in mind at the same time: God, reigning and ruling, and God, close and concretely present with us. But when you allow yourself to contemplate that both of us things are simultaneously true, you start to marvel at precisely the sort of God He is: one who really is all things to all people, in all the ways that we need Him, without ever compromising any aspect of His being.
It’s remarkable. And it makes the act of prayer truly astounding in scope.