By Jen Pfeiler
“Write the first five things that come to your mind when you think about God,” Lydia calmly instructed.
She looked around the group of just under a dozen fellow ministry students. Throughout our time together, we took turns instructing the group. It was her turn to teach and I could sense her hopefulness that we would truly write the first few unfiltered thoughts that came to mind so she could demonstrate her counseling technique effectively. Most students were not used to unveiling their true thoughts beyond “church appropriate” responses. Having previously been to counseling myself, I knew her unstated goal.
I looked across the table and over the heads of my fellow students to glance out the window. The South African sun was slipping below the hills and trees. The air was cooling after a warm spring day. After gathering some inspiration, I wrote down the first few things that came to mind. The things people often say. It wasn’t until the third or fourth item that I tried to quiet an intrusive thought. But it persisted, so I gave into jotting it down.
When she asked for volunteers to share, many people said things like “God is love”, “God is good”, “God is merciful”, etc. I could sense she was hoping there would be a deeper, authentic “freudian slip” that someone would dare to admit so she could guide us through understanding ourselves in order to connect deeper with God. Lydia was not trained in the Immanuel approach, but she had experience using art therapy with human trafficking victims so she was not afraid of those deeper, potentially painful parts of humanity.
Despite what I wanted to write or admit, I volunteered to read off my list. I wanted to give her a chance at taking the exercise to the extent she was going for. I read through the first couple expected points, and then with some hesitancy acknowledged the intrusive thought I wanted to shove away: “God is angry”. That was the annoying, yet unshakeable thing that had come to mind for me.
Now, connection to Immanuel’s joy was not a new or foreign concept. In fact, I had many joyfully bliss Immanuel encounters prior to my trip to South Africa that I treasured deeply. Yet in the desolate hills of the Western Cape around a group of strangers I’d probably only see once in my life, my mind admitted a secret: Part of me believed God was flippantly angry in my direction.
I don’t remember the facial expressions around the room, but my secret was out. Lydia validated the importance of understanding and confronting our authentic thoughts, adding that this method can be an important tool to get to the bottom of what we truly believe about God and other subjects.
Owning my perception of “God is angry” was the first step. Sitting with Immanuel about it was the next step. I knew God wanted to repair trust with me in an area I wasn’t even consciously aware I lacked trust. Spending the year prior doing Immanuels, sitting in His peace, joy, and comfort, gave me enough security and capacity to believe for healing connection on the other side of my realization that I believed God was angry at me.
In the next exercise, Lydia tasked us with drawing a nature scene and asking God where He was in that scene. I saw a desert and sand dunes almost immediately. God as the Father was using the intense warmth of a desert to reflect an environment that captured the safety of a warm blanket. As I drew the picture, I sensed the Father was sitting in the middle of the sand dune next to me. He looked at me with gentleness and said, “So you think I’m angry, huh?”
It felt easy to be with Him, but I still felt stuck in my belief that He was truly angry. Not overwhelming me, the Father didn’t say much more. We just sat on the sand dunes together while I found comfort in His presence.
After a night’s rest, I felt my mind and body carry a renewed capacity to receive more from the Lord on the subject of His anger. So I went for a walk. I had an Immanuel moment where I could sense the Father on the walk with me.
He said, “Jen, I’m slow to anger. My anger is slow.”
I understood what He meant. He wasn’t flippant or moody. It wasn’t just a switch He turned on any time I failed. He is incredibly patient.
The Father continued, almost as if He was paraphrasing Exodus 34 to me, “I’m abounding in steadfast love. I have mercy for you.”
He was affirming His affection, His loyalty, and His Hesed toward me. He helped me understand His justice and its dance with mercy. I felt the shame from my failures melt away. My perfectionism and performance wasn’t the standard. I trusted His explanation.
I would not have been able to believe the Father’s words had He attempted to impart this insight to me a year prior. I would not have let it affect my nervous system and perception of myself. I would have either denied my intrusive thought or been unable to receive His love. Yet, a year of Immanuel encounters and joy moments had laid the groundwork for me to repent – change my mind – about God’s perception of my failures.
As humans, we were created to be image bearers of God. Each one of us carries a unique gift mix that reflects a piece of God’s heart. This is why life is so precious, despite brokenness and trauma. When we get back to being our best self, we not only get to reflect God’s glory, but we also receive the redemption of relational connectedness to God. We trust Him. We trust His redemptive story for our lives.
When we allow ourselves to confront the half-truths, lies, fears, and misperceptions of God, we open ourselves up to new depths of security with Him as He shifts the way we think. My best self authentically believes that God is with me and that He has my best interest in mind. My best self, living from the heart Jesus gave me, is unafraid of Immanuel Himself and enjoys basking in His delight toward me. My best self, with the help of Immanuel, is securely attached to every aspect and attribute of God.