The Journey to Answering That of God in Everyone

I’m probably one of the few Friends who has an aversion to the term "that of God in every one." It may be because we talk about it a lot, but often fail to practice looking for it. Or that it is poorly defined and we may not fully agree on what we mean by it. But mostly, if I were totally honest with myself, my dislike stems from feeling inadequate and unable to actually see or answer that of God in everyone. In my work as a healthcare provider, I become very unsympathetic and have great difficulty seeing that of God in the very people I hope to help. After a while, every patient I see seems to come with a long list of ailments, each of which they would like to cure with a pill. They don’t want any responsibility for helping themselves. Some days I just want to tell everyone to get a life. Part of my problem is that I fall into the pattern of acting as if I’m in charge; that I can just make up my mind to recognize that of God in another and then do it.

We think seeing that of God in everyone is the core of Quakerism, but really it’s the core of the whole Christian message and task, to learn to love as God loves. Seeing or answering that of God in others isn’t a mindset. I can’t just decide that’s what I’m going to do, and by sheer force of willpower begin to love as God loves. Only with God’s help, grace, and guidance can I truly recognize that of God in another, to love not as a simple intellectual exercise, but with my very heart and soul. It is, as theologian Roberta Bondi writes in her book To Pray and to Love, "a way of being, seeing, thinking, feeling, and acting." Answering that of God in others is the work of a Christian’s lifetime, the very core of the Christian life. It is a lifelong journey with God, a task that starts with a life of prayer. I have to make the effort to see the image of God in my fellow human beings, but in the end I have to recognize that to see that of God in another is a gift of grace from God and not an act of my will.

So given a lifetime to learn how, what does it actually mean to recognize that of God in another? The very phrase illuminates part of our problem, because that of God in everyone is not just about how we relate to others. At the heart of the expression is God and our relationship with God. It is about loving God, and recognizing and loving that of God in ourselves. Only then can we begin to learn to recognize and love that of God in others. As I journey toward recognizing that of God in everyone, I must start my journey with and toward God.

One morning last fall, I was taking a walk up the hill behind our house. As I started to slide down the deer trail underneath the hemlocks toward the creek, I heard someone splashing in the water below. I stepped off the trail and inched my way along, peeking through the trees to see who was at the watering hole. As I waited, a two-point buck appeared out of the trees about 15 yards from me. He stopped and stared, eyes wide, ears forward, every muscle tense, ready to run. So absorbed had he been in his own routine, he’d never caught sight or scent of me until he looked up and there I was. I thought, "Is that what I look like, God? When I finally stop worrying and being absorbed in my own tasks, then I look up and discover you before me. And there you have been all along, and I was unaware." And I wonder how I think I can begin to see that of God in others, when I’m not even aware of the God who is with me every day, all day long.

The task of knowing God involves a life of prayer, of taking time to be with God in silence and solitude, of learning to listen to God, of learning to love God. In John 21:15, Jesus asks Simon Peter, "Do you love me more than these others?" In the same way, God asks us, do you love me? Jesus tells us the greatest commandment is this, "that you love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself." So the first step to recognizing God in others and to loving others, is to know God and to love God. To love God requires developing a long-term daily relationship with God. Friendships are built over time, and friendship with God is no different. Part of loving God also involves fully receiving and recognizing God’s love for us. Intellectually, it’s easy to say I’m loved by God, but truly feeling loved is a lot harder. To move beyond a simple intellectual understanding of being loved by God toward a truly heartfelt experiential understanding, takes building a relationship over time. But beginning to understand that God truly does love us, unconditionally, despite all our failings, is necessary for beginning to embrace that of God within ourselves and within others. 1 John 4:19 reads, "Let us love because God loved us first." Without knowing God’s love personally and fully receiving the grace of God’s love, we are hampered in the task of growing in God and in the love necessary for answering that of God in everyone.

We are all made in the image of God, and that is what causes us to yearn for relationship with God and connection with each other, whether we recognize it or not. Roberta Bondi writes, "Although human life as we know it without God may appear hopelessly broken, God’s image remains within us—partially erased or covered over but still there. This means that, however skewed our vision of God, others, and ourselves becomes, something in us still recognizes God. The image of God that is in us is the part of ourselves that never stops desiring to move toward love." That of God within, the image of God in which we are created, is our true self, that person God created us to be, that we are called to discover and uncover. Inherent in recognizing that of God in others is the requirement that we unearth and recognize that of God in ourselves.

To begin to reach out to others with honesty and compassion requires the unearthing of our true selves, the stripping away of the false self, all the masks we wear that help us function in the world. Those false selves, which lead us to need to compete with others, to succeed by worldly standards, and to be loved, accepted, and approved of by those around us, are a hindrance to loving others. Our false selves cloud our ability to accept ourselves as we are and others as they are. Religious author Robert Benson writes in Between the Dreaming and the Coming True that God whispered us into being. As God spoke the creation, so God spoke our names in calling us into creation. And we spend our lives searching for that word that was whispered into us, so we can more fully become who God created us to be: our true selves, that of God within us. Robert Benson writes, "I was then, and am still, the only person on Earth who has any clue at all as to what was whispered into me in the depths of my mother’s womb. Everyone else is just guessing, and their guesses are a lot less well informed than mine. . . . If I cannot hear that word, no one can. If I do not hear that word, no one will. If I do hear it and fail to act upon it, no one will be the word . . . that God spoke [into me]." If we fail to uncover our true selves—the image of God we are created in—then we fail to participate fully in the creation, in the world God loves. And we cannot fully travel on the lifelong task of answering that of God in everyone.

George Fox wrote, "Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one." Part of beginning to recognize that of God in others may be found in the meaning of the word "answering." The 17th-century meaning of answering is quite different from our modern understanding of the word. Some of the meanings include: to be responsible for, to fulfill the expectations of, to echo, to correspond or give back in kind. (I’m indebted to Paul Buckley, Earlham School of Religion adjunct faculty member, for introducing me to this idea.) I love the idea that George Fox was calling us to echo that of God in others. If God whispered us into being, then to echo back to another the image of God that they were created in, is to let that whisper grow louder, carry farther, and sing out longer. When I truly learn to answer that of God in everyone, I will begin to help the song of God carry throughout the world.

Answering that of God in everyone may also require us to develop a sense of responsibility to the spiritual lives of those we meet. Is God perhaps calling us to help others recognize that of God in themselves and the yearning of their souls for wholeness in God? Maybe we are able to do that through our actions of love and caring, but might it also require whispering the name of God to others?

Evangelism among some Friends has been much maligned, but maybe we dislike it because we have allowed others to define it for us. To evangelize means to simply speak the good news, the news that we are created in the image of God, that God loves us. Thomas Kelly wrote, "But the value of Woolman and Fox and the Quakers of today for the world does not lie merely in their outward deeds of service to suffering men, it lies in that call of all men to the practice of orienting their entire being in inward adoration about the springs of immediacy and ever fresh divine power within the secret silences of the soul." Might it be that to answer that of God in others, we may also need to speak the name of the One who created us in her image and longs to be in relation with us?

At the watering hole in the woods at my house, the creek has carved a deep pool out of the shale. As the creek comes down into the pool, there is a small waterfall at the head of the pool. The water drops about a foot and swirls around the rock until it continues down into the watering hole. That rock on which the water swirls has over eons been rubbed smooth as a bowl by the gentle rotating of the water before it heads on down the hill. Soft water over time has carved out a smooth circular basin into that hard rock. And that is how God’s soft and gentle love needs a lifetime to soften my hard heart and teach me how to love. To answer that of God in everyone isn’t something I can just do because I make up my mind to. To answer that of God in everyone is the very heart of a life with God, a life based on learning to love as God loves. It is a lifetime task, one I can only venture on and grow in through God’s grace, help, and love. And the journey starts with God, recognizing that we are children of God, loved by God, and in love with God.
© 2003 Priscilla Berggren-Thomas

Priscilla Berggren-Thomas

Priscilla Berggren-Thomas is a member of Poplar Ridge (N.Y.) Meeting. She is a student in Earlham School of Religion's Access Program.