Imprinting God

By Ben Swift

“God’s people are holy and called to be holy, set apart by God to be conformed to his Son and to live to his glory.” (Herman Bavinck)

When viewing the cosmos through a God focused lens, you will find there are lessons to be learned almost everywhere you turn, but who would have thought we could expand our theological knowledge by studying the behaviour of newly hatched goslings?

A famous study conducted by scientist Konrad Lorenz led to the understanding of a process called ‘imprinting’. Lorenz divided a clutch of graylag goose eggs, leaving some with the mother and placing the rest in an incubator. Those that hatched with the mother showed normal goose behaviour, following her about and learning from her until their coming of age so to speak. The goslings that hatched in the incubator were first exposed to the researcher and from that day on steadfastly followed Lorenz, demonstrating no recognition of their true mother or other adults of their own species. In a nutshell this demonstrates how imprinting works in the animal kingdom.

As human beings who have been purposefully created to live in relationship with our Creator we must ensure that we go through a process of imprinting that focus’ on the Triune God. There are many voices that seek our attention but only one that truly knows and cares for who we are, what we need and why we are here. This is what Jesus means when he teaches:

“When he [the good shepherd] has bought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice.” (John 10:4-5)

But how can God be the object of our imprinting, particularly as He is incomprehensible and often shrouded in mystery and we’re not goslings, we’re relatively complex human beings? Obviously from a human perspective, much of what we have learned from the moment of our first breath has been influenced by our parents or those closest to us as we move through life. The idea of imprinting by focusing on what God has revealed about Himself can only be understood in terms of our spiritual rebirth. From the moment we die to our old self and are spiritually reborn in Christ, we are to look to Him, follow His voice and learn from His ways. If our imprinting is not based on Christ, make no mistake, we will imprint on alternatives and the world offers us plenty of alternatives to choose from.

It is here that we need to come to terms with our inability as humans to bring about any spiritual rebirth. And as the saying goes, there is no such thing as the evolution of the human spirit. We just can’t change ourselves in a way that makes ourselves right with God. Rather we must acknowledge that our ability to turn to Christ – contradictory to our fallen nature – lies solely in the transforming power of God.

Theologian Karl Barth knew this well. He stressed that humans can know God only when God comes to them in an act of revelation. There is no way from man to God, only from God to man. This revelation is given once and for all in Jesus Christ and he comes to human beings in the existential moment in their lives. (Berkhof)

It is exclusively through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that we are able to recognize Christ for who He is, and the truth in His words.

‘He [Christ] was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:10-13)

For God to be the subject of our imprinting we must, from the moment our eyes are opened, focus on Christ as He is God revealed. As theologian Martin Luther once suggested, we must flee from the hidden God and look to God as revealed in Christ. This is why the Scriptures say:

‘We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.’ (1 John 5:20)

In the animal kingdom, imprinting has been found to be crucial to the survival of individuals of certain species as they learn how to survive in their environment. Unlike those in the animal kingdom relying on critical moments in the early stages of their lives to learn what is needed, those who belong to Christ are not subject to the laws of nature and key imprinting moments critical to the survival of the fittest. God has come to us, His Spirit works within us and guides us in truth as His ways are imprinted on our hearts. It’s all in God’s time and we are in His hands. It’s no wonder Jesus told his disciples to follow Him because His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

Surely as the Holy Spirit makes it clear to us as to whom we belong, we are free to follow Christ as He reveals Himself to us, prayerfully seeking to be transformed to be more like Him each day. Ultimately our eternal lives depend on Him.

Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart. Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. (Psalm 119:33-35)

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