God is Watching Us


Here's an apparently straightforward biblical idea: all of us in this world, this universe, live our lives under the gaze of our all-seeing, all-knowing Creator.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;|
it is so high that I cannot attain it.1

This aspect of God is present from Genesis 1 - "God saw everything that he had made" - to the teaching of Jesus - "even the hairs of your head are all counted".2 Whether from a distance or not, the Bible confirms at least this much of Bette Midler's refrain: God is watching us.

How do you feel about this idea of God? I'm presently having to revisit it. To explain why, I need to digress. In 1791, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham published a book with the title Panopticon. In it he put forward a concept for constructing any sort of institution in which people need to be kept under supervision, such as prisons, workhouses, asylums, hospitals and schools.

The idea was simple. The panopticon would be circular with a central observation tower placed at the hub. Individual rooms or cells would fan out and be visible from the central observation point. All inmates (in the case of a prison) could see the tower, and the guard in the tower could see into every cell. But, at any given moment, inmates would never know whether anyone was actually in the tower or whether they were being watched.

Bentham's idea was that the observation tower could be staffed with a minimum of expense, yet inmates would live constantly with the possibility that they were under observation. The key to the panopticon is implied in the name: a dominant all-seeing gaze which in time would become internalised as a kind of self-supervising, self-regulating mechanism.

Contemporary expressions of the same principle include video surveillance in shopping areas and speed cameras. We never know whether the speed camera is on or not. Sometimes the camera is only hinted at, by signs that warn that speed cameras may be in the area. The intention, and the reality, is that under this 'gaze' most of us will become self-policing, watching the speedometer and easing the accelerator if our speed is too high.

Then there are the more subtle forms of surveillance. Electronic 'eyes' track our movements in the worlds of finance (ATM records), communication (cell phone records) and the internet ('cookies'). Here the intention is not so much to instil self-surveillance as to gather, record and utilise information for the economic benefit of others.

Yet, as we become more aware of the digital dimensions of the gaze, I suspect that we again begin to experience the panopticon effect. The sense that 'big brother is watching' generates discomfort, fear, perhaps even irrational tinges of guilt or shame.

The mention of shame invites wider reflection on the idea of the internalised all-seeing gaze. Turning Bentham's Panopticon model inside out, we could think of an individual person at the centre, surrounded by watching eyes. I find myself in a crowd or a social situation. At any point in time it is unlikely that everyone is looking at me. But any person or group in the crowd may be looking at me, and so I am conscious of living my life before the gaze of an array of imagined critical onlookers.

Taken to an extreme this becomes paranoia, but isn't it a reality for all of us? In the privacy of our own rooms we look at ourselves in the mirror and this imagined social gaze largely determines how we see and feel about ourselves.

The same principle is at work within particular contexts. For example, I often feel reluctant to get down to work on this column. I don't want to put my words and thoughts on paper. Why not? Because (I flatter myself!) they will be read and evaluated by readers I do not know. My words are an extension of me, so in the act of writing I submit myself, my mind and my heart, to the gaze of critical eyes. Usually I am convinced that I will be judged and found wanting. Such is the power of the internalised, imagined, supervisory gaze!

I presume the same is true for artists, musicians, those who play sport, those who produce plays, women who buy clothes, men who drive cars, students who sit exams . . . we produce our lives mindful of the critical gaze of not just one internalised audience but of many.

So what? I became aware of this idea of 'the gaze' through my counselling studies. I have observed its power through the practice of counselling. I suspect that it contributes significantly to the difficulties that stress, anxiety, depression, shame, guilt and identity struggles bring into many people's lives.

In as much as we produce our lives under the scrutiny of an all-seeing, all-judging gaze, we live with anxiety and fear that we will miss the mark. We expend energy shaping our lives to please the gaze. We limit our choices to those that will conform to the preferences of the gaze. The gaze is a Jacob, tricking us into giving up our birthright, our opportunity to live life to the full and become all that we can be.

I guess that by now you will have seen my God question coming. In counselling, and in spiritual direction, I have encountered situations where the oppressive gaze was not that of society or peers, but God. In certain types of Christian communities, and in some versions of Christian discipleship, God is the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-judging guardian at the centre of a cosmic panopticon. God's vigilant watching is invoked, as a means of ensuring conformity and unquestioning obedience to what is said to be the divine will.

The process by which this divine scrutiny becomes internalised often begins when we are young. I remember a well-meaning adult asking me "what Jesus would have thought" about some minor misdemeanour I had committed. I recall a youth leader desperately trying to control an uncooperative group of boys by reminding them that God had a tape recorder on which everything they were saying was being recorded.

More recently I was in a group where a woman spoke of her childhood experience of a father whom she could never please. He constantly told her of a book that God kept, in which all her shortcomings and mistakes were being recorded with black marks.

As an adult she grieved and raged over her abuse by her father and his God. Both had crippled her with fear for years, and robbed her of the freedom to explore the boundaries and potential of her life. One day, as she began to break free from the oppressive effects of this dual gaze, she went into a church and poured out her anger with the worst swear words she knew. "And the roof didn't fall in!" I rather think God might have been cheering.

How do I hold on to the biblical picture of an all-seeing, everywhere-present God, without leading myself (or others) to internalise a crippling, life-stealing form of 'the gaze'? I don't have simple answers. Perhaps the key questions are Who is watching and why?

What is my image of God? A disapproving, perfectionist Big Brother who records all my wrong moves? Does God "search out my path" in order to keep me under surveillance? Does God "hem me in, behind and before" in order to restrict my movements, block my options?

Or is the Psalmist rather taking heart from the fact that no matter what highs or lows life brings, the love of God finds us out to embrace and support us? "If I make my bed in hell, you are there."3 In New Testament terms, "nothing can separate us from the love of God," rather than, "nothing you do escapes God's scrutiny".

I have to acknowledge that there are aspects of the biblical tradition where "God is watching us" with disapproval. Beyond (and behind) these, however, is the more pervasive idea of a God who holds creation in a gaze of love and genuinely freeing grace. I choose to believe that the eye of God beholds us, not to mark our mistakes, nor to fetter our choices, but rather with the kind of gaze we recognise in the best of parents and lovers: delighting, hoping, wooing, freeing, twinkling, weeping.



1 Psalm 139:1-6

2 Genesis 10:31; Matthew 10:30

3 Psalm 139:8



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