Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens--what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave--what can you know? Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea. (Job 11:7-9)
But Moses protested, "If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' they won't believe me. They will ask, 'Which god are you talking about? What is his name?' Then what should I tell them?" God replied, "I AM WHO I AM". Just tell them, 'I AM has sent me to you.' ...This will be my name forever; it has always been my name, and it will be used throughout all generations." (Exodus 3:13-15)
Will the real God please stand up?
When I talk to people who say they do not believe in God, or that they hate Him, one of the first questions I ask them is "What kind of God do you not believe in"? This may sound like an odd question, because it is clear what we mean when we say "God", right? Wrong. There are lots of misconceptions out there about who and what God is. Some of these misconceptions have, sadly, even been taught to people in Church. It is no wonder they have turned from "god", because their "god" is not really "god" at all, but a very poorly drawn caricature of the God who reveals Himself in the Bible. It often turns out that I do not believe in their "god" either. In fact, I often hate the god they hate too, because their god is a false, harmful lie that drives people from the real God.
So what are some of the misconceptions? I will mention a few:
Some see God as a cosmic Santa Claus or Vending Machine that was supposed to give them what they wanted when they said the magic "faith words" in prayer. When this false god let them down, they lost faith in god altogether.
Some see God as a cruel puppet-master, who controls all things with an iron fist and creates some people destined forever, while he makes some people with the intention of sending them to hell. If we do not follow him and bow to his whims, we show that we are reprobate and predestine for hell. This is the god that leads people to hate others, and go on crusades and holy wars to rid the world of "infidels" and "pagans". It is pretty easy to see why someone might hate this god.
Some see God as a huge Judge that controls people through guilt. God is always up there pointing fingers and judging us. Like one girl said in my wife's third grade class: "We go to Church so that we do not hurt God's feelings". We can never be good enough to please this god, so many just give up and become bitter.
Finally, some see God as a neglectful, absentee parent. He does not care about us, and has other things to do. He does not love us, as much as puts up with us. He is never there when we need Him, and He allows us to go our own way without ever intervening in our lives. Many people get the hint and stop bothering this god, and then learn to hate him.
A way to understand God a little better
I personally find this misconceptions of God nothing short of demonic counterfeits of the true thing, custom made to cause people to hate God. Someone has said that God created us in His image and so we returned the favor. The only antidote is to find out about the Real God. So, the question now becomes: What is He like? Who is He? How does He act? In fact, these are THE three crucial questions about God, so that we can identify who He truly is, and know who the "imposters" are!
It is kind of like understanding a human. To understand me, you might first try and find out what my attributes are: how smart I am, what I look like, and what my strengths and weaknesses are. Then, you would be better able to understand who I am, because what I am will shape my personality. Then, after you understand my personality and my abilities, you could understand how I act, and why I do what I do.
The same information applies to God as well. We will first look at WHAT God is: what kind of being is God? What are His attributes? Based on what God is, then we look at WHO God is: what his personality is like. Then, based on who God is, we can then understand HOW He acts and why.
Knowing about God versus knowing God
Now, when studying God there is one HUGE problem that we have to avoid: knowing about God and not knowing God personally. You see, all of this chapter, and this book, is designed to draw you, the reader, into a personal relationship with God and His family. To do this, we will look at lots of data about God and His truths. But it is very easy to confuse knowing data with knowing God Himself. This data is only intended as a tool to help you personally know God Himself better.
For instance, you could know a lot about me without ever knowing me. You could hire a private detective, check my school records, get my credit report, and even get my FBI files and find out in-depth data about me. Yet, you would never KNOW me personally because you never introduced yourself and sat down to make yourself known to me. Likewise, we can study this book and study the Bible until we are blue in the face, and yet never really know God personally or talk to Him. All of this is to say that you need to use this book as an on-ramp to prayer and knowing God. Don't just read it for the data and knowledge.
What God is: Absolute Perfection in every way imaginable
With this very important warning said, let us explore WHAT God is. This is both very easy and very hard to say. The Bible says that what God is, is utter, total perfection. He is the maximum of all greatness and wonderfulness and nothing can possibly be thought of that is greater than God. So, in one way, it us easy to see what God is. But in another way, it is impossible. How can anyone define perfection? It is impossible!
That is why one of God's many perfections is that He is perfect in holiness and mystery. He is utterly set apart from all other created things and above and beyond anything we can think or imagine . We cannot put Him in a box in any way other to say about Him what He has already told us about Himself in Scripture. His own Holy Name of "Yahweh" points to this, because the Name literally means "I am what I am" (Exodus 3:14). He is what He is. He always has been and always will be, and nothing else can be like Him! If God is small enough to fit in your "box" and perform to your standards, then He is not big enough to be the real God.
God's next perfection is His beauty and splendor. Glory and magnificence surrounds Him, and shines forth from Him in a way beyond description. There is nothing more perfect than His beauty, and to see Him face to face is to be transformed from one degree of glory to another until we look like Him! When we see beauty in creation or in another person, we are seeing just a glimpse of God's beauty shone through them. Everything that is beautiful in all of creation is but a dim reflection of Him who is Perfect Beauty.
God is also perfect in His permanence: He has always been, and always will be. He does not change, ever. He is above and beyond time, and all time is an eternal present tense for God. To Him, this moment, 2000 years ago, and 2000 from now, are all at the same instant. He is outside of the dimension of time, and to Him seeing our time line is like us looking at a line on a piece of paper!
Another of God's perfections is that He is perfect in His presence. He present everywhere, throughout everything, and "in Him we live and move and exist". He transcends space and time, and is beyond our dimensions, so that He is able to be present in all dimensions at all times. Again, God is to us like we are to a piece of paper. We are in three dimensions, so that we can draw two points on a piece of paper and put our fingers on both of them at the same time. In effect, we can occupy two or more places at once in a two-dimensional flat universe, because we are three dimensional. For God, who is far beyond three dimensions, it is nothing for Him to be everywhere at once in our universe. And at certain times, God even becomes specially present to us in miracles and in Jesus Christ.
Because of this, God is also perfect in His perception of all things: He knows everything past, present, and future, all at once. But just because He knows all things does not mean that He determines all things. For instance, we can watch a DVD movie a hundred times and know every word and exactly how it ends, but that does not mean that we made the actors say what they said or do what they did. We just know the results of their free choices. Likewise, God knows everything we could possibly ever choose, and He has a plan to deal with every possible choice in the universe. Nothing surprises God, because He has a plan for everything.
Now, it is impossible to know anything unless you are a person. An impersonal machine may STORE data, but it does not KNOW it. Therefore, Scripture tells us that God is a person. He is a "He", not an "It". God has thoughts and reasons. God has feelings, emotions and desires. God chooses and acts and speaks. These are things that only persons do. In fact, all personality flows from Him who is the Perfect Person.
The final perfection we will look at is God's power. As our Creed says, our God is "Almighty", meaning He has the power to do any and every thing He wants. Nothing can thwart His power or cause Him to do what He does not want to do. There is just one limitation on God's power: Himself. He will never, and can never, act against His own personality. God cannot contradict Himself. For instance, God cannot exist and not exist. God cannot make something so big that He cannot move, because He, by definition, is the biggest, best, most perfect thing there is. To put it short: God does not have the power to do non-sense, because everything He does makes sense. He cannot make an un-square square, because that is self-contradictory, and the reality that God makes does not contradict itself, because God does not contradict Himself. Outside of non-sense, God can, and does, do anything, and nothing can stop Him.
Who God is: Faithful, Unconditional Love
So this is what God is. Based on what God is, we will now look at WHO God is. With all of God's perfection, He could choose to have one of two basic types of personality. He could either be self-giving and share His perfection, or He could be self-serving, and keep all He is to Himself. If He was self-serving, we would not be here. In fact nothing would be here. There would be no need to create us, because there is nothing that creation can give to an all-perfect Creator. But, because we are here, it shows that God is utterly self-giving. He has made us out of the overflow of Himself, to share His being and His perfection with others. This unconditional self-giving is what we call Love with a capital "L"!
The answer to the question "Who is God", is this: God is Love (1John 4:8-16). The Old Testament shows the nature of God's loving personality through the Hebrew word khesed, which means faithful, strong, selfless, merciful giving of oneself to help others. The New Testament uses the Greek word agapey to describe God's Love when it says that the Love that comes from God is "patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud. Love is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails... And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is Love" (1Co 13). This is who God is and what His personality is: unconditional Love with no strings attached.
This Love comes from deep within God's self, because God is not merely one person in one being, like us humans. Just as God is beyond His creation in attributes like power, knowledge, and presence, He is also beyond His creation in His personality. He is not merely personal, but super-personal. He exists as three Persons eternally living in Loving union with each other in one Being. Not three gods, but one God in three persons. In fact, as St. Augustine has said, God is a community in unity. He is the Love-giver, the Beloved, and the Love flowing from Love-giver to Beloved. The Love-giver is the Father, the Beloved is the Son, and the Love flowing between them is the Holy Spirit. This God of Love is called Three-in-one, or Tri-unity, or simply "The Trinity".
Getting a grasp on the Trinity
The idea of the Trinity is one that is pretty hard to grasp at first, but once you get it, it puts the whole world in perspective. The Trinity is the core of what it means to understand reality as a Christian. The full realization of the Trinity took the Church about four centuries to work out after the life of Jesus Christ.
You see, the early Church always had some general idea that the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit were all three God in some sense, but also that they were somehow separate. But exactly how this worked out and how to describe it took some time, and a lot of wrestling with ideas in the Church.
Both Testaments explicitly say that the Father is the one true God. But even in the Old Testament we have some glimpses of the fact that God is super-personal, or multi-personal. As early as the first few chapters of the Bible, God refers to Himself as "we" and appears to have conversation within Himself. Indeed, the Hebrew word for God "Elohim" is a plural noun that is used to refer to a singular Being. Many times in the Old Testament, God appears at the same time in multiple places, often sending Himself to do His own work in creation.
By the time of the New Testament, we have Jesus claiming equality to God. His own disciples, who died for their beliefs in Him, also made Him equal with God as well. Likewise, there is also recognition that the Holy Spirit is equal with God. The Bible also makes it clear that they fully inter-penetrate each other, sharing equally in all that the others have. The Father, Son, and Spirit fully share in each other so that there is nothing that one has that the other two do not have full access to. This seems to make it easy. They are all the same God who appears in different ways. To the Old Testament people, He appeared as the Father. Then He came as Jesus. After this, He works in the Church as the Holy Spirit.
But, not so fast. While the Bible makes them all equally God, it also makes them different. First of all, they appear separately at the same place in Jesus' baptism. The Son speaks to the Father, and the Spirit bears witness to the Father and the Son, not to Himself. Jesus flat-out admits that the Father is greater than Him, and that He came to do the Father's will, not His own. The Father sends the Son and the Spirit. The Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. The Spirit's job is to reveal Jesus and the Father, while it is Jesus' job to reveal the Father. They are separate, and it is just wrong to make them all one person.
But, at the same time, you cannot make them three gods. Scripture says there is just one true God, and we can worship only Him. Yet, you cannot make the Father the only true God and Jesus and the Spirit merely created things. The Bible says that all three are equally Creator, not part of creation. Furthermore, all three save us from evil and destruction. If the Son and the Spirit are part of creation, then they too need to be saved, and they can save no one. We have to recognize that there is just one God and Creator of all created things, and that somehow the separate persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit are equally that one God. But how to do this?
Analogies of the Trinity
This is where the analogies of the Trinity help, even though all analogies fall apart somewhere. The Nicene Creed declares the Trinitarian faith when it says that Jesus is "begotten, not made" by the Father, and that He is "true God from true God and light from light". Indeed, he is "of the same Being", or the same reality, as the Father. Being "begotten" means to be born from something, like a son that is born from a father's DNA. Jesus has the exact same spiritual DNA as the Father, and since this DNA includes being eternal and un-created, the Son has existed with the Father from before all time and never had a beginning.
Another way to think of being "begotten" is how a fire gives birth to light. Jesus is "light from light". You can never have a fire without light and heat, and yet the chemical reaction of the fire, the light caused by the fire, and the heat that results, are all separate. The Father is like the source of the fire, the Son is like the light, and the Spirit like the heat. They have never existed without each other, but they remain separate.
Likewise, the Creed declares that the Spirit is the Lord and Lifegiver. Only God is Lord, and only God gives life. It also says that the Spirit "proceeds" or "flows out" from the Father. The picture painted here is that of a river flowing out of its source. St. Augustine conceived of the Spirit as God's Love, eternally binding the Father and Son together in a self-giving relationship. Using "God is Love" as His inspiration, Augustine described the Trinity as a "River of Love". The Father is the source, from which all Love flows. The Son is the receiver of Love, to whom God's Love flows. The Spirit is the Love that flows from Father to Son, joining them together forever. Through the Son’s death and resurrection, the Spirit overflows to all of creation, sharing God's Love with all who accept Him, as a river flows through its "mouth" into the "sea of humanity" (see John 7.38-39).
Just like a river has these three separate parts, yet remains one thing, so also God has three Persons, but remains one Being. In a river, the flow could not exist without its source, because it would dry up and stop flowing. It could not exist without its mouth, or else it would stop moving and become a huge swamp. It also could not exist as just a source, because then it would just be a small lake and not a river. All three parts are necessary for the river to exist. Likewise, all three Persons in God are separate, but still necessary.
On another level, this makes perfect sense. Like we said above, if God is beyond us in every other way, why would He not be beyond us in personality? Again, let's compare our existence in three dimensions to a two dimensional world on a piece of paper. On a piece of paper, a square has only four sides. But when you raise that square to the next dimension, it becomes a cube with six sides. Now, no one in a two dimensional world would be able to grasp how a square could have more than four sides. But, it is very simple once you get out of two dimensions.
Likewise, it is hard for us, in our dimension, to imagine more that one person existing in one being (without mental illness!). But, in God's dimension, it is easy. Analogies can help us, like the flame, the river, and the cube above. Other analogies could be a man who is a father (to his son), a son (to his father), and a brother all at the same time. A mathematical example is shown by multiplication versus addition. The Trinity is not 1+1+1=3, but instead it is 1x1x1=1. A geometric example is a triangle. It has three sides, yet is one shape, and without any one of those sides, it would cease to be a triangle.
The Trinity in our lives
Each of the members of the Trinity has a special role that He plays in our lives. The Father is primarily "God over us", our CREATOR and director of all of creation for His own good purposes. The Son is primarily "God with us", our SAVIOR who comes to redeem us and provide us salvation by His life, death, and resurrection. The Spirit is primarily "God in us", our TRANSFORMER, who works within us to make us into all that God planed for us to be. Now, this may be a little too simplified, because all three persons share in each of these works in their own way, and none of them does their work without the co-operation of the others. But it is a helpful way to better understand the roles of the Trinity in our lives.
From this eternal self-giving Love within the Trinity flows God's Love to all of creation. In fact, you can think of all of Creation as the overflow of the Love that comes from within the Trinity. This is a very different conception of God from any other religion. In other religions, God loves simply because He chooses to. One day He decides that love is good, and hate is bad, and commands love in His creation. In Christianity, the nature of Love is different. It is not just something commanded by God, it is something that IS God. Love is good because it flows from God's own nature and personality, and that Love will never change. Ever.
How God acts: Total Goodness to all He has made
After this summary of what God is, and who God is, now we look at HOW God acts. Because of His self-giving Love, the Trinity chooses to share His perfection with others. This is God's goodness. In fact, the way we identify how God acts is simply to say that He is good. Only God is truly good, and all other goodness in all of creation flows from Him. Apart from God, there can be nothing good. It is God's goodness that is both the source of all creation and the goal toward which all of creation is headed toward.
From God's goodness, flows His creativity, as we noted above. Because God is good, God creates to share His goodness with other created things. In fact, God is good to all that He has made and wants the best, most fulfilling existence for everything in the universe, from stars to rocks to birds to humans. He has made all things, especially humans, to show forth His goodness and glory, and to share in His Love and His life . That is why God created the world and declared that it is "very good", because it is the overflow of His own goodness.
The second thing that flows from God's goodness and Love is His caring. He cares for all that He has made, especially humans made in His image. We do not MAKE God care for us. It's not like we have Him in an emotional headlock. But, because God has chosen to create us, He has chosen to truly care for us. This does not mean that God changes, but that God unchangingly cares for what is made by His hands. I know this feeling from becoming a father. I do not have to care for my daughter, but by choosing to create her, I chose to enter into her life with her and really care for her. I chose to be attached to her emotionally. The same is true for God. God becomes glad, or mad, or sad, because of our choices. Sometimes He rejoices over us with singing, but other times our choices grieve Him or make Him angry when we deny His Love and set our lives on self-destruction.
God's goodness is also shown in His total consistency. You can always depend on His character and His promises. They will never fail. He will always be pleased with our Love and creativity done for His sake to help others. He will always be grieved or angered at actions that deny His Love and destroy ourselves or others. This total consistency is also shown in how He fulfills His promises. God will never, ever promise and then not fulfill. He will always do what He says and bring about what He says will happen.
This leads to the next aspect of God's goodness: He controls all things. At first, this may not seem good at all. Doesn't total control of all things mean that God is a puppet master and we are His puppets? Some Christians have basically said this, but this is not true. First of all, God controls all things because He wants to ensure the best possible outcome for those He loves (Romans 8:28-39). If God did not control all things, He could not make sure that His promises are fulfilled for those He Loves. He must control everything so that His good purposes come true, and His plans are not thwarted by any evil design.
But, how God controls everything is by allowing freedom, not by limiting it. Let me explain. Have you ever read one of those "pick your own ending" books in elementary school? These are books that gave you certain decision points that allowed you to see what happened if the characters made different decisions. If Susie decided to open the door, you would turn to page 16, but if she went down the stairs, you would turn to page 27. This would change how the story happened, but often the ending was the same no matter how you got there. All the choices ended up in solving the mystery and catching the bad guys.
God's control over reality is kind of like this. Like we said before, He knows every possible thing we could ever choose, and He has a plan to react to anything we could do, so that it steers the course of events to fulfill His promises. On one hand, nothing surprises God, and there is nothing He has not thought of or does not already know. On the other hand, not everything is pre-determined, on a straight line with no deviation. Within certain boundaries there is tons of freedom and choice options which God acts within. God controls reality by allowing the true freedom of His creatures and planning how He will react in any and every possibility.
Goodness, justice, and mercy
This leads us to yet another aspect of God's goodness. His justice and protection for His creation. If God truly Loves us and really cares for us, then He will not stand for us to be mistreated and destroyed. Instead, He will protect us. In His justice, He will destroy everything that seeks to destroy us, and exile it forever so that it cannot hurt us anymore. Again, I think about it in terms of my daughter. If I really love her, then I will be rightly angry at anyone who tries to hurt her, and I will do whatever is necessary to stop them from ever hurting her again.
This is what is meant by God's righteousness. God is righteous because He always does what is right: he acts in ways that are loving and good. God expects us to be righteous as well, and live in right ways that are loving and good. God's justice is totally fair, and does not exclude anyone or anything. He deserves complete Love and obedience from His creation, and anything less than that allows selfishness, destruction, and hate to corrupt and hurt those He loves. Therefore, He judges all that do evil and has wrath upon them, to stop them from destroying those He loves.
But here is the problem for us and for God. All free creatures in creation miss the mark of this perfection, and they deny God and hurt other creatures made and beloved by God (Rom 3). All creatures therefore stand under God's wrath and deserve to be exiled and destroyed for being destroyers of God's creation in big and small ways. God's problem is that the very creatures that He wants to Love and share Himself with are the very ones that deserve His justice and wrath. Our problem is that by our evil we have separated ourselves from God's life and are set on a path to rightful destruction by a righteous God.
So, what does God do about it? He has mercy. God's mercy is perhaps the most incredible aspect of His goodness. It is good for God to destroy evil, but it is even better for Him to have mercy and redeem and transform evil into goodness. He has justice to punish and destroy evil, but He has mercy to forgive those who recognize their evil ways, repent, and turn back to Him. Mercy does not simply mean that God forgets about evil and pretends it is not there. This would not be good, but rather evil, because it allows evil to keep on destroying creation without stopping it.
Instead, mercy fulfills God's goodness, because God gives us an undeserved gift, which we do not deserve, to change and transform evil into good. This undeserved gift is called "grace" in the Bible. Here is how the gift of grace works: To forgive someone, you must take on yourself the consequences of their evil acts. To forgive someone for stealing $20 means to take the debt of $20 on yourself and not make them pay it. To forgive creation for destroying itself, God must take that destruction into Himself, and then overcome it. God's gift of grace is this: He took the death and destruction that evil caused into Himself and defeated it, and overcame it. He did this by coming into creation as the man Jesus Christ, by dying and being destroyed for our evil acts, and by overcoming it through rising again from death to live forever.
All who attach themselves to Jesus by believing in Him and loving Him come to share in this grace, and their evil is put to death, and they become transformed by God's undying Love and goodness. The life, death, and resurrection of God in Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of God's goodness.
Goodness, irony, and humor
Before we leave talking about how God acts, I think it is important to note an often neglected aspect of God's goodness: His irony and humor. God is a fun, joyous God. In irony He turns the tables on the proud and makes them humble. He makes the first last, and the last first. There are always surprising, creative, unexpected twists and turns in how He deals with creation. Just look at how He redeemed the world: by coming as a poor carpenter's son in a backwater country on the far side of the Roman Empire. God is a God of irony, of the unexpected.
This overflows in His humor. If you do not think that God has a sense of humor, just go look at a giraffe, or a beaver, or a platypus, or a blowfish. He even shows His humor in how He deals with evil. When the enemies of God's people stole sacred relics of God and tried to use them in idol worship, God did not just merely destroy them. Instead, to show them how big of a "pain in the butt" they were being, He struck them with hemorrhoids until they finally sent the relics back to God's people, along with several golden statues of hemorrhoids !
Jesus, God in human flesh, also cracked jokes about logs in people's eyes and camels going through the eye of a needle. He liked to play practical jokes on His disciples, like when He freaked them all out by walking on water, or by feeding thousands of people with a sack lunch, or by appearing suddenly in closed rooms after He rose from the dead. God is a funny God. He has to be to put up with us, because, you have to admit, we can often be pathetically humorous!
He, She, or It?
So, that is God in a nutshell (as if He could be put in a nutshell!). But this rough sketch can help us better understand Him and grow in a deeper relationship with Him. But this brings us to another issue: We know why we do not call God an "It", but why do we call God "Him" instead of "Her". After all, God is not a creation and does not have gender or sex organs, so why call Him "Him"? In all fairness, God is compared to a human mother giving us birth and a mother hen protecting her chicks in many places in Scripture . The word for Spirit in Hebrew is a feminine noun "Ruach". Both men and women are clearly created in God's image . It is clear that God has a "feminine side", so why not call God "Her"?
The first reason is Biblical. While the Bible talks about God as feminine in a handful of places, in thousands of places it uses male pronouns, and male titles, such as "Father" to refer to God . When God became uniquely one of us, He came as the male Jesus Christ, who was circumcised and known as a male. The Bible makes it clear that God desires to be referred to as "He".
The second reason is practical. The relation of male to female is one analogy of how God saves us and grows His life within us. In human marriage, it is the husband who enters the wife and causes new life to grow within her. He is the initiator, she is the receiver. In salvation, it is God who enters us and causes new life to grow within us . He is the initiator, we are the receivers. It is only right and natural then, to see God as masculine in important ways. This is part of the reason why the Bible repeatedly calls the Church the "bride of Christ" . Some who have been hurt by men may need to think of God in more feminine terms, and that is useful sometimes. However, the normal way we think of God should be as "He" and not "She" or "It".
So, this is God. Love Him or hate Him. This is God. I encourage you to seek Him and get to know Him personally. But don't just listen to what I say, or take my word for it. Pray and read Scripture for yourself, and ask the real God to reveal Himself. He will, I guarantee it.