by Andrea J. Graham
I don’t remember very many sermons preached at University Church, but one I do remember surprisingly well is one I heard last spring, where the preacher informed us that many of the problems he’d encountered in the people he’d counseled were rooted in a misperception of the character and nature of God. Almost exclusively this was due to an unconscious confusion of God with their father or another dominant parental figure.
However, the reasons for this common problem aren’t my concern here. As many of the major blocks to a person entering into a saving personal relationship with God are due to a lack of understanding of who God is, it is his Character that I am here to discuss. The question then becomes, where do we begin? How do you describe a God who himself declares, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) How can anyone ever fathom a God that is so higher than us?
There is the approach of taking the best of human qualities and multiplying them by a thousand, but that has been criticized as making God too human. This approach is really an attempt to reconstruct the broken Mirror—as we were created in the image of God; we originally had a close family resemblance to Him. The fall hasn’t destroyed that mirror, but it has cracked it so badly to render it, for all intents and purposes, utterly useless. Considering such reconstruction in this and other fields of study has left many with highly destructive and unbiblical ideas, I would say it is best to avoid this.
We don’t really need it anyways. God has already revealed Himself to us, through the written Word and the Incarnate Word. While the work of Theologians can at times prove to be valuable tools, and I may consult a few here, I believe ultimately our arguments should be grounded in these Self-Revelations from God.
The first and most obvious aspect that scripture reveals about God is the first one that Shirley Guthrie discusses in his theology, “God acts, speaks, knows… can be angry, compassionate, jealous, merciful. All such language assumes that God is not something but someone, not just a “spiritual force” but a person. Biblical-Christian faith is faith in a personal God.” (p. 99) Indeed this is so. Scripture reveals God as a character and not just some cosmic force out of which the world exploded.
From the very first sentence, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” God’s personhood is assumed. God creates, loves, punishes sin, redeems, and enters into contracts and covenantal relationships from Genesis to Revelation.
Having established that God is personal the next question asked is the pertinent one: What is God like?
There are a million places to start. The most logical place to begin, however, is occupation. Our basic and initial understanding of a person is often the pragmatic, what do they do?
God first is Creator. But this characteristic reveals a few more. As God created the universe, he exists outside of it, that is, he is transcendent. And since he created the universe and everything in it, he is the sole ruler over it. All other contenders are part of his creation, and can a creature ever be more powerful than his Creator? And elsewhere in scripture, repeatedly, God is revealed as “The Almighty.”
So, thus far God is the Creator and Sole Ruler of the Universe. We realize another occupation he has when we read how God created the universe: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Gen. 1:3). God spoke and it happened. The entire universe came into existence because God said the word.
If God’s word created the universe, it stands to reason his thoughts sustain it. Read on into Chapter three of Genesis, and we find another of God’s main occupations: he is the Redeemer of the Fallen. And in the Revelation (and throughout the biblical witness), we see another important occupation: Judge.
To put them all together, we have God as the Transcendent, All-powerful Creator, Ruler, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Judge of the entire universe. The last two occupations, Redeemer and Judge, at first glance seem to point to a contradiction in his character. So where do we begin?
By throwing up our hands and saying, “He’s a mystery!” perhaps? Well, that is true. God can be very mysterious and his nature boggles and confounds our limited human minds. But that seems an inadequate response to an apparent dichotomy at the heart of God’s nature.
On one hand, God is the LORD God Almighty, the Sovereign LORD, who strikes down the wicked nations. The definition of holiness, justice, and righteousness, He is so holy and we are so sinful, no one may see God and live. In fact, in Exodus 33, God tells the Israelites to go on up to the Holy Land without Him because, as He explains, “You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you.” (vs. 5)
But even in that harsh Judgment, there is a hint at God’s other side. The fact is, the Israelites were insolent enough to tax anyone’s patience to the limit and He would have been quite justified in condemning them. That he didn’t just destroy them shows how much He really cares about His people. Despite how sinful, insolent and “stiff-necked” we are, God still loves us and looks on our plight with compassion and mercy.
Even though He is the all-powerful, all knowing, Sovereign above and beyond all, who exists outside the universe and time, God does not stay there but enters into it, for what is History but the story of the interactions between God and Man? Indeed, God intensely desires to enter into a close, personal, meaningful relationship with each of us.
One of the keys to a proper understanding of God’s character can be explained by the tight rope image. That is, the trek to an understanding of God and Christian doctrine begins by walking the tight rope of his character and not falling off to the left: Guthrie’s “Great heavenly Granddaddy…. God, who was there to answer all our questions, solve all our problems…. The god who made no demands of us but was there to do everything for us and give us everything we want. The God who automatically forgave us, no matter how we disobeyed that god and ignored or hurt other people.”
Or to the right: Guthrie’s “Great Heavenly (male) Tyrant—the “sovereign” god who could do anything he wanted and arbitrarily being sometimes cruel and sometimes kind, loving some people and hating or simply ignoring others, according to the whim of the moment.”
But how do we keep our balance? By holding together the two seemingly contradictory sides of God’s personality: His Justice, Holiness, Sovereignty, and Wrath on one side, His Mercy, Compassion, Love, and desire for relationship with us on the other. We must recognize and equally glorify both sides of God’s personality, realizing they are not two different sides as it appears to us but one unified whole that works together. We must not read God’s Love by God’s Justice or his Justice by his Love, but allow each to exist as what they are, yet in communion together as one unified whole. God’s character, as such, reflects His mysterious Triune nature.
Both sides are clearly shown throughout scripture, and there are many vivid examples, but in the Person of Jesus Christ, some of the best examples are to be found, particularly in the pertinent application of God’s relations with us. God longs to have a relationship with each of us, to walk and talk together face to face as he did with Adam and Eve in the Garden, but this is not possible as we are now because of our sinfulness.
This is ultimately why Jesus came, to restore us to that relationship. An integral part of that restoration is his witness here on Earth to God. While on Earth, Jesus stood to reveal to us through His example what God is like and what Man should be like. He Himself has become the bridge between Man and God. In the time of Jesus’ earthly Ministry, God once again walked with Adam and Eve and talked with them face-to-face, a mere teaser of the relationship to be fully restored at his Return.
One of the important scriptures where Christ reveals God’s Character and Heart for his people: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, `Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Matthew 23:37-39)
Here Jesus’ sorrow almost screams off the page, and we see the face of His Father. He has sent hundreds of messengers to plead with Israel to come back into relationship with Him, and they have killed all of them. His desire to bring blessing and restoration to Jerusalem is almost flowing off the page. But there is that last phrase, “but you were not willing.”
God wants a relationship with us, but He does not want it under compulsion, but rather He desires a relationship with us where we have freely entered into it. He offers us Grace and has already paid the penalty for us, and has taken the first step in initiating a relationship with us on the Cross, but he will not force us to enter in, for he desires that we willfully enter into fellowship with him, to obey and worship him freely, not by force or compulsion.
God has done all the work to make this possible and paid all the penalties we owed for us. He has issued us an invitation to the Banquet, now all we have to do is enter in and let Him transform us. But we must do so, not by our strengths and merits, but His, lest we be like the man who was not wearing wedding clothes, and hear the King say of us, “Tie him hand and foot and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 22:14)
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