This is a tough article to write. It’s a portrait of the God Christians know—the God portrayed in the Bible and known down through the ages through what he does. And trying to describe such an overwhelming personality feels like being a mouse drawing an elephant, or a cricket describing the Milky Way.
*Gulp* Here goes.
Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” We believe there is only one God who exists, and he is the one described in this article. (Please don’t overthink the pronoun “he” right now—after all, we’ve got to choose something, and no sensible person really thinks that God possesses XY chromosomes or has to shave in the morning. We’ll go with the pronoun Jesus himself used.)
Let’s talk about God’s being. If we were drawing a picture of an ordinary human being, we would start with the physical, but God doesn’t really have a “physical,” since he is spirit. Still, let’s see what we can do.
“Physical” (Well, Not Really, But…)
God is infinite. There is nowhere in all space and time where God is not. He never had a beginning and will never have an ending. Nor will anyone ever be able to carve out a tiny corner of space/time and keep him out of it, as if we could create a private kingdom with “no God allowed” on a cardboard sign.
One corollary of this fact is that there is no privacy from God—which sounds horrific at first, but later becomes incredibly comforting. The fact is, we are not designed to be isolated from our Creator, who is the source of our life. If such a thing could be done, we would find it to be a little hell—a place of death. And as we’ll see a bit later, God is incredibly courteous and shows respect even to the least of us, even to people everyone else disrespects.
God is life. He is the source of life in the most literal and biological way—nothing would live if he did not keep it alive, day by day and moment by moment. He has done this for us at our beginning and every minute of our lives.
But he’s more than that. He is the life that overcomes death, and makes us who trust in him to do so too. He is the life we refer to when we say things like “I feel like I’m just existing. I want something more.” He is the life that is deep and strong, that satisfies, that brings joy.
God is powerful. Actually he’s omnipotent—this word means that he can do anything he chooses to do, and nothing can oppose him and win unless he allows it. This does not mean he can do nonsense, like the silly question “Can God make a rock too heavy for God to lift?” or asking God to do a thing and not do it at the same time. Nobody can do nonsense, because nonsense is not a thing, no matter how we wrap it up in fancy language. Most likely some of the things we get angry at God for NOT doing (such as stopping certain evils in our world) are nonsense requests; God does not do them because they are not logically compatible with some other aspect of reality, like giving humans free will.
Human (and angelic) free will brings up another limit on God’s power. Once he has committed himself to giving us free will, he has put handcuffs on himself in certain ways. If we have free will, that means we have the ability to do things God doesn’t like. But God cannot step in and just reverse our free choice without contradicting himself. Are we free, or not? More about God’s strange desire for human freedom later.
God is consistent. Though we can get only a small glimpse of him from our creaturely viewpoint, we know (for he has told us) that he is the same wherever and whenever he is. The aspects of God that are hidden from us, or the times when he’s working and we can’t see it—this isn’t some radically different person from the God we see in the Bible or in our lives. He never makes promises to behave a certain way, and then secretly does something else. There’s no need to fear that he will turn out to “really be” a different personality, like a man whose spouse suddenly discovers he has a wife and family in three different cities.
God is both entirely predictable in some ways and entirely unpredictable in others. If he makes you a promise, he’ll keep it. The rocks and the mountains will pass away before he fails you. And you will never wake up to discover that God has decided to be evil, to act foolishly, or to stop loving the people he has made. It just isn’t going to happen, because God’s nature does not change.
That said, he is untamable, and he does whatever he wants; he’s incredibly creative. He does new things, unheard-of things, and he has a really terrible sense of humor—you’ve got to watch out for that. More on that below.
God is overwhelming. He is just too much of everything—too great, incredibly tender, stunningly stern, the kind of person who puts your mind on overload. This is what leads to the human sense of awe. It’s a natural response to being in the presence of someone who routinely blows your mind. (Fortunately, he knows he has this effect, and he usually moderates it for us. No use in creating people who are going to be wandering around like divine stoners all the time.)
God is in some sense plural. Yes, there is only one God, as the Bible makes clear. But the Bible also makes it clear that within God there is a distinction of Persons, whom we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Jesus is the second of these.) They/He is not separate from each other, like a family would be. It’s also not a case of God just trying on different costumes depending on what he wants to do. The difference/distinction is real; the unity is real too. And that’s about as far as we can go here—more to come on this aspect of God that Christians call “trinity” in a future article.
Let’s talk about God’s emotions. The Bible gives us a picture of someone who is completely passionate and completely in control at the same time. The word “meh” just isn’t in God’s vocabulary. He cares, deeply and passionately, about stuff in general and in specifics. He is joyful, saddened, angry, delighted, loving, frustrated, a long list of adjectives—but he is never bored.
God is patient—the Bible uses the word “long-suffering.” In terms of human history, he deals with our BS and puts up with it for years and years—way longer than any human being would!—and only brings us to a crashing halt when all hope of us changing our ways is gone. When it comes to individual people, he is more tender and patient than any mother with a baby, no matter how often we do the same old thing again and again and again… Unlike ordinary people, he never simply cracks from the sheer weight of it. (Note: this patience is one reason why some people doubt he exists. We see screaming injustices and we know that if we were God, we’d be reaching for the lightning bolts already.)
God is concerned—not just about the huge things, like the fate of galaxies and nations and species. He has enough bandwidth to be concerned about even the tiniest things—the fate of a sparrow, your looming battle with constipation. If he takes the time to help you get your taxes right, that doesn’t mean he has to take away attention from global warming. He has attention to spare, and a laser-like focus.
God can be angered, and he can be grieved. Injustice is a major cause of God’s anger—you can read about it in the books of the prophets in the Bible. God’s anger is a terrible thing, and not something to provoke—but he is quick to lay it aside the moment someone has a change of heart. God doesn’t enjoy being angry. His anger and his grief are similar to that of a good parent, who wants his children to be all that they were meant to be, and to deal lovingly with one another.
God is love. Real love, the kind that wants the best for the person who is loved, no matter what it costs the Lover. This is not simple kindness, that is content to let us be happy however we want to be happy, even if it is a way that damages and degrades us. God’s love is determined to give us the best and to have us grow up into the best versions of ourselves we can possibly be—even if it hurts us, even when it hurts him. (That’s what Jesus dying on the cross was about.)
God is holy. He never compromises with evil. Anything evil cannot endure in his presence—his goodness, his purity would simply wipe it out. (He makes a temporary exception for our world now, as he is in the process of redeeming and remaking us. It’s almost as if he has muted the effect he normally has on evil—has turned it down temporarily for our sake, because we are still contaminated with evil. Without God shielding us, we’d be in deep trouble.)
To sum all of this up, God is healthy. There is no neuroticism in him at all. You know where you stand with him—and if you don’t, he is ready to tell you. He is never passive-aggressive, never shifty, never manipulative. He doesn’t act from a hidden agenda, and if he does something, he knows exactly why he is doing it. Which means that it is impossible to manipulate God—he has no emotional weaknesses. He would see through any attempts to manipulate him in a heartbeat.
Moving on to the intellectual side of things—
God is true. All truth is sacred to him, religious or scientific or mathematic or interpersonal. All truth flows from his very nature—that is the reason why the universe is structured in a coherent, consistent way that human beings can work out through research. That’s also why all truth is ultimately one. No matter what it might look like when our understanding is still incomplete, ultimately there will be no contradictions.
God is wise and intelligent. He doesn’t make mistakes, and all things are open and known to him. There is no way anyone can trick or confuse him. He does things and lays down principles based on that wisdom…which causes us problems sometimes, because he doesn’t always explain why he gives a particular command—he just says “Do this,” or “Avoid that.” Sometimes we discover the reason later on—we find out that whatever he commanded or forbade makes sense because of some fact about the universe, or human nature, that we didn’t know before but do now. Sometimes we never discover the reason for his action or choice, and we then have to decide whether we’re going to trust him or not.
Now let’s look at the social side of things—how God interacts with other persons. God is respectful of our free will and our rights to the ultimate degree—often way more than we want him to be. Outrageously respectful. Almost criminally so. Think about it—when people get angry with God, isn’t it often because he has refused to intervene in a situation brought about by human choices? “You should have stopped it,” we say to God. But usually, he doesn’t. He will not take your free will away from you. He gave it to you in the first place, and respects you (and others!) too much to make you into a robot.
God is faithful. He will never run out on us and leave us. When he makes a promise, he keeps it.
God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy (totally, that is). He is delighted with the least little steps a person takes toward spiritual health, no matter how tiny—but he will not be completely satisfied until we grow into the fullness of what he intended us to be before the creation of the world. He won’t let us settle for less than our full potential.
God is merciful and tender. He shares our suffering—in fact, he took it upon himself when he became a human being, the man Jesus Christ. God is not distant from us in our suffering—he’s right there with us.
God is humble and gentle of heart—he is more than willing to be disgraced if that’s what it takes to win us for himself. God doesn’t care about status, even his own. If the only way he can get us into his family is to be born as a human baby and grow up to die on a cross, well yeah, he’ll do that. In a heartbeat.
God is just. In fact, God is justice. When he is finished with us and our universe, no evil, even the smallest bit of rot, not even the evil within us, will be allowed to remain. He hates it with the passion of a thousand burning suns—largely for what it does to us, whom he loves just as passionately. So he works to get rid of evil. But God knows that getting rid of evil means a load of pain and suffering. That’s why he arranged to take the heaviest part of it on himself, when he died on the cross.
Let’s turn to the creative side of God’s personality. God likes making things, and he doesn’t give two hoots if we think what he makes is strange or somehow beneath him. Witness odd creatures like the platypus and the more than 350,000 species of beetles he has created on this planet alone (and why does he have such a thing for beetles? That’s just weird.). There are the very odd angelic creatures in the Bible—the ones with four faces that seem to have wheels as part of their bodies, and they’re covered with eyes (see Ezekiel chapter 1). There are also the zillions of galaxies you can get a glimpse of in the Hubble Deep Field photographs—and even more unexplainable, the apparently empty space between galaxies. What’s it for? We don’t know. God apparently likes it, and maybe we’ll understand someday.
God has a sense of humor. He seems to really like doing strange and surprising things, like that friend of yours who keeps saying, “Watch this! This is going to be really cool, I promise.” Sometimes he even tells people to forget the awesome things he’s done in the past—what he’s about to do will be even better. He likes to blow people’s minds, and in some places in the Bible there’s a clear sense of—shall we call it teasing? Maybe that’s not the right word. But he says things to his friends (Abraham, Moses, Peter, etc.) that would make one of us splutter in our beer. He is not always serious—not in the sense of “somber.”
God is joyful. He delights in what he has made, he takes pleasure in it, and that includes us. God is not a stick-in-the-mud, and the Bible tells us that “at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 6:11). There are descriptions of him as singing for joy, sometimes over us! He invented things like sex and chocolate, and inspires art, music, and architecture. He gave us one another to delight in.
God is mystery. In spite of all we know of him, we cannot fully understand his ways, why he lets certain things happen, and so forth. If and when we find the reason later, we see it is consistent with his character. But that’s a big “if”—much of the time we have no clue, and his only answer is either (to the humble) “Trust me,” or to the arrogant, angry questioners: “Either trust me or not. I don’t owe you an explanation.”
God is incarnate in Jesus Christ. The most dazzling thing of all we know about God is that he chose to become a human being, a baby, about 2000 years ago. God saw that his creation had become infected with evil. He wasn’t going to stand back and let that continue. So he made himself a part of his own creation—part of the dominant species, humanity—and set about fixing the problem.
He lived as a man among us—he taught, healed, ate, slept, loved, suffered, celebrated—and then, by his own plan, he allowed humanity to put him to death by crucifixion. But though we didn’t realize it, he used his death to destroy evil, taking away its power, and beginning the long process of removing every bit of it from creation. Then on the third day he came back to life, never to die again—immortal God and everlasting man, Jesus Christ. And he promises to return to us, bringing all of history to its triumphant conclusion—and to the fresh beginning of a redeemed, new heaven and earth.