Who is God and what’s he like? It’s one of life’s oldest questions, one which mankind has debated and fought over for millennia. It’s also one of the most important. How we answer this question will influence all our thoughts on religion and doctrine. For example, many Jews in Jesus’ time misunderstood the nature of the promised messiah. This prevented them from recognising him when he was among them (Luke 7:31-34). What preconceptions might we have that prevent us from seeing the true God?
We can only know God by what he has revealed to us in Scripture and there is no better revelation of God than in the Christ of the Bible. Jesus claimed that to see him was to see the Father (John 14:9). Yet even the God revealed in the Bible can be difficult to grasp, often seeming contradictory. Nevertheless, it is only by engaging and wrestling with these paradoxes that we can come to a more complete picture of God. Let’s explore some of them.
Sovereignty and free will
One fundamental aspect of God’s nature is his sovereignty. It’s what makes him God rather than a pretender. He created the universe and everything in it (Genesis 1:1) and therefore rules over it as Lord (Psalm 103:19). Despite this, he has given us—his creation—the freedom either to follow him or reject him (Deuteronomy 30:19). God desires our trust and obedience but he doesn’t force us. Sadly, this means that much that happens in the world is against God’s will, but this takes nothing away from his sovereignty.
God is in control of the bigger picture; he asks us to trust him (Job 38-41). We don’t fully understand how God works in the world but he assures us that, despite the chaos caused by evil, he is working to achieve good (Romans 8:28). Ultimately, he will be victorious (John 16:33). Meanwhile, our free will is a gracious gift, given at great cost. God’s heart aches when we refuse to follow him (Matthew 23:37). So free will is a gift to be used with great care.
Love and justice
God’s love is one of his most defining personal characteristics. God is love, and anyone who loves knows God (1 John 4:7-8). But what is love? In the following verses, John says God demonstrated his love by sending his son as a sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:9-10). This is not a soppy, sentimental love. It’s a love that acts, that protects, that costs. It’s a love that does not ignore harsh realities but graciously works to redeem them. Here we see God’s love and justice working together. God is holy and cannot be associated with sin (Isaiah 59:2). His justice demands that a penalty (death) must be paid for sin; yet his love desires relationship and reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). In Christ’s loving sacrifice both demands are met. We can take comfort knowing that we have a loving God. We can also feel secure knowing that he will see justice is done. Justice without love is cruel and love without justice is hollow.
In God’s presence
What is it like to be in God’s presence? Isaiah tells us that God’s throne room is full of smoke, angelic beings and thunderous praise—a scene which filled him with woe (Isaiah 6:1-5). On the other hand, we have the intimate picture of a God who promises to wipe away our tears (Revelation 21:4). We also see the tender touch of Jesus healing lepers (Matthew 8:3) and delighting with children (Luke 18:15-16). The presence of God is fearful for those who oppose him (Hebrews 10:31). But it brings peace for those who follow him and put their trust in him (Romans 15:13; Matthew 11:28-30). Although Isaiah was terrified, God was quick to reassure him and offer forgiveness (Isaiah 6:6-7). He offers the same to us through Jesus, who leads us as the good shepherd (John 10:11).
God is the source of all wisdom (Proverbs 2:10). But what is this wisdom? What does it look like? Paul reminds us that God’s wisdom is not the wisdom of the world. What we consider wise, God often considers foolish (1 Corinthians 1:20-31). Wisdom and humility seem to go hand in hand. God’s wisdom is not shown in self-indulgent pondering or grandiose power statements. Instead it has been shown in Christ, a suffering servant submitting to a shameful death on the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-24). God’s wisdom is also revealed in the church, a seemingly weak collection of flawed human beings (Ephesians 3:8-12). These are the glories of God’s wisdom. This realisation ought to radically alter how we perceive true wisdom.
God of paradoxes
It should not surprise us that God defies easy characterisation. His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). The aspects of God’s nature we have looked at show that he is not quite what we might expect; he’s not a heavenly version of an earthly king. He’s a God to whom everything is owed, yet he freely gives of himself. He commands the heavens, yet delights in the flowers of the field and the lives of the lowliest of his children. He demands righteousness, yet he bought it for each of us with his own son.
We also cannot help being awed. God is beyond what we can imagine. We follow not a simple block of wood but a multifaceted, living, active being. He truly is God. The only appropriate response is worship—worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23) which involves our whole being (Romans 12:1-2). This realisation ought to shake us out of any complacency we might have. What does it mean to follow a God like this? How must we change to conform to his likeness?
When all is said and done, we all want to know God better. But the limitations of our understanding can leave us disappointed. However, it will not always be so. One day we’ll know God fully, intimately. ‘Now we see as through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face.’ (1 Corinthians 13:12)
This article first appeared in InterSections, May 2013.