Who is God, really? God is a (somewhat) knowable mystery

A wondrous mystery

One of my favorite theological quotes comes from Saint Augustine who insists that “if we have understood, what we have understood is not God.” Augustine wants us to approach all of our God-talk with the awareness that we are finite and God is infinite —  that whatever we know about God is a drop in the ocean compared to who God actually is. “God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” declares Anselm of Canterbury. God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,” writes the author of Ephesians (Ephesians 3:20).

It might be tempting, once we realize God can’t be exhaustively known, to give up trying to answer, “Who is God, really?” Perhaps we should, instead, throw up our hands and cry: “I don’t know! It’s a mystery!” But if we respond in this way, we risk being as closed off to the capaciousness of God as the stereotypical know-it-alls we don’t want to become. I once tried responding “I don’t know” to a friend who asked me what God was up to as she lay in a hospital bed, dying. “Now, Cindy — I know you don’t know,” Joyce said, smiling up at me. “But I figured you’d be able to say something after all those years of studying theology!” In that salient moment, Joyce taught me something I have hardly forgotten since: that to engage in God-talk, as those who realize we are incapable of comprehensive understanding, is a vulnerable, relational enterprise. It is funded not first and foremost by eloquence or rightness, but by faith, hope and love.

The mystery, as it turns out, is not that “who God is, really” lies beyond our comprehension. The mystery is that we can know the God who is always greater than our best understandings. But how? Theologians through the ages have tended to agree it is possible to know the God we can’t get to on our own because God comes to us, acting in the context of our creaturely existence and history. There is, to be sure, a lot of debate about the flow of the revelatory delivery system. Is God’s character revealed in the intricacies of nature? Through our moral propensities or innate sensibilities? Or through special acts of intervention and election, marked by starry skies (Genesis 15), burning bushes (Exodus 3), a newborn baby wrapped in swaddling clothes (Luke 2), the written Word? Even as we argue about these important matters, we would do well to pause now and then in awesome wonder. We can know the incomprehensible God because God has come to us in love!

So, what do we know about who this God is, really?

God is an intimate life sharer

It is a common misconception that God watches us “from a distance” (as Bette Midler sang), holding out hope for us or, perhaps, getting ready to smite us for our misdoings. These ideas portray God not only at a physical distance from us, but also at an emotional distance — as though God is a life coach whose job it is to empower us for success, or an impartial judge who doles out justice and/or mercy! But this is not who God is, really. For one thing, even though there is a clear distinction between God and creatures (God is God and we are not), God has entered into creatureliness in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) and lifted it into God’s own life (Colossians 3:3). Further, we can see, in the biblical witness, that being with us and being invested in us are not new characteristics of God that start with Jesus — God was right there with Adam and Eve at the time of creation, walking in the Garden (Genesis 3:8). Again and again God got angry with the nation of Israel, but so loved her that God forgave her (Ezekiel 13; Hosea 11).
And then there is the beautiful imagery of Psalm 139, reminding us that God is with us wherever we go and that God is tuned in to every day of our lives. Who God is, really, is someone who has strong opinions about what we should be doing and who meddles constantly in our lives.

The idea that the God who is distinct from creation is at the same time with us and for us is implicit in the doctrine of the Trinity. The one God who is all in all, is at the same time the God who – as Father, Son and Spirit – acts in particular ways that show us God is with us and tell us what this God who is with us is like. Often, we think of the Father as the Creator, the Son as the Redeemer and the Spirit as the Sustainer. But to assign each of these three an exclusive job description is to forget that we learn from each of them about the character of the Godhead as a whole. This is because, again, the three are also one — they share the same life. What each respective person of God does is then a reflection of who God actually is. The God who loves us is love; the God who relates to us is relational. The God we know in and through God’s radical, insistent presence is the God who, in God’s own self as Father, Son and Spirit, is perfect community. There is a wonderful Greek word for this: perichoresis (often translated as “mutual indwelling”) — the idea that God is dancing with God’s own self, as Father, Son and Spirit, sharing life together always.

God is a sighing creator

What do God’s acts as Creator tell us about who God is, really? We confess that the Creator God is powerful. That God is sovereign. That God is good, and good at making amazing – “bright and beautiful” and “wise and wonderful” – things out of nothing (see “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” hymn #20 in the “Glory to God” hymnal). But to describe God in this way might be a little like saying Barbara Jordan was a stand-out senator from the state of Texas, a powerful orator and an advocate for people with disabilities. All of these are impressive achievements, but can we say on the basis of knowing these things who Barbara Jordan is, really? To know who Jordan is, really, we would want to meet her, or hear stories from her inner circle of friends, or hear testimony from those she has helped.

Who is God, really, as Creator? We might come closer to answering this if we reflect on God’s creative acts in light of God’s shared, perichoretic life. Calvin argued (likely with God’s relational, Trinitarian character in mind) that creation is not a singular event, but is continued by way of God’s providential care. In Jesus Christ, we experience the “new creation” of God and are ourselves called to join in this creative, reconciling work (2 Corinthians 5:16-20). This work is hard and painful, the Apostle Paul insists, pointing out that we “groan” in the face of our “bondage to decay” (Romans 8). And the Spirit participates in the divine work of creation by “interceding” when we don’t even know how to pray anymore, “with sighs too deep for words.”

Reflecting on who God is as Creator from the context of the shared life of the 3-in-1 leads us to more intimate ways of understanding God than those evoked, for example, by Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There, God is at a distance from a beautiful, perfectly-formed Adam, pointing God’s finger in the creative act. Who God really is as Creator is not only the doer of wondrous works, but one who enters into the brokenness of it all with us, working to mend, sighing intercessory prayers for us and including us in the work of new creation.

God is an inexorable (unstoppable) redeemer

We confess that Jesus Christ came into this world to save us from our sins by way of his life, death and resurrection — and that redemption is, to put it bluntly, the best gift ever (and forever!). We talk a lot about living with gratitude in response to the love and grace God has manifested toward us. But what happens when we focus our attention less on the benefits and implications of redemption for us and more on getting underneath what God’s redemptive acts tell us about the character of God? What do God’s acts as Redeemer tell us about who God is, really?

In our cultural milieu it is almost impossible to think about redemption except in terms of transactions because the dynamics of global capitalism that frame our lives depend on contractual, rather than covenantal, relationships. Here’s a small example of where I see these correlations in play. Almost every time I check out at our corner Walgreens Pharmacy, the cashier asks me if I want to redeem my bonus points. These points are proffered with a mixed message. On the one hand, it is conveyed to me that I somehow deserve them because I am a faithful Walgreens shopper. On the other hand, Walgreens implies that I’ve gotten more than I deserve: “Congratulations,” my receipt reads, “you saved $1.00!” In any case, all I have to do is press the green button on the screen and type in my zip code and – voila! – redemption happens.

How does my Walgreens experience – and the multiple other transactions we engage every day –
shape the way we think about who God is as Redeemer? Do we think of God as the one who saves us “by grace” (Ephesians 2:8, NRSV) or as the one who “treats us much better than we deserve” (Ephesians 2:8, CEV)? The latter of these two is easier for us to make sense of, but borders on portraying God as a kind of Santa Claus figure who gives the kids on his “nice” list extra presents.

Redemption, as conveyed in the acts and life of the triune God, doesn’t make God out to be a Santa Claus. The incarnation – from womb to cross to hell to bodily resurrection and ascension – gives no suggestion that God gives us space to decide whether or not to redeem our points. On the contrary, it conveys that there is no length to which God will not go, no boundary that God will not violate, in order to save us. My colleague, Tom Currie, testifies, in fact, that we are “ambushed” by grace. Christopher Wiman similarly bears witness to God’s pushiness when he writes in “My Bright Abyss” that “Christ … is a shard of glass in your gut” that gives “clarity” about where God is present in the world. As we’ve seen in Psalm 139 and Romans 8, and is also the case in John 3, the Spirit joins hands with the Son in this work of redemption, refusing to leave us alone, insisting that we be “all in” with God, goading us until we are. And all of this seems consistent with the vision of the prophet Isaiah: “because God is … mighty in power, not one is missing” (Isaiah 40:26).

God is an inventive sustainer

When I was a kid I was fascinated by manna. Mrs. Brandenburger, my Sunday school teacher, talked about it quite a lot. She had little felt pots and piles of manna she would stick on the flannelgraph, emphasizing that when the Israelites didn’t trust God to provide it each and every day, they would collect extra manna and it would rot.

Mrs. Brandenburger made some good points, but she talked less about what the manna tells us about who God is, really, and more about how we needed to follow the rules God gives us. But, looking back, I think that what intrigued me about the manna was how cool it was. How had God come up with such an idea?

The God who created us with imagination and sighing sustains us in this life inventively. God feeds the Israelites with manna. God sends angels to feed Elijah when he is running away from Jezebel. Jesus feeds the 5,000 with just five loaves and two fishes. Jesus nourishes us with his very body and blood by way of the vivifying work of the Holy Spirit.

Who God is also shines through in the creative beauty of the Law, which sustains us by creating contexts for life to flourish. When killing, stealing and coveting are off the list of options (for example), we have to figure out how to nurture life, how to share resources and how to celebrate with one another. The Law then becomes for us “sweeter than the honeycomb” (Proverbs 19:10) because it helps us imagine who God is, what God desires and how we can help make it so.

Finally, God is inventive in forming the sustaining prayer Jesus taught us. Like the manna program for the Israelites, the focus is on being fed and present to today. Daily bread, forgiveness of sins, deliverance from evil: God is not one to love us or grace us in the abstract; God is, really, one who substantively, as well as creatively, sustains.

And so we step out in faith, with prayer and wonder, open to the mystery that we know something true about the incomprehensible God. And we join with others and dance, sharing life together even as the triune God shares life with us — creating and grieving, tenaciously reconciling and leaning into the inventive ways God sustains us, anew, each day.

Cynthia Rigby

Cynthia Rigby is professor of theology at Austin Theological Seminary in Texas.