What God looks like
In his TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. Just 6 years old, on this day she was actually paying attention. The teacher came over to ask what she was drawing. The girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher replied that nobody knows what God looks like. Undeterred, the girl said, “They will in a minute.”
Every year I ask our confirmation students to draw a picture of God. It is fascinating to see what they see when they think of God. A few draw an old man with a beard sitting on a throne in the clouds. Most of the time God smiles, but sometimes he is angry and looking to punish all those who disobey. Others draw pictures of a heart or a flash of light. Some struggle to draw any picture at all for they see God as something like the wind. Finally, some will draw a picture of Jesus — always a good answer.
In over 20 years of asking this of confirmation students and church members, very few have pictured God as Trinity. Three in one, One in three. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet, the church has maintained since the third century that Trinity is who God is, really.
Throughout the generations, Christians have tried to explain God as Trinity. Saint Patrick famously used a three-leaf clover. Water, ice and steam or various relationships for a single individual (I am a son, husband and father) are worthy choices. Several years ago, one of my colleagues described God as Aquafresh — the toothpaste that has three streams of cleaning power. You can see all three colors, but it is impossible to separate them once you squeeze the paste out of the tube.
However, all of our various attempts to picture God eventually fall short. Scripture puzzles us in the same way. For example, consider the end of Peter’s Pentecost speech (Acts 2:32-33): This Jesus (God the Son), was raised up by God (the Father), and of all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God (the Father), and having received from (God) the Father the promise of (God) the Holy Spirit, (God the Son) has poured out this that you both see and hear.
So, God is sitting at the right hand of God? God received God? Yes, the doctrine of the Trinity can begin to boggle our minds.
A relationship with the fullness of God
When we are unable to rationally picture God as Trinity, we tend to dismiss the doctrine entirely. In “Becoming a Blessed Church,” Presbyterian pastor Graham Standish writes: “The modern church has succumbed to treating God as a theological ideal, as an abstract concept, rather than an experience, an encounter, an embrace of One with whom we can have a deep and transforming relationship. … It is not until we spiritually encounter God as Trinity that we are able to begin to understand God as triune.”
To truly understand God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we must have a relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This may be easier said than done. Twentieth century American Reformed theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr, suggested in his article “The doctrine of the Trinity and the unity of the church,” that churches tend to be churches of one person of the Trinity or another. This is true for individual Christians as well. Think of your favorite hymns, the way you typically begin your prayers and your favorite Scripture passages, and I suspect that you will begin to see that you know one person of the Trinity better than the other two.
Perhaps you tend to know God the Father best. The Father is sovereign, mysterious and yet creator of order. God is revealed in nature. God the Father is working out a purpose in history. God cares about justice and societal change and wants us to care about that too.
Or perhaps you tend to know God the Son or Jesus best. Jesus is our Redeemer and Savior. God is not so much mysterious as very present in the midst of the pain, predicaments and even ordinariness of the world. Jesus is our friend. He stands beside us. He comforts us. He intercedes for us. Jesus cares about our having a personal relationship with him and he wants us to care about that too.
Or perhaps you tend to know God the Holy Spirit best. The Holy Spirit is full of power. God the Spirit blows where she wills. The Holy Spirit challenges us and pushes us. God gives us gifts and talents and expects us to use them. The Holy Spirit reveals the truth to us. God the Holy Spirit moves our hearts and our minds, fills us up and draws us closer to God. The Holy Spirit cares about beauty and art and spiritual gifts and prayer and meditation and God wants us to care about those things too.
We all seem to have an innate spiritual preference for one person of the Trinity more than the others. However, recognizing our affinity for one person of the Trinity can be an invitation to greater faith and blessing. God desires to bless you, to be in relationship with you and for you to know the fullness of God as you open yourself to encountering other persons of the Trinity. To know God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in new and enriching ways might be three times the blessings that you currently know.
That is what happens to the crowd on Pentecost at the end of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. Those who had gathered in Jerusalem that day already knew God, but in a limited way. So, freshly filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter invites the crowd not to be confused, but to know the fullness of God. Peter invites them to know Jesus, whom they crucified. They can do that by repenting and acknowledging that they are sinners. As part of their repentance, Peter invites the crowd to be baptized and to receive God the Holy Spirit. The crowd is cut to the heart by this invitation and more than 3,000 people are baptized and added to the church on that day. Could the church today experience that kind of transformation and blessing by getting to know who God is, really?
A rich reservoir
As the church seeks both to offer and respond to the fullness of our Trinitarian God, we must recognize that the traditional language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit can be a stumbling block for some. For example, instead of a warm and welcoming vision of a human father whose traits can be a metaphor for God, human fathers can be neglectful and abusive, leaving some wary of a God called Father. The language of Father and Son can imply that God is only male. This has resulted in viewing human males as superior to females. Finally, using only the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit does not bear witness to the fullness of God found in the scriptures.
In 2006, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly approved the report, “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing.” The result of five years of work by a diverse committee, this paper reaffirmed the theological anchor provided by the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as rooted in both Scripture and creed. However, it goes on to say: “With this anchor in place, however, we are liberated to interpret, amplify, and expand upon the ways of naming the triune God familiar to most church members. … We are free to broaden our vocabulary for speaking of the triune God, emboldened by the rich reservoir of biblical and traditional terms, names, images, and metaphors.”
While recognizing that all of our language for God is analogy and metaphor, the paper suggests three guidelines for expanding upon the traditional language while continuing the essential Trinitarian pattern:
- In each case the three terms must have an inner relationship;
- The terms must either be personal or functional — the two should not be mixed; and
- Functional Trinitarian language should be understood to amplify and enrich our understanding of God.
For example, “Mother, Child and Womb” or “King of Glory, Prince of Peace and Spirit of Love” would each be acceptable, while the mixing of personal and functional terms like “Rock, Beloved, Sanctifier” tends to lead to greater confusion.
Figuring us out
As we seek new language to describe who God is, really, perhaps God’s encounter with the prophet Isaiah in the temple might be our guide (Isaiah 6:1-8). The temple was the meeting place between God and creation. It was the place where God dwelt. In the temple, priests mediated between God and humanity by offering sacrifices so that the odor of burning flesh and spices would be pleasing to God. On that day Isaiah was probably expecting sacrifice — but to actually see God, probably not.
After the strange and mysterious picture of God sitting on a throne with the hem of the robe filling the entire temple while six-winged seraphs fly and sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” Isaiah cries out in despair. It is as if he has stumbled upon something sacred, a place where he should not be, for he responds: “Woe is me! I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” It is as if he fears he has met God, the old man on a throne, who will immediately punish him for violating some sacred space.
Whether we have in our minds a picture of a bully God in the clouds or the very opposite in which God becomes our friend, an extension of ourselves and our buddy, the temptation is to reduce God to something we can understand. We lose the mystery, the majesty and the holiness of God. Yet, God who is wholly other, God who is the creator of heaven and earth, God who guarantees the future, God who resurrects the dead is not ours to fully understand. In “Simply Good News,” biblical scholar N.T. Wright puts it this way: “With God – at least, with this strange God of whom the ancient scriptures spoke – the first and most important point was not to understand him but to trust him. The idea that you might begin by looking this God up and down, giving him a cool appraisal, and then, if you understood him and approved of him, you might respond to him, is to deny that he is God at all. If he is God, our primary role is not to analyze him but to worship him; it is not for us to figure him out but to let him figure us out.”
Yes, this mysterious, holy God comes to figure us out. God comes to the temple to meet Isaiah. The images are very earthy. A throne, a robe with a hem, seraphs covering their faces and feet, the temple is filled with smoke. The seraph comes with a hot coal and touches the prophet’s lips. God is at once mysterious and majestic and yet personally involved with gentleness and power.
In the same way, the God of the universe comes to us. The creator, redeemer and sustainer of all that is comes to figure us out. Father, Son and Holy Spirit come to birth a new creation, to bring us life within it and to sustain us now and into the future unfolding even as we speak. This God is not an object to be examined, but God to be experienced and worshipped as mysterious and holy because God comes to us.
The mystery of God remains. But we do know this: If we want to see God, we look to Jesus. Fully human and fully God. The meeting place of heaven and earth. A new walking-around, talking, world-transforming temple in and of himself. As those who know God’s ultimate self-revelation in Jesus, who have been adopted into God’s family, who are “joint heirs with Christ” as Paul says — we see him everywhere. We see with new eyes the ways in which God has always revealed God’s self. We are drawn deeper and deeper into a saving relationship with the God who is always creating, redeeming and sustaining us and a new world. While we cannot ever fully understand and know, we do trust that is who God is, really.
MATTHEW A. RICH is pastor of Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia.