Newsletter #56


A Personal God

What doth it profit thee to enter into deep discussions concerning the Holy Trinity, if thou lack humility, and be thus displeasing to the Trinity? For verily it is not deep words that make a man holy and upright; it is a good life which maketh a man dear to God. I had rather feel contrition than be skillful in the definition thereof. If thou knewest the whole Bible, and the sayings of all the philosophers, what should this profit thee without the love and grace of God? --Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), Of the Imitation of Christ

Occasionally an email reaches me from a Muslim who is seeking to persuade me that Allah is the one true god with no rivals. I often start a discussion by making a few comparisons between Allah the god of Islam, and Yahweh the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There are major differences.

Yahweh is a personal God. He enters into personal relationships (covenants) with individuals and with groups of people. Allah is not a personal god. Muslims do not receive any assurance of forgiveness for their sins during their life-times, nor any inner confirmation that they are dealing with a living, personal, intelligent, responsive being.

Muslims are strict monotheists and have difficulty understanding that God could be One, yet possess an inner plurality of Persons. Many people today are polytheists (perhaps without realizing it). In religions where more than one god is supposed to exist, the gods are generally male and female and often sexually active among themselves and sometimes with mortals. They are frequently rivals of one another with a hierarchy, and with territorial boundaries or other limits to their power and rule. Some pagan gods are part human and part animal.

But consider a hypothetical universe where God was one person--one entity. Prior to creating anything, we can easily imagine that a one-person-god might eventually become, in time, a bit "lonely." In fact, when we think of "person" we always automatically think or more than one person(s). What would a one-personal god do with all his time if he had no companions? Surely he would be bored with no one to relate with? If that one-personal god then decided to created sentient beings--men and angels--how could he avoid creating robots and puppets who surely would soon also bore him? Without a consort this god one-personal deity would have no equal. But if god were to have a consort, we already would have a universe of two gods. i.e., living under some form of dualism.

If a one-person god were all-powerful, why would he ask his subjects to bow to his wishes and demand that they live in subservience in all matters? Surely that would be a dull and unimaginative arrangement for all parties?

One of the other Hebrew names for the God of Abraham is Elohim. This important name is used in Genesis One--and a total of 2750 times in the Old Testament. Elohim is a plural noun which takes singular verbs--implying more than one Person in the godhead, a Being who always acts self-consistently ("in concert" or "by divine counsel"). But it is only in the New Testament that we get a clear picture that the true God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit--three Persons yet one God. We only know this about God because He has chosen to reveal Himself to his creatures this way--it is not something we can discovery by reason or scientific investigation.

Now consider the situation where no universe has yet been created, but a Three-Personal living God exists (eternally). The three Persons, we suppose, are equal, but not identical. Since all "personal relationships" we know about involving giving and taking, initiating and responding, leading and following, it is easy to imagine that the Persons of the godhead are likely to be perpetually involved in some kind of totally fulfilling relationships among one another. They evidently do not ever become bored with one another. Nor does a three-personal God need a creation. This kind of God could exist with an inner dynamism which we can scarcely begin to even imagine. When we add into this picture the additional information--which He has also revealed to us--namely "God is Love," then it is not difficult to imagine that each Person of the godhead lives not for Himself but for the other Persons within the godhead. This God can apparently not act selfishly as we do -- His love is always "self-giving."

For this three-Personal God to decide to create a universe with men and angels in it now takes on a whole new dimension. What if this God has chosen to allow men and angels to know Him and to relate to Him personally? Suppose we are invited somehow to "share in His love?" If the real God has chosen to make men very much like himself in terms of free-will, creativity, imagination, diversity--and the capability of loving and being loved--then He has given us created beings the highest possible honor. [Richard Young, a colleague of mine and dear friend is responsible for provoking me to think a bit about the interpersonal relationships within the Godhead. See his notes on the Trinity in my article on the names of God, http://ldolphin.org/Names.html.]

Some non-Christian religion and cults imagine that man is already God, or somehow already a part of God. Other suppose they are capable of attaining "godhood" by some kind of path of trial and testing and good deeds. However, the Bible always makes a sharp boundary between the Creator and the created. God is separate from, and He transcends all that He has created. [Psalm 82 is sometimes used to argue that men are already gods. Ray Stedman addresses this in his commentary on John's gospel, http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/john/3859.html]

Though men are not real gods and can not become "God" the Apostle Peter says something amazing in this regard. Peter writes, "God's divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature." (2 Peter 1:3-4)

The New Testament shows in clear terms that normal humanity was designed to be indwelt by God. We human are incomplete without a relationship with a personal God. This is how God decided to create us! Granting men free will and allowing to know their Creator by means of personal relationships (one at a time) now opens marvelous possibilities for life and liberty among men. "You are complete in Christ who is the head of all rule and authority," Paul writes in Colossians.

God uses mostly masculine pronouns when speaking to us in Biblical revelation. But believers understand right away that the Biblical God is not a sexual bring--as the heathen gods usually are. The image of God in man can not be expressed by a male alone, but must be imaged to us by male and female together.

"Then God [Elohim] said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Genesis 1:26-28)

That is, the God of the Bible is as much "feminine" as He is "masculine"--(we must use these terms carefully when talking about the nature of God). Men and women are identical in spirit but different in soul and in body. The interactions of the two sexes are not the interactions of two identical clones with one another, but relationships of unique persons who are designed to balance and compliment one another. (See Made in the Image of God, http://ldolphin.org/Image.html). Furthermore, no two human beings are identical. Each one of us is a unique creation--a work of exquisite art. Therefore the personal relationship each of us has with God is one-of-a-kind. Every friendship, every marriage, every relationship we have with another person is also unique. God likes variety in His all creative handiwork--He did not make us a bunch of clones and we are far, far from being puppets or robots.

When we think of interpersonal relationships of any kind it is immediately evident that we are all constantly involved in both giving and receiving. One can not have the one without the other. There also exists in life a response to match a stimulus, a responder to answer to the initiator. God Himself is also a "community of three persons." Therefore the true God is also the God of community. The importance of community is very important. God Himself is a member of the community. This is also part of His design for mankind. God participates fully in all aspects of His creation.

If God being a member of the community was not a very evident fact of life before the birth of Jesus, it is certainly clear from the New Testament that in taking on the form of a man, the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, has indeed joined Himself to our humanity. God's purpose in doing this is not only to accomplish our salvation from sin, but to enable us to live together in community with Him forever more. God meets us through the man Jesus Christ as our Mediator, our Great High Priest, our Counselor, our Lover, our Friend. For instance, there are two Adams in the Bible: the first Adam, from whom we have all descended--and Jesus the Last Adam who heads a whole new race of humans. Christians can think of Jesus as their Elder Brother--among His many other attributes.

"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:5-11)

About this "family" the Bible has much to say! Once one begins to speak of a personal God who want to know people personally and once we learn that this God has chosen to meet us through a fellow human being of our own race, Christian faith moves quickly and radically apart from all other religions. [Because of the Fall--man's rebellion against God--one becomes a true member of God's family by spiritual rebirth--but this does not release non-Christians from ultimate accountability to God as Creator, Lord and Judge of all.]

My friend Glenn Miller of the Christian Think Tank amazes me constantly with his erudite and thorough essays on every conceivable subject of theology imaginable. Glenn's more recent 25 page "short" treatise is "must reading." Why can't God just forgive sin, instead of demanding justice? He asks, (see http://www.christian-thinktank.com/whyjust.html). Glenn shows that our behavior as humans implies accountability to our Creator, but also so one another. We have major responsibilities to the community--and God is a member of the community. Our actions--public or private--affect our relationship with God--but also the entire community. There are no private deeds and actions we do that are innocuous--"we are all bound up together in the bundle of the living" to use an Old Testament metaphor.

The Law of Moses given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai tells us what God is like as a Person. He is moral, just, holy, but loving and compassionate. Since He can not change, any outside "persons" who wish to live in a harmonious relationship with Him must find a way to adjust to what He is like. Briefly put, the writer of Hebrews says, "Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." (Hebrews 14:14)

At first glance, it appears that the Old Covenant (the Law of Moses) is ordering us to try to change on our own, and to make every effort live up to the standards of Deity, by meritorious self-effort. Romans 3 sets us free from such a delusion--the Law was given to establish our deep need for grace and mercy. The Law also lets us know that we are to live daily in total dependence upon the Lord. We are quite incapable of any righteous deeds when running on our own steam.

The New Covenant, on the other hand, makes it possible for us to live in a harmonious personal relationship with God--because God changes us from the inside out, if we give Him permission to do so. This is a tall order! We all start out quite self-centered and self-seeking, and we must be changed into the likeness of a being who is self-giving.

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds," then he adds, "I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." (Hebrews 10:12-25)

Every one of us understands quite a bit about relationships among ourselves--with parents, siblings, spouse, friends and enemies--from experience. We all learn to relate to other people by trial and error, both positively and negatively. Instinctively we know and sense what an interpersonal relationship is all about.

But, it is strange to me that I do not tend to deal with God the way I deal with other "persons" whom I know. Yet God is much more of a living Person than any other "entity." God is the very Author of life. All of life, at every level, has its source in Him. Yet, I worry most about what other people think of me. Everything I think or say or do--my entire history--is known to God. But I can easily be indifferent to what he thinks about me! Often I remind myself of what the Lord said to Samuel about King Saul, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7)

I know intuitively than I can not expect to enjoy a more intimate relationship with another person which goes deeper than the degree of intimacy I have attained in my personal relationship with Jesus. But my time alone with God is easily set aside, compromised, crowded out by a thousand mundane matters, on a daily basis. (See http://ldolphin.org/Intim.html, http://ldolphin.org/relationships.html)

If we think we understand something about how two persons can relate with one another, imagine the intensity and vitality of the relationships the Three Divine Persons share with one another! For us to know God is to be drawn into God Himself, into union with Them. From the closing chapter of C.S. Lewis' science fiction trilogy:

"For one moment she had a ridiculous and scorching vision of a world in which God Himself would never understand, never take her with full seriousness. Then, at one particular corner of the gooseberry patch, the change came. What awaited her there was serious to the degree of sorrow and beyond. There was no form nor sound. The mould under the bushes, the moss on the path, and the little brick border, were not visibly changed. But they were changed. A boundary had been crossed. She had come into a world, or into a Person, or into the presence of a Person. Something expectant, patient, inexorable, met her with no veil or protection between. In the closeness of that contact she perceived at once that the Director's words had been entirely misleading. This demand which now pressed upon her was not, even by analogy, like any other demand. It was the origin of all right demands and contained them. In its light you could understand them; but from them you could know nothing of it. There was nothing, and never had been anything, like this. And now there was nothing except this. Yet also, everything had been like this; only by being like this had anything existed. In this height and depth and breadth the little ideal of herself which she had hitherto called me dropped down , and vanished, unfluttering, into bottomless distance, like a bird in a space without air. The name me was the name of a being whose existence she had never suspected, a being that did not yet fully exist but which was demanded. It was a person (not the person she had thought), yet also a thing, a made thing, made to please Another and in Him to please all others, a thing being made at this very moment, without its choice, in a shape it had never dreamed of. And the making went on amidst a kind of splendour or sorrow or both, whereof she could not tell whether it was in the moulding hands or in the kneaded lump.

Words take too long. To be aware of all this and to know that it had already gone made one single experience. It was revealed only in its departure. The largest thing that had ever happened to her had, apparently, found room for itself in a moment of time too short to be called time at all. Her hand closed on nothing but a memory. And as it closed, without an instant's pause, the voices of those who have not joy rose howling and chattering from every corner of her being.

"Take care. Draw back. Keep your head. Don't commit yourself," they said. And then more subtly, from another quarter, "You have had a religious experience. This is very interesting. Not everyone does. How much better you will now understand the Seventeenth-Century poets!" Or from a third direction, more sweetly, "Go on. Try to get it again. It will please the Director."

But her defences had been captured and these counter-attacks were unsuccessful." (C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength)

Solomon, by the way, says that contentment and happiness in life is a gift from God--and he gives these gives only to those who choose to serve Him.

"...for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy." (Ecclesiastes 2:25-26a)

Our society is crumbling rapidly. Families are falling apart. Close friendships are few and far between. Promises that are kept and commitments that are honored--are few and far between. People seem to have forgotten that God is a Personal God. What this means is that true community is almost gone as well. God, the Creator and Judge and Master of the community must inevitably move decisively to judge, to heal and to restore that community. In the real world that means that some will be excluded in the time of renewing, and all of us will be judged and evaluated in the process.

"Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." (Isaiah 55:6-7)


Lambert Dolphin
lambert@ldolphin.org

2/14/05