“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

God: Incomprehensible and Omnipotent

If you are a Christian, like me, you seek to know God. But how can we ever know God? – he is so infinite and majestic and beyond our human comprehension and everything that he created. In this life, God has only revealed himself to us through his creations (except in Christ, but even Jesus Christ, despite being the “exact representation” of God and showing us what might be called the most important, the core things about God (John 1:18; 14:9), was not a complete revelation of everything about God) so we can only know him based on this limited revelation. Furthermore, we have finite human minds – in this life we are not capable of fully understanding God. We can only say what he is like, and compare/contrast him to his creations (which are filled with his beauty and majesty). Psalm 36:6 – “Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep.”

In Exodus 33:20 God says “you cannot see my face, for no one may see my face and live.” At times in the Old Testament people saw a vision or form of God, but they still lived because God had not fully revealed himself. In Judges 13:18, God says his name is “beyond understanding,” and to Abraham he says simply “I AM.”

We tend to describe God with certain attributes, phrases, and words. The problem is that in describing God we use language, and human language is limited to the human realm. Each word and phrase carries certain connotations and ideas, and when we hear these words we can only think in human terms. For example, we say that God is good. We get an idea of what “goodness” is through our experiences and what we see in the world and in ourselves, and we say that this is what God is. But God is so different, so much greater than what we can perceive that when we say God is good, it is like looking at stars and saying they are bright – if we were closer to them they would be really bright, like the sun, and if we were really close they would annihilate our retinas along with the rest of us. God is good, but we only have the slightest idea of what that means. As Paul says “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

Furthermore, we try to base our understanding of God off of limited words like “good,” “love.” But God is the definition and the source of these ideas, and he sets the standard for what we understand as “goodness.” What is love? What is good? God. Although it is helpful to understand God based on what we experience by saying “God is good,” we should remember where this goodness comes from – “goodness is God.”

One attribute we describe God with is omnipotence – God can do anything. But this leads to confusing questions like “can God create a rock so big he can't lift it?” When we think about power, we think in human terms, and differentiate between the ability to do something and the desire to do something. But God is God. There is nothing which is in accordance with God's will and yet God cannot do. Unlike us, God can do whatever he wants. So, when we think of God, the line between being able to do something and not being able to do something, and the line between desiring something and not desiring something, are the same line. That is why we can sensibly talk about God not being able to do things, whereas God would not be God if it was his will to do something, and yet he could not do it. The things which God cannot do are things which are not in accordance with his will. So, no – God "can't" create a rock so big that he can't lift it. God can't go against the laws of logic (ie. he can't create something that doesn't exist). Why the heck would he want to? God can do whatever he wants – whatever is in accordance with his character, which does not change (James 1:17). That is what omnipotence means. Is there a distinction between God choosing not to do something because it is not in his character to do it (ie. not to destroy his creation), and being "unable" (I put this word in quotes because I think it would be easy to associate it with connotations it has for human inability) to do something because it is not in his character (ie. being unable to create a thing that doesn't exist)? I would guess that the answer is no. God is the source of everything, even the laws of logic. The crucial point is that a logical and sensible reality is simply an “outflowing” of WHO GOD IS – he is that original entity from which ALL else comes, even logic itself. God comes before all and is the source of all. Thus he does not go against the laws of logic because that is not in his character/nature. When we describe God, using the words "can" and "will" both present problems. It is misleading to say that God cannot do something because this seems to imply that there is some external standard to which God must submit. Likewise it is misleading to say that God "will not" do something (as in, God "will not" defy logic) because the terminology implies that what God chooses against is even a remotely reasonable possibility to be chosen against. The fact is it is not even a remotely reasonable possibility because it is not in accordance with God's character. The best way to say it is that God simply does (rather than chooses to do, or is able to do) whatever is in accordance with his will. He acts out of who he is. God acts within the bounds of what we observe to be logic BECAUSE he is a "logical" God and NOT because he is held by some external standard or constraint of logic. So, when I apply the word "cannot" to God I mean something to the effect of "does not do what is not in accordance with his nature." I also mean the same thing when I say "will not." If God can only act in accordance with his own nature, with who he is as a truthful, just, loving God, is he not limited in some way? No, because no one is forcing God to be who he is. Why is God the way he is? He simply is - the I AM. And his will is in accordance with who he is. That is a mystery, but I can live with it.

In this whole discussion we have been stuck with using human language and with our limited human minds (this is an even greater hindrance). In the end we can only comprehend so much; we must be satisfied to know that God is who he is and therefore he does what he does. In his book The Pleasures of God, John Piper brings together omnipotence and the happiness of God in an effort to understand who God is more fully, and what is meant by sovereignty and omnipotence. Piper cites Psalm 115:3 ("Our God is in the heavens; all that he pleases, he does") and Psalm 135:6 and then says that "all that he does he takes pleasure in. He cannot be kept back from doing what he delights most to do. And he cannot be forced to do what he does not delight in." Piper demonstrates the biblical truth that the delight of God in all things is at the center of what is meant by omnipotence.

So how do we know God? By looking around at what he has revealed in creation, in history, and in our own hearts. But we must remember that we are only seeing a fraction of a glimpse of the truth. God can’t be put in human terms – all we can do is say, “that is a beautiful sunset, and God made it, and that is what he is like, except for in a completely different and infinitely greater way.” The fact that God is beyond our full understanding should itself fill us with awe and wonder at who he is and what he has done. Jesus Christ is the closest we will come in this life to fully knowing God, so to know God, we should look most often to Jesus of Nazareth – his life, his words, his actions, his interactions with his disciples and other people...

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