How Do We Come to Know God’s Character?

Discerning the character of God requires donning special spectacles.

In my last posting (The Slippery Witness of Religious Experience), I wrote about the crucial role of religious experience in answering the question: How do I know God is real? Religious experiences are not infallible proofs for the existence of God. Nonetheless they have played an important role in grounding my own confidence that in such experiences I confront something/someone divine that is real, not a delusion.

Believing God exists, however, does not carry one very far into a full-fledged Christian belief. After we are convinced that God is real, a new question emerges: What is the character of this divine presence we have encountered in our religious or mystical experiences?

If we base our theological reflection on a study of nature alone, we end up with more questions than answers. Is God one or many? Polytheism seems just as compatible with the evidence of nature as any monotheism. In fact, polytheism has been the preferred answer for most people in human history.

Is God good or evil, or just plain uncaring? Again if you try to answer that question by an appeal to nature alone, you get more equivocal answers. Certainly the finely tuned order of the natural world suggests that its creator is not only powerful, but supremely wise.

Is that divine power, however, beneficent? All the natural disasters that have devastated human life would suggest otherwise. At the very least the divine power is unpredictable and possibly capricious.

So where do Christians and Jews get their idea that the divine power they perceive in their religious experiences is a God of justice, love, and forgiveness, committed to their ultimate welfare?

Historical events as revelations

Christians and Jews don’t get that understanding of God from any contemplation of nature. Instead they draw these conclusions from theological reflection upon events in history where they believe God intervened and acted. These events, these acts of God as we call them, reveal God’s character, will, and intentions.

For Old Testament theology, those events include the call of Abraham, the liberation of the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and their subsequent journey through the wilderness, the establishment of Israelite life in the land of Canaan, the preaching of the Hebrew prophets, the exile of the Israelites from Canaan, and their restoration to the land under the Persians.

Within those events, the experience of the Exodus is especially revelatory of the character of God. In it, we encounter a God committed to liberation, to covenant living, and to compassion for the underprivileged. This Exodus experience reveals a God committed not to the status quo, but one who leads us out of that status quo into something new and more life giving.

Through theological reflection upon this Exodus experience, the Israelites came to one of their greatest insights into the character of God. God is a God of committed, loving grace.

The book of Deuteronomy expresses this insight explicitly in a passage in which Moses addresses the people of Israel just before they leave the desert to enter into Canaan. It reads:

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)

This passage identifies the motive behind God’s actions on behalf of Israel as God’s gracious love and faithfulness. As the theology of the Old Testament and then of the New Testament unfolds, we find that God’s actions on behalf of Israel become the paradigm for how God relates to all humanity. God chooses all of us to be God’s people not because of our superiority, but because God dearly loves the good creation which God created.

For the New Testament, the decisive historical event that reveals and fulfills this character of God is the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Here we find revealed the depths of the compassion of God. For in those events Christians assert they discover that the character of God is supremely the character of self-giving love, a love that expresses itself in service.

The events of Jesus Christ also confirm those insights into God that we find in the Old Testament. That’s why for Christians the capstone of Biblical theology is reached in the assertion of the Gospel of John: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

The Bible offers our spectacles

And here’s where the Bible comes into the picture. The Bible is a collection of writings that report these historical events where the faith communities of Judaism and Christianity have seen God’s intervention into history. The Bible also gives us the theological reflections that those believing communities have used to interpret those events. Through that dialogue between the events and the theological reflections upon those events, our confident assertions about the character of God emerge.

It is for this reason that the Bible continues to play such a central role in the life of faith within both the Jewish and Christian communities. We return again and again to this written word to be reminded of those historical events and to be challenged by the theological interpretations that those written words give to those events.

John Calvin famously taught that the Bible is the spectacles through which we look to understand the God we perceive in both nature and human life. Whereas the God we perceive in nature remains somewhat blurry, through the Bible the character of that God comes into sharp focus. The Bible is also the spectacles through which we discern the character of the God we encounter in our religious experiences.

Those who are unconvinced by the Jewish or Christian faiths will be forever puzzled as to why we believers give such importance to these writings from the ancient world. For much of the modern world, science provides the interpretative spectacles through which we see and interpret the world. Writings that many today regard as outdated and mythical can provide no doorway into the truth.

But for people grounded in a biblical faith, it is the Bible that gives us that interpretative key. That is why we invest so much time and energy in reading, studying, and discussing this book. For in this book we discover the character of God that guides the way we worship, believe, and live.


God the Helicopter Parent

Psalm 39 speaks to those times when we’d like God to just leave us alone.

I like to recite a psalm in my morning prayers. Recently that brought me to Psalm 39. In the past I have tended to read it and move on. It seemed to be just another lament psalm like so many others in the psalter, and not a very memorable one at that.

This particular morning I was reciting it from a translation I acquired a few years ago.* The translator gave the psalm a different cast from other translations I have used.

Lament psalms form a large proportion of the psalter. Most of them bemoan the seeming absence of God from the psalmist’s life or God’s delay in coming to the psalmist’s assistance in his need. The question is: Where is God when I need him?

Psalm 39 is a lament psalm too. But instead of lamenting God’s absence or God’s procrastination, the psalmist seems to be lamenting God’s too overwhelming presence in his life. It’s as if the psalmist is experiencing too much of God. He wants some relief.

Stop tormenting me;

You strike and I grow weak.

You rebuke us for our sin,

eat up our riches like a moth:

we are but a breath. (Psalm 39:11-12)

Now sometimes we can feel this way because we are feeling especially guilty. The searching eye of God seems to be exploring every dark part of our personality and behavior. We squirm.

But additional words in the psalm make me feel as if there is more to the psalmist’s torment:

Stop looking so hard at me,

allow me a little joy

before I am no more. (Psalm 39:14)

Psalm 139 seems to be expressing a similar feeling when it says:

 Where can I hide from you?

How can I escape your presence? (Psalm 139:7)

Both psalms speak to me about those times when we feel God is too much in our face. They talk about those times when we experience God as our divine helicopter parent. God hovers over and around and within us. We’re not sure we like it.

I think this language talks about more than just that uncomfortable feeling when our sense of sin makes us feel so unworthy in God’s presence. God loves us, deeply and profoundly. In his love he wants the very best for us and the very best out of us (as every caring parent wants for his or her child). He wants to see his creative intention for each one of us fulfilled to the fullest. Only that will give us the greatest happiness.

But we are only too happy to settle for second best. We accept mediocrity as the best we can produce because aiming for the very best is going to be just too much hard work or will require us to tackle some truly scary challenges. Life may become very tumultuous and upsetting in the process. We are glad to settle for something a little less demanding.

I’ve come to believe, however, that God likes to challenge our compromises. At least that has been my experience at times. The more he does, the more we may come to feel that we would like God to back off. As the psalmist says, “Allow me a little joy before I am no more.”

But God seems determined not to let us become comfortable with anything less than the very best he has created for us. So he continues to challenge us throughout our spiritual journey.

This is not the only way God relates to us, nor does it express the totality of our Christian experience. But I think it is important to acknowledge that this is one aspect of our spiritual journey. For that reason, there will be times when we, like the psalmist, want to say to God, “Please, just leave me alone.”

John Calvin once described the psalms as providing an anatomy of all parts of the soul.** As we immerse ourselves into the psalms, we find indeed the whole range of our experiences with God reflected in its lyrics. That’s why, I think, believers so love them.


* The translation of the Psalms I was reading is The Psalter: A faithful and inclusive rendering from the Hebrew into contemporary English, compiled by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. Published by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Liturgy Training Publications, 1994. It has not received an imprimatur for use in Roman Catholic services, but I still find it a thought-provoking translation.

** A short summary of Calvin’s view on the psalms can be found in an unfinished article titled “John Calvin and the Wonder of the Psalms,” by the Rev. Angus Stewart of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.

Silent Persuasion

Silence Discloses a Hidden Presence.

I participate in an inter-religious dialogue group. One of the members, an engineer by occupation, says he’s an atheist. He is, he says, because he sees no rational or empirical scientific evidence for the existence of a god.

He has pushed me a lot for why I believe in God. I appreciate this pushback because it has helped me think deeply about why I do indeed believe God is. What I’ve discovered is that if you push me hard enough, I have to admit that it is not rational arguments. I find rational arguments convincing only because I already believe.

Nor is it emotional feelings or religious and mystical experiences. I have had some, but again I believe they are experiences of the divine because I already believe in the divine. Nor have miraculous or serendipitous events proved conclusive. Again I have had some events in my life where circumstances converged in a surprising way that I did not plan. But they do no prove God is for me or for others. They may be just pure chance.

No, none of these reasons are ultimately persuasive either to unbelievers or to me. What is convincing for me? In a strange way, it is the practice of silence. Let me explain what I mean.

I grew up in a deeply religious family, a family whose theological convictions ran in a fundamentalist groove. Like many young people after college, I too came into deep questioning of these convictions, largely because they made me feel so miserable.

My spiritual journey during my 20s, 30s, and early 40s was tumultuous. It amazes me that I did not just chuck Christianity out and settle into a totally unbelieving and uncaring lifestyle like so many of my generation. I continued instead to battle within myself.

The Turning Point in My Life

When I reached my mid-40s, I had reached my limit. I remember one night sitting on the sofa in my living room and trying to pray. Finally in exasperation, I said, “God, I’ve had it. I’ve tried everything I can to break through to you, but nothing has worked. From now on, if and when I sit down to pray, I’m just going to sit here in silence. If you are real, you are going to have to reach out to me and make your presence real.”

Well, no sky opened. No heavenly voice spoke. No vision of light flooded my soul, not then nor in the coming months. If I prayed at all, I did indeed sit in silence saying nothing or doing nothing.

Then over the coming months and years, something strange did happen. A sense of the reality of a divine presence in the world and in my own life did begin to settle into my life.

It was not a particularly rational thought. Nor was it a deeply emotional feeling. It was not any kind of bodily sensation. And it certainly was not a mystical experience. It was just there. I cannot describe it except that it was simply there, nothing more. And yet that presence felt real, very real.

Coming to Know through Letting Go

Shortly after that fateful night, I also stumbled onto a book that introduced me to the practice of centering prayer, which is a prayer of silence. It is a form of prayer taught by the Trappist spiritual master Thomas Keating. In centering prayer, you do not say anything, do anything, or even try to feel anything. You simply be, be with God and yourself in silence.

I cannot explain the power of this kind of prayer. You give up any effort to do anything. You just simply try to be during the time you practice it. Yet, I have come to be convinced there is an amazing power to this just being with the divine presence in the world and in our lives. You begin to have a sense of real communion with God but it cannot be expressed in words or images. In this respect silence discloses the divine presence in a way that nothing else can, at least for me. It has led me to an experience which theologians label as pure grace.

Some can say I am deluding myself. They may be right. I concede that possibility, for I cannot rationally explain the conviction that has settled into my being. Yet I feel compelled to live trusting in that conviction and trying to live in harmony with the him/her/it it discloses. And so I do.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Psalm 46:10-11, which reads:

“Be still, and know that I am God.

I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth!”

The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

The Hebrew translated “be still” can be translated in various ways. An alternate translation is “stop fighting.” But I love the wording “be still.” It is sheer poetry to me. For in a paradoxical way, the practice of emptying oneself in silence seems to lead to a knowledge that cannot be acquired in any other way.



The Challenge in Talking about God

In my last blog posting, “The Wrath of God, the Agony of God,” I wrote freely of God having emotions like anger and compassion. To some readers, this may have smacked of a simplistic theology. Am I assuming that God is just a super-super-human being? Does not a higher theology demand that we recognize that God is not like us?

This is the problem of anthropomorphism. This is a scholarly term for the practice of attributing human motivations, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena…or to the divine.

The Bible is full of anthropomorphisms in its speech about God. We are told that God walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening (Genesis 3:8), that the Lord came down to see the city and tower that human beings were building at Babel (Genesis 11:5). The psalmist calls upon us to seek the face of the Lord (Psalm 27:8-9). In another psalm we hear the lament that the right hand of the Most High has changed (Psalm 77:10).

We could go on and on with multiple examples. We can add to the mix all the talk about God as Father, Shepherd, and King.

Then anthropomorphism seems to get worse when we find the Bible using male pronouns (he, him, his) to talk about God. Is not a patriarchal bias built into the Bible’s terminology? Would it not be better to talk about God in non-gender terms?

This all has very practical implications for how we translate the Bible, how we address God in worship and prayer, and how we talk about God in Christian preaching, teaching, and hymns.

If we follow the objections to anthropomorphism to an extreme, we are forced to admit that we cannot positively talk about or to God. All we can do is sit in God’s presence in silence.

Religious people might benefit greatly from spending more time sitting in God’s presence in contemplative silence. But I want to defend the practice of talking about God in the language of human personality, for I believe an important principle is at stake.

When I use the language of human personality in talking about God, I in no way assert that God is nothing more than a human being blown up to gigantic proportions. I fully accept that witness of the Bible that God transcends all of the processes of nature and all of our concepts for understanding God.

No Biblical passage expresses that insight better than Isaiah 55:8-9, where the prophet speaks this word from God:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

But the fact that the God we meet in the Bible transcends human understanding or being does not mean the God we meet in the Bible is an impersonal it. That may be the God of the philosophers. The ancient Greek philosophers, like Aristotle, thought of the divine as the unmoved mover, but certainly did not think that that mover was moved by inner emotions. Perfection was changeless and impassive. And the Force so invoked in the Star Wars trilogy seems to have no hint of personality. It remains a power, but an impersonal power.

This is not, however, the God we encounter in the Bible. We might say, that the God of the Bible is not an It, but a Who. The God of the Bible is a someone who speaks to us, who calls to us, who judges us, who awaits us, and who loves us. God may transcend the characteristics of human personality and relationships, but God is certainly not someone who is less than the realities of human personhood.

How in fact can the sublimity of human personhood have evolved out of an impersonal force?

Anthropomorphic language recognizes this important truth about God. Human language does not have the capability of fully describing God, anymore than human reason has the capability to comprehend God. So we use the linguistic tools we have to talk about God in personal terms recognizing that our language will always fall short of God’s reality.

This is especially true, I believe, in the use of male pronouns in talking about God. In no way do I believe that God is inherently male. God transcends gender. But human language gives us no tools for talking about personality apart from the gender distinctions that we know as human creatures. How is it possible to be fully personal without being male or female? We human beings do not know.

I continue to use male pronouns in speaking about God in my sermons, teaching, and writing. In doing so, I show my bias towards theological conservatism. I grew up in an era when speaking of God in male gender language was the fully accepted way of speaking of God. The tradition claimed its sanction from the very linguistic usage of the Bible. And so that continues to be my personal style for talking about God.

I think we owe a great debt, however, to feminist theology for showing us the great dangers involved in so speaking. To speak of God as “she” may be permissible, but only if we recognize that speaking of God in female pronouns is no more accurate in talking about a genderless God than are the male pronouns.

What I am not ready to accept is any language for speaking of God that compromises with the inherently personal character of the God we worship and serve. For the God I meet in the Bible is someone who calls us into committed relationship with God’s own self as well as with other human beings and with non-human nature. We undercut the very essence of the gospel (that God so loved the world…) if we conceive of God as an uncaring and unfeeling It.

God’s Temptation

Bible text: Exodus 32:7-14

This morning I was reading the story of Israel’s creation of the golden calf at Mount Sinai. Moses has been on Mount Sinai 40 days in dialogue with God. Israel gets impatient with his absence. They want action now, and so they ask Aaron to create them a god. He creates a golden calf.

This creates an interesting turn in God’s dialogue with Moses. Hot with anger, God tells Moses to leave the mountain immediately. God says he is about to destroy the people of Israel for their apostasy. Instead he will create a new people from Moses’ line of descent.

What caught my attention is how God introduces this conversation. He says to Moses: “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely….” [I added the italics.] Suddenly the people of Israel are not God’s people. They are Moses’ people. And Moses is the one who brought them up out of Egypt. God lays no claim to them.

Moses, however, will not allow God to wipe his hands of the connection. He retorts: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” [Again, I’ve added the italics.]

Moses does not allow God to cavalierly displace the connection between God and Israel. It is not Moses who brought Israel out of Egypt. It is God. And the Israelites are certainly Moses’ people because he belongs to them. But in terms of covenant ownership, they are God’s people because God called and created them.

Moses then reminds God of the stake he has in Israel’s fate. If God destroys Israel, it will reflect very badly on God’s reputation. The Egyptians will laugh in derision.

Furthermore, God has made a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If he destroys the Israelites, God will show himself an unstable god like all the fickle, unstable gods of the other ancient Near Eastern polytheisms. God will show himself to be a God in whom no one would be advised to place any ultimate trust and loyalty.

The text says Moses wins the argument. God changes his mind.

I find this a fascinating dialogue for two reasons. One is the effrontery exhibited by Moses. Moses is neither bribed by God’s promise to make a great nation out of Moses. Nor is he meekly cowed by God’s presumption to pass the buck of responsibility onto Moses. Moses does not accept the role of scapegoat.

Instead Moses stands up to God. He presumes to argue with God. And Moses wins.

The other fascinating feature is the argument Moses makes. If God is going to be God, then God must be true to himself. God may need to be flexible in dealing with humanity. The story of the Bible gives many examples of this flexibility.

But God cannot be untrue to himself and remain God. God cannot betray his eternal purposes and character and remain a God in whom humanity is called to place ultimate trust. In times when God is thwarted and frustrated with the erring ways of humanity, he may be tempted to act in ways that are less than God. But if he does, he will cease to be God. He will become the Devil.

God faces a temptation. He has been betrayed, and he is tempted to respond in kind. But Moses reminds God that if he gives in to the temptation in the heat of passionate emotion, he will cease to be God.

So God must work with recalcitrant humanity is a way that God remains true to God’s own self. How he does that is the story of rest of the Bible. 

The Oddest Image for God in the Bible

Bible text: Isaiah 31:4-5

In my personal Bible reading, I’ve recently been working my way through the first portion of the prophet Isaiah (Chapters 1-39). A few days ago, I encountered what struck me as the oddest image for God that I’ve ever found in the Bible.

The image is found in Isaiah 31:4. There God compares himself to a lion that has seized a lamb from the flock and now stands guard over his prey against all the threats of the shepherds that try to frighten him away. They raise a horrible ruckus of noise and shouting. But the lion does not run away or back off.

The text reads like this:

For thus the LORD said to me,

            As a lion or a young lion growls over its prey,

                        and—when a band of shepherds is called out against it—

            is not terrified by their shouting

                        or daunted at their noise,

            so the LORD of hosts will come down

                        to fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill.

            Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts

                        will protect Jerusalem;

            he will protect and deliver it,

                        he will spare and rescue it.

Comparing God to a lion is not odd in Scripture. In Job 10:16, Job compares God to a lion, who relentlessly hunts him down. In Hosea 5:14, God speaks as if he is a lion who will destroy the people of Ephraim. The metaphor of the lion is again applied to God in Hosea 11:10 and 13:7-8.

And in the New Testament, we have the famous image in Revelation 5:5 where Christ is called the Lion of Judah. C.S. Lewis has good Scriptural precedent for choosing the image of a lion as his image for Christ in his Narnia Chronicles.

But the thrust of most of the Old Testament passages is use of the image of a lion to refer to God coming in judgment upon his people. Like a lion, God will rend and devastate his people for their faithlessness.

What I find so odd about the Isaiah passage is its use of the image of a lion growling over its prey as an image for God’s protectiveness and commitment to his people Israel. God is so resolute that he will not be moved to abandon his people no matter how fearsome the enemies that attack him.

We are accustomed to think of God as the good shepherd (see Psalm 23), who protects his people against the lions and bears of life. But we are not accustomed to think of the shepherds as images of evil, and God as so resolute in his care for his people that he is like a lion who cannot be frightened into abandoning his prey, even if the threats and noises are frightful.

I find the imagery in Isaiah 31:4 an odd inversion of our expectations. God may be flexible in his tactics. After all, he is dealing with an ever fickle and vacillating humanity. This opens a window for prayer. God can change in his tactics in response to the cries of his people.

But God is resolutely immovable in his eternal person and purposes. And one of his unchangeable qualities is his care and commitment to the world he has created. The coming of God’s kingdom may be delayed by all the twists and turns of human history. But it will come.