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.