If you were raised in church you will recognize that as the universal ‘go-to’ answer when you’re daydreaming in Sunday School and suddenly realize the teacher has asked you a question (… or maybe that’s just a Brian thing).
God is a large subject and covers a wide bandwidth of information but in simple terms, what is God like?
This is not a theological website so I’ll do you the favour of avoiding the complexity of those pitiless, mind-numbing debates but let me toss some words at you. The primary attributes of God are: Love; Eternality; Goodness; Mercy; Grace; Holiness; Righteousness; Self-Existence; Immanence; Immutability; Omnipotence; Omnipresence; Omniscience; Transcendence; Sovereignty; Justice.
Yeah I don’t know what they mean either but interestingly one attribute that doesn’t always occur on these lists is Wrath – an anger that metes out punishment. Most people just assume it’s a God thing but it’s not all that clear. God is described as feeling wrath, being tempted to act on it. We also see that his wrath is revealed against godlessness and it rests on those who disobey.
Yes God hates sin, and yes there are consequences to sin but the arc of Scripture points to a God who is so disturbed by it that we see him creating ways to remedy and heal rather than just punish. I don’t want to split hairs but none of the wrath verses describe anything like eternal conscious torment. In fact, the whole subject of the afterlife is simply not a main topic in the Bible!
Something else – every person on earth is a victim of sin. What about sin that has been done to me – directly, socially, or generationally – how does God view the layers of sin that infiltrate me invisibly?
“In truth, despite all of our responsibility for sin, we are largely its victims. We do not begin our lives in Paradise, but in a world in which everyone is broken and distorted. Those who carry out crimes are most likely to have been victims first. We do to others what has been done to us. And sometimes it goes to horrendous extremes. We are psychopaths and sociopaths, addicts and sinners, the children of a world gone wrong.” – Fr Stephen Freeman
I recently saw a graphic on Twitter that illustrated how the words we use to describe God should not stand on their own. Instead, God’s sovereignty, holiness, justice, mercy, wrath, etc. can only be understood through the lens of his love. Everything that proceeds from God flows out of his love.
Because God is love.
Love is not a characteristic of God. Love is not a description of how he acts. Love is not how he is motivated.
God is love.
Love is God’s DNA. It is who he is. He is the source of all love. If I have known a drop of love in my lifetime, he has a universe of oceans of love still waiting.
The writer of 1 John explains that where there is true love, there is no room for fear and in fact, fear is the opposite of love:
“We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” – 1 John 4:16-18 (NLT)
Yeah, I know God is known in some scriptures as an angry God who hates sin (especially in the first testament). Well of course sin makes him angry – it breaks the things he loves, so… On the other hand, love outweighs wrath and anger everywhere we look in the Bible.
God is so much more than the human traits of anger and revenge which perpetuate sin rather than cure it. Instead, and true to his character, God seeks to have love received, absorbed, shared, recycled. If you want to know what love looks like, we are given a description in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (NIV) (emphasis mine)
One of my favourite places in the entire Bible is Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal*. I can easily imagine myself as the ungrateful son who selfishly does things he shouldn’t do but eventually bows to his need and returns home. Or I can just as easily see myself in the role of the older ‘good son’ who chafes the whole time he’s filling the role expected of him.
There is so much first century culture that is invisible to us that we only see this as a story of family relationships. Jesus’ original audience would have literally gasped or groaned out loud as they heard it unfold. There would have been chatter and discussion for days: the loyal son was entitled to more respect, the young son should be punished, the father’s raw emotions were an embarrassment to himself and belittled the traditions of the community.
At some point I inevitably find myself luxuriating in the central beauty and scandal of the parable – a father who loves so gloriously and unreservedly that he ignores the norms and expectations of everyone and runs … RUNS to embrace his wayward son. Then to make it even more bizarre, dad throws an expensive welcome home party!
There is no question that this parable is about the unfair, illogical, unpopular love of God. Our heavenly father.
I have a scary question for you on this Halloween. What kind of father would punish his child’s disobedience with torture? Yes, torture – endless, forever punishment – the eternal conscious torment that so many christians believe in.
No, I don’t know of any either. Especially not one who is infinite love.
Not such a scary question after all.
Nevertheless God is about justice, and Jesus did raise the subject with people. Seems like there is more we need to consider about hell.
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Next up: Who invented hell?
* 11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his propertybetween them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” – Luke 15:11-32 (NIV)