GOD IS GREAT
“If there were no God, there would be no Atheists.” G. K. Chesterton
God is great; God is good; and we thank him for our food. Amen.
I must have spoken those simple words hundreds of times at the dinner table when I was a child, but I most certainly did not understand what they meant. Not really.
I liked the certainty in the cadence of the words.
Great. And Good. That is what God is like. That is who God is.
The so-called attributes of God are a way of gathering and synthesizing the biblical descriptions of God in the interest of knowing God as he really is. One way to summarize the attributes of God is to use the two categories of greatness (attributes of God’s being) and goodness (attributes of God’s morality). The difference between these two lies in describing who someone is, and describing what he does because of who he is. God’s greatness is about his ascendancy over this world, over the universe, over all reality. Greatness is about his being eternal, absolutely powerful, all-knowing, and other qualities that we will never fully comprehend. His goodness, on the other hand, is about his relational qualities, which we know by revelations such as “God is love” and “God is holy” and “God is right.” They also tend to be the qualities that were imprinted on the spiritual DNA of our lives when he created us. This is how God wants us to be, because we were made in his image.
God is More Than His Attributes
To list all the attributes of God does not constitute a complete knowledge of God, like one understands an engine by looking at an exploded diagram and parts list on a blueprint. Attributes are not separable pieces; God is not composite. God is more than the sum of his attributes. God’s character transcends our descriptions of his attributes, and oftentimes the Bible describes God not by saying what he is, but by what he is not (for instance, he is in-finite, “not finite”).
God, the divine person, discloses himself to mortal persons. His descriptions are voice-to-ear, epiphany after thunder, and heaven to earth, as when God disclosed himself to Moses who was hiding in the cleft of a rock:
“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin” (Exodus 34:5-7).
Psalm 95:3 says, “The LORD is the great God, the great king above all gods.” God is not merely greater than other powers. His is a difference of kind, not degree. He defines greatness and majesty. So, then, what are these attributes of greatness?
God is Spirit
Jesus said that because God is spirit, his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23).
Hebrew word for spirit (ruach) and the Greek word (pneuma) can mean breath, wind, or spirit. Like the invisible wind that comes from one direction, then another, and can assert itself with mighty power, so does God come as Spirit. Breath, too, is invisible, yet with breath, you are a living being; without it, you are dead. So “spirit” is a wonderfully precise description of who God is-“the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God…” (1 Timothy 1:17; italics mine).
We all know that there are two fundamentally different ways of looking at reality. One assumes that only what can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, or heard is real.
But God’s invisibility is not some lack on his part. It is what you would expect of a God who presides over a universe in which there are not just three dimensions, but at least eleven at last count, according to some physicists. And if someone says, “Why doesn’t God just show himself?” the answer has to be, “He did!” “The Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.”
God Is and God Is Alive
How can we summarize what God means when he tells us he simply is? When Moses asked God what his name was (for there were many alternative names for gods), God’s answer was, “I AM WHO I AM.” This was not a typical name such as “god of thunder,” or “lord of water and earth,” but the simplest, most comprehensive, most absolutely fundamental descriptor.
God is. That is the essence of who he is. Before anything else existed-before mountains or horses or angels, before even matter itself existed-God was. He is the one unalterable reality. So we can worship him anytime, anywhere.
He exists not as an impersonal energy in the universe, but as “the living God.” “The Father has life in himself” (John 5:26). No one brought God to life. He is the one living being who had no birth, and so he is the Father of all that is born. Moses, Joshua, David, Isaiah, and other voices in the Old Testament drew people’s attention again and again to “the living God.” This is what made him different from the other gods whose statues sat on shelves. The Old Testament prophets spared no sarcasm in talking about false gods who, because they were not alive, could not be life-giving. Isaiah depicts a man cutting a tree, using some of the wood to warm himself, and “from the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, ‘Save me; you are my god'” (Isa. 44:17). Biting sarcasm! Elsewhere (40:20) he talks about a man who looks for wood that he hopes will not rot before his god is carved. Scandalous! “He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not topple.” (Hard to respect a god that keeps tipping over.
And so in the New Testament the apostle Paul commended one group of believers as those who “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9), because if one thing is true about idols, it is that they are the most lifeless, ridiculous objects on the face of the earth.
Those of us who have no wooden statues on the hearth, however, are no less capable of idolatry. Whenever we make up an idea of God to suit our purposes, we are idolators. The same is true when we put something or someone above God as the determinative influence in our lives.
Because God is personal, he is a knowing being. His mind perceives truth and defines truth. He embraces us with a knowledge that is not just stored information in a Super-Divine File, but is an extension of love. His knowledge holds us.
“O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. You hem me in-behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” (Psalm 139:1-5)
Psalm 147:5 says God’s “understanding has no limit.” “Nothing is hidden from God’s sight” (Hebrews 4:13). When you pray, you can be assured that “the Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). He knows the number of hairs on your head. He knows you better than you know yourself. God’s omniscience is our comfort.
Because God’s all-knowing character is an extension of his personality, the Bible is not a mystery book of hidden secrets.
Many things that God knows remain secrets or mysteries to us. But many other things are uncovered, especially the consequences of the weighty spiritual and moral decisions we make every day.
God is Infinite
Have you found that the longer you live, the more you realize your own finitude?
We live in bodies that keep us located in one spot at one time. They break; they disintegrate; they fall to pieces. We only know so much, and the more we learn the more we realize how much we do not know.
In every way that we are finite, God is infinite. God is all-knowing (omniscient). He doesn’t grow older, doesn’t become mentally limited, doesn’t show emotional fragility. His power (omnipotence) exceeds that massive energy that holds all matter together. God is present at all times in all places (omnipresence). “‘Am I only a God nearby… and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him? Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:23-24).
Omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence. God is God in ways that only could be true of an absolute God. The implications for prayer and our dependence in faith are enormous. Our prayers do not inform God of facts he is ignorant of. Rather, our prayers are an engaging conversation in which we wait to learn something we didn’t know before, or to simply receive the comfort of talking to the God who knows our needs before we even ask him (as Jesus put it in the Sermon on the Mount). Because we pray to an all-powerful God, it is not the prayer itself that has power, but God.
Because God is great, something powerful is already at work the moment we say, “Dear God…” Even if the only thing we can say is “Dear God.”
God is Changeless
Imagine our confusion if we thought that God is glorious (sometimes) or is Spirit (once in a while) or knows us (at least 75% of us, plus or minus 5%). No, whatever God is, he is consistently. God “does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). Everything else in life changes. God will one day roll up the universe like a robe, “But you [God] remain the same, and your years will never end” (Hebrews 1:12).
What a parent hopes to be-consistent, even-handed, fair, reliable, steady-God is. He always is. He is the only father who is never arbitrary, never capricious, never moody.
God is great. This is the song sung by the universe. It is the proper interpretation of every heartbeat, every breath, and every step of our lives.
This is what Mary, the mother of Jesus, meant when she said “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The news of God’s act of supreme greatness, bringing a rescuer into the world, inspired her to praise and adoration. But Mary “magnified” the Lord, not in the sense that she made him bigger, but because her soul was enlarged by the greatness she was just beginning to comprehend.
Greatness is our best hope, when we feel like our lives are just so many pieces, to know that there is a way to pull it all together. We are pulled together and held together by the greater purpose of a greater being. So when we wonder where we fit in, or how we can go on after losing somebody important, or whether we can do any good in our lives, the answer comes from the throne of the God of greatness. His invisible hand moves us more powerfully and carefully than any other influence in our lives. He is not puzzled by the puzzling pieces of life.
God, enlarge me. I don’t ask you to make me bigger or more important, but I know that if I get a fuller experience of your greatness, that my heart and my mind will be greater for it. But most of all, help me to be exuberant in setting a course of life to know your greatness, and to speak of your greatness whenever I have the opportunity.
GOD IS GOOD
“God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.” African proverb
What if you believed in a God who wielded immense power, who knew absolutely everything, and who was not limited by time or space-in other words, a truly great God-but you had no assurance that he was good?
It is frightening even to imagine.
Yet this is the way many people think about God. They take all that is not good in the world and attribute it to God, and in this crude spiritual equation God must end up the despot.
When one looks at the descriptions of God in the Bible, his true attributes, one finds a great God, but also one who is good beyond measure. This goodness is described for us vividly and concretely in words such as holiness, righteousness, justice, love, mercy, grace, and truth.
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty. The whole earth is full of his glory.” Those were the words the prophet Isaiah heard during his vision of God high and exalted, seated on a throne, the train of his robe filling the temple (Isaiah 6:1-4). “Holy” means separate, different, unique, and this is one of the best assurances we have that God is only interested in the good. He is separate from all the evil and malice in the world-not ignorant of it-but neither is he defiled or influenced by it.
All those laws, for instance, were God’s way of setting aside one tribe in the human race for something different, a sure signal that any of us can be elevated to and experience a different life. The children of Abraham learned over centuries about the holiness of God through the object lessons of the holy temple, holy basins, holy garments, holy days, and holy Sabbath. But they also were learning about love.
One of our basic problems as human beings is that we tend to feel uncomfortable around what is different. One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is that when people in the public sphere find out that you’re “one of them,” they sometimes get uneasy about you.
So what is it like for God? Sometimes we run to God because he is holy and we know that the only hope that we have in this world is a God who is so different from the world that he is our lifeline out of the chaos. But our instincts often cause us to shrink back from the holy God.
What other hope do we have that things can be different from what they are?
Righteousness and Justice
God is right in everything he is and does. His goodness, in other words, is the shape of the way he relates to others. There is nothing God has ever done that is not right and nothing he will ever do that is not right. Justice is God’s rightness-his righteousness-applied in matters of judgment. In the final judgment, God will do what is right; and in the everyday flow of decisions, deliberations, and minor judgments, God’s opinion is unfailingly right, and thus good.
When a matter seems too expansive for us to make a judgment, we can trust that God will view it with righteousness, and that his response will be just.
God’s holiness is our assurance that he is different from the defilements of this world, and indeed, different from us, which contradicts any religious notion that God or the gods are just amplified versions of human nature. But because God is love he is not separated from us. He is engaged, connected, involved. He is a God at work. Separate but not separated. Discriminating but not discriminatory. Hating evil but loving good. And, out of that love, he was willing to descend into this corrupt world in a great Incarnation and, in the person of Jesus, draw unholy people toward his holiness.
In 1 John 4 we find this clear, bold summary of the issue: “God is love.” It is a way of saying that this attribute is so central to who God is, this act is so essential to who we must be in God, that we can set our focus there and spend a lifetime asking God to help us understand and live in this reality. Who will ever tire of adoring a God who is love?
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:7-12).
God’s love has many faces-it is his mercy, which is his willingness to suspend judgment while there is hope for correction or salvation in our lives. It is his benevolence, which is his pattern of bringing blessings into our lives. And then, of course, there is grace. Grace is giving. For lack of a better word, it is God’s giving-ness. He gives and gives and gives. No one will ever change that, because love is who God is. And, because of love, God does not spoil us. He gives what we really need, which is not always what we think we need.
If God were great but not good, he would manipulate, deceive, and just plain lie. But because he is good, he is true and he is truthful.
Truth as a personal attribute means faithfulness. It means being consistent within oneself, and in harmony with reality. When any of the biblical authors talked about “the true God” they were saying, the Creator of heaven and earth is steady and faithful. He does not change the rules of life. All things hold together as they are “trued” to him who is true. He will always reflect reality to us
They are themes that rise up out of almost every page of the Bible. They are God’s way of saying to you and to me that he is great, but that he is also good. His moral excellence and purity is who he is. This is why we long for something better in our own lives-to be different from what we are today (more holy), to get things right in life, to receive love and to extend it, to be faithful.
God’s majesty alone ought to interest us in knowing him. But it is a good thing if we also pursue him because of his goodness, which is always a picture of how we are to live. That’s what it means to be made in the image of God.
Dear God, I am glad that you are good. I admit there have been times when I have thought of your immense power, but wondered whether your goodness was consistent and whether it touched the real-life situations I see all around me. Help me to see every sign of your goodness that surrounds me. Help me to trust in your goodness when I find myself in bad situations. Please extend your goodness to others through me in some way. Help me to let others know that you created them for goodness, and that they can approach you with confidence.
[excerpts from Putting the Pieces Back Together: How Real Life and Real Faith Connect by Mel Lawrenz]