What is the Character of God?


[This is a repost of one of blog posts from a decade ago. What I said then, I would still say today, perhaps even more emphatically. I’ve added a few new sprinkles to the post].

The chaplain ran to help the man lying on the beach of a South Pacific island, who had been hit by a shell. The young man was dying, and as the chaplain administered the morphine to him, the young many looked into the chaplain’s eyes and asked “Surely you must know— what is God like?” The chaplain, my former college Bible Professor Bernard Boyd said– “God is suffering love, he is just like the Jesus who died for you. And at this very moment he is with you in this pain for he said– “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.” (for more on this see the poem by Geoffrey-Studdert Kennedy “The Sorrow of God”).

When the question arises about the character of God, it is hard to know where to start, since there are so many facets and dimensions to the God of the Bible, but the writers of the NT were rather clear on this matter— God’s character, is most fully, completely and accurately revealed in the Jesus who came, self-sacrificially served, died on the cross for the sins of the world, rose again, and sent the Holy Spirit to illumine, empower, guard, and guide us. God, in other words, is the most self-giving, self-sacrificing being in the universe, and so it is no surprise that the author of 1 John will say things like “God is love. Those who live in love live in God, and God in them.” (1 John 4.16). To be sure, this love is a holy love, a purifying fire, a sanctifying grace. It is not pure indulgence, or forgiveness without a cost or a price. Holy love, best describes the character of God.

If you begin your portrait of God at such a juncture, and take seriously what Jesus says in Mk. 10.45 about his self-sacrificial ministry of love for the sake of others, and also take seriously Jn. 3.16-17 then you know that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world for he desires that none should perish, but rather all come to a saving knowledge of Christ. 1 Tim. 2.3-6 neatly sums these things up: “God our Savior…wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

Now if you begin with these profound deep hued colors as you paint the portrait of God, attempting to reveal God’s character, then you will realize that God, who is most certainly portrayed as all knowing and also all powerful in the Bible, exercises his power, his lordship, his sovereignty if you will, in order to save a lost world.

God’s power and might is not exercised in a self-centered, self-seeking or narcissistic way. God, is not a glory grabber, nor is he like a child constantly seeking our undivided attention, and demanding we glorify Him and thank him for everything that ever happens to us in life. To be sure we are to give thanks and praise God in all circumstances, but nowhere are we required to praise him for all circumstances. And why not?

The answer is simple— God has not predetermined all circumstances in the universe in advance, and so many of our circumstances in life are in fact evil and sinful and God wants no credit for them nor should we thank him for them. God wants no part of being credited with being the author of sin or evil. Angels and humans can be thanked for those facets of life. God can, as Rom. 8.28 promises, weave all things together for good, for God is the most powerful of all beings in the universe, but God in his wisdom has in fact empowered other beings in the universe, and they have wills and minds of their own and they are not always in compliance with what God wants.

Why am I saying these things? Because of late it has become popular to suggest that God indeed has chosen to exercise his sovereignty in such a fashion that not only has he rigged all things in advance, he has done it all for his own praise and glory!!! In short, God is being portrayed as a narcissist. Now this view of God certainly may play well in some parts of our narcissistic culture– we know all too well the cry “It’s all about me.”

However, when we look at Jesus, it is perfectly clear that here is the last person who walked the earth to have suggested— “I’m here for my own glory, I’m here because it’s all about me.” To the contrary he was so other-directed that in his view it was all about saving others, not himself, and all about glorifying another, namely his Father, not primarily himself.

But there is more. Jesus came so that we might share in the divine glory, indeed have the very divine presence within us. It seems in fact that God is a glory sharer, not one who jealously guards all the power, all the credit, even all the praise for himself. Listen to what Paul says. He tells his converts in Thessalonike that Jesus will come back to be glorified ‘in his people’, not merely by his people, but ‘in his people’ (2 Thess. 1.10). He tells them that he is praying that Christ will be glorified in them and they will be glorified in him as well (vs. 12), an amazing statement. In fact Paul goes so far as to say that he prays that “by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.” (vs. 11). How amazing. God honors and participates and empowers and helps fulfill our purposes when they are godly. I guess its not just all about his purpose, his power, his plan, and his glory. God it appears, loves, honors, and empowers us so that we by his grace may freely respond to his purposes, plans, overtures, wooing, guidance, and the like.

Now doubtless God could have exercised his sovereignty in another way. Doubtless he could have predetermined all of world history in advance. Doubtless he could have decided that there would be no freedom of choice for human beings. He could have predetermined things in advance and set thing up so that humans thought they had freedom, thought they were not being manipulated or coerced, never ‘felt’ compelled, but in fact the game was rigged. This is in fact what Jonathan Edwards suggested in his famous treatise on ‘The Freedom of the Will’. But without some power of contrary choice, the word freedom has no real meaning. It doesn’t matter if you don’t ‘feel’ compelled when in fact you have no alternative choice in what you are doing. Feelings, are a notoriously unreliable guide to what is actually the case. Worst of all about this sort of view of God’s sovereignty, it means that things were rigged so that the majority of human beings would be predetermined to be lost, now and forever– say what they would, do what they will, come what may. Indeed, before the foundations of the universe, they were already doomed. This sounds like Darth Vader, not Jesus Christ or his Heavenly Father.

I can’t speak for others, only for myself. If I was a loving parent who had planned to have a lot of children created in my image, children that I claimed and promised to love, I have to ask– Would I predetermine in advance that some would be good children and others wicked? Would I be happy with the notion that some would be irrevocably saved and others eternally lost before they even drew a breath? Could I even remotely conceive that this would be what a loving parent would plan in advance for their children? Well no. That would be like those parents we have heard about of late who decide to have children so they can sell them off as sex slaves in due course and better gratify and help themselves to live a good life. Fortunately, the Bible doesn’t say that we have a God like that. It does not claim that God has predetermined in advance all of what life will involve and there is a good reason why not.

Had God predetermined in advance everything about us, we would never have been able on a lesser scale to be like the God who is free and loving, and be able to fulfill the great commandment– namely to love God freely and fully with all of our beings, and love neighbor as self. You see love, as defined in the Bible cannot be pre-programmed or rigged. It cannot be coerced though it can be courted. It must be freely given, and freely received. There is a reason why the dominant image of the relationship of Christ and his church in the NT is that of the bridegroom and the bride, the Lover and the Beloved, not the Scientist and the Robot, or the Dictator and his yes men. The reason is this– though God could have done otherwise, he chose to relate to us in a personal way, and desires that we freely respond to his love, his grace, his saving purposes.

There is hardly any more audacious portrait of God’s character in the OT than the one we find in Hosea. God draws an analogy between his relationship to Israel, and that of the prophet to his prostitute wife. Needless to say, it has not gone well. Will God then abandon his people whom he called and chose, and who responded to the call at least initially? Will he wipe the slate clean and start over with another crop of children? Will he consign these to Hades and find some others? Well, God could have done this of course. He could have acted on the basis of divine fiat, even after the fact. He could have said, “Well I’ve tried this giving them some freedom and room to manuever and freely respond thing, but its not working out, so from now on we’re going with plan B– fatalism, pure determinism, the sort of thing that some of Mohammed’s followers often believe about God.”

But in fact, God does not choose to act that way— listen to the very voice of God as recorded by Hosea in Hosea 11.1-11 (excerpts)– “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to Baals and they burned incense to images. But it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them in my arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them….My people are determined to turn from me, Even if they call to the Most High, he will by no means exalt them. But how can I give you up, Ephraiam? How can I hand you over, Israel?…My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim, for I am God and not a human being– the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath. They will follow the LOrd; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west.”

Notice carefully what God says– he has treated his children like a good and loving parent. He led them with cords of kindnesss, with ties of love. Not with iron rods. Precisely because God is God, and not a fickle human, he has decided to go on calling to his people in love and wooing them. He cannot hand them over to destruction and still be the loving God he is depicted to be in this passage.

Of course he could execute his fierce anger. Goodness knows we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. But he has chosen not to let his wrath overrule his love, his power overrule his compassion. Rather he has chosen the harder route of calling, leading, guiding, goading, loving, sacrificing, so we may respond freely and love him with all that we are. You see, humans at their highest and best were meant to reveal the image of God to the world. And when we love God and others we are at our highest and best, and we do indeed reveal the divine character in the deepest crevices of what God is like.

My old Bible teacher was right– God revealed his deepest character in the person of his Son who came and died that we might have life and have it abundantly. God is suffering love– just like Aslan. And yes indeed, he roars with a mighty roar so we will come trembling back to Him. But when we do, he treats us just like this picture of a parent and a child in Hos. 11. God as it turns out is not a narcissist or a manipulator or a dictator. God is the greatest sacrificer that one could imagine, who leaves all other generous, kind, loving, self-giving creatures an indelible example to try and live up to, hence the great commandment.

When you think of God, don’t think of an armchair general who has rigged the game all in advance so things all go exactly as he has planned. Think of him as being like Aslan, or better yet like Christ on the cross. Doubtless in uncertain times like ours we like to be told– “don’t worry, all things have been determined in advance when it comes to salvation and it will all work out for God’s glory.” We like to hear about eternal security.

What we forget is that the price of such ideas is we must give up on love, the real Biblical character of love, because love involves both freedom and risk. Loving relationships involve freedom and risk– this is the essence of what it means to be personal, to be loving, to be created in God’s image. Hos. 11 makes it oh so clear— God has risked all, even his only son, in order to love us. And though he could have simply played his powerball game, his trump card, though he could have exercised his sovereignty in a way that he avoided all this heartache, he did not do so. Why? He did it all for love, so the world would be full of people set free indeed by the love of Christ, and loving him right back.

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