Understanding the bigger picture of the theology that can make a difference in all of our relationships.
We say God is love, as a descriptor of being. It might be more accurate to say that God is loving, and so merciful, gracious and forgiving. In fact, it is through these three other related qualities we experience love.
It’s natural to think about one of the foundational descriptions of God using the language of creation: God as the source of life. The early stories reflecting this truth capture in rich language visualizing God breathing into a form sculpted from the earth, and the creature becoming a living being. To create is to make something new, to generate. But it’s not really appropriate to speak of God’s creative work simply in the past tense, because God continues to work in and through creation to fulfill the divine purposes.
Virtually any description of a divine being in nearly all cultures include some aspect of divine “otherness,” to express just how completely different and distinct from our own selves the divine is. This aspect of separateness connects with the earliest senses of the word “holy.” When the most ancient stories talked about God’s holiness, they referred to this concept of the “other” and spoke of how difficult or dangerous it is to dwell in the presence of the Holy One. Special locations were set aside for interacting with God’s presence, restricted to a very few people engaged in enacting various types of sacrifices and offerings believed necessary for humans to safely dwell near God. The stories also referred to the objects used in these ceremonies as holy, then the people engaged in the rituals as holy, and finally attributing the quality of holiness as meaning “separated for special purposes” to the community of God as a whole: their job description was as holy people to reveal the divine presence to others.
The moral definition of “holy” as we might know it today took shape when the basic “otherness” characteristic of our God was revealed to include other qualities seemingly more fitting to the word holy. This is also when God was revealed to not simply be “other” (beyond us), but also in and among humankind (with us). The people of God were then called to exhibit these godly qualities in all their relationships. Two of these characteristics in particular are keys in understanding the bigger picture of the theology which can make a difference in all of our relationships.
The first of these is love. Love is, of course, an action, as are the related words of mercy, grace and forgiveness. These are doing words, actions and matters of conscious free-will decisions. Imagine if someone acted in a way you interpreted as loving—say, by buying you something special—but then you discovered this activity was simply a reflexive action, not at all by choice, something like when you put coins into a vending machine and something you want comes out—the machine has no choice in the matter. But love is an action and it is a choice. This is why it is a relational quality of God. God chooses every time and consistently to love. By this measure, we say God is love, as a descriptor of being. It might be more accurate to say that God is loving, and so merciful, gracious and forgiving. In fact, it is through these three other related qualities we experience love. When God shows mercy, is gracious and forgives, we know and experience love.
The second key characteristic of God is righteousness. Less well known than love, righteousness might simply be described as being in the right, and doing what is right. As with love, righteousness is a quality of being and doing—we are righteous when we do what is right. The related qualities to this keyword are truth and truthful, justice and just, faith and faithfulness. As God is consistently acting in ways that are right, we can say God is righteousness. In similar ways we might add the concepts of truth, goodness and beauty to a list of divine qualities. Whatever is true, whatever is good, and whatever is beautiful: like life itself, these flow from God.
Relationally, from human to human, love and righteousness are substantial means by which we demonstrate we are godly people, reflecting both who and how God is. We might even go so far as to say God also loves and expresses righteousness to people through people.
Jesus, the revelation of God
God as creator and source of all life links to another relational descriptor for God: as father. The Bible also expresses maternal qualities of sheltering protection, nourishment and provision when describing how God relates to us. In another sense, God was father to the community of God in ancient times, a relationship passed along more explicitly to the king: God was father to the royalty. In giving us new life, a new birth, we are adopted into the family of God as children of God, with Jesus our elder brother. And it was Jesus who demonstrated in the greatest sense how to relate to God as Father, not simply in his references and prayers, but supremely in how Jesus wholly reflected “who and how” God is. Jesus was loving and righteous in such full measure we say he is the pathway to our experiencing true life with God the Father.
The Spirit of God and Jesus
Christians also speak of God as person, a concept very easy to confuse with what we usually mean as person in human terms: essentially, “person” means the central focus of thinking, feeling and intention to act. But since God does not have a physical body, we also say God is spirit. Many of the ancient stories spoke of God’s activity in and among humanity as the Spirit of God, a complete manifestation of God’s divine presence. When Jesus died and was resurrected with a new kind of body, he promised to send his Spirit to be with humanity, in a powerfully transformative way just as Jesus had been with them. This too was a complete manifestation of his presence. The Spirit remained with the community of God’s people then, and remains with us now, active and alive: we also experience God in this way, we experience God personally.
One of the most difficult concepts Christians have had to construct is drawn from these realities: how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each are divine persons in and of themselves, yet together they are God. Our God, the one God, is also a divine three. Some of the greatest disputes in Christian history came from trying to wrestle with limited human language expressing two related truths. The first is how Jesus could be both fully human and also fully divine. The second is what we’ve just mentioned, three persons as unified divinity. Here are three ways I have found to be most helpful to understand them both:
1) It helps to embrace the three-in-one concept if you think historically and experientially.
The community of people in covenant with God had for some time understood through their experience the concept of one God, the God they sometimes thought of as Father, and knew as creator, savior and sustaining presence. Then in time, people testified to their experience of God in Jesus; they experienced Jesus as divine. This was obviously a dilemma. But then when the continuing active and powerful presence of God and Jesus was experienced as the Holy Spirit, the whole thing became even more difficult. Yet this was the undeniable reality creating and motivating the earliest Jesus followers.
There we are: three experiential realities without an easy or clear way to express the concept. The Bible does not really try to prove this concept, any more than it tries to prove God exists; rather, the Bible records the experiences of people in relationship with God. It is the history of this testimony—to which we add our own—we affirm.
2) It helps to think about each of the three persons of this three-in-one divinity in relational terms.
We have already identified God the Father as creator, yet Jesus and the Holy Spirit are also rightly connected with this relational reference for God. In the same way, even while we strongly identify Jesus as Savior, salvation is and always has been God’s plan and purpose for all of us, ultimately realized because the Spirit plays a significant part in making our awareness and response to God possible, as well as being a chief means of grace in convincing us of the truth of how we are on the wrong path. Finally, in God’s continuing activity—as sustaining and guiding presence—we most frequently will refer to the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yet as with the other two relational experiences, God the Father has been and still is the provider and guide to life, just as it is right to say that Jesus is our provision and daily guiding presence, the one who is with us.
3) It might also help to conceptualize the relational aspect of the three-in-one divinity by accessing an old but not well-known framing of the inner relationships of the three persons, in terms of eternal communion.
There is a long tradition which sees the Holy Spirit as the eternal communication, the essential unifying communion binding the Father and the Son together. Considering the Holy Spirit as the essence of communication (full communion, mutual participation) may also help us in picturing how we fit into the typical graphic models of the divine relationships—the Holy Spirit as the essential communion binding us with God. We are invited to abide in God as God dwells in and among us.