Daddy, what’s God like?” In her class at church, my four-year-old daughter heard stories about Jesus, who loved to play and talk with children. He was the One who rushed off in the middle of a stormy night to find and rescue a lost lamb. She loved to sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, / For the Bible tells me so.”
Then she heard a sermon that described Jesus as the avenging judge, the God who was going to scorch the earth and every living thing in flames of condemnation.
The conflict between the two viewpoints was too great for even a young child to miss. Her question caught me by surprise. I don’t recall my answer, but her question has pursued me for decades.
What is God like?
Some religions have produced a portrait of God that is both savage and grotesque: an angry deity who demands human sacrifice. Other religions have taught that God is remote, utterly detached and disinterested in human affairs.
What is God like?
From Plato to Pannenberg, Western culture’s most creative philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this question, coming up with some truly mind-boggling answers. Dr. Norman Gulley, a systematic theologian, writes, “God has been presented as the ‘eternal mind, the cause of good in nature’ (Plato), ‘the first ground of all being’ (Aristotle, Tillich), ‘the absolute, universal substance, not only cause of all being, but itself all being’ (Spinoza), ‘the final reason of all things’ (Leibnitz), ‘a being who is the cause of or author of our world’ (Kant), ‘the moral order of the universe operative in life’ (Fichte), ‘the absolute spirit having no consciousness except in the reason and thoughts of man’ (Hegel), ‘the Universum’ (Strauss), ‘humanity’ (Compte), ‘Imminent’ (Schleiermacher) ‘wholly other’ (early Barth), ‘the future’ (Moltmann, Pannenberg), or ‘one in process’ (Whitehead, Hartshorne).”
Such descriptions, even if true in some enigmatic ways, aren’t likely to lead one to awe, wonder, or worship. Intellectual abstractions simply don’t touch us on any meaningful level. Instead, as one wit put it, we’re left wondering about theologians “who can go down so deep, stay so long, and come up so dry!”
What is God like?
Christians in the first century asked this question as they struggled to survive during turbulent decades of external persecution from Rome and a variety of virulent heresies within. Then, as today, the deepest fear for Christian believers wasn’t that God is either a monster or nonexistent; it was a deeply rooted fear experienced most acutely during those desert times of suffering—that God exists but doesn’t care about us or our lives one way or the other.
Last words are the most important. The elderly apostle John, whose letters were written approximately 60 years after Jesus’ resurrection, have been described by some scholars as “the last apostolic message to the whole church.” He may have startled readers of his first pastoral letter when he wrote a simple declaration: “God is love” (1 John 4:16).
But what does this mean? Nowhere does Scripture offer a specific definition of love. Instead, through stories, sermons, songs, poetry, and prophecy, Scripture shows God’s love in action: His intimate, hands-on creation of man and woman; His rescue of the Egyptians from famine through Joseph; the great liberation of Israel in the Exodus; His repeated attempts to save Israel narrated throughout the Hebrew Bible; and the incomprehensible display of divine love and grief on the cross of Jesus.
At the risk of describing biblical principles in simple terms, let me offer a definition that makes love in action more concrete: Love is an uncompromising commitment to another person’s growth, welfare, happiness, and fulfillment.
If you take this terse, unsentimental definition seriously, you can spend a lifetime learning to apply these four qualities in relationships with your spouse, children, extended family, friends and neighbors—even God.
We may experience the power and grandeur of God when we look at the mountains, loons swimming on a lake at dusk, the splash of color in a magnificent sunset. But only in the intimacy of loving relationships with the people closest to us can we experience the intimacy of God’s love for us at the deepest human level.
And the Bible pointedly suggests that our love for God—or lack of it—is manifested most profoundly in the way we love others in two different contexts.
First, the way we love our wife/ husband and children—people over whom we have power and influence— is precisely the same way we would treat God. Second, the way we love the outcast, the marginalized, and the poor and powerless, is precisely the same way we would treat God if He appeared to us in that context—as I suspect He often does.
Why is this true? Because each person we encounter—family, friend, stranger, even our “enemy”—is an Image Bearer—a person created in the image of God! How we love or judge them is precisely how we love and judge God. In terms of divine logic, Jesus says, that’s how God loves and judges us!
For Christians, the answers to all serious questions about God are ultimately filtered through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who cut right to the heart of the matter when He answered to Philip’s question: “ ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ ”
God revealed in Jesus
Philip asked our question: What is God like?
“ ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?’ ” Jesus replied. “ ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ ” (John 14:8, 9).
In those dramatic words, Jesus forever answered those who would make a mysterious riddle of what God is like. Jesus said, in effect, “If you truly want to see God’s love in action, to know what He is like, then remember how I treated Judas, even as he was about to betray Me.
“Remember how I treated that woman who was caught in the act of adultery, when she was being humiliated before that jeering crowd. Remember how I treated children when they wanted to laugh, sing, and play. And remember how much I enjoyed good friends and a great party.
“Remember that I rescued you from a religion that had you all tied up in ‘not’s,’ that I set free all captives to despair, that I liberated you from oppression of fear, guilt, and meaninglessness.
“And, finally, remember, ‘ “I no longer call you servants. . . . Instead, I have called you friends” ’ ” (John 15:15). Like Enoch, you can walk with God because you are His friends. In the Incarnation, Jesus brought God up close and personal to you and me.
What is God like? God is love saturated with race at the highest and deepest levels. He is totally committed to our growth, welfare, fulfillment, and happiness—at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances.