Understanding the Trinity

Have you ever stood outside on a clear night and stared out into the stars? How far does the universe extend? Does it go on forever? We could accept such an idea intellectually, but we still struggle with wrapping our minds around it. But, if the universe has a point where it ends . . . what’s immediately our next question? What’s on the other side? We have a hard time completely grasping an infinite universe, yet something inside us demands infinity.

We have the same problem with time. Does time have no beginning or end? How can this be? Yet, if time began, what happened before? When we think about God, we wrestle with the same limitations. We have finite minds, yet we’re drawn to contemplate the infinite God. This doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about God or even understand much about him intellectually. But it does mean we shouldn’t be surprised if a complete grasp of God remains somehow beyond our reach.

We have finite minds, and we are contemplating an infinite God.

This shouldn’t cause us to just give up and say, “Who can really know anything about God!” The Bible actually speaks of us knowing and understanding God (Jeremiah 9:23-24, for instance). If we couldn’t understand God at all, he wouldn’t have tried so hard to make himself understood in Scripture. So how do we make sense of God as Trinity?

Much of the traditional verbiage is not all that helpful. “One God in three persons” communicates something very true, but to most of us it sounds nonsensical, as if we’re being asked to accept that one person is three people. What?! How can God be both one and three at the same time?

When we’re faced with something we’re unsure of, it’s a good idea to fall back on what we do know. Let’s start with the big picture of God. What do we know about him? Well, he’s infinite, unlimited. He’s not limited in his love, his power, his knowledge or his wisdom. He’s not bound by space or time. He lives in what CS Lewis called “the unbounded now.” He speaks to us and interacts with us in space and time, but he’s not bound by them. In fact, he created both space and time.

Okay, so what if this God who is everywhere and in every time wanted to enter his creation as part of his creation? That’s a shocking idea . . . but is there any reason why he couldn’t? Of course he could, if he wanted to.

So, if God entered his own creation, as a human being he would now be limited—by his own choice—in space and time. He would live one second at a time, just as we do. He would have to move from place to place, just as we do. Now if God-entering-humanity is necessarily bound by space and time, does this mean the infinite, unlimited, unbound God who fills everything and every time no longer exists? No, it just means we now have God existing in two very different ways at the same time.

How would we describe this? The Bible explains this difference as the “Father” and the “Son.” This helps us understand how God the Son could pray to God the Father. We can see why Jesus could say the Father was greater than he, yet still say the Father and he were one, and that if the disciples had seen him they had seen the Father. They were both God, yet in personally distinct ways.

(I need to make clear this is how God has always existed. The Trinity didn’t somehow begin when Christ came to earth as one of us, but the incarnation [i.e. God becoming human] helps us understand how God can be God in very different ways at the same time.)

What about the Holy Spirit? It’s intriguing that the Bible (especially the Old Testament) often uses the Spirit of God synonymously with the presence of God. Of course, we know God is everywhere, so this must refer to his presence in a special, unique way. When you were a child, did you ever use a magnifying glass to burn a blade of grass? How does that work? It magnifies the light and heat from the sun, right? This doesn’t mean the blade of grass is the only place the sun is shining; the sun’s rays are all around. But, in our example, the sun’s rays are focused and intensified in a specific place.

This is what happens with the Holy Spirit. God’s presence is everywhere. But through his Spirit his presence is focused and intensified in a very special, unique way. This is why we speak of ‘feeling’ the Spirit at certain times. The wonderful thing is that, as New Covenant believers, we always have the Holy Spirit with us, bringing that special focus of God’s presence into our hearts and minds and flowing through us to others around us. Isn’t that beautiful? The role of the Spirit is to always direct our thoughts, devotion and obedience back to the Father and the Son.

There’s something very important I want you to see in all of this. If God exists in three personally distinct ways—three different ways of being God at the same time—and if he’s always been this way, then this means that God eternally exists in community. Think about that. Why do we long so much for real, authentic community? Because we’re created in the image of God, who lives in perpetual loving relationship. This is why the two greatest commandments Jesus gave us are focused on relationship: love God and love each other. This is one reason why the oneness between husband and wife is so significant, and why we treasure it so greatly. We weren’t created to be alone. This is why the unity of the body of Christ is so vital, and why Jesus prayed that we would be one as he and the Father are one. When we live in truly loving community, we are most like God.

The future that God has planned for us is an eternity of loving him and loving each other, true community without the separation and alienation caused by sin. The more we live in this loving community now—with God and each other—the more we begin experiencing the eternal love and life of our Triune God.

4 thoughts on “Understanding the Trinity

  1. Yes, this is a better analogy than many others because these three forms (water, ice and steam) exist distinctly but simultaneously and they can interact with each other (a glass of water with ice cubes, etc.). But the three forms of H2O are fluid (no pun intended) in the sense that they change from one form to the other: e.g. ice to water to steam and back to water. This is unlike the Trinity because the Father is eternally the Father, the Son is eternally the Son, etc. That doesn’t mean this is a bad illustration, only that we need to be aware of its limitations.

  2. Curt, this is a great illustration and helpful in understanding something even many Christians struggle with. I’ve heard a lot of Christians say they think the Trinity is a fabrication of the Church and unbiblical because it is never explicitly taught as such in the Bible, although the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are invoked together in the New Testament. I think the Trinity must be our greatest lesson that certain spiritual truths must be deducted from scripture using reason and logic, much like a scientist collects empirical evidence from nature. Nice work!

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