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.

Review: The Shack

This may seem like yesterday’s news to some, but I still receive questions about The Shack. (Someone asked me about this just yesterday.) So, I thought a review of some key issues might be helpful. Shortly after this book began gaining a lot of attention, a good friend gave me a copy and asked for my thoughts. The review below is based on that response.

The Shack is a novel by William Paul Young that seemed to suddenly explode onto the public scene. Young writes about deep issues of loss, anger, life and death. Along the way, he has quite a bit to say about theological aspects of these issues such as the nature of God and God’s interaction with humanity. Quite a few people have shared a common experience with this book. At first they found it refreshing and comforting, a breath of fresh air. But then, when they started to really think through what the author was saying, they became confused.

The book begins strong. Right away, I felt that I knew the characters and cared about what happened to them. The author does a good job of drawing us into the story. The dialogue and the people we meet along the way are all realistic. Even though I had a good idea what was going to happen, the camping scenes and the search for Missy were riveting, horrifying and utterly believable. He had me hooked until the encounter at the shack. The part of the book that most intrigued many readers was the part that I found hardest to get through. But not just for the reasons you might think.

Let me begin by saying that I have no problem with a fictional or allegorical portrayal of God, of spiritual issues or of the Christian life. C.S. Lewis does this especially well. I’m also sympathetic to much of what (I think) the author was trying to accomplish. But I did have problems with this book. There are a number of things I could discuss, but I’ll try to focus on the most significant issues.

The question of gender in the author’s depiction of God seems to have been the main lightning rod for controversy. So, I’ll address this first and then move on to what I see as more important issues. Yes, I understand Mack’s problems with his father and, by extension, The Father. And, yes, I understand the point that God transcends gender and that both male and female are created in God’s image. And, yes, it is a biblical concept that God comes to us where we are, and even became human to do it.

Still—the Bible never shows God coming in different guises or forms. Each part of the Godhead is consistent in his role and form. God doesn’t appear to one as a young boy and to another as an old woman. And, yes, God consistently presents himself as male. He is never manifested in Scripture in female form or language. (Even the angels are consistently male.) So, in an age when some are attempting to emasculate the God of the Bible and present God as Father/Mother or remove gender distinctions for God altogether, if an author presents 2/3 of the Trinity as feminine throughout most of a book, he shouldn’t be surprised when he gets raised eyebrows in response.

Even if Young doesn’t support the extremes I’m describing, making these kinds of choices in his depiction of God is at the very least naive and irresponsible. I got the impression, though, that he does have some kind of axe to grind regarding gender roles. But this whole gender issue isn’t the most important concern for me.

In his book, Young portrays the Trinity in three bodily forms. This kind of portrayal is seriously questionable, and doesn’t fit the Bible’s descriptions of God at all. God has one bodily form—Christ. He is the visible image of the invisible God. Jesus is the physical, bodily manifestation of God. Even if these characterizations are useful as a story-telling apparatus, they do damage to the biblical understanding of the Trinity.

I can almost hear people say how ‘this book helped me understand the Trinity.’ But if they understand the Trinity in the way this author has described, their understanding is actually more confused than it was before. Maybe Young could have written a similar story using only Jesus as a divine character, maybe not. Regardless, this depiction of the three persons of the Trinity in bodily form is unscriptural. This wouldn’t even work well as allegory. I’m sure the author didn’t intend to obscure the biblical truth of the nature of God. But this is what he has done, and it’s a serious issue.

Any time an author writes a fictional portrayal of God, they’re edging out over thin ice. There are bound to be critics who just don’t like the way you’ve described God. And, of course, the subject himself may take issue with the way he’s depicted! The safest course for an author is to stay as close as possible to what God has actually said in Scripture. This is exactly what most Christian authors do. This is decidedly not what this author has done.

To be fair to Young, he does bring out some wonderful insights in his book, and I’m sure these truths will be helpful to many people. He presents a great number of other ideas, though, that are highly questionable and some that are downright silly. This wouldn’t be quite as serious a problem if Young was describing what were clearly his own ideas and views, and claiming—or having his character claim—that he thinks this is what God is like or what God might say. But I take great offense at him taking his own pet viewpoints and portraying them as coming from the mouth of God. In my opinion, this approaches blasphemy. If you’re going to portray, even fictionally, God as saying ‘thus and so,’ you had better be very certain that God would actually say ‘thus and so.’ If not, you are using God to advance your own agenda, not his, and dangerously misleading people.

Remember, idolatry is not just worshiping another god, it also worshiping a false illusion of the true God. I’m not talking about the plot points (whether God would offer scones), but the intentional teachings about God, humanity, life, death, etc. Much of this dialogue is more reminiscent of a guest on Oprah than the God of the Bible. Most of it sounds like a Christian, self-help, radio call-in program. Very little of it reminds me of the God I see in his self-revelation. The dialogue of “God” in this book tells me a great deal about the author; it tells me little about God.

And this brings me to my final, most subjective, concern. Even accepting the author’s characterizations of Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, I just don’t find any of them believable as God. His Jesus doesn’t ring true as the Jesus of the Gospels (for me). These characters are just too cutesy and frivolous. I personally know mature believers who manifest greater spiritual depth and significance than this “God”—not in a heavy-handed, religious way, but in a way that reminds me of . . . hmm, Jesus.

Consider Aslan from the Narnia books. Now I can buy this lion as a type of Christ. He’s not a tame lion. He’s not safe, but he’s good. This author’s portrayals of God are just too tame. In theological terms, this “God” is far too immanent and not nearly enough transcendent. (Actually, the depiction of wisdom at least started off better in this regard.) This strikes me as a typically shallow, 21st century depiction of God.

I guess a basic question for me is: Is the God of the Bible enough for us? Of course, we must actually live out and experience our relationship with God. And I have no problem with seeking to be creative in how we explain God to others and communicate his truth. But are we striving to effectively explain God as he has revealed himself, and communicate the same truth that he communicated through his Word? Or are we attempting to improve on his revelation and go beyond it?

As I wrote about in my last post, I want to make sure that I’m worshiping—and communicating—God as he truly is, not some figment of my own imagination. My own imagined god may seem more palatable to me and appealing to others. He may feel a lot more tame and safe. But an illusionary god can’t save anyone. He can’t bring to life what was dead. He can’t restore justice, peace and wholeness. I’m not satisfied with William Paul Young’s imagined “God.” I want the real thing.

If you’re intrigued by this kind of fictionalized account of a conversation with God, you might try David Gregory’s Dinner with a Perfect Stranger. The story isn’t as dramatic, but his Jesus is down-to-earth, and the author seems to do a much better job of writing a biblically-informed depiction of Christ and articulation of spiritual truth.