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.

In spirit and truth

The tagline for our church is: Worshiping in spirit and truth (taken from John 4:23-24). Most people like the idea of worshiping in spirit. A surprising number of people today consider themselves spiritual. This is often contrasted with being religious, as in: “I’m not at all religious, but I am very spiritual.” Spiritual, in this context, generally means something like being aware of reality beyond the mere physical, being open to new experiences and insights, being alive in one’s spiritual life rather than part of some cold formalism. It’s being deep rather than shallow. Of course, this is all very appealing. Many of us would like to see ourselves as spiritual.

But when we speak of worshiping in truth, some people get a little uneasy. Ah . . . the “T” word. This is not nearly as appealing for some. Why do we have to talk so much about truth? For that matter, why did Jesus have to talk so much about truth? (That is, after all, who we got it from.) Jesus often seemed very focused on the issue of truth. He even described himself as truth:

I am the way, the truth, and the life.
No one can come to the Father except through me.
John 14:6

This is an exclusive statement. Jesus says that he is the way, and that there isn’t any other way. For many people, this is precisely the sticking point. They could be comfortable with evangelical Christianity if we could only say: “This is our way, but we accept that there are other ways too. Just choose whichever way works best for you.” But Jesus had to repeatedly make these kinds of comments and throw a wrench in the works for those who would love to have an I’m-okay-you’re-okay kind of spirituality. And, obviously, this kind of truth claim is diametrically opposed to today’s postmodern mindset.

The catch words now are relativism and pluralism. The new unpardonable sin is to have the audacity to suggest that, just maybe, somebody’s truth may not actually be true. Why, that’s simply intolerant! And we have to understand what is currently meant by tolerance. Not that long ago, to be tolerant was to be respectful toward someone even though you were absolutely sure they were wrong. Now it means never, ever judging the validity of another’s beliefs. What’s true for me is true for me; what’s true for you is true for you—and no one ‘truth’ is more valid than another.

The problem is it doesn’t work. And, deep down, we all know it. No one really lives their life by this philosophy.

“No one’s viewpoint is any more valid than another’s.”
Let me give you an example to show you the problem with this idea. Let’s say that you have a very young daughter. She wakes up in the middle of the night with extreme abdominal pains. At first, maybe you think it’s just a stomach virus. But, soon, you realize that the problem is more serious. So you rush her to the emergency room. The doctor examines her and then comes out to talk with you.

“So, Doctor, what’s the matter with her?”

“Well, from my perspective, she has appendicitis. We need to remove her appendix. If we don’t operate immediately, she could die. But, far be it from me to impose my point of view on you! No, I believe that everyone should seek the operation of their choice. So, if you’d rather, I can take out her spleen. Or a kidney.”

How would you respond? You would probably express yourself somewhat vigorously and let the doctor know as clearly as possible, “Look, I want you to fix whatever is actually wrong with her!

“But all religions are really saying the same thing.”
How many times have you heard that?  First, if someone is saying this, they probably don’t know much about what the various religions actually believe. While there are similarities here and there, the core teachings of the world’s religions are extremely different and, in many ways, incompatible. Even if we’re only looking at the basic questions (who we are, the existence and nature of a divine being, the nature of reality, what we’re supposed to do spiritually and how we’re to do it, etc.), the different faiths are mutually exclusive. These belief systems aren’t just saying the same things differently; they are, in fact, saying definitively different things.

Here’s a story to illustrate what I’m talking about: I’m a pilot. (I’m not really, but just imagine for the sake of the illustration.) I’m going to take you on a flight in a single-engine Cessna from Puerto Rico to Tortola. It’s a beautiful day. We take off, and soon we’re over the ocean with no land in sight. Then I turn to you and say, “So, which way do you want to go?”

You answer, “Huh?”

“Pick a direction; any direction.”

“Whichever one gets us to Tortola!”

“Well, sure, but don’t all directions lead to the same destination? We can go any direction you want!”

No, we can’t! If we go the wrong way, we won’t get anywhere but out in the middle of the ocean with no fuel! Find an airport and get me on the ground. Now!

I think you get the idea.

“But, we all perceive reality differently.”
When discussing these things, some have patiently responded, “Yes, Curt, but Christianity is true for you because it’s in your frame of reference. We all have different perceptions of reality and if Christ is not in my frame of reference then, for me, he does not exist.” But again, the problem is real life. We all know from sometimes painful experience that to be ignorant of something doesn’t make it less true.

Here’s one last example: You wake up in the middle of the night and have to go to the bathroom. So you head down a darkened hallway, completely ignorant of the fact that your trusty, canine companion has beat you to it—right in the middle of the darkened hallway! Are you aware of the surprise that’s waiting for you? No. Is it in your frame of reference? Nope. Does that mean, for you, it doesn’t exist? I’m afraid not. What is actually real is about to invade your perception of reality, and in a most unpleasant way! Reality has nothing to do with our perception of it, or our lack of perception.

Truth = reality
You see, truth is simply what corresponds to reality. Truth is true whether we know about it or not. Truth is true whether we believe it or not. Truth is true whether we like it or not. Truth is simply true.

We all really know this already. We can talk all we want about postmodernism, deconstruction or poststructuralism, but the reality is that postmodern architecture must follow the laws of physics just the same as any traditional, modernistic architecture. If a poststructuralist scholar is hired at a certain salary, they’re not going to accept a smaller check and a “Well, that’s just your perception of reality.” Regardless of our philosophies, we all live our lives according to what is logical, real and true.

But, for some reason, this all changes when we begin to talk about spiritual reality. Apparently, when we’re discussing ideas and beliefs, all logic and reason are out the window and we can use any fuzzy, irrational way of thinking we like. But why? What gives us the right to jettison a rational view of reality simply because something’s not immediately verifiable? It’s not because it’s less tangible. We work very hard at dealing with our emotions in a rational way, and they’re not tangible. To be completely irrational about one’s emotional life can be very romantic in the movies, but very destructive in real life. We all recognize this. Maybe we should take another look at this truth that Jesus was describing.

Another look at the truth of Jesus
The Christian faith  teaches that there is only one God, that he is eternal, and that he created everything but is distinct from his creation.  Though we were created by him, humanity is separated from God because of our rebellion against him. And that’s a problem, because sin always results in death—not because of some arbitrary ruling by God, but because that is the nature of sin. God is the source of life. Sin separates us from God, therefore sin results in death. This sin has poisoned and polluted all of us. Our race is in a state of decay and death because of our sin.

And sin is pervasive, affecting every aspect of our existence. So God, because he loves us, won’t simply say, “I forgive you,” and leave us to continue in sin, and thus to continue to decay and die (physically and spiritually). God can no more forgive and ignore our sin than we could forgive and ignore a deadly toxin in our children’s drinking water. This sin must be cleansed; it must be eradicated. But the consequences of the sin don’t just magically disappear. For the sin to be eradicated, the poison must be dealt with. Someone must take on the consequence of our sin, which means someone must take on death itself—either us or someone else.

So what if the eternal, infinite, Creator God somehow, amazingly, mindblowingly entered space and time, entered humanity and actually became one of us? What if he himself took on the consequences of our sin? What if the source of life somehow experienced death, absorbing the poison that was destroying our race and our very souls? What if he taught us about himself, and showed us how to escape this bondage to sin, decay and death, and experience the life that he has provided for us?

If this is all true, is it not the height of arrogance to insist, “I’m going to choose another way”?

If God himself has provided the way for us, how can there be any other way?

And if this is true, then we must accept God as he has revealed himself to us through his Word, the Bible. We must enter into life and live it in the only way that he has provided. We must believe in him as he actually is.

We must worship him in spirit and in truth.