People are fond of seeing contradictions in the Bible, particularly in the ways that God is depicted. We see one God in the Old Testament – vengeful, demanding, jealous, quick to smite people who cause problems – and another in the New – loving, gracious, quick to reconcile to humanity. We put Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, automatically into this second category of aspects of God, we believe in Jesus as ‘meek and mild’, a lover not a fighter.
That’s why the gospel reading we heard on Sunday (Luke 12:49-56) is so challenging; it puts Old Testament imagery into a New Testament context. In other words, this week’s reading challenges the tendency we have to anthropomorphise God. People are generally pretty limited. We are contradictory, that’s undoubted, but we are a mere ‘image’ of God, a reflection or a shadow, incapable of being as God is.
It is precisely because we are so limited that it is hard for us to comprehend how much more God is than we are. We try to use human language to describe the divine. We use words like ‘loving’, and understand them in the same way we would if we were to talk about other humans. We cannot ever comprehend how much love God has for the created world. So, too, when we talk about God as ‘angry’. We can only understand so much anger at one time, before our perception is weakened and limited. And how much harder is it to truly understand the fact that God not only has the capacity for all the emotion we do, but can experience several at once in a way that the human mind finds contradictory?
And yet, to me, it seems that this is the very essence of God, one of the things that makes God divine and not human. St. Augustine of Hippo, as ever, had a lot to say on the subject. The core of his thinking, though is this; if the Trinity is indeed composed of three beings who are interdependent but also distinct, then it is possible for each of them to have attributes that are not part of the other. However, for the human mind to truly comprehend the depth and breadth of God as Trinity is impossible, we can but pray for enough understanding to get a glimpse of the truly awesome power and nature of God.
“We believe that Parent, Son and Holy Spirit are one God, maker and ruler of every creature, and that “Parent” is not “son”, nor “Holy Spirit” “Parent” or “son”; but a trinity of mutually related persons, and a unity of equal essence. So let us attempt to understand this truth, praying that he who we wish to understand would help us in doing so, so that we can set out whatever we thus understand with such careful reverence so that nothing unworthy is said.”
What he is saying here is that we should not be surprised to see what look like contradictions in the nature of God, because all things come from God and are of one of the beings of the Trinity. When we find a passage in the gospels that challenges our understanding of what Jesus the son is, we should draw near to God in prayer and ask for true understanding to allow us to speak of God’s infinite nature.
Of all the names we use for God, the one I like the best is simply “I AM”, because it reminds us that sometimes there is no need to describe God with human attributes, but simply to acknowledge that God is.