Who among men can answer the question, "What is God like?" Not even the angels comprehend the fullness of God. Yet, this is a question that deserves perpetual investigation. God is the most interesting mystery in the universe. He is the most wonderful subject that can be studied. A few years ago, I asked a seminar audience, "What is God like?" and a young married man responded saying, "We can't understand God. We can't even understand women, so how can we ever hope to understand God?" Given the response of the audience, his point was well made. How can a finite being comprehend The Infinite I AM? How can a piece of clay understand the ways of an everlasting God who can speak words and the atoms obey? God is unlimited in every direction and in every sphere. God has always been alive. He never takes a vacation. He never gets tired or sick. He never sleeps. He hears everything. He sees everything. He is everywhere at the same time. He lives in the past, the present and the future. He is sovereign, He has no equal, He has all authority. He is Creator of the universe. He sustains creation by wonderful mechanisms. He gives us the breath in our lungs moment by moment. He designs, creates and energizes. In Him, there is life and there is no life without Him. No wonder people on Earth are so confused about God. Something as large and encompassing as God is beyond us. His vastness contributes to the confusion that men have about God because He can appear to be something that He is not for awhile . The truth about God is ever unfolding, since the harmony offered by His deeper truths requires us to constantly update or change our previously limited understandings of truth.
The reason I write that God can appear to be something that He is not for awhile has to do with a data processing technique called sampling. Everyone uses it. Sampling works like this: Suppose a meteorologist visits Ohio during February to determine what Ohio weather is like. For three weeks he checks the weather at noon. He then returns to Arizona and says, "The sun does not shine in Ohio during February." In other words, he sampled the weather every day and based on what he saw, he concluded the sun doesn't shine in Ohio during February. In this example, it might be hard to convince the meteorologist otherwise because he was personally there and did not see the sun! My point is people reach personal conclusions about God with a sampling of data that is too small to reflect the truth about Him. Even though a person's conclusion may be logical within the limited scope of evidence, that same conclusion may not be accurate within the larger scope of the whole picture! (Contrary to what the meteorologist said, the sun does shine in Ohio during February. I saw it happen once!) This explains why God gave us the Bible. The Bible, written by 40+ authors, records God's actions over a period of 40 centuries. By taking the Bible as a whole, our sampling of God's conduct is large enough to get a more accurate picture of what God is like.
We do not have to understand everything about God to live at peace with God. Before sin came to be, there were only two prerequisites for living peaceably in God's house: love and faith. Because God's ways are often infinite and mysterious, His creatures cannot immediately understand Him. Therefore, God says to all His created beings, "You have to trust Me before you understand Me." He says, "As you begin to understand what I am doing for you , your love for Me will increase correspondingly!" In other words, the more love God bestows on each being whose heart is capable of responding to love, the greater the reciprocal response. If a being's heart is filled with rebellion, expressions of divine love cannot produce any redemptive effect. (This condition is known as the unpardonable sin.)
God regularly tests the faith of Heavenly (and Earthly) subjects to make His principle of love flourish within His kingdom. Notice this repetitive process: Each test of faith reveals the quality of love operating within our hearts. The stronger the test of faith, the more powerfully we demonstrate our love for God or others. The stronger our love, the greater our faith! This has been the process throughout the Scriptures. I suspect, but cannot prove, that Lucifer's faith and love for God was also tested. He began to show signs of weakness because he loved himself and his agenda more than he loved God and God's agenda for him. God knows each heart and He knows how to test its core affection.
Before sin occurred, faith and love were not as difficult to sustain as they are now because sinless beings are not naturally prone to suspicion, doubt, arrogance and rebellion. The angels as well as Adam and Eve were created in God's own image; in other words, they came from the hands of the Creator with a propensity toward righteousness. They did not have any proclivity toward sin and were also free of sin's side-effects. They had no internal rebellion toward their Creator. Because of their sin, Adam and Eve lost their propensity toward righteousness. Since we are the offspring of Adam and Eve, we have an inherited propensity toward self-centeredness (selfishness). In our sinful state we tend to be suspicious of those we do not like or know well, doubt full (two words) about things we do not understand, and rebellious toward any authority that commands us to do things we do not want to do. (Romans 8:6-8) In short, the sinful heart is its own god. This is why we have to be born again – so that we can enter into submissive harmony with our Creator. Although our fallen nature ever militates against love for God and faith in God (Romans 7), our Creator understands our rotten situation! On the other hand, we have to understand that our degenerate condition does not change God; instead, we are the ones who have to be changed!
Sometimes, a good story illustrates a point better than theological reasoning. This is why Jesus often used parables. Following His example, I am offering a parable based in part, on a true story that might give you a renewed appreciation of what God's love is like:
"A group of 41 Navy veterans recently gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of World War II. In years gone by, this particular unit had more than 300 post-war survivors attending its periodic celebrations, but the number of veterans had dwindled to 41. Although members of the unit had met at various places and times during the past 50 years, the 50 size="1" th anniversary promised to be something special because each of the 41 known survivors promised to be there, health permitting.
Through the years, various members of this unit had met as they could and celebrated the victory of World War II with lively music, banquets that were too fulfilling and with stories of patriotism, valor, suffering and triumph. Of course, there were pictures and testimonials that brought tears to every eye. The best part of each celebration was the opportunity to see one another and for a brief moment, go back and relive those special situations and the camaraderie that bonded youthful hearts together as brothers.
During the testimonial portion of the banquet, an elderly veteran stood and told this story: "I was assigned to a small cruiser having a crew of about 30 men in the South Pacific. We were operating within a 100 mile radius from Wake Island on the night of August 3, 1944. Our cruiser was on a routine search and destroy mission, looking for enemy activity in and around the tiny islands that dot the sea in that area. There was very little moonlight that night and electronic snooping was primitive back then, so we depended upon visual contact or telltale sounds that might reveal enemy position or activity. We sat motionless about half a mile from one island to just listen and observe. Suddenly, without any hint of danger, we took a torpedo in the starboard side of the ship. This was followed by a fatal explosion. Everyone who survived the impact and explosion knew this was the end of our small vessel. An enemy submarine had spotted us and they were poised for a total kill. In times of war, unthinkable things do take place. We knew that upon sinking a small vessel such as ours, enemy submarines would sometimes surface and kill the survivors with small machine gun fire. By eliminating the survivors, the location of the submarine would be difficult to find.
The captain yelled, "abandon ship" and as quickly as possible, we detached two of the life boats and everyone that could, scrambled to get on board. The cruiser went down fast – in less than five or six minutes. Fire made our escape very difficult. Shrapnel from the explosion had ripped through the cruiser's fuel tanks and hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel were burning all around us. The sound of air escaping from air locks in the vessel, the sound of hot engines being smothered by sea water, the sound of injured men screaming for help, the sound of ammunition exploding and burning, . . . those sounds I will never forget . . . nor will I forget the enormous sea of fire all around us and the eerie sight of our ship sinking beneath the surface of the ocean.
We knew the fire would kill us if we didn't move fast. How ironic, I thought, we were in greater peril from the fire than from the sea! Our captain, who finally managed to get aboard yelled, "Row, row fast." Everyone began pulling on the oars. As we were moving away from the dangerous eddies caused by the sinking ship, I heard a voice in the fire cry for help. Evidently, no one else heard the cry. I yelled to the captain, someone is calling for help! "Are you sure," he responded. "Yes! I heard someone call for help." The captain ordered our life boat back into the flames. By now, the crewmen were pulling the oars in better unison and we moved into the flames quickly. As we entered the fire, I saw an outstretched hand and I lifted it with all the strength I had left. Another member of the crew helped me drag a severely injured, lifeless body into the boat while the other crewmen continued to row out of the fire. The injured man had just joined our crew and I did not know anything about him except his name was Jim. We finally rowed to safety and to our great relief, the submarine did not surface that night.
To our amazement and great joy we were rescued the following day by reconnaissance aircraft. Many of us remained together until the end of the war. I have wondered many times what happened to Jim. He was badly injured and I doubt if he lived very long. He was airlifted to a med-evac hospital and we never saw him again. I'm sharing this story to give recognition to Captain Rhoder and the brave guys who risked their lives to save one man, an unknown soldier, a man that we knew little about and have not heard from since. I believe I am the remaining survivor of this event. Such was the camaraderie and valor of our unit."
When the speaker finished, a round of applause broke up the emotional tension that had quieted the room. The emcee stood up and as he was preparing to introduce the next speaker on the program, an elderly man could be seen making his way up to the podium. He interrupted the emcee and asked if he might speak. With tears flowing he went over to the seated speaker and offered his scared right hand and said, "I am Jim Thomsen. I am the man you pulled from the flames! Here is the hand you reached for!"
Applause spontaneously broke out. Everyone stood to their feet. This was a moment too great, too sacred and joyful to sit still. The two men tearfully embraced – the savior and the victim met for the first time in more than 50 years! Amid the jubilant applause a chant began, "Speech, speech, speech . . ." Jim took the microphone and told this sequel: "I have not attended an anniversary convention before because my assignment to this unit lasted less than a week. But, when the personal call came inviting me to come, I could not resist. I hoped that I might find someone who knew about the small crew I was assigned to. I well remember the incident on August 3, 1944. I had only been with this particular crew for three days when the torpedo left me badly wounded and weak from loss of blood. I do not remember every detail after the explosion except two things. I clearly remember looking up and seeing the outstretched hand that lifted me out of the fiery water and I remember promising God that I would be a preacher if He would save my life. After my recovery and medical discharge from the Navy, I have been a lay preacher in the Baptist church for nearly 50 years. This has been my way of showing gratitude to God for the gift of life. My joy is even more complete because I can personally say "Thank You" to the man who saved my life." Applause filled the hall again. What a story. What at reunion! What joy!
In considering this story, a number of Bible parallels become obvious. The captain of the ship is the Father. "For God so loved the world . . .". The seaman reaching out from the boat to grasp the uplifted hand is Jesus. The crew rowing hard to the rescue are the disciples of Jesus. The man calling for help is you and me, fatally injured by the curse of sin and sinking quickly into a watery grave. The war that produced this story represents the daily contest that takes place between good and evil. The words and music of this old gospel song by James Rowe and Howard E. Smith came to mind and I share them here because they are so appropriate:
Love Lifted Me
I was sinking deep in sin
Far from the peaceful shore
Very deeply stained within
Sinking to rise no more
But the Master of the sea
Heard my despairing cry
From the waters lifted me,
Now safe am I.
Souls in danger – Look above!
Jesus completely saves
He will lift you by His love
Out of the angry waves
He's the Master of the sea
Billows His will obey
He your Savior wants to be
Be saved today.
Love lifted me. Love lifted me.
When nothing else could help
Love lifted me.
This story is an expression of what God is like. It is not a complete definition of God for God's love is much larger than we can understand. Hopefully, this story encourages and begins to help you understand what God is like.
The Gift of Jesus
I would like to conclude this article with a concept that is most precious to Shirley (my wife) and me. Sometimes, the phrase "The gift of Jesus" is used to convey the idea of the Father's generous love toward man in giving up Jesus as our sacrificial lamb. While this use is perfect and appropriate, I would like to take this phrase a step further to have you consider all that Jesus gave for our salvation. In other words, think of the phrase as the gift that Jesus Himself gave to us.
Jesus was required to suffer everything that sin produces. (2 Corinthians 5:21) In other words, there is no depth of sorrow or suffering that God Himself has not felt personally. No greater hopelessness exists than what Christ experienced on the cross. In other words, when Jesus went to the cross on our behalf, He died the second death. Christ, our substitute, went to His death without the hope of ever living again. This is not to say that He did not know about His resurrection for He predicted His resurrection on a few occasions. (Matthew 12:40; John 2:19) This apparent contradiction requires a bit of explanation.
First, a few statements about death. Understand that humankind must be concerned about two deaths. The first death is often called "sleep" in the New Testament because it is temporary (John 6:39-54; John 11:11-13; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17) and occurs as a consequence of sin (cancer, murder, illness, etc.). The second death occurs at the end of the 1,000 years. (Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14, 21:8) The second death occurs as the penalty for sin (the wages of sin). In terms of being dead, there is no difference between the two deaths. (See "The State of Man" – Study # 3 from The Five Essential Bible Truths series for an in-depth discussion on this topic.) A dead person is a non-existent person and knows nothing. (Ecclesiastes 9:5,6; Psalm 115:17; Malachi 4:1-4) A big difference exists in terms of how each death occurs.
Living people know they will ultimately die. (Many people do not realize that it is possible to die twice or they would certainly change the course of their actions. John 5:28,29) Because we know we will die, we hope the death process will not be too painful or take too long. However, the second death is a much different matter altogether. The second death occurs through a justifiable execution of sinners which God's law demands. (Genesis 2:17; Revelation 20:9) The second death also includes the matter of full restitution, but that is a different subject. No recovery is possible from the second death. It is a death sentence having no appeal and is God's final solution for the sin problem.
Jesus had to die the second death to pay the penalty for sin. If He had died from an illness or cancer, that would not have sufficed. The Father had to execute Jesus because the wages of sin demand that sinners be executed. Incidentally, this is why Jesus is called the "Lamb of God" and not the "Lamb of man." Do not forget, the thieves did not die on their crosses that same day. In fact, it usually took three or more days for a person to die on a cross. Jesus was executed. Just as God called Abraham to sacrifice his only son, so the Father sacrificed His only Son for our redemption.
Since Jesus died the second death, we can escape that second death. This is because the Father will accept Jesus' execution on Calvary in our place if we will put our faith in Jesus! Follow this twofold reasoning: First, God has experienced the second death Himself. Before sentencing anyone to the second death, Jesus has been there, done that. Second, since the second death is a death from which there is no recovery, consider what Jesus was willing to give up for you and me: Jesus was willing to cease to exist forever so you and I might have the opportunity to live forever!!! Is there any greater love than this? No. Jesus gave up everything. Divinity was willing to die so that mortals might live!
How can a person explain this contradiction: Jesus did not know that He would rise again and yet He could predict His resurrection? The answer is simple. Jesus predicted His resurrection on the basis of His non-negotiable faith in His Father. He knew that His Father would keep His word to resurrect Him and He uttered this prediction on the basis of His faith. Such was the faith of Jesus. Oh, that we might have such faith in God! Thank you Jesus for loving us so much!
I conclude with a few statements from " Streams in the Desert " pages 22,23 by Ms. Charles E. Cowman (a daily devotional book published by Zondervan). A dear friend gave us this little devotional book and it has proven to be a most inspiring book. Ms. Cowman died in 1960 at the age of 90, but her work lives on, as it well should. Notice her comments on this text:"He putteth forth his own sheep."(John 10:4, KJV)
"Oh, this is bitter work for Him and us – bitter for us to go, but equally bitter for Him to cause us pain; yet it must be done. It would not be conducive to our true welfare to stay always in one happy and comfortable lot. He therefore puts us forth. The fold is deserted, that the sheep may wander over the bracing mountain slope. The laborers must be thrust out into the harvest, else the golden grain would spoil.
Take Heart! It could not be better to stay when He determines otherwise; and if the loving hand of our Lord puts us forth, it must be well. On, in His name, to green pastures and still waters and mountain heights! He goeth before thee. Whatever awaits us is encountered first by Him. Faith's eye can always discern His majestic presence in front; and when that cannot be seen, it dangerous to move forward. Bind this comfort to your heart, that the Savior has tried for Himself all the experiences through which He asks you to pass; and He would not ask you to pass through them unless He was sure that they were not too difficult for your feet or too trying for your strength.
This is the blessed life – not anxious to see far in front, nor careful about the next step, not eager to choose the path, nor weighted with the heavy responsibilities of the future, but quietly following behind the Shepherd, one step at a time . . . The Oriental shepherd was always ahead of his sheep. He is down in front. Any attack upon them had to take him into account. Now God is down in front. He is in the tomorrows. It is tomorrow that fills men with dread. God is there already. All the tomorrows of our life have to pass Him before they can get to us.
God is in every tomorrow,
Therefore I live for today,
Certain to find at sunrise,
Guidance and strength for the way;
Power for each moment of weakness,
Hope for each moment of pain,
Comfort for every sorrow,
Sunshine and joy after the rain."
Dear friends, this is another example of what God is like.