This sermon is part of the sermon series "What Do Christians Think About God?". See series.
As the world attempts to define what God is like, things get complicated. Some people think of God as "the force" from Star Wars, with both a good side and a dark side. Others picture God as a celestial highway patrolman setting up speed traps to capture people. Some believe the universe is God, and still others believe them selves to be gods. When we talk about God, what kind of God are we talking about?
This sermon series is called "What Do Christians Think?" It is designed to cover the basics beliefs of the Christian faith in a relevant way that both believers and people newly exposed to the Christian faith can understand. You see, the Christian faith is a coherent belief system that seeks to make sense of life—a worldview. It's fashionable today to pick and choose beliefs from various religions and philosophies, but this is a dangerous approach. Every religious belief system presents a comprehensive and interrelated way of making sense of reality; mixing and matching ideas from different sources results in a worldview that lacks internal coherence. It would be like taking ten puzzle pieces from ten different puzzles and trying to piece them all together. Even if I cut the pieces to make them fit, the picture wouldn't make any kind of sense. In a similar way, mixing and matching conflicting beliefs from different religions and philosophies results in a nonsensical and incoherent view of life.
Before we delve into this series, I need to say that it would be a mistake to think that the Christian faith is merely about having the right beliefs. The heart of the Christian faith is not a set of ideas or a catalog of concepts but a personal love relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. The ideas and concepts we'll be talking about flow from this personal relationship with God; they're not a substitute for it.
Now if you're reading this and you've been a Christian for a while, you might be thinking that this information will be too basic for you. But before you tune me out, let me suggest that many Christians don't really believe what they say they believe. You really see what a person believes by watching his or her lifestyle, because the way we actually live reveals what we actually believe about life. If I honestly believe that my wife is trying to poison me, that will affect the way I live. I'd probably suggest that we eat out a lot more often; I'd watch her closely while she cooked, and so forth. If I really believe something, I can't help but live consistently with my belief system. In this series I'll be asking whether our lives reflect genuine belief in these fundamental basics of the Christian faith.
Today we're going to look at what Christians believe about God. I feel like I'm trying to fit an ocean into a thimble, because there's so much that can be said about God, so I'll be limiting myself to five key truths that are critical to the Christian concept of God.
God is real.
We start with the very first phrase from the Bible: "In the beginning God …" (Genesis 1:1). The Bible never attempts to prove God's existence; it merely assumes that God exists. This is because no one in the ancient world questioned the existence of God. Rather, the debate was over what God was like and how to relate to him.
In response to the rise of atheism in western culture, some Christians have tried to prove the existence of God using various logical arguments. The medieval Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas articulated four arguments to prove that God exists. In more recent times, C. S. Lewis attempted the same in his writings. Some people have found arguments helpful to their spiritual journey into Christian faith, but their usefulness has been pretty limited. This is because the goal of the Christian faith has never been to persuade people to accept the concept or idea of God, but instead, it's been to introduce people to a love relationship with him. Philosophical arguments about God's existence can end up being like a rather tedious game of chess.
In the end, both atheism and Christianity are ultimately matters of faith. Since the honest atheist doesn't claim to have unlimited knowledge of the universe, he or she really can't claim to know for sure that God doesn't exist. All an honest atheist can do is say that he or she hasn't yet found enough evidence to believe that God exists, which is really agnosticism, not atheism.
Christians obviously believe that God is real. This means that Christians believe God has objective existence in the real world—that God isn't merely wish fulfillment, as Sigmund Freud suggested. There are good, solid reasons to believe this is the case, but ultimately it's a matter of faith.
This brings us to our first key concept: since God is real, we are never really alone. If God is indeed real, there's nowhere in the universe a person can go to escape God's presence. The first verse of the Bible says that before anything else existed—in the beginning—there was God. This means that God is the only self-existent being in the universe. We depend on other things for life like oxygen, food, water, sleep, and so forth. If any of these are taken away, we die; our lives are contingent on them, making us more vulnerable and dependant than we like to admit. But God is self-existent, needing nothing exterior to himself to exist, which is why one of the Bible's favorite titles for God is "the Living God."
If you believe that God is real, let me ask you a question: Do you believe that you're never really alone? When do you talk to God? Do you only talk to God at church? Or before family meals? Or at Bible study? If we believe that God is real and therefore always present with us, then it makes sense that we'd talk to him throughout our days, no matter where we are and what we're doing, just like we'd talk to a friend we're spending time with. If you find that you never talk to God, or that you only talk to God at church, then maybe it's time to ask yourself if you believe God is real.
God is spirit.
All this talk about a being who can be present everywhere sounds strange. After all, what kind of entity is this God anyway? In John 4:24 Jesus claims, "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."
What does it mean to say that God is spirit? It means that God is not composed of matter—that he doesn't have physical properties like size, shape, weight, and color. God in his essence is not perceivable by our five senses, and although God can and does make his presence known through the physical world of matter, his essence or nature is pure spirit. We as humans are both physical and spiritual creatures, which means that we have a physical body, but we also have a soul and a mind, so there's an interplay between the material and the non-material components of our nature.
The second part of Jesus' statement tells us that how we approach God must be in harmony with what God is like. Since God is spirit—non-physical, not composed of matter—our approach to God must be consistent with this reality. This phrase "spirit and truth" carries a lot of meaning, but at its very least, it means that people who would come to God must approach God in a way that appropriately corresponds to what God is like.
Here's the second key concept: since God is spirit, our approach to him must be spiritual. The door to discovering God is a spiritual door. Theology, philosophy, and science can teach us certain things about God, but if we really want to know God as a person and not merely as a concept or idea, then we must come to God spiritually, as worshipers. This is the spiritual door to the spiritual God.
On whose terms are you approaching God: your terms or his? The person who stands on a hill shaking his fist in defiance and daring God to zap him with a bolt of lightening isn't coming to God on God's terms. The person who bargains with God to get him off the hook isn't coming to God on God's terms. God's nature is spirit, and that means our approach to God must be a spiritual one.
God reveals himself.
If God is real but he exists as spirit, how can we know anything for sure about him? If we can't see or touch God—if God isn't composed of matter—how can we say anything definitive about him? This is where 1 John 1:5 comes in: "This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all."
There's a lot we could say about that phrase "God is light," but I want to focus in on just one element. Just like it's the nature of light to shine, so it's the nature of God to communicate himself to others. To speak of God as light is to speak of God communicating what he's like to people.
Here's the third key concept: since God reveals himself, we are never far from his voice. God has always been the great communicator. God revealed himself with finality through Jesus Christ, which we'll go into next week, but for now I want to focus simply on the fact that God does communicate himself.
There are many different ways God reveals himself to us. Psalm 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." This verse tells us that the world of nature—the universe God created—actively communicates who God is. We can look at the universe on a macro level using a high powered telescope, and as we look at the galaxies, stars, and planets, they tell us about God. We can look at a micro level using a microscope to study the human cell, and that also tells us about God. And we can just look with our own eyes to see a breathtaking sunset, a snow capped mountain, a beautiful ocean, and we catch the wonder of God shining his light in our world.
Do you really believe that you're never far from God's voice? When you face a problem in life, where's the first place you look for a solution? Do you consult God, seeking his voice to guide you? If God is light, then God's voice is never far from us, and he speaks with authority on the problems we face in life. If we draw near to consult God on the problems were facing, we'll see his light shine and hear his voice in the midst of to our difficulty.
God is personal.
First John 4:16 is a very famous but often misunderstood verse: "And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love." This verse does not say that love is God, as if somehow the feeling of love is to be equated with God. This statement means that love lies at the core essence of what God is like. Everything God does—even his judgment against sin—is motivated by his love, because love is the core attribute of God.
This means that God is a person, not in the sense of being human, but in the sense of having personality. Christianity is different than Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, where God is seen as impersonal, like a vague force. The God of the Christian faith is personal by nature. You see, for love to exist there must be both a subject—the person doing the loving—and an object—the person being loved. If God is love by nature, that means that even before God created anything, he was love. Before there was any created thing to love, God's essence was still love, which means there must've always been a subject and object to that love. This implies that within the structure of God's essence there must be some sort of plurality of persons that enabled God to love as both subject and object, even when nothing else existed but God. This plurality of persons within God's nature is what Christians call the Trinity—the idea that within the nature of the one true God there exists a plurality of persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
John 3:35 reads that "The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands." This statement of the Father's love for the Son has been true for all eternity; even before the universe was created, God existed in perfect a community of love.
This brings us to our fourth key concept: since God is personal, we are never far from his care. This is what 1 John 4:16 means by "knowing and relying on" God's love. The disclosure that God's nature is love is an open invitation for us to draw near to God's heart so that we might personally know and rely on his loving care for our lives. God is not like the imperfect parent who withholds love because his child hasn't performed; God's love is unconditional and infinite in measure. Jesus said that God knows the number of the hairs on our heads. God knows your deepest needs, your secret dreams, your deepest longings—God knows you even better than you know yourself—and he still loves you infinitely.
Do you really believe this? Where do you turn to most for love and acceptance? Is it to your parents or your friends, to your spouse or your co-workers? If God is not the primary source of love and acceptance in your life, I wonder if you really believe this truth. By opening his heart to us, revealing that his very nature is to love, then God has given us access to an infinite source of love and acceptance for our lives, if only we will believe it.
God is awesome.
First Chronicles 29:11 records part of David's prayer at the end of his life: "Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all."
God possesses all greatness, which is the quality of being most important and significant in comparison to others. God is in a class by himself; no one can compare. God also has all power, which is the capacity to do and to will anything he wants in accordance with his character and nature. God has all glory, which refers to God's transcendent beauty, radiance, and magnificence. We're impressed by a beautiful sunset or an inspiring painting, but God is the source from which all true beauty flows, so the most beautiful things in creation are but a dim reflection of his beauty. God has all majesty, which refers to God's grandeur and dignity as the ruler of the universe. God has all splendor, which refers to the brightness and brilliance of his being, that he shines brighter than any star. Because of this, everything belongs to God; he owns the universe; he's exalted as the one who's over everything.
This incredible statement about God brings us to our final key concept: since God is awesome, we are never beyond his reach. God is on the throne, he's in control as the awesome ruler over the entire universe. But do you really believe this? When you face an impossible situation, where do you go for help? When the biopsy comes back as cancer, when your business fails, when your marriage is crumbling, where do you turn for help? For if God is as awesome as we say we believe he is, his hand is not too far to reach us; we are never beyond the effective power of God. Just as the awesome God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites to escape their captivity, this same awesome God is able to intervene in our lives as well.
There's so much more that could be said about God. But for now I present these five key concepts as basic to the Christian belief about God: God is real, God is spirit, God reveals himself, God is personal, and God is awesome. What an incredible difference these five concepts can make in our lives if we really believe them—that we're never alone, we're invited to approach God spiritually, and we're never far from God's voice, God's care, and God's reach.
The Christian faith is not about collecting data about God so we have an encyclopedic knowledge of correct concepts. The Christian faith is about personally encountering this very God, about knowing him in a way that transforms our everyday lives. Christianity is about worshiping this God, and in the context of our worship experience, being changed and made whole because we're doing that which we were created to do.
Timothy J. Peck is director of the chapel and a lecturer in the school of theology at Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, California. He preaches regularly at Christ our King Church in Azusa.