A Crash Course on God
Why It's Good to Learn about His Attributes
I long for God, not the works of God.
Clement of Alexandria
Imagine never being able to distinguish music from noise. every song, every symphony, every note would sound garbled and unpleasant. You'd struggle to stifle your laughter when you saw friends making fools of themselves belting out the words to their favorite songs or gyrating across the dance floor to a melody you couldn't detect. And what about all the money spent down- loading music or the time wasted listening to a bunch of disagree- able sounds strung together? Wouldn't it all seem rather bizarre?
That was Austin Chapman's perspective for nearly twenty- three years. Born deaf, Austin was at peace with his situation. "all music," he explains, "sounded like trash through my hearing aids." But that changed the day he tried on a new pair capable of distributing higher frequencies with greater clarity.
Suddenly the young filmmaker heard sounds he didn't even know existed—the scraping of his shoe on carpet, the clicking of a computer keyboard, the whir of a fan. That night, friends decided to give him a crash course on music. He listened in amazement to Mozart, Elvis, Michael Jackson, and more.
"When Mozart's 'Lacrimosa' came on," Chapman says, "I was blown away by the beauty of it. At one point of the song, it sounded like angels singing and I suddenly realized that this was the first time I was able to appreciate music. Tears rolled down my face and I tried to hide it. . . . I finally understood the power of music."
Chapman's story reminds me of my first experience with God. Before that, most of what I'd heard about him sounded garbled and boring, a bit like trash coming through hearing aids. These bits of knowledge didn't move me; instead, they left me feeling cold and a bit fearful. What little faith I had vanished shortly after I entered college. I did my best to make peace with my god- less state as though it were completely natural, the only rational response to life.
But then God disarmed me. He surprised me by being real, by helping me see that the God I had rejected didn't even exist. In truth, I hadn't discarded God, but only a caricature formed by my own and others' misperceptions. When the real God showed up, he changed my life. He upended my world. He blew my mind.
And he keeps doing it—surprising me, catching me off guard, shattering my false images of him. And that is true for most of us as we live out the Christian life. In our sanest moments, we realize that the most important thing we can do is to pursue God; to hound him, even; to prayerfully insist that He give us a clearer revelation of who He is, because by doing so, we are fulfilling the purpose for which He made us. It is in His presence that life and joy are to be found. All other things, the things that clamor for our worship and insist on our undivided attention, are revealed for what they are—beautiful trifles, which when compared to God seem merely like tinfoil reflections of His glory.
The Old Testament prophets knew about our susceptibility to idols and to phony worship. Over and over they railed against idolatry, linking it to blindness. Listen to Isaiah describing those who worship idols:
Such stupidity and ignorance!
Their eyes are closed, and they cannot see.
Their minds are shut, and they cannot think.
The person who made the idol never stops to reflect,
"Why, it's just a block of wood!I burned half of it for heat
and used it to bake my bread and roast my meat.
How can the rest of it be a god?
Should I bow down to worship a piece of wood?"
The poor, deluded fool feeds on ashes.
He trusts something that can't help him at all.
Yet he cannot bring himself to ask,
"Is this idol that I'm holding in my hand a lie?"
Indeed, throughout scripture, we see this link between God's judgment and the dulling of our human senses. Jesus, the one famous for opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, makes this link crystal clear:
"I entered this world to render judgment—to give sight to the blind and to show those who think they see that they are blind."
Some Pharisees who were standing nearby heard him and asked, "Are you saying we're blind?"
"If you were blind, you wouldn't be guilty," Jesus replied. "but you remain guilty because you claim you can see."
If we want to see God more clearly, we have to be willing to let go of false images when we are given the grace to recognize them for what they are. Human vision, of course, is always impaired. our deluded hearts mislead us. We see only to the extent that God graciously opens our eyes—the eyes of the blind.
Not long ago, while I was puzzling over the difficulties that bear down hard upon our lives—things like job loss, illness, financial pressure, relational conflict, and other maladies, it occurred to me that the emotional pain we feel as a result of our troubles is often magnified by a colossal misunderstanding—one common to the human race. This misunderstanding arises from our lack of vision. Most of the time, we don't clearly see ourselves or our circumstances or the God we love. As Paul says, we are always looking "through a glass, darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12, kjv). So our vision is to some extent blurred, limited, and confused, putting us into the foreground while everything else recedes to the background. Our fears, our aspirations, our troubles—these are the focal points that command our attention.
This pattern of distortion happens to everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike, even though God has revealed truths about himself that should untangle and upend our twisted views of what is really going on. Despite the fact that we now see God in the picture, we Christians, still plagued by selfishness and fear, often relegate him to the blurry background.
When I was a child, I was introduced to a God who was all seeing, all powerful, and all knowing. But to my child's mind, He looked distant, fearful, and untrustworthy. How can you feel close to a God who holds you in disdain for your many failures, a perfect God whom your flawed self is incapable of pleasing? Fortunately, that imbalanced and distorted vision of God eventually gave way to the understanding that God loved me like the most faithful of fathers—indeed, that he had given his son to save me and take away my sins.
In the years that followed my conversion, I watched as the Church jettisoned the hard God of my youth in favor of a much softer God—one who is always tender and tolerant and who does not demand too much of his people. In the Western church, notions of God's holiness and awe have receded to the back- ground or have disappeared altogether. But that soft god produces only soft followers, spiritually enfeebled and vulnerable to the shaping power of the surrounding culture and to the ever- changing circumstances that characterize human life.
What am I arguing for? A return to the hard God? By no means. Let's not discard one distortion so we can embrace another. What we need is something only God can give—a true and deeper vision of who He is as the almighty, everlasting God, who is holy and yet merciful, jealous and yet loving, righteous and yet forgiving. This is the god of Abraham and Sarah and Moses and David and Mary Magdalene and Peter and John and all the faithful who have preceded us. They lived with a sense of God's majesty, a life-shaping knowledge of his greatness and goodness. As A.W. Tozer has said, "The great Church has for centuries lived on the character of God. She's preached God, she's prayed to God, she's declared God, she's honored God, she's elevated God, she's witnessed to God."
Let us not settle, then, for a vision of God that is thin and anemic, one that will fall to pieces when life becomes more difficult than we can bear. Instead, let us pray that God will draw us out of our complacency so that we might hunger and thirst for more of Him.
One way to increase our yearning for God is to approach Him both prayerfully and humbly through study. In Jewish tradition, study undertaken in this way is the highest form of worship.
But how can we possibly study a being who is vastly superior to anything or anyone we've ever encountered? Perhaps one way to begin is by resurrecting an old-fashioned word. The word isattribute(a-truh-byoot). God's attributes are facets of his character revealed in the Bible. Some might object that it is impossible for human beings to comprehend God—and they would be right. But God can enable us to experience him in deeper ways as we learn more about Him. Why else would He reveal Himself if He did not want to be known?
While studying His attributes, we must resurrect other words,
holiness,omnipotence,omniscience,omnipresence,righteousness,sovereignty, and transcendence. (are you snoring yet?) but rather than boring us to death, these words, when excavated for their biblical meanings, may end up thrilling us and freeing us from the colossal mistake of concluding that God is too weak or too removed or too soft to enable us to live with joy and fearlessness regardless of the problems we face. Who knows—a thoroughgoing study of the attributes of God may even show us that God is far bigger and far better than we think. Like music heard clearly for the first time, our prayerful study of God may yield a depth of experience that amazes and delights us, putting God where He belongs—in the foreground— as our cares and concerns recede to the background.
Perhaps what we need most is not a crash course in music but a crash course in God. As we immerse ourselves in God's self-revelation, found within the pages of the Bible, we need to pray that his spirit will show us who he really is. Studying the Bible without the guidance of the Holy Spirit will not yield the longed-for results.
One caveat: even with the best of intentions, it is easy to misunderstand the God we seek. Part of the problem is that sin clouds our vision, distorts our view. We want a God we can control, one we can manage and use. But God won't be reduced by our selfish aspirations. Another hindrance is our own limited capacity. We are like children trying to scoop the ocean into a bucket—finite beings trying to comprehend the mind and heart of an infinite god.
At times we doubt God—perhaps not outwardly, but secretly. We judge His motives, particularly when things go wrong, suspecting Him of being unkind, unfeeling, or even cruel. He doesn't act the way we think He should or according to our timelines. Or He fails to act at all. We pray and pray and hear no answer. Only silence.
Our judgments, based as they are on faulty and inadequate knowledge, can lead to feelings of disappointment, hurt, anger, and confusion.How, we wonder,can a good God tolerate the cruelty and violence that often characterize our world?Because we don't understand, we begin to question God's motives, His power, and His goodness. We wonder how an all-powerful God has not yet managed to clean up the universe. Though Christianity has had two thousand years to spread, and though it has made enormous contributions to the world, there is still so much darkness.
Catherine the Great was one of the world's most powerful rulers in the second half of the eighteenth century. Reigning from 1762 until her death in 1796, Catherine longed to bring Russian culture and government in line with the enlightenment principles of Western Europe. But it was a daunting task. Here's how she replied to Diderot, a French philosopher who pressed her to transform Russia along more enlightened lines:
I have listened with the greatest pleasure to all the
inspirations of your brilliant mind. But all your grand
principles, which I understand very well, would do
splendidly in books and very badly in practice. In
your plans for reform, you are forgetting the difference
between our two positions: you work only on paper which accepts anything, is smooth and flexible and
offers no obstacles either to your imagination or your
pen, while I, poor empress, work on human skin,
which is far more sensitive and touchy.
Reading Catherine's response reminded me that God has deliberately chosen to work through a rather intransigent medium—the medium of human skin. As Catherine so archly observed, this is a medium that is "sensitive and touchy." it does not quickly yield to abstract solutions, sound as they might be. Because God is working in and through broken people whose souls are neither smooth nor flexible, His activity may seem obscured and obstructed at times. He doesn't "live up to" our idealistic notions of how He should act or what He should do. As Paul says, we see, but through a glass darkly. Despite our confusion and obvious limitations, God has revealed himself in scripture, and He has filled us with his spirit so we can begin to understand more about who He is.
One thing to keep in mind when it comes to God is that an attribute is an artificial construct, a helpful way to learn about God. But God cannot be divided into His various attributes, nor will He act in ways that contradict Himself. He is still just, for instance, even when He is expressing his mercy, and still loving when expressing His jealousy.
As A. W. Tozer points out, "God's attributes are not isolated traits of His character but facets of His unitary being. They are not things-in-themselves; they are, rather, thoughts by which we think of God, aspects of a perfect whole, names given to whatever we know to be true of the Godhead. To have a correct understanding of the attributes it is necessary that we see them all as one. We can think of them separately but they cannot be separated."
How to Use This Book
In the pages that follow, we will delve into the Bible in order to explore the attributes of God—aspects of His character that are clearly revealed. To help you reflect on one attribute each week, I have developed a devotional program intended to lead you to greater understanding and deeper prayer. Each week's readings contain five main elements: background information, Bible study, devotions, Bible promises, and prayer. Here's how a week unfolds:
Monday:A key scripture passage that reveals a particular attribute of God, as well as background information and a brief Bible study to help you understand this attribute.
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday:Devotions to help you pray specific scripture passages that relate to the attribute you are learning about. These are designed to provide a springboard for personal prayer and praise.
Friday:A reflection that helps you see how this attribute connects to God's promises in scripture. It offers key Bible passages that can be read, reflected on, or even memorized. A section entitled "Continued Prayer and Praise" lists additional passages related to the attribute that can be prayed and studied over the weekend for those who desire to do so.
As you read through this book, I hope you will share my sense that learning more about God's attributes is like drawing water from a deep well—the kind that can refresh and invigorate your faith. In the days and weeks ahead, may God give you the boldness to prayerfully insist that he nourish, sustain, and strengthen you with a clearer revelation of who He is.
The nineteenth- century preacher Charles Spurgeon once remarked, "No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God. . . . but while the subject humbles the mind it also expands it."May God reward your efforts with a deeper sense of how big He is so you may live your life wide open to all the opportunities that come to those who know how great God is.