I have been working on a new book project for a while, God Is: Portraits of the King. It consists of short expositions of Scripture portraying the character of Yahweh, our God. This and related posts are chapters from this book.
To whom will you liken me
that I would be comparable to him? Says the Holy One.
Lift your eyes up high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their multitude by number,
He calls each of them by name.
Because of his great might and strong power,
not one of them is missing – Isaiah 40:25-26
Humans know things by drawing connections, by connecting one thing to another. My knowledge of some humans allows me to quickly identify any new human I meet; this is done on an intuitive level, our minds put together the pieces and fill in all sorts of gaps in our visual perception: we know what a person is capable of, that they can speak, respond to instructions, answer questions, help with certain tasks; we know how to recognise certain emotions and appropriate responses. Comparison or analogy allows us to learn quickly and navigate new scenarios and situations effortlessly. Yet comparison or analogy only goes so far: my experience of other humans will give me a superficial knowledge of someone new, yet as I spend time with them, I will have to correct my initial assumptions. Every person is part similarity and part difference, alike in this or that way and different in another.
Though we know that similarity and difference characterise everyone, we tend to oversimplify things. Instead of taking the long route of learning who this person is, we fill in the gaps of our ignorance with what we know from past experience. Too often, this is how we think about God. God is a Father—we all know something about fathers, don’t we? Perhaps the only father we have known is selfish and domineering—a mean control-freak. Perhaps our fathers were absent. If God is a Father, is he not like this, controlling, distant, emotionally detached? Maybe our father never disciplined us and was always quick to comfort us; is God like that, benevolent without severity, eager to serve us in whatever way we want? God has infinite power, perhaps we associate power with abuse. Our experience of this fallen, broken world is inevitably drawn into our experience of God; our experience shapes our perception of God when we read about him in Scripture and as we interpret our present and future. Yet we must not think that God fits into the boxes of our human experience. No, to do so is a serious error.
In Isaiah 40, God asks us what would be a fit likeness for him; to what might he be compared? No one and nothing is truly like God. Can any of us say we have no sin? No, but he can. Can any one of us give life? Can we create planets and stars? Not only did God create them, but he did so without any materials to work with—he created the space within which these objects exist. The intricate orbits of the planets, stars, and all the objects in between are arranged and sustained by God. Each moment all of creation is held together by God’s mighty word. God leads the heavenly bodies in their motions, knows each one of them, and will never lose track of them. The Bible acknowledges the reality of so-called “gods” (e.g. 1 Cor 8:5), yet none can match God. They are his creatures; he is their creator. God is beyond the most powerful, most wonderful, most delightful things we experience. Theologians will say he is not only quantitatively greater in every way—wiser, kinder, more loving and good—but qualitatively greater: God’s love is of a different sort than ours, as is his kindness, his goodness, his justice, and so on.
At first, this would seem to be a threat to knowledge: if God’s love is different than ours, how is it meaningful to speak of “love” with reference to God? If there is a qualitative difference between all descriptions applied to the Creator and their application to the creature, is God not infinitely distants? Is he not separated by the infinite chasm between our experience and his? This is certainly possible, yet God has not created the world to remain distant from it. No, as we have seen in this book and throughout Scripture, God has made himself known. He is the great I AM, self-interpreting yet continually acting to give that interpretation. There is nothing like God; in the most significant sense, he is different. Yet, as much as he is different, he is also like us. He has made humanity in his image and modelled all that is good and beautiful in creation after his own perfection. All knowledge is a reflection of his knowledge.
So, how do we hold these things together? How can God be incomparable and knowable? The problem is that we tend to think of likeness as a movement from experience to God, thus we demote God to the level of our experience. Yet this is not the way God created things to work; instead, all knowledge is actually a movement from God to the world. In Romans 1, we are told that we all know God, yet we corrupt that knowledge wilfully; we take what is true of God and apply it to the world. Instead of interpreting the creation rightly as the creation of God, we begin to exalt the creation to the place of God. When we do this, we muddle things up: our knowledge of God is blurred with our knowledge of the fallen world, and we begin to interpret God in categories of brokenness and curse. However, God created us to know him first and then to know the world through his eyes.
To say God is “good” is not to measure God by some standard other than himself, but to say that he is the standard by which anything else might be called good: something is good when it corresponds to God and bad when it is not like him. Similarly, to say something is true is to say it is like God’s interpretation of the world, and to say something is false is to say it is unlike God’s interpretation. Beauty is recognised because we know intuitively the God who is truly beautiful. We know someone is a bad father because we know first God who is a good father. We go wrong when we get the order confused. However, if we flip things right side up (for it is our understanding that is actually upside down), things begin to make sense. His experience is not like ours because he is the measure of experience, its standard; our experience is derivative. He is the originator of everything; our experience is merely originated. Consider the problem of our knowledge of a father. If your experience with a father has been terrible, then getting this order right is imperative. God is not like your father: God is the father your father should have been. The pain caused by his absence, painful words, or the shame of abandonment and neglect do not tell us what a father is but show just how far short he falls of fatherhood, for God is not absent, not selfish, not careless. God is present, loving, kind, firm yet wise. We see bad fathers and know that they are bad because we first know that God is good. To recognise that God is incomparable means that we need to let our knowledge of God correct our experience and not let our experience correct our knowledge of God. None of us is perfect at this, yet the Christian life is the lifelong task of seeking to know as we are known, to know as God knows, and to seek conformity to his will and joy in him by letting his Scriptures guide our paths. This is difficult when our experience has so thoroughly shaped us, but by the Holy Spirit, this is not impossible. God is gracious and kind, slow to anger, he knows your hurts and pains. Through Scripture he guides us into the right knowledge of him; he is gentle in doing so. We will know God more and more clearly as our walk with him progresses, and doing so means receiving new eyes to wonder anew at the glorious creation that bears the marks of his perfection.