“I am” part II – the simplicity of God

Sorry if it all got a bit abstract last time – I get carried away with theology sometimes, which is dangerous for an amateur. 😉

So last time I said that God is both unknowable yet makes himself known; that though he is outside the categories of existence he still relates to us personally. Now for another mystery – the simplicity of God.

God’s simplicity

We imagine God to be immensely complex, beyond all comprehension, and of course in a sense he is. We’ll never be able to understand all of God or contain all that he is in our finite minds. Yet (paradoxically again) “I am” is also incredibly, almost childishly simple.

God is ultimately simple because is utterly one, and at one with himself; utterly united; utterly complete and perfect and whole. Much of our complexity as humans stems from our brokenness, our dividedness, our dis-integrity. God is a seamless, integrated whole.

To express this, Aquinas came up with the doctrine of divine simplicity, which roughly says that all of God’s attributes are aspects of the same unity. There is no division or competition between his mercy and his justice, his love and his holiness, his sovereignty and his self-giving, his divinity and his humanity. He simply is, and all these things are expressions and manifestations of that ‘is’.

God is Reality

‘I am’ also expresses a solidity, a reliability, a steadfastness and substantiality. This is not a God who shifts and changes, or an insubstantial spirit who is hardly really there. He is real, is Reality. He is one who can bear our full weight, the weight of all our lives, all our griefs and hopes and sins and troubles; the weight of the whole universe. We can trust him, rely on him, rest in him, put all our weight on him, cast all our burdens on him. God is.

‘I am that I am’ or ‘I am what I will be’ also acts as a salutary reminder that it is God – not us – who defines who God is. We can’t decide what kind of God we want to serve, what kind of being we want him to be. He is who and what he is; he is full Reality and he defines reality, and we dispute or argue with that at our own risk. If the kind of life we lead causes us to crash up against that reality, we may find it has hard and sharp edges, and we’re likely to cause ourselves suffering as a result.

We cannot shape and mould God to our ends or co-opt him for our agendas; he is himself and he won’t be manipulated or used. He cannot be blackmailed or bribed, bullied or browbeaten (I know; I’ve tried).

This is perhaps one of the meanings of the second commandment, ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’. God’s name is the expression of who he is. We cannot take his name and use it for our own ends, or to justify our own causes. God defines himself and he guards his name – his character – jealously.

So we do not name God, but rather his name names us and gives us our identity, our life, our being.

God is God

God is not a proposition to be proved, nor an equation to be solved, nor a particle to be discovered. God is not a fact to be learnt, nor an object to be scrutinized and analysed. God is not an interesting idea nor an intellectual puzzle to be discussed and debated. God is not a material source to be exploited nor a power to be harnessed. God is not an exciting experience to be had for the seeker of thrills, nor an artefact to be collected by the connoisseur of rarities.

God is God. God is glorious, living Reality to be encountered, embraced, experienced, engaged with; to be known, and known by; to be lived in, founded on, related to, shouted at, grappled with, hated and loved.

God is. We can’t understand God, we can’t define God, we can’t manipulate God, we can’t own or tame or box God. God is always more, always greater, always better and fuller and freer and lovelier. God is unexpected and surprising and paradoxical and counter-intuitive and amazing.

Yet God is also knowable, because he makes himself known. Not comprehensible, not explicable, not expressible, but knowable.

Above all, God is. Everything else flows from that one simple, central, indescribable reality. God is. I am who I am.

And because of that, we who are made in his image – which is all of us – can ultimately be who we are.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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9 Responses to “I am” part II – the simplicity of God

  1. abideinhim2 says:

    Beautifully written! Thank you.

    As Paul said
    … That our minds should stay on the “simplicity that is in Christ” 2 cor 11v3

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  2. Noel says:

    If we cannot define God, how can we even have a concept about God, such as Father, Judge, King, creator, etc?

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    • Hi Noel, that’s genuinely a really good and important question.

      Before trying to answer, I’d say that in these blog posts I’m exploring ideas rather than trying to lay down the law – I’m very happy for people to disagree, or to point out inconsistencies and difficulties in what I’m suggesting. I’m not utterly committed to one particular way of thinking about God as the Only Right View. If another way works better for you, that’s great.

      But from my own perspective, we largely come to concepts about God as Father, Judge, King etc through our own experience and through listening to other people’s experiences. The Israelites experienced God as relating to them in ways rather like a human father, judge etc, and it seems that God was broadly happy to be described in these ways. When we experience God’s loving care, his provision and protection, it’s like he’s a father to us.

      Secondly, we use our reason. We reason that God is ultimate reality, and so must be perfect and utterly good. We can also reason that he is Creator, because all else must depend on him and originally come from him.

      Thirdly and most importantly as Christians, we have Jesus who we believe is God’s essence in human form. Through Jesus’ life, words, actions and character we can see a whole lot about God that we wouldn’t know otherwise.

      But I would still say that all our ideas of God have to be provisional to an extent, because human minds can’t encompass God’s fulness nor human language properly express him. We can say that God is a Father (or like a Father), and this is generally a helpful idea, but I think we still do well to keep in the back of our minds that it’s a picture and not a perfect or complete one. And sometimes we may need to strip away all our pictures and just come to God as the mysterious reality beyond words.

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  3. Noel says:

    “I am that I am’ or ‘I am what I will be’ also acts as a salutary reminder that it is God – not us – who defines who God is. We can’t decide what kind of God we want to serve, what kind of being we want him to be.” I agree completely with this statement. But at the same time people (including myself) have used personal experience, reason, and other people’s claims, as ways to attempt to define the characteristic of a supreme being, called God, throughout history. I am currently in a place in my spiritual journey where I am not certain of what “God” truly is. I believe there must be something greater than us, but the exact definition of that entity has been more obscure to me. I was taught from childhood about the Christian’s concept of God, including the idea of heaven and hell, sin, Jesus’s salvation, Holy Trinity, etc. But I have been reconsidering and questioning all of these basic teachings. Starting over again, if you will. This is why I ask and question. Thanks for responding to my comment.

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    • Thanks – that’s really interesting. I can very much identify with the place you’re in and the process you’re going through. I’ve been going through a similar process over the last few years, tentatively exploring new and perhaps quite unsafe or uncertain ground, while (in my case) still holding on to parts of the old, whether rightly or not.

      I think with Christian faith (or indeed any religious faith), it’s always both/and – we approach a mystery that cannot really be understood or put into words, yet because we’re human we have to try and understand and verbalise, because we can’t operate in a vacuum. That’s why I like Pete Rollins’ book ‘How (not) to speak of God’ so much – I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it. He’s basically saying that we can’t define God, but we still need kind of partial, provisional working understandings that we know might be wrong.

      So I do think there’s some value in our theologies and our doctrinal formulations – they can be useful to us, and they can perhaps distantly approach something true or real. But they’re mostly just pictures and models that fall way short of the inexpressible reality. If we cling too tightly to a particular idea about (say) salvation, we can get hung up on it and it can become unhelpful.

      Not sure if any of this helps at all! 🙂

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      • Noel says:

        I think we are understanding each other. … I identify with you thoughts very much. Thank you. I will look for “How (not) to speak of God”. 🙂

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        • PS in the meantime, Pete Rollins’ Greenbelt talks are well worth a listen – you can get them here, and all except the top one are free: http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/media/talks/contributor:pete-rollins/

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        • Hi again, sorry, you’ve got me thinking (always fatal)!

          I think there are ways we can get glimpses of God or insights into some aspects of what ‘he’ is like. We just have to be a bit careful not to turn them into hard-and-fast doctrines.

          So, walking to work this morning there was an astonishingly beautiful sky, and looking at it I felt awed, moved and humbled. But then I think we can use reason to take that a bit further, and argue that if something ephemeral within the natural order is so wonderful, then the Being or Spirit behind or beyond the natural order must be far more wonderful. So every time we experience joy or delight or wonder (perhaps prompted by music or nature or human love), we can look beyond it to Something/Someone greater, Someone in whom the partial we’ve experienced is made complete.

          And I think that, just occasionally, we can encounter something of the real presence of God in these kinds of moments, knowing that we’re caught up into something greater and better than ourselves. I’m hoping to post soon about an experience I recently had of something like this. I think we should be careful about reading too much about God into these experiences as they are inevitably rare and subjective, but for my part there’s a sense of being known and loved, of being surrounded by a presence of utter goodness.

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