What Does it Mean that God Is a Person?

An elementary truth claim of Christianity is that God is a “Person”. Not a thing. Not a principal of reason or intangible construct, and not a feeling.

But what does that mean?

We may smirk at the practice of people in the Bronze Age who constructed gods out of hand-made objects and worshiped them. This was the ubiquitous practice of the people in the Old Testament. We may (or may not) laugh at primitive people who worshiped the sun, moon,  mountains and trees.

We are not much different from them, really, when we approach God as if God is an intellectual construct or feeling that we can conceive or conjure up. We are walking in the footsteps of our primitive ancestors when we see God as something indistinct from the universe. Our concepts may be more sophisticated, but only in degree.

The same is true when we view God as an abstract idea. An abstract idea, or ideal, is still a thing. Not a thing made of human hands, but a thing constructed by human intellect.

When we construct a god, whether by our hands or in our minds, or conceive of God as indistinct from the universe, we are not perceiving God in the way He is revealed in the Bible. These are “idols” that are poor substitutes for the Person of God.

Tim Keller takes it a step further. He says that anything we rely upon and view as our highest desire, our greatest good, is an idol. If we count on that “thing” for our happiness, our sense of fulfillment and our worth, we have substituted an idol for God.

Even good things become idols if we make them our “ultimate things”, says Keller.

Parenthood, money, career, achievement, recognition from others, pleasure, a home, nice things – even church, politics and morality – can become an idol if we rely on them intrinsically for self-worth, happiness and fulfillment. These are all good things, but we distort their value if they become our “ultimate things”. We make them idols if we pursue them and value them as our greatest good.

We may not even realize our dependence on these things to make us happy, fulfill us and define our self-worth, especially when life is going well for us. When those things are threatened is when we begin to see our reliance on them. If we are undone by some loss or failure  in the things on which we have relied, our dependence on those things is exposed – our idols are revealed.

Sometimes, we can only realize how much value we have placed in things other than God when we lose them and they fail us.

We often think or act as if we can manipulate and control our relationship with God. We pray for the things that we think we need and must have, for protection of all the things in which we have placed our confidence, happiness and self-worth. When we approach God like that, we are not treating Him as the Person He is – the God who made us and has plans and purposes for us – the God who loves us and desires us to love Him.

When we think we can earn favor of God by our actions, we are not perceiving accurately who God is. When we approach God in a transactional way, we are not perceiving Him in the Christian sense.

God, in the Christian view, is a “Person”. He is not something to be controlled or manipulated. He is “not a tame Lion” as CS Lewis says. God is separate and distinct from us and from the creation. He has plans and purposes. We can only relate to and connect with Him as He is – not something we desire Him to be – something we can control, manipulate or earn favor from.

I believe people in the Old Testament were prone to rely on idols for this reason: God is not one to be manipulated by human will. People were more comfortable with an idol they made and could appease than a God who has His purposes and plans for us and the universe.

We are no different today. We might very much like a relationship with God, as long as it is on our own terms. We may not even realize what we are doing – reducing God to a construct created in our own minds. We aren’t really much different than our more primitive ancestors in that sense.

The central claim of Christianity is that God is a Person, but He is not a Person who chooses to remain aloof. He became a human being and participated in His own creation. He emptied Himself of all that privileged him above the humans He created and became one of us. Because of this, God can relate to us not only because he made us but because He became one of us.

We can take heart, then, that God fully understands us and knows full well what it is like to experience the human condition. His plans and purposes are not arbitrary and capricious. God made us in His own image to be like Him, to relate to Him and to reflect His love back to Him – forever.

He also gave us choice, which is a fundamental requirement of love. Love is reciprocal. We could not love Him if we could not choose otherwise.

Our lives in the universe He created are designed to allow us to seek God because we want to know God and to love Him because we value relationship with God above all things. (This necessarily means that we can choose otherwise and value other things above God.)

All this is not to say that believing in God is irrational or without emotion. It’s just that God cannot be reduced to the dimension of reason or the dimension of human emotion. God is multidimensional like a person. He has personality and agency.

We err when we think that God is like us; rather we are like Him!

We are made in His image. As multidimensional we are as human beings, even at our best, God is greater. We are but facets of the multi-dimensionality of God. Individually, we each reflect some combination of the aspects of the various characteristics of God.

Imagine all the facets of God that require millions and billions of people to reflect who He fully is.

The Christian claim is that we are not gods, and the creation is not god. We and the creation are separate and apart from God who created everything. We can relate to God and God can relate to us, but He is “Other” than us.

We must approach Him as He is. Not as we want Him to be. He desires for us to desire Him, and He is waiting for each of us to desire Him more than we desire anything else in the world.

God desires us to be His children – not workers who earn wages, but His children –  who inherit all that He is and has for us. We only need to want that more than we want lesser things.

2 thoughts on “What Does it Mean that God Is a Person?

  1. “Sometimes, we can only realize how much value we have placed in things other than God when we lose them and they fail us.”

    That pretty much sums up the last couple years of my life… I’m still struggling with letting go, though.

    Liked by 1 person

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