This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: What are God’s attributes and why have I never heard of them before?
A: The attributes of God are the characteristics that describe what he is like. The word is used by theologians but is not often heard outside the classroom, so most people are unfamiliar with it. But that does not mean that we are unaware of what the divine attributes are. Everybody knows that God is invisible, immortal, and all-powerful (omnipotent). Invisibility, immortality, and omnipotence are his attributes, and they remain the same because God’s nature does not change. One reason that we do not often talk about them is that we usually agree about them already. Nobody is going to argue that God is visible, so the attribute of invisibility is seldom if ever discussed. Then too, if God could be seen, he could be described; but because he is invisible, it is impossible to say what he is like. He is not tall or short, black or white, fat or thin—these descriptions simply do not fit with what he is. But because we do not know how to describe what he looks like, we usually pass over the subject of his invisibility and assume that everybody thinks the same thing about it.
On the rare occasions when we do talk about God’s attributes, we usually mention just one or two of them at any one time. For example, we may say that God is immortal, but we usually do that only when we are talking about life and death in general. When we say that God cannot die, we probably do not think to add that he is also all-powerful, because it does not occur to us that his eternity and his power are necessarily connected. We do not sit down and make lists of his characteristics or think about them in a systematic way. We refer to particular attributes when they come up in discussion, but seldom go any further than that.
Q: If nobody talks much about God’s attributes, do they matter?
A: Yes, they do. Just because something seems to be obvious does not mean that it is unimportant. Anyone who looks at us can see that we are human beings, and that matters! You would not want somebody to ignore that fact, or still less to call you an animal or a plant by mistake. In the same way, God is a very special being, and we must understand and respect that. Getting this wrong could have serious consequences. For example, if we thought that God could be visible, we would be tempted to worship pictures of him, and that would be idolatry, which the Bible regards as one of the worst sins. God’s invisibility is not something we can ignore, because it is an essential precondition for what we call his omnipresence. This means that no matter where you go in the universe, you can never get away from God or leave him behind. He is always there with us because he is present everywhere. But if he were visible, that omnipresence would be impossible, because there would be definable limits to his being. It is therefore important for us to emphasize his invisibility, because without it we could not experience his presence with and in us all the time. In this and in many other ways, our experience of God is directly connected to what he is like.
Q: Are all of God’s attributes equally obvious and easy to understand?
A: No. Invisibility and immortality are pretty straightforward, but not all God’s attributes are that simple. For example, we also say that God is incomprehensible. But what does that mean? There are two sides to incomprehensibility, which come together in the word “grasp”. God cannot be grasped physically because he does not have a body, and he cannot be grasped mentally because our minds are not big enough to understand him. Unfortunately, many people use the word “incomprehensible” to refer to somebody or something that makes no sense to them at all. A person speaking a foreign language or who has a strange accent may be incomprehensible to us, but God is not like that. He has spoken to us in his Word, the Bible, and we can understand what he has said to us. It is true that there are some things about him that he has not told us, and not everybody grasps everything he has said about himself, but that does not mean that we cannot know anything about him. His self-revelation is expressed in terms that we can figure out, and we know enough to be able to have a relationship with him.
This partial understanding is not as unusual as it may seem. We all have relationships with other people, but how much do we really know about them? “I don’t understand you” is one of the most common complaints we make about other people, including those who are closest to us—our parents, siblings, spouses, and children. We do not always know why they do the things they do, and unless they tell us, we may find it very hard to guess. If that is true of human beings, how much more will it be true of God? But just as we do not stop trying to understand those whom we love, so we should not stop trying to understand God, whom we also love. We shall never have complete knowledge of him, but the fact that he is personal and relational means that we can know more about him than we would if we could not communicate with him and just had to guess what he might be like.
Q: If God is unique and completely different from us, how can we relate to him?
A: You and I have a relationship with God not because he is like us—he is not—but because he has given us something in us that makes us a little bit like him. That something is called his “image and likeness” (Gen. 1:26–27). It is a gift that God has given to human beings and it makes it possible for us to have a relationship with him. We have rational minds and can communicate with one another in a sensible way, which no animal or bird can do. Dolphins are intelligent and parrots can mimic our voices, but neither of them can think or speak in the way that we do. The Bible tells us that it is by speaking in a way that we can understand that God communicates with us. Furthermore, it is by speech that we communicate with him. To put it simply, he talks to us and we can talk back to him. We can ask him for things, complain to him about our problems and thank him for all his goodness towards us. We can do these things because God is a relational being and he has made us in his image, so that we are relational beings too.
This points us to an important distinction in God that a lot of people fail to recognize. This is that there are two different kinds of attributes in him. First of all, there are his essential (or “natural”) attributes that he does not share with us, like his invisibility. Then there are his relational attributes, which he does share with us. Somewhere in the middle are attributes that we do not share with God by nature but that he has chosen to bestow on us, at least to a limited degree. Immortality is one of these. When we believe in Christ we receive the gift of eternal life, which is a kind of immortality. But it is not the same as God’s immortality, because our eternal life has a beginning, which his does not. Furthermore, our immortality is a privilege that he grants to us because of our faith in him, but his immortality is something that belongs to him by nature. So although there are similarities between us, they occur because God has chosen to give them to us by his grace, not because they are an integral part of our human nature.
His almighty power makes it possible for him to reach out to us in love and to save us from our sins.
One area of debate about the extent of God’s relationship with us concerns the question of suffering. In his essential nature, God is impassible—that is to say, he is incapable of suffering. But if God cannot suffer, can he understand my pain and relate to me when I am suffering? Many people have gone wrong here because they have not respected the difference between God’s essential attributes and his relational ones. In his essence, God cannot suffer because that would mean that he is subjected to an external force of some kind that can cause him harm. But that is impossible. You cannot hit God, for example, nor can he catch a disease or be involved in an accident. God cannot break a leg that he does not have, or be mentally handicapped. These forms of human suffering do not apply to him, and we should be glad of that. If we are in trouble, we want to be rescued; but we do not want our rescuer to be suffering the same things we are. Sharing our pain may sound like a good idea, but it is not the way to cure it. We want God to understand the pain we are enduring and to set us free from it, not to tell us that he knows what we are feeling because he is going through the same suffering himself.
This is just common sense. But at the relational level, God can and does “feel our pain,” if we can put it like that. He is not a machine that functions without emotions, but a living being who relates to us in all the ups and downs of our lives. He loves us, and love involves suffering. When we human beings turned away from him, he felt it deeply; so deeply that he sent his Son to earth to die on our behalf because he loves us and cares about us. God is impassible in his own being, but he is relationally involved with us at the same time. This means that he has the power to save us, because there is no power in heaven or on earth that is greater than he is, but also that he is motivated to do so because he loves us. Put those two things together and you have the message of the gospel. His almighty power makes it possible for him to reach out to us in love and to save us from our sins. This is why the attributes of God matter. It is because he is what he is that we can become what he wants us to be, and so our faith in him is never misplaced. As the Apostle Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy: “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that he is able to guard . . . what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim. 1:12).
Gerald Bray is the author of The Attributes of God: An Introduction.
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