What is God like? That’s a very big question! I suppose it would be worrying if it were not a big question as it might suggest God himself is not very big. The study of what God is like has occupied theologians for centuries. One particular puzzle is whether he is a distant and uninterested God or a present and involved God.
Writers throughout the bible, both New and Old Testaments, agree that God is holy which means he is greater in every way than anything else. The special word used for this is ‘transcendent’. He is majestic, the creator, the lord and free from any needs. He is totally complete in himself and totally separate from anything else. The emphasis here is on God’s greatness.
The God who is present and near to us, who relates to us and is involved in creation and history is said to be ‘immanent’. His Spirit sustains everything. God’s guidance has helped to direct history through the ages. God loves his creation and wants to draw people to himself and help them to live in the way that he knows is best for them. When Jesus called God ‘Father’ or ‘Abba’ he emphasised God’s goodness.
Over the centuries, Christians have tried to hold these two aspects of God’s nature together but it’s not easy. Different theologians have tried to explain how it can be that God is close yet separate from all creation, good as well as great. Sometimes the emphasis has swung more in one direction than the other and has needed correcting.
Whether you can remember the words transcendent and immanent, or prefer the simpler great and good, I think it’s possible to appreciate that we need a God with both aspects to his nature if we are to relate to him as Jesus tells his disciples in today’s Gospel passage when he teaches them to pray.
If God was not good and involved with our lives there would have been little point in teaching the disciples to pray in the first place. Why bother to attempt to talk to a God who is so distant and disinterested that he wants nothing to do with us unless perhaps it suits his purpose on occasion? It is probably fine to tell God that his name is holy or hallowed and to acknowledge that his kingdom will come. This fits with a transcendent God who is the sovereign Lord of all things and whose way of doing things is entirely his business.
However, there is a slight problem because Jesus begins the prayer with the word ‘Father’ which immediately assumes that God is in a relationship with us, a loving God, not some distant majesty on a heavenly throne. It’s to this loving God that Jesus tells us to turn with our daily needs in life. There would be no point mentioning any need if God didn’t care. Nevertheless, if God was only loving but not powerful and great, it might be pointless to ask for our needs to be met. Love can achieve a lot, just as a cuddle can make a little child feel better. Sometimes something in addition to love is needed; all the cuddles in the world will not fill a hungry stomach. Asking God for our daily needs assumes he is loving enough to care and powerful enough to act on our behalf.
We don’t actually need to tell God the things we have done wrong because God’s greatness includes omniscience, knowing everything. Yet Jesus encourages his disciples to approach God to ask for forgiveness. We can do this because of his goodness which includes mercy and justice. The loving God does not treat us as we deserve. We can see that in the passage from Hosea. God’s people ran after other gods no matter how much God did for them. God’s justice demanded that he let them face the consequences of their actions. He seems to be saying that he would withdraw from them and act as if they were not his people. Yet God promises that later those who were treated as not his people would once more be called children of the living God. God is faithful, just, merciful and loving which is why we can always approach him with whatever sorry tale our lives have to tell.
This shortened form of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke concludes with asking for protection from the time of trial. All of us are likely to face trials in life. I’m not sure if Jesus had something specific in mind when he taught this prayer to his disciples. Whatever it is, it seems to me that once again we need the good, loving God in order for him to care enough about the challenges we face, and the great powerful God to get us through them.
Jesus continued his teaching on prayer by encouraging persistence. It seems the friend who needed bread gained co-operation by persisting. Even though the friend was in bed and unwilling to get up and help initially, his resistance was worn down by the constant knock on his door.
Jesus suggests that we need to do the same when praying to God for what we need. I don’t think he’s indicating that God is like a grumpy friend whom we are inconveniencing. I suspect it’s more a case of the persistence being good for us, giving us time to refine our request until it becomes one that God can answer for our good. Jesus certainly indicates that God wishes us good things and that he will answer us and in a way that will be in our best interests: everyone who asks will receive, everyone who searches will find what they need, and everyone who knocks will experience an opening door.
The good God loves and cares for us and wants to provide what we need. The great God has the power to help us and has better ideas than ours. We are encouraged by Jesus to approach this God of two natures – Father and Lord – in confidence.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor