For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)
I just took my daughter and her husband of six months to the airport, after spending nearly two weeks with them over Christmas. I really haven’t spent much time with my son-in-law, but I feel like I know him well. How can both of these things be true?
We as humans have an amazing ability to reason with incomplete information. In assessing other people, we tend to fill in the gaps by assuming that they are just like us. After all these years, I’m still surprised when I’m jarred into the realization that other people aren’t like me. In the case of my son-in-law, he is enough like me that I am lulled into the complacent assumption that I really know him. The truth, though, is that he cannot possibly be like me. I’ve lived 30 years and been married 26 years longer than he. I’ve had a multitude of experiences that he has never had. Conversely, he has lived a life completely different from the one I’ve known. So how can he possibly be just like me?
This same phenomenon is true even in our closest relationships. With my wife, it’s probably safe to say that 90+% of our conflicts are because one spouse doesn’t view the world with the same set of expectations as the other. How can this “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” be so utterly different from me? Viewed rationally, it’s no surprise; opposites often attract and my wife and I are are living proof. In every personality assessment we’ve ever taken, we are polar opposites. Yet we still persist in expecting the other to know what we want and think how we think.
Now, to be fair, this ability to “fill in the gaps” usually allows us to make useful generalizations. If it weren’t so useful, we probably wouldn’t do it. But it’s important that our constructed façade that represents people in our thinking not be taken as the true reality. People will fail to fit into the mold we have created for them, and we must give them the freedom to be who they really are, and not just who we expect them to be.
So it is with God. Tautologically, God is infinite and beyond human comprehension. Therefore, there are a lot of “gaps” to be filled in. God is presented in scripture as our father, so many people fill in their own father (with all the brokenness) as they try to fathom God. If my human father was distant and disappointed me, then I assume that God will do the same. Other people will gravitate to one of the attributes of God (“God is love”) and create an image filled only with that one aspect (“a loving God would never condemn anyone to hell”).
The Trinity is a difficult theological concept for many people to grasp. I suspect it is because we have no suitable analogue for it in the creation. A friend pointed out to me how different denominations tend to focus on one aspect of the trinity over the others. The liturgical traditions emphasize God the Father, filled with awe and reverence. Evangelicals emphasize Jesus, our brother and savior. Charismatic groups emphasize the Holy Spirit, working in our midst.
The truth is, whatever your image of God, it is incomplete. As a Pharisee, I focused on God’s holiness and the eventual judgement of all who fail to believe. Then God jarred my mental construct and I glimpsed the depths of his fathomless grace. Recently, I had my mind stretched again, regarding why God chose the cross (please read the link). Our mental constructs are useful, but we shouldn’t let them get in the way of God being God.
God will surprise you. He will not fit your expectations or assumptions. So how can we know him? First engage with his revelation of himself in the scriptures. When what you read doesn’t mesh with your internal construct, challenge your image. Second, engage with him in prayer (more on this later). The best way to get to know someone is to talk with them. Third, engage with a community of believers with whom you can exchange ideas.
And one day, it will all be clear.