Words are kind of my thing. Ever since I learned how to read, I have been devouring practically every book I could get my hands on. I learned new words by reading and would often pronounce them incorrectly because I’d never heard them said out loud before. When I write, I usually have a thesaurus website open so I can find the perfect word for the feeling I want to convey in my sentences. Even when I talk, I am intentional with my words so that what people think I’m saying is what I’m actually saying.
But there is at least one important area in my life where I can’t quite completely capture reality with words. And that’s with God.
I can say all kinds of things about God, but it’s hard to know if what I’m saying is truly accurate.
I can say, for example, that God is love, but my understanding of what “love” is has been shaped by the way people around me have shown (or not shown) love in my life. So when I use the word “love” to describe God, I most likely miss a lot of what “love” means to him because I’m limited by my own experiences with love.
So what do I do? Since I can’t fully describe God, should I choose to give up trying to understand or describe him? Are words not worth it?
I don’t think so.
It’s good to try to understand God. He is our creator and savior, and if we love him we ought to get to know him. But it’s also important to remember that we can’t completely accomplish this. We should not be quick to think we understand everything, because this can lead to overconfidence, arrogance, or thinking that we are in complete control of our lives (and even of God himself). But we should also not be quick to give up, because then we can miss out on important truths that we find through questioning and wrestling with difficult topics.
There are things we can learn and understand about God through the skills he has given us: our reason, our intellect, and our ability to think critically (among others). God is a rational God, and he has made us in his image. We can use these qualities in ourselves that reflect his qualities to understand the parts of himself he has revealed to us.
But God is also a mysterious God, showing up in the thin, small silence to be with Elijah among the wind and fire and earthquake (1 Kings 19:9-12). We have this mark in ourselves, too - the ability to meet God in the silence.
This reality, that we cannot fully comprehend God, is not meant to discourage us. In fact, it does the opposite.
It helps us remember that God is bigger than anything we can know. It shows us his amazing power and his wonderful love. And it reminds us of the fact that he is God, and we are not.
There are a lot of statements about God we Christians hold to be true and essential that we can’t really understand, no matter how many pages of writing have been produced over the past few thousand years. Some of the big ones include the concept of the Trinity, the ideas of infinity and eternity, and what I am most interested in today: the incarnation.
The idea that the God who created earth and all matter came down among us and inhabited that space is mind blowing. And sometimes I think we - especially those people who grew up in the church - forget just how mind blowing that it is. It seems normal, commonplace, mundane; something we don’t even think about anymore.
We need to use our words to unwrap what we can understand about God. We need to engage with the mystery that is our God and ask questions and wrestle with how complicated he is. There is beauty in the complication. But there is also beauty in taking time to step back to simply be in the presence of God and let the mystery wash over you, accepting that he is not something we can fully understand.
I want to leave you with a poem I wrote about this very idea: that God is beyond anything we can comprehend, and yet there can be beauty found in openly and honestly engaging with the parts of God that we can understand. I want to encourage you to think of ways in which you can engage with the mystery of God with and without words. Rest in the knowledge that God is beyond us, and be grateful that this is so.
The poem is called “A Kataphatic Pondering on the Apophatic God-Man,” where Kataphatic theology refers to the idea that we can attempt to understand God through words, and Apophatic theology refers to the idea that God is beyond everything we can or do say. I hope it inspires you.
The Lord, Christ Jesus, is here.
Made of stardust which he made,
Now formed in his own likeness,
The Word of God who takes on
Skin that cracks at the knuckles
In the hot, dry desert winds,
Set in motion eons past
Seated at the breast of God,
Now seated on earth, now with
Ten fingers, toes, two eyes which
See so little of the great
Expanse he knows is out there,
Which he walks with tired feet
Between people and cities
He knows so intimately.
What can be said of the one
Who washes the feet of those
He formed in the womb, with love?
Or who leaves his breath behind,
When he returns to his God,
To fill with comfort the chests
Of those who love him dearly?
What of the broken one who
Accepted nails in his flesh,
All for the sake of great love,
That his own might be made whole?
The God of earth, made human,
Not known through definitions.
So uncapture the God-Man,
Who is beyond, all, and none
Of the categories used –
He is more, much more, than that.
Elise is a student studying English and philosophy at Spring Arbor University. On campus, she works for the student newspaper and at the writing center, and enjoys reading and singing in her free time. While at home, she lives with her parents and three younger siblings. She is looking forward to where God will take her next.