I was listening to a lecture by Orthodox theologian, Fr. John Behr, and he made a fascinating, yet very basic point. He said that Christians, before beginning a debate about God’s existence, must first clarify which God they are claiming exists. And across global human cultures there is actually quite a wide variety to choose from. Often, he argued, our description of God remains rather abstract and non-specific, such as “God is good, omnipotent and omniscient.” We use these terms that are only thinly content-specific to set up very specific problems regarding how one can reconcile the existence of a God so-described with the way the world is. The problem is, these qualities we attribute to God beg questions like, “What exactly is this power, this goodness, this knowledge like?” — and if you have left the descriptive attributes without much specific and clear content, the debate will be hard to press forward far.
But if you are Christian, he said, the answer is actually quite specific. Shockingly specific. The answer is God is like Jesus of Nazareth. “No,” he added, “God is Jesus of Nazareth, because we believe Jesus is God made fully human.”
The Christian claim is that the most complete expression of what it means to be God — of who God is — is to be found only in the historical man, the first century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Not some God revealed in an idealized, conceptually pristine or generic way, filled with clear and distinct ideas that we then try to “fit into” our experience of this world. Christianity confesses that everything about God is revealed in the most excruciatingly minute details of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. More specifically, he argued, we confess a God fully revealed in the all-too-humanness of Jesus — in His weakness, brokenness, death, burial. In John’s Gospel, the crucifixion is the moment that reveals God’s glory and majesty in its totality, for while His executioners intended the details of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion to represent a mock enthronement, God intended the details of His execution to serve as the most perfect manifestation of what majestic power looks like in God.
Fr. Behr said that in Jesus we encounter the character and manner in which God’s omnipotence and omniscience are exercised, and we encounter the way God relates to our world that He once loved into existence; a world which has fallen into ruins. He added (and this is what I found to be the most powerful insight) that when we try to discern God’s providential care for us in the face of our various painful and challenging life circumstances we must, if we are Christian, look not to our general, preconceived ideas of how an all-powerful, all-good and all-wise God should meet us in our distress to give us hope. Rather, we should fix our eyes on the life of Jesus, found in the Scriptures, to see the real-time workings of God’s providence in our fallen world. He said,
The encounter with Christ provides a new, and yet eternal, vantage point from which to understand one’s own past: we are invited to see our own past retold as nothing less than our own “salvation history.” In this nothing is left aside or glossed over, as being too shameful or painful, something that we would prefer to forget (but which even as “forgotten” continues to act negatively in the present). Rather, just as it was through that which is all-too-human — his death — that Christ shows himself to be God, so also it is through our sinfulness and brokenness that we come to know the transforming and loving power of God; not that we should thereby sin some more, as Paul warns [Rom 6.1-2], but to see ever more clearly how deep our brokenness extends. “It is,” St Isaac of Syria affirmed, “a spiritual gift of God to be able to perceive one’s own sins,” and such a one is greater than those who see angels or raise the dead by their prayers.
To plumb the depth of our fallenness is to scale the heights of divine love. The more we are given the grace to see in this way, the more we begin to understand how everything is encompassed within the divine works of God: standing in the light of Christ, we can see him as having led us through our whole past, preparing us to encounter him. He alone knows the reason why he has led each of us on our particular path, for we walk by faith not by sight (2 Cor 5.7), but it is a faith that all things are in the hands of Christ, and that “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8.28).
All of this reinforces a final point I will leave you with. If we wish to encounter the reality of God, and not simply a self-manufactured projection, we must come to know Jesus. Yes, so basic! Which means we must prayerfully read the Scriptures — especially the Gospels — at every opportunity, especially in the face of every trial and hardship. In the words of St. Jerome, “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” and ignorance of Christ is ignorance of God.