The Personhood of God

Just because we will never be able to fully understand God, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think at all about what He is like. On today’s program, Ron Hughes, the president of FBH International and Viji Roberts, a member of our board of directors are going to think about God as a person.

VIJI: God has done so much in my life that thinking about Him is one of my favourite things to do. And I’m especially looking forward to considering God as a person because this is how we relate to Him.

RON: We understand that Jesus is a “person” because He was a man, but God is as much a person as any human. Having faith in God is about developing a relationship with a person, not learning a set of teachings based on the discourses of Jesus. With this in mind, we need to ask ourselves “How can I relate to the person behind the principles?”

VIJI: As we dig into our subject, perhaps we’d better start with a brief explanation of what is a person. Generally, we tend to think of all humans as persons and non-humans as non-persons. Much of the time that shorthand works well, but it fails us as we try to understand the nature of spirit beings, like God, Satan, angels, and demons. They are “persons” though they are not human.

RON: Let’s look at several characteristics of “persons.” We’ll start off with something that seems self-evident. Persons exist. In the case of human persons, this doesn’t present too much of a challenge. After all, we perceive them through our five senses. Spiritual persons may manifest themselves in human form, but that is not their normal state. So we need to exercise some faith when we talk about spirit beings. The Bible tells us that to know God, and receive any benefit from Him, we have to believe that He exists.

Hebrews 11:6 But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

VIJI: First a person must exist, we’ve determined that. Now, here’s something else that is pretty elementary. Persons are alive. Even Christians, who believe that the soul lives on after physical death, will say of a departed friend, “She was such a kind person,” or “He was a generous person.” Notice the past tense there. We associate personhood with the state of being alive.

RON: While all of us human persons need sleep and are sometime rendered unconscious by an accident or anaesthetic, or some such thing, we are conscious beings and that is another aspect of being a person. In our normal wakeful state, we are conscious. We are aware of ourselves, our environment, and of others around us. Sometimes, at the end of life, you’ll hear someone say of a dying friend, “His heart is still beating, but he’s already gone.” They say that because though he exists and has external signs of life, he is no longer conscious.

VIJI: Associated with the idea of consciousness, we can say that all persons have intelligence, will and emotion.  The levels may vary from an infant to an adult, but they are present. All spirit beings exhibit intelligence, will and emotion, however we shouldn’t think that they do that in the same way we do. We are limited to using our human body for our expression, God, on the other hand, doesn’t have that limitation.

RON: No He doesn’t and another complication for us in understanding spirit beings as persons is that they are without gender. Gender is “huge” for humans. The first questions about new babies are gender, size and name. While a tiny percentage of people may be said to be biologically without a clear gender, they typically choose a gender to enable them to function more smoothly in society.  In the Bible, God reveals Himself mostly as masculine in images, and roles. We’re all familiar with those. We read of God as father, husband, warrior, king, and so on. Yet, God is not male in the way we know maleness. It’s that physical expression thing again. God does have characteristics that we would consider “typically male,” and manages to express masculinity without a physical body.

VIJI: God also reveals Himself as feminine in images and roles.  For example we have imageries  of God as a mother eagle, as a woman in labour, as a midwife delivering a baby, as a mother breast-feeding her infant. Yet, God is not female, in the way we understand, that is because we humans are so tied to the physical that we find it difficult to conceive of gender characteristics without a physical. So we need to remember that while we may focus on a typically masculine or a feminine attribute of God, we must never limit God to a gender.

RON: One of the things that people do is identify personality characteristics in themselves and others. There are several systems of sorting personality types and, of course, no one is going to fit perfectly on a chart. But it is true that some characteristics go together in rather predictable ways.  Most of these systems look at factors like: are we out-going and energized by being with people or do we prefer our own company and are energized by being alone. When faced with a choice, some of us immediately want to do some research and collect information before we make a decision, others prefer to go with their hunches. We’ve probably all observed that some people are more emotional than others. Some of us live in our heads, analysing everything, but are not very emotionally engaged. Others feel so strongly about things that it seems to interfere with their ability to think. The last area that researchers like to look at is if we are divergent or convergent thinkers. When a decision has to be made, are you more comfortable during the time before you make your choice, when all your options are still available, or after you’ve decided and you have a plan and know what the next step is.

VIJI: When we look at these factors, we have to admit that we are all out of balance in some ways. We can’t help being affected by the environment, genetics, experience, society, even our own brain chemistry. We naturally exhibit preferences and tendencies. And another way we need to do this is to distinguish between personality and character. All of us, regardless of our personalities, have a character problem — and the bible calls it sin.  Sin may be expressed differently by different people, but we all express sin.  A smack of selfishness here, a tug of desire for things to go our way, a compulsion for more, a tendency to lie, or a lack of restraint to eat and so on.

RON: Character is not something God has to worry about. But it’s interesting to think about God’s personality. What is He like? We’ll look at some Bible verses in a moment, but for now, we can be sure that God is perfectly balanced, so that He is able to respond appropriately to any given person or situation. That is why, as they read the Bible, some people see contradictory characteristics in God. In fact, what they are seeing is a perfectly balanced personality — something we don’t find around us every day, so it looks unusual.

VIJI: This reminds me of a picture that did the rounds after the last hurricane in the Philippines. In one village, all of the houses were constructed of wood, except one, which was built of concrete blocks. After the storm passed, an aerial photo revealed all of the houses damaged except the concrete one. It stood out, because it was still livable. That is the image I get as I look around a world of broken persons. We’re all damaged. In such an environment, God stands out, because He is whole and without flaws.  He alone can perfectly express all aspects of His personality.  So what is God like as a person? Let’s see how much we can learn in the few minutes we have. This will not be exhaustive because we’ll never be able to fully understand or explain God. However, even though God is beyond our full knowing, it’s still good to think about what we do know about Him.

Matthew 11:28-30 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

RON: These verses show God revealing Himself as gentle, humble, and meek. These are not characteristics we always associate with God, but Jesus made it clear that this is how God was revealing Himself to humanity. If you only know the stereotypical angry, vengeful, severe, God, you’re missing out. He is so much more than that. Let’s move on.

Psalm 100:5 For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.
Deuteronomy 7:9 Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.

VIJI: These verses give us three more characteristics of God’s personality — what He is like as He relates to us. He is good, loving, and faithful. These are exactly the characteristics we look for in a good friend. Paul added another word to our description of God — kindness.  We read that in the Epistle to Titus.

Titus 3:4-5 But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,

RON: The word most often associated with kindness in the dictionaries I looked at was “benevolence.” Another closely related word which describes God is compassionate.

2 Kings 13:23 But the LORD was gracious to them and had compassion and showed concern for them because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To this day he has been unwilling to destroy them or banish them from his presence.

VIJI: Some people think that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament. They believe that God, especially as revealed by Jesus, has a softer side in the New Testament and that the God of the Old Testament was harsh. Yet we just heard that He was gracious and compassionate and unwilling to destroy or banish them. He has always been quick to forgive.

Colossians 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

RON: This is a particularly practical aspect of God’s personality. His forgiveness allows us to have a relationship with Him, even though, all to often, we make mistakes, fail, sin, rebel, withdraw and so on. We have a problem developing here, God is bigger than the time we have today. Let’s make a list to cover a few more things. And, please note, there is no particular order to these. Let’s read a verse that describes God as merciful.

Deuteronomy 4:31 For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath.

VIJI: God is just, or righteous.

Deuteronomy 32:4 He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.

RON: God is holy. That is, He is distinct from His creation.

Psalm 99:9 Exalt the LORD our God, And worship at His holy hill; For the LORD our God is holy.

RON: God is changeless.

Malachi 3:6  I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.

VIJI: All of these, and the other characteristics of God we didn’t have time to mention, should be explored in much more depth. It’s a good thing to spend some time learning about God, but an even better thing, to get to know Him personally. In this program we’ve been emphasizing that God is a person — someone with whom we can relate. So we want to ask you: Do you have a relationship with Him?

RON: God has gone to extraordinary lengths to make this possible. Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world with the express purpose of receiving the death sentence our sin deserved on our behalf. When He died that painful, bloody death on the cross, the demands of justice were satisfied. There is now nothing between God and us except our receiving the gift of life that God offers us. We’d like to encourage you to do that now.