Can God Be Too Far Away? Can He Be Too Near?
We never want to make the mistake of trying to pick and choose from God’s attributes to fit our own limited view of Him. God’s love might endear Him to us more than His holiness or His wrath. But we must never minimize or downplay any of His attributes for our own purposes, including our comfort.
Are we completely astonished by the grace and mercy of God? Do we truly think of it as “amazing” grace? Or do we feel somewhat entitled to it? Do we expect God to show mercy, because after all, He is loving and kind and compassionate, so we take His grace for granted?
Scripture portrays some interesting reactions to God’s decisive judgement upon sinful people, like Heaven’s inhabitants “rejoicing in the judgment of God” (Revelation 18:20). I think we presently lack a lot of the capabilities to understand these things, and part of the reason is the de-emphasis of certain attributes of God. (Knowing God by J. I. Packer, which God used to change my life, does a wonderful job of looking at the full range of God’s attributes.) If you only choose to focus on God’s love, grace, mercy, compassion, and patience, then all of a sudden, none of this talk about rejoicing in judgment makes sense. But we’re not given that option. God’s character is not a menu where you choose the attributes you like and forget the other ones. To worship the true God of Scripture, we must see Him as all that He is, not just part of who He is.
Similarly, we don’t want to make the mistake of choosing God’s immanence over His transcendence. Both are a part of His revealed nature:
Colossians 1:17 teaches us that God holds all things together. He is present in His creation. “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) The interest and participation of God in His world is called His immanence. (This is not to be confused with His imminence, which has to do with the timing of His return.)
But He is also transcendent—that is, He exists above and completely independent from all created things, outside of space and time, in holiness and righteousness and perfection. No one knows His mind or gives Him counsel (Romans 11:34). His ways and thoughts are higher than ours, just like the vast distance between Heaven and earth (Isaiah 55:9).
In this powerful sermon by seminary professor Dr. Bruce Ware, he reminds us to hold these two aspects of God’s nature—His transcendence and His immanence—with the tension and balance they deserve. Using Isaiah’s vision of God in Isaiah 6, Bruce paints an amazing picture of God in His majestic glory and moral purity that builds and builds. It rises to a crescendo and inevitably leads to Isaiah’s comprehension of his own ruined life and the destructive sin that bars him from God.
As Bruce points out, “God is not obligated to show His mercy to destitute, fallen, condemned sinners.” We must first see the transcendent greatness and grandeur of God in order to have a true picture of our own sin, and thus to know the fullness of His love and His truly amazing grace.
The writer of Psalm 113 understands well this tension. He lays the foundation (verses 4-5) as Isaiah did with transcendence: “The Lord is high above all nations; his glory is above the Heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, who is enthroned on high…” Then he follows immediately (verse 6) with immanence: “…Who humbles himself to behold the things that are in Heaven and in the Earth?”
Let’s not bypass God’s glory in our rush to embrace His goodness. And let’s never forget how very far His majesty had to stoop to reach this broken world…and all of us, His children.