God is not distant but He is distinct.

Whenever I pray with others I usually thank God that He is not distant and far off but with us. I do this as a reminder to myself and others that when we pray we are not crying out to a God who simply created the world, got the ball rolling, and then stepped back to leave us to our own devices. God is not far away. He is not apathetic towards the human project. It’s bad theology to think of God as distant from creation.

However, I’m coming to realize that this isn’t a danger for most Christians. We don’t generally think that God is far off. Rather, we have the opposite problem, we think that God is too close.

Now, let me clarify.

God is close. But, God can only be close because He is totally and utterly distinct from us. We often talk of God as if He is simply part of the created order. Or, perhaps, that He is the height of human capacity and ingenuity. When we talk about God as one who is within us and one whom we can experience tucked away by ourselves we are in danger of confusing Creator with creation, I think.

Let me say it again. God is totally and utterly distinct from us. In the words of Karl Barth, God is “wholly Other”. If we could somehow add up everything that is (the entire universe), the God who reveals Himself to us in Jesus could not be found in the sum. This is the meaning of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). God as Creator is distinct from creation. God is not a creature. So, God is not close in this sense.

How then can we maintain that God is “totally and utterly distinct” and yet “not distant and far off”?

The answer is the gospel, the identification of God with the man Jesus who hung on a Roman cross. Because God identifies himself with Jesus, because the one killed on the cross truly is the Son of God (as the Centurion confessed) for us this means that God has come near to His creatures.

And this is good news. But it also means that we do not set the terms for how we experience or come to know God. God is nearer to you than you are to yourself, but not in the sense that He is some sort of mystical inward experience. God is nearer to you than you are to yourself in that when the Son of God experienced death on the cross he did so for you and I, and that this God transformed death and thus humanity in that Jesus lives.

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5 comments
  1. Beth said:

    JT.- totally agree with you on the idea that God is more than the sum of all good things and incredibly distinct from us as humans. How do you balance this with the concept of being indwelt with the Spirit of God? What is the difference between trying to find God “tucked within us” and turning to/hearing from the Spirit of God that we have been sealed with and in whom we have total access to God?

  2. jt* said:

    Good questions!

    I might address them by elaborating on this statement which I made in passing above: “But, God can only be close because He is totally and utterly distinct from us.”

    God *can only* be close *because* He is totally and utterly distinct. This is what we must mean when we talk about God’s freedom. If God were simply part of creation then he would necessarily be included in all that there is. God would be *necessary*. In this sense, God would not be free to come to his creatures because there would be no distinction between Creator and creature. But God is not necessary. To borrow a phrase from the Lutheran theologian Eberhard Jüngel, God is more than necessary. Talk of necessity is not fitting for God. This means, that because God is totally distinct from creation that he is totally and utterly free to come to his creatures. In fact, God’s being is in his coming. In other words, God reveals himself to be the one who comes/is coming.

    Primarily, this coming culminates in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But we can only believe that God identifies himself with this man and that, in fact, in this man God is with us and for us by faith. And faith is not something we mull up after weighing the evidence but rather a gift given to us which is enabled by God’s self-revelation (i.e. we can only believe by faith because God first reveals himself).

    In short, this points us to the Holy Spirit who is the down-payment, given to us from the Father and the Son who enables us to participate in life with the triune God. But the Holy Spirit is not given to you and I as individuals who exist apart from God and our neighbour. The Holy Spirit is given to us as individuals who can *only be* individual in relation with God and our neighbour. Thus, the Spirit is the gift to the Church, the gift which enables the Church to be at all.

    So, while the Spirit is indeed given and we can experience this personally we find ourselves most in communion with the Spirit (and thus, with the triune God) when we find ourselves in communion with others. We hear the Spirit most clearly when we discern what the Spirit is saying in *our* midst, to us, for us.

    Perhaps to answer your question more directly (“What is the difference between trying to find God “tucked within us” and turning to/hearing from the Spirit of God that we have been sealed with and in whom we have total access to God?”), the difference is that when we seek to hear the voice of the Spirit we do not turn inward, but rather, we turn outward, turning out of ourselves towards the God who confronts us in Christ Jesus and to our neighbour.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that our faith is not personal. It is, very much so. I’m just saying that it’s not private and (autonomously) individual, hence, it is *our* faith, one which we share with our neighbour and with those saints whom have passed on ahead of us.

    Sorry, that was a bit of a long response. I did tell you I was going to have to elaborate though!

    • Beth said:

      Thanks for expanding on this, JT. I think I agree, although I would add that I think the danger of mistaking other humans’ voices for God’s voice is as possible/likely as turning our inner voice into a god; that is, we can be deceived both internally and externally, and we know God most fully when our lives and hearts have both solitude (time directed to God apart from external input) and community engagement. 

      (I have a bunch more thoughts; half are related to the convo I’m pretty sure birthed this post, and half are related to the talk I’m prepping on ‘The Gospel & Change.’ But I won’t keep rambling tonight.)

      • jt* said:

        Agreed. Although, I’m not suggesting we listen to other peoples voices, per se, but rather, that we are to discern what the Spirit is saying through others. So, ultimately, whether we are alone in our rooms or together with others our concern is to discern the voice of the Spirit. That said, I think we need a community of the Spirit to learn how to discern the voice of the Spirit.

        Further, I agree that we need solitude and community and I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive. My concerns were that: (a) we don’t think of ourselves as isolated/autonomous individuals who *as* individuals engage in relation, but rather, that our individuality/uniqueness is constituted *in relation* so that even when we are alone we are relational, and (b) that in our subjective experience of God we don’t forget that we are being confronted by an objective being who is wholly Other than we are. We encounter God subjectively and personally as the One who comes to us from elsewhere. That’s what I think we need to protect against.

        I want to hear your other thoughts some time…ramble away later then!

  3. jt* said:

    I’m doing some reading for a class right now and I just came across a point that the author makes which addresses one of the concerns which I was trying to express, namely, that our interest in subjective experience is in danger of narcissism. Quoting the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann:

    “The modern concept of experience, which has discovered and stressed its subjective components, threatens to transform experience into experience of the self. But the justifiable perception of the determinations of the individual self in any objective experience must not lead to obsessedly preoccupied interest in mere experience of the self; that would be narcissism. The only experiences perceived would then be those which confirmed the self and justified its condition; and interest in experience of the self is then in fact fear of experiencing the other. This means that the capacity for wonder and the readiness for pain are lost. The modern culture of subjectivity has long since been in danger of turning into a ‘culture of narcissism’, which makes the self its own prisoner and supplies it merely with self-repetitions and self-confirmations.” Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, p.5.

    The modern concept of experience, which has discovered and stressed its subjective components, threatens to transform experience into experience of the self…The only experiences perceived would then be those which confirmed the self and justified its condition…which makes the self its own prisoner and supplies it merely with self-repetitions and self-confirmations.

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