What is God like?
Today’s celebration of the Most Holy Trinity reminds us of the fact that God loved the world he created so much that he was determined to remain in relationship with it. “God so loved the world,” the Gospel tells us, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” That very familiar quote from John 3:16 has often been described as the entire Gospel all in one verse, because it tells us the reason for Our Savior’s coming, and the purpose for our existence, which is eternal life.
God wishes to remain in relationship with us, his creatures, because God himself is a relationship. We will never really understand the Trinity in this lifetime, we know that, but we also know that in the Blessed Trinity, our Church has described God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We recall this deepest of our beliefs every time we make the sign of the Cross, every time we receive a blessing, indeed every time the priest greets us at Mass with those familiar words: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.” God is a relationship: the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son with the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit with the Father and the Son. Three persons, one God, all in relationship.
But make no mistake, I don’t come before you today to define the Holy Trinity for you as if I’ve figured it all out. This deepest of our beliefs remains perhaps the deepest of all our mysteries. A story about St. Augustine tells us as much: The story goes that he was walking along the beach, trying to figure out the nature of the Holy Trinity. As he walked along, he came across a little boy who had dug a hole in the sand right next to the shore. With his little hands he was carrying water from the ocean and was dumping it in the little hole. St. Augustine asked, "What are you doing, my child?" The child replied, "I want to put all of the water of the ocean into this hole." So St. Augustine asked him, "But is it possible for all of the water of this great ocean to be contained in this little hole?" And the child asked him in return, "If the water of the ocean cannot be contained in this little hole, then how can the Infinite Trinitarian God be contained in your mind?" With that the child disappeared.
But just because the Trinity is a mystery, that doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about it. In many ways, the mystery of the Trinity is a great blessing. If we could really figure God out and define God in a neat set of explanations, it would be way to easy for us to simply file God away and never give a second thought. Because we have to struggle with the mystery of the Trinity, this means we must constantly call God to mind and try to wrap our minds around God in new ways. I had the great pleasure of preaching about the Trinity to our school children on Friday. The fourth grade was preparing the Mass, and I asked them to write down questions that they had about God. I was so deeply touched by the questions they wrote to me, and it was one of the greatest thrills of my priesthood to be able to speak to them about those questions.
The questions they had were wonderful: Why can’t we see God? Why did God create the world? If God created life, then how did God become God? Why does God love us? Was God there when Jesus was dying? Why does God forgive us after we’ve done something wrong? How do we know the Holy Spirit is with us? But there was one question that seemed to get to the bottom of it all for me: What is God like? And I realized that Adam’s question was where the rubber meets the road in our faith, and that question was the whole reason for celebrating this feast of the Holy Trinity: we have to every day examine what God is like so that we can remain in relationship with our God who is a relationship and who longs to remain in relationship with us.
Again, I’m not going to stand here and tell you the definitive answer to Adam’s question. And that’s because there really isn’t one definitive answer to what God is like. We could pass out cards right now and everyone could write down one thing that God is like. And every one of us would be right in some ways, and every one of us would be wrong in some ways. We could say that God is love, and we’d be right, but we’re wrong if we think of love in the limited way that we humans can conceive of love. We could say that God is good, and we’d be right about that, but we’d be wrong if we think of God’s goodness in the way that a candy bar is good or a new car is good or even a new baby is good. Our limited vocabulary can’t even come close to describing God. As the song goes, our God is an awesome God, more so than any lyrics or other words could ever describe.
So I want to go back to this idea of God as a relationship. I do that because it’s one of a million ways I could talk about the Trinity today. But I do it also because I think that God as a relationship is such a very appealing way to think about God. We all know how much our good relationships mean to us, and so it is very desirable to think of our relationship with God, and of the relationship that is God.
Because sometimes we need a parent. And so relating to God as Father reminds us of the nurturing of our faith, being protected from evil, being encouraged to grow, and being corrected when we stray. If you’ve had difficulty with a parent in your life, particularly a father, then relating to God as Father can also be difficult. But still, I think there is part of all of us, no matter what our earthly parents have been like, long to have a loving parental relationship. God as Father can be that kind of parent in our lives.
And sometimes we need the Son. Relating to God the Son – Jesus our brother – reminds us that God knows our needs, he knows our temptations, he’s experienced our sorrows and celebrated our joys. God in Christ has walked our walk and died our death and redeemed all of our failures out of love for us. God the Son reminds us that God, having created us in his own image and likeness, loves what he created enough to become one of us. Our bodies are not profane place-holders for our soul, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that very body was good enough to become the dwelling place of God when he came to earth. Maybe you’ve never had a brother or sister or never were close to yours, but in Christ you have the brother above all others who is present to you in all your joys and sorrows.
Sometimes, too, we need a Holy Spirit. Because we often have to be reminded that there is something beyond ourselves. That this is not as good as it gets. As wonderful as our world and our bodies can be, we know they are also very flawed. The Holy Spirit reminds us that there is a part of us that always longs for God, no matter how far we have strayed. The Spirit reminds us that our sins are not who we are and that repentance and forgiveness are possible. It is the Holy Spirit that ena
bles us to do the really good things we wouldn’t be capable of all by ourselves, the really good things that are who we really are before God.
Maybe God comes to us as Trinity because one face of God is not sufficient to be God for us creatures who are constantly changing, and constantly struggling. One day we need the Father, tomorrow we may need the Son and down the road the Holy Spirit. Whatever we need, the point is that God is there. Always was, always will be.
So back to Adam’s question: What is God like? Well, that’s a reflection I think I’ll leave you all with today. What is God like? I hope you struggle with that question your whole life long. I hope I do too.