The trinity and the nearness of God

If there is one comment I’ve heard more than any other in talking to people about their faith, it’s something … Continued

If there is one comment I’ve heard more than any other in talking to people about their faith, it’s something like this: “You see, I believe in God, but I’m not sure how to connect with God. God seems so far away.” I’ve heard the same thing in church groups, from bright young college students, a tough-minded social worker, a venture capitalist, a custodian, and a mother.

In fact, I’ve come to think that this lack of connection is the unspoken thought carried in the heart of a great many who come sit in the pews, as well as those who never darken our doors. God is the great Mystery and Purpose beyond us, the thinking goes, and Jesus came to teach us how to live God’s way. That means that our job is to do the best we can to follow Christ and hope we get a glimpse of God sometime.

In the life of the church, today is called Trinity Sunday, the only major feast devoted explicitly to a doctrine of the church. It’s not a simple one. Rectors have been known to hand the sermon for this day off to a young associate and sit and watch him or her drown in theological concepts. Even St. Augustine, who wrote a whole book on the Trinity, once said, “If you don’t believe in the Trinity, you will lose your soul. But if you try to understand it, you will lose your mind.” The whole notion of the Trinity sounds pretty abstract: God is three “persons” in one divine life, and we call this God “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” or “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.”

But why all the complexity of three in one, you might ask? How can it be that 1+1+1=1? It is hard enough to believe in one God, you might say, now you’re telling us we have to believe in three? And there have been important movements, especially in the past two centuries, attempting to throw all this complexity overboard. Those great American writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, found it all unnecessary, as do our Unitarian friends to this day. Thomas Jefferson thought the doctrine of the Trinity was primitive:

Jefferson was a Deist, and in fact I’ve always sensed that many Christians and Episcopalians are closet Deists, who might say God is something like a moral law, or a watchmaker, or a warm feeling, a power who creates the world and sets it going. A distant God. And Jesus was a great teacher.

But the Trinity is about the closeness, the involvement of God. It’s about our being able to look behind the curtain and see what is actually going on in God’s life. And, of course, what we discover is filled with paradox and mystery that overwhelm the limits of words. But this morning let us attempt to pull back the veil just a little and peer into God’s life.

Our first step is to understand why all this talk of God as three in one arose. Christianity began, of course, as a movement within Judaism, a faith that had come to the radical insight that in back of all reality is a single, coherent mystery; that we live in a cosmos not of many competing gods but of one holy God. Every Jewish service contains the Shema, the central statement at the heart of their faith, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one.”

But Christians had discovered in their experience that this holy mystery had also come to them in a person. God had entered history in Jesus of Nazareth, and then, after the resurrection, he continued to be with his followers in the form of a tremendous energy and power they called the Holy Spirit.

Belief in the Trinity grew out of the struggle of those early Christians to make sense of the experience that they had met the one God behind the universe in three different ways. They needed a new language.

Think of a child discovering different dimensions of a parent’s love. In the early years of a daughter’s relationship with her mother, the daughter experiences her as an immense and powerful figure who rules and orders her world. From the mother the child learns what she must or must not do. It is a relationship of superior to inferior. But then when the child gets older the mother invites the daughter to go with her on a trip, just the two of them alone, and along the way the daughter begins to see a different person, someone who is a contemporary, a companion. She and her mother laugh together and talk openly about their lives. The relationship has become different, more of equals. And then, much later, when the mother dies the daughter one day hears someone say to her, “You sound just like your mother.” And the daughter realizes that she now carries inside her much of her mother’s own spirit.

One love has been experienced in three ways, as parent, as friend, and as inner spirit. The Trinity is believing in one God who comes to us in three ways.

That is where our notion of the Trinity begins. But now let us go a step deeper. The doctrine of the Trinity says that the God Christians know is the one we see in Christ. That means God isn’t an inscrutable, all-controlling deity. God isn’t sitting out there somewhere running everything, or simply watching everything, or having some single plan for our lives that we keep trying to guess.

No, Christians believe in a Christ-like God. Yes, God is all-powerful, but Christ has redefined the meaning of power. Power is not the emperor’s power to control, but rather the power we see revealed in Christ and on the cross—the power of love, of forgiveness, of invitation, of opening up possibilities. We see Christ-like power in a love that refuses to control but goes with us even through the worst that life can bring.

No one saw that any clearer than a remarkable English chaplain in the First World War, G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, who prepared for going out to the front lines by visiting casualties in hospitals. In a base hospital in France, he met a bright young British officer suffering from severe wounds. He heard the anger and despair that had come from seeing the carnage of trench warfare. God seemed to be either inaccessibly remote or completely uncaring. The officer pressed the chaplain by asking, “What I want to know, Padre, is what is God like?”

Studdert-Kennedy didn’t know what to say, but as he groped for an answer his eyes fell on a crucifix nailed to the wall beside the officer’s bed. Pointing toward it Studdert-Kennedy said, “God is like that.” For awhile there was only silence. Then the broken man said: “What do you mean?…God can’t be like that. God is Almighty. That is a battered, wounded, bleeding figure…I admire Jesus of Nazareth. But I asked you not what Jesus was like, but what God was like.”

That officer knew only a God above and beyond everything. But Studdert-Kennedy’s response was, “No, that is God on the cross.” God is Christ-like, God suffers with us, God’s compassion is poured out for us, God enters into our suffering, our trenches, and there we find our hope and our strength. That is the God of the Trinity.

But now let us go one final step further into the mystery of God. At the heart of the universe, in God’s inner life, is a dynamic flow of love. God’s life has eternally been one of giving and receiving love, pouring out life, and also of receiving life and love. From long before the big bang launched the universe into being, God’s own life has been one of constantly flowing love.

One implication of that is that we will discover the fullness of our life as we allow ourselves to be caught up in God’s life of giving and receiving. The gesture of care you offer a friend, the effort parents expend raising their children well, the time a teenager takes to build a house in Haiti, the check you write in support of a cause, the struggle you go through to forgive, the little acts of help you offer at home or at work—all of these are not simply good moral actions but are ways of participating in the life of God. When we do those things we are actually allowing ourselves to be part of the ongoing eternal flow of God’s love.

One of the most helpful ways I’ve found of imagining what this means comes from C.S. Lewis’s description of what is actually happening when you or I pray. Imagine that you are in your own home and you have decided to take a few moments to pray. You are seated in a chair, or kneeling, or even lying in bed, and you begin with thoughts and words to try to get in touch with God. God is the one to whom you reach to pour out your concerns. And God is also the one whom you have caught glimpses of in Christ. Still, God can seem far away.

But—and here’s the real surprise—your simple desire to pray, your yearning to be connected to the heart of life itself is the presence of God in you. “When we cry, ‘Abba, Father,’” St. Paul wrote, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” The simple, naked desire for life, the holy longing for a mysterious more, seemingly ineffectual calling out to God into the darkness, is itself the movement of God in us. It is God moving in us who draws us toward God. “The Spirit prays within us with sighs too deep for words,” St. Paul says.

Do you see the closeness of God? The whole threefold life of God is actually going on in the little room where you are praying. Right there you are being pulled into God by God. God is more in you than you are yourself, whether you ever believe in God or not. God places that yearning in us, and through it keeps seeking to draw us closer.

So maybe it’s not so surprising that it often seems as if no one is listening when we pray. Because the one we are praying to is already within us, and prayer becomes less a matter of our trying to carry on a dialogue with someone out there beyond us than it is our allowing ourselves to be drawn into in the life of God.

Do you see how near God is? At the end of the great poem the Divine Comedy, Dante, having traveled through Hell and Purgatory, comes to Paradise and looks directly into the light of God. He catches a glimpse of the three circles of the Trinity, but can see little because of the dazzling brightness. The poem ends as he describes how his vision failed him so that he couldn’t take it in, but instead his desire and will were caught up in what he called “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.”

To believe in, or to know the Trinity is finally not to see it, or understand it. It is to have our desire and will caught up in this endless flow of God’s love, which is the “love that moves the sun and other stars.”

Reverend Dr. Samuel T. Lloyd III is the dean of the Washington National Cathedral.

  • WmarkW

    My attorney, my golf partner, and my nephew’s friend’s dad, all exist in one person.

    After I reconcile why God is the greatest thing in the universe, yet the universe acts exactly as it would if there were no such thing, I’ll start worrying about threeness. Until then, I’ll wonder why so many people think there’s an elephant in the room.

  • ThomasBaum

    Not only did God create (make) the universe, God is not only in the universe but also outside of the universe.

    You need not “worry” that God Is a Trinity, the simple fact is that God Is a Trinity.

    People can come up with all of their “theories” to explain the Trinitarian Nature of God but I, for one, who has met the Trinity see no sense at all in trying to explain something that is beyond our comprehension, including mine, to understand.

    Not only do I know that God Is a Trinity, I also know that I can’t explain it, as I already mentioned.

    This also goes for the fact that God is a Being of Pure Love, I can not explain it, I just know it and it is in knowing this fact that I look at things differently than some others.