How incredible it will be when we meet God face to face and understand who He is! In the meantime, to a large degree, it is a mystery. He has revealed enough of His nature to man, to know that we will never understand all of Him. The more a believer learns about Him, the more he realizes how little he knows. God has been personally active in the world since its creation and yet He is also set apart from it, superior in nature. Thus, we have the mystery of God’s immanence and transcendence.
God’s Immanence and Transcendence
God’s immanence and transcendence relate to His relationship with the created world. They do not refer to His specific actions, but to His relationship with the world. According to the World Book Dictionary, the definition of immanence is, the pervading presence of God in His creation, and the definition of the transcendence of God is to be above and independent of the physical universe. The two attributes are opposite but complimentary, and need to be kept in the proper balance to understand God. He is both superior to, and absent from, His creation and yet very present and active within the universe.
The immanence of God is seen in His presence and activity within nature, with humans, and in history. There are numerous references to God’s immanence in Scripture. His activity within nature is seen in Psalm 65:9-13:
You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. The grasslands of the desert overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing. (NIV)
God’s presence with man is noted in Job 33:4: The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life (NIV). And His activity in history is recorded in Isaiah 63:11: Then his people recalled the days of old, the days of Moses and his people– where is he who brought them through the sea, with the shepherd of his flock? Where is he who set his Holy Spirit among them, (NIV). These are but a few of the examples of God’s immanence in the world.
Two of the attributes that exemplify God’s immanence are His omnipotence and omnipresence. He has an all-pervading presence and power within the world.
There are also some important implications of God’s immanence. He can, for instance, work indirectly to accomplish His purposes. The practice of medicine exemplifies this in instances in which a doctor or a medication is God’s channel for His activity of healing. God is also free to use individuals who are outside of His chosen people. In the Old Testament, He chose a pagan king, Cyrus, to free the Israelites from bondage. Another implication of God’s immanence is that we should appreciate all of creation since God created it. We can also learn something about God from His creation. Lastly, and most importantly, unbelievers can make a point of contact with God through His creation, primarily, the believers who have His indwelling Spirit.
The other important implication of His immanence, especially seen in His omnipotence and omnipresence, is that God is infinite. He is not limited to a certain spot within nature, He is beyond nature. There is nowhere that He cannot be found. He is infinite in relation to time, for He is timeless. God does not develop or grow. His understanding and wisdom are immeasurable. His power is unlimited and He is completely free of external influences. God is unlimited and unlimit-able, unlike anything we experience. Thus, we see God’s transcendence even within His immanence.
In the following passages, both God’s immanence and transcendence are found:
For this is what the high and lofty One says– he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15, NIV)
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. `For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, `We are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:24, 28, NIV)
God is not only personal, and dwells within man, He is also exalted above all creation. He is active and present in our world, and yet superior, absent and removed from it.
Although some define God as a supreme being, unlimited in scope, He is not a being as humans are. We are finite beings, God is not. He says in Isaiah 55:8-9,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (NIV)
But, He is self-consciousness and has a will. He not only is capable of feeling and choosing but of having a reciprocal relationship with other persons. He has names, which demonstrates that he is not an abstract, unknowable being, or a nameless force.
It is impossible to define God. He is in all things, but not equated with all that is. He can never be fully grasped with our finite minds and experiences. Isaiah speaks of this when he writes, Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to? (Isaiah 40:13, 18 NIV). God is a spirit; He is not composed of matter and does not possess a physical nature. Therefore, He is considered transcendent to man.
God is, nonetheless, alive. He is characterized by life and is the vital force, the very basis of life. John writes, For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. (John 5:26, NIV). He does not derive his life from any external source. He can continue to exist independently of everything else, and, as a matter of fact, there was never a time when He did not exist. He is eternal, even named the Eternal God in Genesis 21:33. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End of all time. In His eternal nature there has never been any quantitative or qualitative change in Him. God said in Malachi 3:6, I the LORD do not change (NIV).
He is infinite in relationship to time and He is infinite in terms of space. He is omnipresent, there is nowhere where He is not found. That concept is impossible for man, who is localized to particular places at particular times, to understand. The psalmist reflects on this trait in Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:7-12, NIV)
God is unlimited in time and power. He is able to do all things. God reveals this aspect about Himself in His question to Abraham, Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son” (Gen 18:14, NIV). The comparison between man’s and God’s plans is clearly seen: Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails (Prov 19:21, NIV). Jesus teaches about God’s Almighty power by comparing God’s power to man’s power in Matthew 19:26, Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (NIV) and in Luke 1:37 it is emphatically stated, For nothing is impossible with God (NIV).
Because there is no limit to God’s power, His plans always come to pass. The Bible says, Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him (Psalm 115:3, NIV).
His power is directly related to His sovereignty. God’s will is never frustrated! What He chooses, He accomplishes. The Psalmist refers to this in Psalm 33:11, But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations (NIV). Although God can accomplish anything that He desires, He cannot and will not act against His nature. He is morally pure and will not do anything that corrupts His holiness.
God is untouched and unstained by the evil in the world. He is absolutely pure and good. Job says of God, So listen to me, you men of understanding. Far be it from God to do evil, from the Almighty to do wrong (Job 34:10, NIV). Holiness also means separation in regard to persons or things. God in His holiness is removed from the world:
God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne. (Ps 47:8, NIV)
Great is the LORD, and most worthy of praise, in the city of our God, his holy mountain. (Ps 48:1, NIV)
For this is what the high and lofty One says– he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, (Isaiah 57:15, NIV)
His holiness can be conveyed to people, places, and things that are associated with Him. The Holy Place in the Temple was holy because of God’s presence. Moses stood in God’s holiness in Exodus 3 during his burning bush experience.
When God’s holiness of applied to his relationships with others, He is righteous. The law of God is righteous because His actions are in accord with the law which he himself has established. The Bible shows the relationship between God’s perfection, and His justice:
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. (Deuteronomy 32:4, NIV)
For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice; upright men will see his face. (Ps 11:7, NIV)
God’s justice is his official righteousness. Psalm 50:4 says, He summons the heavens above, and the earth, that he may judge his people (NIV). According to His nature, He is fair in the administration of his law. He does not show favoritism or partiality, Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34, NIV). God judges each person according to what he has done (Romans 2:6). Anyone who has done wrong will be repaid for his wrong (Colossians 3:25), but for those who confess their sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive them of their sins and purify them from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). For it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another (Ps 75:7, NIV).
A believer can be sure that God will be righteous in His judgment because of His integrity. He is the genuine God because He represents things as they really are. He proves true because of His faithfulness. God keeps all his promises. His faithfulness is a function of his unlimited power and capability. He was faithful in the Old Testament to His promises, Not one of all the LORD’s good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled (Joshua 21:45, NIV) and continued to be faithful in the New Testament because, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself (2 Timothy 2:13, NIV). Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:24, The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it. God can do anything and will stay faithful because of the unlimited power that He has.
The last two transcendent characteristics are God love and grace. In the OT, God is love is focused on His chosen people of Israel. His love is seen as He initiates a relationship with humans. It is shown in His willingness to allow man to have the freedom of choice. The full scope and meaning of God’s love is revealed in the New Testament. His love reaches out to all people, not only to the Israelites. His unselfish love was shown when He sent His one and only Son to die on the cross to redeem the lost. John writes, This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him (I Jn 4:9, NIV). It was His agape love that compelled His act of self-sacrifice.
God’s love for man initiates His grace towards man. He does not deal with people on the basis of their own merit or worthiness or what they deserve, but deals with them according to their deepest need. His grace is exemplified in Romans 5:6, 8:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (NIV)
God deals with people on the basis of His goodness and generosity. He supplies us with His undeserved favors, requiring nothing from us in return. And, He is persistent, yet patient, in His love. His desire is for everyone to come to know Him and to experience His love (2 Peter 3:9).
There are some implications for man in understanding God’s transcendence. The most obvious one is that He is a superior being that will never be totally understood. Without a doubt, there will always be a difference between God and man. Because of His superiority, man needs to remember that any revelation of God comes from Him. He is the one who condescends to meet man in a way that man understands. Even our salvation is not our achievement, but God’s initiative. Any shortcomings in our understanding of God’s nature are because of our finite minds and understanding.
Knowing God Through His Attributes
Coming in contact with the transcendent God should produce the same reaction as Isaiah had when He entered God’s throne room and saw God’s majesty, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5, NIV.) A glimpse of God’s glory produces a reverent fear, a silence, an awe of His presence, and an attitude of worship.
The manner in which we come to a transcendent God is through prayer and worship. God is personal and does reveal Himself to people, but to communicate with a transcendent God, the supernatural is needed. Often it cannot be explained as to how our prayers make a difference, but it is evident that somehow prayer makes a difference. The deeper a person’s prayer life, the more intimate the relationship with God.
His holiness is our standard for our moral character and our motivation for obedience to God. His commands are right, for He is right and therefore obedience to God’s Word will have a positive effect upon the believer. And, He expects us to pursue holiness. Our conduct was of concern in the Old Testament, Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2, NIV) and it was equally important in the New Testament, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48, NIV). This should motivate the believer to be obedient to God’s will.
For a finite being to know a transcendent God is impossible. But, God in His perfect balance has made Himself active and present in our lives so that we can develop a relationship with Him. Though we never completely know and understand Him, we can spend a lifetime growing closer to Him