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How Close is God?

God is both infinitely far and infinitely near; He is distant and close, outside us and inside us. Or as C.S. Lewis put it, “God is both further from us, and nearer to us, than any other being.”

The theological terms are transcendence and immanence. Transcendence means that God is completely outside of us; He is supreme, sovereign, all-powerful, omniscient and self-sustaining. Immanence means that God is infinitely close to us; He knows our heart and mind, He is compassionate, merciful, gracious and sustaining.

On the surface, these concepts appear paradoxical. For if God is fully transcendent, then He cannot be known; but if God is fully immanent, He forfeits transcendence. Nevertheless, Scripture often balances these two ideas. For instance:

‘Am I a God near at hand,’says the Lord, ‘And not a God afar off?’
(Jeremiah 23:23)

For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15)

Notice here that God “inhabits eternity” (transcendence) and “dwells” with the humble (immanence); He is both “near at hand” and “afar off.” The Prophet Isaiah said, as the heavens are higher than the earth, so God’s thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8). Nevertheless, we can seek Him and find Him, when we search with all our hearts (Jer. 29:11).

There is a temptation to emphasize one of God’s attributes over the other. For instance, some religious groups tend to emphasize His transcendence, while others emphasize His immanence. However, learning to balance the two concepts is important.

One place these differences can be seen is in the style of worship of various groups. Contemporary Christian churches often focus upon God’s love for man, His accessibility, His nearness, His understanding, and practical applications of Scripture — immanence. Whereas more conservative or traditional Christian churches often deal with God’s power, majesty, absolute holiness, and eternal principles of Scripture — transcendence.

But an improper understanding of either concept leads to imbalance.

Extreme immanence is pantheism, the belief that God is everywhere.

Extreme transcendence is deism, the belief that God is impersonal.

A degree of this tension exists in Judaism and Islam. For Judaism, God enters history and changes destinies. God is relatively personal, immanent. In Islam, God is utterly transcendent. He does not enter into human history, per se, but remains uncontaminated from human affairs, due to his greatness and glory.

The New Testament, however, does not leave us twisting in the theological wind. Clearly, Jesus Christ is the intersection between transcendence and immanence. Take Colossians 2:9-10, “For in Him [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and you are complete in Him…” Notice, God’s fullness (transcendence) dwells in Christ, nevertheless I find myself “complete” in Him (immanence). Even the name “Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14), one of the earliest names referenced to Christ, means “God with us.” This could be the perfect statement regarding the synthesis of transcendence (God) and immanence (with us). So the greatest declaration of God’s transcendence and immanence is the Incarnation; the Most High, became the Most Nigh.

Pascal put it this way:

The Stoics say: ‘Withdraw into yourself, that is where you will find peace.’ And that is not true. Others say: ‘Go outside: look for happiness in some diversion.’ And that is not true… Happiness is neither outside nor inside us: it is in God, both outside us and inside us.

In His own divine essence, God is incomprehensible and inaccessible, indescribable and ultimately unknowable. Yet, He calls us to Himself, beckons us to “reason” (Is. 1:18) with Him and, ultimately, to have fellowship with Him. He is the Most High, but in Christ, He became the Most Nigh.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • thesauros February 19, 2010, 6:41 PM

    Good post. Thank you. To just add one more aspect, this on the immanent side, God is personal, personal to the point that the only prayer that God listens to is mine. The only prayer that God listens to is yours. The only prayer that God listens to is each individual's prayer on an individual basis. The Creator of everything that is seen and unseen personally died for each person who has ever existed on an individual basis.

  • Jay February 20, 2010, 1:34 AM

    I've had a thought somewhat related to this that I haven't really explored as much as I wanted to. You take eternity on one hand, where God dwells, which has no beginning and end, and you take creation, which has a beginning and an ending – what is the relationship between eternity and creation, from eternity's point of view? There has to be a kind of "sketch" of time in eternity because the church has not left its corporeal self to be with God in eternity. More microscopically, Christians aren't either.

    At what point does God's transcendence meet our finiteness, for eternity? It's when we die, obviously, but while we're still residents of earth, is there a "while" in heaven's eternity until we get there? Is it a complete "physical" separation or do we exist in two universes to a certain degree, and at the point of death we make the final sudden leap to the other?

    Yeessh.

  • Rebecca LuElla February 19, 2010, 8:24 PM

    Excellent article, Mike. There are so many things about God that we must hold in tension (God is three person-God is one; Jesus is man-Jesus is God; God is sovereign-Man is responsible; men wrote the Bible-God wrote the Bible, and so on). The more of these I discover, the more I come to understand the balance we need. Maybe this is the place of faith, the narrow road upon which we must walk.

    Becky

  • Nicole February 20, 2010, 3:23 PM

    Jay, your comment reminds me of "God's order". Near as I can tell from my experience here on planet earth, God's order is not man's structure or his scheduling. I would apply His order to the eternity factor with a deeper sense of time as we've come to know it. Since He's eternal, He maintains His own order to whatever He does. In our world we translate some of that order to "time" and others of it to timelessness because it doesn't function according to our 24/7/365. . . . Just more abstraction from my thoughts. 😉

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