The 3 Faces of God

face of God Sweeney V3

How do you speak of that which cannot be said?

How do you conceptualize that which in its very nature refuses to be fully captured in concepts? How do you talk about that which translates itself most clearly not in Greek or Hebrew, but in flesh and blood?

We are always on a collective journey figuring out faithful and beautiful ways to talk about God, and how to translate who God is conceptually in our social and historical locations. One of the most exciting and holistic ways to think about God, talk about God, and express the fullness of God to our culture is to keep in mind the three faces of God. This is when we speak of God in the 1st person, in the 2nd person, and in the 3rd person. Or another way of putting this is the infinite, intimate, and inner faces of God.

God in the 3rd Person

When we speak of God in the 3rd person, we are talking to others about God.

This is the infinite face of God. In this mode of speech we reflect on how powerful, how vast, how beautiful, how faithful, how complex, and how good God is. Speaking of God in the 3rd person emphasizes the transcendent nature of God.

This is the God that is beyond us. We see Jesus using this mode of speech when he says things like, “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father” (John 16:28), or “You heard that I said to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).

Here, Jesus is not speaking to the Father, but rather Jesus is speaking about the Father in the 3rd person.

The driving question for this face of God is: Is your God big enough?

God in the 2nd Person

When we speak of God in the 2nd person, we are talking to God. This is the intimate face of God. In this mode of speech, we speak directly to God about His love, commitment, faithfulness, and grace for us, or about our love, commitment, faithfulness, or gratefulness for him. This expresses the “I-Thou” relationship popularized by Martin Buber.

While speaking of God in the 3rd person emphasizes the transcendence of God, this mode of speech emphasizes the intimacy of God. This is the God that sees us, loves us, and is connected to us. We see Jesus interacting with this intimate face of God in Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). Here and in other places Jesus is speaking directly to God the Father in the 2nd person.

The driving question for this face of God is: Is your God loving enough?

God in the 1st Person

This is the least familiar face of God to Western Christians. When we speak of God in the 1st person, we are talking with God. This is the inner face of God. In this mode of speech, we speak to the world with the assumption that God is in us and with us.

While the other two faces of God focus on the intimate and infinite nature of God, speaking of God in the first person emphasizes the immanent nature of God. This is where we acknowledge that the God who is beyond us and connected to us is also within us.

Jesus interacting with God in the 1st person is actually Jesus speaking as God. This is where the distinction between Jesus interacting with God in the first person and us interacting with God in the first person must be made. Jesus speaks as God, while we speak with God.

This is the place in which we, being human, both confidently acknowledge complete identification with God in love (the presence of God within us) while maintaining an ontological distinction between ourselves and God. Perhaps this is even hinted at by Jesus when he says “the kingdom of God is within [entos] you” (Luke 17:21). Jesus acknowledges that the Kingdom of God is within us while never making the claim that humanity and God are indistinguishable ontologically.

The driving question for this face of God is: Is your God close enough?

The Reemerging Face of God

We need all three faces of God to live with the fullest image of God possible. Christians are most comfortable with the 3rd and 2nd faces but are almost completely unfamiliar with the 1st. God in the 1st person, the inner face of God, has been mentioned in the writings of the mystics of Christian history and is becoming more and more prevalent in current expressions of our faith.

Learning more about, becoming more comfortable with, and learning how to talk about God in the 1st person widens our scope of and deepens our connection with God in profound ways. This is the God that we can genuinely say is as close as our breath.

When we have the majesty of God (3rd person) without the intimacy of God (2nd person), we have a tyrant. This tyrant is a Being that demands respect and requires allegiance but is incapable of love. When we have the intimacy of God (2nd person) without the majesty of God (3rd person), we have a pet. This pet is a Being that provides us with a shallow sense of comfort in our day-to-day lives but is ultimately powerless and unworthy of our worship and devotion.

As Christians, holding the creative tension of the relationship between the infinite, intimate, and inner faces of God enables us to communicate the biggest, most loving, and closest view of God in the 21st Century.

Explore more theological depths with Kevin at Praxis Gathering 2016.

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Kevin Sweeney
Kevin Sweeney is a pastor of Imagine—an urban church in Honolulu that is truly welcoming of all people, sees imagination as the key to the future, chooses authenticity over performance, substance over hype, and quality over quantity. He holds a Masters Degrees in Theology and Intercultural Studies. Kevin is fascinated with and committed to creating environments for creativity, cultural innovation, social healing, communal cohesiveness, and personal transformation.
Kevin Sweeney

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