All Things to All People?

photo by Noah Rallo

photo by Noah Rallo

“Who is God to you?” This is the first question that was asked of me and each of my coworkers at the start of our internship this past summer. The internship was an opportunity to engage in mission work in the community of Mobile, Alabama, primarily through teaching children between the ages of four and twelve at a summer camp. Since this internship was meant to be a deeply missional experience as well as an opportunity for spiritual growth, this question might not have been surprising to the other interns, but I was certainly taken aback.

I’ll admit this five-word question had me stumped for a solid minute. After all, isn’t God just God? He gave us all we needed to know about him in the Bible, so shouldn’t the answer be the same for everyone who believes in the authority of Scripture? As it turned out, all twelve of the interns in the room, including myself, gave a different answer, and I’d be willing to bet if you went around asking people on your hall who God is to them, each person would also give a different answer.

It might make us uncomfortable, but even people who read the same Bible view God differently according to their personal experience. Some people think of God more in terms of his nature as transcendent and all-powerful, while others think of him more as having immanent communion with his people. The Bible tells us that both ways of thinking about God are true, and yet the circumstances that distinguish us from our friends lead us to focus on one or the other.

Some would see this tendency as a flaw that keeps us from seeing God in all his enormity, but I think the fact that we are drawn to specific aspects of God’s character is a powerful testament to God’s abiding concern with every facet of our confusing, contradictory selves. My answer to the question of who God is to me was something along the lines of, “God is the only one who sees me in the midst of my feelings of perpetual loneliness and self-loathing.” So, does that means this is the only way I think of God? The answer to that question, thanks to my exposure to a surprising amount of diverse perspectives at this tiny PCA college, is no. I’m not arguing that God is or should be thought of as “all things to all people.” There is no doubt in my mind that God reveals very clear things about himself in the Bible that are objectively true. However, I would suggest that, if we take a step back and look at the diverse world around us, we can learn more about God and develop a more generous spirit.

The missionary Jayson Georges remarked that every cultural context has distinct “values that, although not articulated, directly affect people’s ideas and actions.” That may seem like common sense, but it’s especially important to apply to the way people read the Bible. Writing about the book of Romans, Georges points out that people from a Western context (including the United States) tend to see the central question of the book as, “How can I be saved?” while people in the rest of the world are more likely to see the central question as, “Who are the people of God?” I think that both of these questions are completely valid, but only acknowledging the first would be a failure to appreciate the scope of what Paul writes throughout Romans (3:29-30, 4:9-12, 10:12-13, and 11:17-24) about ethnocentrism and coming to salvation as a group rather than as an individual.

If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of the question that I was asked at the beginning of the summer, I would encourage you not to feel like you have to find a systematic way of explaining the Trinity or say something straight from John Calvin. If your first instinct is to tell a story that explains how you know what you know about God, share it. None of us will completely understand God’s character in this life, but we do know from Psalm 139:2-6 that our subjective experiences are deeply meaningful to him, and we shouldn’t downplay their importance in how we understand God.