Becky lived with a nagging sense that there was a rule book to life, but she didn’t get her copy. Insecurity and a pervasive sense of uncertainty loomed over her like a perpetually blinking warning light on the dashboard of her car.
Eric tried to live with deep reverence for God, but it meant life always felt heavy. When conversations turned light, humorous, or casual, he felt like he wasn’t being a good Christian. How could he honor the holy God in such moments?
People who are interested in studying the attributes of God frequently feel like Becky and Eric. If we’re not careful, theology can become exclusively cognitive and lose its relational qualities. But we study the attributes of God to deepen our relationship with God. That’s why, in this article, I will write with highly relational images and metaphors.
Even when we try to think relationally about God’s attributes, we can still get emotionally conflicted. When we reflect on God being patient, for example, we can think, If God is patient, I should be patient. How can I be as patient as possible as quickly as possible?
“If we’re not careful, theology can become exclusively cognitive and lose its relational qualities.”
Do you catch the irony? We try to be patient for God as if God were impatient with our progress. We ask questions of emulation before we ask questions of rest. We try to imitate an attribute of God before we find security in it. When we do this, each quality of God becomes an intimidating standard rather than a source of refuge.
God Is Happy
Let’s flip the script with God’s happiness and simplicity. Nehemiah 8:10 says, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” The reality that God is joyful steadied Nehemiah’s life. Life is hard. It requires endurance. Nehemiah drew resilience for the demands of life from the awareness that God smiled.
As children, we experienced this. If our parents were happy, we had the emotional freedom to play and explore the world. If we sensed our parents were displeased, we tried to determine what we did wrong or identify the stressor that troubled them.
In Ephesians 5:1, Paul draws on this parent-child imagery to illustrate how God’s character motivates change in our lives: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” In other words, let God’s delight in you fuel your efforts to be more like him. When we study each of God’s attributes, we are to be like children who put on our father’s oversized work clothes, smile, and say, “Look at me! I’m just like you,” because we find joy and security in the relationship.
“Let God’s delight in you in Christ fuel your efforts to be more like him.”
That works when we’re having a good day and the major decisions of life seem clear. But what about when we’re confused — when we are unsure what God expects from us? These are times when its hard to feel like the playful child trying on our parent’s attire.
God Is Simple
In moments of confusion, God doesn’t seem simple (plain, clear, noncontradictory). Our instinct, often, is to pit one attribute of God against another. We think, “Because God is loving, he would want me to do A, but because he is just, he would want me to do B. But I can’t do both A and B.” We feel torn because we think God is complicated.
God’s simplicity means that all of God’s attributes live in harmony with one another. As fallen people in a finite world, we’re not like that. We want the attributes of pleasure (eating whatever we want) and fitness (being thin). We want the attributes of spontaneity (purchasing something on a whim) and responsibility (saving for the future). Even when we’re not being sinful, we are not simple.
God is simple. God does not live with internal tensions. Therefore, God doesn’t have expectations of us that are in tension with one another. But life doesn’t always feel as simple as the character of God. We rightly get frustrated with people who conclude that because God is simple, life is too. They make life seem easier than it is.
Because we live in a broken world, with fallen people and as fallen people, life can feel complicated. How do we reconcile the reality that God is simple, but our lived experienced is complex? Let’s return to the image of a parent and child.
Admiration Leads to Emulation
Imagine a child who feels torn because he has chores to complete, homework to do, and its Grandma’s birthday. Let’s assume, for this illustration, that the child has not been negligent with his work. He is stressed because he wants to please his parents but doesn’t know what to do. The child thinks,
- “My parents are smart and want me to do well in school, so I should do my homework.”
- “My parents are neat and want me to be orderly, so I should clean my room.”
- “My parents are loving and want me to value family, so I should go to Grandma’s birthday party.”
- “My parents are going to be mad at me because I can’t do all three.”
The child begins to fear his parents, dreads seeing them, and starts to cry. How do good parents respond to this child? They smile, pull him close, affirm his strong desire to honor them, and help him think through the situation. Since we are using this illustration as a metaphor, God’s happiness is revealed in the parents’ smile. Even though the situation is legitimately hard (paralleling the brokenness of the world), we see God’s simplicity in the response that values character more than immediate outcome.
Let’s continue to use our sanctified imaginations as we peer through the lens of Ephesians 5:1. How does the child feel about his parents after this interaction? Safe, trusting, and loved. Where does he want to go when life gets hard again? To his parents. This admiration (rest) leads to emulation (refined character and maturity).1 The emulation will always be imperfect — because of the limitations of the child and the conflicting responsibilities of a broken world — but resting in the parents’ character allows his progressive growth to not feel futile.
Exhale. We can be honest — life is challenging and complex, and God is simple. We can be perpetually in process and God can still be happy. This removes the sense of desperate striving that exhausts so many of us as we live with a felt sense that we’re not good enough. God doesn’t feel compelled to rush the process (after all, progressive sanctification was his idea). He delights in each marker of our growth as parents delight in their child’s first step.
Under the Happy, Simple God
How might we respond to this reflection on God’s simplicity and happiness?
When we pray about the parts of life that are hard and confusing, we can visualize God smiling like parents who admire the hard work and tenacity of their child. When we feel the conflictedness of our own hearts, we can reflect on Ecclesiastes 12:13 to regain a sense of simplicity: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” We can wear this verse like a child wears his father’s shoes and tie, knowing God delights in imperfect, incremental emulation.
Savor the simple moments of joy and pleasure in your day and realize that, no matter how trivial, God’s joy echoes your joy in those moments like parents watching their child play with Christmas presents.
For a four week devotional on God’s character that uses this rhythm of resting in an attribute leading to emulating that attribute, consider my mini-book God’s Attributes: Rest for Life’s Struggles (P&R, 2012). ↩