One day when my son Devon was about four years old, he was pondering God’s being. Not your typical four-year-old activity, I admit. But Devon was a unique child. And as he mused, he had a profound thought. God was greater than the moon and the stars, but he could still fit inside of us. His conclusion?
God is so big. But sometimes he can be so small.
My son’s insight hints at the tension we feel when we think about God’s transcendence and immanence.
Infinite and Intimate
Transcendent is the theological word that means God is above, completely other than, and independent of his creation.
God is infinite in all aspects of his being and never changes. Only he has no source, no beginning, and no end. God needs nothing, depends on nothing, and owes nothing. He is “holy, holy, holy” — perfect in every way. Simply put, God is God and we are not.
“At times, God feels too distant to be loved. At other times, God feels too near to be feared.”
Except that God is also immanent. God sustains, is involved with, and is present within his creation. He keeps our bodies from exploding apart, grows the grass that livestock eat, and is personally invested in his world (Colossians 1:17; Psalm 104:14, 24–30). Despite how small and sinful we are, he is loving, kind, gentle, compassionate, and good.
In our corporate worship gatherings, as well as our personal interactions with God, we tend to swing between God’s transcendence and immanence like a pendulum. At times, God feels too distant, dissimilar, and above us to be loved. At other times, God feels too near, present, and like us to be feared. It’s an ongoing challenge to hold these two thoughts about God together, but it is massively important that we do, for at least four great reasons.
1. God says he is big and near.
The Bible doesn’t reveal a God who is sometimes fearsome and sometimes approachable. Nor does it depict a God who is sometimes infinitely exalted above us and at other times intimately involved in our affairs. He is both simultaneously.
Scripture never shrinks back from describing God in seemingly contradictory ways. Here are just two examples:
Thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15)
Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people. (Psalm 113:5–8)
God dwells in eternity yet feels at home among the lowly. God is seated on high but makes his way to the ash heap to lift up the needy. In another place, Isaiah reminds us that the Holy One, who is our Maker and Lord, the God of the whole earth, is pleased to refer to himself as our husband and Redeemer (Isaiah 54:5). Where else but in God’s word can we find such a mind-stretching, soul-stirring depiction of God?
The great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck had it right:
[T]here is no book in the world which to the same extent and in the same way as the Holy Scripture supports the absolute transcendence of God above each and every creature and at the same time supports the intimate relationship between the creature and his Creator. (The Wonderful Works of God, 115)
The Bible reveals a God who is immeasurably greater and more satisfying than any god we could ever conceive of on our own.
2. We want to know God as he is.
We often avoid theological tensions by trying to squeeze God into human boxes. We vacillate between God’s transcendence and immanence lest he appear to have a multiple-personality disorder. But God is not double-minded. He is God. He is holy enough to consume sinners in wrath, and tender enough to envelop us in unending, rapturous delight (Psalm 21:8–9; 16:11). He is powerful enough to keep innumerable blazing stars in their courses, and intimate enough to name each of them and to number the hairs on our heads (Jeremiah 31:35; Psalm 147:4; Luke 12:7).
We are so used to making God in our own image that it can be hard for us to believe he doesn’t act and think like us. Even in preparing to write this article, I was struck by how consistently unimpressive my thoughts about God are. So we end up experiencing brief, scattered moments of awe rather than an ever-intensifying, ever-deepening attitude of wonder.
When we forget God is transcendent, we find it hard and unnecessary to fear him. When we forget God is immanent, we find it hard and unnecessary to love him. But he is both. And that makes us fear and love him all the more.
3. The tension deepens and sweetens worship.
The transcendence and immanence of God are a doorway to deeper and more grateful worship. Our church gatherings and our personal devotions can suffer from a failure to treasure both God’s transcendence and immanence. If God isn’t great, he won’t compel our reverence, fear, and obedience. If we don’t think of him as near, he won’t evoke our gratitude, joy, and amazement.
“The transcendence and immanence of God are a doorway to deeper and more grateful worship.”
Most churches today tend to emphasize how near God is. We major on feeling comfortable and welcomed. God forbid we should think for a moment that, rather than deserving a fresh-brewed cup of coffee upon our arrival at church, we should be struck dead for the sins we committed just that morning. But apart from God’s mercy, the latter would be more appropriate.
What if we came to a Sunday meeting or began our Bible study with the awareness that we have no way of reaching the God we’re wanting to meet with unless he provides one? Wouldn’t we sing louder and read our Bibles more intentionally if we understood that the God who invites us into intimate fellowship created the universe from nothing and that his “is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is [his]” (1 Chronicles 29:11)?
At the same time, seeking to engage with a God who we see as only transcendent can lead to worship that is dutiful, boring, distasteful, or even irrational. We can begin to question why we keep praying to a God so far away, singing songs to a God who might not hear us, and listening to preaching about a God who doesn’t seem very connected to (or interested in) his world.
God made us in his image, and he is infinitely distinct from us. Both are true. And the more we understand how different he is, the more we will marvel that he has chosen to draw near to us, that he knows us, calls us by name, and delights in us. Which leads to a final reason why holding God’s immanence and transcendence in tension is so crucial.
4. The tension illuminates the gospel.
Countless Christians live with a deficient experience of the gospel. They can affirm that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who lived a perfect life, died on the cross to take their punishment, and rose from the dead for their justification. But it doesn’t make much of a difference in their daily lives. Rather than a source of comfort and joy, it’s an abstract doctrine that assures them they won’t go to hell when they die.
But when seen in light of God’s transcendence — his holy otherness, absolute perfection, limitless knowledge, inescapability, and unswerving eternal commitment to justice — the gospel becomes unspeakably good news. It reveals God’s immanent heart of compassion, mercy, kindness, and goodness beyond our ability to take it in. It is truly a love that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19).
And now that Jesus and the Father have sent forth the Holy Spirit, God reveals his presence not only around us, but within us (John 14:26; John 15:26). The God who knows no limits of time, space, or properties has taken up residence in our hearts (1 Kings 8:27; 1 Corinthians 6:19). All this is why God alone can say, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22).
There is no one like him. He truly can and does save. He is holiness and mercy, grace and truth, sovereign and servant, God and man. He is over all, through all, and in all (Ephesians 4:6). May our thoughts and worship of God increasingly reflect who he really is, for our endless joy and God’s endless praise.
He is so big. But he can be so small.