The Immanence and Transcendence of God
Christmas brings with it a “comfortable” view of Jesus. Like Ricky Bobby in the movie Talladega Nights, we love the image of “Dear tiny Jesus, in your golden-fleece diapers, with your tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists pawing at the air.” There’s a tender vulnerability in a baby that allows us to approach him without the fear usually inspired by the presence of God himself. This is the beauty of the incarnation – a God who has lowered himself to take on human frailty and dwell in our midst.
Unfortunately, there can be a danger in our Ricky Bobby thinking, picking and choosing the version of Jesus who most appeals to us while ignoring the aspects of his character that are more complicated or difficult. Despite the comfortable feelings that this minimization can bring, our concept of God can begin to feel inadequate to the difficulties we face. We need a God of power and might, one whose purpose is more significant than soothing us with warm, fuzzy feelings.
There is an increasing longing within our culture for something beyond ourselves – a spiritual desire for a greatness beyond our own achievements and effort and a power that can transform our lives. The human heart yearns for something more: more glorious, more grand, more worthy.
Only in Scripture can we find a picture of God who is both perfectly transcendent and truly immanent — infinitely beyond us and yet personally with us.
Transcendence is that aspect of God’s character that recognizes his position above and beyond all that he created. He is great, impenetrable, and matchless. His immanence recognizes that he graciously enters into his creation, working and acting within the world that he has made. The gospel message is most effective when we hold both attributes of God in balance, neither minimizing his transcendence to increase our comfort nor minimizing his personal nature to satisfy our reason. When we present both aspects of God’s character equally, his goodness is magnified.
The Lord is high above all nations,
and his glory above the heavens!
Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
– Psalm 113:4-6
Here the psalmist praises God for his transcendence — placing God in his rightful place “above all nations,” filled with authority, and independent from his creation. Unbound by space or time, he is infinite, omnipresent, and sovereign over all. Our God is above even the heavens themselves, beyond any need that we could fulfill, and past the limits of our finite understanding. This is no small God, able to be pacified or distracted. Our only right response is a posture of reverence, awe, and humility.
But the truth of God’s transcendence does not contradict his personal interactions with us. Rather, it increases the value of that relationship. The next verses in the same psalm paint a picture of an immanent God of love:
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.
He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!
– Psalm 113:7-9
The mercy of God overflows from this passage. His consideration for the needy, his reversal of their suffering, his care for the childless all indicate that there is no suffering he cannot see. Even the most invisible and devalued in our society are treasured and sustained by the God who is present with us; the God revealed in the gospel of Matthew as Immanuel (1:23). Jesus displayed this same compassion in his earthly ministry as he healed the sick, touched the leper, and wiped the tears from women’s eyes.
But the mercy of God doesn’t negate his infinite nature, for only his complete freedom allows him to right these wrongs. God’s immanence gives him awareness of and compassion for our suffering and sin. God’s transcendence gives him the power to heal, rescue, and redeem. Because he is beyond the limits of all we understand, he can reverse the fortunes of those who seem inevitably downtrodden. And nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the incarnation and atoning work of Christ.
Though the Son of God was completely, utterly divine, he stepped down to earth and entered the womb of a woman. He took on a human nature in order to live among us. And in his death, he paid for our sins against an infinitely holy God as no mere human could have done, for his transcendent nature bore an infinite cost.
Our God is beautifully personal, and we should rejoice in his invitation to intimacy with him.
As we anticipate and celebrate Christmas this season, may we be reminded that the little babe in the manger was also our infinitely transcendent King lifted on high, who in humility descended to dwell with us.
God is both further from us, and nearer to us, than any other being.
– C.S. Lewis
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