WE are not trying to reach a complete analysis of the character of God. The very effort would involve such a discrediting and belittling of His nature as would undeify Him. "The consciousness of the depth and mysteriousness of life and reality is ever with it, as religion, from first to last. 'How unsearchable are God's judgments, and His ways past finding out!' and 'One of the greatest favours bestowed on the soul in this life' (thus like to the blessed in heaven) 'is to enable it to see so distinctly, and to feel so profoundly, that it cannot comprehend God.' These exclamations of the intensely ontological [i.e. devoted to the science of being and its analysis] St. Paul and of the Spanish peasant St. John of the Cross, merely express, respectively, the very soul of religion and a delicate concomitant of all its deepest experiences." The charm of science, art, literature, mathematics, theology or what not consists not in its finalities but in its infinitudes, not in what we have attained in them but in what always lies beyond, not in rest but in motion, not in endings but in beginnings. Mystery is not incompatible with the familiarity of comradeship. The best comrade is the deepest rather than the shallowest. Of course if God were mere mind, mere mind might measurably compass Him if it were fashioned after His image, or, if He were mere personality, mere personality might fathom Him if our personality were patterned on the scale of His. But in God there is that which we call eternal and infinite, and which baffles us while it delights us.
It is necessary to remember this lest by too exclusive a devotion to Jesus of the Gospels we shut out the full vision of God's fascinating mysteriousness. Our Lord is the Word of God in His final essence and also with reference to His intelligibleness to man. The same who is the Word is also, in the awed language of the mystics, Silence. In the seeker after God there are always heights hidden not in the clouds but in the climbing, limitless blue above and beyond us. The immanent loses itself in the transcendent. The truest and only reverent agnostic is the devout believer. He alone can say that in knowing Him he discovers, not in despair but in palpitating joy, that he knows so little of Him in whom there is so much to know that it is as though he as yet knew Him not.
"Mad is he who hopes that our reason may compass that infinitude which one substance in three persons fills. Be ye content, O human race, with quia! For if ye had been able to see the whole, no need was there for Mary to give birth."
The Old Testament leaves no doubt as to the shape of the life of God. It is in the form of the Cross. "The Cross is not an afterthought of God--a heroic remedy for a desperate emergency--but the corner-stone of creation." Consequently when the Word speaks in language intelligible to the human race He speaks according to this unvarying pattern. The Cross is the chief eternal symbol in time. Like the Chinese ideograph it always presents the one idea under whatever terminology the human tongue may give it voice. God is in the deepest foundations of His being a servant. Whenever and however He speaks the accents of service are in His voice. Even in the fragmentary utterances caught by the dimmest religions, there is a faint murmur at least of His inmost self. Nothing that history has produced casts doubt on what St. Paul said: The invisible things of Him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even His everlasting power and divinity. And what the same Apostle said to the men of Athens could be said to any untutored and unevangelized people with some measure of appropriateness. If men live and move and have their being in Him, He is their perpetual servant.
It is a mistake to think that when Jesus came into the world God for the first time entered upon and fulfilled a period of service begun in Bethlehem and terminated on Calvary. God's service in the very nature of things must be limited by our acceptance; God's teaching is hidden except to the extent that His pupils are students. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and they that were His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God.
The Incarnation is a reiteration of revelation already given, not less than a new and unique manifestation of the Divine life and character. It is the most eloquent language of love and service, the self-identification of God with us human folk. It is God throwing off all reserve, so to speak, and laying bare His heart for all to behold. It is the dramatic acting out of His character under the sun, suiting his method to the simplest understanding and the greatest culture at a single stroke. Having identified man with Himself in the original creative act or process, He now identifies Himself with man in this creative act or process. And yet all the while He is and does nothing new, though in and through Him all things are made new. It behooved Him in all things to be made like unto His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself have suffered being tempted, He is able to succour them that are tempted.
The exact words of Scripture are used here and elsewhere not because of any devotion to the literal language of the Bible, or because Biblical quotation is itself considered final, but because they are so perfect an expression of the thought to be conveyed that there could be no improvement on them.
In all literature I know of no passage of the sort that can parallel the kenotic (i.e. self-emptying) paragraph. Listen to its stately, thrilling tones! Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus; who, being in the form of God, counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the Cross, wherefore also God highly exalted Him, and gave unto Him the name which is above every-name; that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The service of God, in Jesus Christ, takes definite human shape. The eternal Cross forms itself into the Cross of Calvary. God's coming in the Incarnation must have been what it was. In no other way could He come except as a servant. The human form corresponded exactly with the Divine reality. The servant, wherever and under whatever guise He is, must always be the servant. To call God servant is not to depreciate Divinity. Rather is it to dignify service. If service be the occupation of God, it cannot be an occupation unworthy of man. To be a servant is another way of expressing likeness to God, kingliness, greatness, manliness.
The groundwork of the character of Jesus Christ is the Cross, because the Cross is the groundwork of the character of God. It is chosen on earth because it is inherent in heaven. But Jesus Christ did not, during His earthly career, exhibit all that God is. Neither the Almight-iness of God, nor His Omniscience were exercised by Him. This is not to say that they were altered in substance or degree. As to how they were held in abeyance, no one can tell. The object and end of the Incarnation was exactly what the object and end of all God's previous revelations was--insistence upon the self-giving character of God's nature. It was exhibited in order that human capacity and the laws that govern human life might be clearly illustrated--in short, it was exhibited because God could not help it and remain God. With God can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning.
So we find God stating in the person and the conduct and the words of Jesus Christ what all revelation up to that time had declared Him to be. Fire from on high had not yet been kindled in men. Flashes from heaven had made but fitful and momentary flame. Now heaven presses itself so closely into earth that the one mingles with the other. If God were to do things for us only and not also in and with us, our outlook would be hopeless. Herein is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. We love because He first loved us.
In thinking of self-giving in relation to pain, we must not make the mistake of thinking that suffering is always and everywhere necessary to service. Certainly it is not its dominant note. In that self-giving is the chief law of God's being, in it is His supreme bliss. Though somehow, in a way that does not appear to the human mind, suffering has its roots and origin in God, it is only as a process of love, so that--
Love's very pain is sweet.
The Cross as the groundwork of God's character is painless so far as it is the expression of His inmost desire and purpose. It has no more pain in it than the surrender of a bride to the encompassing love of her betrothed, than the outpuring of a mother's love upon a reciprocating child. But there is a suffering imported into God's self-giving by us creatures of time.
Self-will, that is, the power of our free choice exercised away from self-giving or service, is erected as a barrier to the fulfilment of God's purpose for and in and with us, and the floodgates of suffering and tragedy are thereby opened on God and the race. It is our rejection and repudiation of Him that makes the Cross a torturing thing. No one who has struggled to express his life in terms of self-giving finds it a burden or a pain. Service which finds its mark and is accepted loses the very memory of this effort and suffering through which it reached its goal. Better still the memory of the suffering ceases to have any suffering in it and becomes an actual ingredient of joy.
Whether then it is of God's life through the ageless ages, or during the thirty-three years when He tabernacled in the flesh of our mortality, that we are thinking, the only suffering which was not an inherent part of joy, which was scalding and bitter and torturing in His self-giving, was (and is) the direct result of human self-will.
Self-giving reaches its climax in the self-identification of the one who loves with those who are loved. There is nothing beyond this height for God or man. God made us His neighbour. He loves us as Himself. Then He made Himself our neighbour and asked us to love Him as ourselves. He loves us with all His might and expects of us only the same treatment that we receive -from Him. The first and great commandment--Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind--is not arbitrary or onesided but invitatory and reciprocal. Did Our Lord Jesus Christ do anything less in His love toward mankind? The Son of God as the Son of Man acted out the Second Commandment in making known the first--or vice versa, if you choose. Is there anything conceivable worthy the name of love which would add to the perfection of the love of Jesus Christ and which He failed to exhibit? If there is I know it not.
In the creation God identified man with Himself by making him in His own image: in the re-creation He identified God with man by the great incarnate act. This was done not so as to merge and confuse the Divine and the human, but with due recognition of both. Manhood stands out with new distinction and distinctness on the background of God because and by means of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is order and symmetry as well as vastness and mystery. It is the recognition of a whole where everyone and everything has place, from God to a sparrow and from man to a lily. It is a condemnation of sectionalism and self-will, self-will that is not merely evil but the chief and fruitful source of all evil. The whole of God's scheme is unrolled and exalted. The greatness of the least is proclaimed by recognizing the little child, the abandoned sinner, the grass of the field, each as being important, and bearing such a relation to the whole as to have the constant personal consideration of God Himself. In the light of the Incarnation we come to know that the quivering leaf is organically related to the quivering star, and that unity of purpose and of life is the energizing force of the universe. When mankind shall have come to an effective recognition of this fact there will be no more war, and tears and sin and death will flee away.
The only difference between chaos and order is that the constituent elements in the one are actuated by antagonisms and in the other by affinities. Order everywhere takes its beginning in mutual understanding. It is not mechanical but organic. The whole gives of its vitality to the parts not by cogs but by arteries. The parts fulfil their duty to the whole by functional loyalty that does not usurp the office of neighbouring parts in performing their own tasks.
It may be a startling, though I hope not an inaccurate or irreverent, way to express it, but God in order to make clear the unity of Himself and His universe did not, could not rest content with being immanent in it, and in Jesus Christ He became, or revealed Himself to be, part of it. Self-identification could rise no higher or reach no further than the Incarnation rises and reaches. I am the Vine: ye are the branches. Abide in Me and I in you. We are members ol His body. He is a true member of the human family, albeit the chief member, the Head. We are to grow up in all things into Him, which is the head of the Church; from Whom all the body fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth, according to the working in due measure of each several part, maketh the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love.
Translated into Christian terms, the words of Marcus Aurelius compass the thought--
I am at one with everything, O Universe, which is well-fitting in thee,
Nothing to me is early or late which is timely with thee,
All is fruit to me that thy seasons bring.
O Nature, from thee are all things, in thee are all things, to thee all things return,
The poet saith, Dear city of Cecrops; shall not I say, Dear City of God?
There are other methods of stirring life God-ward which is its goal, but none to match the simple exposition of God's movement manward. The cold spear-prick of duty can drive, and some natures become and do marvellous things under its compulsion, but man cannot live on commandments even when they are uttered by God. They must be moved by a force that inspires and inflames. By His self-identification with man, God has solved the problem. This can be said in all sincerity in the face of a world in disorder and of a Church in tattered fragments. The Spirit of God is brooding over the face of our troubled waters.
O God, I praise Thee for the gift of Jesus Christ, Who is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in Him were all things created in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and invisible; all things have been created through Him and unto Him; and He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body of the Church; who is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; that in all things He might have the pre-eminence. For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in Him should all the fulness dwell. Now unto our God and Father be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.