There is an advertising campaign in Vancouver at the moment that makes me smirk. It is for the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, a stunning park north of Vancouver with, you guessed it, a 450ft long suspension bridge that suspends 230ft above ground. The ads feature stunning photos of the park with headlines such as “Amzaing!” or “Incerdbile!” or “Indsecrbiable” with a tagline that reads, wait for it … “words fail.” Coy, clever, and slightly smug—all the ingredients that make up a good ad. The agency that created this campaign tapped into something very primal about humanity: when we are confronted with beauty, with something bigger than ourselves, words fail us. We can’t capture defining moments, or breath-taking sights with words. We get all tongue-tied or flabbergasted and inadequately retell what we experienced. This is how I often feel about God: my words fail me.
Time and time again, I sit down to write a sermon, or a magazine article, or a blog about God and I get stuck. But its not writers block, its something else. I may have the entire project completed, but I am left feeling like I haven’t given God his due. My writing is lacking because I haven’t captured with enough adequacy, with enough glory, what I am trying to communicate. My words fail when it comes to talking about grace, when it comes to talking about the brilliance of Jesus offering his life on two crooked beams of wood.
Obviously, I think there is something to this, I actually think its a necessity of theology. As the graphic of this post reads “Our distant, unknowable, incomprehensible, utterly other, unseen God.” If we let God be God by his very attributes—uncreated, eternal, and all the omni’s—then who could possibly make the audacious claim to know this God? Who could possibly have the words to describe the indescribable?
Yet the sentence begins with “Our …”.
God desires to make himself known. God accommodates. He condescends. God’s transcendence is what allows him to be immanent. Paul writes “In Christ the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). We can know this indescribable God because he has made himself known. He incarnated and was fully present in Jesus.
So when it comes to talking about Jesus, and talking honestly about him for that matter, we should expect our words to fail. When we meet Jesus, as he really is, we are meeting the eternally begotten (not made) Son of the uncreated eternal Father, fully present, clothed in humanity, fully human (how is that for a theological mouthful). We are attempting to talk about an incredible mystery. The very doctrine of the incarnation, or the Trinity, is beyond total comprehension. When you study these doctrines you quickly realize that the formulas and words used are more negations than affirmations. They are trying to protect something about what is true, yet can’t fully put its finger on what exactly it is protecting.
This is what happens when we encounter God. We should expect the insurmountable. If we could describe God, and do so fully, we would only be describing an anthropomorphic god—we would be simply describing a god we’ve created.
The most stunning part of this to me is that in his condescension, Jesus humbled himself even to the point of a humiliating and shaming death: death on a cross. How do we give the cross justice? There are seven major atonement theories, and none of them describe the breadth of what happened. You see the authors of the New Testament and various writers throughout history exhausting the limits of their imagination in an attempt to find a metaphor with enough hutzpah, or pizzazz. We need them all, one isn’t enough (nor is seven for that matter).
Have you ever seriously considered why the cross even had to happen?
Why God would freely choose to absorb our sins, our evil upon himself and offer free forgiveness? How do you put words to that? We can say its a free gift. We can say its incredible, fantastic, amazing, but our words fail us. It is the most beautiful thing in the world; the most compelling thing in the world. And at the same time it is the most heart-wrenching thing in the world. And I fear if we think we are describing it adequately we are not describing it at all.
Paul knows this, in his musings about the implications of the gospel for Israel, he writes “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).
Now this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to describe God, or expound the gospel. Yes, true theology calls for epistemological humility, to recognize the limits of what we can and cannot know. Yet it does not demand silence. Actually, it is quite to the contrary. We are supposed to exhaust ourselves in attempting to describe the breadth, depth, height, and limitlessness of God’s indescribable love for us, and the boundless extent he has gone to in reconciling us and the whole cosmos to himself.
Its okay if you feel inadequate in sharing the gospel, if you feel like you don’t know enough. You should feel relieved. We never have all the words necessary, but we do know the one thing necessary: Jesus gave himself for us. I want to encourage you: spend everything you have within yourself in contemplating God and let that lead you to exhausting your creative ability to describe Jesus. You may run out of paper, of ink, of words, but you will never run out of inspiration.
As Frederick M. Lehman wrote in his great hymn, The Love of God:
“Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made, were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade; to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry; nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky.”
And, as the Apostle John, who knew Jesus intimately, ends his gospel:
“Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).