Defining God by his might, instead of his love.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 August 2021

People have all sorts of ideas about what a god is. To the ancients, a god was simply a non-human being who was mightier than they, who had power over nature, and if you worshiped them they might control some nature for you. To present-day westerners, whose ideas of God have largely been influenced by Christianity, God is properly defined as the mightiest being the universe. The Almighty. Nothing and no one comes close.

Which he is, but people tend to fixate on that definition instead of God’s own description of himself—as love.

Exodus 34.6-7 KJV
6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, 7 keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

It’s kinda obvious why: Humans covet power. And God’s all-powerful. So, same as with the ancients and their gods, we figure if we suck up to God just right, he might use his power on our behalf. Even grant us a little power.

So whenever Christians write theology books, and start writing about the attributes of God, that’s where we typically start: God is almighty. God is the Almighty. He’s El Šaddaý, God Almighty; El Elyón, the Most High; El Jefe, the Boss. (Okay, that last one’s Spanish, not Hebrew, but he is.) And then we go into detail about all the ways he’s almighty, usually with Latin-derived words beginning with omni-. He’s omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnidirectional, omnivorous… well, considering he discouraged the Hebrews from certain ritually unclean animals, maybe not omnivorous; Jesus didn’t eat shellfish. But those theology books surely do pound away at the omnis. Because we’d surely like to be omni.

And sometimes speculate what it’d be like to be omnipotent. Could God really do anything? Really anything?

SHE. “God is almighty, right? So could he create a rock so heavy, he can’t lift it?”
ME. “Yes. Of course he could create such a rock.”
SHE. [figuring she got me] “But if he can’t lift it, then is he really almighty? Is he really God?”
ME. “Well first of all, God isn’t defined by his almightiness. But second of all, it’s a poor sort of almightiness that can’t create paradoces.”

Yeah, this person didn’t realize this wasn’t my first go-around with this particular question. I grew up inflicting it on my Sunday school teachers, just to see whether I liked any of their answers. (Seldom did I.) Theology professors still use it to mess with the minds of their students. I came up with my own answer back in seminary, just to mess with the minds of my theology professors.

But the reason Christians confound themselves with the paradox of truly being able to do anything—including contradictory things, however much that might bend our brains—is because we love the idea our God can do anything, and wanna explore that idea. Explore it a lot. Explore it a little too much.

And in some cases go too far, and forget even though God has the power to do absolutely anything, there are all sorts of things he can’t do. Not just “will not do,” not just “refuses to do,” not just “could do but won’t”—things he can’t do. Because to do such things violates the core of who he is. God is love, and can’t violate that attribute. Can not.

So is he almighty? Sure. So long that we remember “almighty” means God has the complete, unlimited power to do whatever he wants. If we’re only talking about complete, unlimited power to do anything at all, no. God’s never gonna be wicked. Period. It’s not who he is.

Those who love and covet God’s might, have a big problem with me making this “qualification.” Because they don’t wanna put any limits on God’s might. Even though God himself puts limits on his own might. He has way more self-control than we do. But those who covet power wanna claim, with no qualifications whatsoever, that God does have the complete, unlimited power to do anything at all—and we should be in awe of this raw power, and worship it.

Whoops, I mean God. And so do they. Kinda. But maybe not.

See, this is the inevitable problem with defining God by his might instead of his love: We humans have the bad habit of worshiping our favorite things about God, instead of God, the being, himself. We love to talk about God’s might ’cause we worship might. We love to talk about God’s unlimited resources, ’cause we worship wealth. I know this one music pastor who loves to talk about how God gets worshiped round his throne, ’cause he loves worship, and by “worship” this guy usually means music: He loves music. I won’t accuse him of worshiping music itself, but he does love music.

But when we worship God’s love… well, God is love. When we strive to define love the way the scriptures define love, and love God and our neighbor as commanded, we are by Jesus’s definition Mt 22.36-40 worshiping God. It’s not really misdirected worship. It’s correct worship. Worshiping might will quickly turn into idolatry; worshiping God’s love will always turn into worshiping God.

When God set his might aside.

The belief God is defined by his might, is one of those things people assume is a given. It’s what we were taught as children: God is by definition almighty. Even pagan kids, when they’re first taught what a god is, are taught it’s an almighty being, or at least an extremely powerful one. The Creator. The Prime Mover. The only one who can do absolutely anything. It’s what makes him God, innit? If he’s not almighty, he can’t really be God, right?

Wrong. That’s human thinking. That’s how we define gods. It’s not how God defines himself.

You wanna know how God defines himself, you look at Jesus. ’Cause Jesus is God. Yet when he was walking around on the earth during his first coming, Jesus actually wasn’t almighty. He gave that up. Deliberately. On purpose.

Philippians 2.5-11 KJV
5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8 and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. 9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If Jesus is God, yet for a time wasn’t almighty, stands to reason “almightiness” isn’t essential to divinity.

Do not get me wrong:

  • I didn’t say God isn’t almighty. ’Cause he is.
  • I didn’t say almightiness isn’t one of God’s attributes. ’Cause it is. (Plus it’s kinda heresy to say the Father’s not almighty.)
  • I only said it’s not essential to who he is.

Essence is what something deep down at its core is. You can’t remove it without transforming the thing into something entirely different. Take the axehead off an axe, and it’s not an axe anymore; it’s a handle, and you could attach a hammer head to it and turn it into a hammer. Attach the axehead to any other stick and now that’s an axe. The axehead is the essence of an axe. You can think of plenty of similar examples.

Now, take the battery out of a phone and is it still a phone? Sure. It just won’t do anything; you gotta replace the battery or plug it in. Power isn’t intrinsic to a phone.

Same with Jesus. God could, and totally did, drop the almightiness yet remain God. In order to do any miracles, Jesus had to tap the Holy Spirit, same as anybody else. Ac 10.38 But when he surrendered the power, he didn’t stop being God. Clearly power and almightiness doesn’t make him God. Something else does.

Yeah, I know what I think the “something else” is. Likely you do too. But for everybody else they’re gonna have to live in suspense, ’cause it’s more fun to end articles with the answer. First I’m gonna spend a little more time proving my point.

Jesus: The Almighty incognito, or God depowered?

We all know plenty of Christians who insist Jesus totally was almighty when he walked the earth. Their explanation is Jesus was secretly hiding his almightiness. Only pretending he was fully human.

“God incognito,” is the way one theology professor described it to me. In order to interact with humans, and not have ’em recoil in terror at his pure holiness, Jesus couldn’t just look human, like one of the Men in White. He had to be human. He had to cram infinity into a finite being… and good thing he’s almighty, ’cause only he could pull it off. So even though he could still do anything, Mk 7.37 know everything, Jn 16.30 and somehow still be everywhere at once, Jn 1.48 it appeared like he wasn’t. And was okay with people coming to that false conclusion, lest he freak ’em out.

But every so often, people got a glimpse beneath Jesus’s “human suit,” and realized the Almighty was in their midst. For proof, the Christians who think Jesus didn’t depower himself, like to point to his transfiguration. There, Jesus dropped the “human suit” act for a few minutes and stood, exposed as the Almighty, before his discombobulated students.

Mark 9.2-10 KJV
2 And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them. 3 And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them. 4 And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. 6 For he wist not what to say; for they were sore afraid. 7 And there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.

These Christians figure Jesus only took the form of a slave, Pp 2.7 much like a cosplayer can take the form of Batman, but be wholly unable and unprepared to fight crime. Jesus “took on a human likeness,” but really, secretly, remained almighty.

Trouble is, this backs these Christians into one of the more common heresies about Christ: That he’s not really human. (We call this heresy “docetism.”) Even though God deliberately created us humans with a limited experience—to be limited in might, knowledge, and spacetime—Jesus only appeared to share our human limitations, but he didn’t really share our humanity. He still had his superpowers. Therefore he wasn’t entirely human.

The other major problem is the hypocrisy inherent in such behavior. Remember hypocrisy?—how Jesus regularly objected, in verse after verse, when people pretended to be what we’re not. It’s the one thing which pissed Jesus off more than anything. Yet pretending to be as limited as every other human, when secretly he had the power to split atoms with a word: This’d make Jesus a massive hypocrite. It’d undermine every rebuke he made about our hypocrisy.

I realize plenty of Christians are quite happy to believe in a God who’s inconsistent and unethical like this. Because they’ve built their entire worldview on the idea God is power. They don’t want God to surrender his power. Because they would never, and can’t fathom a God who would. Yet in order for him to be as sovereign and powerful as they imagine… he kinda has to be immoral. And that’s a grave error. It’s prioritizing power over character. You know, as humans do. Especially more power-hungry humans.

Humans covet power. The very idea Jesus might voluntarily, willingly surrender power so he could come to earth and interact with people… is way too much for some people to wrap our minds around. We’d never do any such thing. And why give up any of your power when you could just hide it? Maybe practice a little self-control and never use it? You know, like the marksman who owns several rifles, but lets gang members pick off his children one by one because he’d never use the rifles for anything but hunting. Assuming such a man exists.

Nope; it’s immoral and inconsistent for Jesus to pretend to be anything he’s not, or permit people to believe he’s something he’s really not. In the gospels, particularly John, he regularly got in trouble for stating who he really is. He didn’t hide his divinity. Nor did he pretend to surrender power, nor appear to surrender power: He straight-up did.

What about the transfiguration? Christians misinterpret it ’cause they don’t know their bibles. When Moses entered the LORD’s presence he came away glowing like a space alien. Ex 34.29-30 When Jesus was likewise surrounded by his Father’s presence, he started glowing too. As humans do. As any of us would, if we have a similar sort of God-experience.

An open secret.

Jesus pretends nothing, and deceives no one. He is as the authors of the New Testament described him. He’s not merely the LORD appearing as a human, like when he appeared to Abraham. Ge 18.1-16 He’s really human. Went to all the trouble of getting born, having parents, growing up, dealing with siblings, and even getting corrected when his parents didn’t understand why he acted like he did. Lk 2.48-50

He wasn’t even trying to hide his divinity. He’d blow his own cover by saying stuff only God might say. He’d forgive sins, Mk 2.5-12 declare “Before Abraham existed I AMJn 8.58-49 or “The Father and I are one,” Jn 10.30-33 —and nearly get himself stoned to death for it, too.

The only things Jesus kept a lid on, was how he’s Messiah, how he could cure disease, or the details of his kingdom which he concealed in parables for those who care to pay attention to him. Mainly this was ’cause he knew these facts would draw unwanted attention or harassment. But his divinity? Not incognito. Obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.

But not so obvious to people who covet power. Which is why people of the first century couldn’t identify Jesus for who he really is. Pharisees expected Messiah to come in great power and conquer their foes. That’s why, when he showed up as an ordinary man, they rejected him entirely. That’s not at all the sort of God they wanted.

It’s why people of the present day struggle to interpret Jesus properly as well. We can’t use this sort of God.

In so doing, we don’t identify our own lusts for power, and lack of submission. We can’t fathom the willing surrender of power. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus returning to his farm instead of staying dictator of Rome, like Julius Caesar did? George Washington stepping down after only two terms as president, instead of president for life like Franklin Roosevelt? Both men blew the minds of their contemporaries: Who does that? They surely wouldn’t. Nor, they imagine, would their Jesus.

So the fact Jesus dropped his omnis—

  • NOT OMNIPOTENT: He could only do miracles through the Spirit, same as us.
  • NOT OMNISCIENT: He only knew what he saw the Father do, Jn 5.19 and didn’t know what the Father didn’t show him, like the time of his second coming. Mk 13.32
  • NOT OMNIPRESENT: Limited to one place and time on earth. Had to walk everywhere!
  • Still OMNIBENEVOLENT though. Mk 7.37

—meant plenty of people wouldn’t be distracted by the power, and learn something about God’s character—namely that God is love.

Also means plenty of people would totally miss Jesus, because they don’t really worship God. Just his power.

I should point out it’s debatable whether Jesus has taken back any power once he ascended to the Father. Again, most Christians simply assume he has. He’s seated at the right hand of power; Mk 14.62 doesn’t that mean he’s got that power? But when Jesus became human, he didn’t put on a human suit temporarily. He became human permanently. He didn’t go back to being nonhuman after he went to heaven. When he returns he intends to live on earth, as human, with his people forever. Rv 21.3 Arguably he still has to tap the Spirit’s power to get stuff done.

Since Jesus was depowered, yet still did mighty things, it demonstrates we can also do mighty things when we work with the Spirit like Jesus did. He told us we can even do greater things than he did. Jn 14.12 Imagining Jesus is a special case, or exception, leads Christians to shirk our responsibilities on the grounds, “I can’t”—and limits how far the Spirit can get us to grow. And limits how far we can spread his kingdom.

Defining people by what they do.

Most of the problem comes from the faulty premise—that when a being does [activity], it makes ’em God. It’s like claiming, “She draws pictures, so she’s an artist.” Well, sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s a chimpanzee with a paintbrush and canvas, amusing her trainers but not really trying to make art. A robot can likewise be programmed to draw pictures, but the art comes more from the programmer’s clever algorithms.

My point is our character is defined by what we do and why. But our attributes only describe our potential. God can be almighty—if he so chooses. If he chooses not to be, he doesn’t stop being God. His godhood is not defined by his attributes. We describe him with these things. Not define him.

So when we call him almighty (or use the Latin-derived word omnipotent), we mean God can do anything. Not that he does do anything; nor, as determinists imagine, that he does everything. God has a free will, and does as he wishes. And when he chooses to act, nothing can stop him. What we find impossible, God finds inconsequential. He has infinite, undrainable, unstoppable, unimaginable power.

Dýnamis power, as some Christians describe it. They’re borrowing the Greek word δύναμις/dýnamis, which simply means “power.” Sometimes preachers who know no Greek mix it up with dynamite—which is entirely wrong; it’s more like a dynamo, which is inexhaustible instead of a flash-bang. But I digress; I wrote on this elsewhere.

God’s attributes are of course limited by his character. There are certain things he won’t do. Like be evil. Like tempt others with evil. Jm 1.13 Like lie. He 6.18, Tt 1.2 Like act contrary to his own nature. 2Ti 2.13

You remember the “logical impossibility” which came up at the beginning of this article: God creating a rock he can’t lift. If he defeats his own might, is that an act of power, or an act of weakness? If a chessmaster plays himself, who wins and who loses? The answer to both is the same: It’s not a real contest. It’s an exercise, and not really a necessary one. Chessmasters don’t get better by playing against themselves, and there’s no purpose in God creating impossible-to-lift rocks either. I mean, it may amuse skeptics and theologians, but big deal.

God can do whatever he wants. Emphasis on what he wants. If he doesn’t wanna, he’s never gonna. Like sin. Like perform illogical, brain-bending stunts. God is unlimited when it comes to what he wants to do—and self-limited when it comes to everything else.

But almightiness isn’t God’s favorite attribute. Not one he revels in, though he did shut up Job by pointing out, “Can you do what I can?” Jb 40.9-14 It’s a useful ability, but again, when he became human he surrendered it. It’s an attribute, but he doesn’t consider it a defining one. We do, and we’re wrong to.

So which attribute is an essential one to God? Love. God is love. 1Jn 4.8 Take away love and he’s not God.

I know; we humans never even thought of love as his essence, did we? After all, every pagan mythology includes an evil god or two. But it stands to reason the pagans were defining divinity wrong. You gotta go to God for the proper definition of what godhood entails—and for God, who he is at his core is love. Not might. As demonstrated by the fact he loves us enough to give up the might, yet retain the love.

Jesus shows us what God’s like when he’s not almighty. Seems he’s way less into wrath than we ever imagined.