Closer: reflections on the trinity

God created us without us;
but God did not will to save us without us.

~ Augustine of Hippo

I have always found good company with the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans when he writes about the groaning inside all of us: “for we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).

Does it seem a little unholy to start a conversation about the triune nature of God by paying attention to the groaning in our gut? The Trinity doesn’t belong there, right? Shouldn’t we start up in heaven? Isn’t it a bit self-centered to turn a sermon on the Trinity into a sermon about us? Isn’t God supposed to be way over there, or way up there? As the prophet Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty” (Isa 6:1a).

Now, to be fair to Isaiah’s vision, God isn’t completely distant: “The hem of God’s robe filled the temple” (v. 1b). There is a point of connection between heaven and earth, and that is the Temple. But in Romans, Paul seems to think that God’s presence is even more intimate than that: God is in us, in our groaning, in our sighs, in our prayers, God’s Spirit is a companion with our spirit. Here’s what Paul says: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:15b-16). Through the Spirit, God becomes intimate with us, interior to us, completely familiar, a companion. The Holy Spirit is present in our spirit, groaning with us, crying out with us. And with the groaning we begin to get a sense for the Trinity; we become the site of the work of all three persons–Father, Son, and Spirit. Our bodies become God’s home. God rests with us, and in us, not as some outside power, not as some cosmic clockmaker, not as some bearded old king on a throne in heaven. God isn’t an outsider to our lives. God isn’t like a king or a president who might choose to save us by sending his troops. God doesn’t send others to do the dirty work. God sends God. That’s why we confess that Jesus is God. If Jesus is not God, then we worship a God who refuses to jump into our mess, then we serve a God who doesn’t like to get dirty. If Jesus is not God, then we praise a God who doesn’t want to get too close–a God who refuses intimacy, who refuses the risks that come along with becoming our friend, our companion.

This is why the language of God’s sovereignty sometimes leads us astray. When we say that God is sovereign, we probably picture God as one of those kings who makes decrees from on high with an entourage of servants at his command. We picture God as a president who claims victory while never living in the trenches–a distant God, always once-removed from the action. And if that’s what we mean when we call God sovereign, then we don’t really believe in the God who is Trinity, which is simply another way of saying that we don’t have a clue about what happens on the cross. Because on the cross that kind of sovereign God dies. Or, to put it more provocatively, the crucifixion kills our picture of a detached God. The crucifixion of Jesus kills our image of God as the sovereign victor who sends other people to do the dirty work, the risky stuff. The true God, the God revealed at the crucifixion, is intimate with humanity, familiar with our flesh. At the cross we see how God sends God to accomplish our salvation.

Now, the Holy Spirit is how God takes even one more step closer to us. The Spirit draws God even closer, maybe even uncomfortably close. Remember the beginning of the Gospel when the Holy Spirit descends upon Mary’s womb and gives her a son, Jesus. Now that’s close, very close–entering a womb is uncomfortably close. And we have Paul in Romans 8 using, interestingly enough, pregnancy language to talk about how the Spirit is at work inside all of us–not just Mary. Each of us is groaning in labor pains, Paul says, undergoing the travail of the Holy Spirit, awaiting God’s redemption in our midst, feeling the good news being born inside of us. At this point the Spirit reveals an important insight into the nature of God. That is, God doesn’t overpower us. God isn’t a super-sovereign, doing what he wants whenever he wants. God doesn’t rescue us as if he were a SWAT team or a Navy Seal operation. God doesn’t act like a foreign invader of our lives, forcing us to join the mission. None of those images describe God. Augustine of Hippo made this point when he said, “God did not will to save us without us.” God doesn’t save us without us. God doesn’t use external force to get us to do the right thing.

Let me offer a few images to help us get a sense for what God is not. God is not like a surgeon who stands next to her patient and operates on the heart. God is not like a mechanic who looks under the hood and repairs the engine. God’s life is much too intimate with ours for those images to be true. God saves us from the inside; God heals us as if healing her own body. It’s hard to talk about this stuff. Our language seems to break down. The doctrine of the Trinity seems to push us into the limits of language and shows us that the best way to understand is to feel it, to be drawn into this relationship, to feel the Spirit working in your life, to listen for the groaning in your gut.

Let me offer one more picture of the way God works in our lives through the Holy Spirit. This one involves the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. The story centers on the relationship between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy is a gentlemen and one of the richest men around. Elizabeth comes from a humble family. Mr. Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth even though he shouldn’t because of their class difference. It would be a scandal for a man like Darcy to marry someone from the inferior Bennet family line. Yet he can’t help himself, and everything comes out one afternoon when he storms into Elizabeth’s room and professes his love. But it’s all wrong; he gets everything wrong. Darcy doesn’t understand love. His kind of love is one that compels from the outside. Darcy knows his position of social power over someone as humble as Elizabeth. If he wants Elizabeth, he can take her and insult her in the process. Here’s what he says in his profession of love: “My feelings for you have taken possession of me against my will, my reason, and almost against my character!” Darcy knows that a person of such high standing shouldn’t love someone of such low status. So he admits that his love is unnatural, and insults Elizabeth’s family. Not a very wise move. Darcy doesn’t know that you can’t come from on high and force someone to love you, that you can’t make love happen on your own terms; he doesn’t know that love is not coercive. When Darcy finally gets around to the proposal part, he goes on and on about how his kind shouldn’t associate with her kind. He says, “I now hope that the strength of my love may have its reward in your acceptance of my hand.” The strength of my love. Darcy thinks the strength of his love, the sheer power of his passion, should get him what he wants–a “reward,” he says. Elizabeth’s acceptance is a reward, something he earns through his confession. There is no need for him to think through whether or not he has made himself lovable. Darcy doesn’t think twice about whether or not he deserves her love.

Mr. Darcy’s love comes from one high, from the position of a gentlemanly sovereign, a benevolent aristocrat. That’s not how God loves. Now, I should say a little more about how Darcy’s character develops–Katie, my wife, would not be happy with me if I left you with a bad impression of Mr. Darcy! Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s declaration of love from on high, and so Darcy begins to learn that love must first become familiar, intimate. Love comes from companionship–so he spends the rest of the movie learning how to be a companion, and how to love Elizabeth’s strange family. And it’s this companionship that gets at what Paul is saying about the Holy Spirit. God is in our depths, groaning with us. God’s love comes through intimate companionship–walking with us, praying with us, crying out with us. God doesn’t overpower us. God’s Spirit is a hidden presence–willing to go unnoticed, willing to be a humble companion. That is how the Trinity begins to unfold in our lives. It starts as a groan, something beyond words, a sigh. Perhaps a sigh from exhaustion with your life, or a disgruntled groan about the way the world works. You don’t know what to say or how to change things or where to go. You’re just plain stuck, without options. Yet the Spirit is there: your groaning companion, Paul says. The Holy Spirits turns that feeling in your gut into a simple prayer–or, as Paul says, “a cry,” a cry to the one who bore you, the creator, the mother of us all, “Abba! Father!”

The Trinity doesn’t make much sense as a doctrine. But that’s how it goes with the mystery of God. God is not a mystery for us to sit around and think about. The Trinity names an experience, an encounter, a relationship. The Trinity comes as a feeling in our gut, a prayer we don’t know how to pray, a desire we can’t quite get a handle on. This experience is how we know the Trinity is on the move. The best we can do sometimes, the best we can say when we don’t know what to say, the best we can do when everything seems completely unsatisfying, is to go with our gut and groan. For our hope is that our deep sighs echo with the Holy Spirit who leads us into the intimate love of God, a God who is already our companion, a hidden presence among all God’s children. As the apostle Paul puts it, the Trinity comes with a cry:

When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit [the Holy Spirit] bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. (Rom 8:15b-17a)


This is an excerpt from J. Alexander Sider and Isaac S. Villegas, Presence: Giving and Receiving God (Cascade, forthcoming).

Comment (1)

  1. Jon

    Hello, I liked your post. Augustine makes good company.

    You might enjoy this lecture by Professor Lawrence Feingold on human freedom, God’s will, and grace.

    The Q&A section of the talk is really good.

    (1) Does prayer affect God’s freedom? If not, how can it be efficacious? What can it change? (1′)

    (2) When a tragedy happens, such as 9/11, we may say it was God’s will. And yet sin is a turning away from God’s will. And that act of terrorism (i.e. 9/11) was a sin, and thus a turning away from God’s will? So how do we reconcile these two claims? (5′)

    (3) Is the law contrary to the lower freedom (freedom from coercion)? (11′)

    (4) If God gives efficacious grace only to some, how is that compatible with Christ dying for all, and with His universal salvific will? (12′)

    (5) If man is free to cooperate with grace or resist grace, how is that not Pelagianism, and how does that not make man his own savior, and rob God of all the glory? (18′)

    (6) How is predestination compatible with freedom? (22′)

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