1. incapable of being expressed or described in words
2. not to be spoken because of its sacredness; unutterable
Applying words to God is a tricky business. Since God is infinite, any definition we construct is by definition insufficient. We write and speak about God, and around God, but the words we use are not God. Not surprisingly, some of the most powerful and revealing writing about God is not descriptive but poetic.
The psalmists and prophets were particularly gifted at painting their experience of God in vivid metaphors, some so strange as to be dreamlike. When discussing God as a saving force, Isaiah described a warrior with a breastplate of righteousness, a helmet of salvation, garments of vengeance, and a mantle of fury. God is infinitely more than a warrior, but for Isaiah this was an image that addressed the needs of the time. When we contrast that picture with Matthew’s picture of God as a mother hen gathering her chicks, it is apparent different metaphors for God serve different purposes.
One danger of metaphors is that we allow them to solidify into definitions. For example, God as “Father” is one of the most common metaphors, so common that many people take is as a firm definition. Many find this image strong and comforting, but to others who have not had good paternal experience it can be jarring, even alienating. While we should welcome the potential for growth that exists in grappling with challenging notions of God, when we insist on our own image of God is the sole defining one, we do a disservice to the God who is present for all people in all times and all places. Furthermore, we hamper our opportunity to experience God in ever richer ways by considering how God manifests to others.
The good news is that if no words are sufficient – all words are on the table. We may not be able to define God, but we can express our understanding of God in words and images that reflect our own experiences. We are not limited to existing, traditional terms that we find alienating or meaningless. To some people – people who feel the need to control the uncontrollable experience that is God – this notion is dangerous and heretical. But if our goal is truly to better understand God and not just to create a God in an image that is convenient for us, the work of doing so is holy.
Comfort: God can be present to us in many ways…
Challenge: … so we should stay alter to how God is present for other people.
Prayer: Ever-present God, though I may never succeed I strive to experience you as you are, not just as I would have you be.
Discussion: Are they any ideas of God you have abandoned or embraced?
* ineffable. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 08, 2013, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ineffable