Written by Jonathan Toccoli


God, like the sun, overwhelms us and O how great it is that he does

(Scriptures to read and meditate on before, during or after reading: Exodus 19, Matthew 11 and Hebrews 9-10)

There’s a phrase by a Swiss, 20th century theological giant that is as genius as it is obnoxious. I’ll explain.

But first, do you know what tautology is? In everyday discourse, a tautology is a horrible thing: stating the same thing in two ways with no additional development or clarification. So, one might say, “Apples are my favorite because I love apples.” To sentences like this we say, ‘um, yeah… good for you…?’ because they are over taxingly obvious. In logic, however, a tautology is an idea that is true and requires no argument to support it. Hence, a philosopher would have to be a dunce to try to prove that a rock is a rock because um, a rock is a rock. In philosophy then we could say, “a rock is a rock” and – yay! – we’re doing great. The style is still a little stiff, but it works. And sometimes such statements are necessary, even if it grates on one’s soul.

The first rule of tautology club is
the first rule of tautology club.
– xkcd

Now back to our pipe-smoking, German speaking pastor who utters our tautological assertion. In his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, Karl Barth (pronounced Bardt) writes:

God is God, man is man.

Beneath it’s pre-school level exterior, this tautological master-class hints at the mysterium tremendum (mystical terror and awe) that testifies to the presence and experience of God, which it would be good for us to explore.

Our 20th c. counterparts saw in God something we 21st c. evangelicals really don’t like talking about: God is scary. Have you ever contemplated what God must be like if he is not our cuddly grandpa-in-the-sky kind of god? If God is to be God, and not merely our idea of cuddle-god, this means he is totally and unequivocally unlike anything or anyone we have known, experienced, thought or imagined. The sheer expanse of time he has existed might, if you think really, really hard about it, cause a small panic attack in itself. And God is more than just a long-exister.

This God established the world with a word. This God revealed himself to the Israelites under Moses as a pillar of fire that reached up to the heavens. I mean, have you ever been to Disneyland and on the Indiana Jones ride when they do that fireball in the Temple of Doom? It’s hot! Now double that power and intensity in your mind. Now double that. Now double that. Now double that. Now repeat about 40 times. Scared yet? And that was how God revealed himself to his own people, to the people he was saving and with whom he made an everlasting covenant – i.e., to the people he liked! No wonder the Israelites told Moses, “Um, you go up there and talk to that guy – we’ll just stay down here and um, do anything else.”

Yet it gets worse (better really, but even more scary). This God isn’t really a pillar of fire or tempest or any of the physical manifestations that mark his presence. He is God. And, to the astute minded, you’ll realize we used a person pronoun to describe him: he. This appears-as-AWE-THERE’S-FIRE God, has a mind and a will and, as all persons do, a code of right and wrong. Now I ask you, do you for one second imagine that you could ever be anything like strong enough – let alone good enough – to stand before someone whose very presence causes people to fall down as if they died? I hope that answer is no because you are not in any way strong enough. Not at all. Like, not at all, at all. And here is one of the reasons why God is so terrifying: he is God. He’s not a man. He’s not an angel – though humans fall down as though dead when they see angles too. He’s not even a god. He is God, the One. If there are things like gods, they would freakout and run the other way if they heard him coming. God is uncomfortable company for non-Gods.

Yet it gets worse (better really, but even more scary). Not only are we not strong enough to stand even the rumor of God’s coming, we are no where nearly, not even close to being good enough. I don’t mean ‘good’ here how you use it when talking to your dog:

Oh, good boy! You’re acting like a dog. How appropriate.

Or even when you say a guy or girl is a good person – an upright, dependable person. If we have to use human analogies (which we do because we’re, um, human), we probably would best compare God’s goodness to the sun. Doing what a good sun should do, if you get to close, even if you look directly at it, it will destroy you. Not because it’s bad or evil or negative in any way whatsoever, but because, being a good sun, the sun is bright and the sun is hot.

Yet it gets worse (better really, but even more scary). While it is well and good to talk about ‘good’ as we did above, it is not the end of it. God is what we in theological speak call ‘righteous’ or ‘just.’ If burning is to the sun as goodness is to God, righteousness is to God what solar radiation is to the sun: the thing that emanates from him at all times in all directions and which – like the light from the sun provides the basis for all life – provides the basis for all existence and happiness.

God’s righteousness is the reason we exist, it is the air in which we walk, the water which we drink. It is also, however, the thing that makes demands of us and all things. It is in fact the very reason why God is trustworthy: God will never do an unGod like thing. He will never, for instance, praise a murder or commend an extortioner. He will never do wrong by himself. He is God after all. And he cannot and will never be anyone/thing less than God. And to be God is to be just. And you now see the problem is really very sever. You and I and your mom and dad aren’t really that good in basically-any sense.

The real issue, and has been the issue the whole time, is not that the sun is the sun or God is God, but that we are humans. Or, as Barth said it, man is man. We as individuals and as a species are fragile, corruptible, changeable, temporary and transient. And so we should be; we are humans after all. But this doesn’t change the reality: since God is God and man is man, to us, God is just downright scary. And, let’s be honest, we’re also rather wicked. Ouch.

This puts us and God in a rather awkward position. If we take it as read that God made an everlasting covenant with Abram/Abraham to save all creation, we have a rather serious problem. If God’s very presence is destruction to us and, what’s more, we have made that presence even more destructive to us by being corrupt, how can God be God and save us? Or to put it a different way, how can God be just and save us? Honestly, it looks like a problem without a solution.

Let’s consider the things that have to be overcome in any possible solution to this seemingly insolvable problem. Somehow God has to:

  • make it so that his very presence, the fire of his person, doesn’t devour us like an ice cube hurled into the sun,
  • remains God (he cannot not do this, but it’s an important point)
  • make us not just strong enough to stand in his presence, but good enough.

To this, it turns out, the mind of God found a solution. And it seems like an impossible one. God himself would have to transcend the ‘God is God, man is man’ gap and create a pathway for man to climb someway back the other way. God himself, it turns out, would have to become man. And this did happen.

So many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that… when one wants to take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, one cannot do so, even by reckoning them up, for the things that transcend one’s thought are always more than those one thinks that one has grasped.
– St. Athanasius

God’s solution to the God-man gap? The God-man Jesus Christ. And this is why the most important thing about us is how we respond to Jesus. The terror that would have otherwise destroyed us is now the very gateway to blessing and joy. Enter gladly into that joy.

Now to Him who is able to do infinitely more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
– St. Paul to the Ephesians


Jonathan is Vice Principal at Jim Elliot Christian High School and leads the Lincoln Village CG with his wife, Emily. While he is a fourth generation Stocktonian, he’s spent 7 of the last 9 years in Chicago working on a couple graduate degrees. Now that they’ve re-relocated to Stockton, he says he loves standing outside in the sun in January and lazing with his dogs. He also really, really enjoys espresso.