In yesterday's online devotional for Ravi Zacharias Ministries, Betsy Childs points to author E.M. Forster's differentiation between "flat" characters and "round" characters as a good analogy for our sometimes problematic thinking about God. As Childs summarizes: "A round character is multi-dimensional in that he or she is believably lifelike, able to surprise the reader, and his or her character is fully fleshed out by the author. A flat character merely exists to embody a particular quality or personify an abstract idea." She believes that many of us are puzzled by the actions of God as portrayed in the Bible because we expect God to act as a flat character, in other words, in predictable ways based on his attributes. In fact, it's easy to think of God as an abstraction, the sum of his attributes, when scripture portrays him as having emotions and motivations.
God is immutable and, yet, as Childs points out, "his response to his creatures may vary according to their actions or his purposes." Not only is he immutable, but I add that he is also inscrutable. We know him only partially, only incompletely, and thus we do not comprehend why he does what he does or fails to do what we think he should do. Ultimately, God remains incomprehensible. This is no surprise. It's an opportunity for trust in his goodness and providential care. Authors often speak of their round characters as having a life of their own, of almost being out of their control. So too, God is not under under our control but works out his purposes in ways we cannot often discern. He is neither tame nor safe but he is good.
Reading Childs' short meditation, the similarity between our relationship to God and to our spouses, children, or even ourselves struck me. The human personality is also ultimately inscrutable. We know ourselves, and yet do we fully know what we will do. We know our spouses, and yet they may at times respond to situations in ways that baffle us. Of course, in these relationships sin is in the picture, and yet the same trust, the same presumption of goodwill, should extend to these relationships. As Proverbs 11:27 says, "Those who seek good find goodwill." God doesn't fit into our box, and yet neither do those we are closest to; our calling is to trust in both God's goodwill toward us as well as the goodwill of those closest to us. Though human beings will let us down at times, God will not.
Our lives are peopled with round characters and presided over by a round character, God himself. Self-absorption leads us to treat God and others as mere foils for our personal story or as two-dimensional abstractions subject to generalizations that fail to account for personality. As an example, whatever you think of immigration reform, it is wrong to generalize about immigrants and treat them as one homogeneous group. They are round characters bearing God's image.
As Childs summarizes: "Ours is not a love story between flat characters. The one who calls Himself 'I am that I am' is not a flat character. We should relish the mystery of the God who is not a prisoner of our expectations, but who nevertheless desires to be known by us." So too, if love is our motivation, those around us will slowly and imperfectly become rounder, more lifelike characters in the great Story we find ourselves in. It won't make it easier, but it will keep it interesting!