A few years back, while at a family picnic, my mom said, “Matt, I have a question for you.” I took a deep breath. My mom’s questions are rarely simple. She said, “Explain the Trinity to me.”
I laughed! “Ha! And in 100 words or less, right?”
What she was really referring to was a question that had come up during one of her recent Bible studies about why Jesus prayed. If Jesus is God, the age-old question goes, who was he praying to, himself?
The word “Trinity” does not appear anywhere in scripture, and yet our triune God appears everywhere in the Bible. From the opening verses of Genesis, through the utterances of prophets, and to the theological treatises of Paul’s epistles, the Trinitarian nature of God is distinctly Christian, and this has been the case from our religion’s earliest days. Many early church controversies surrounded the ongoing pursuit of an orthodox set of beliefs upon which all Christians could (or must) agree. These controversies raged most hotly around such difficult, metaphysical questions as What is the nature of God? How is Jesus related to God? And What was Jesus’ true nature?
My response to my mother was, “Jesus prayed to God because he was fully human. In that context, it didn’t matter that he was divine, it mattered that he was human, and that he was modeling for us the kind of relationship that his disciples should have with God, which must include prayer.” But, I also said, my favorite professor routinely passes on metaphysical questions like these when asked by students, either because the church has already given an answer, and it’s more reasonable to study that answer than to presume that one could come up with a better response on one’s own, or because there is no answer, thus making the question boring to him. Ask him how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and he’ll respond, “I don’t care!”
And in a way, I see his point. There are some questions that cannot be answered. It’s not that no one has answered it yet, or that the question has just been waiting for you to come along and think about it for ten minutes. The question has no answer. It is a mystery, not a puzzle. Puzzles may be solved; mysteries are mysterious precisely because we do not have all the information, and so cannot derive a solution. The most difficult physics equations in the world might be solved by the most ingenious minds, or the most powerful super-computers. But no genius in the world can answer your wife when she asks you, “Why do you love me?” You can tell her what you love about her, but why do you love her? It is a mystery, and trying to solve it like a puzzle would actually ruin it.
The Trinity is a mystery like this. Many attempts have been made to analogize it meaningfully. Saint Patrick famously used a shamrock to explain how each leaf, while representing a different person of the Trinity, is nonetheless part of the same plant. The problem with that analogy is that each leaf is still a separate leaf, whether it is a part of a single plant or not. A shamrock (or any plant, for that matter) would make a better image for Christian’s relationship to Christ and one another. If only someone had been wise enough to come up with an analogy for that, like “I am the vine, you are the branches…”
Another analogy that I like better—but which is still inadequate—is to describe the Trinity as being like water: whether it is a life-giving liquid that takes no shape, but fills the space it’s in, like the Father; or it is frozen into something solid that can take a definite shape and be held and touched, like the Son; or it is an invisible vapor that cannot be contained but whose effects can still be seen, like the Spirit, all three of these various forms are still water. They are all of the same substance. But this analogy breaks down, too, when we recall that water can’t take all three forms at the same time, while, as my mother pointed out last weekend, God apparently can.
And so the best I can do is to say that the Trinity is a mystery to be pondered and appreciated with awe and reverence, but not a puzzle to be solved. God is one; God has three different ways of being God, and yet they are all the same God; the three persons of the Trinity work in concert with one another, and yet there is only one God. Do you see how confusing it becomes? And yet confusion does not make it untrue—surely it is the arrogance of humanity to suggest that if our minds can’t crack it, it can’t be true!
Perhaps the most lovely way that I have heard the Trinity explained is not an explanation of how the Trinity works as what the Trinity means. That, after all, is what we’re after here this morning: some understanding of why knowing that God is triune matters. Fredrick Boechner, an American writer and theologians, has said that, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mean that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery. Thus, the Trinity is a way of saying something about us and the way we experience God.”
God the Father is the mystery beyond us; God the Son is the mystery among us; God the Holy Spirit is the mystery within us; and the mystery, in all three cases, is God. And the reason why I think Boechner suggests that “the Trinity is saying something about us” is because, remember, we are created in the image of God. And if we’re created in the image of God, then human nature, too, is Trinitarian.
Each of us is created in a Trinitarian way: mind, body, and soul. Our minds are like the Father—the creative inspiration and impetus for all that we say and do, but which cannot be seen or touched. Our bodies are like the Son—the hands and feet that take action at the behest of our minds, in order to love one another as God has loved us. Our souls are like the Holy Spirit—the invisible essence of who we are, and the impulse and power to act out of love for God and others. This analogy is probably imperfect, too, but it shows how each of us is created in the image of God, while at the same time remaining completely different in nature, and is also the basis for the Greatest Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength (or body).” (Deut. 6:5)
So if what Boechner says is true, that acknowledging that God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery, then this also reinforces the notion that we participate in the relationship of the Trinity. Remember, Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of John that he and the Father abide in one another, and that we abide in them (and they in us) as well. Therefore, having been drawn into this relationship by God in, through, and as Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we enjoy the same sort of interpenetrating, indwelling relationship with God that the persons of the Trinity enjoy with one another! That is why the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit come to represent the mystery beyond us, among us, and within us.
It goes without saying that God is a mystery that is beyond us. But I don’t just mean that God is a mystery that is outside of our capacity to comprehend (though God is), but also that God exists outside of us, outside of all creation, in fact, because his nature is so completely different from ours that we cannot grasp it. God is not a part of creation, because God was not created. There is nothing like God, because God is the only non-creature. If a dung beetle stopped rolling dung long enough to develop a system of belief about humans and called it “humanology,” it would still come closer to understanding humans than we can come with our systems of belief about God, which we call “theology.” God the Father is the mystery beyond us.
However, God the Son also signifies the mystery among us. In Jesus Christ, God did indeed become flesh and dwell among us. Knowing Jesus, learning from Jesus, following Jesus, people know, learn from, and follow God. We also look upon one another and see Christ, as he reminds us not only that we are the body of Christ, but also that as we care for the least of his brothers and sisters, we care for him. Every act of love and kindness that we show to a fellow human being is an act of love shown toward Jesus Christ. God the Son is the mystery among us.
Finally, God the Holy Spirit signifies the mystery within us. We all know the stirring that we sometimes feel within our own souls—the draw to prayer, the pricking of our conscience, the compulsion to act with love toward a perfect stranger. It is not in our nature to do these things, although we were created for relationship with God and one another, and we long for those relationships, whether we are aware of it or not. Why we long for God, why we feel compelled to care for others, when our human nature tells us only to look out for number one, is attributable only to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. God the Holy Spirit is the mystery within us.
In Romans, Paul never uses the word “Trinity,” but he describes exactly how the Trinitarian nature of God affects us, and what it means for us. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” he says. “When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our soul that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Without ever saying that God’s nature is Triune, Paul nonetheless describes him that way, and all three persons of the one, true God appear in this passage. Paul tells us that it is the Holy Spirit who inspires us to cry out to God the Father, who we are able to call Father because we have been adopted by him, thanks to the suffering and glorification of God the Son.
Paul’s explanation of the Trinity, even though that’s not what he was trying to explain, outlines for us how God’s triunity bears itself out in our relationship with him and with one another. By the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God the Father adopts us as members of the family, including us in the eternal love relationship between the persons of the Trinity, and calling us to also extend this love relationship with one another, even suffering as Christ suffered out of love for the world.
So let us love the our Triune God with all of our Triune selves: with our mind, our soul, and the strength of our bodies; and let us love one another in the same way, living lives that bear witness to the image of God in which we were all created. Why do we love? Because God is love, the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for one another and for us, and we were created in his image. Would that answer satisfy my wife if she asked, “Why do you love me?” Maybe not. But like trying to explain the Trinity itself, perhaps that’s the best I can do.