Is God a He, She or It?

This first lesson explores the essential nature of God and how we can relate to Him effectively.
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The idea for this book comes from a great book by Mike Cope that provides many insights about knowing God more deeply and personally ("One Holy Hunger" - Hillcrest Publishing).

When you are praying to God, do you really know who you are praying to? Are you even sure that someone is there listening? Do you find that you are doing all the talking and when you stop, there is only silence? A silence that does not reassure you that someone has actually heard your prayer? Wouldn't it be nice if God would just say, "OK, I hear you, keep talking."

We understand that prayer is something that is powered by faith and done with the belief that the One we pray to hears, even if there is silence after we finish expressing our words of praise, thanksgiving and various requests. Even so, many who claim to be believers have a hard time imagining the One they are offering their prayers to.

We know, however, that children don't have this problem when they pray because their faith is so simple and straightforward it leaves no room for doubt. I would imagine that this is one of the reasons why Jesus said that our faith should be like that of children, uncluttered by adult hesitation and doubt that God is there to hear and answer our prayers.

Children tend to approach God as Father, and see Him as good so they are content to speak to Him in a simple and confident manner. It is sad that as we grow older and influenced by a largely unbelieving world, our view of God changes and we begin to have false ideas about Him. Unfortunately, these false ideas interfere with our prayer life. This book, therefore, is an attempt to improve our understanding of who God really is so that we better know the One we are praying to and what He desires from us, hence the title, "Getting to Know You, God."

If we succeed in this it will accomplish several things. For example, our experience of joy and peace will increase because the Bible teaches us that knowing God is the essence of eternal life,

This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
- John 17:3

Jesus teaches us that the experience of "eternal life" is the ongoing process of knowing God more completely, and we don't have to wait until we get to heaven to begin gaining this knowledge, we can start now. Also, if we get to know God better, we will have greater confidence in facing death and dealing with all of the difficulties that accompany it. The more I know my God, the less I am afraid of leaving this world in order to be with Him.

Paul, the Apostle, writes with this type of confidence because he was a man who knew God intimately:

38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 8:38-39

Paul was a person who was confident in God. A man who truly knew God and thus could write these encouraging words to those who feared death because their knowledge of God was limited. Intimate knowledge of God produces confidence, and this assurance promotes a more effective prayer life. What does James say concerning those who are confident in prayer?

The prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick
- James 5:15a

A strong faith is required for strong results. The way to build faith, therefore, is to get to know the God of the Bible more perfectly. The prayer in faith is the prayer offered with the belief that God is there, hears and is able to answer now as He has in the past. As already mentioned, this faith comes as we grow in our knowledge of the One that we pray to.

Is God a He or a She?

Let us begin this effort at knowing God by answering one of the more popular questions about Him, "Is God a he, she or an it?" This question is usually asked by individuals who are not familiar with the Bible. Recently, there have been efforts to eliminate all gender references to God in Scripture. This was a reaction to the patriarchal nature of the Bible and male dominated imagery it contained. Some feminist groups suggested that we should refer to God as She in order to redress the imbalance of the last 2000 years. For this reason some modern editions of the Bible do not refer to God as a he. At times they refer to Him as She or use the term Mother-God or Father-God in an effort to blend together a homogeneous God that includes an equal measure of both male and female imagery.

Of course, this politically correct thinking and posturing does not take into account that references to God in the Bible are metaphors. For example, the Bible refers to Peter as a he because Peter was a man, no metaphor required here. But when the Bible refers to God as He, it is using a metaphor. Whether you use male or female references makes no difference, they are still metaphors that only describe, through imagery, part of God's character. The simple truth is that God is neither male nor female. God is pure spirit and is thus not human, let alone male or female. Jesus Himself says that God is Spirit (John 4:24). And therein lies the problem of knowing God. If He were human (male or female), we could more easily relate to Him. But because His nature is completely different from ours, we have difficulty in knowing and understanding Him.

The Greeks had their panoply of gods who were part human and part supernatural. These gods, however, had very human characteristics: they wept, they were jealous, they married and cheated on their spouses. The God of the Bible, however, is not human so we should not attribute to Him weak and sinful human characteristics. He is not like us. We may be like Him in many ways, but He is not like us. For this reason God reveals Himself to us using terms and images that are taken from our frame of reference, not His.

For example, it would not help us to know God more deeply if He simply said that He is like the angels. Angels are spirit beings also and we cannot relate or know them any more than we know God, since their nature is also different than ours. Consequently, using them and only them as a reference would not be very helpful to us. What God does, therefore, is select people and things that belong to our world in order to describe what exists in another world, dimension and nature.

One of the dangers in attempting to know God from the things that He has created, however, is the human tendency to worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator.

For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
- Romans 1:25

The Apostle Paul warns against making a god out of things that represent or give us insight into God's nature. Oddly enough in today's society we are doing the reverse. We are trying to eliminate or replace the images that the Bible uses to describe God and are trying to replace them with symbols that suit us better and fulfill our political or humanistic agenda. In other words, we are not using the words, images and metaphors that the inspired writers have given us to describe God, but are replacing them with our own symbols and metaphors to describe God in ways that will fit current thinking.

The answer to this kind of tinkering with the Bible text is to realize that God, who not only chose to reveal Himself to man, but also the manner in which He would do so, should be the final arbiter of how He is described and perceived by those He has created. The first lines of the book of Hebrews address this very issue in proper context:

God, after he spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets and in many portions and in many ways.
- Hebrews 1:1

Notice carefully what the Hebrew writer is saying about God revealing Himself. God spoke (revealed) to various ones (the patriarchs and the prophets) in many portions and in many ways. In other words, God made Himself known in a variety of ways: to Moses, in the burning bush; to Isaiah, by a vision; He inspired others with images; to the Israelites with the use of fire/thunder/lightning on the mountain. He revealed Himself to different individuals and peoples in the way, manner and portion that was suitable for the time and effective for the idea that He wanted to convey to them.

For example, when God revealed Himself to Moses, He appeared as a burning bush that was not extinguished (Exodus 3:1-17) in order to show Moses that he was dealing with the "Eternal One." This was important for two reasons: first, Moses needed to understand that the One who appeared to Him was the same God who had made promises to his ancestors hundreds of years before. Secondly, God would send Moses to face a powerful king to demand the release of his people, and Moses needed to have confidence that the One who sent him was more powerful than the one he was sent to. Both of these requirements were fulfilled with His appearance as a fiery bush that nothing could extinguish.

Had God merely spoken to him in a dream, Moses could have doubted that the dream was real and contained specific instructions. A burning bush that did not burn out, seeing its flame, feeling its heat and hearing a voice from it in broad daylight, this was hard to dismiss. For this reason God chose different ways to reveal Himself to various people in order to convey specific messages. This is why the writer of Hebrews says that God spoke in many ways and in many portions. He then goes on to say:

In these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.
- Hebrews 1:2

These "last days" refers to the time between Christ's first appearance (His birth, death and resurrection) and His next appearance (at the end of the world to judge the world). In this period of time God has chosen to reveal Himself through Jesus Christ. This is how He wants us to know Him. The point here is that we do not have a right to change the words or images that the Bible uses because the Spirit says that God has chosen to reveal Himself through Jesus Christ. This means that the words, images, metaphors and commandments that Jesus communicates are the ways that God has decided to reveal Himself to us who live in these "last days." Therefore, from the burning bush in Moses' day to the person of Jesus in the New Testament, God has revealed Himself using many different forms. Our task is not to elevate one form over the other, or change them to suit our particular social or political point of view, but to bring all of these biblical forms together so that we can better know the Spirit we call God. This is the first important step in the process of knowing God.

God as an "It"

From the beginning God has used a variety of inanimate objects to demonstrate facets of His character. For example, in Exodus 3:2, He appears as a burning bush that was not destroyed. Why this way to reveal Himself? As I explained previously, to demonstrate His eternal and powerful nature to Moses. Later on, God would eventually send Moses to do great miracles so He begins by demonstrating His own power in the burning bush. The point for Moses to grasp was that if God could appear as a burning bush, He could also divide the Red Sea or provide water from a rock. The burning bush was a preview for all the things that God would eventually do through Moses as he led the children of Israel out of Egyptian slavery through the performance of incredible miracles.

In Psalms 28:7 David writes, "The Lord is my strength and my shield." In this and many other passages God is seen as a shield in order to demonstrate His protective nature. In Deuteronomy 32:4 it says "The rock! His work is perfect." Here the metaphor for God is that He is like rock or boulder. This imagery conveys the idea that God is stable, foundational and unmovable. Of course, these images have limitations, but within context they describe quite graphically certain dimensions of God so that we can relate to Him not only on an intellectual level, but emotionally as well. I can imagine a huge boulder and in confidence say, "God is my rock." I can feel its weight and sturdiness, and because of this relate to it emotionally. This is one of the reasons that the Bible often uses objects to more fully describe God. Of course no one example, no one thing or metaphor can capture all of what God is, but these give us insight into parts of His character and will. It is left to us to put these together in order to make a more complete image of the God who wants us to know Him.

God as a "Woman"

The idea that God is represented as female in the Bible is not unheard of, but it does make some feel uncomfortable because the majority of references speak of Him as male. There are, however, many references in the Bible to God as female. For example:

What was your mother? a lioness among lions!
- Ezekiel 19:2

Here, God is compared to a fierce and protective lioness in giving birth to Israel.

Before her pain came, she gave birth to a boy.
- Isaiah 66:7b

Here God is compared to a woman at the point of giving birth. The passage goes on to say that the child, Israel, was conceived, carried and delivered in a single day. A kind of a super-human woman if you wish. Nevertheless the imagery of God here is female.

How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.
- Matthew 23:37b

In Matthew's passage the protective nature of a hen is compared to God's (Jesus is speaking) protective nature towards His children. Again, the imagery of God here is female in nature. The use of female imagery, therefore, is used throughout the Bible to describe various aspects of God's character and nature. What better way to convey protectiveness, tenderness and compassion than through the figure of a woman and a mother.

God as a "Man"

Even though there are more metaphors in the Bible showing God as a man, we need to remember that this does not mean that God is human or has a male nature (God is spirit). Some say that this use of male imagery was done because men were the ones who wrote the Bible and did so by imagining God as male. Peter refutes this notion when he writes:

20But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, 21for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
- II Peter 1:20-21

Peter, the inspired Apostle, teaches that God is the one who gave the writers the information which they recorded. The images and metaphors belong to God, not man. A man never decided which imagery to use, male, female or other. Human beings did not make the decision as to what would be contained in the Bible. Peter says that those who wrote were moved by the Spirit to do so. It was the Spirit of God that gave them what they were to write, and this includes the type of images and metaphors used to describe God. The major idea, beginning in the Old Testament, describes God as Father. This term in the Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament) means chief, source or nourisher.

The Jews referred to God as Father and Lord, or Father and King, but it was Jesus who developed the idea of God as "Dad" or "Daddy." In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to God simply as Father or parent over 100 times. Paul, the Apostle, repeats this beautiful and comforting imagery in Romans 8:15-17 where he refers to God as Abba or daddy, which was a more intimate term. The metaphor of father describes one who is chief but who is also provider, sustainer, leader, protector, comforter, teacher and friend. God is not a man but from the male nature God has drawn some inherent characteristics in order to convey yet another aspect of His complex person for us to know and to draw comfort from.

He is teaching us about Himself using human imagery because we understand this type of image. We understand ourselves as males and females, and we also understand references to our surroundings. God uses all of these sources in order to help us relate to One whose nature is pure spirit. We can refer to God as a He, not because God is male or prefers males, but because Jesus chose to confirm the Old Testament references to God as such and laid down ways we can address and interact with God which are proper and accurate according to His will. If Jesus refers to God as Father a hundred times but never as mother, then I can feel quite comfortable in referring to God as Father myself without feeling guilty or insensitive toward the feelings of my sisters in Christ. In addition to this, faithful women of God can refer to Him as Father as well without feeling that they are betraying their own sexuality. Why? Because we can both follow the lead of our Lord in the way we refer to God and know that we are doing what is biblically correct and thus acceptable to God which, in the end, is all that matters.

Of course, the most complete revelation of God comes, not through an image or a metaphor, but through a person. In the epistle to the Colossians Paul writes,

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
- Colossians 1:15

Here, Paul explains that in Jesus Christ all the imagery of the Bible finds its expression in a person. All the "it" and "he" and "she" images of the Old Testament come together into Christ. The protectiveness of the lioness and the tenderness of a mother, the strength of a father and the stability of a huge rock as well as all other metaphors are now expressed completely in Jesus Christ. All of the imagery is summarized in a male (Adam) because a male was the first created and the male (Jesus) will be the one through whom the second creation comes. This is what Paul alludes to in Romans:

For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.
- Romans 5:19

The first man, Adam, fell and then one like Adam (Jesus) was resurrected. He will be the one who raises up those who fail because of Adam's sin. More importantly, the full nature of God is represented in human form because humans are made in the image and the likeness of God. Animals are not and objects are not, so we come back to the original question.

Who are we praying to?

We are praying to someone who is not human but can relate to human need and emotion because He took on a human nature and experienced life as we know it. He then returned to the spiritual dimension and position from whence He came. This is who God is. You see Him in Jesus because, as humans, this is the clearest view we can have of Him. What, therefore, does this mean for us?

To begin with, it means that God can relate to us. He can feel what we feel and thus understand all of our concerns, joys and fears. We are, therefore, not wasting our time in prayer. Nevertheless, it remains difficult for us to relate to Him. He is so much more than we are and because of this we cannot take all of Him in. Interestingly enough He can even relate to this feeling on our part because appearing on earth in the body of a man, Jesus Christ experienced the limiting nature of human life and death. Therefore, everything from birth to death that we raise up to Him in prayer, He can relate to because He also was born and ultimately died. For this reason He understands every experience between these two points in anyone's life.

Secondly, it means that God does care. His intimate involvement with mankind throughout history, even to the point of becoming human Himself for a time, demonstrates that He does care and does hear our prayers. Why would He alter His divine nature to experience human living if He didn't care? This drastic, painful and humbling act on His part teaches us that we have a sympathetic and eager recipient of our prayers.

Finally, it means that God wants to help. The Bible shows how zealous God is for His people, how eager He is for sinners to come back to Him and how ready He is to punish those who harm His children. With God we have hope that our prayers will be answered and not grudgingly so.

When we confess our faith in God to others, therefore, let us remember to describe Him as the Bible does using the words, images and metaphors that He Himself has provided in His Word so that we can know and describe, as accurately as possible, the One we believe, serve, love and offer our prayers to.

Discussion Questions

  1. Defend that we experience a deeper and more satisfying prayer life as our knowledge of and relationship with God increases.
  2. What is the error in associating God exclusively from a gender perspective?
  3. What is an associated danger in attempting to know God from what He has created?
  4. What are some examples of how God has appeared to man or is seen by man?
  5. Comment on the following verses that describe God as a female.
  6. What is behind Peter's words in II Peter 1:20-21?
  7. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
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