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Confessions: Describing the Unfathomable

Then what are you, my God? What are you, I ask, except God the Master? Who is a master except—the Master? Or who is a god except our God? The highest, the most excellent, the most powerful, all-powerful beyond all-powerful, most merciful and most just, most remote and most present, most beautiful and most powerful, unmoving but ungraspable, unchangeable but changing everything, never new, never old, but making all things new while leading the arrogant into decrepitude, though they are unaware of it. You are always active and always at rest, gathering in but not in need, carrying and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to fulfillment, searching though you lack nothing. You love, but you do not burn with love, you are jealous yet carefree, you repent but you do not grieve, you are angry yet serene, you change your works but you do not change your plan, you take back what you find but have never lost. You are never poor, but you rejoice in what you gain, never greedy, but you exact interest; more is paid to you than owed, but the result is that you owe us. Yet who has anything that doesn’t belong to you? You pay your debts though you owe no one, you remit your debts but lose nothing. And what have we said now, my God, my life, my holy sweetness, or what does anyone ever say in speaking of you? But woe to those who are silent about you; however garrulous they are in general, they are mute about what counts.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 1.4

Although God is unfathomable, Augustine still tries. And after he does his best to put to words to the God he finds in Scripture, he concludes that nothing has truly been said. While his description might be excellent, Augustine recognizes that even our best descriptions are but a shadow of God's majesty. Just as the apostle Paul wrote, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). Scripture reveals God, but if any attempt to describe God will fall short then what is the worth of this exercise? Again, it is wonder. Try to curiously question God’s mystery. Now try describing it. You will love what you find. But, you will run out of words quickly and allow your imagination to take over. As Shakespeare wrote, “love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind…”[1]

But even if you cannot describe God, if what you see in your imagination is beautiful enough, how could you not speak? How Could you not try to describe it? Do lovers not speak of their love although they do not have words? Even though these words fail to describe God fully, their value to the soul is worth more than the garrulous words of those who are silent about the one thing that truly matters: God’s glory.

I will tell of your goodness;

all day long I will speak of your salvation,

though it is more than I can understand.

— Psalm 71:15 (GNT)

Lord, open my lips to speak of your glory.

[1] A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Act 1, Scene 1 Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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