The concept of a ‘trinity’ is something that confuses a lot of people. How can something be three things and also just be one thing? There are a lot of metaphors which individuals have used over the years to articulate this complex concept. The most famous metaphor is St. Patrick’s use of the three-leafed clover which contains three separate entities but is still a single plant. This helps get us part of the way there, but still misses the mark.
I look at the trinity more like methods of interacting with God. Think of it the same way as how your mother or father may interact with people throughout the week. Your parents are ‘parental figures’ to everyone; they are only parents to you so you interact with them in that specific way. That means there are certain powers/authorities and relationship factors that you have that others who interact with your parents differently may not have. Likewise, your parents probably have some kind of boss at their place of work. That boss has a way of interacting with your parents differently than you do. Just try to “fire” your mother and father and see where that lands you.
There are a couple of things we know about God that are easy to understand and that we have to establish before understanding the trinity. First, God has always existed and always will exist.
Adonai, you have been our dwelling place in every generation.
Before the mountains were born, before you had formed the earth and the world, from eternity past to eternity future you are God. (Psalms 90:1-2)
God has no beginning and no end. This sets the stage for exactly how beyond our comprehension God really is. The second thing we must keep in mind is that there is only one God. We see time and time again God referring to himself as ‘a jealous God’ (ex. Deut 4:24). This doesn’t mean that God wants your things or is petty. It means that God is a single entity that wants your singular devotion. Anything short of that total devotion is denying God a piece of us.
By understanding that God is eternal and God is singular, we can begin discussing the subject of the trinity.
God the Father
The first way God interacted with mankind, and the way God always wanted to interact with mankind, is as God who we see in Genesis and throughout the Old Testament. Before sin, God wanted to interact with us as our creator. What we see is that as we choose to turn away from God, the creator begins to look a lot like a parent. That actually makes a lot of sense when you think of your own parents. If you had been born and never given anybody a reason to think you would make a mistake or act in a way that was self-destructive, your parents wouldn’t ever have to actually do any parenting. It is only because your parents realize that you do need help that they act as your parental figures. This is why God assumed the role of God the Father.
When we combine God’s role of creator with his job as parent, we can start drawing a lot of parallels. First, God provides for mankind. In Genesis we read…
Then God said, “Here! Throughout the whole earth I am giving you as food every seed-bearing plant and every tree with seed-bearing fruit. And to every wild animal, bird in the air and creature crawling on the earth, in which there is a living soul, I am giving as food every kind of green plant.” And that is how it was. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good. So there was evening, and there was morning, a sixth day. (Genesis 1:29-31)
Even as creator, God provided all that was necessary for Adam and Eve to live happily and without worry. God begins to act a little bit more like a parent later in Genesis by setting expectations for us.
Adonai, God, took the person and put him in the garden of ‘Eden to cultivate and care for it. Adonai, God, gave the person this order: “You may freely eat from every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You are not to eat from it, because on the day that you eat from it, it will become certain that you will die.” (Genesis 2:15-17)
The expectations laid by God give us an understanding of our limitations. In the case of Adam and Eve, the limitation was that we were created by God and from God but not ‘like’ God. We can not provide for ourselves absent of God’s power so God set the expectation that we would eat from any tree we wished besides the tree of knowledge. When we violate those expectations, God shows another side of his Fatherly role by disciplining us.
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to what your wife said and ate from the tree about which I gave you the order, ‘You are not to eat from it,’ the ground is cursed on your account; you will work hard to eat from it as long as you live. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat field plants. You will eat bread by the sweat of your forehead till you return to the ground — for you were taken out of it: you are dust, and you will return to dust.” (Genesis 2:17-19)
When we think of the type of relationship God has with us when he provides, induces expectations, and delivers discipline, this begins looking like a vertical relationship where we are constantly looking upward to something significantly more glorious and powerful than ourselves. This vertical relationship was the backdrop for our Jews understood God for centuries before the coming of Christ.
God the Son
I listened to a Christmas program one time where the preacher shared that he had a fear of ants in his house. He said that he had no problem with ants outside, but that as soon as he saw the ants inside he knew he had to kill them all. “If only there was some way I could shrink down to an ant size, speak an ant language, and tell them that they could live their little ant lives in their little ant homes away from my home, they could be spared,” he said. This is a good analogy for how God sees us from his vertical relationship as the father. We clearly weren’t fully understanding or appreciating what he was saying when we only interacted with him as the father, so he sent himself in the form of a man to dwell with us so that we might live better “little ant lives”.
Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. (Hebrews 2:14)
What is particularly interesting about God the Son is looking at how John describes the Messiah in John 1:1.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. (John 1:1-2)
One thing we have to learn about someone’s “Word” is that the scriptures often use similar root words for both “Word” and “Will”. Consider that Jesus was not a leather-bound book floating in space for eternity with God. Jesus was the Will of God or, more explicitly, the embodiment of God’s Will. God’s Will the entire time, from Genesis until Malachi, was that we would dwell in perfect unity with God as creator and the creation. Through Christ, that Will was realized via the death on the cross which enabled us to regain a piece of that perfect relationship.
Looking at Christ’s entire ministry and understanding his purpose to restore God’s Will on earth, we see that Jesus represents a horizontal means of interacting with God. Through Christ, we are able to interact with God as a man and not just as a supreme, non-physical being. The only issue was that if Jesus were to remain God in the flesh, he couldn’t stay on earth forever. After all, if he were to stay on earth for centuries, we wouldn’t be interacting with him as a man anymore because clearly he would not be ‘just a man’. For that reason, God’s design was to send a third way for us to interact with him.
God the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is arguably the hardest for many people to understand because it forces us to remove God from the pages of the Bible and to realize that he is with us day-in and day-out. While God the Father allows us to interact with him vertically and God the Son allows us to interact with him horizontally, The Holy Spirit allows us to interact with him internally.
Jesus replied, “All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them. Anyone who doesn’t love me will not obey me. And remember, my words are not my own. What I am telling you is from the Father who sent me. I am telling you these things now while I am still with you. But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. (John 14:23-26)
The ‘advocate’, as Christ calls it, is God interacting with us in a way that our decision making is constantly being influenced by God’s Will. It empowers us in our weakest times and humbles us in our pride. It convicts us when we stray from God’s path and guides us in times of confusion. The Holy Spirit isn’t so much ‘hard to understand’ as it is hard to comprehend. When we ask ourselves whether we believe and know we have the Holy Spirit, it really challenges us to be realistic about the degree to which we have accepted Christ. Are we fans of the idea of God, the basics of religious living, and the association with the values of faith or do we have a real God who lives within us all?