How do you describe the Grand Canyon? A meteor shower? A rainbow after a storm? A wedding day? A newborn baby? These wonders are indescribably beautiful. And, yet, we reach for language to capture what our hearts behold.
Of course, if this is true of creation, how much more for the Creator? Words fail us when we try to describe the wonders of God. How do you describe, for example, utter holiness? Perfect love? Infinite wisdom? Omnipresence? Omnipotence? Providence? The Trinity? We observe these attributes of God in his word and are often speechless. It almost seems wrong to speak of these things given the inadequacy of words to describe fully what we’re learning.
This is a particular problem for preachers. After all, this is our job: week in and week out we are tasked with the unenviable burden of helping our churches behold their God. Knowing this, we cry out with the Apostle Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).
It is comforting to know that no one less than St. Augustine understood this dilemma. Surely, he was right when he stated,
My preaching almost always displeases me. For I am eager after something better, of which I often have an inward enjoyment before I set about expressing my thoughts in audible words. Then, when I have failed to utter my meaning as clearly as I conceived it, I am disappointed that my tongue is incapable of doing justice to that which is in my heart. What I myself understand I wish my hearers to understand as fully; and I feel I am not so speaking as to effect this. The chief reason is that the conception lights up the mind in a kind of rapid flash; whereas the utterance is slow, lagging and far unlike what it would convey. 1Augustine, On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, chapter 2; quoted in David L. Larson, The Company of the Preachers (Kregel, 1998), 89.
Any preacher worthy of the name knows something of Augustine’s lament. Consider Isaiah 6:1-5,
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
How do we describe what Isaiah sees of the majesty of God? How do we relate to our people something of the seraphims’ worship? How do we explain Isaiah’s calling down a divine curse on himself given his sinfulness in the presence of the One who is “holy, holy, holy”? We do our best to proclaim this passage having experienced something of it all week in preparation. But it is highly likely that at the conclusion of our sermon we say to ourselves (or to our understanding spouse) in one form or another, “I have failed to utter my meaning as clearly as I conceived it, I am disappointed that my tongue is incapable of doing justice to that which is in my heart.” Amen, Augustine.
Not only did Augustine know something of the inadequacy of language to describe God, the Bible is full of declarations of how indescribable God is. Moses, for example, sings in Exodus 15:11, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:2 prays, “There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.” When David considers who God is, he acknowledges in Psalm 139:6, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” And perhaps the clearest exclamation of our utter inability to adequately describe God comes from the Apostle Paul in Romans 11:33–36,
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
As I considered this week’s column, I initially thought I would need to “fix” this problem for preachers. After all, evangelicalism loves to present easy solutions to real (or perceived) problems Christians face. Shouldn’t an article like this not only present the problem for preachers, but also give the 3 or 5 or 8 tidy things to do to remedy it? (On another platform this column title might be, “Five Ways to Describe the Indescribable” or “How Preachers Can Adequately Describe God in 7 Easy Steps.”)
To do this would not only be unhelpful to preachers, but blasphemous toward God. For the indescribability of God is not a problem to be fixed, but a reality to reckon with. God will never be adequately described by human language. The infinite cannot be fully comprehended by the finite which means language will always fall short. However, that something is not possible in this life does not mean we don’t aim for it. We cannot love God perfectly in this life, but by grace we strive to love him more. We cannot be sinless in this life, but by grace we labor to grow in practical holiness. This is the heart-cry of the apostle when he exhorts the Philippians, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:12-14).
The glory of God demands that I improve my use of language to help our congregation behold their God. I do this trusting the Lord to use my “poor lisping, stammering tongue” until that day when “in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy power to save.” 2William Cowper, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” 1772.