I recently heard someone substantiate a theological claim with the reasoning, “you cannot put God in a box.”
If he had intended this as a literal claim there would be little dispute—but this is an expression meant as an illustrative claim. The phrase is used to disarm any number of theological viewpoints that appear to limit the power of God. I have been on the receiving end of this claim in witnessing encounters. It is a common response when someone disagrees with a truth about God or the statement by Jesus when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 ESV)” The person disagreeing will frequently respond with a diatribe on the perceived lack of fairness regarding a single savior (as if anyone deserves salvation) and then close their claim with, “you cannot put God in a box.” All they did was create a different box—the box of arbitrary fairness and gently set their god in the new box. The issue is not the limitations presented by the box; the issue is the contents of the box—The God verses a god.
I acknowledge that we cannot place God entirely in a box, to do so, would require an exhaustive knowledge of God which is impossible for us. Yet, this dispute is not regarding what is known about God, the dispute is being raised as a question mark, as if, what God has shared with us is insufficient to make any conclusions. Pair this premise with the high level of discomfort among many Christians to limit God in anyway and quickly you find yourself standing before a tattered box unable to hold any discernible quantity of truth. What God has shared about himself is absolutely sufficient for us to know him and we ought to find comfort, not anxiety, in the things God cannot do—God cannot lie, do evil, or do anything inconsistent with his nature. Let’s take a look at this box.
God has revealed himself, both in general revelation and special revelation. In general revelation, everything about existence, both tangible (the universe, earth, diversity of life, diversity of elements, etc.) and intangible (love, logic, morality, etc.) point to God. As David writes in Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” We ought to also recognize that we are not held to a standard of exhaustive knowledge of God when the Apostle Paul writes, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Yet, God did not stop revealing himself with general revelation.
God desires that we know him—To know him like a sheep knows his shepherd, a child knows their father, a wife their husband, how good friends know each other. God has revealed himself directly to individuals and groups throughout the ages, he has used special messengers, and the writer of Hebrews records that, “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Throughout this time of special revelation we learn much about God: His holiness, wisdom, patience, truthfulness, immutability, transcendence, faithfulness, kindness, justice, mercy, and love. I think it is our nature to focus on the attributes about God we find most beneficial while doing our best to ignore or justify the attributes that scare us, like his holiness and justice. However, we ought to acknowledge that with each trait of God that is revealed to us by God, we cannot then logically apply the opposite. If God claims to be light it would be false for us to then claim God is darkness, if God claims to be love it would be a false contradiction to say he represents indifference, if God claims to have a plan we cannot then say he is capricious and arbitrary—do you see a box forming?
Again, like God’s characteristics, we only dislike the box metaphor when we feel as if it is working against us. For example, we dislike gravity when we are falling, we do not dislike gravity when it keeps our cars planted on the road while traveling 70mph. We dislike the rigidity of God’s truthfulness when he warns us against sinful behaviors, we rejoice in His truthfulness when we think of His love and mercy. As Christians, we should not confuse piety as meaning we must have a lack of confidence in God’s character and word anymore than we would fault a physicist for having confidence in gravity.
God has clearly revealed himself to us by sharing his characteristics and often doing so with anthropomorphic language to help us better understand. We should recognize that the box God is placed in, is a box of his own construction, and God stepped into the box. This point is most evidently seen when God the Son put on human flesh in the person we know as Jesus. We can have confidence in knowing Jesus is who he said he is because as Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” We should have absolute confidence in Jesus because God has proven to be faithful, truthful, and powerful. As the Apostle Peter writes, “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” We do not need to feign ignorance or worry that we are limiting God in some way by resting confidently in the description of God has used of Himself, preserved in his word. We ought to look at God’s revealed immutable character with either tremendous fear or a confident hope. Tremendous fear knowing all that God has promised will come to pass for those outside of Christ; confident hope knowing all that God has promised will come to pass for those in Christ.
God built the box so that we could know truth. God did not place himself in a box because it was necessary for him—he did it, because it was necessary for us.