God’s Otherness Is What Makes His Nearness Possible

Isaiah’s words about God’s providential plan are comforting in a most unexpected way.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
my thoughts higher than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).

It is comforting to know that God has a plan for our lives that is part of His grander plan for all of creation. What is odd about it is how different His thoughts are from ours. Usually we find comfort in knowing someone is thinking on the same page as us. We want our business partners, coworkers, teammates, and spouses to be thinking about things the way we do. But not so with God: His thoughts are not our thoughts. And, in a way, that is comforting.

The rest of Isaiah 55 helps to explain why this is so. The next two verses begin to unpack it a bit:

Yet just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty,
but shall do what pleases me,
achieving the end for which I sent it (verses 10-11).

The beginning of these lines recalls Isaiah 40, where God is as distant from mankind as the heavens from the earth:

To whom can you liken God?
With what likeness can you confront him?

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Was it not told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the founding of the earth?
The one who is enthroned above the vault of the earth,
its inhabitants like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a veil
and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in (verses 18, 21-22).

Isaiah 55 picks up on this imagery, but with a twist. Now God’s distance — his otherness — becomes a condition for his nearness to us. He may be as far away as the heavens, yet just as the sky sends raindrops to nourish the earth on which we depend for our food, so also God comes to us. He comes to us through His Word in what is a clear prophecy of the Incarnation, according to nineteenth century German commentators Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch:

The personification presupposes that it is not a mere sound or letter. As it goeth forth out of the mouth of God it acquires shape, and in this shape is hidden a divine life, because of its divine origin; and so it runs, with life from God, endowed with divine power, supplied with divine commissions, like a swift messenger through nature and the world of man, there to melt the ice, as it were, and here to heal and to save; and does not return from its course till it has given effect to the will of the sender. This return of the word to God also presupposes its divine nature.

Isaiah is suggesting that the word of God engages with us much like the rain touches the earth. As Keil and Delitzsch put it:

As snow and rain are the mediating causes of growth, and therefore the enjoyment of what is reaped; so is the soil of the human heart softened, refreshed, and rendered productive or prolific by the word out of the mouth of Jehovah.

This refreshment and nourishment presumes a certain kind of intimacy and nearness. This encounter with the word of God, of course, reaches its climax in the Incarnation, in which man could behold God in the flesh, feel His touch, and hear the sound of His voice.

What is distinctive about Isaiah is his suggestion that God’s otherness is precisely what makes such nearness possible. Consider again the rain analogy: only through the process of evaporation and condensation in clouds thousands of feet high can we experience that sudden tap of a raindrop on our forehead.

The same holds true in theology. Only a God who is pure spirit (John 4:24) could assume a fully human nature. Such an Incarnation would be precluded if God were like us to begin with, if, for example, He had already had His own specialized body and was not pure spirit. Such a god could not assume human nature. Instead, such a god would have to change his material nature. Again, only a God who is above and beyond material creation could create a new way of being born (baptism), a new way of eating (the Eucharist), and a new way of being (life in grace).

Ultimately, God’s otherness as pure spirit is what makes possible the greatest possible nearness: dwelling within our hearts, in the inmost core of our being, where He comes to know us better than even we know ourselves. As St. Augustine famously puts it, “You were more inward to me than my most inward part and higher than my highest” (Confessions 3.6.11). Isaiah teaches us that it is precisely because God is “higher than my highest” that He can be “more inward than my most inward part.”

image: Isogood_patrick / Shutterstock.com

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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