Flying above Mount Robson, I can look down from 35,000 feet and see pretty well the whole mountain. Looking up at it from underneath, I can only see part of it at once. Curiously, the closer I get, the less of it I can see, though I do see in more detail.
I find God is a little like that. God is such an amazing combination of seemingly contradictory characteristics (or ‘attributes’ as they are called in traditional theological language) that my poor limited human brain can’t take them all in at once. And this phrase from the Book of Common Prayer (1962 Canadian version; the 1662 English version is identical on this and most other points) is a good example of that:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep…
‘Almighty and most merciful Father’. There’s a contradictory bundle of attributes, for sure!
On the one hand, we affirm the power and majesty of God. He is ‘Almighty’; that is to say, nothing that his sovereign will plans is impossible for him to do. This is God the almighty Creator of all that exists, galaxies known and unknown, the Lord of all time who is himself outside of time, the one who is infinitely greater and stronger and wiser than we can even begin to imagine – the one who said to Moses ‘No one can see my face and live’ (Exodus 33:20).
On the other hand, we’re told that he is our ‘most merciful Father’. Not just a wise and just and capable Father, but a ‘most merciful Father’, one who forgives our sins, gives to us generously without stint, and is patient with our weaknesses and fears.
How can it be that the God who created black holes and red dwarves even knows that I exist, let alone being my ‘most merciful Father’? But it is true, and Jesus assures us of it. He teaches us to pray ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’ – the same combination of attributes. Our Father, yes, but also our heavenly Father; close to us as a good father, and yet at the same time exalted far above us as the God and Creator of all.
Pastorally this is a very important combination of characteristics. It does me no good to have an almighty Creator if he is so far removed from me that he doesn’t even know I exist. Contrariwise, it does me no good to have a merciful Father if he is so puny and powerless that he can’t do anything to help the people he loves.
So the Prayer Book strikes the right note as it invites us to confession: ‘almighty and most merciful Father’. My mind can barely take in both of these characteristics at the same time, but both are true of God, and both are vital for our salvation.