What Is God Really Like? An Exploration of God’s Attributes

Even when he reveals himself, God remains a mystery beyond words: ‘If you understood him, it would not be God.’ (CCC 230)

Gersam Turri, “The Glory of the Holy Trinity,” ca. 1928, ceiling fresco in the Santuario del Santissimo Crocifisso in Como, Italy
Gersam Turri, “The Glory of the Holy Trinity,” ca. 1928, ceiling fresco in the Santuario del Santissimo Crocifisso in Como, Italy (photo: Public Domain)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a saint with a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, often said that one cannot overpraise the Virgin Mother because her holiness far surpasses our meager attempts at describing her. And though this is definitely true, one must note that if the Virgin Mary — the Pinnacle, Perfection and Very Flower of Humankind — can’t exhaust 10,000 human languages in offering her suitable praise, what chance do mere mortals have in attempting to understand God?

What we can say definitively is that God is many things. He’s unlike anything we have ever encountered — or indeed, anything that can ever be examined. As glorious as the Virgin Mary is, she is merely a human being like the rest of us. God is God and nothing comes a close second. St. Michael the Archangel, whose very name means, “Who is like unto God,” isn’t God at all.

But God is more than we can imagine and more than we can say. He is unlike anything or anyone we could ever imagine. Even describing him with mere human words falls short of the glory that is Adonai.

The following are some of God’s attributes that we know through reason or revelation:

1. He is self-existing. Everything that has a beginning, has a cause. The universe has a cause. Therefore the universe has a cause that isn’t dependent upon the universe, since nothing could have existed prior to the universe. There is only one possibility that fulfills all of these criteria — God.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 22:13)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

2. God is immutable. God never changes. He is the central axis around which the universe revolves and changes.

“I am the Lord, and I do not change. And so you, the descendants of Jacob, are not yet completely lost.” (Malachi 3:6)

3. God is good. God is not merely good — he is goodness itself. He is the very definition of good. Any idea of “goodness” we have comes from him.

“Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

4. God is loving. God is not merely loving — he is love itself. In his Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri describes God as “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)

5. God is self-sufficient. Humans and other creatures, even stars and galaxies, have needs. God has no needs. He doesn’t even need us. We are dependent upon him and not the other way around.

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” (John 5:26)

6. God is omnipotent. Omnipotent means all-powerful. God is unlimited power and able to do as he wishes. He created the entire universe and all that it contains. He’s called “almighty” for a reason. God is strong and mighty (Psalm 24:8). He can do anything (Genesis 18:14, Jeremiah 32:17, 27, Luke 1:37). It is he alone who holds all power and authority (2 Corinthians 6:18; Revelation 1:8).

“Can you discover the limits and bounds of the greatness and power of God? The sky is no limit for God, but it lies beyond your reach. God knows the world of the dead, but you do not know it. God's greatness is broader than the earth, wider than the sea. If God arrests you and brings you to trial, who is there to stop him? God knows which people are worthless; he sees all their evil deeds.” (Job 11:7-11)

7. God is omnipresent. God transcends both space and time. God is always everywhere, all the time, always. He is everywhere, we are never alone. Thank God!

“Lord, you have examined me and you know me. You know everything I do; from far away you understand all my thoughts. You see me, whether I am working or resting; you know all my actions. Even before I speak, you already know what I will say. You are all around me on every side; you protect me with your power. Your knowledge of me is too deep; it is beyond my understanding. Where could I go to escape from you? Where could I get away from your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there; if I lay down in the world of the dead, you would be there. If I flew away beyond the east or lived in the farthest place in the west, you would be there to lead me, you would be there to help me. I could ask the darkness to hide me or the light around me to turn into night, but even darkness is not dark for you, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are the same to you.” (Psalm 139:1-12)

8. God is omniscient. God is all-knowing. There are no secrets because he already knows the past, present and the future from one end of the universe to the other and everything in between and without. He sleeps not slumbers and he knows what lurks in the hearts of men.

“Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt?’” (Job 38:1-11)

9. God is infinite. God is more than can be imagined. He is more than there is.

10. God is all-wise. God is not merely logical — he is logic itself. God is the embodiment of wisdom and logic. He is the standard of both. He knows all and knows what should be and by giving ourselves over to God, we took can receive his wisdom.

‘How great are God's riches! How deep are his wisdom and knowledge! Who can explain his decisions? Who can understand his ways? As the scripture says, “Who knows the mind of the Lord? Who is able to give him advice? Who has ever given him anything, so that he had to pay it back?” For all things were created by him, and all things exist through him and for him. To God be the glory forever!” (Romans 11:33-36)

11. God is faithful. God is not merely faithful — he is faithfulness itself. God is the singular central axis upon which the entire universe, spiritual and physical, revolve. He remains faithful even if all of us are fickle and faithless. We can trust him and rely upon him. He is worthy of our confidence. Even if father and mother might abandon us, the Lord will take care of us (Psalm 27:10). He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8).

“Remember that the Lord your God is the only God and that he is faithful. He will keep his covenant and show his constant love to a thousand generations of those who love him and obey his commands.” (Deuteronomy 7:9)

12. God is just. God is not merely just — he is justice itself. God is just in that he always does what is good, right, perfect and balanced for individuals and the entire universe.

“You yourself, O Lord, reward everyone according to their deeds.” (Psalm 62:12)

“The Lord is your mighty defender, perfect and just in all his ways; Your God is faithful and true; he does what is right and fair.” (Deuteronomy 32:4)

13. God is merciful. God is not merely merciful — he is mercy itself. God is compassionate and kind. He is forgiving and kind toward us.

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” (Romans 9:15-1

14. God is holy. God is not merely holy — he is holiness itself. Holy refers to something set apart and he loves us but he is separate and distinct from the universe he created.

“Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord Almighty.” (Revelation 4:8)

Cuzco School, “The Enthroned Trinity,” ca. 1730

On Knowing What We Cannot Know

“God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God. … Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.” (CCC 40)