Monthly Archives: July 2016

The One Best Word For God

The One Best Word for God

If asked to choose a single word out of all the words you know that best describes God, which would you choose?

You know many words.  So do I.  Deciding on only one may prove difficult because God has so many traits, and all of them are good.  As a Christ-follower, our personal experiences with Him probably influence to some degree our choice of words.  We see Him in light of His dealings in our lives.

Words that could describe God would certainly include these:  truthful and forgiving, righteous and unchanging, just to name a few.  Some responding to my query may base their choice on a particular experience with God in which He met a personal need, provided guidance at a critical moment, or revealed himself in a fresh, exciting way.  For example, an individual who has found forgiveness and restoration after committing a grievous sin might choose the word merciful, or perhaps forgiving.

Let’s frame the question differently:  Suppose you are speaking to someone who has never heard the claim there is a God who exists.  He or she has no spiritual background, no familiar religious jargon with which you can connect and begin to communicate.  You are attempting to describe God, knowing He cannot be touched, seen, or heard.   Our five senses are useless.  But you know from personal experience that God really is “there.”  What one word—what attribute, trait, or virtue—would you pick that best describes Him?

As I think about friends I know, I can usually with a little effort decide on a word that, more than others, sums up the person’s life, that comes to mind when I hear the person’s name called.  One best word rises to the surface just like air bubbles trapped in water.

Remembering my father, only one word perfectly describes him:  goodness.  He was incredibly kind and generous with the poor, the ignorant, the marginalized, and the forgotten of the earth.  In that sense, he was more like Jesus than any person I have ever known, of whom it was simply said:  “He went about doing good.”

Every individual, I believe, carries a unique “life message,” a predominant character trait that edges out all other traits that might be mentioned.  That one trait, that “life message,” will find expression more often and more forcefully than any other. It may be a very good trait, or one that is terrible and destructive.  So, of one person we may say that he or she is “a very loving individual” while of another we may say he or she is “a very angry and bitter person.”

The protracted influence of our “life message,” remembered long after we are gone, is a staggering thing to consider.  Our influence may prove to be beneficial or destructive, cherished or loathed.   Some feel the influence Abraham Lincoln has had on American democracy and values is far stronger now than ever during his lifetime.  If the idea of fairness was Lincoln’s “life message,” then consider the role his influence has played on civil rights and the fair treatment of all people over the past 151 years.

A person’s influence doesn’t stop when he or she dies.  It goes on and on, and is inextricably tied to this word we call his “life’s message,” the one best word that describes him.

What is your best word for God in light of your personal experience with him and your understanding of how he disclosed himself through the Bible?

It recently struck me how many verses from the Psalms I had memorized which contain the word “lovingkindness,” and how vague was my understanding of the word.  My search for its significance began that moment.

Here is my “take” on what I have come to believe is the one best word for God, at least in the Old Testament.

When the writer of Psalms reached for the highest, grandest, and most noble word he could find to describe God, more often than not he used the Hebrew word, Chesed.  It is used 240 times in the Old Testament, and was variously translated as mercy, goodness, or favor to describe God’s attitude toward man.[1]  But 30 of those times it was translated lovingkindness when it referred specifically to God’s love for his people, Israel.[2]

Lovingkindness does not appear in the New Testament, but finds its nearest counterpart in the Greek word for grace, Charis.  Lovingkindness can be defined as “the kindly way in which God treats, or may be expected to treat, His people, because he loves them.[3]

The hyphenated double word “loving-kindness” was coined by Myles Coverdale when he published the first complete English Bible in 1535.[4]  The King James Bible of 1611 followed closely Coverdale’s use of the phrase in its Old Testament translation of Chesed, so that lovingkindness appears 30 times, mostly in the Psalms.  For example,

Psalm 26:3  “For this lovingkindness is before mine eyes. . .”

Psalm 36:7  “How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God! . . .”

Psalm 119:149  “Hear my voice according to thy lovingkindness. . .”

Some modern translators of the Bible understandably choose words other than lovingkindness to use in light of the current meaning of the word: “tender and benevolent affection.”[5]  Lovingkindness is not considered archaic, but neither is it used in everyday language and may not be understood by many.  For example, where “lovingkindness” appears in Psalm 26:3 (KJV, NASB), it occurs in more recent translations as “love” (NIV, NCV), “steadfast love” (NRS), and “constant love “(TEV, NEB).

Lovingkindness tends to combine the elements of loyalty and love.  It is more than God’s love for man, which Coverdale translated as mercy, goodness, or favor.  One dictionary says, “The word stands for the wonder of his unfailing love for the people of his choice, and the solving of the problem of the relation between his righteousness and his loving-kindness passes beyond human comprehension.”[6]

Chesed acts as the centerpiece of God’s self-disclosure of his attitude toward His people:   “It combines the ideas of love, commitment, duty, and care. It is explicitly linked with ‘truth’—i.e., a being true to oneself, truthfulness, reliability—and so there is a stress on the loyalty with which love acts.  Taking the whole evidence of the Old Testament, Chesed holds together the ideas of love and loyalty with a strong emphasis on the practical more than the emotional sides of these ideas.  It is the loyal love that is displayed when there is no other motive to action except love and loyalty.”[7]

And when God shows his “loyal love,” especially as we are loveless and altogether unlovable, we call that grace.

What lovingkindness is to the Old Testament, grace (God unmerited favor) is to the New Testament.

A man might be able to show kindness, or perhaps mercy, to another man without an ounce of love in his heart.  But this could never be said of God.  The kindness and mercy He shows invariably springs from sincere, steadfast love.  And that is what the word lovingkindness attempts to communicate.

Lovingkindness grows out of the divine nature, a patient and inexhaustible trait that leads Him to redeem His people.  It is how the Lord feels and acts toward His people.  As a result, God’s people should act in the same way toward Him, and follow His example in the way they treat others.

Lovingkindness—what an expansive, rich, illustrative word it is!  I lament the fact we do not use it more today, especially to describe God.  It’s too bad it has fallen into disuse.  “Grace” will have to do!

The day is coming when believers will be able to effortlessly love God with the love with which He loves us.  There will be no impediment of sin; our sinful nature will be no more.  We will truly have a new heart, a renewed mind that can think only good and noble thoughts, as well as a transformed body with a mouth capable of speaking only pure and gracious words.

In heaven, it will come to pass that the one great word to describe the people of God will be “lovingkindness.”  We will live perfectly, in perfect community with others, and in perfect fellowship and service with God.  And for the first time, we will love perfectly.

The writer, John, got it right:  “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God. . .we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as He is.”  (I John 3:1-2, NIV)


What a great word.

What a great God!


Don M. Hull   ©2016




[1] Vine, W.E., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson Publishing) 1985, Pg. 142-143

[2] Tenney, Merrill C., ed., The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia Of The Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House) 1976, P. 996

[3] Miller, M. S. and J. L., Harper’s Bible Dictionary (New York: Harper and Brothers) 1961. PO. 402

[4] Tenney, op.cit., P. 996

[5] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam, Co.)  l976, p. 682

[6] Richardson, Alan, A Theological Word Book Of The Bible (New York: Macmillan Company), 1950 P. 137

[7] Douglas, J.D. and Tenney, M. C., The New International Dictionary Of The Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishers) 1987, P. 603