The mystery is to be expected
As disconcerting as it may be, when it comes to God, expect mystery. The great prophet Isaiah records these words from God himself:
“My thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways…
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.'” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
God is infinite and we are finite.
He is eternal and almighty and omniscient; we are not.
If an exhaustive understanding of God were possible, then God would cease to be God, for if our mind could fathom all the mysteries of God, then God would be no greater than our mind.
A mystery is not the same as a verbal puzzle, where the basic concepts are accessible but must be understood correctly. When the Bible argues, for example, that one must die to live, the apparent tension dissolves in understanding that it is not physical death but the death of a sinful spirit.
A mystery is also distinct from agnosticism, where two conflicting ideas carry equal weight in the belief that the evidence will eventually reveal one idea to be superior to the other.
The mystery is also distinguished from the paradox, which is only a contradiction accepted as truth. A “round square” would be a paradox.
A mystery is beyond rational explanation. It’s not inherently contradictory; we simply lack the ability to penetrate what an anonymous 14th century spiritual writer called “the cloud of ignorance” that surrounds it.
And there is a cloud. Consider God’s quick response to Job, who dared to question the mysteries surrounding God’s actions as if the veil between mankind and God should not exist.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked its dimensions?…
Have you ever given orders in the morning,
or shown at dawn its place…
Have you traveled to the sources of the sea
or walked in the depths of the abyss?
Have you been shown the gates of death?…
Have you understood the vast expanses of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all this…
Surely you know….
You have lived so many years!…
Who endowed the heart with wisdom
or gave understanding to the spirit? …
Then Job answered the Lord:
“I am unworthy, how can I answer you?
I put my hand in front of my mouth.
I spoke once, but I don’t have an answer… I won’t say more. ‘” (Job 38: 4-5, 12, 16-18, 21, 36; 40: 3-5, VIN)
Some of our questions, by their very nature, cannot be answered by God. As C. S. Lewis once put it, “All absurd questions are unanswered… Probably half the questions we ask – half our great theological and metaphysical questions – are like that.”
Other questions must remain unanswered because there are things that we are not ready to understand. Theologically, we are in many ways still children, and we need the protection given to children.
It’s hard to accept, especially since we often seem to want to push the very idea of childhood away. We use words like childish and immature like insults. Yet childhood is a time when a person is suitably shielded from certain experiences and knowledge. It is not until children reach adulthood that these “adult secrets” are revealed in such a way that they can be assimilated psychologically and spiritually. Children should to be naive. That’s what childhood is for.
But preserving a child’s childhood can mean keeping adult secrets shrouded in mystery.
Corrie ten Boom recounts an event that happened when she was no more than 10 or 11 years old while traveling with her father on the train from Amsterdam to Haarlem. She had come across a poem that had the word sin of sex among its lines.
And so, sitting next to Father in the compartment of the train, I suddenly asked, “Father, what is sexual sin?”
He turned to me, as he always did when answering a question, but to my surprise he said nothing. Finally, he stood up, lifted his travel case from the rack above our heads, and set it on the floor.
“Do you want to take it off the train, Corrie?” ” he said.
I got up and shot it. He was stuffed full of watches and spare parts he had bought in the morning.
“It’s too heavy,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “And it would be a rather poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It’s the same, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you’re older and stronger, you can handle it. For now, you have to trust me to wear it for you.
And I was satisfied. More than satisfied, wonderfully at peace. There were answers to that and all my tough questions – for now I was content to leave them in my father’s custody.
God is mysterious not only because he is God, but because we are children, and in his love our childhood is protected.
We should consider both our childhood and the mysteries of God as a source of wonder and even comfort: there is a Creator, and we are among the created; there are answers to all things safe in our Father’s keeping.
When we accept the mysteries of God like little children, they become less frustrating than attractive.
James Emery White
Excerpt from James Emery White, Wrestling with Godget the Church and Culture e-book.
For further discussion of the paradox, see David Basinger, “Biblical Paradox: Does Revelation Challenge Logic?” Evangelical Theological Education Journal 30, Nope. 2.
CS Lewis, An observed mourning.
Corrie ten Boom, Hiding place.
This blog was originally published in 2015. The Church and Culture team thought you would once again find it interesting to read.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture podcast. . Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.