Disconcerting though it may be, when it comes to God, we must 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 all-powerful and all-knowing; we are not.
If an exhaustive understanding of God were possible, then God would cease to be God, for if our minds could fathom all the mysteries of God, then God would be no greater than our minds.
A mystery is not the same as a verbal puzzle, where core concepts are accessible but must be rightly understood. When the Bible maintains, for example, that we must die in order to live, the apparent tension dissolves with the understanding that it refers not to physical death but to death to a sinful spirit.
A mystery is also distinct from agnosticism, where two contradictory ideas are given equal weight in the belief that evidence will eventually reveal one idea to be superior to the other.
Mystery stands apart from paradox as well, which is simply a contradiction accepted as truth. A “round square” would be a paradox.
A mystery is beyond rational explanation. It is not inherently self-contradictory; we just lack the ability to penetrate what an anonymous 14th-century spiritual writer called “the cloud of unknowing” that encircles it.
And there is a cloud. Consider God’s swift response to Job, who dared question the mysteries surrounding God’s actions as if the veil between humanity and God should not exist.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions?...
Have you ever given orders to the morning,
or shown the dawn its place....
Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you?...
Have you comprehended 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 mind?” ...
Then Job answered the Lord:
‘I am unworthy–how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but I have no answer... I will say no more.’” (Job 38:4-5, 12, 16-18, 21, 36; 40:3-5, NIV)
Some of our questions by their very nature cannot be answered by God. As C.S. Lewis once posed, “All nonsense questions are unanswerable.... 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 we are not ready to comprehend. Theologically we are in many ways still children, and we need the protection accorded to children.
This is difficult to accept, particularly as we often seem to wish the very idea of childhood away. We use words like childish and immature as insults. Yet childhood is a time when a person is appropriately sheltered from certain experiences and knowledge. Only as children grow into adulthood are such “adult secrets” revealed in ways that they can be assimilated psychologically and spiritually. Children should be naïve. That is what childhood is for.
But preserving childhood for a child can mean keeping adult secrets shrouded in mystery.
Corrie ten Boom tells of an event that took place when she was no more than 10 or 11 as she traveled with her father on the train from Amsterdam to Haarlem. She had stumbled upon a poem that had the word sexsin among its lines.
And so, seated next to Father in the train compartment, I suddenly asked, “Father, what is sexsin?”
He turned to look at me, as he always did when answering a question, but to my surprise he said nothing. At last he stood up, lifted his traveling case from the rack over our heads, and set it on the floor.
“Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?” he said.
I stood up and tugged at it. It was crammed with the watches and spare parts he had purchased that morning.
“It’s too heavy,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It’s the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now, you must trust me to carry it for you.”
And I was satisfied. More than satisfied—wonderfully at peace. There were answers to this and all my hard questions—for now I was content to leave them in my father’s keeping.
God is mysterious not simply because He is God, but because we are children, and in His love our childhood is protected.
We should view both our childhood and God’s mysteries as a source of wonder and even comfort: there is a Creator, and we are among the created; there are answers to all things safely in our Father’s keeping.
As we accept God’s mysteries as little children, they become not so much frustrating as alluring.
James Emery White
Excerpt from James Emery White, Wrestling with God, get the eBook at Church & Culture.
For a more thorough discussion of paradox see David Basinger, “Biblical Paradox: Does Revelation Challenge Logic?” Journal of Evangelical Theological Education 30, no. 2.
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.
Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place.
This blog was originally published in 2015. The Church & Culture Team thought you would find it an interesting read once again.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, 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 Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.