Reality is steeped in ineluctable mystery; we are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery. Here again we must rescue our world from time’s debasement, for “mystery” has come to be associated with murder mysteries, which because they are solvable are not mysteries at all. A mystery is that special kind of problem which for the human mind has no solution; the more we understand it, the more we become aware of additional factors relating to it that we do not understand. In mysteries what we know, and our realization of what we do not know, proceed together; the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.Huston Smith, The World’s Great Religions (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2009), 404..
I love what the apostle Paul does after he spends three chapters explaining the future of the Israel. He quotes Scripture, lays out an intricate argument, and uses metaphor to explain Israel’s destiny. All of this is after eight chapters of explaining how salvation history culminates in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.
After all of this, Paul steps back and exclaims,
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.Romans 11:33–36
Sometimes, it is appropriate to dig deep into scripture, argue certain points, and do our best at interpreting and explaining the words of God, but at other times all we can do is stand back like Paul or Job and marvel at the immeasurable greatness and love of God.
When we spend more time on the first exercise than we do the second, we end up being the subjects of Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 8:
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge, but anyone who loves God is known by him.Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1–3
At the same time, when we give up on study and digging into God’s word, we cut ourselves off from the joy of the never-ending journey towards growing up in the knowledge and grace of Jesus. Paul also said,
…the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospelEphesians 3:3-6
If the knowledge of God, the mystery, is seen as something to be conquered, then we will become discouraged because, as Smith said in the original quote, “In mysteries what we know, and our realization of what we do not know, proceed together; the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” We also may run into the trap of so narrowly defining the mystery of God that we feel as if we, and perhaps only we, have truly conquered or understood it.
However, if we try to find the balance between exploring and awe, then no longer will we murder to dissect, no longer will we miss the forest for the trees, and no longer will we feel the need to cut off others who understand the mystery differently than ourselves, even if they are having trouble describing what they’re seeing in the acre of the forest they’ve been allowed to explore during a life that is as short as a vapor.
Studying, argumentation, logic, and in-depth research have their place, but awe, wonder, excitement, joy, and respect for God are equally important, if not more, because they remind us of our finitude and enable us to be gracious towards others who do not believe as we do because, obviously, they have had different experiences, different levels of education, or may be from an entirely different culture or background from ourselves.
An illustration I’ve used before on this blog is that of two people walking down a path alongside a river. One man describes a rock out in the middle of the water. He journals about the hill from which he observed it. He talks about the red flowers and the shape of the clouds in the sky above him.
The other man, upon reading the journal, laughs out loud, “Are you blind, sir? Did you sleepwalk along the trail? There is no rock. The flowers were yellow. And the ground was perfectly flat. And you speak of clouds as if they were actually in the sky; there was not a single cloud besides a few wisps, not the bunnies and alligators you describe here in this work of pure fiction!”
True, the men walked along the same river, and, true, they were walking in the same direction, but the first man had walked for hours while the second man had only walked for a short time. The first man was describing scenes that would take half a day to reach, but the second man did not have the wisdom to realize that his critiques were unwarranted because of his limited perspective.
We all like to assume that we are the first man who had walked a great portion of the day. We have the most mature perspective, and we have a more complete picture of the mystery than another fellow. But, in reality, in comparison to the infinite depth of the wisdom of God, we all may even be worse off than the second man.
True, there may be things we can objectively observe, but to stand in the place of judge and condemn one another over our limited observations assumes that we all started at the same place, have access to the same information, and, worst of all, that we are definitely better off than the next guy.
Instead of condemning the other fellow for his ignorance, the first man simply takes his hand and leads him back to the trail. As they walk along, the second man begins to slowly see the hill described by his friend. While climbing the hill, he notices a hint of red. Could it be the flowers? Yes! And they’re more beautiful than he thought they could be! And the rock? Ah, there it is. The water rushing around it and throwing up mist in the process. And there, in the midst of the spray, a rainbow.
May God bless you to be the person who has the humility to admit they are the second man and the wisdom to know when to take someone’s hand and bring them gently along like the first.