In Defense of Mystery

Left to my own devices, I don’t care a great deal for genuine mystery. In saying that, I don’t at all mean that I dislike, say, mystery as a method of story-telling. I’m a devoted fan of the TV show Lost, for example. That show’s ability to keep me and every other viewer constantly wondering is part of its enormous appeal. No, what I mean is that I’m not naturally given to embracing things in my real life circumstances that I can’t completely get my mind around. I’m often frustrated by—and sometimes even fearful of—things I don’t fully understand. My guess is that I’m far from alone in feeling this way.

This natural inclination, however, is somewhat at odds a biblical notion of the Christian faith. What I mean is that the Bible’s presentation of God and his interaction with creation (including and especially human beings) includes no small measure of the utterly mysterious. An obvious example: at some level, almost every Christian (let alone those outside the faith) wrestles with the question of how evil can exist along with a God who is both all-powerful and completely good. Or consider a related question recently discussed on this blog: how can God be both completely sovereign over our lives and yet we retain the ability to make meaningful choices, choices for which we are justly held fully responsible? Or how can God be both one God and three distinct persons, equal in power and glory? How can Jesus Christ be both fully God and fully man? How can the Bible be mediated through sinful and limited human authors—to the point that their distinct perspectives shine through their individual contributions—and remain ultimately the unified work of God himself, unadulterated and authoritative?

It’s certainly true that Christians are often willing to give up one or more of the beliefs listed above in order to relieve the tension of the apparent mysteries involved. But none of these difficult-to-reconcile statements are easily dismissed if we approach the Bible seriously. In fact, I would feel quite confident in arguing that each one of them enjoys the support of passage after passage within the Scriptures. (Unless we take their human authors to be bumbling idiots, relentlessly blind to the potentially knotty implications of what they assert, this is surely significant.) And in any case, I don’t think any Christian can give them all up and stay within the pale, so to speak.

So it seems that we need to come to terms with the mysterious. Interestingly, the same Bible that presents us with so many difficulties also provides the means to come to some manner of terms with them. For just one example, consider the conclusion to the book of Job. To summarize the plot: Job, a genuinely upright man becomes the focal point of a wager or contest between God and Satan. In the course of this contest, God gives Satan permission (!) to inflict Job with nearly incomprehensible suffering, including the loss of his family, his wealth, and his physical well-being. After a period of silent misery, Job begins a long lament, which includes defending himself against his friends’ belief that his own sin is the cause of his suffering. Finally, his understandable dismay at his predicament leads Job to openly charge God with injustice while defending his own integrity. His last extended discourse begins with these words: “As God lives, who has taken away my right…” (27:2, italics mine. I owe this observation to D. A. Carson’s How Long O Lord, 166).

It is extremely important to note how God responds to this. Chapter 38 begins, “Then the Lord answered Job out the whirlwind and said….” Interestingly, what follows is not a direct explanation and defense of God’s conduct (or lack thereof) in regard to Job’s circumstances. Rather, God proceeds to ask Job a series of questions, including:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone…? (38:4-7)

Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this. Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? You know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great. (38:17-121)

Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go and say to you, “Here we are?” Who has put wisdom in the inward parts or given understanding to the mind? (38:35-36)

God then concludes his initial response with this pointed question: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it” (40:2). Job’s reply—noteworthy for its marked changed in tone—is to confess, “Behold I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (40:4-5).

But God is not done. He launches into another series of questions with the following words: “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you will make it known to me. Will you put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” (41:7-8). God then proceeds to asks Job if he can tame the great Behemoth and Leviathan. Job’s final rely is again worthy of mention:

I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. “Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes (42:2-6).

Note that in all of this God never directly answers Job’s charge and the implied question behind it (how can this be?). But he does answer. His point is not to assert, “I’ll do whatever I want regardless of whether it is just or unjust.” Rather—and this is crucial—it is along the following lines: if Job cannot understand and/or accomplish these ways and deeds of God, then it stands to reason that God might be capable of other things which Job cannot completely fathom, namely, bringing about Job’s suffering without sacrificing his just character. In other words, Job should not expect to understand all God’s dealings because he is Job—a finite, mortal man—and not God. Judging from Job’s brief replies to the Lord’s questioning, this is a fact that he indeed comes to grasp very well.

Please don’t misunderstand my point in relating all of this. I don’t suggest that any time we run up against something difficult to grasp, we should immediately retreat to throwing up our hands and proclaiming God and his ways to be an incomprehensible mystery. He has, after all, revealed to us a great deal of truth, truth available for us to carefully mine. We should do that as far as we’re able. In fact, the church has a long history of sustained reflection on each of the doctrines mentioned above, which has done much to further, if not completely satisfy, our understanding of them.

But eventually, we’ll run up against that which we won’t fully understand. And what I do want us to consider is this: if God is really the God the Bible clearly describes him to be, if he really does have all that knowledge, wisdom, and power, wouldn’t it make sense for his being and ways to provide us with a substantial element of mystery? Even further, might it be somewhat alarming if they didn’t? Is a God completely or even largely comprehensible to human beings–we who have such a sterling record of understanding and wisdom–really God at all?

It’s something to think about at least. Maybe mystery isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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