Things We Cannot Understand
We’ve been thinking about the futility of “Whyning”—the universal human impulse to ask Why about life’s painfully confusing and seemingly senseless mysteries. And we come now to a final reason why such Whyning is futile: there are many things that we simply cannot understand.
Solomon says that “[M]an cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out” (Ecc. 8:14, 16-17). The scheme (Ecc. 7:25, 27) or plan or design behind it all is simply beyond us. There are things we cannot understand. As Solomon puts it in Ecc. 7:23-24—“All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, ‘I will be wise’ but it was far from me. That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?”
Like Solomon, we know that life is supposed to be good, beautiful, love-filled, fair, joyful, and purposeful. Yet, when we look around us we don’t see it; and often see what looks like the opposite. And we wonder Why—only to have the fog thicken; only to nearly drown in the deep, the very deep silence of God.
I before E, Except After C…Sometimes
There is often a fearful “unanswerableness” (to borrow one author’s made-up word) to much of what happens in life. We’d like life to fit into equations; fixed rules with predictable outcomes; well-defined causes, effects, and reasons. And we do not like unexplained exceptions. We want life to be like a grammar rule—let’s say: “I” before E except after “C”. It’s nice and neat; until it confronts the real world that includes words like ancient, science, neighbor, neither and reindeer. These words are just not helpful. They violate the rule and make us doubt that it’s true.
The universe often seems to ignore the rules, too. Circumstances seem random and unfair. A hurricane tears through a town destroying the homes of good believers, but then stops literally at the doorstep of the town scoundrel’s house without lifting a shingle from its roof. Why?
Justice is uneven and evasive, so that the innocent are condemned and the guilty go free. The powerful prevail and the vulnerable suffer. Why does God let that happen? COVID bypasses a billion unjust sinners, only to take a man who’s devoted his life to ministry and to fatherless children. Life seems so unfair.
People who are terrible parents have all the children they want, while people who would make great parents, can’t have kids. What’s the sense of that? One person is good looking while another seems, not so much. Like how is that fair? People who violate every health rule in the book live to be 100, and the woman who takes care of herself dies at 40. Why? Is there any good reason for this?
God Has His Secrets
Search every day for the rest of your life and you will never find the answers. That’s the trouble with “Whyning”. This doesn’t mean that you can’t humbly ask “Why” if you’re grieving. You certainly may—and God will hear and care. But for the sake of your sanity and peace, try not to demand answers. For the hard truth is simply this: life answers to no one.
We live in a universe with few revealed reasons, no Ultimate Mind that we can understand, no “Answer-Giver” who grabs a weekly coffee with us to explain the latest cosmic mysteries. We are left with a God whom we assume has the answers, but chooses not to share them. And if we keep pressing for answers when our Why gets no reply, we go out of our mind. God has and keeps secrets. His is the Ultimate Mind which knows the answers and reasons, but he isn’t telling. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever…” (Deut. 29:29). Some things are for God alone to know. And he never tells.
Things We Cannot Understand
Before you get mad at God for his secrets, consider this: perhaps God doesn’t tell us because we couldn’t understand even if given a chance. In Isaiah, God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8, 9). Sorry Tim, but God’s mind functions at an infinitely higher level than yours.
This is the whole point of Job 38-41 when God answers Job’s Why questions with a reminder that he, God, knows, plans, and does things which Job could never understand. And it explains Job’s reaction to God’s words in Job 42:1-6. There, he admits that his Whyning (that had called into question God’s fairness) was nothing more than him “[uttering] what he did not understand, things too wonderful for [him], which [he] did not know” (Job 42:3). Job simply had no idea what he was talking about, or what God was doing! And in effect, God responds to Job’s (and our) Whys like we respond to a young child’s: “My child: you just would not, and could not, understand. You will need to trust me on this.”
Think about it. According to physicists, F=dp/dt-d(mv)/dt. I have no clue what that means. Never did. Never could. Never will. Don’t care. A physicist’s thoughts are not my thoughts. Nor are his ways mine. And I’m happy for it to stay that way. But if that equation is unfathomable to me, how much more must it be to a one-year-old? Young children cannot process adult thinking. My thoughts are not their thoughts—even if I’m only thinking about scrambled eggs. So how would they handle Einstein?
Yet, we could sooner teach physics to a one-year-old than God could teach us his thoughts and ways. Every parent knows that there are things we do not tell our children because they could never understand them and to tell them would traumatize them more than not telling them. Telling them would almost literally blow their minds. If that is true with adults and children, how much more between us and God? The gap between God and us is infinitely greater than between Einstein and my toddler grand-children. If God told us his secrets it would blow our minds!
Romans 11:33 says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” God’s depths are too profound to fathom. His reasons would drown our brains if we tried to plumb them. His ways are unsearchable; impossible to be explored. They are inscrutable: beyond tracing or tracking. His mind goes places ours can never go. His footsteps cannot be seen or known (Psa. 77:19).
In part, this is why God keeps secrets: he simply cannot explain all his reasons for what happens in this world because we simply would not and could not understand. The infinite mind of God is in a league all its own. His thoughts soar through the galaxies; ours wiggle and squirm in the dust. God is coordinating inter-galactic forces of nature, and working out the intricate ends for which he has made the cosmos, while we’re thinking about what socks to put on.
He is weaving together untold trillions of cosmic strands that include all that happens to everyone and everything—everywhere and all the time—into an exquisite tapestry which will take an eternity to behold and enjoy. And in the meantime, we’re coloring between the lines and learning our ABCs and 1,2,3s.
Bow the Head and Bend the Knee
All this is why we creatures need to let God be God in all of his mysterious inscrutable wisdom. If we don’t, we’ll be like adult-sized two-year-olds, toddling aimlessly about in God’s massive universe, striving in vain to grasp his inscrutable Mind. Instead, God invites us to replace our Whyning with wonder; to embrace life with all its mystery with ever-trusting hope.
God is God and we are not.
His ways are not our ways.
His thoughts are not our thoughts.
Mystery is everywhere, all the time.
So let us bow the head and bend the knee and live in hope.
Let us pray with David: “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 131:1-3).
This is a sure path to peace; and it is the only path to quiet hope that there is.
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