Monday, 10 October 2016

Christians Should Beware of Overconfidence in Understanding Why God Does What He Does

In Romans 11:33-36, the apostle Paul concludes the long doctrinal part of his letter to the Christians in Rome with an outpouring of praise:

‘Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and inscrutable His ways!  For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has become His adviser?  Or who has first given to Him that he might be repaid?  For from Him and through Him and for Him are all things.  To Him be the glory forever.  Amen.’

Part of what Paul praises God for here is the fact that His ways are so much more profound than we humans can comprehend.  We simply cannot begin to understand Him properly.

Here are some examples of where I find myself just saying that I don’t know why God has done what He has done or does what He does:

The twelve apostles

Take the 12 apostles.  Jesus chose an inner circle of 12 disciples.  Then, after the defection of Judas Iscariot, we are told that the first Christians took great care to find a suitable replacement for him (Acts 1:21-26), and nothing in the text suggests that they were wrong to replace him.

So, here we are back with 12, God’s 12.  We might then expect these men to have been more prominent and more greatly used in the early church than any other Christians.  But this is not what we find.  Instead, God chose Paul, who was not one of the 12, and arguably used him more greatly than any of them, and certainly more greatly than most of them. 

If the 12 were so important, why didn’t God use them more than Paul?  If Paul was used because of some talent that he had, why didn’t God choose someone with Paul’s talent to be one of the 12 in the first place?  We can guess at the answers to these questions, but I don’t think we can reach confident conclusions.

Similarly, reading between the lines in Acts 12, 15 and 21, and Galatians 1-2, it seems that at a time when most of the 12 were still alive, the most important figure in the Jerusalem church was probably James the brother of Jesus, who was not one of the 12.  Even if he was not the most important, he was definitely one of the most important and was more influential than most of the 12.  Why didn’t God choose one of the 12 to perform this role at that time?  Again, we can make guesses, but I don’t think we can really know for sure.

Receiving the Holy Spirit

As another example, take receiving the Holy Spirit.  At times in Scripture the mysterious act that is the laying on of hands is used for new Christians to receive the Spirit (Acts 8:15-17; 19:6).  But at other times God imparts the Spirit without any laying on of hands (Acts 2:1-13, 10:44-46).  If He is content to do it without hands sometimes, then why does He ever want hands to be used?  I don’t think we can properly understand it.

And then there is the strange situation in Acts 8:5-17 when there is a delay in new Christians receiving the Spirit until the apostles Peter and John go from Jerusalem to Samaria and lay hands on them.  Why were they needed to lay on hands on this occasion?  Why could Philip the evangelist, who evangelised the Christians in Samaria, not do this himself?  This is especially perplexing because there are good reasons for thinking that in the early church non-apostles often laid hands on new Christians for them to receive the Spirit. 

Commentators are not slow to say why they believe the Christians in Samaria were delayed in receiving the Spirit.  We can make guesses, but I don’t think we can be confident that we know for sure.


Consider also the phenomenon that is speaking in tongues.  At least as regards the type of tongues-speaking that Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 14, this involves speaking words that make no sense to the mind in order to build up the Christian.  Why has God established this form of spiritual edification?  I don’t think we can figure it out.

Similarly, what about the gift of interpreting tongues (1 Corinthians 12:10; 14:5, 13, 27-28)?  Someone speaks in a tongue, and that person or someone else then interprets this into intelligible language.  This tongue plus interpretation is in effect the equivalent of a prophecy.  But why doesn’t God just speak through prophecies instead of using this more complicated method?  I think a solution is beyond us.

Believing without seeing

Another thing that I have spent some time wondering is why the Lord wants us to believe in Him without seeing Him.  Why doesn’t Jesus manifest Himself to us visibly?  After all, when we are perfected in heaven we will see Him face to face, so why not now?  We can guess at the answer to this, but I don’t think we are in a position to do more than guess.

Resisting overconfident explanations

We need to resist the temptation to come up with an explanation for everything we read about in the Bible at almost any price.  I am sure that modern Western Christians are often overconfident in the explanations they give for why God acts in the ways He does.  Things that I suspect are actually beyond our ability to know are frequently explained away in unconvincing and simplistic ways.

Instead, I think we can learn from the attitude of ancient Jews.  They were much more comfortable than modern Westerners are in leaving things unexplained, and in allowing tensions and paradoxes.  They were often happy to admit that God’s ways are beyond comprehension.

By all means, let us try to find answers to questions when it looks like that might be possible.  But I think it is usually unwise to expend a lot of effort trying to understand mysterious things.  And if we don’t know answers, we should admit that, instead of coming up with unconvincing explanations for the reasons behind God’s actions.  Even in situations when we think that we can perhaps understand why God has done something, I believe there should often be a lot more hesitancy and caution on the part of many Christians who seem so quick to make bold pronouncements about what has been going on in God’s mind.

We are finite and God is infinite, and there is much that He does that we are not going to be able to understand.  We must not pretend that we are wiser than we really are, and end up trying to fit God into a box.  He is far too big for that.

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