When I hit an AirBnB the first time, the space that typically feels the most unfamiliar is the kitchen, because so much is hidden, and I need to use some of the hidden things. You know, like spoons! I always figure where things are by trial and error. This experience of discovering things in kitchens is pervasive, it happens every single time, because there is no universal standard for organizing kitchens; but that, of course, is also exactly what makes your kitchen (or, by extension, your home) distinctly personal. How you arrange your kitchen, your home, is unique to you.
How do you experience unfamiliar “rooms” and “floors” of the Bible? If you are only familiar with one house, yours, what happens when you venture out and spend time in a new place?
Theologian Sebastian Moore observed that “God behaves in the Psalms in ways that [God] is not allowed to behave in systematic theology.” That’s a theologian joke! Is it possible, is it possible, that the good news is not “one size fits all” but is irreducibly rich, relational, and contextual? And what is lost in the translation of the Scriptures from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into modern languages? Do we believe that the power structures in place when the King James Version was produced accurately translated the broad intention of God for all peoples, or maybe the translation favored the majority group that still believed women and people of color have less value?
And how then can we be certain that our experiences of the divine—both familiar and unfamiliar—are authentic? How do we know that the experience of one person is “approved” by Holy Spirit when we haven’t had the same experience? How do we recognize God’s form and function, how He moves, what He is doing, especially when we are afraid? The Psalmist offers one answer:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
Comfort comes from recognizing the protective presence of the divine Shepherd. Sheep are in an uncertain and sometimes violent world, but Jesus says that the sheep follow the Shepherd “because they know his voice” (John 10:3). What is the most consistent mark of Jesus’s voice and presence that help us recognize him in the new and unfamiliar, the things we don’t yet understand? What is our North star that guides us in navigating through the world as followers of Jesus? I believe the answer is love.
If God is love (“Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love” 1 John 4:8), God’s form and function is revealed whenever we humans love one another (“No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.” 1 John 4:12). If we keep our senses, our minds and hearts, tuned to the divine frequency of love that resonates in all living creatures, we will be able to see God in unexpected persons and places, including a newborn in a feed trough in the most unremarkable of places amongst the least regarded people group.
Why would God so empty and humble himself to be like us? Why would the Creator voluntarily reduce Himself to be like what He has created with all its limitations and difficulties? Why else but to enter and fully know our lives, every part, every trial, every temptation, every uncertainty, and therefore to love us as we are?
Jesus knows the dysfunctions of our families (Matthew 20:20–24), the anguishes of chronic illnesses (Mark 1:34), the shadows of terminal diagnoses (John 4:49), and even the unspeakable sadness of the death of beloved children (Matthew 9:18; Luke 7:12). Mary, His Mom, too, would one day experience the death of her beloved son. Jesus gets our suffering and uncertainty at a very human level.
The Bible reveals to us the character of God. It is in knowing who He is, recognizing the Shephard, that we can be certain in the unknowing of new things, new ideas, and new places.
We know that God is absolutely infinite. This is pretty plain all throughout the Bible, so I believe there is no need to really say more than that. Is that fair? So, if God is infinite, what can we know about God since we are finite during our time on earth?
We can know a good bit, actually. Why? God revealed himself to us. We have His words describing who He is, and what He is like. But, the Bible does not tell us everything about God, nor does God reveal everything about himself.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
We are left with questions and holes in our understanding of His divine, holy nature, and we are called to seek Him in understanding a constantly changing world. Not shocking, right?
C.S. Lewis wrote that, “We are in no position to draw up maps of God’s psychology, and prescribe limits to His interests. We would not do so even for a [person] whom we knew to be greater than ourselves. The doctrines that “God is love” and “that He delights in [people]”, are positive doctrines, not limiting doctrines. He is not less than this. What more He may be, we do not know; we know only that He must be more than we can conceive.” I’m a fan of C.S.Lewis!
God is holy. God is love. God is Creator. God is beyond human comprehension and definition. To define something is to prescribe limits on something. God cannot be limited, the finite cannot box in the infinite, right?
To say what Lewis said is not to limit or lessen our theology. What the Bible says about God is factual and real. When Scripture says that God is holy and blameless, then we know God does not do wrong. So, Scripture positively describes God’s holiness so that we can rightly understand – He is holy! This is true even when events don’t go the way we want or expect. Why God does this or that is beyond our understanding. But, provided we remember that what God does is Holy, that He is love, and it is we who wrestle with the finite and imperfect, then we are freed from having all the answers and feeling as if we need to know. We do not need to know, and, bad news, we never will fully know. And that is okay. We are allowed to be creations of the Creator.
It is all too easy for us as we grow in faith to presume knowledge of God leaving us overly dogmatic, overly self-assured, and overly arrogant. I’ll claim that one, I know that no one here suffers from that other than me! But because I pursue Him in all things, and I am equally yoked to an amazing woman who helps me stay focused, my arrogance is gradually weakening. This doesn’t mean my convictions are changing (not all of them at least). It does mean what I was so incredibly sure about before, I’m less positive about now. That is a good thing. Uncertainty brings about humility. Paul said it best, “knowledge puffs up, love builds up” (1 Cor. 13). Certainty puffs up, uncertainty coupled with love builds up.
What we do know for certain about God, what He says about Himself in the Bible, is grounds for eternal worship and adoration. The same is true for what we are uncertain about. The mystery surrounding the Divine leaves us with a proper sense of awe and wonder, which also have the potential to create worship and adoration.
When we go through uncertainty, wrestle with new ground that hasn’t been taken before in our lives, we can rest in the assurance of who God says He is.
He is compassionate, He is merciful, He is full of grace. He is holy. He is love. Let all that we contend with flow through the understanding that our Shepard is all these things, and He is with us in all things.
Credit: Much of the original ideas and some text credited to Dr. J.P. Kang of The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology