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a voice crying out in the postmodern wilderness

Does Your Theology Include Mystery? It Better.

Does Your Theology Include Mystery? It Better.

We like boxes, and labels. We put people in them, and ideas and - everything. It’s like caveman instinct. If I am scared of something or if I have a fear of the unknown, I am driven to define it. To draw lines around it and place it on a shelf next to similar items.

Here’s what I mean.

The other day I got honked at in the Chick-Fil-A drive through. I was in the car with my 6 year old son, Liam, and we were grabbing a quick bite. As I rounded the corner in the drive through, I heard someone honking. Weird. Liam asked me why and I shrugged. “I dunno, buddy.” It bothered me though. I wanted to know why that person honked at me. I didn’t do anything wrong and we don’t honk at each other like chatty geese in Texas. If you honk, you have an issue with someone.

As I paid for our food and began to drive off, it hit me: I’d cut in front of about ten cars without knowing it. There is this secondary line that I didn’t see. Now I could define the experience and put it inside of a box. I cut in line so others were mad. I am a jerk. I won’t do it again. I can’t apologize because I’ve driven off. Move on. Box created. Experience defined and on a shelf. My anxiety went away.

You know we do this with God, right? We box him up in little bins called theology or worldview. Or politics. We define the Definer. We reduce the irreducible. Why? Because we have to. We cannot live with the fogginess.

Theology isn’t a problem, per se. In fact, it’s completely necessary and good in the life of believers. I am not suggesting we back away from theology.

I am suggesting we embrace mystery.

In Ephesians, Paul closes his letter with asking for prayer as he proclaims the mystery of the gospel. Uh oh. I gotta confess something to you right now. My gospel doesn’t have much mystery in it. I’ve read enough of my Bible and enough theology to think I’ve got it sorted out. I could write you a definition of the gospel, and you know what – I think it would be right. But it wouldn’t leave room for much mystery. And that tells me I’m off track.

You see, we can know quite a bit about God by reading his word. As we read its sacred pages, God lights up verses and words and ideas and swirls them around in our souls. Lights flicker on inside us. He’s telling us about himself. But not all rooms have light switches. People suffer and die. We are betrayed. We betray others. People (ourselves included) act chaotically and we can’t figure it out why they do what they do. Weather is crazy and natural disasters destroy cities. We are unsettled on this giant spinning rock and we want to make sense of our environment. But usually our environment doesn’t make sense – that is, unless we arrogantly think we’ve got it all down pat.

Jesus does not fit into boxes or categories. Try to run right wing politics on the back of Jesus and you’ll have to ignore a large swath of what he did. In the same way, try to use him as a justification for lefty politics and you’ll have to do the same. Jesus leaves us with many questions, and in fact he answered questions with questions. Have you ever had someone do that to you? Try having it happen with the most important man in the world. That’ll freak you out.

The woman at the well.

The adulterous woman.

Zaccheus.

Us.

Do you understand? Finite beings cannot comprehensively define an infinite God. We must not lean toward agnosticism, as that is a pathetic punting of the situation. We can know what we can know, but we are quite limited.

I have seen people leave biblical, Christ-exalting churches because they disagreed with their Calvinistic lean theologically. But Calvinism wasn’t the problem. There was no curiosity on the matter when they left. In their case (and let’s not get into Calvinism here, just stay high level with me), what unsettled them was that they couldn’t figure out how a completely sovereign God would allow bad things to happen. That didn’t fit their box, so they packed up their family band bailed. These people will have the same problem elsewhere, just with new discussion points. They do not lean into mystery, they run from it.

The key here is to submit ourselves to the mystery of God. To look up at the stars and even though we know they’re burning balls of gas skrillions of miles away, to wonder at them. To watch him heal some people and rejoice with them, and to watch others suffer without answer – and not allow ourselves to grow bitter as if we truly understand what’s going on. To be amazed by God every day as he makes blades of grass grow. For real, look at a blade of grass. The fact that there is life on this planet and you’re able to read these words is statistically impossible. Chaos is the nature state of things. Be blown away that God holds this all together, even though you don’t know how.

Good stories have mystery, and God’s story is an epic’s epic. He is the hero, and we are the people he swoops in to rescue. We are rescued again and again and again. And because we don’t see him coming, we can often bow our heads and pray hmmmm.

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