Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes . . .
We love the words of this deeply theological hymn. Yet for the most part, this "inaccessibility" of God isn't a trait most of us like to dwell on. We're more often drawn to descriptions of God's knowability—friendship with God, intimacy with God, the aspects of God's Divine Being that we can grasp and understand.
Yet God is, in many ways, very much "hid from our eyes"—not just from our literal vision, but hidden by the limits of our human comprehension. Though we often speak about "knowing God," in what ways is God simply beyond us and unknowable? And how can we seek to better know and grow in relationship with our amazing—and mysterious—God?
The question of how well we can really "know" God has been woven throughout church history from the beginning. There are two realms of Christian theology that explore this issue: cataphatic theology and apophatic theology.
Cataphatic theology emphasizes how God is knowable; we can know him through the revelation of God in the Word, through his character traits, through what he has made, and through what we see. In this sense, God is absolutely a knowable God.
Apophatic theology, on the other hand, emphasizes the more mysterious aspects of seeking to "know" God. From an apophatic standpoint, God is so big, so huge, and so beyond us that in a sense we can never truly know God. We're fooling ourselves if we think we can nail down the flapping corners of the universe and confidently declare, "This is who God is . . . " because God is beyond us.
Both of these theological currents are present in Scripture, and both help us see how we can—and cannot—know and understand God. We live in a society that always wants to level the playing field; for example, we called President Carter just plain "Jimmy" and people often refer to our current president as just "Obama." Similarly, we often have a very friendly and familiar approach to the Holy One. It is a good thing to be close to God and on familiar terms! But if that is the only way we view and relate to God, then our perspective is inadequate and incomplete. If we neglect the mystery of God, we aren't seeing the whole picture.
God is not an object to be analyzed, a theory to be debated, or an abstract concept to be pondered. We cannot put God on a dissecting table, examine everything, and then proclaim conclusively, "This is God." No, God is a subject. Subjects are both knowable and mysterious. As we seek to know God, we must recognize that he is both known and unknown to us—both utterly close and familiar, and stunningly mysterious and unfamiliar.
And so we can say with humility, "This is who God is to me. This is the God I find in the Bible; this is the God I've experienced. It's just a little, teeny piece of this big, big picture of our awesome, mysterious God—but this is who God is to me."
How can we grow in relationship with this amazing and mysterious God? We know the quick answer often offered by the church: "Read your Bible and pray." Of course this is good advice—these practices are certainly important and they help us know God better. But there's more to knowing God than reading about him.
Consider the biblical story itself and the wide variety of ways people experienced God and got to know God: Abram heard God's voice, Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending, Moses saw a burning bush, Balaam heard God speak through a donkey, Samson felt God's strength, Elijah heard God in a whisper on a mountain, Isaiah saw God high and lifted up, Daniel had dreams, Mary talked with an angel, and on and on. The Bible itself is a catalogue of people's diverse and unique experiences with God.
Frederick Buechner wrote, "There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not recognize him." God invites us to listen to our life and to see it for what it is—a mysterious adventure of meeting God. We each may encounter God, who is beyond our comprehension, in different or surprising ways. And so a good place to begin in seeking to know our mysterious God is to reflect on some questions:
- Who is God to you now?
- How has God revealed himself so far in your life?
- Where and when in your life do you feel closest to God?
The first time I read Isaiah 42:20 it blew me away. The prophet says, "You have seen many things, but you pay no attention; your ears are open, but you do not listen" (NIV). I read it and immediately took it to heart; Yes, I've seen many things, but have I paid no attention? This passage spoke powerfully to me about how I want to approach my life.
We're each given experiences in our lives and I believe we're meant to reflect on them—to milk them for meaning and try to discover what God might have for us in them.
How is God present in a certain experience? What might God be teaching me? How might God be changing me?
Yet so often we're so rushed and busy that we simply don't pay attention. For example, a person might go on mission trip, to a fantastic concert, on a cross-country road trip, or have some other really amazing experience. But instead of reflecting and noticing where God was in that experience, she just adds it to her big, accumulating pile of experiences. Imagine for a moment that experiences are like yarn; this person's yarn-ball of experiences just keeps getting bigger and bigger throughout her life.
But if we choose to pay attention in a spiritual sense, rather than merely accumulating experiences, we can take out our knitting needles and knit something out of those experiences. That is what experiences are for: to make us into people, to introduce us to God.
Learning to knit
My friend Karen Mains often talks about finding God in a "myriad of transcendencies" every day. What a beautiful image! Finding, knowing, and experiencing God in this way takes a certain mindset: a perspective that is open, reflective, expecting. How we each begin to knit—how we move into a place of reflection and noticing—depends on each unique person.
Too often we make the mistake of turning to a generic prescription for spiritual growth. We prescribe things like, "Read your Bible and pray, go to church on Sunday, try a mission trip, memorize Scripture." We prescribe the spiritual disciplines. While I believe spiritual disciplines are important, they are not generic. Spiritual disciplines are not an aspirin we can pass out to people and say, "If you do this, you'll feel better and your relationship with God will grow."
We each have a unique relationship with God. Relationships are dynamic, growing, and changing; what you're doing at a certain point in your relationship with God may be different from what I am doing in my relationship with God, and that's okay. My spiritual practices need to be the ones that bring me to God; yours need to be the ones that take you to God. And so the way to reflect—to knit, per se—is for each person, in her own heart, to pay attention, to listen to God. And to discern, with God, what specific practices or disciplines will best allow her to do so.
Even in darkness
When we think about reflecting on our experiences and noticing God, often we think first of "mountain top" experiences—times in which we've experienced something amazing or have sensed God's presence in a meaningful way. But what about "valley" times? Periods in which God seems anything but close?
There are experiences of what I call "the presence of the absence of God." In these times we sense God as a God who hides himself; it may be that we cannot "feel" God or it seems God is distant from us. Being aware of that feeling of absence is also a way of knowing God.
Martin Luther talked about how our mysterious God, in some ways, is hidden from us—how sometimes we feel a dark side of God's love. And so it is crucial to know that even when a person is in a place of profound spiritual desolation, that too is a real place in the spiritual journey with God. God's hiddenness—what Christian mystics called "the cloud of unknowing"—is as real as it would be if you saw God's handwriting on the wall.
No questions asked
As we move toward living in a way in which we notice God and reflect on our lives, we can begin to know God better and draw closer to him. But at the same time, if someone were to ask me, "What do you know about God?" I'd say that I know less about God than I ever thought I knew years ago. A deeper knowing of God inevitably leads us to realize more and more how beyond us, how amazing, how mysterious God really is.
When my son was in college, he and I were having a vigorous discussion about God—about how difficult it is sometimes to know God, and about some of tough issues like human suffering.
I asked my son, "What questions do you have for God? When you get to heaven and you have a chance to talk to God, what kinds of things would you want to ask him?"
He said, "I wouldn't ask God anything."
"What do you mean you wouldn't ask God anything?"
My son turned to look at me and said, "Mom, we're talking about God—the uncreated, immortal, all-powerful, Creator God. There's nothing to question before this Being. You just fall down and your face and say, 'Thank you for my life. Thank you for my life. Thank you for my life.'"
I think there's something to that. I don't care how smart a person is or how much theology someone has read—we must come to terms with the fact that our finite human minds simply cannot fully comprehend the infinite, immortal, invisible, only-wise God.
All we can do is bow.
Adele Ahlberg Calhoun is the author of Invitations from God and The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. A trained spiritual director with more than 30 years of ministry experience, she is currently copastor with her husband of Redeemer Community Church in Boston, Massachusetts
Kelli B. Trujillo is a contributing editor to Kyria.com and is the author of several books, including the Flourishing Faith series and The Busy Mom's Guide to Spiritual Survival. As a freelance writer and editor, she's contributed to more than eighty Christian books, magazines, and online resources. http://www.kellitrujillo.com