For years Frederica Mathewes-Green has contemplated the mystery of God and its meaning in our lives. She says this about the simple prayer featured in her book The Jesus Prayer: "If you open yourself in humility and call on the name of Jesus, all kinds of things can happen and you can grasp the mysterious complexities of the presence of God at deeper and deeper levels." And yet she acknowledges that much about our mysterious God is simply beyond our understanding. That doesn't mean we should give up on knowing him—not knowing him through the cleverness of a detective, but with the humility of a servant. Today's Christian Woman talked with Frederica about what it means to acknowledge the mysterious nature of God and to worship one whose ways are higher than our own.
What does it mean to say God is mysterious?
When people hear mystery, they sometimes think of mystery stories, like detective novels, where there's an answer that we don't know yet. Or they think of mystery as a puzzle with a missing piece. Instead, when we see our God as a God of mystery, we mean God is beyond comprehension. That mystery is so profound, so complex, that the human mind cannot contain it. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, "He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end." Humans have this tantalizing ability to conceive of something they can't understand.
Sometimes people get angry at the idea of mystery. They think it's a gyp or not fair for God to withhold some of the information. When we see suffering we don't understand, we wonder why God doesn't tell us the reason for it. But it helps to realize our brains just aren't big enough to grasp all the reasons.
So in what ways does the mysterious nature of God affect the way we see him?
Ideally, it should increase our awe, wonder, and respect for God. This holy fear is life-giving, the beginning of wisdom.
How does acknowledging God's mystery impact our lives?
It orients us to reality. The mysterious presence of God is with us all the time in a way we sometimes sense but often don't. It keeps us aware that much greater things are going on than what appears to our earthly eyes.
How does the mysterious nature of God affect our sense of control, and how should we respond?
God's mysterious nature reminds us that it's not just that God resists our control but that he's utterly out of our control, that our concept of control is often an illusion. So it forces us either to trust God or not. If you don't trust God, your sense of being out of control could be frightening. People can even come to see God as an enemy or become angry at him. But if you stop trusting God, you won't be able to control your life any better than you did before. Thus, acceptance of the mystery of God may help us be more comfortable with the lack of control and to trust him in the midst of it.
Job is a perfect example. When Job protested about being treated unjustly, God didn't answer his questions, but instead essentially said, "I am a mystery. I am beyond your comprehension. You don't understand." And Job was immediately humbled. He stopped his protests and questions and repented in dust and ashes.
Does Jesus' incarnation clarify or complicate that mystery?
It does both. It clarifies because now a concrete person manifests the presence of God. It's really him, and he is complete.
On the other hand, there's no way a human body could contain the whole presence of God. So there's obviously an enormous mystery there. It clarifies things by giving us a real person we can look at and real guidelines from his teaching and real events happening in history. But it remains mysterious because there is still so much we don't know.
The Bible illustrates both of these things. In 1 Corinthians 2:16, Paul wrote, "'Who can know the LORD's thoughts? Who knows enough to teach him?' But we understand these things, for we have the mind of Christ." In Luke 24, Jesus walked with two of his followers on the road to Emmaus and helped them understand the Scriptures.
In a way, we're left with just mystery when God says, "My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts. My ways are far beyond anything you could imagine" (Isaiah 55:8-9). But there's this other promise of possibility that we can, in fact, learn to see things the way God does as we begin to gain the mind of Christ.
What is the Holy Spirit's role in revealing the God of mystery?
We experience the Holy Spirit mainly as a guide. Part of his purpose is to focus the will of God for us, helping us grasp with our feeble minds whatever portion of God's will we are able to. We're servants who don't need to know everything that is in the master's mind. We're grateful for anything we receive that helps us at least to clarify our small roles in life.
How can acknowledging the mystery of God affect the ways we worship him?
It can inspire us to silence and listening. Sometimes silence gets a bad rap because it's thought of as emptiness or vacancy, and that's a spiritually dangerous course to take. But we should be listening as well as speaking. Awareness of God's mystery should silence us. As Job said, "I will cover my mouth with my hand" (Job 40:4). We should take time to pause and listen, to sense the presence of another Person, to sense his love. With practice it gets easier.
How has the mysterious nature of God affected you?
Before my conversion experience 30-some years ago, I was thinking about ideas, theological concepts, and claims of different religions. I thought about what sounded right to me and what didn't, going by my own understanding. When I encountered Christ, I was shocked by the mystery of another Person: the complexity of personality, consciousness, and memory, layer upon layer—so beautiful. It's not like a proposition at all but like another Person talking to me with so much inherent authority. Having an encounter with Jesus Christ was—and continues to be—breathtaking.