Face It, You're Smaller Than God
Learning to Love our Limitations
One of the great blessings of being a Christian of the Reformed tradition is its appreciation for the mind. Truths like election and predestination become matters of hope and reassurance, rather than being pigeonholed in the “mystery” cabinet as many other Christians are won't to do. The study of theology and the pursuit of doctrine are celebrated and encouraged, rather than disparaged and ridiculed. And we enjoy the awe-inspiring experience of recognizing how the sovereignty of God changes everything. Suddenly, everything has a purpose. Nothing happens by accident. Everything really does work together for good. All of life, all of history, is part of an unfolding and intentional story written by the greatest Author of all.
Of course, reformational believers are still sinners and are prone to error nevertheless. And human nature being what it is, we are all too prone to push good things past the point where they are useful. So we need to guard against the temptation to think that we can “figure it all out.” Moreover, we need to resist the idea that “figuring it all out” would be a good thing.
Think of the faith we have received. There are so many staggering truths that simply cannot be fully comprehended by our limited minds. Here are some examples:
- Our God is one Being or Essence, yet has eternally existed in three distinct and coequal Persons. We can’t even find accurate analogies in our language to try to express that concept; it’s completely beyond our human experience. And when we try too hard, we fall into grave error, emphasizing the one at the expense of the other. Modalists like the United Pentecostals emphasize the oneness of God at the expense of his threeness, resulting in a mysterious and hidden God whose revelations of himself are misleading. Mormons emphasize the plurality at the cost of denying any meaningful oneness, and in so doing they destroy the distinction between creation and creator. The truth is both-and, not either-or.
- We have been saved. And yet, we are being saved now. Moreover, we will be saved in the future. So much is lost when we simply focus on one of those truths and forget the others. If we rest exclusively on the past aspect of salvation—its ordination in eternity past, election, the Atonement—it’s easy, for example, to fall into hyper-Calvinism and neglect God’s work in the present to bring salvation into the lives of individuals through Gospel proclamation and evangelism. If we dwell narrowly on the present, as many modern evangelicals tend to do, the relevance of God’s deeds in the past and of the truths underlying and supporting our salvation in the present can become less obvious. If we look at salvation purely as something to be accomplished in the future, we fall into the despair that a lack of assurance brings and are tempted to make ourselves worthy by our works. Again, the truth lies in the seeming tension, in embracing the fact that it is all three and not either-or.
- God’s glorious Kingdom has now arrived in Jesus Christ. And yet, it still remains to be consummated in the future. Again, the risk of oversimplification is grave. Embracing the first at the expense of the second leads to errors like seeing modern nation-states as expressions of God’s kingdom, and neglecting Gospel proclamation in favor of political action and works of social justice. Stressing the future consummation of the kingdom while neglecting its present reality, on the other hand, runs the risk of Christians “having their heads in the clouds,” concerned with heavenly realities while neglecting the real problems and needs of the present that the Gospel has the power to change. Again: both-and, not either-or.
- Jesus Christ as fully God, and fully man. The immortal takes on mortality. The Eternal and Omnipresent One enters time and space. The Incarnation is another example of something that continues to stretch and challenge the best theologians beyond their ability. But to simplify this truth runs the risk of multiple errors. Emphasizing the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity, as the Docetics taught (Jesus only seemed human) means mankind has no perfect representative before God, and we have no hope of imitating Christ in any meaningful way or in holding to a resurrection. Another form of this, Apollinarianism, suggested that the divine replaced the human soul in Jesus, meaning that Jesus was not fully human in the sense that we are, and which raises the question of whether such a being could redeem mankind while being so fundamentally different. Downplaying his divinity and seeing him primarily or exclusively in his humanity leads to Arianism, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which not only distances God from humanity but makes sinless perfection appear attainable in the flesh—a recipe for despair and disaster. Other errors are possible, as well. Needlessly separating the two, as the Nestorians did in declaring Jesus was two distinct persons (one divine, one human) raises the deep problem of which person accomplished Christ’s redeeming and atoning acts: if the divine, then has man’s debt been really paid? If the human, without the divine, was the work sufficient for all mankind? On the other hand, the Monophysites claimed that the divine and human natures mixed to create one new, different nature, resulting in a Christ who could not really represent either God to men or men to God and whose saving acts are impossible to connect with either. Pretty much every one of these errors results from a desire to solve the mysterious and simplify the transcendent, when a respectful faith and trust that accepts both truths is called for instead. Yet again: it’s both-and, not either-or or something else entirely.
That just barely scratches the surface. These are truths that are simply too huge for us to comprehend. That’s not to say we can’t know anything about them, of course. We have been given revelation from God; we know that God is triune and that Christ is God and man. But we can’t have comprehensive knowledge, for that is beyond us.
And so we need to accept and rejoice in our human limitations. “The secret things belong to God,” after all! It is good and right to humbly reflect on our difference from and inferiority compared to our Creator. These truths remind us that it is Christ, not our intellectual prowess or theological tradition, that is the fount of wisdom and knowledge. They caution us to hold our conclusions with humility and be prepared to acknowledge and repent of error, rather than being tempted to believe in our own infallibility.
And in that limitation is hope and comfort. When a child looks upon the much greater strength and ability of his father, or the surpassing intelligence and wisdom of her mother, is that child discouraged and embittered by the contrast? Hardly: the child is comforted and reassured by the greater power of the parents, knowing that those surpassing abilities are being used in love to protect and shelter and care for the child. We need to look on the mysteries of God not as cause to despair, not as examples of human failure, not as grim mandates to resolve every question, but as reminders that this God we worship is a God worthy of worship—a God who is working everything in all of creation for the good of those he loves.