Don’t Rob Your Spiritual Life of the Joy and Wonder of Mystery

What’s the best way to enjoy a spectacular sunset? What are the three steps to knowing you’re in love? Or what about the thrill of swimming in the ocean, the ride on a roller-coaster, or the taste of a fresh hot cob of sweet corn with salt and butter. These aren’t things to try to understand: that would just rob them of the joy and wonder of mystery.

If you’ve read my articles for a while you know I often get very practical; what to do if this, five ways to know that. My scientific training as a physician and theological training in seminary provided lots of practice in thinking and analyzing. Neurobiological findings in recent years have especially fascinated me in understanding much about the process of spiritual formation.

And you don’t need to understand neurobiology to have your whole internal system swept away by your lover’s kiss at the altar at your wedding. Or to be nourished by an evening with friends around a campfire. Or to experience, as John Wesley did, your “heart strangely warmed” by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

I’ve been recently challenged in my walk with God that as good as understanding and practical steps can be, there are real dangers in over-analyzation. So here is a counterargument to some of my own writing on the practical steps to healthy relationships, our need for intimacy, and the process of transformation God intends for all of us.

The Danger and Fallacy of “Understanding”

Practical steps can give the impression that you’re in control; if you do these things this will be the outcome. God has given you and me, humankind, an astonishing degree of agency and free will. But you can’t understand or control the growth of a cucumber, let alone a baby, or your own heart. You’re not in control!

I can eat and exercise right and still get cancer. I can do everything right in my relationship and my marriage can still end. And I can devote all my time and energy to my relationship with God and still, as Mother Teresa did, feel dry and empty and distant from Him.

The enlightenment and the scientific revolution have given humankind the false impression that life can be understood, and therefore controlled. The way we have been discipled by the internet makes it so easy to worship at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; knowledge is instantly available for anything your heart desires. (Not that knowledge is evil in itself!)

Have you reached the end of that dangerous mental journey yet? Have you been faced with the hard truth that as hard as you try to understand or control things around you, or even your own heart, you never can?

And that’s actually quite a relief.

Playing God

St. Augustine once said, “Si comprehendus, non est Deus,” meaning If you understand, it’s not God. As important as both science and theology are, neither they nor any other endeavor will ever get us to where we can understand the Creator of the universe, the Lover of our souls, the One worthy of “blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever” (Revelation 5:13).

This plays into so many areas of our spiritual life. You might have imagined:

  • If I pray this this way, I’ll get from God what I’m asking for. (God’s too big for that.)
  • Following this list of spiritual practices means I will feel close to God and not struggle with temptation. (Jesus never promised “your best life now”.)
  • If I pray right and do right I’ll have the happy marriage and sex life I desire. (God has not promised you a happy marriage. And your spouse also has free will.)
  • Praying this way and doing these things will bring my loved ones or other people to know Jesus. (You’re not Junior Holy Spirit!)

This is more than simply God’s sovereignty, though He is sovereign! It’s also about giving up the notion that we can completely understand or control things. God will never make Himself indispensable. And as far as God’s work in the world, do you want to pretend to understand the frequent appearance of Jesus in the dreams of people in the Muslim world? Or why the gospel has survived for over two millennia in spite of persecution and culture wars and the bad behavior of those purporting to speak/act in the name of God?

As one of my dear professors/friends said, “The job of “God” is already taken. And I’m not Him.”

Living with the Mystery 

In multiple places in his letters Paul used the word musterion, mystery, not in the sense of something we cannot know, but rather something we cannot fully get our minds around. This is beyond our intellect. And for someone like me who has lived so much of my life out of my intellect, this is humbling.

The Protestant Reformation did many wonderful things. But in seeking to make some truly necessary corrections, it also elevated rational understanding to an often unwise place of authority. To paraphrase Augustine, if it’s God you think you understand, you don’t.

May I remind you that “the devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). They know more than you or I do, and what has it gotten them? This is about matters of the heart. And that’s different from intellectually knowing or understanding information.

What might it look like to live with, to even embrace, the joy and wonder of mystery in our walk with God? That might mean:

  • Less time in our artificial indoor worlds, and more time enjoying God’s green earth. “Only God can make a tree.”
  • Focusing less on making requests of God and perhaps asking more questions
  • Sitting with unanswered questions without demanding answers
  • Talking less and listening more in our prayers
  • Moving away from doing and embracing being – with God, and with others
  • Refusing to pretend we can transform ourselves, but instead raising our sails to catch the wind of the Spirit

May we embrace the joy and wonder of mystery.

I will never “understand” the way cool water quenches my thirst, the joy in my grandchildren’s embrace, or the longing I have for eternity. I don’t need to understand; it’s enough to be nourished by the goodness.

Your Turn: How have the dual dimensions of understanding and mystery played out for you in your spiritual journey? What has helped you embrace the joy and wonder of mystery? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Want more? This week on the podcast I talk with Jasmine Grace Marino about her grace-filled journey out of sex trafficking and how she now helps others. Listen or watch.

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