The Incomprehensibility of God

Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways,
and how small a whisper do we hear of him!
But the thunder of his power who can understand?

Job 26:14 ESV

The book of Job revolves around our human struggle to grasp both God’s sovereignty and our suffering which He permits. Job himself is the central figure, being a righteous man who loses all of his possessions, his children, and finally his health. For the majority of the book, Job’s friends attempt to convince him that suffering is caused by sin, while Job maintains his innocence. Yet toward the end, Job is so bold in his righteousness that he demands an answer from God’s Himself, and in the final chapters, God does answer Job. Speaking from a whirlwind, God asks Job questions of nature that Job cannot answer. Job understands the message perfectly: if we cannot understand the wholeness of God’s creations, how can we ever hope to understand the ways of God Himself? Job properly responds to the incomprehensible Almighty, saying, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

WHO CAN UNDERSTAND?

We begin our study of God and His attributes with the incomprehensibility of God, which may seem like an interesting starting point. By this study we are attempting to comprehend the nature of God, yet we immediately are met with His incomprehensibility. This attribute is, however, a logical initial topic because before proceeding with the other attributes, we should discuss in what ways God can be known by us at all and in what ways He will forever remain clothed in mystery. As we will see, God’s incomprehensibility does not mean that we cannot know anything about God; rather, it confesses that He will eternally remain beyond our total comprehension. This reminder that we can never grasp the full depths of God’s divinity is essential because as Tozer noted:

Left to ourselves we tend immediately to reduce God to manageable terms. We want to get Him where we can use Him, or at least know where He is when we need Him. We want a God we can in some measure control.[1]

The message of the book of Job and the incomprehensibility of God are both bitter pills to swallow for this very reason: they reveal that we cannot comprehend God, lesser still can we manage Him. His being, His nature, His counsel, and His ways are too lofty for us. They are a well without bottom, a road without end, a forest without limits. However deep we search, however far we travel, however much we explore, we will never grasp the totality of God. Even in our resurrected bodies, we will still be finite creatures and so will still be unable to comprehend the fullness of His divinity.

In fact, the allure of idolatry is evident in light of God’s unmanageability and incomprehensibility. A false god may not be able to speak, see, hear, or do anything, but at least we can see it, at least we can touch it, hold it in our hands, place it upon the mantle of our home. Try as we might, we are quite a superstitious lot and possessing a totem or relic eases our anxious hearts. In a world filled with “many dangers, toils, and snares”, we long for the illusion of security, even when it is just that, an illusion. Idols accomplish this task, but they are not so easy to spot today. Once upon a time, the comprehensible idols were readily known because they were made or bought for the explicit function of being worshiped. The modern world is no less idolatrous, perhaps even more so, than the ancients. We simply have become what Lewis called “Materialist Magicians[2] who worship ideas rather than a named deity. For many, the notions of health and wealth are nothing less than gods, and medications, the gym, an account number, or a job are nothing more than totems that we look to for our security, safety, and fulfillment. The human heart, after all, is still the same. We want gods that we can understand and, therefore, manage.

But it is good that God is incomprehensible because it means that He is beyond our grasp, that He is above us, that He is other. Of course, the otherness of God also brings with it a unique kind of terror. The fear of being next to a hungry tiger is different than the fear of being in the presence of an angel. The tiger may very well pose a greater physical threat, but at least the tiger is a known entity. We are all somewhat familiar with tigers, but an angel is different. It is another kind of being, one that is mostly shrouded in mystery. Therefore, the terror of seeing an angel would be different from the terror of meeting a hungry tiger. Yet angels are still created things as we are. God, however, is uncreated; instead, He is the Creator. Even angels are creatures of the cosmos and so are limited to the cosmos, but God formed the cosmos and is, therefore, not bound by or to it. He exists beyond the confines of this world, both physical and spiritual, because He made both the heavens and the earth.

To return to my original point, this is good for us because a god that we can manage is a god less powerful than we are. God, however, is infinitely beyond us and everything. Paul’s rhetorical question, therefore, is glorious beyond measure: “If God is for us, who can be against us” (Romans 8:31)?

KNOWING GOD

But if God truly is incomprehensible, how can we know anything about Him at all, and furthermore, how can we know that He is for us? Thankfully, affirming the incomprehensibility of God does not mean that we cannot know Him whatsoever. Instead, it means that we will never know Him fully and finally. We can never reach the depths of knowing God because the finite cannot contain the infinite. Yet even while we can never know the totality of God, we can truly know Him. Yes, the best that we can ever hope to capture is what God is like; however, we can still speak truthfully about God’s nature while still knowing that He is inexhaustible.

As we discussed last week, we know that we can know God because He has spoken to us. He has made Himself known through divine revelation. Of course, God’s revelation of Himself is bound by our limitations. For instance, the Bible can by no means describe the fullness of God because even though inspired by the Holy Spirit, it is still written in the languages of men. The writing of the Scriptures was an act of condescension, of God speaking to us on our level since we cannot ascend to His field of vision. But, again, its limitedness does not negate its truthfulness. Further, we know that while the Scriptures do not display the entirety of God, they do still reveal to us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). While they do not capture the incomprehensibility of God, they are an inexhaustible fountain of truth “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Thus, through His Word, we can truly know that the incomprehensible God is for us. We only need a brief summary of the biblical storyline (aka the story of humanity) to witness His benevolence toward us. In the beginning, He created us to be His stewards over the earth, exercising loving dominion as bearers of His image. And even when we rebelled against Him by trying to become gods ourselves, He did not give us immediate and eternal damnation (as He did with the rebellious angels); rather, He continues to this day to show common grace upon all mankind and gave special, redeeming grace to His elect through the death, resurrection, and triumph of Jesus Christ, God the Son. Therefore, we who are now in Christ are the recipients of every spiritual blessing because the Almighty has now adopted us as His sons and daughters. This is unbelievably good news! Indeed, it is the gospel of our salvation. In Christ, we are not only able to know God; we are known by Him and are able to commune with Him.

In fact, this returns us to a Scripture that we cited last week: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). We cannot know God entirely; He is incomprehensible. But eternal life is knowing Him more and more. Our inheritance, our prize at the end of the race, our crown incorruptible, our pearl of great value is knowing God and being known by Him. Tozer describes this eternal pursuit as “to have found God and still to pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned by the too easily satisfied religionist, but justified in the happy experience by the children of the burning heart.”[3]

Interestingly, N. D. Wilson writes, “In the ancient myths, Tartarus is where the rebel Titans were tortured forever, where they struggled to complete tasks with any end, without any completion.”[4] This conception of  hell centered upon being bound to an endless and futile task. Yet our pursuit of knowing God is the exact opposite of Tartarus, of Hell. It most certainly is a task “without any completion”, but knowing God is not an exercise of futility, it is the “soul’s paradox of love.” In Christ, we know God, yet we will eternally yearn to know Him more. For any that have secretly questioned whether eternal life would ever become boring, this is the answer. We will never exhaust the riches of eternal life because we will never reach the end of knowing and loving our God.

But perhaps the greatest news of all is that eternal life does not begin with our resurrected bodies; it begins now. Knowing God is not confined to the afterlife. In fact, if you do not begin to know and enjoy God now, how can you expect to enjoy knowing Him for all eternity? If knowing God is worth an eternity of pursuing, how much more should we begin today?

Indeed, this knowing of and communion with God must be the purpose of our study of His attributes. Along these lines, J. I. Packer gives this much needed warning:

To be preoccupied with getting theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher a motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception. We need to guard our hearts against such an attitude, and pray to be kept from it… Our concern must be to enlarge our acquaintance, not simply with the doctrine of God’s attributes, but with the living God whose attributes they are. As he is the subject of our study, and our helper in it, so he must himself be the end of it.[5]

Brothers and sisters, the incomprehensible God has made Himself known to us by His Son and by His Word. May we, therefore, devote ourselves wholly to the pursuit, not only of knowledge about Him, but knowing Him, being known by Him, and communing with Him. Do not content yourself with merely declaring that you want to know God; instead, turn to His Word and pray to the Father the words Eli taught to Samuel, “Speak, for your servant hears” (1 Samuel 3:10).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What is the incomprehensibility of God?
  • Why is this attribute a logical one to begin with?
  • How is God’s incomprehensibility connected to His unmanageability?
  • How are we to know anything true about God at all?
  • How does God’s incomprehensibility offer a glimpse at our eternal pursuit?

[1] Tozer, 25.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1942; 1996), 31.

[3] A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (HarperOne, 1948, 1982, 1993, 2006), 223.

[4] Wilson, N. D.. Death by Living (p. 113). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

[5] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 22-23.

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