This is both a pop sentiment, like, “OMG! God is like, so, you know, mysterious! I mean, God is GOD, so that’s BIG!”
And it seems to be the careful explanation of sophisticated thinkers. For instance, a famous hymn by William Cowper begins with the stanza:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
At the start, let’s get our key term right: a standard definition of ‘mystery’ is “something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.”
Doesn’t this seem to be true of God? That God, by definition, is Someone Beyond Us?
An Infinite Puzzle, never to be decoded?
An inscrutable enigma?
It seems that for God to be God, we could not fully understand who God is or what God does. And so God would remain difficult or impossible to understand or explain – that is, God is mysterious.
While there many religious traditions that would agree with this view of God, Christianity teaches something radically different.
Christianity teaches that a) God’s nature can be known, but b) the full extent of God’s nature is not known. Let’s look at two examples:
- The idea that “God is love” and
- The idea that “God’s will is mysterious.”
Is God love?
From the story of Creation to God’s plan to restore everything one day, the Bible teaches that God is love. We are meant to know this about God.
For instance, 1 John 4:8 says it very plainly: “God is love.” A bit unclear? Not sure if he meant it?
Fair enough. John repeats himself in verse 16: “God is love.”
At the same time, this same passage admits that we lack a complete knowledge of who God is. As John says: “No one has ever seen God” (4:12).
But can we still progress in our knowledge of God? Yes.
The verse concludes: “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”
The Bible teaches us that God is love and we are to love. So (assuming the Bible is true) we know that God is love. We know that we are to love God and our neighbor. But to fully know that God is love, we need the personal experience of actually loving God and one another.
Again: Christianity teaches that a) God’s nature can be known, but b) the full extent of God’s nature is not known.
Isn’t God’s will mysterious?
But doesn’t the Bible teach that God cannot be known? That his will is mysterious?
- Deacons “must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9)
- We are told about “the mystery of God’s will” (Ephesians 1:9)
- In talking about the future resurrection, Paul says, “Behold! I tell you a mystery” (1 Corinthians 15:51)
Examples can be multiplied. Here’s the question: if church leaders are to believe mysteries about God, shouldn’t all Christians think that God is an unknowable mystery?
Here is where an intelligent and informed understanding of the Bible is so crucial. As one commentary explains:
The word mysterion was used in that day for a secret that was unknown to the masses but disclosed to the initiated. In the New Testament it signifies the secret of salvation through Jesus Christ, which is revealed by the Holy Spirit to all who will believe. Today the word mystery implies knowledge withheld; in the Bible it indicates truth revealed.
In other words, our current definition of the word mystery is basically the opposite of how Paul was using the word.
The IVP Dictionary of Paul and His Letters elaborates on the passage in 1 Timothy:
It is best to understand the phrase as referring to the corpus of Christian teaching. This is a logical inference from the earlier usage of speaking about the saving plan of God. Essentially the expression is akin to the truth of the gospel, particularly the saving character of Christ’s death, which was previously hidden but not revealed by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:6–16). “Faith” is here used in an objective sense so that “the mystery of faith is what is believed, as the mystery of the gospel is what is preached” (Brown) (emphasis added).
Did you catch that? “Essentially the phrase is akin to the truth of the gospel.”
As this reference work summarizes Paul’s usage of the word ‘mystery’:
Mysterion appears twenty-one times in Paul’s letters out of a total of twenty-seven NT occurrences. Usually it points not to some future event hidden in God’s plan, but to his decisive action in Christ here and now.
When the Apostle Paul talks about “the mystery of God’s plan” what he is saying, to translate a little bit, is:
“CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? GOD HAD A PLAN TO SAVE US – EVEN THOUGH WE HATED GOD – THROUGH JESUS – AND HIS PLAN INCLUDED GOD DYING FOR US – EVEN THOUGH WE KILLED HIM – BECAUSE HE LOVES US SO MUCH – WOW – GOD’S LOVE IS SO WONDERFUL THAT I CAN HARDLY EXPLAIN IT!”
This ‘mystery’ is actually a very clear message: God loves you. You can know this because Jesus – God himself – died on a cross to forgive your sins.
Do you fully comprehend that? I don’t either. It is a mystery to me why God loves us so much. I cannot explain the incredible love of God. But the ‘mystery of faith’ is not an utterly confusing puzzle.
Rather, to repeat myself: “God’s mysterious will” is actually very clear: God has a plan to love you.
In another place, Paul writes in Ephesians that we are to strive, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and in cooperation with all of the saints, “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19).
God is not mysterious. He is love.
How loving is God? He loves you enough to die for your salvation.
How loving is that? God’s love is so great that it is a love which is beyond knowledge.
If you don’t know God, I pray that you will know the truth of the gospel – that Jesus died for your sins – and trust God’s offer of forgiveness and love. (If you need some evidence and reasons for God’s existence, that’s a reasonable request).
If you do know God, I pray that you will join me in trying to understand the greatness of God’s love for us.
This post was originally written at Reasons for God.