God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil–this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.
One day this past week I was reading syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer’s book Things That Matter. I was struck by his story about a visit to New York’s renovated Hayden Planetarium. In a chapter titled “Humbled by the Hayden” Krauthammer tells how the New York Times reported visitors’ frequent complaints that the planetarium was too difficult to understand or grasp. Visualization of current astrophysical data along with the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present was said to be at times complex and incomprehensible to people. But Krauthammer said he was delighted by the cosmic tour of planets, stars, and galaxies and left feeling appropriately humbled by things beyond his ability to understand:
In a culture where everything from textbooks to television to SATs have been renormed and dumbed down, one should be grateful for an intellectual challenge. A building devoted to explaining the cosmos that does not leave you scratching your head and humbled – has failed.
I read Krauthammer’s delight, paused to think, and wrote in the book’s margin: “Similarly, a theology devoted to explaining God that does not leave you scratching your head and humbled – has also failed”! If the wonders of the universe are beyond human abilities to grasp, then how much more is God!
A few hours later my phone rang and a friend’s voice on the other end began: “Why did God allow…?” I listened for a few moments commiserating while trying to remember relevant Bible passages or some C. S. Lewis quote, but couldn’t. Finally I had to admit to my troubled friend, “I don’t know why God allowed this to happen. Sorry, but I just don’t know”. His is one of but many questions I file in my expanding “Don’t Understand” folder.
I often open my Bible thinking of the words of the great theologian St. Augustine, who reportedly said that John’s Gospel was shallow enough for a little child to wade in, but deep enough for an elephant to swim. That is the beauty and staggering wonder of the mystery we call God.
Today’s Scripture text is by Solomon the wisest person in the ancient world (I Kings 4:30). Solomon also left the contemplation of God feeling humbled and said that “fear” or “reverential awe” of Him is the beginning and sum of all wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). Solomon reminds us in our text that, “God has also set eternity in the hearts of men”. God has implanted in us a sense of the eternal and an insatiable inquisitiveness to know the lasting significance of everything we do. We yearn to know how every piece of the puzzle, every cancer, every tear, every dance, and every flower will fit into the whole. Yet Solomon concludes that for all the complexity and wonder we “cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end”. It’s beyond us!
We may try to unscrew the inscrutable, but can’t. We may try to fathom what God is doing, but can’t. We must not make any image of who we think God is or how He ought to do things.
I think of Elizabeth Eliot as a woman who has lived long good life of wisdom and humility. Her missionary husband, Jim Eliot, was martyred by the Aucas in Ecuador when their daughter was only ten months old. In the years that followed Elizabeth faced many inexplicable losses that helped shape her into a remarkable writer and teacher. She has written something in her book, Keep A Quiet Heart, that speaks to me about appropriate humility in the face of God’s wonder and incomprehensibility:
Hardly a day goes by without my receiving a letter, a phone call, or a visit from someone in trouble. Almost always the question comes, in one form or another ‘Why does God do this to me?’
When I am tempted to ask the same question, it loses its power when I remember that this Lord, into whose strong hands I long ago committed my life, is engineering the universe of unimaginable proportions and complexity. How could I possibly understand all that He must take into consideration as He deals with it and with me, a single individual! He has given us countless assurances that we cannot get lost in the shuffle. He choreographs the ‘molecular dance’, which goes on every second of every moment of every day in every cell in the universe… Yet in our darkness we supposed He has overlooked us. He hasn’t.
If Charles Krauthammer can leave the Hayden Museum feeling humbled by complexity, I can leave the mystery of God feeling humbled. So with Solomon leading the way, I can only conclude:
I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.
Enjoy! Grace and peace!
photo by Phil Plait