Saturday, 26 March 2016

When I just can't understand...

For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears... Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. 1 Corinthians 13:9,10,12.

Somebody said, “The more I know, the more I realise how little I know”. I know what they meant! Many of us, when we were young, thought we “knew it all”. And life, in one respect, has been a painful journey of discovering how wrong we were.

When it comes to the things of God, the knowledge he has given us is wonderful. But it’s only a tiny part of what there is to know. G K Chesterton, novelist, poet and staunch defender of Christian belief, wasn’t bothered by this: “God’s riddles are better than man’s solutions,” he wrote.

Paul was a man of deep insight into the things of God. He knew of God through vivid experience - his conversion encounter on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), dramatic visions as he lived day by day in intimacy with God (2 Corinthians 12), divine verbal messages given in answer to prayer (Acts 16:6-10) - and also through the exercise of a powerful mind soaked in scripture. Yet he was the first to recognise that “we know [only] in part... we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”.

The riddles of Christian faith, the things we struggle to understand, come in many and varied forms. Here are a few which have taxed my faith over the years...

Why is there so much suffering in this world? Couldn’t God have arranged things in such a way that it wasn’t so acute?

If God ultimately controls all things, what place is there for human free will? How can we reconcile God’s supreme sovereignty with our choices and decisions?

Prayer... why do there sometimes seem to be so few answers, even after prolonged and persevering prayer? Why did God allow that child to die in agony - and yet find me a parking space when I was late for a meeting?

Healing... why don’t we any longer see miraculous healings on the scale of those described in the gospels and Acts?

How can we reconcile the reality of hell with a God of tenderness and compassion?

Not to mention little matters such as the Trinity. How can there be one God but three persons, three persons but one God?

We can’t be sure, of course, but I suspect it was some of these things Paul had in mind when he spoke of “knowing in part”. And what G K Chesterton had in mind when he spoke of “God’s riddles”.

There may have been times in your life when you have been tempted to give up being a Christian altogether - the mysteries are just too much to grapple with. But, if you are anything like me, you found you just couldn’t do it. Chesterton was right - living with these puzzles and questions is somehow more satisfying, more fulfilling, than surviving on just arid, sterile, man-made theories and ideas.

Paul ends this thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians with two massively encouraging - and challenging! - thoughts.

First, one day we will know. One day we shall “see face to face”, one day we shall “know fully, even as we are fully known”. His fellow-apostle John expresses the same thought wonderfully: “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Second, all our questionings fade away in the face of what matters most: love. Paul ends the chapter with these words: “These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”.

It’s Easter time, and we have been thinking of the cross. Could there be anything more mind-taxing than this? As Wesley’s hymn puts it, “’Tis mystery all, the immortal dies...” How can this be!

And yet it is. And the only thing that can remotely make sense of it is... love, the love of God for sinners like you and me. Ultimately, this is all that matters. Let other things bide their time.

Back to G K Chesterton. He was asked once, “Don’t you worry about all those things in the Bible you can’t understand?” To which he replied, “No. The things in the Bible that worry me are the ones I can understand”. Funny - and wise.

Karl Barth was a great thinker about the Christian faith. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that he wrote more books in his life than many people read. But when he was asked to sum up his understanding in a few words he quoted the children’s hymn: “Jesus loves me, this I know,/ For the Bible tells me so”.

Yes... When the mysteries, riddles and puzzles threaten to get to you, just fall back on the one thing that matters: the wonderful love of God.

Lord God, I long for wisdom, insight and understanding into you and your ways. Grant me these things, I pray. But grant me, even more, simply to know you as my loving heavenly Father. Amen.

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