I can remember listening to my critics in seminary as they berated me for my theology, “You Calvinists have everything figured out—you put God in your box and leave no room for mystery!” I never understood this accusation because, in reality, my Arminian critics were the ones who left no room for mystery. I would tell them, “I affirm divine sovereignty and human responsibility—I don’t know how they work together, but the Bible clearly affirms both.” I had in mind passages like Genesis 50:20, where Joseph told his brothers that they meant him harm but that God meant his captivity in Egypt for good. Another passage to which I appealed was Acts 2:23, namely, that Christ was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” yet this was in no way exculpatory, as Peter told the crowd that they crucified and killed Christ and that they were “lawless men.” My well-intentioned Arminian friends, and especially my Pelagian theology professor, could not live with the mystery of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. They would say, “Either God is sovereign and we’re puppets, or we have free will, and God gives up some of his sovereignty.” In fact, one of my professors once said, “Can God make a rock so big that he can’t lift it?” The traditional answer is, no—God cannot make something that is greater than himself. But my professor gleefully retorted, “Yes! The human will is that immovable rock! God can’t move this rock!” They made their box and thought they put God inside of it. They couldn’t stand the idea of mystery but wanted to make everything fit inside the box.
Why is mystery so important? First, it’s important because it is biblical. The Bible is full of occurrences of mystery, whether in God’s ordination of Joseph’s suffering, the crucifixion, or how God can be three in person and one in substance (the Trinity), or how Christ can be one person with two natures. I think with many of these mysteries, we have to be content with the fact that God simply has not revealed everything to us. On this count Deuteronomy 29:29 is one of my favorite verses, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” Moses told the Israelites this on the heels of the prophecy that the curses of the covenant would eventually fall upon Israel and they would be ejected from the Promised Land.
Second, I think acknowledging mystery as a component of theology is a vital reminder that we are mere creatures and that we serve a mighty and transcendent Creator. If God revealed everything to us, if it were possible, we would basically be God. Moreover, if we knew everything, such as the future, we would have little reason to trust God. Think, for example, when God told Abraham that he would have an heir from his own body and that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. God told Abraham the future. Rather than trust God, Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands with unfavorable consequences. Ishmael, the child of Abraham and Hagar, was not the child of the promise. When we acknowledge mystery, we recognize our own finitude and need to trust God in the face of the unknown.
We can reflect upon these truths with some observations that movie director J. J. Abrams has offered about the nature and importance of mystery in a 2007 TEDS talk. He says, “There are times when mystery is more important than knowledge.” How true this is—when we acknowledge mystery, we bow before God’s transcendence and sovereignty and recognize he is Lord and we are but his servants. Abrams observes, “Withholding information is much more engaging.” He makes this observation about mystery in movies—you never really see the shark in Jaws until near the very end of the movie. Why? Because it keeps you engaged in the story. If you saw the shark in the opening scene, you’d probably quickly get bored with the story. God withholds knowledge from us and gives us mystery so that we remain dependent upon him rather than resting in our own confidence. Abrams again opines: “There’s the mystery of what you think you’re getting and what you really get.” How true this is, especially with Abraham. He thought he was getting one thing and tried to obtain it through his own creativity, and instead got another—he received a miracle—the birth of his son Isaac, a biological impossibility but a reality through the unfolding mystery of God’s redemptive plan.
Abrams offers another reflection on mystery, “It represents infinite possibility; it represents hope; it represents potential.” Indeed, when we look at the mysteries of God and his word, God leaves space open for him to act. Rather than being crowded out by our limited ideas, mystery ensures that God is free to act according to the greatness of his majesty and power. Abrams also explains, “Mystery is the catalyst for imagination,” which is an appropriate characteristic of movie making and story-telling. But I think we can modify his thought and say, “Mystery is the catalyst and arena for faith.” Only when we don’t know do we reach out in faith to the one who does know.
Pastorally and practically speaking, convey to your congregation, friends, and family, that God has revealed much to us in his word, and he has chiefly revealed himself in the unfolding mystery of the gospel of Christ. But at the same time, we don’t have all the answers—there are many questions where we mere mortals cannot ascend the heavens and peer into the mind of God to find out the answers. But this should never be a cause for fear or an opportunity to eliminate mystery. Instead, it is the occasion for faith and ultimately worship: “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that me might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33-36).