Theology that is fine with falling short

In April 2010 I finished my final season on my high school’s track and field team team. I had been running for three years and was a faithful and indefatigable member of both the cross country and the track and field teams. Yet, in spite of all my effort, I was never fast enough to run in a varsity race. Another senior finished his time as a high school runner at the same time I did, and his history of running contrasted with mine. He had joined the cross country and track and field teams during his junior year. By the time he graduated, he had spent only two years on a running-focused team. Yet he was running in varsity races almost as soon as he joined: less than a month passed in his first cross country season before he was consistently taking second place in varsity races.

This frustrated and confused me. Why did he run so fast with so little time on the teams? I had almost two more years of competitive running than he did, yet I always finished far behind him.

I never found all the answers I wanted, but I learned to accept the difference between our running abilities. I grew to be content with his superior speed even though I didn’t have all the answers.

I’ll never know why I didn’t make varsity. In a similar way, no one will ever know why God lets some things happen and not happen. Are we content with not knowing?

This will depend on our definition of “knowledge.” I have heard two definitions. The first regards knowing as an academic, mental term: to know something or someone is simply to have learned of the thing or person through reasoning or a single meeting. In this sense, something or someone is known instantly. The second regards knowing as a relationship: to know something or someone is to have spent countless hours with the thing or person. In this sense, something or someone is known eventually.

We can aspire toward the goal of knowing God in either way, and we will come to greatly different ends depending on which goal we chose. If we try to know God academically, we will find many obstacles we cannot overcome. A few come to mind immediately. First, God is much bigger and more powerful than we are: he created all things (Genesis 1-2); he sustains all life (Job 39:1-4; Hebrews 1:3); and he knows every person intimately (Psalm 139:13-16). How does he do all this? Second, God never systematically proves his existence in the Bible. It is assumed, opposing logic. Third, God tells us he is greater than we are in all his thoughts and ways (Isaiah 55:9). In a succinct statement: knowing God academically is impossible.

This is unsettling for many people. We want answers. Sometimes we go so far as to fabricate them to try to satisfy our craving. But no matter how ardent our efforts are to complete our mental knowledge of God, we will never finish learning about God.

In contrast to this, efforts to have a relational knowledge of God will have bear encouraging results. Disciples of Christ are meant to be part of the church, which is the bride of Christ. Being married is a relational matter, not an academic matter. Also, relational knowledge of God allows for our love for him to grow. Further, a relational knowledge of God accepts time, acknowledging that our knowledge of God will increase as days, months and years pass. Our knowledge of God seen this way is not all-or-nothing; it comes in degrees: we know God more than we did yesterday, and we will know him more next year.

What does this say about our questions for God? Consider Job’s indictment of God and God’s response to Job and his friends. No one in the Bible had more questions for and accusations of God than him. Job never doubted God’s existence. He knew God was real and was listening to him as he mourned and languished. Just as Job trusted that God was with him, so should we trust that God is always with us. However, Job did question God’s actions and character, and he did so numerous times. In God’s reply, he never rebukes Job for questioning him, but neither does he answer Job’s interrogation. The same goes for us: we can and should ask God questions, as this is part of a relationship. But we should never make assumptions of God. Job’s friends found this out from God himself when God told them they were wrong (Job 42:7). I see two reasons for this. First, Job’s friends didn’t know God’s reasons fully, yet they spoke for him as if they did. Second, they didn’t show mercy to Job; instead they accused him of wickedness. At the end, one thing decided how Job acted righteously: when Job didn’t have answers, he asked God questions and let God respond for himself (if he wished). Job chose to know God in a relationship and not merely in an academic way, and God commended him for it.

I find peculiar the way that these two ways of knowing God line up with how we think of him. Do we see him as simply one part of our lives out of many? Or do we see him as a person, a living being, with whom we can continually become familiar?

Throughout the Bible, God calls his people to have a relationship with him. Jesus says this is the greatest commandment, and he says that there are some things we will never know until they happen (Mark 13:32; Acts 1:6-7). We don’t need to get all the answers: we will get all the answers we need.

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