“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”- Romans 11:33
“We may suppose that we have attained here great knowledge, clear and high thoughts of God; but alas! when he shall bring us into his presence, we shall cry out, we never knew him as he is; the thousandth part of his glory, and perfection, and blessedness, never entered into our hearts…We know so little of God, because it is God who is thus to be known.”- John Owen, Mortification of Sin, 136.
It’s another John Owen day today!
I do have a favorite place, and it’s been my favorite place since I can remember. I enjoy coffee houses and leather chairs, musty bookstores and living rooms with fireplaces, but by far the most enjoyable place on the earth for me is in front of the ocean. There are a couple of things that happen to me here. The first I can describe as an unloading. Many times I feel like a flash drive, storing up information day after day, month after month. I am a flash drive of data; a flash drive of emotion, analysis, and confusion. And yet here, in front of this mammoth, my thoughts are allowed to plug into a computer, not for processing or figuring out, but for releasing and unloading. I can think here. And again, it’s not the kind of thinking that figures everything out, it’s the thinking that clears. My thoughts are sent out into the waves and open sky, and my head is cleared like a nose hit by some radical cold medicine. It’s a wonderful sensation to be cleared. But I am also dismantled. I live in a box of really nice theological systems. We all tend to live here, surrounded by cardboard and packing tape. We have our ready-made squares of what God can and cannot do, of what He is and isn’t like. The boxes are nice, and they do help us to wrestle with certain undeniable truths of God. But one of the most harmful things about boxes is that they are, by their very nature, boxes. And if God is God, then there are no four-walled shapes that can contain Him. When I stand in front of this ocean, my box is overcome. I am reminded that I don’t know near as much as I thought I did. Instead of discouragement and despair, however, I am comforted tremendously.
God is transcendent. He is beyond me. Like Paul, caught up in all the theological messiness of parsing the Almighty, I come to a place of utter wonder. In all of the terms, in all of the systems, in all of the exegesis and thought, I simply cannot understand Him! Oh, the depth! The ocean reminds me of the depth and width of God. Do I believe certain things can be known about God? Absolutely. But when wonder ceases, and when we have boxed the Almighty in among the smell of cardboard and damp darkness, we would all do well to take lessons from the Apostle. We would do well to back up. We would do well to look up from ourselves and take a deep breath of briny air. This is comfort to me. God’s transcendence means that He exists above my muck and messiness. He exists above my mundane life, my steak and potatoes, my job, and my marriage. He is in control. There is One who is not confined to time and space, not subject to the frailty and uneasiness of me. And this is a comfort to know. There is One who knows all, is in control of all, and One who can say to me confidently, “Don’t panic” (for all you Hitchhikers out there).
God is imminent. Not only is He far above me, He is also dramatically near me. I look at the ocean, but I can also touch the ocean. I can hold the water in my hands briefly. I can swim in it, get my toes wet in it. I can smell it. The ocean comforts me not only because of its largeness but also because of its nearness. Is this not the Incarnation? Is this not the message of the Christ? God purposed not simply to be grandiose, but He purposed to be Man. He purposed to take on His peoples’ infirmity, their sickness, to defeat it. He purposed to enter into their existence, their mundane-ness. He purposed to redeem and purchase them. He purposed to taste their suffering, to be tempted as they are. He purposed to laugh and cry. God took the time. The ocean reminds me of this. He cares for the small things. He cares for the crest of the wave and the glow of the sunset. He cares for me. Jesus knows me and loves me. The Trinitarian God is Transcendent and yet Imminent! And what a perfect God. He desires us to know that He is in control, and He also desires us to know that He knows. And He does know. He knows the weaknesses, the temptations, the financial difficulties, the uncertainty, the sufferings, the joys, the happiness, the beauty, and the pain of all humanity. And He knows you. His Imminence is a wonderful comfort, but without His Transcendence it is a terror. For if God were only near, He would not be above, He would not be in control, and there could be no promise of salvation, no promise of future glory. But because He is both Imminent and Transcendent, we can have confidence that God loves His people and is working within them and working things cosmologically for His peoples’ good and for the beauty and fame of His great Name.