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Knowing the Unknowable God

I’m supposed to speak at a youth camp next week about Romans 12:1-2. These verses are very well known among evangelicals, and of course I’ve read them many times, and heard countless sermons based on this passage. Be a living sacrifice. Do not conform to the pattern of this world. Renew your mind. Know God’s good, pleasing and perfect will. It’s a great summary of so much of the Christian life in some ways. All packaged up so nicely in two verses for us, easily memorized, easily preached. (Of course not so easily lived, but that’s another subject altogether).

I was struggling for a beginning thought to launch from as I read again the familiar words. Nothing came to mind. God, whatever I have to say I feel like people have heard a thousand times before, I said to Him, feeling a little despondent and sulky. It’s just the same old sermons and ideas, rehashed over and over, and I just don’t want to do that. I admit it: I was being whiny and petulant, like a kid who doesn’t want to do their homework. Thank God that in His mercy, He chose to give me a little nudge in a new direction instead of sending me to stand in the corner like I deserved. He’s good like that.

My eye was drawn to the verses above Romans 12, which of course by simple math means the end of Romans 11 (a shout out to the paper Bible, that now-ancient, beautiful book, which has given me this experience so many times that I just can’t give it up, no matter how easy it is to read scripture on a device). The end of Romans 11 is called “Doxology,” a burst of burning-heart, passionate, worshipful poetry from the depths of Paul’s soul. It seemingly comes from nowhere, at the end of his brilliant but heavily theological summary of the state of Israel and how God will indeed save His people at the end of days.

Here it is in full, because you need to read this again. I need to read this again. We all need to read this, again and again, until the rhythm of these truths soak deeply into our souls, and their music moves us to know the unknowable God.

Oh the depth of the riches of the

Wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgments

And his paths beyond tracing out!

“Who has known the mind of the Lord?

Or who has been his counselor?”

“Who has ever given to God,

That God should repay them?”

For from him and through him and

to him are all things,

To him be the glory forever! Amen.[1]

I love Paul for this. I love that in all his labor in prayer and preaching, in his intensive striving to teach the newly-birthed churches all over the Roman empire the unalterable and life-giving truths of the gospel, that he stops everything in his theological path to lift his (and our) eyes to the mysterious and holy Other, the Sovereign Master of the Universe, to God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, to the One who was, and is, and is to come![2] I am profoundly speechless. I am caught with my mouth hanging open, my heart beating faster in glorious trepidation. Everything in me cries out in agreement with this worshipful summary of His sovereignty and supremacy. Yes! Yes and yes and yes, forever and ever, amen!

Let this sink in a little and then maybe we can talk about offering your body as a living sacrifice and renewing your mind and knowing His will and all that wonderful but frankly unbelievably difficult stuff. Because I’ll tell you honestly what happens to me: I read verses like Romans 12:1-2 and already feel like a total failure before I even start. But if I read the doxology at the end of Romans 11, I forget failure and success altogether. All of that just simply fades away. There is only one spotlight on the stage of my mind, and it’s on HIM, while I quite rightly fade into the background. I simply stand in awe of the amazing God that I serve. And so maybe I discovered a hidden treasure, maybe I found some secret key that could unlock the life spelled out in Romans 12. I don’t know quite yet, I’m just at the beginning, but hang with me for a few more moments while I try to process through it.

Paul asks three rhetorical questions in this passage, and as all good rhetorical questions do, they are meant to get us to open a door to new thoughts instead of giving us the closed door of concrete and definitive answers. See if you have a good answer to these:

Who has known the mind of the Lord?

Who has been his counselor?

Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?

You see, the obvious answer of course is “no one,” absolutely no one in the history of the world. I am reminded once again of the truth that God is so far beyond me, so far above me, so wholly and completely “Other,”[3] that I literally cease my fighting, questioning, battling, pushing, striving, and contending with this Holy Mystery and simply stand unveiled in His presence, in awe and worship. The truth that He is unknowable and unsearchable gives me total and complete peace, even in my trembling fear. It’s the holy paradox of Christianity. I can’t ever really know Him, and yet He invites me to the intimacy of relationship. I can’t ever really understand His ways, and yet He tells me that as I follow Him, He will make “his paths known.” I can’t ever really give anything to Him (for all things are His), and yet He cherishes my childish offerings like service and prayer like a father delights in his children’s stick-figured drawings.

And I think it is here that I can begin to make peace with my at-first-glance inability to do anything Paul talks about in Romans 12. “Offer your body as a living sacrifice”—and yet—Who has ever given to God? You see, I can try, and I will try, as a human being who has chosen to follow Christ and been given the Holy Spirit, but in the end it can never be enough. But He already knows this. He already knows this, expects this, and, most importantly, has accepted the total lack and imperfection of my offering.

“Be transformed in the renewing of your mind”—and yet—Who has known the mind of Lord? Is this some cosmic joke that Paul wants to play on us, teasing us with the promise of a renewed mind, and yet all the time knowing we can’t ever grasp even the most simplistic thought of this awesome, infinite Being? I don’t think so. Paul simply grew in his ability to be comfortable with knowing and not knowing. The more he knew, the more he understood he knew nothing, but he realized in a very real way, this is the essence of worship. This sense of not knowing doesn’t take away from the fact that we serve a revelatory God, who seeks to make Himself known. It simply helps us remain in the right position before Him. So by all means, let us offer God our minds, let us be renewed and transformed, but let us also be satisfied with the limitations of our minds, understanding that we are finite, created beings, inherently and utterly reliant upon Him for everything.

The ending of the doxology is perhaps the most profound summary of the sovereignty and supremacy of God found in all of scripture: “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” In this simple sentence lies the path to inexplicable peace, and also the door I walk through to live in the way Romans 12 tells me to. I begin and end in the same place and position: looking to a Holy God, who is the source of all.

I hope I can communicate this in some small way to the youth I speak to next week. Words cannot possibly do these truths justice, and yet we’ve been given words as our means of bringing His truth to the universe, so we need to use them. My prayer for them, for myself, and for you, is that when words fail, when our human knowledge comes to an end, and when we have reached the limits of our human understanding and wisdom, we are then ready to take the plunge into the mysterious depths of searching for the unsearchable and trying to know the unknowable. He will indeed never fail to meet us there.

[1] Romans 11:33-36 [2] I hereby dedicate this sentence to Paul, the master of the run-on sentence. If you could do it, so can I. [3] For more on this concept, read the works of theologians like Karl Barth, Rudolph Otto, and Søren Kierkegaard.

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