Updated: Jan 28, 2021
I’m not always a teacher’s pet but when I am, I’m a good one. I like to sit right up front so I can make solid eye contact and give good, affirming head nods in hopes of collecting the occasional fallen brownie point.
This class was pretty different however from some of the Philosophy and Linguistics courses I had taken back at my secular University. Here I was, one of two or three women, surrounded by men twice my age with a world-renown seminary professor in a two-week class entitled The Doctrine of God. Each class began after we all rose and sang an acapella chorus of an age-old hymn like “Blessed Assurance.” There was something so touching about hearing forty or so middle aged, tone-deaf men belt their hearts out to stanzas like “This is my story, this is my song” that my deep need to prove myself was temporarily pacified.
Nevertheless, I continued to stick with my seating plan, all locked in and ready to go, each day noting that the short-statured professor would delay our time of instruction by just a few minutes longer with his opening time in prayer. I determined there was an intimacy in his relationship with God I found almost unrecognizable.
Finally, he turned to our lesson and on this particular day our subject was the incomprehensibility of God. He began: “We can never fully understand or know God because he is unable to be fully understood. That is not to say that God is unable to be understood, but it is to say that he cannot be understood fully or exhaustively.” He followed this up with several Scriptures: “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Ps. 145:3). “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure” (Ps. 147:5). “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (Ps. 139:6).
There were more: “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God… no one comprehends the things of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:10-12) and “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).
“We may know something about an attribute of God,” he went on. “Say his love, power, wisdom, and so forth. But we can never know any of his attributes fully. In fact, in order to know any single thing about God exhaustively we would have to know it as he himself knows it. That is, we would have to know it in its relationship to everything else about God and in its relationship to everything else about creation throughout all eternity!”
After a deliberate pause, he called for a show of hands. “How many of you were taught that in heaven you would fully know God? Quite a few hands went up. “Well then, I’d like to know how it makes you feel to know that although you may know God truly, you will never know him fully?”
I’d like to say a hush broke out over the crowd as we mulled over this concept but quite the contrary. More hands went up.
I failed to mention that the acclaimed professor had carefully memorized all of our names after the first two days. He scanned the room and called on someone to my left. “Yes, Steve?” Steve gushed an impressive homily of sorts for some time without interruption and when he was finished, the professor followed up with a gentle counter: “That is what you think about the incomprehensibility of God, not how you feel. Let’s use some ‘feelings words’. How about you, Mark?” The guy behind me also gave us a profound exposition of something or other. With seemingly no pretension, the professor reminded him, “These are wonderful thoughts but again, I’m interested in your feelings about these doctrines…” Turning front and center this time, he turned to me. “Elizabeth, how does it make you feel to know that God is incomprehensible, that is—he is able to be truly known, but never fully known?”
Once I recovered from the fact that he said my name, I muttered something of this sort: “At first thought, it makes me feel a sense of loss and sadness. But then, as I think about how God will always be God and I never will be, it brings comfort and makes me feel relieved and a sense of awe.” He smiled. “Don’t forget the joy that comes from growing in true knowledge of God for an eternity.”
Aside from the fact that I discovered an incomprehensible God that day, saw a model of godliness, wisdom, and humility and learned what it looks like to engage my feelings with deep doctrines, I would say I learned something significant that day.
Sometimes it’s good to sit in the front.
Written for the GCD Writers' Cohort