Paul’s closing doxology in Romans 11:33-36 is a rousing hymn celebrating the supremacy of God over both history and human beings. The capstone to his majestic, complex argument in Romans 9-11, here we find the apostle Paul at last concluding his defense of God’s righteousness not so much with one final knock-down argument from logic but rather with an exuberant exultation in the sheer greatness and goodness of God. Such is the language that faith speaks.
When the reader arrives breathlessly at the finish line of Romans 9-11, the apparent counter-evidence that has previously managed to land the Creator squarely in the dock of human judgment–namely, Israel’s massive rejection of her promised Messiah and the corresponding influx of despised Gentiles into the pews of the 1st century churches–has now at last been unveiled for what it really is. Indeed, this strange turn of events possesses a significance in the designs of God that no one could have postulated or guessed in advance.
The unbelief of Israel turns out to be a tragic yet divinely-orchestrated (and thus ultimately gracious) peg in the global outworking of God’s dogged pursuit of the everlasting welfare of His people. On behalf of this beloved Israel, which in Christ is now understood to consist of both Jew and Gentile, Paul has labored to reveal the stunning mystery that both the bitter (the hardening of the zealous Jewish people, except for a remnant) and the sweet (mercy on the couldn’t-care-less Gentiles) curves of history are conspiring together in God’s grand design for the salvation of the whole world.
Paul boldly recruits Job and Isaiah to give poignant expression to the voice of faith when it is confronted with the apparent failures of God. The Scriptures, after all, are filled with just such moments of crisis in the lives of God’s people. Job 38-42 (prompted by the protagonist’s mysterious suffering) and Isaiah 40:12-31 (prompted by the devastating prospects of exile in Babylon) are two of the most memorable. Especially fitting for Paul’s mood is that the divine reply to both scenarios was of the “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” variety, just as Paul himself earlier retorted to his hypothetical interlocutor. Instead of specific answers in these cases, we hear only of the uniqueness, freedom and grandeur of the only wise God as it is explosively brought forward against all would-be challengers, against the usurpers who dare to assert both their own righteousness (non-existent though it be, or at least irrelevant) while simulataneously calling God’s into question.
This, of course, is not the only kind of response the Scriptures give to human perplexity. But from time to time we stand in need of being reminded of the sheer Godness of God, and that He is not obligated to answer every query we put to Him, regardless of the motives from which they spring or the hubris they manifest. Not knowing absolutely everything is part and parcel to what it means to be a human being, to be a creature (incidentally, perhaps we have not wrestled enough with texts like this or this?). Predictably enough, the heirs of Adam have still not managed to get past wanting to be like God.
Yes, one day the righteousness of God will be publicly and demonstrably vindicated in plain view of the entire universe. With shut mouth and humbled heart, every human being will acknowledge in hindsight that God has done all things well. Christians must never lose sight of this fact, even if they do not now grasp how this can possibly be so. We tremble with anticipation at the prospect of knowing fully, just as we are fully known. Nonetheless, it is a stubborn fact that in this present evil age ten thousand catastrophes come to pass in our lives that join together in casting a plausible shadow of doubt upon this conviction. Those whose predominant orientation in life is walking by sight must inevitably waver and, ultimately, despair. The dictates of reason cannot produce the doxologies of Paul, though ironically such songs of praise prove to be eminently reasonable once all the facts are in. This accounts for the curious fact that faith is never found to be in conflict with intelligence in the Scriptures (contra a whole line of modern atheists), but only with arrogance. For it is a humbling thing to be forced to admit the drastic limitations of all creaturely understanding of reality and, with nowhere else to turn, take desperate refuge in the sovereign wisdom of the Lord. But not a foolish thing.
Like Alyosha, we do not yet have the answers to Ivan’s fierce questions. Let us freely admit it. Pretending helps no one here, and ruins many. But there is a world of difference between not yet possessing all the answers, and there simply not being any answers (of course, there are bad answers too). Faith insists on this distinction, in spite of its mocked status in the eyes of the those who seek to cheaply collapse these two categories into one nihilistic excuse for banishing the claims of God upon our existence. If we are to learn anything from passages like Isaiah 40:12-31, Job 38-42 and Romans 9-11, it is to gladly give the benefit of the doubt to God even in the most dire situations, and not to our contextually-limited questions or know-it-all complaints. Even if we have literally no idea how God will show Himself faithful once more in any given circumstance, the death and resurrection of Jesus prove that He can be trusted even in the absence of such information. His track record is perfect, even if still incomplete. I am not advocating fideism. Just faith. And God’s past resolutions of past conundrums–many of which could not have been calculated in advance, remember–are sufficient for the stance of faith in the present as it navigates between the beginning and the end.
It is only those who live by faith who can acknowledge the intrinsic rightness of the ways of God ahead of time, well in advance of the Last Day and the satifsying clarity it will afford to those who have longed for it (a sterling example of this attitude is found in I Peter 5:6-11):
“[F]aith means trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse. Fifty years casts another light on marriage; the century looks different from a grandmother’s view. And I believe that human history will take on a new look from the vantage point of eternity. Every scar, every hurt, every disappointment will be seen in a different light, bathed in an eternity of love and trust. Not even the murder of God’s own Son could end the relationship between God and human beings. In the alchemy of redemption, the most villainous crime became a day we now call Good Friday.” (Philip Yancey, Finding God in Unexpected Places, p. 178)
And no doubt, it must be said, this long wait of leaning hard on the hidden God is often accompanied by desperate tears, tears which are not inimical to unwavering trust in His faithfulness. Nor is such godly weeping to be despised by any who tread the same paths.
For the sake of my fellow sojourners on this dark, unsettling road, I offer a few reflections on Paul’s three rhetorical questions drawn from Isaiah 40:13 and Job 41:11. These prophetic questions aim to heal our crippling unbelief and to remind us of the unique position that the Most High God inhabits in our world of human evil and human suffering, a truly unrivaled position that we tend to constantly forget or ignore in practice. I fear that we do no pose these strategic questions to ourselves with nearly enough regularity. We waste the Scriptures. I hope you will take the time at some point to read the surrounding contexts in which they arise.
(Note: these three questions correspond, in reverse order, to the three qualities that modify “depth” in 11:33–that is, the first question expounds upon God’s knowledge, the second upon God’s wisdom, and the third upon God’s riches.)
1.) “Who has known the mind of the Lord?”
God is infinite and perfect in His knowledge. We are not. Can we even begin to imagine what tiny, minute fraction we possess of the exhaustive knowledge He enjoyed (and, of course, still does) when He laid the plans for human history before the foundation of the world, in full awareness of every contingent factor and causal consequence that would come to pass, for good or for evil? Moreover, not only is it the case that we not do not know all that God knows, but even in the things which we do know we still do not see the why of it as God does, nor that to which it presses. Yet implicit in every critique of God’s goverance of His creation is the denial of these things, and the assertion of our superior perspective of both the parts and the whole.
In his private notebooks, Jonathan Edwards recounts a conversation he once had with a young child who bristled with incredulity at Edwards’ mathemetical persuasion that a cube two inches long on each side can be cut into eight pieces that are each equivalent to another cube a mere one inch shorter on each side. At first glance, this simply seems impossible to the child (and, perhaps, to us!). A moment’s reflection in the abstract proves the truth to a person trained in the basics of geometry, but visually this was jarring to the boy. Of course, once all things are considered, the initial evaluation is exposed as unreliable. Edwards goes on to say that if you multiply that amusing situation by about infinity, you arrive roughly at the actual difference between our perspective of any given reality and God’s knowledge of it. If an infant cannot possibly be expected to comprehend the quantum theory of Einstein, how much more do our naive ruminations pale in comparison to the vast insights of the Maker of everything? Indeed, to go one step further,
“There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 48)
Think about it.
2.) “Who has been His counselor?”
We intuitively recognize the absurdity of expecting a wise and powerful leader of any given nation to first ask for the permission of naive, unlearned teenagers before embarking upon complicated courses of action. How ironic that we should then turn around and, in practice, expect the same treatment from God! Do we really think that God ought to ask us for advice before He commits Himself to the enactment of His strategies in history? Would any of the untold number of satisfying blessings and joys in my life have turned out nearly so well if I had, a priori, insisted on it as a rule of thumb that God first seek my counsel and approval before He pursue His loving designs?
I doubt, of course, that many of us really expect God to regularly postpone what He is doing in order to ask for our advice or our permission beforehand. Yet how frequently does our incessant grumbling betray that we do, in fact, expect it of God? Think about it.
3.) “Who has ever given a gift to Him, that he should be repaid?”
God is rich in kindness and mercy. The riches of His glory on behalf of His people are limitless, inexhaustable. Even more, He owns everything by virtue of creation and redemption, and therefore He needs nothing from us. We must confess that we, on the other hand, stand shamefully exposed as morally bankrupt in every conceivable way. How, then, do we manage a straight face before Him and before others when we astonishingly assume the position before God of giver, of doer, of owed, rather than of beggar, recipient, and debtor? How utterly different would our lives and our attitudes be if we were really convinced that everything that has ever happened and will ever happen to us is ultimately a gift from the God of all grace? How much of our discontentment, rage and whining flow out of hearts that perceive our deserving to be greater than our reception, instead of hearts so transformed by the gospel that we freely confess that we have received far more than we deserve (the opposite, in fact)? Could anything be more blatantly counter-cultural in Western society today than a community of believers who are more obsessed with the rights and freedom of God than with those of, well, us?
Listen to Martin Luther’s stinging analysis of our real problem in life:
“This evil is planted in all human hearts by nature: If God were willing to sell His grace, we would accept it more quickly and gladly than when He offers it for nothing.” (What Luther Says: An Anthology. Ed. by Ewald M. Plass, Volume 2, p. 604)
Karl Barth agrees:
“The greatest hindrance to faith is again and again just the pride and anxiety of our human hearts. We would rather not live by grace. Something within us energetically rebels against it. We do not wish to receive grace; at best we prefer to give ourselves grace.” (Dogmatics in Outline, p. 20)
“Everything is grace,” exclaims Bernanos’ dying hero at the conclusion of Diary of a Country Priest. He must have read Paul. Think about it. And then sing.