Does God seem mysterious to you? Confusing? Distant?
In this fifth and final post in our series fact-checking phrases about God’s involvement in our lives, we’re seeking to evaluate the phrase: “God works in mysterious ways.”
This is related to “everything happens for a reason”. When we say “everything happens for a reason” we are saying we believe God is working things for good, and though we might not immediately know that good outcome, if we look for it, we will find it. Or we might realize it later on. Sometimes it only becomes apparent many weeks, months or years later.
But when we say “God works in mysterious ways,” we are saying that we might never figure it out. That sometimes God’s purposes are unknowable. Sometimes God is mysterious. In fact, the Bible teaches this.
In Isaiah 55:8-9 we read, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Or we could turn to, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)
So what does this mean? Theologians tell us that one of the first things we need to learn about God is that he is incomprehensible. What “incomprehensible” means in the theological sense is that we in our human capability will never be able to fully understand God. God will always be somewhat mysterious to us.
But that does not mean he is totally mysterious, as he has revealed himself to us. In fact we Christians believe that he has revealed himself quite extensively, to the point that we can know him well. He has revealed himself in nature, in his Word, and especially in Jesus, who shows us a wonderful picture of what God is like.
What do we learn about God through what he has revealed? That God wants to be in relationship with us, and he has revealed enough about himself for us to have a close relationship with him.
When we say “God works in mysterious ways,” however, we are often in a quandary, unable to figure out why a bad thing has happened. Thus it can be our attempt to console ourselves. There is, however, another way we use “God works in mysterious ways,” as expression of trust. Though we don’t understand our pain, we still want to express our faith in God. This is in keeping with the psalms of lament which, after a major complaint against God, still include a statement of trust.
“God works in mysterious ways” can also be an expression of frustration or despair. We might not want to be in the situation. We want answers and details and they are not coming. We don’t want God to be mysterious, and we rebel against the confusion.
Think about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was going to be arrested and crucified. What was God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer? “I hear you, son. But you will have to go through this.” Sometimes God will answer in a way we don’t expect or we simply don’t like!
The problem is that saying “God works in mysterious ways” can give the idea that God is random, or purposefully mysterious, almost like he is playing games with us, trying to be sneaky or tricky. There is no doubt that there will be situations in life that we cannot figure out, but God also has tendencies, patterns, ways of working, and is not mysterious. As you walk with God, you get to recognize his work in the world.
To say “God works in mysterious ways” can be a way of pushing God to the margins of life, however, rather than embracing him in the midst of mystery. Think again of the psalms of lament, crying out in complaint to God. In those laments, the psalmists are fully embracing the mystery, and yet still reaching out to God, seeking to bring him close in the middle of the pain.
So in conclusion, we Christians believe God is at work in the world. Yes, there are times when we might not be able to figure out what he is doing or why. But we use our free will to choose to follow him, to honor him, in the middle of the pain.
If you are trying to comfort or encourage people who are in pain, I encourage you to avoid these phrases we’ve studied in this series of posts. I know it can be very hard to know what to say, and thus we often default back to what we have heard ourselves. This is the tendency where as adults, to our horror, we realize, “I sound just like my parents!” Even when we promised ourselves we would never say the things our parents said to us. Now it’s coming out of our mouths! Why? Muscle memory. We heard it said to us, and it just comes right back out. Often we learn later in life that what our parents said was actually based in wisdom! But when it comes to these phrases we have been fact-checking, we would do well to battle the tendency to just let them spill out without thinking. It might mean forcing yourself to be quiet. It might mean giving the hurting person a hug and simply saying, “I’m here for you, I love you, call me anytime,” and then checking back on them over and over and over, not giving up on them.