Back in the spring of 2016, I taught an academic course on Peter’s epistles. It was to be my first experience of actual academic teaching — a dream come true for me! Needless to say I was super excited for the opportunity, and I wanted to be ready. I prepped and studied and prayed. I pored through the commentaries and translated the Greek. I made some pretty killer PowerPoint slides.
…And I did not feel ready! In fact, I was as nervous as I’ve ever been in my life!
Going in for surgery? Piece of cake. Getting married? No sweat. Teaching the Bible to a class full of adults, almost all of them older than me? Now I’m nervous!
I exaggerate, of course. But even so, apart from those extremely nerve-wracking life experiences, I find teaching Scripture to be one of the most intimidating things to do. And that’s because it’s something I do without having all the answers to every question people could ask. It’s pretty daunting to teach others when there’s still so much I don’t know.
I especially felt the pressure when it came time to discuss 1 Peter 3:18-22 — what Martin Luther called “a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament.” It’s a passage I honestly still don’t fully understand. But I got past my nerves and shared the various interpretive stances to the class, laying out the strengths and weaknesses of different explanations scholars have offered about what it meant that Christ “made proclamation to the spirits in prison.” I shared which position I thought was the most sensible, but I also admitted that at the end of the day it remains a bit puzzling.
The Questions That Just Won’t Go Away
The more I’ve taught, the more I’ve wondered why God has us wrestle with such puzzles — and not just in the Bible, but in life in general. Why doesn’t he make things more clear? If he’s going to ask people to have faith in him, shouldn’t he reveal himself more?
These are challenges even (or especially!) for the person with over a decade’s worth of advanced theological education. I live with a lot of unanswered questions — like why our child was born with a cleft lip and palate, as I wrote about here. Or like why a good and loving God chose to make a world like the one in which we live, where a lot of really horrendously bad things happen.
For a lot of people, the key question is whether or not there is a good and loving God at all. Some think the answer’s an obvious and resounding “No,” but they’re still left with plenty of unanswered questions of their own that I would find even more troubling. Questions like:
- Why is there something instead of nothing?
- How did complex life capable of reproducing itself arise from nonliving matter?
- Why does every person who ever lived have some concept of good and bad, right and wrong, beautiful and profane?
- Why and how did this thing called “Christianity” suddenly arise from a ragtag group of Jewish nobodies in the first century and not go away, and why could no one squelch their conviction that Jesus of Nazareth had truly risen from his grave?
- And why are we so obsessed with asking all these questions anyway?
C. S. Lewis did a great job capturing this truth:
“Just as the Christian has his moments when the clamor of this visible and audible world is so persistent, and the whisper of the spiritual world so faint that faith and reason can hardly stick to their guns, so, as I well remember, the atheist also has his moments of shuddering misgiving, of an all but irresistible suspicion that old tales may, after all, be true, that something or someone from outside may at any moment break into his neat, explicable, mechanical universe.” — “Religion: Reality or Substitute?”, in Christian Reflections.
Acknowledging Our Limits
As a Christian, I take it on faith that God has his reasons for all that he allows, even if I can’t see them. But there remain a lot of mysteries. Though Scripture reveals much, it also leaves much unsaid. And for every verse of the Bible, there are as many interpretations as there are people reading them. How are we to respond?
The first and most necessary step is to honestly admit that we don’t know everything. This is very important, because the last thing the world needs is another Christian acting like they know everything — as if all the mysteries and purposes of God should just be clear as day to everyone. This makes us look really bad in front of people who may genuinely be wrestling with difficult and ambiguous questions or situations.
The oft-repeated platitude “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” may be well and good if you’re just affirming that you trust the Bible in general. But when it comes to perplexing passages like 1 Peter 3:18-22, or Genesis 6:1-4, or Exodus 4:24-26 (or oh, I don’t know, nearly the whole book of Revelation!), we have to admit that there’s room for uncertainty regarding what exactly it is the Bible is saying! There are things we can know, and some good answers we can give, but we should also admit our limitations.
What God Keeps Hidden
The second thing we need to do is examine what Scripture has to say about the things God keeps hidden. Turns out there’s quite a lot said. Here are a few biblical principles that help us when we’re wrestling with the unknown:
1) God reveals more truth when we respond rightly to what he’s already revealed.
Before getting overwhelmed with the mysteries, we should keep in mind the fact that the whole Bible is a record of God revealing himself to people! Scripture is replete with references to the reality that God intends for us to seek him (see esp. Acts 17:22-28; also 2 Chronicles 15:1-4; Jeremiah 29:12-13), and he gives us enough information to do so. But he does so without forcing it upon us, because he wants a willing response of faith from people; he doesn’t manipulate them into a relationship against their will.
The reality is that we don’t get the privilege of having more truth until we respond rightly in faith to what God already shows everyone. That would include his glory in creation and his principles in our consciences (Romans 1:18-21). It also includes what Christ has done for us all on the cross — that great and public revelation of God’s love for us — and what’s been recorded in Scripture for all to read. God reveals truth to those who seek and obey, and he hides truth from those who resist and rebel.
We see this principle in Jesus’ ministry. When the Jewish leaders began actively rejecting and resisting Jesus, he began preaching in parables (or riddles) so that only those who were really seeking the truth would find it in what Jesus was teaching. As he would famously say, “Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 13:9, NIV) — in other words, only those who were actively listening for and seeking the truth would find it.
For every question you’d love for God to answer, ask yourself: Am I obeying what he’s revealed already?
2) Knowledge isn’t the goal; obedience is.
Octavio Esqueda gets it right on the money when he says that God’s goal is not “to satisfy our curiosity, but to change us according to his will. Thus, obedience is the purpose of God’s revelation to us . . .”
This would mean, then, that God chooses not to reveal some things because those things would serve no purpose in helping us obey and follow him. Deuteronomy 29:29 is a key verse here: “Secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those that are revealed belong to us and our descendants forever, so that we might obey all the words of this law” (NET).
If I knew the answers to all of life’s mysteries, my head would swell up bigger than Jupiter from all my pride in my superior knowledge. And it’s awfully hard to obey Christ’s commands to serve others and love them as myself when I’m so busy being impressed with my own intellect.
The same goes for any other mere human. The tension we experience in the unknown leads us to remain dependent upon the Lord, as well as to remain humble in our own finite knowledge. And humility is at the heart of being like Christ — which, by the way, is the main purpose God has for our lives.
If I had all the answers, I would have no need to learn from others. The desire to learn more and seek truth leads me to connect with other Christ-followers. It prompts great discussions, and those conversations become the environment in which something even more important than knowledge can flourish — namely, Christ-like love (see 1 Corinthians 8:1).
3) If God doesn’t reveal it, we don’t need to know it.
God’s Word tells us that “he withholds no good thing from those who have integrity” (Psalm 84:11, NET). For Christians, whose integrity comes from Christ, this means that any knowledge God withholds from us would not be good for us to know! God’s mysteries are yet another revelation of his love for us. He doesn’t burden us with knowledge too great for us.
There are a great many people like me who really like having closure. We like being able to arrange everything into an organized system. It makes us feel safe. It gives us some illusion of control. But what we need to realize is that closure is not offered until heaven. In the meantime, what is offered is an invitation to a journey. An invitation to trust and obey. An invitation to follow Jesus as he leads us down often-mysterious paths.
At the end of the day, you have to trust that God has your best interests at heart. Learn to thank God for the mysteries, for they are invitations to draw closer to him in trust, to keep taking one more step forward in faith.
See you down the path.
 Granted, there are folks in certain strands of Christianity who hold a more deterministic outlook regarding how people come to faith, but the Bible presupposes that human choice genuinely matters (see, for example, Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15; Ezekiel 18:23; John 6:29; John 7:17; Romans 10:21).
 Octavio J. Esqueda, “God as Teacher,” in The Teaching Ministry of the Church, 2nd ed. p. 35, italics added.