God, Trains, and a Toddler
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. (Deut. 29:29)
When an atheist asserts that there is no god, Stanley Hauerwas wisely asks which god it is that he or she doesn’t believe exists. David Bentley Hart has rightly noted that materialism is “incapable of imagining any conception of God more sophisticated than its own”? Some Christians seem incapable of believing in a god more sophisticated than one they can conceive in their own minds.
An atheist’s testimony often goes something like this: raised in church, at some point experienced an internal conflict—a conflict between their experience and what they understood about God. Unable to reconcile these two, they abandon their faith and set out to let everyone know why. Just as the atheist has rejected a God they cannot understand or control, have some Christians accepted only a god they can understand or control? Let me explain.
Just as the atheist has rejected a God they cannot understand or control, have some Christians accepted only a god they can understand or control?
I am writing from Jacksonville where two, and soon three, of my grandsons live. On Monday we were at a hands-on museum and Theo, who just turned three, spent a lot of time at the section where he could play with trains. He loves trains. He gravitated to “Diesel,” a train from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories. He rolled them around various tracks, carrying the beloved Diesel to each one.
Tuesday morning, we were in the park behind their house walking the half-mile loop, and right at the spot closest to a railroad track; 35 yards away. As soon as the big, loud, horn-blaring train came through, Theo was terrified. And by the time the loud engine car was far enough away that he could calm down, another train going the other way came blaring through. Once again the terror began; once again I was comforting him and covering his ears.
When all had passed, Theo explained his fear quite simply: “I’m small and the train is big.” Those 3-year-old words are theologically profound. These two experiences with trains are not unlike what is often early faith versus a more mature faith. Whether as young believing children or young adult believers, our understanding of God is usually somewhat elementary. We grab onto the things about God which we can most easily understand and grapple with. Things are rather black and white. We love God, but our love for God is, in some ways, not dissimilar to my grandson’s love for trains on Monday. He loves the trains he can hold easily in his hands and control. Yet we often know little of the God whom we can’t control.
At some point, we all encounter events that require trusting a much bigger God.
At some point, we all encounter events that require trusting a much bigger God. He is no longer “safe” to borrow from the language of the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, but “he is [still] good.” What is essential when these moments come is to realize what my grandson realizes regarding trains. Applied to God, “I’m small and God is big.”
God has revealed Himself to us, but He has not revealed everything about Himself. He has revealed what is central to understanding His nature in the cross of our Lord Jesus (see Phil. 2:5-11). We believe the Bible reveals everything necessary for salvation in Scripture, the only saving way to God, but not everything about God. Although admittedly, we could still spend a lifetime studying Scripture and not plumb its depths, God is much bigger than Scripture. He is infinite while Scripture remains finite. Certainly, Scripture reveals an infinite God, but it does not infinitely reveal Him.
John Calvin compares how God speaks in Scripture to how one might use baby talk to relate to an infant in order to “accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height” (Institutes 1.13.1). If Scripture itself is not infinite, how much more limited is our own knowledge about God since any one of us only understands a part of it (1 Cor. 13:9)? If this is so, we better be comfortable with mystery.
The God we know is good, but to suggest that we understand all that He is doing in the world is naïve at best. We will never fully understand all the reasons why things happen the way they do. This is part of what it means that He is God and we are not; that, borrowing from my grandson, He is big and we are small. This requires our faith to mature, trusting in the God who is more sophisticated than one we can conceive in our own minds.
This requires our faith to mature, trusting in the God who is more sophisticated than one we can conceive in our own minds.
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