God’s Mystery Stories

Your God is Too Big

Daniel Hans is a Presbyterian minister in the United States. In 1986 he and his wife Beth lost their three year old daughter Laura to cancer. Daniel and Beth watched in agony as their little girl faced nine hospitalisations and four separate operations in the last nine months of her life. Their hearts broke as they watched Laura die, and they struggled to make sense of what had happened.

In 1987 Daniel Hans released a book containing some of the sermons he preached throughout his daughter’s battle with cancer and in the period immediately after her death. One of them is titled: “Caution. Your God is Too Big.” Hans relates how he once surveyed his congregation, asking them about their disappointments with God. He asked them to share things they had hoped God would do but that God didn’t. People described times they had prayed for the life of a newborn child only to see it die, of the hope God would protect his people from violence only to hear of an elderly woman being stabbed on her way to church, prayed for rain for famine stricken Africa only to see starvation continue. To these disappointments Hans now added his own – he had hoped God would heal his baby girl, but her condition only grew worse.

Hans suggests that disappointments like these are the stuff of life, and that if we read the Scriptures we discover that alongside the stories of miracles and amazing feats by God we hear story after story of disappointment with God, of times God appears silent and inactive. He suggests that sometimes we remember only the miracle stories and so we develop too big a view of God – not that we can have too big a view of God’s greatness and power or too big  a view of God’s love and grace, but that we can have too big a view of God’s will. God’s action in our world is not always to perform the miraculous, but more often than not to walk through our suffering with us. Hans suggests that “A view of God that is too big is harmful both to believer and unbeliever. When our understanding of God is exaggerated, we declare that God will do things he does not intend to do, at least not regularly and in all situations.”

Source: Adapted from Daniel Hans, God on the Witness Stand (Baker, 1987)

The Parable of the Flatlanders

Christians believe many astonishing things about God, for example, that God is triune, that Christ was fully God and fully human, that God is close, but cannot be seen, and so on. To help us come to grips with such mysteries a nineteenth century schoolmaster named Edwin Abbott wrote a story entitled Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. He concept is very helpful in recognising the limitation sin our knowledge of God. Imagine a group of people who live in a two-dimensional world. They have length and width but not height. Their world would be like strange creatures living on a sheet of paper. They have width and length but no height. They can move across the paper, and along it, but they can never move above it or below it, nor would they be able to see above it or below it. Now imagine you poked three fingers into their world. All they see is three separate circles. They would have no perception that these belonged to the one three dimensional hand. Or imagine if you put your face close to look at the flatlanders, perhaps just a half a centimetre above the surface of the page. You would be closer to the flatlanders than two of them standing a centimetre apart and yet they would have no way of knowing you are there. Or imagine the open end of a horseshoe being placed into their world. All they would see are two rectangles on the ground, separated by some distance. They would assume that these were two entirely separate objects. They would have no sense that these belonged to the same object nor any idea what the nature and purposes of the horseshoe are.

So it is with us and God. We exist in a three dimensional world, but God potentially exists in many more dimensions. Things that are obvious and natural to God appear as mysterious and unfathomable to us as we might to the Flatlanders.