Sometimes you read a passage and what grabs your heart has nothing to do with the meat of the verses. Paul is talking here in 1 Corinthians about criticism and judgment, and yet it was the phrase “stewards of God’s mysteries” (as translated in the NRSV, but not in the NIV below) that caught my attention.
SCRIPTURE – I Cor. 4:1-5
This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.
1 Cor. 4:1-5
Feb. 27, 2011
What’s the most critical issue facing Christians today? If I were to ask 10 people that question I’m sure I’d get 12 answers. And it depends on whether we’re talking about conservative Christians or liberal Christians, mainline Christians or evangelical Christians. What do you think is the most critical issue facing Christians today?
I like author Marva Dawn’s answer. She says this: “The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality or school prayer. The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer life-changing.”
I think she’s exactly right. How often are we surprised by what we read in scripture? How often do we feel a sense of awe or astonishment? I think this is an epidemic in our world at large. We’ve lost our sense of wonder. Comedian Louis C.K. comments on this in a popular internet video. In an interview on the Conan O’Brian show, C.K. laments how our society takes for granted the wonders around us. He says, “Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy. When I was a child we had a rotary phone. You actually had to stand next to it and dial it. And you just hated those numbers with a lot of zeros in them. You could eat a whole Hot Brown while you were waiting for that call to connect. Now, we get impatient when our cell phones don’t work fast enough. It’s going to space! Can we give it a second to get back from space?”
He goes on to say, “There used to be a time when, if you wanted money you actually had to go in the bank during the three hours they were open. If you used a credit card they had to haul out this big machine and ‘chunk chunk’ copy it and then call the president for verification. And nowadays people complain about delays on flights. Delays? You can go from New York to California in 5 hours. That used to take 30 years and most of you would die on the way.” Do we take too much for granted? Have we succumbed to the critical issue of dullness? Have we lost our astonishment?
I believe in many ways we have. In our passage today, Paul talks about being called to be stewards of God’s mysteries. Do we think of ourselves that way? I’m not sure we like that word “mysteries.” That sounds a little too suspicious and invites skepticism. What are the mysteries of God? Why does God need to keep secrets from us? Why are we out of the loop?
In Paul’s time, there was so much that wasn’t known that the talk of “mysteries” would not have raised any red flags. But today, we believe mysteries exist for one reason: to be solved. And with the technology and know-how at our disposal, we can solve ‘em! That’s why a show like “Unsolved Mysteries” was so popular; actual mysteries that haven’t been solved are anomalies. You mean there’s something we can’t figure out? I want to see that!
The purpose of the human mind is to know. It’s hard-wired into our DNA. So much of our conscious and sub-conscious information-gathering is to help us reduce the unknown. We look at a person or a place and our brain immediately begins drawing conclusions based on what we can deduce. How a person dresses or acts, where a place is located or what a food smells like automatically lead us to make determinations. We are constantly solving mysteries in our lives, from “Where did I leave my car keys?” to “Who are the other people on the elevator with me?”
We don’t like not knowing. To us, mystery is a bad thing, even when it’s the mysteries of God. We don’t like God knowing things we don’t. That’s why the early believers tried to build a tower to reach up to the Heavens, so they could be on the same level – physically and intellectually – with God. We crave that as humans, because to admit otherwise – to admit there are some things we don’t know – means we have to be dependent on the One who does know them.
For Paul, mystery did not pose this kind of problem. Several different places in scripture he talks positively about the mysteries of God. Paul was just fine with not knowing. Later in 1 Corinthians Paul will talk about how life is like seeing in a mirror dimly, but a day will come when he will fully know. And in Romans 11, Paul writes this love song to the joy of mystery: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?’ For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”
Pastor Eugene Peterson says that for Paul, mystery is not what is left over after we’ve done our best to reason things out on our own. Mystery is not a fancy or spiritual word for ignorance that we can conquer with more knowledge. Mystery is not a darkness to be dispelled. Instead, it is a light to be entered. Mystery is something to be embraced, because if we truly did know it all, it would probably scare the life out of us.
“But wait, Kory!” you say. “Isn’t it YOUR job to explain this to us? Embracing mystery is not the American way. Mystery is what we’re paying you to get rid of!” And I will admit that preachers often give into the temptation to think our job is to take the vast mystery of God and boil it down to nice, bite-size, understandable chunks. Do we really think that a 20-minute sermon every week is adequate enough to explain depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God? I don’ think my job is to provide the answers; it’s to help us ask the questions. Jesus didn’t come to remove mystery; he came to deepen it, and then to invite us into that mystery, to enter into that light where we no longer have to worry about knowing but can simply be.
Oh, but that’s hard. I’m not good at just being. I’d rather be doing. And what would I rather be doing? Why, dispelling mysteries, of course! That’s why I started out as a journalist. Answering questions. Eliminating unknowns. Growing in my knowledge about God so that I can then tell you all who God really is. The only problem is God doesn’t necessary want to be known in that way. As Peterson says, “Scripture isn’t the answer book to all our problems but a doorway into the world of God’s mystery. And one of the mysteries of this life is that God isn’t interested in solving all our problems in the ways we think they should be solved.”
Dang, that just made my job a lot harder. Actually, it made all our jobs a lot harder, because Paul says we are called to be stewards of God’s mysteries. To be a steward is to be a caretaker, a guardian. So how do you take care of something you don’t know? It’s almost impossible. If you give a kid a box and say, “Now guard this for me but don’t open it,” what do you think will happen? Eleven out of 10 kids will open the box as soon as you leave the room. We all have a little bit of Pandora in us.
I think we can live out this calling to be stewards of God’s mysteries by first acknowledging that we don’t know and can’t know all there is to know about God. Some people will try. They’ll tell you exactly what God believes and how God acts and who God would vote for. Except they don’t really know that, because no one does. God is never presented to us as clearly as our theologies would like us to believe.
If you have a problem with this, you’re not alone. So did Moses. When God comes to Moses at the burning bush and calls Moses to go to Egypt, Moses immediately starts balking. One of his complaints is that he doesn’t know what he should tell the Israelite slaves when they ask who sent him. “What is his name?” Moses asks. God responds, “I AM who I AM.” A more literal translation of the ancient Hebrew is, “I will be who I will be.” In other words, that’s for God to know and for Moses to discover. How many times throughout history and in our own lives have we tried to name God, to form God into some recognizable image? I have a Master of Divinity degree, which may be the most ludicrous title in the history of academia. It’s not that we shouldn’t think about God; after all, I get paid for doing that. But there is a line where our understanding of God ends. What would life we like if we stopped trying to master divinity and instead embraced our roles as stewards of God’s mysteries?
Another way we can live out this calling is by accepting that God is going to do some things in our lives that we won’t expect or like or plan for, and to allow room for the Spirit’s movement. Even if we do all the right things and be good people, we still worship a God called “I will be who I will be.” We throw out a cliché like “God works in mysterious ways,” but that saying implies that God IS working, even when things are mysterious. Sometimes God breaks down our systems, not because they were wrong, but because God has something better for us. I wonder if we don’t do all the things we think are the right things to do – go to church, read the Bible, give, serve – in the secret hope that we’ll never be put in the place where we have to fully trust God, where we have to let go and embrace the fact that God knows and we don’t. That may sound scary, but I believe it’s healthy. One of the things God uses to bring us to spiritual maturity is the acceptance of the fact that we can’t figure God out.
So then we live in this middle ground, this in-between time where we know some things about God but don’t fully know everything about God. And we’re just called to sit and be patient, to trust that God’s ways are not our ways. After all, as one Jewish theologian said, there’s no such thing as an expert on God. But I’m less interested in knowing about God than I am in knowing God and being known by God. As much as I preach this to myself, there will still be times in my life where I’ll be frustrated at the things I don’t know. Why is this happening? When will it end? When will the page turn? What’s next? It’s human nature to keep asking the questions. My prayer for all of us is that we keep our eyes wide open to ways God is at work, to leave space in our lives for the mysteries of God to dwell. My prayer is that we allow ourselves to be constantly astonished by God. What does that look like? Well, if I knew, I’d tell ya. But I don’t know. Thanks be to God.