“But, I don’t understand.”
I don’t think we like to say that very much as it seems kind of weak or dumb or confused.
We all want to understand things don’t we? It is the only way we have any control at all in this confusing, often messed-up world we live in. We think that the more we understand, the better off we are and the more manageable life seems.
The truth may be that when we say we are seeking understanding it is really an issue of control. We feel a kind of power over things we can understand. We are not very good at handling mysteries. We want the answer, the solution, the explanation that clears it all up for us. Think of watching a movie or reading a book in which the ending leaves everything up in the air. It would frustrate us and leave us feeling a little cheated somehow.
This powerful need to understand deeply affects how we relate to Almighty God because God is the ultimate mystery in all of creation. When it comes to our relationships with God, we have to give up our need to understand, which is easier said than done.
Throughout the Bible, the story of God’s relationship with his creation, there is the constant, unrelenting effort to understand, to explain, to predict the nature and ways of God. Through the Ten Commandments God revealed his will for his people which also revealed something about his own nature. The next step in the relationship was through the voices of his prophets over many centuries pointing out that the people were not keeping those Commandments.
Finally, God revealed as much of his nature as we can grasp through the life, teaching, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The message is that God’s nature is love, that we are loved unconditionally, that we cannot earn that love, and do not need to as Jesus has done that on our behalf.
Does that make rational sense? Not to me. Do I understand that? No. Truth be told, we cannot even understand each other. There are times when we can’t understand ourselves. Life itself is a mystery.
Well, if our relationship with God cannot be based on understanding, then where do we go? A thousand years ago, Archbishop of Canterbury Anselm coined the phrase “faith seeking understanding.” That is the only way it can work, a tiny grain of faith motivates us to want to know more. The opposite approach, “understanding seeking faith,” can only go as far as our limited, finite, self-centered minds can carry us.
Whatever faith you and I have at the moment is sufficient and just what it is supposed to be. It is enough for now, even with all of our doubts and questions mixed in. The task is to continue seeking to understand God’s will for us just a little more tomorrow, knowing that we will never truly understand God and God’s ways. We dedicate ourselves to growing our faith, realizing that it will never be complete or perfect or without doubts and questions.
If there is no mystery in any relationship, that relationship is dead. That is true in our relationships with each other and it is true in our relationship with God. “But, I don’t understand” is not weakness, but acknowledging reality. It is human, it is honest, and it encourages us to grow in our understanding as a way of life. Faith seeking understanding.
The Rt. Rev. David C. Bane Jr. is the retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia and a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Elizabeth City.