We Can Never Fully Understand

Because God is infinite and we are finite or limited, we can never fully understand God. In this sense God is said to be incomprehensible where the term incomprehensible is used with an older and less common sense, "unable to be fully understood." This sense must be clearly distinguished from the more common meaning, "unable to be understood." It is not true to say that God is unable to be understood, but it is true to say that he cannot be understood fully or exhaustively.

Psalm 145 says, "Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable" (Ps. 145:3). God's greatness is beyond searching out or discovering: it is too great ever to be fully known. Regarding God's understanding, Psalm 147 says, "Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure" (Ps. 147:5). We will never be able to measure or fully know the understanding of God: it is far too great for us to equal or to understand. Similarly, when thinking of God's knowledge of all his ways, David says, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it" (Ps. 139:6; cf. v. 17).

Paul implies this incomprehensibility of God when he says that "the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God," and then goes on to say that "no one comprehends the things1 of God except the Spirit of God" (1 Cor. 2:10-12). At the

1 1. So KJV, quite literally translating the Greek phrase ta Tou 9eou. RSV, NIV, and NASB all supply the word thoughts because the parallel expression in v. 11, Ta Tou av9pwnou ("the things of the man"), seems to require that we supply the word end of a long discussion on the history of God's great plan of redemption, Paul breaks forth into praise: "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (Rom. 11:33).

These verses allow us to take our understanding of the incomprehensibility of God one step further. It is not only true that we can never fully understand God; it is also true that we can never fully understand any single thing about God. His greatness (Ps. 145:3), his understanding (Ps. 147:5), his knowledge (Ps. 139:6), his riches, wisdom, judgments, and ways (Rom. 11:33) are all beyond our ability to understand fully. Other verses also support this idea: as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God's ways higher than our ways and his thoughts than our thoughts (Isa. 55:9). Job says that God's great acts in creating and sustaining the earth are "but the outskirts of his ways," and exclaims, "how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?" (Job 26:14; cf. 11:7-9; 37:5).

Thus, we may know something about God's love, power, wisdom, and so forth. But we can never know his love completely or exhaustively. We can never know his power exhaustively. We can never know his wisdom exhaustively, and so forth. In order to know any single thing about God exhaustively we would have to know it as he himself knows it. That is, we would have to know it in its relationship to everything else about God and in its relationship to everything else about creation throughout all eternity! We can only exclaim with David, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it" (Ps. 139:6).

This doctrine of God's incomprehensibility has much positive application for our own lives. It means that we will never be able to know "too much" about God, for we will never run out of things to learn about him, and we will thus never tire in delighting in the discovery of more and more of his excellence and of the greatness of his works.

Even in the age to come, when we are freed from the presence of sin, we will never be able fully to understand God or any one thing about him. This is seen from the fact that the passages cited above attribute God's incomprehensibility not to our sinfulness but to his infinite greatness. It is because we are finite and God is infinite that we will never be able to understand him fully.2 For all eternity we will be able to go on increasing in our knowledge of God and delighting ourselves more and more in him, saying with David as we learn more and more of God's own thoughts, "How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand" (Ps. 139:17-18).

But if this is so in eternity future, then it certainly must be so in this life. In fact, Paul tells us that if we are to lead a life "worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him," it must be one in which we are continually "increasing in the knowledge of God" (Col. 1:10). We should be growing in our knowledge of God through our entire lives.

thoughts as necessary to the context. But Paul's mention of "the depths of God" in v. 10 suggests that not only God's thoughts but all of God's being is referred to in both v. 10 and v. 12.

2 2. This is not contradicted by 1 Cor. 13:12, "Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood." The phrase "know fully" is simply an attempt to translate the word ¿ntYtvwaKW (G2105) which suggests deeper or more accurate knowledge (or perhaps, in contrast with present partial knowledge, knowledge free from error or falsehood). Paul never says anything like, "Then I shall know all things," which would have been very easy to say in Greek (tote ¿nryvwao^ai Ta navta) if he had wished to do so.

If we ever wished to make ourselves equal to God in knowledge, or if we wished to derive satisfaction from the sin of intellectual pride, the fact that we will never stop growing in knowledge of God would be a discouraging thing for us—we might become frustrated that God is a subject of study that we will never master! But if we rather delight in the fact that God alone is God, that he is always infinitely greater than we are, that we are his creatures who owe him worship and adoration, then this will be a very encouraging idea. Even though we spend time in Bible study and fellowship with God every day of our lives, there will always be more to learn about God and his relationships to us and the world, and thus there will always be more that we can be thankful for and for which we can give him praise. When we realize this, the prospect of a lifelong habit of regular Bible study, and even the prospect of a lifetime of study of theology (if it is theology that is solidly grounded in God's Word), should be a very exciting prospect to us. To study and to teach God's Word in both formal and informal ways will always be a great privilege and joy.

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