Mysterious ways

Here’s another old favorite. This post was originally published on this blog in March 2010.

Bonifacio Bembo [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsBelievers often attribute personal good fortune to the deity or deities they worship, or otherwise proclaim the influence of their god/s on their lives and on the world. This leaves nonbelievers with a lot of pretty tough questions. Why does your god care so much about the results of that football game? Why are you thanking your (supposedly benevolent) god for saving those three people from the crash, while he apparently let the other 97 die? Why are you so eager to thank your (supposedly omnipotent) god for what you think of as good things, but don’t express anger at your god for all the evil and suffering in the world?

What I often hear, in response to this type of question, is something like, “God works in mysterious ways.” In other words, we can’t possibly be expected to understand the intentions and the plans of a superior being that operates on a higher plane of existence. God surely has his reasons, which are beyond our mere mortal comprehension.

Yet, the rest of the time, these same people seem pretty clear on exactly what God wants and why. Pray in this certain way, eat in this certain way, love in this certain way, hate in this certain way. Do good things and get eternal reward, or do bad things and get eternal punishment. For a mysterious, incomprehensible being, this God character sure seems to have a lot of explicit and well-known rules about what constitutes good or bad behavior! (You might even say, in some cases, that those rules are “set in stone.”)

So which is it? Are God’s ways too mysterious for humans to understand? Then stop making claims about how God wants us to behave. You couldn’t possibly know what God thinks, or wants, or values. In fact, if God is beyond our comprehension, theistic religions should be asserting nothing as dogma or doctrine, aside from maybe God’s existence — no attributes of God whatsoever. There’s no basis from which to draw any of it. Belief in any specifics about God just amounts to completely blind faith in a handful of completely arbitrary ideas.

Or are God’s ways understandable after all to us puny humans? Perhaps even laid out explicitly in some holy text or other? In that case, I’d really like to finally get some answers to these tough questions. I’m tired of hearing theists use the “mysterious ways” excuse to dodge fair and legitimate inquiries about the beliefs they hold to be true.

Comments 7

  • This feels like a slight deviation from the problem of pain with a “some people have really dumb responses” twist [smile]. Yes. “Mysterious ways” is a horrible answer.

    No, God’s ways aren’t fully understandable by us puny humans [smile]. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about God, how he works, or what he wants us to do. As a Christian, I look to Jesus for these details, as he equated himself with God and said knowing him let us know what God is like.

    I think it’s a false dichotomy to say that we either know everything about God and how he interacts with the world or we can’t claim to know anything.

    The real question I see, and it’s a great one, is why do people pray? What kind of outcome can we expect? What does God actually do in response to prayer? And there is a ton of material on this.

    One of the most fascinating talks I’ve heard on this recently can be found here: http://www.livingwayfellowship.org/2016/11/13/releasing-prayer-message-10-praying-for-gods-purposes/

    It get’s going at the 8:30 mark. And while Steve has brilliant things to say, he’s all over the map… so it can be difficult to follow him as he rambles about this way and that. One of my friends said he was like a hive of bees [smile]. (I downloaded it and listened at a much higher speed.) Unfortunately, the recording just kinda stops… but not before he covers some really important ground.

    You are right on with your critique of how people tend to pray. And I think Steve does a great job unpacking this very issue. If and as you have time to buzz through it, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    ~Luke

    • It’s hard to write responses to Christian theology sometimes because there are so many different, conflicting theologies believed by different Christians. This piece may well not be responsive to yours. And I agree, some of the wording in this old post misses the mark a bit and makes it sound like I’m the one asserting this stark dichotomy. My intention was to hold other people accountable for their contradictory claims — and maybe you make neither of these claims, I don’t know. But there are plenty of people out there who will say things like “God never gives anyone more than they can handle!” in response to a friend’s story about a difficult boss or something like that, but will then proclaim “mysterious ways!” when a different friend encounters some more extreme tragedy (maybe someone died, which seems like God giving them more than they could “handle”). It’s similar to the folks who speak with certainty about God sending hurricanes to destroy “sinners” (read: people they don’t like), who are surprisingly quiet about God’s wrath when a natural disaster destroys their own church.

      It seems to me like a lot of the claims Christians make about their god are true, except for when they aren’t true. (E.g. God will shower blessings on the faithful, except when your real reward is not in this world but in the afterlife, or when God decides he needs to “test” you, or when God apparently thinks you’ll grow as a person from having some horrible tragedy befall you, or when sometimes you’re just poor or sick or otherwise unfortunate even though you’re super devout and charitable and kind, and in that case we can fall back on God’s “mystery.”) That “knowledge” about God isn’t helpful in any way. You can’t make any predictions about the world based on it.

      Note also that “God works in mysterious ways” isn’t the same thing as “This part about God is still confusing to me.” It’s more like “God is fundamentally incomprehensible to us as human beings and we couldn’t presume to know what his real plan is.” And it seems like people who defer to “mysterious ways” know nothing about God’s plan, except for when they can assert something about it that furthers their personal agenda, at which point they suddenly know a whole bunch about the plan and it should be crystal clear to anyone who’s been reading along in their Bibles at home.

      • It seems to me like a lot of the claims Christians make about their god are true, except for when they aren’t true. […] That “knowledge” about God isn’t helpful in any way. You can’t make any predictions about the world based on it.

        Exactly! The way I have come to think of it, is that all the so-called “promises of God” in the Bible come with hidden caveats, like the little asterisk next to a price in an advertisement. Have the elders pray and lay hands on you that you may be healed (Jas. 5, Ps. 103 “who heals all your diseases”)… except when I want you to remain sick. I care more about you than the lilies and birds, so rest assured that I will feed and clothe you (Matt. 6)… except when I want you to be homeless and starving (perhaps to death). I will deliver you from all your enemies (Ps. 3, 57, and others)… except when I let them kill you.

        The only way to believe such “promises” is by faith — that God is good, that he knows best, that we can’t understand all his decisions, but someday in the afterlife it will be clear why his decisions were the most loving. We’re not to judge God as good based on evidence that he does good things for us… we’re to judge what happens to us as “always good” from a faith-based belief that he’s good no matter what. The net effect of this is that it makes “answered prayer” completely unfalsifiable. There is no outcome which would cause a Christian to say God didn’t keep his promise. This is one of the issues that made me suspicious enough to reexamine my beliefs and what is true.

      • Nodding along here, NFQ. Yes. And, as I stated above, people who say such things are not good Christian thinkers.

        I was talking with a guy a couple years ago and he made a quip about how poorly Christians think through things. I objected, as it’s certainly not every Christian. He paused and then noted that I have experienced the more thoughtful side of Christianity my whole life: my family, my church, my university (with many of the world’s top Christian thinkers as professors) … so, he said, my experience of Christianity is radically different from the vast majority of people.

        …I don’t disagree.

        But this is where it gets difficult for me here. What I see you poking at are what seem to me like straw men. Do many professing Christians say such things? Absolutely. But is that what Christianity teaches? I don’t think so (though, as you note, rightly, there are likely many who think it does!).

        My goal in interacting in the comments here is to see if what I believe holds up to the critique while trying to shed light on a more stable perspective (as if I have such a thing [laughing]).

        I totally see how I come across as challenging your view when you’re simply critiquing one you’ve observed. And I don’t want to do that. But I am trying to challenge the “oh, those poor deluded Christians” vibe because, while not everyone is a theologian, there are some excellent thinkers in the Christian community. I hope, one day, to be one.

        [sigh]

        Sorry, feel like I’m rambling here…

        Thanks for putting up with me and continuing to dialog! I very much appreciate your perspective, challenges, and questions.

        ~Luke

    • The real question I see, and it’s a great one, is why do people pray? What kind of outcome can we expect? What does God actually do in response to prayer?

      My pastors always carefully taught that while God always answers prayer, he doesn’t always say “yes.” In fact, sometimes he says “no,” and sometimes he says “wait.”

      I’m embarrassed now that it took me until I was in my 40s to realize, after Evid3nc3 pointed it out in his video series: Those are the only possibilities for anything we want! You could pray to a jug of milk, or a boulder, or not pray at all — and either you’ll get what you wanted now, or later, or never.

      What God “actually does” in response to prayer is completely indistinguishable from what happens if you pray and there’s no one there at all. There is no test one could devise that would tell the difference. So again, this ought to make a Christian very suspicious. It certainly did me.

      • Love this point, Brent. And I think anyone who is getting suspicious should absolutely dig into the topic. Ask the questions! Look into the answers. Weigh the perspectives!

        I think that the more we look at what Christianity — or, more precisely, Christ — teaches about prayer, there’s a reason the vast majority of answers are indistinguishable from happenstance. And, yes, you’re unlikely to get any kind of results from testing answered prayers. But the point of prayer, as far as I understand it thus far, has far more to do with changing me than it is with getting the results I want.

        Thanks for sharing your experience.

        ~Luke

  • So which is it? Are God’s ways too mysterious for humans to understand? Then stop making claims about how God wants us to behave. […] Or are God’s ways understandable after all to us puny humans? Perhaps even laid out explicitly in some holy text or other? In that case, I’d really like to finally get some answers to these tough questions.

    Yes. And there are lots of other issues and conclusions that come from the root of this issue.

    For example: Christians say that unbelievers are wrong to call any of God’s acts, as described in the Bible (especially the O.T.), “evil”. “God’s ways are higher than man’s ways” (and note that a good exegesis of Is. 55:8-9 reveals that passage is talking about morality, not wisdom/intelligence) — it’s wrong for a mere human to try to second-guess an all-good, all-wise God. And yet… humans give unqualified praise and worship to God for those of his actions which everyone agrees are “good”. Well… which is it? If we are not qualified to judge God’s morality as “evil,” on what basis are we qualified to judge his morality as “good?” The only answer to that is “on faith”.

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