Unless it is in a novel, a crime drama or on the big screen, Americans don’t care for mystery. Mysteries defy us, and we do not like to be defied. They perplex and confound us, and we would like to remove them from the earth. Mysteries are not practical, and we are such practical people. Mysteries do not make us money – they may even cost us money – and we really like to make money. Give us five steps to our goal. Don’t give us mystery.
One can see this distaste for mystery in the approach the current generation of Christians – particularly we Evangelicals – take to the faith. We have reduced Christianity to a program: three steps to repentance, four steps to effective prayer and five steps to salvation. Today we write practical books like “31 Days to Happiness” or “The Total Money Makeover,” but no one is writing “The Cloud of Unknowing” or, for that matter, reading it.
With their five alliterated points, our writers and preachers suck the mystery out of things. One writer promises to take the mystery out of the Holy Spirit’s work. Another claims to take the mystery out of knowing God’s will. Yet another offers to take the mystery out of prayer. We buy their books and listen to their sermons because our impulse to solve mysteries is rooted in an almost frantic need to control our environment – even to control God,
And it is right here where we run up against a brick wall. Make that a granite wall. The faith – the world, the universe – is full of mystery. You, the reader, are a mystery – a greater mystery than you have yet dreamed. “Philosophers of other ages,” wrote the philosopher Dallas Willard, “used to say that God had hidden from humans the glory of their own soul, that we might not be overwhelmed by pride.”
Mystery is everywhere, but God himself is the biggest mystery of all. No less an authority than the Apostle Paul tells us so. He writes of “knowing” – not solving – “the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3). God is not a mystery to be solved. He is a mystery to be adored.
“Mystery” was one of St. Paul’s favorite words. Three out of every four times the word appears in the New Testament, he is the one who uses it. He felt himself surrounded by mystery, and was fascinated by it. He speaks of the “mystery of God,” the mystery of the faith,” “the mystery of Christ,” the mystery “of God’s kingdom,” “of God’s will,” “of the gospel” and “of godliness.”
Paul did not, like some Christian teachers, think it was his job to extinguish all mystery. Such an approach produces narrow-minded people who think that life with God can be explained in four simple laws. Our task is not to explain away the mystery of love, but to adore it. We enter into the mystery of faith the way a man enters the mystery of love for his bride. His goal is not to explicate love but to experience it completely.
The “Five-Points-to-Explain-Everything” approach to Christianity may give people helpful information, but it will not stir their souls. Tell a man that he can master prayer in three easy steps and he will probably not bother – he knows that anything that can be mastered in three steps is not worth mastering.
But tell him that he can spend the rest of his life exploring the mystery of prayer and living its adventure, and you will pique his interest. Call him to change the world by sacrificing himself on the altar of prayer, and you will win your man – if he’s worth winning.
Offer a person five steps to a better Christian life, and he may read them to see if he can learn something. You might possibly catch his attention, but you will not capture his heart. Learning five steps to anything will probably not change a person’s life, but encountering the incomprehensible, awesome and mysterious God certainly will.