The Deep Things of God

deep_things_2

God is omniscient; God is omnipotent. God is omnipresent. We grew up with these notions of God burned into our brains. When they explained to us that he knows all, is capable of all, and is everywhere, we thought, how natural; that is just like God. He couldn’t be any other way.

We have grown up, and our questions have multiplied fruitfully and filled our minds. But somehow, these primary attributes of God remain intact and sacrosanct, rarely coming up for questioning. When occasionally they do, they are dutifully brushed aside; they belong to the secret things of God. We are good Christians.

But as it is, God is a better Christian. In His sense of humour, it seems, He presents Himself to us in revelations of beauty and wonder that make us have to face Him as He really is, and not how we have decided He is to be. He is not a God to be brushed under the carpet, or defined as we like and frozen in the morgue of our intellectual decisions. We cannot imprison Him in infinity.

I myself have had several such occasions on which I have found it necessary to resolve – and sometimes revise – my notions about God before some contingent truth could even begin to make sense. Recently, a friend of mine has faced a similar challenge in relation to a critically important biblical teaching, the latter rain.

Does God have a date set for pouring it out? If so, how come we often say that the reason it has not been poured out is that the church has not made itself ready for it? Are we truly delaying the divine agenda? Or does it even depend on us at all?


As you will quickly notice, the question is hinged on the basic premise of the immutability of one attribute of God, omniscience. God knows everything, including when he will pour out the latter rain. The same line of reasoning often comes up in relation to the second coming of Christ. This attribute of omniscience is held to be non-negotiable, and becomes the mold in which we try to shape our answer. We often come up with no good answer at all. Indeed, the very dogmatism we attach to the omniscience of God, as we understand it, removes the question from the question even before we begin to form an answer to it.

Often in trying to project a vast, infinite, unconstrainable God, we employ language that ends us stealthily restraining and imprisoning Him in very limited boxes we label with ambiguous references to infiniteness. There are a few reasons why I believe we need to revise our understanding of the language we use to describe God:

  1. God is bigger than big words
  2. Our basic understanding of several biblical teachings will remain a mesh of contradictory logic if we hold on to a limited view of God.
  3. Our own awareness of the language of Theism will lead us to a deeper, more humble sense of who God is.
  4. We will avoid certain traps of logical heresy if we see God aright.

God is Bigger than Big Words

The irony is that when we gave God the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, we did so with a view to liberating Him from the finite realms of what is possible for us as human beings. I do not mean that a committee decided to do this, but that it was the best philosophical paradigm we could construct out of the glimpses revealed to us in Scripture. So there is a biblical basis on which theologians and philosophers came up with these concepts, but the philosophical meanings of the terminology have been stretched far beyond that revealed in Scripture. If these meanings are correct, then they are only incidentally so. For example, about omniscience the Bible tells us:

  • God knows all our thoughts and deeds – Psalm 139:1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 28:9
  • God knows all the stars of heaven by name – Psalm 147:4,5
  • Even the hairs on our heads are numbered – Matthew 10:30
  • No one can teach God knowledge – Job 21:22
  • He is the God of knowledge, and judges deeds – 1 Samuel 2:3
  • For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. – 1 John 3:20

On omnipresence we have:

  • The eyes of God are everywhere, seeing the wicked and the good – Proverbs 15:3
  • We can’t hide from God; He fills the heavens and the Earth – Jeremiah 23:24
  • He inhabits Heaven, and uses the Earth as a footstool, and we cannot build a house to contain Him – Isaiah 66:1

And there is much from which we draw our view of omnipotence as well:

  • “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” – Matthew 19:26
  • “Is anything too difficult for the LORD?” – Genesis 18:14
  • God can do all things, and His purposes cannot be thwarted – Job 42, 1, 2

So there is no real issue that God is as Scripture says He is, as seen in the paraphrases above. The question is, do our big words omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent (and others) represent Scripture accurately? Each of these words carries a great deal of philosophical, historical and ecclesiastical baggage. We cannot exhaust all of them in a sitting. For the purposes of making a contribution on the question on the latter rain, I will concentrate on the omniscience of God.

What is omniscience?

As you doubtless know, the word literally means “all knowledge”. What you may not be so familiar with is the history of the word. It comes to us from Medieval Latin. It entered regular and then popular usage in the early 1600’s. It certainly does not occur in the Greek text of the New Testament or in the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Old.

The key question is, what do we really mean, when we say God is all-knowing? And do we mean the same thing as the Bible writers did?

It is fair to say that philosophical thought had developed quite extensively since the days of Job and Moses. By the time Christian bishops started to use the term in Rome, intellectual inquiry into disciplines like existentialism (the study of existence), epistemology (the study of knowledge), phenomenology (the metaphysical perception or experience of reality), ontology (the metaphysical nature of being) and logic had become substantially more complex, and formal. All these concepts are embedded in the idea of omniscience and similar terms, and much of our contemporary understanding of them is influenced by these constructs, and later developments on them.

The question is, do our big words omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent (and others) represent Scripture accurately?

How We Use the Word

There are two senses in which one would usually say that God knows everything. The first is contextual and subjective. For example, in consoling people who have lost loved ones we will often say that there is no need to worry, because God knows everything.

 The second is philosophical and objective. We use the term this way when we are trying to describe God as a matter of faith and truth. We are making a deep philosophical statement not only about God, but also about knowledge, and the whole of existence (for the sake of discussion we will call that the universe).

In truth, when John says as we have seen that “…He knows everything”, he is saying so contextually. His context is the motives of the human heart. God knows when our motives are pure and evil, and judges us fairly. And when Job asks, “Can anyone teach God knowledge”, his context is the same; his three friends are not better placed than God to say what should or should not happen to a righteous man. The Lord does and He pleases; some live a good life and die in peace, others endure a bitter existence and die in agony.

This is how the Bible generally speaks about God – in relation to a specific contextual idea that the Bible writer is concerned with, be it salvation, judgment, compassion, or something else.

When we, on the other hand, use the term omniscience, we are often speaking in the philosophical sense of saying that God knows everything in the universe. If it exists, He knows it. This is why we often ascribe humanly unknowable dates to biblical events that Scripture has indicated no dates for – events like the outpouring of the latter rain.

Philosophical Trojan Horses

It may not be immediately clear to us what else we are saying when we say such things. Philosophically invested statements often have logical implications that are not immediately obvious, and therefore seldom explored. Let’s look at a few of the logical implications of asserting that God knows everything that exists.

There is an “all things”

Think about it. To say that God knows everything is to say that first, there is “all things”, that is, a finite set of things that exist. But can we truly say that? Do we, as human beings know enough of the universe to say that it has existential or phenomenological boundaries? That is has a totality of scope we can refer to as “all things?”

And yet the blatant contradiction we stare at is this: to say this is to imply that nothing outside that set (after all it is finite) exists. How then can you speak of a finite set? If nothing outside the set exists that can be referred to, then all things exist, and the set cannot be a set, let-alone a set of “all things”. Indeed, the idea that nothing is non-existent is often the epistemological escape route, but as you can see, it leads to no helpful place. The language is inherently contradictory.

These are the kinds of places we end up in when we use fuzzy, ambiguous language we don’t properly understand.

If God knows all things then we know at least something about all things

Second, you should realize that in saying that God knows everything, we are making an assertive description of everything that exists. We may not know all the things that exist, but we know that each of them has the attribute of being known by God. This does not raise any theological issues per se, but it raises some epistemological ones. Does the knowledge of God have the same nature in all parts of the universe? Is it the same everywhere – or even anywhere – as human knowledge is? If we cannot answer that can we legitimately apply our idea of knowledge to every thing everywhere in the universe, even if we assign that knowledge to God?

If God is omniscient, then God is not omnipotent

As it turns out, some of our big words wage war against each other. An omniscient God is bound, obliged, compelled by nature, to know everything; He cannot not know something. Get it? He is incapable of not knowing even one thing in the universe. Such a God is not omnipotent in the truest sense of the word. A truly omnipotent God should be capable of all things, including not knowing something. Including being incapable of something. Have you ever considered that?

But many Christian thinkers have proffered such alternatives, with the aim of allowing God to be God: to be able to be able and unable as He pleases, to be able to be knowledgeable and ignorant as he chooses.

Modern day concessions – how some people understand omniscience

Aware of these and other epistemological difficulties embedded in such terms, many thinkers have been led to offer alternative ways of comprehending and using them. Where the thinkers have been atheists the objective of these alternatives has been to discredit our high notions of divinity. But many Christian thinkers have proffered such alternatives, with the aim of allowing God to be God: to be able to be able and unable as He pleases, to be able to be knowledgeable and ignorant as he chooses. While none of them is a perfect epistemological solution to the difficulties, their very existence makes a basic point: that we must allow God to be God.

Ready Access versus Default Possession

One such view is that God does not know everything, but has access to all knowledge. Per this view, God can decide to know anything at anytime, as all knowledge is available to Him.

In this view God is like your company’s computer system administrator who has all the passwords to all the hard drives and databases in the building. He can know anything he wants at the mere click of a button, but he doesn’t have it all in his head.

Stated otherwise, God does not possess all knowledge by default, but by will.

All Possible Outcomes

Another is that God knows the total set of possibilities in the universe. That is, He knows all the various ways in which something could happen, but not exactly how it will happen. For example he knows all the various sequences of choices and event you could take in your life, and the necessary outcomes of each of them. But He does not know which exact sequence will occur.

Relative Infinity

The final one I’ll share is the relativist view of infinity, the idea buried in the “omni” part of omniscience. The view is that when we speak of infinity, we do so relative to our own finite knowledge, and to our own finite conception of what infinity entails.

To illustrate, one might say that Stephen Hawking is infinitely knowledgeable relative to my nine-month old niece. At her age, she knows, as it were, infinitely less than him. So relative to here one could say that Stephen Hawking is infinitely knowledgeable. But it does not mean that he knows all things.

The second part of this view has to do with the idea that because we have a limited understanding of infinity itself, God is infinitely knowledgeable because He dwells in infinity, outside of time. His understanding of what exists and what is possible is, unlike ours, not chained down by human conceptions of reality. This is similar to the case for access, but adds the dimension of infinity as a realm in which one – God – can and does exist.

Don’t Miss the Point

Again, the point is not whether any of these alternatives is correct or even adequate, but that the very attempt to curtail the philosophical reach of the language of omniscience should tell us that the word might not convey the truest picture of God as revealed in Scripture.

At this point you may be holding up your hands in protest and asking: “But what about all those Bible texts that sound so clear and objective?” Indeed, there are many texts in the Bible that we can take literally, even on an objective, philosophical level. Even when there is special context involved, statements like “He knows all the thoughts and intents of the heart” and “He knows all the stars of heaven by name” clearly make objective declarations on the knowledge of God.

Still, all the thoughts and intents of all human hearts and all the stars of heaven and all the hairs on all people’s heads are but a tiny fraction of what constitutes the Universe. Knowing them all, while it would certainly make one incredibly knowledgeable, does not make one omniscient. The fact of the matter is that the Bible tells us that God is unfathomably knowledgeable, but it does not tell us that He is omniscient.

The Bible can confidently and rightly tell us God knows them without using that language, or intending the extended philosophical implications embedded in it.

 

Approximations of the Biblical picture of God

I realize that this might be a bit too much for some people. Like I observed in the beginning, we have grown up with hard and fast notions about God that seem to make sense. How can God be anything other than all-everything?

The answer is that I don’t know. And that is the lesson I want to pass along. These and other such words are only intellectual approximations we make towards the idea of what God is like. When we picture God in our minds, we have very little around us to compare Him to because everything is inherently limited and contingent, and so we compare Him with what we perceive to be limitless and independent.

We don’t fully comprehend these concepts ourselves, but in our finite minds, we have no better ways of describing a God Who is so vast and so deep.

This is how we reach out into that vast infinity that we will never fully understand.

I am not saying at all that this is a bad thing. I am saying that we should not be deluded into thinking we have figured God out wholly and exactly when we do so. Remember, God is bigger than our big words.

Implications for the Latter Rain Question

 

“But near the close of earth’s harvest, a special bestowal of spiritual grace is promised to prepare the church for the coming of the Son of Man. This outpouring of the Spirit is likened to the falling of the latter rain; and it is for this added power that Christians are to send their petitions to the Lord of the harvest ‘in the time of the latter rain’. In response ‘the Lord will make bright clouds and give them showers of rain’. He will cause to come down . . . the rain, the former and the latter rain.”

Ellen White, Act of the Apostles, p. 54

My friend’s question gives us a great opportunity to see how a more humble and open view of the nature of God can lead to a correct and consistent view of scripture. The question after all is:

What makes us think with the issue of the latter rain, He will pour out His Spirit subject to our present request and not by His timeline?[1]

The question reveals an apparent contradiction. It asserts correctly that we often blame our lack of consecration and preparedness for the delay of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (this outpouring is what is called the latter rain, the former being the Pentecost event of Acts chapter 2). Yet it also maintains that God has a pre-determined timeline of events leading to His the second coming of Christ. If there is a preset timeline, then there is a set date, and so how can it depend on our consecration or lack of it? Actually, the question in its very terms imposes a contradiction on us by making “His timeline” and “Our request” (or state of preparedness) mutually exclusive of each other.

The question entails not only the notion of God’s omniscience (He knows the date), but also His will (He set the date).

As we have seen, if we take a close-minded, dogmatic approach based on our cherished philosophy of omniscience, then the question ceases to even exist. Conventional wisdom (in this case classical logic) would have it that if God knows the date of the outpouring, then it does not depend on us in any way. Conversely if it depends on us then there is no pre-set date. It is as simple as that. Conventionally speaking.

But what happens when we become more open about the idea of God’s omniscience as pertains to this question? We leave God free to be able both to know the date if there is one, and yet to wait for us at the same time; we allow God to be capable of these two things. He doesn’t have to be an either-or God; He can be a both-and God too.

What happens when we become more open about the idea of the fixity or fluidity of God’s will? We allow Him to both will for things to happen, and to allow for human intervention and modification.

When we take such an open approach we become more consistent with the biblical picture of a God Who is both unchanging and responsive to His people. For example, on the will of God, the Bible tells us expressly to pray that God’s will is done on our planet (Matthew 6:10). Why would we be asked to pray for this if God’s will is always done anyway?

Furthermore, several instances in the Bible confirm that God allows His will to be worked out subject to the will of human beings. God gave Israel a King against His will (1 Samuel 8:4 – 7), allowed Israel to rebel and Jerusalem to be destroyed against His will (Matthew 23:37,38), and declared that it is not His will that any should perish (Matthew 18:14), but also that the soul that sins shall die (Ezekiel 18:4) and broad is the gate that leads to hell, and many walk in it (Matthew 7:13).

My favorite is found in Ezekiel 4, where the Lord commands the prophet to make bread from various grains, and bake it using human excrement as fuel. Ezekiel, a thorough Jew, is so aghast at the command that he actually protests against it, and vehemently so:

““Not so, Sovereign Lord! I have never defiled myself. From my youth until now I have never eaten anything found dead or torn by wild animals. No impure meat has ever entered my mouth.” – Ezekiel 4:14 (NIV)

To which the Lord replies:

“Very well,” he said, “I will let you bake your bread over cow dung instead of human excrement.” – Ezekiel 4:15 (NIV)

We will do well to let instances like this be instructive. The Lord does not insist that the divine imagery cannot be amended. It is not like the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be changed[2]; no, it is the will of God, who is able and willing to adapt, and meet us halfway.

Indeed, this principle goes to the root of God’s loving nature. He gave us free choice, the ability to choose differently from His will for us. To argue otherwise would be to diminish the one attribute the Bible does unambiguously ascribe to God: love (1 John 4:8).

 

Evidence in the Text: Joel 2

The whole teaching of the outpouring of the latter rain is based on the famous promise of Joel 2:23 – 29. For our purposes an analysis of verses 23, 28 and 29 will be enough to make the point. The intervening verses describe the temporal results of the outpouring of the latter rain. Verses 28 and 29 deal with the spiritual result, indicating that the rain is spiritual.

23 Be glad then, you children of Zion,
And rejoice in the Lord your God;
For He has given you the former rain faithfully,
And He will cause the rain to come down for you—
The former rain,
And the latter rain in the first month.

28 “And it shall come to pass afterward
That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
Your young men shall see visions.
29 And also on My menservants and on My maidservants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.

As you can see, the promise of the latter rain is given in the context of the expected, predictable cycle of rain on which Israelite agriculture depended. The former rain came down in late October into early November, per our modern calendar. The latter rain was expected in March and April (the first month on the Jewish calendar, Nissan). So you can see that in Scripture the element of predetermined time is certainly captured. This is consistent with the idea that God knows when the latter rain will be poured out. Indeed, it is He Who has set that time.

However, though fixed within a divine timeline, was it guaranteed? Certainly not. Many times Israel was cursed with drought and famine because of disobedience to God’s law. Indeed, the book of Joel was written as a call to repentance in Judah. God had sent locusts to devour all the produce of their land, and after calling the people to repentance; Joel gives them the promise of coming revival. He couched this in the language of restoration of the people’s livelihood, restoration that came with the timely rains.

So while the restoration was promised, and set on divine timeline, it was not guaranteed. It was dependent on the people’s repentance. God’s will was not the only or final consideration. Consider the larger context of the promise. The whole promissory passage from verse 23 to 29 comes in the context of the larger literary unit beginning from chapter one. But of immediate importance is verses 2:15 – 18. God first asks the people to repent:

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion,
Consecrate a fast,
Call a sacred assembly;
16 Gather the people,
Sanctify the congregation,
Assemble the elders,
Gather the children and nursing babes;
Let the bridegroom go out from his chamber,
And the bride from her dressing room.
17 Let the priests, who minister to the Lord,
Weep between the porch and the altar;
Let them say, “Spare Your people, O Lord,
And do not give Your heritage to reproach,
That the nations should rule over them.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”

18 Then the Lord will be zealous for His land,
And pity His people.

It is very interesting to note that in verse 16 those whom God asks to pray, fast and be consecrated for the revival: elders, children, infants, and priests. Verses 28 and 29 are a direct echo of this demographic, as one can observe the following rough parallels:

Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy                       – THE CHILDREN
Your old men shall dream dreams                                               – THE ELDERS
Your young men shall see visions                                                 – THE YOUTH
And also on My menservants and on

My maidservants                                                                                   – THE PRIESTS[3]
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.

This kind of textual linkage makes it clear that the promise of vv. 28 and 29 was to be a direct fulfillment of the prayer of vv. 16 and 17. If the people did this, blessings would follow. A long list of promises begins from verse 18 all the way to 23, 28 and 29 where we see the promise of the early and latter rains, and the spiritual result of revival and restoration.

We can see then that the promise is dependent on the repentance and consecration of the church. This is one of those things for which we must constantly pray that the will of God is done. 2 Peter 3:9 highlights the point of how we can hold up the divine timeline with our lack of consecration:

“The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

God is patient, and patiently works with us towards repentance. But in doing so He is not being slack, but methodical and timely.

 

He is a God who is able to have a deadline and cooperate with you on meeting it at the same time.

Evidence in the Spirit of Prophecy

On the matter of the latter rain, the Spirit of Prophecy has much to say. Some of it might surprise you, hopefully in a good way:

“The great outpouring of the Spirit of God, which lightens the whole earth with his glory, will not come until we have an enlightened people, that know by experience what it means to be laborers together with God. When we have entire, whole-hearted consecration to the service of Christ, God will recognize the fact by an outpouring of his Spirit without measure; but this will not be while the largest portion of the church are not laborers together with God. God cannot pour out his Spirit when selfishness and self-indulgence are so manifest; when a spirit prevails that, if put into words, would express that answer of Cain, —“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Ellen White, Review & Herald, July 21, 1896 (Italics mine)

Notice the italized phrases? It seems that God must wait for the majority of the church to become cooperative with Him in the mission of giving the final warning to the world! What a thought. Think about it; we live in the age of the Laodicean church, the most uncommitted of all church eras, with the most vacillating, self-deceived, and proud Christians (Revelation 3:14 – 19). Yet God is going to pour out His Holy Spirit in this era, and not only that but in a time when the majority of the church is consecrated and dedicated to the mission! Can you imagine the scale of conviction, repentance and redemption that the Holy Spirit must work out in our hearts for this to happen? Marvelous, absolutely marvelous!

These are the kinds of pictures you see when you allow God to be God. He is not just going to up and pour out the latter rain when the majority is still lost in sin, when the church is wholly unprepared, and damn the consequences, all because some arbitrary deadline has been reached. No, He is a God who is able to have a deadline and cooperate with you on meeting it at the same time.

On a more somber not, we are told that by keeping us unconsecrated even the agencies of hell can prolong the period of preparation – the prayer and earnest seeking of God – necessary for the outpouring of the latter rain:

“If the power of Satan can come into the very temple of God, and manipulate things as he pleases, the time of preparation (for the latter rain) will be prolonged.”

Even those of us who persist in a condition of unconsecration can work effectively – albeit unknowingly – against the fulfillment of the divine agenda:

“It is an offense to God that His work should be restricted by human beings.”

Ellen White, Manuscript Releases, Volume 9, page 213.1

Obviously, Ellen White is as clear as Scripture that the church does have a role to play in activating the divine plan, and driving or stalling the divine timeline, as the case may be. She is able to be so confident and clear without once questioning God’s foreknowledge or will, because she clearly did not let human constructions of godliness form her image of Him.

We must not either. An open-minded approach to questions that entail the divine attributes will lead us to better appreciate the complexities involved in many biblical teachings, especially concerning the seemingly intractable end times. Such an approach will also be useful for reconciling apparent contradictions in many common questions, among which are:

  • Why does a loving God allow suffering?
  • If God knows the future, do we truly have free will?
  • Why did a holy and loving God allow sin?
  • How can God be one and three persons at the same time?

The scope of ideas that can benefit from such an open-minded approach is endless, but we will stop here because space is limited, and I believe the point is made.

Conclusion

As we have seen, it is perfectly possible to harmonize the two scriptural truths about the existence of a divine plan (what my friend called the timeline), and the role of the church as pertain to the determined will and foreknowledge of God respectively.

We are not likely to arrive at such harmony, however, if we maintain rigid philosophical categories that are only approximate representations of a complex God. Approaching the deep things of God requires an intellectual humility that leaves us open to the possibility that our long-held notions of divinity are incomplete, inadequate, and perhaps sometimes, inappropriate.

Open-mindedness on the subject will lead us to more earnest truth seeking, rather than to hurried responses that appear to settle the matter but rather place a glass ceiling on our learning and knowledge about God. This is especially sad when we do so with a question this vital to the end-time mission of the church.

We must enter the time of preparation – our children, our elders, our infants, our priests, and us. We must repent, seek the Lord, and beg for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon us.

I can think of no better way to end than to repeat the invitation Ellen White makes to us, the last day church. It is much the same invitation God made to Israel before the promise of Joel 2:28, 29.

“The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the church is looked forward to as in the future; but it is the privilege of the church to have it now. Seek for it, pray for it, believe for it. We must have it, and heaven is waiting to bestow it.”

Ellen White, Review and Herald, March 19, 1895

Maranatha.


 


References
[1] The preamble of the original question has been redacted

[2] See Daniel 6:8, 15

[3] See priesthood of all believers, which includes women (maidservants). 1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:6; 5:10.

mm
Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.