January 27, 2021

iMonk Classic: God doesn’t offer explanations

Starry Night over the Rhone, Van Gogh

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
from October 2008

Note from CM: This was posted on another blog Michael started, called “Jesus-Shaped Spirituality”.

• • •

The problem with theological types- like yours truly- is they think that God has explained himself. In the Bible. In Jonathan Edwards. In the Lutheran Confessions. In the CRCC. In the latest Piper book. In the ESV Study Bible notes. Somewhere.

The fact is God doesn’t explain himself.

Romans isn’t God explaining himself in your life. There’s some “big picture” stuff there, and you’ll do much better if you realize that “big picture” explanations are what God is interested in. But if you want explanations for why you have no friends, or why you seem to fail the harder you work or why your daughter became a Hindu, you aren’t going to get those explanations.

And you must especially beware of people who pretend to have explanations for you. Churches are full of these people, usually at the pulpit end or in the academic section. They have a favorite book or a DVD presentation that gets right to the explanation for your family’s troubles or your business failure, and what you should do now.

Pieta (after Delacroix), Van Gogh

It’s a lot of hogwash. The Bible is what God is going to tell us about his interaction with this world leading up to and into Jesus. It’s a very subjective kind of book, with much more to say about the experiences we have than the answers we need.

In fact, Jesus explains one parable, and actually makes a lot of demands. Job repeatedly wants an explanation, but he’s not going to get one other than “Where were you? Were you there?” (Very Ken Hamm.)

The answers we give each other suck. The answers in the Bible are big, generic and can’t be fit into the map of your life as specifically as you want. God wants us to trust who he is, what he’s done for us in Jesus and what he promises to finish doing. Along the way, he has some good advice and specific commands, but not many answers to the mysteries of life that torment us.

Believe in the God of the Bible, and have lots of questions of “Why?”…..You’re probably going to get tired of hearing things like “Everything God does he does for our good” or “God allows evil so that good will come from it.” God’s not sitting in a booth playing fortune teller or shrink for a nickle.

He’s God. His goal is that we trust him, and live the best lives we can based on that trust. A significant part of that kind of life is moving past the “Whys.”

In the TBS movie “Abraham,” God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham goes out and screams “Why?”

In the Bible, that never happens. Maybe it did, but the Bible never mentions it. Hebrews says Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed convinced by God’s previous promise that he and the boy would, somehow, return.

Abraham took that all the way, never pausing to say “Why?” along the way. When Isaac asked where was the sacrifice, Abraham didn’t get smart and say “Good question.” He said “God will provide a lamb.”

God doesn’t give explanations very often. He’s working for a bigger result- faith and trust in who he is and what he’s done for us- and will do- in Jesus.

That’s the life. I need to get busy living it, because every moment I’m shouting “Why?” I”m wasting my breath.


  1. Ken Hamm. lol.

    I’ve grown pretty tired of explanations – especially those of theodicy. David Bentley Hart pretty much attacks explanation of that kind (‘God allowing evil to bring good out of it’, etc) in ‘The Doors of the Sea’ and I pretty much agree with him 100%. Sometimes there, quite simply, are no explanations.

    ‘Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.’

    • David Cornwell says

      “Sometimes there, quite simply, are no explanations.”

      And when we attempt to give our feeble answers we most usually show only our foolishness. I think of my own ministry when a parent had lost a child. What answer is sufficient? After many years I still do not know.

      • Len Knighton says

        I’m not sure I know either. I’ve had only once such instance in 25 years. At the funeral I began my homily with these words: GOD DID NOT WISH FOR MAX TO DIE. I believed it then; I believe it now. I believe there is still chaos in the world, from the world’s first moments, that God has not conquered with creation.

  2. I agree with most of what this post says. But then at the end, after talking about how we need to avoid the temptation to give explanations, he gives one anyways: that God’s goal is to build our faith and our trust in God.

    I’m not sure I can accept even that as an explanation. The reason we shouldn’t ask “why” isn’t that God wants us to trust enough not to ask. The reason we shouldn’t ask “why” is because there is no answer. Either it’s all meaningless or it’s all an unfathomable mystery, and to our present, limited brains, those two possibilities are indistinguishable.

    I don’t know whether, when I see God face to face, I’ll get a satifying explanation of why everything happens in this world. But I do know that all things are held in God’s love, and that God suffers with us, and that Jesus walked ahead of us down every dark path that will ever be before us, and that he passed through death into new life. That doesn’t tell us the reason for pain. It’s not an explanation. But, it is at least an answer. We asked for an explanation, but all he gave us was himself.

    • Like.

    • I don’t think we’ll get an explanation of suffering in the world on the other side- at least I hope we don’t.

      ‘Until that final glory, however, the world remains divided between two kingdoms, where light and darkness, life and death grow up together and await the harvest. In such a world, our portion is charity, and our sustenance is faith, and so it will be until the end of days. As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God but the face of His enemy. Such a faith might never seem credible to someone like Ivan Karamazov, or still the disquiet of his conscience, or give him peace in place of rebellion, but neither is it a faith that his arguments can defeat; for it is a faith that set us free from optimism long ago and taught us hope instead. Now we are able to rejoice that we are not saved through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetter in which creation languishes; and, that rather showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in darkness were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes – and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.” (David Bently Hart ‘The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?” p. 104.)

  3. I know I try to understand God and the universe and my life in large part to avoid pain and loss in the future. And the times I’ve been happy in my life were when I was able to let go of this need to understand – but mostly there has always been a part of me that I seem to have no control over which has held on to this need.

    So I guess I’m saying that part of me is Sarai, responding to this post with bitter laughter…”Do you know what trust has gotten me so far in life? Trust? Really?” And another part is the man asking Jesus to help his unbelief. I hope the latter guy wins out.

  4. Interestingly enough, in the story of Abraham and Isaac, God does provide an answer to the unstated why.

    “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

    Of course this opens up the theolical can of worms. Why did God need to know this? Did he not already know this? Etc. Yet another verse where Calvinism doesn’t quite fit.

    • David Cornwell says

      “another verse where Calvinism doesn’t quite fit.”

      Hmm, I think your answer was preordained…

    • Actually, one of the problems with both Calvinism and Arminianism is that they try to put God in a box that is smaller than God himself.

    • The Jungian response would be that God was not attending to omniscience. I don’t know if that’s possible but it is an extraordinarily intriguing possibility. Talk about a can of worms but if that possibility were true, it could explain a stack of scriptural quandarys. I am not versed enough to elaborate but that was the first thing that jumped into my head so ?!?!?!?! Does omniscience mean that God has access to all knowledge or that He is always consciously engaged in all knowledge? How is it that He has changed His mind intermittently through scripture? Is there something fluid to the mind of God that is not like a giant supercomputer ? I don’t know. I am just going to stop now. I’ve said enough.

      • I don’t think Jung really believed that Job actually existed, and had this dialogue with God. Rather, the Book of Job contains symbols of the individuation process which are good for us to contemplate, and thus “true” in a divine (but not historical) sense.

        • He doesn’t deny the existence of Job but says it is incedental to the point. He is a psychotherapist through and through and distances from being a theologian of any kind, yet finds scripture an invaluable and basically inescapable source for his work. He is talking about the individuation process. I believe Job was a real person but am sure that Jung had a deeper connection to him than I probably ever will, even if he didnt believe in Job’s physical existence. I don’t buy everything Jung was selling but he is not to be dismissed without losing something valuable in my mind.

    • Len Knighton says

      For me, the most telling aftermath of the story is that Isaac never spoke to his father again.

    • “Yet another verse where Calvinism doesn’t quite fit”

      Not sure why this is a Calvinistic issue per se. Don’t Calvinism and Arminianism both say that God is all-knowing?

      • Good point Brian – I did mis-speak.

        I would say though that theologians since Aquinas has wondered if God can choose not to exercise his sovereignty as in the case of free-will, can he also choose to not exercise his fore-knowledge.

        The answer in the affirmative takes us towards open-theism. Which is why Arminians are sometimes accused of being open-theists.

        It is a can of worms!

  5. I love this post. I realized earlier this week that i just cannot have all the answers. I’ve been studying philosophy for 3-4 years now and i’m always the one to ask “why?” , now i realize I simply can’t always know. So I often settle for “i don’t know”. Maybe this is why i’ve been drawn to apophatic theology over the past few months.

    • Same here. Good classic Imonk.

      God is hidden, and the only explanation given is Jesus. If that’s not good enough for a person, then the person isn’t a Christian.

      I think folks who talk about asking God the answer to life’s mysteries in heaven have it backwards. When we get to heaven, we won’t care anymore about God’s hidden will because we’ll be in Christ’s presence.

      • I am willing to accept “I don’t know” as an answer, because I beleive it is the Truth. His mind and plans are so much higher than ours that we could never wrap our human minds around His plans while we are stuck here on earth.

        Could I explain to a dog why I was not feeding her or letting her have water, taking her to awful place with the smell of antiseptic and fear, and leaving her there. Could she fathom why she hurt when she woke up, surrounded by strangers? How about why I had her in her crate, and shoved awful tasting stuff down her throat four times a day….or why she had on a plastic collar so she couldn’t lick her new wound? In her doggie mind, I must have seemed like a sadistic monster, torturing her for no reason. She lacked the ability to understand that I was saving her life with the surgery, and treating her for pain and infection in those awful pills.

        I know that God is much higher than I, much more so than the spread between myself and a pooch. I have to trust that when things seem crazy, He has control and a plan that I can neither see nor comprehend.

        The only hard thing for me is trying to explain this trust in God to those who do not beleive, and who will NOT accept “I don’t know but God does” as an answer. It is a tough time for me to be a Christian apologist…..

        • Joseph (the original) says

          but God did just that. become a dog in doggie world thru the Incarnation to show us the Father…er, Alpha Dog…

          Jesus. went thru all the human issues & reminded us of just what the Father was motivated by, felt, desired, was doing in the newly established kingdom age here on earth as it is in heaven…

          although i do understand there can be even more glaring examples of “Why?” after we do have the apex of godly revelation in Jesus, there seems to be a universal sense that no Virginia, the bad stuff of life is not God’s desire. Jesus came to destroy the Destroyer & his works: stealing, killing, destroying. and in turn give us abundant, eternal-quality life…life to the full…

  6. the way I see it is that we are humans, limited in our mental capacities, but we still need to make sense of life and what happens in our world. Explanations are naturally expected, aren’t they?

  7. “It’s a very subjective kind of book, with much more to say about the experiences we have than the answers we need.”

    Oooh, Michael always knew how to say things!

  8. As Aslan says, “No one is ever told what WOULD have happened.”

  9. This is an issue that is quite pervaisive today. And at one time in my life it was an issue that I bought into…which causes me to hang my head in shame. AND I’m glad that Michael Spencer brought into the discussion John Piper. But before I get to that…let me tell you of a quick story. In Philip Yancey’s “What Good is God”he talks about speaking to a church in Blacksburg, VA after the Virginia Tech massacre left 32 dead. Yancey warned people not to listen to poeple who would give an answer, give a quick fix or explain something as being the result ol sin. Yancey says there are no easy answers and as much as he wish he could give one…the reality is there isn’t an answer why things happen like they do.

    When my Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that was when I was under the John Piper koolaide. That was in 2005….when she beat it (talk about lucky….do you know that pancreatic cancer has a 4% survival rate beyond 5 years? My family is incredibly lucky…) Well getting back to Piper in 2007 I gave my Mom the pamphlet by John Piper called “Don’t Waste Your Cancer”.

    It’s one fo the sickest reads you can read. In it John Piper breaks down cancer into 10 points.

    1. You will waste your cancer if you do not believe it is designed for you by God.
    2. You will waste your cancer if you believe it is a curse and not a gift.
    3. You will waste your cancer if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God.
    4. You will waste your cancer if you refuse to think about death.
    5. You will waste your cancer if you think that “beating” cancer means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
    6. You will waste your cancer if you spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God.
    7. You will waste your cancer if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection.
    8. You will waste your cancer if you grieve as those who have no hope.
    9. You will waste your cancer if you treat sin as casually as before.
    10. You will waste your cancer if you fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ.

    Those of you who have seen cancer know how brutal and awful the disease can be will rightfully feel sick. My Mom dealt with pancretaic and my Dad is undergoing radiation treatment after having a brain tumor removed. Can you imagine telling anyone who has dealt with bone cancer, liver cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, luekemia,etc.. that their cancer is designed by God..AND a gift from God? There is no greater reason to be an atheist than this kind of talk. You can actually show more love to humanity than as a Christian.

    That has to be one of the sickest things out there. And this is what undermines the neo-Calvinist movement is the issue of pain and suffering. The demographics of the movement are 20 to 40 roughly. I don’t know why Piper has the fan boy following…the ESV signings are over the top. But it’s easier to talk about disease like cancer when its someone else. But when its your Mom, Father, Sister, Daughter, etc…

    But can you imagine telling anyone who survived pancreatic cancer like my Mom or leukemia such as a 5 year old girl/boy that their cancer is a gift from God to them? I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive msyelf for giving my Mom John Piper article after all that she went through. It’s 5 years later and I still feel sick…..

    • BTW..I Monestary…my Dad is having an MRI scan on thsi Friday at 4:00 Pacific…please pray that it is clean and that there are no suprises. Friday is going to be a nail biter for my family.

      • Praying.

        Eagle, I know what you mean about John Piper. I’ve only (tried) to read one book by him, Don’t Waste Your Life; and sometime during the third attempt I decided I was wasting my life reading it, so I quit.

        But don’t be too hard on Piper. I think he does mean to give the glory to God, and to help others give glory too, but that sort of thing sure does come off as insensitive and he should know that. It’s as if he’s capitalizing on the pain of others even though that’s not his intent. He’s probably trying to show that even cancer can be a form of discipline in giving glory to God, but it just plain the wrong message at the wrong time, like telling people at a funeral to get over it and get on with their lives.

        God bless you and your family this week.

      • Prayed too.

      • Thursday night – my first read – prayers from Pittsburgh…

    • Wow, I understand you’re dislike for Piper now. That is a huge pile of LAW to put on a person deep in suffering. Great example of how Calvinism doesn’t get Law and Gospel.

      People suffering do not need a to do list. They need most to receive God’s love through their neighbors.

    • You and yours have my prayers. Lord have mercy.

  10. “You can actually show more love than as a Christian”. Now, now. You must mean more love than a misguided Christian or a Christian idiot. A loving child of God, take Chaplain Mike and his work for instance, is highly qualified to bring real love in the face of real misery.

    • P.S. – I’ll be praying for your dad.

    • That’s true…I guess in my case I think of the reformed folk. I guess I do that becuase when I drank the kool-aide I thought that was what being a Christian meant. I do recall in Crusade hearing who was a Christian and who was not. Lutherans didn’t count and I recall my CCC director saying that if Lutherans were serious about God they’d go to an evangelical church.

      • Hah, I heard that too. I made a joke about the rapture and basically got run out. I didn’t think anybody took “Left Behind” seriously.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Take it from a casualty of the Gospel According to Hal Lindsay:

          The Rapture IS the Gospel. Christ got thrown under the End Time Prophecy bus years ago.

          And there are Christians who believe Left Behind is NOT fiction, but “History Written In Advance — This Is How IT WILL HAPPEN!” There are Bible Studies nowadays with nary a Bible in sight — only study copies of Left Behind. Just as 40 years ago there were Bible studies where the only book cracked open and followed chapter-and-verse was Late Great Planet Earth.

          • “There are Bible Studies nowadays with nary a Bible in sight — only study copies of Left Behind.”

            That’s because the bibles got raptured…

          • @ Ted…..I guess God had more use for the Bibles than he did his followers! 😛

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            “There are Bible Studies nowadays with nary a Bible in sight — only study copies of Left Behind.”

            That’s because the bibles got raptured…

            GREAT LINE, TED!

  11. Maybe we don’t axe the right questions (?)


  12. I read this and thought of that scene in C.S. Lewis’s ‘Till We Have Faces’ (one of his best books, woefully underrated) towards the end when Orual, who has angrily sworn off the gods due to her experiences, at last comes face to face with Cupid (who is basically a cipher for God) and says, ‘Long did I hate you. Long did I fear you. But now I know why you gave no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face, questions die away. What other answer could suffice? Only words, words, to be led out to battle against other words.’

    • Martin Romero says

      Bought ‘Till We Have Faces’ after reading a reference on iMonk months ago and really loved it. Besides that I have only read ‘Mere Christianity’ from C.S. Lewis, and right now I’ve got ‘A Grief Observed’ waiting on my shelf.

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