Teaching kids is always an interesting experience. As part of my training to become a pastor, I had to do a year internship at a congregation of my seminary's choosing. And I had the pleasure of winding up in a church outside of Chicago of which I have very pleasant memories.
One of my duties at this congregation was to teach sixth grade religion at the school which was part of the church. Junior high school students always seem to have the most interesting questions about God: "If God knew that Adam and Eve were going to sin and eat his forbidden fruit, why did God put the fruit there in the first place?" Or how about, "If Adam and Eve were the first two people on earth, and they had kids, where did their grandkids come from?" Then there is the more troublesome, "If God is so good, why is there evil in the world?" And who can forget the perennial, "Can God make a rock so big he can't move it?"
These questions are, of course, to a greater or lesser extent, unanswerable. Yes, we can answer these questions in a limited way, but to give a comprehensive answer to any of these questions surely treads toward heady ignorance at best and unabashed arrogance at worst. The unanswerable nature of these questions, however, has not stopped countless Christians from asking them.
Unanswerable questions about God and the divine realm are nothing new. No less than Roman Catholic luminaries Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas spent time pondering such questions as this popularly paraphrased brain buster: "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" I tremble to think how much time people have spent quarreling over such a question. Interestingly, the word "dunce" is derived from Duns Scotus' name, a tribute the pointlessness of such debates.
In my younger years, I would become very unsettled when I wasn't able to answer someone's questions about God even if they were, for all technical purposes, unanswerable. These days, however, I have grown much more comfortable knowing what I don't know and, yes, even what I can't know. Much of my comfort stems from the fact that I'm in good company.
In our reading for today from Romans 9, Paul picks up on one of the most controversial and convoluted doctrines of Christianity: predestination. Paul makes troubling and brain teasing statements such as these: "Jacob I loved, Esau I hated" (verse 13). "Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden" (verse 18). These troubling statements, although they've been well expounded by countless theologians over the years, albeit in different and sometimes disparate ways, still leave many with questions and objections.
As it is in our day, so it was in Paul's day. For even Paul himself had trouble sorting out all the different nuances of this difficult doctrine. Even Paul himself knew that some questions concerning this doctrine were, by their very nature, unanswerable. Paul freely admits this when he writes, "What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath - prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for his glory - even us, whom he also called" (verses 22-24). The key phrase of this passage comes in its first two words: "What if... " Paul is basically saying, "I'm not sure exactly why God chooses some for salvation and not others, but what if it's like this? Or what if it's like this?" Even Paul does not have all the answers to that which rests in the mysterious depths of God's will.
At the same time there are things that Paul freely admits he does not and cannot know, he also proudly proclaims what he does know. And Paul knows this: "Even us, whom God also called" (verse 24). In the midst of uncertainty of why God chooses some and not others with his predestinating will, Paul says, "This much I know. I have been chosen by God. I have been called by God. I have been saved by God. And not only I, but us. You too have been chosen by God." And this, I pray, is something that that you know and believe with absolute certainty: God has chosen you to be his child.
You see, predestination is a doctrine which was never meant to reside in the theoretical and philosophical realms of why God does what he does. Instead, it is a doctrine which is meant to proclaim the good news that God, by his grace, has chosen you. No unanswerable question about it. And even if I can't know everything about God, I'm thankful that I can know that I have been chosen by God. Because that is the message of my salvation... and yours too.