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Know Your Limits: Part 1

By Alex Early

Ever since the fall in Genesis 3, we humans have been tempted to mistake ourselves for God. In so doing, we have been prone to presuming that we possess the attributes that belong to Him and Him alone. And here’s the deal: trying to be God always results in disaster. Always.

In this three-part blog series my aim is to highlight three doctrines that, when wrongly understood and applied, will inevitably lead to burn out, frustration, and anxiety. However, when rightly understood and applied, these doctrines can lead to real life, peace, freedom, and productivity that are both enjoyable for us and glorifying to God.

 

Theological Groundwork: Communicable and Incommunicable Attributes of God

The Bible teaches us that human beings are made in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27), which is very different from saying “human beings are God.” Systematic theologians offer us several ways to help us understand the distinction between God the Creator and the human image-bearers He has made. One of the ways is by calling attention to what are known as the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God.

The communicable attributes are those that God shares (communicates) with us, though analogically.[1] Examples include our ability to be and express goodness, justice, honor, rationality, love, etc. Though we don’t carry out any of these perfectly like God, they do point to the One in whose image we are made.

There has never been a point where God has not been at His fullest potential. God is perfect in all that He is and does.

And yet, God doesn’t share all of his attributes with us. He is also the transcendent Creator and establishes plenty of distinction between Him and us, as reflected by His incommunicable attributes. Over this and the coming two weeks, we will be taking a brief look at three of these attributes:

ŸOmniscience: Knowing Everything
Omnipresence: Being Everywhere
Omnipotence: Possessing Limitless Power

Today, we begin with the first of these attributes.

 

Omniscience: Know-it-All

The easiest way to define the doctrine of “omniscience” is to “know it all.” The Bible is unmistakably clear that God is the only one who, quite literally, exhaustively knows all there is to know about everything in the past, present, and future.[2]

God never “learns” anything. There has never been a point where God has not been at His fullest potential. God is perfect in all that He is and does.

How is any of this relevant or practical to us right here and right now? Well, for one, sometimes we cross the line and presume in our pride to know it all. 

 

Know-it-Alls Are Really Annoying

There’s hardly anything more annoying than being around a know-it-all. The annoyance is acutely intensified when the know-it-all is under the impression/delusion that in their infinite knowledge, they possess an airtight, well-nuanced, exhaustive answer about every single subject under the sun.

Christian know-it-alls believe they have the ability to take the subjects that so clearly belong to the realm of mystery and faith and explain them away with utter simplicity. 

The frustration with the know-it-alls goes through the roof in times of real crisis, such as when someone loses a child. My dear friend Elliot Grudem visited recently and said,

“You know, Alex, the oldest book in the Bible is Job, and the book reaches its pinnacle of frustration when Job’s friends succumb to the temptation to place a WHY on his suffering; they try to make sense out of the utter chaos. They were doing well when they weren’t saying anything at all.”

 

The Remedy for the Know-it-All

The remedy for the know-it-all is not to swing to the other end of the pendulum and know nothing. The answer lies in the humility to express gratitude for what is known, and yet simultaneously acknowledging the reality that there is so much that is still beyond the grasp of even the brightest of minds.

If you’re a know-it-all and I stepped on your toes a little bit, here are three words that will easily let you off the hook the next time you’re tempted to put your omniscience on display: I . . . Don’t . . . Know.

It is not a sin to acknowledge that you don’t know everything. In fact, it is actually a righteous thing to go ahead and let God be God (Deut. 29:29). Besides, it is exhausting to know everything.

 

Two Positives for Giving the “I Don’t Know” Answer

First, people stop feeling patronized when you say, “I don’t know.” The uninformed, slap-together answer doesn’t help. In fact, it is often patronizing. Rather than irritating people with sloppy answers, take the time to enter into the question with them, see it from their point of view, and even be stumped with them. Besides, your friend may not really want your answer. More often, they just want presence.

Second, saying “I don’t know” buys you time to go do some digging, and keep the dialogue going. You’ll do some growing and your friend will respect you for it.

Don’t fall into the temptation to be lazy and take a short cut. Feel free to enjoy the pursuit of knowledge, grapple with mystery, and do the work that it takes to arrive at real “understanding.” After all, Solomon was big on getting wisdom (Prov. 4:7).

 

Next Wednesday, we will run Part 2 of this series, which focuses on God’s omnipresence.  

 

 

 

 

[1] Michael Horton defines the communicable attributes as “those attributes that may be predicated of God and humans (though only analogically), such as love, mercy, and justice.” Horton, The Christian Faith, 992.

[2] 1 Sa 23:10-13; 2 Kings 13:19; Ps. 139:1-6; Isa. 40:12-14; 42:9; Jer. 1:4; 38:17-20; Ezek. 3:6; Mt. 11:21.

 

Alex Early is the husband of Jana, and father to Tovah and Jude. He is a pastor, professor, student (in Western’s Doctor of Intercultural Studies program), and author. His most recent publication is “The Reckless Love of God” (Bethany House, 2015).