When I taught theology in college, I would attempt to illustrate a theological system by drawing a suitcase on the board. (Those were the days before PowerPoint.) The suitcase, I would explain to my students, represented our theological system. In it we would try to “pack” in a neat order, all of our essential clothing – biblical and other necessary data.
Unfortunately, however, the suitcase seems never to be able to contain all the articles of clothing. So I would then draw a sock or two (or three), a pair of boxer shorts, a necktie, all hanging from the closed suitcase.
“What do we do?” I would inquire. “You want all these items packed for your trip.”
One answer might be, “Open it up and repack it!”
So with a few swipes of the eraser I’d wipe out the offending articles. Then I’d immediately draw some different ones hanging out in other places. “Looks like it didn’t work. When we get these all packed in, others pop out. What next?”
Another reply would be, “Just take out those items that don’t fit and leave them home. You can probably get along without them.”
“But if I open it again, other things might fall out,” I’d reply.
The discussion would continue, but when I saw that it might be getting boring, I’d draw a pair of scissors and with my eraser, snip off the protuberances. “There!” I’d exclaim.
I’d then explain that many of us build our theological systems in the same way that we pack our suitcases. As we study Scripture and as we observe the world around us, we are confronted with massive amounts of data, which we attempt to fit into our worldview or theological system. But it doesn’t all seem to fit! There always appear to be loose ends – some Scriptures or some of the events we observe around us. So we may open up our system for reexamination, but often when we resolve some mystery or reconcile some seeming contradiction, other questions appear.
So what do we do?
We can leave out those items that “don’t fit”; we can simply ignore those questions that trouble us and behave as though they did not exist. From my lifetime of study, reading and observation, I’ve come to the conclusion that those nice neatly packed systems do just that – the systems that claim to have all the answers. Not just the heresies but even “orthodox” systems such as Dispensationalism or Covenant Theology.
We can continue “packing” and “repacking,” recognizing that we’ll never be able to get all our stuff in. I believe this is something we ought to do regularly. We must continually examine and reexamine our systems and our interpretation in the light of the Scriptures.
But I believe we need to learn to be content with those loose ends. We need to recognize our ignorance. And not ours only, but the ignorance of those experts on whom we are tempted to rely.
Last week, we were confronted with a horrible evil, the mass murder that occurred in a theater in Aurora, CO.
A well armed and armored gunman entered the theater, massacred 12 people and critically wounded many others. This happened within 15 years and 15 miles of a mass shooting in a school and just short of a year after a massacre of 70 young people in Norway.
At the same time that we were mourning over the horrors of that night, we comforted ourselves with the reports of great acts of heroism. Young men died when they deliberately shielded their friends and girlfriends from the killer’s bullets; a teenage girl attempted desperately to give CPR to a dying child. These are just normal human beings who somehow exercised great courage. Was the perpetrator of the crimes also just a normal human being?
The news media, as well as the social media, were filled not only with attempts to explain the actual events that occurred, but also with attempts to explain why these events occurred. I need not review what was said. I couldn’t. So many comments by so many – some wise, some downright foolish.
And we realize that the events in Aurora are not unique. Events such as these occur almost daily somewhere in the world: In Syria, Iraq and other war-torn nations in the middle east or Africa; in our larger American cities: Chicago and New Orleans. Nowhere is there safety. Everywhere there is violence.
So how do we who are believers fit all these things into our system of belief? How do we “pack our suitcase”?
We believe that God is sovereign, that He is all powerful, that nothing that occurs is out of His control. We also believe that God is good, that He is love. We believe what Paul says, “We know that to those who love God, He works all things together for good, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). And these horrible events continue to occur. Evil exists!
I had planned to write something here about evil, about the fall, about the nature of humankind, created in God’s image and fallen yet retaining something of that image. That would help get the suitcase a little more neatly packed.
Yet I realize that even if I did so (and I’ve done it many times), there would still be articles hanging out of the suitcase. There always will be – at least until the Lord returns. As Paul says in his great love poem, “Now I know in part, but then I will fully know, just as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12b).
As for those matters we do not and will not understand, faith allows us to live with them. We believe because of the truths we know, those that are clear to us. And faith allows us, even forces us, to trust where matters are not that clear.
I want to thank the members of the Beholders’ Sunday school class for the insights on these matters that were shared this past Sunday.