God Only Knows
January 08, 2012
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom
you have made them all; the earth is full of your
Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things
innumerable are there, living things both small and
There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to
sport in it.
These all look to you to give them their food in due
when you give to them, they gather it up; when you
open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when
you take away their breath, they die and return to
When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and
you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the
Lord rejoice in his works—
who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches
the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing
praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in
Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the
wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!
Reading from Swedenborg
It is an amazing thing to realize that everyone’s states of life are completely hidden from us, whether these states are general ones or particular ones. For who here has the ability to know the states of life of anyone in heaven and on earth? It is the Lord alone who sees everyone’s state from inmost to outmost and from beginning to end, and who provides for what that is.
(Apocalypse Revealed 257–262 (selected sections))
You open your hand and they are filled with good; you hide your face and they are troubled; you take away their breath and they die; you send forth your spirit and they are created. Psalm 104:28-30
When my wife and I were on a cruise last weekend, we took an early-morning walk along Bradley’s Head, where you get some amazing and very different views of Sydney Harbor. As we strolled along, I noticed several trees with large dark clumps in them fairly high up and realized that those lumps were termite nests. There I was, looking up at a whole self-contained world in which tens of thousands of individual termites were all doing what they do, each going about its business and all of them together keeping the state of the nest as it needs to be for the good of the whole colony.
If you could interview each termite, it would be fascinating to ask three questions: “What do you actually do?” “What does what you do actually do for the nest as a whole?” “How do you feel about the idea of . . . let’s call it ‘Someone’ . . . who sees and knows exactly how the whole nest works?”
Well, of course, it is not such a big step to transfer that from the world of termites to us and our lives. But, of course, there is an important difference between the two. Termites simply do what they do automatically, as if it is inbuilt in each of them that their particular job is to pack more mud, run up and down the branch, open more ventilation holes, and carry newborns to the nursery—almost as if the whole nest itself has a complete understanding of everything it is there for.
We are not quite the same. Ask a typical thirteenyear- old girl what she plans on doing with her life, and you will see the difference straightaway. She may mention Justin Bieber, or she may say that some models get picked at thirteen, but she doesn’t even have much idea about what’s happening next weekend. Her parents are the nicest people, but they are more than a bit bothered by their daughter’s outlook. Her mother wants her husband to make time to talk about things with their daughter, but he just says, “Oh, leave her alone. She’s only thirteen, for goodness’ sake!” And if you could zoom in and ask them how it’s all going, they might well say, “God only knows!”
What an amazing comment! This couple doesn’t have any direct connection with or any idea about what we call God. It is not on their radar screen— which certainly doesn’t make them bad people, of course, far from it. But from somewhere quite obscure they have a trace element or a racial memory that there is something that is more than just them and their lot in life. They did once go to an aunt’s funeral and hear mention of something called God that seems to be able to take everything into consideration, even why Auntie died. So there’s a vestige that is enough for them to come out with “God only knows” at times, especially when there’s no other satisfactory answer.
And while they might never realize it, they are absolutely correct. They are unwittingly well-qualified theologians. This truth is one of the cornerstones of religion: the point that, in a way we can never finally comprehend, what we call God has a complete and infinite coverage of absolutely everything, way beyond any scientist with an X-ray machine studying the goings on of a termite nest.
We can even add a few more pieces to this jigsaw called “God only knows.” God not only knows how it currently is, for example, for those parents of this girl, but how it got to be like that, before even the parents were born, never mind their daughter. And further back still. And God only knows how things can, might, could, and even will develop into what we call the future—every contingency plan and conceivable outcome. And God only knows the whole of the networking between all people, which makes Facebook look like the Stone Age. And God cares for it all even more than he sees it, and he has methods, unknown to us but often guessed at, for how with his involvement a person can be brought from bewilderment into lasting goodness and security.
But I must not tire you out. It is not even 11 o’clock in the morning, and it is the day of rest. So we can say that when it comes to ever such a lot of things in our own experience of life, we do not know, nor should we; we do not know, nor can we; and God only knows. Really, it is quite enough for us to hand that one on, free ourselves from agonizing, and acknowledge that Someone does know.
That might sound as if I am successfully doing myself out of a job. No, I am not, because it is also good for us to have some personal view of this God that makes good sense to us and that we can even use. Maybe it’s just one view, but let’s make it a satisfactory one, such as the idea that God keeps on leading us. That will do nicely.
This is our way of coping with the Infinite, which we mustn’t be scared of. Bring something about it down to your level, and at the same time simply accept that the Infinite is always more than you can cope with. Christmas, after all, is all about the birth of God into the world of us people. That’s exactly the same idea as I’m talking about, and if God can see the need to do that, so should we.
Having said all that, there are some other areas where the truth that God only knows—or, as our church’s teachings put it, that “the Lord alone sees everyone’s state from inmost to outmost and from beginning to end and provides for what that is”— can be directly helpful to us, and where we would flounder or even harm ourselves if we weren’t in proper touch with it.
For example, it is a truism that we tend to fall into judging other people or making quick assessments about them. I do it, you do it, it comes perfectly naturally to us—a good phrase when you realize that before we become properly connected with God, are reconfigured by God, and start looking carefully at what we can be like at times and dropping (or at least turning away from) some not-so-good things (which are basically all there in the ten commandments)— before all that we are “natural” kinds of people, because things just come to us naturally.
Even the word “before” is a bit unhelpful, because the truth is that we slip back into these natural reactions whenever we are not paying enough attention to what is better. Being “spiritual” is not like getting out of a swimming pool and saying, “Great! That was hard work, but I’m out now!”
So, we often judge. I recently judged a lady I felt I was trapped with for an hour—a rather self-opinionated lady who offered lots of comments putting down how things are today, how self-centered people are, what the world is coming to, and how television, computers, the government, and advertising are all just wrong. And to top all that, she found out I was a minister and wondered if I was Anglican because she has “ever such a lot to do with the church” (beaming all the while).
I was wrung dry. And I judged her because it was one way of coping. But of course I should not have judged her, because I don’t know anything about her and God only knows all that, and she was just being sociable in her own way and some of the things she mentioned were even a bit “right.” So I got myself out of the swimming pool, so to speak, but I know I will be back in it before long in some other situation.
And, harrowing as it was, I think I learned something for future reference, even though I have inflicted it a bit on you this morning. This phrase “God only knows” is a bit of a gem; it’s a safety net and worth the knowing. “There but for the grace of God go I” is another way of putting it, and whoever wrote the hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” has done us all a huge favor.
Obviously, I am heading toward the main point of this sermon, which is (surprise, surprise) “Let us all do our very best, because that is what we can do, and God will deal with everything else.” But I think that is still not enough. It’s OK for the parents of that thirteen-year-old girl. But if you are in what I’d call a “working relationship with God,” then it will benefit you to find out and get to know some basic things about God, see how those truths decant through into your own situations in life, actually make some adjustments and keep a watch on them as well, watch for when you unwittingly fall back into the swimming pool and try to limit how often that happens, think from time to time how God is overseeing everything, be glad that you are in a working relationship with God but avoid any sense of superiority about that, and still do your best—the best you really do know! And in spite of it all, it’s still crucial that you be perfectly willing to say, when it’s the time to say it, that “God only knows.” Amen.
Lord, we do not know what we ought to ask of you;
You alone know what we need;
You love us better than we know how to love
O Father, give to us, your children, that which we
know not how to ask.
We desire only to accomplish your will.
Teach us to pray.
Pray in us, for Christ’s sake.
- Francois Fenelon (1651-1715), adapted
Spirit of interceding grace,
I know not how or what to pray.
Assist my utter helplessness,
The power into my heart convey,
That God, acknowledging your groan,
May answer in my prayers His own.
- Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
Rev. Julian Duckworth