the astonishment of God

Throughout all of the Gospels, we constantly read about how the people who encountered Jesus were astonished. They were amazed and captured by His power to heal, His spiritual authority, His teachings, His ability to expose the motives of the Pharisees, His defiance of social or cultural expectations, His claims of divinity. We often talk about being amazed by God or amazed by grace. And these of course are right, necessary, beautiful and worshipful reactions. Yet it never occurred to me that God Himself could be amazed.

There is, however, one time any Gospel writer uses the word “astonished” to describe Jesus. It happens when he encounters a centurion, a Roman soldier who seeks him out and implores Jesus to heal his sick servant. Jesus offers to go to the servant and heal him. But the centurion declines his offer, stating that he is confident that Jesus need only “say the word” and his servant would be healed. He responds to Jesus, saying, “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” Like the regimented soldier that he is, he understood Jesus to be a man of authority. He intuitively understood that somehow Jesus held the very power of life and death in both the supernatural realm and the physical realm. He knew in the power of the unseen could affect what was seen, and that this power could defy the limits of space and time.

“When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour”

In short, Jesus was astonished. The Greek word used for “astonished” here is “thaumazo.” This is the only time this word appears in Scripture. The “thaumazo” means “to wonder, wonder at, marvel, to admire.” For the first time, this story struck me as an incredibly poignant moment. I was suddenly fascinated by this idea that the image of the invisible God, the Logos, the ultimate Truth and Reality manifested in a human being to actually be astonished at something.

I am currently enrolled in a Worship Leadership class at Florida Christian College. Simultaneously, I’ve been keeping up with my friend Greg’s Theology of Worship class that he teaches at his home church. So I am learning that there are all of these smart and fancy theological words that smart and fancy theologians have when it comes to the language of God, words like “transcendence” and “immanence.”

To put it simply, transcendence describes those qualities of God that exist above our concepts, ideas, categories. These are the traits of God that transcend time and space. Traits like his independence, his unchangeableness, his omniscience (all-knowing), his omnipresent (present everywhere). “Immanence” refers more to those qualities that relate more to humanity and his involvement with creation. This includes traits like wisdom, goodness, love, etc.

There seem to be a lot of human traits that we share with God. According to Scripture, humanity was created “in the image of God.” Within the creation of that “image” God instilled in us qualities that He himself has and that we have a capacity for, including wisdom, goodness, love, patience and will. There is an enormous, infinite chasm, however between God’s more transcendent qualities and what we actually experience, such as omniscience, or all-knowing.

Because God is all-knowing, God does not have “faith” in the traditional sense. Unlike humanity, He is not subject to uncertainty or unknowns. Since He knows all things, He doesn’t necessarily have “faith” in anything.

This seems so divergent from human experience. We experience uncertainty all the time. I felt this so strongly when I was in Australia earlier this year. Every day, Walt and Jeanne and I would wake up in a different hostel, and we only had vague ideas and loose itineraries about where we would go and what we would see as we road-tripped around the continent. With that immense freedom that comes with traveling, there is also the instability and anxiety of unknowns. When Jeanne and I moved to Sydney, we knew few people and had no idea where we would live or find jobs. Then, upon moving back to Orlando, we initially had no idea where we would live or find jobs. Even now, I live in a constant state of uncertainty about my circumstances of what the future holds.

This is why faith is so beautiful and difficult at the same time.

However, until recently, I never thought about the flip side of this philosophical coin: God, being all-knowing, does not experience faith Himself. This is one trait that He does not share with humanity. Since He is sovereign and knows all things, He has no need for faith himself. And so, maybe God is actually astonished by faith? Could God actually be impressed by faith?

I think so.

And it’s not in a condescending “Aw, is that cute!” the way a father would be “impressed” by his daughter learning to tie her shoes or something. This is an actual astonishment, a thaumazo. God marvels and wonders at people having faith.

Over the past few years, I reacted against blind and ignorant faith, and chose to embrace doubt and skepticism for a season of my life. Faith seemed the easy route, the uninformed route, what people do who have no idea of the bloodstains and injustice of church history, the suffering of the world or even cultural and historical context of Scripture. Culture today declares faith to be the enemy of reason and that doubt is the source of true liberation for humanity. Even in churches recently, I have noticed a tendency to elevate doubt and cynicism over faith.

I love in Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling,” how he argues that faith is actually a more difficult, higher plane of existence than doubt, and actually worthy of this deep astonishment. He delivers a beautiful passage on Abraham, named “the father of faith” to all future generations. He describes the impossible faith behind Abraham’s choice to obey God and sacrifice his son. Kierkegaard writes: “…but Abraham was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself.”

While I was at Hillsong Church, they launched their Faith Hope and Love album recording, and so these themes of faith, hope and love seemed to penetrate the culture of the church. Hearing the basics of faith and hope preached week after week, I began to realize something was breaking down within my own heart, in regard to remnants of cynicism and doubt that still remained. I began to remember how difficult and beautiful faith can be. I witnessed firsthand what incredible faith and vision can wield a powerful influence in the world. I began to actually believe in faith again, despite its inherent difficulties.

And yes, if you believe in Jesus and have committed yourself to following Him, you know these difficulties I’m talking about. You feel this all the time when you can’t seem to make sense of circumstance, when prayer seems stagnant, when change doesn’t seem to be happening. A life of faith is absolutely hard. It’s not easy by any means. We don’t have complete knowledge. That’s what makes faith faith. That’s what makes hope hope.

I think that’s exactly why God, in His infinite wisdom and knowledge, is still astonished by it.

Faith is not an experience God Himself has. It’s something that He in his omnipresence that He does not relate to. And maybe he got a glimpse of it again, as Jesus, marveling and wondering at the faith of the centurion.

So it is incredibly beautiful to imagine God as being one who marvels and delights in us as we engage in our faith. It’s kind of like enjoying watching someone else dance, even though I myself cannot move in that unique way.

Andrew Peterson wrote a song several years ago called “No More Faith.” In it, he sings about the day coming when only love will remain, because the need for faith and hope will pass away.

I say faith is a burden
It’s a weight to bear
It’s brave and bittersweet
And hope is hard to hold to
Lord, I believe
Only help my unbelief

Till there’s no more faith
No more hope
I’ll see your face and Lord, I’ll know
That only love remains

Uncertainty will pass. The unknown will become known. And here will no longer be any space in this universe for faith and hope, because Reality will overwhelm and cause our three-dimensional existence to expand and explode into glorious eternity and infinitude.

May we live bold, astonishing lives of faith.

“Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” [i corinthians 13:13]

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One thought on “the astonishment of God

  1. yeah, it's brill. I like the lyrics at the end, a lot. I love the idea of faith and hope fading into nothingness as love expands.I'm sure that theologically, love can't expand, but it sounds pretty.

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