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How a Friend at Divinity School Taught Me God Truly Is Incomprehensible (and Why That's a Good Thing)

Some years ago while I was in graduate school, I had a conversation with a friend over lunch that taught me truths about God that I had formerly misunderstood.

My friend and I were discussing faith in God. Drawing from statements based on truths endorsed by Joseph Smith via the Lectures on Faith (see more at Lecture 3 of Lectures on Faith), I expressed my belief that if we seek to have true faith in God we must have accurate ideas about the characteristics of God. The more clear and truthful our understanding of God is, the more powerful our faith has the potential to be. The better that we know God, the deeper our faith will become. My friend agreed.

But I pursued the conversation further. I stated that Christians who claim that God is incomprehensible do damage to faith. If God is incomprehensible, then we can never truly know His characteristics and thus cannot have true faith in God.

My friend politely responded that I was in error.

“God is incomprehensible,” he started. “And we can still have true faith.”

Incredulous at his logic, I blurted out, “What? How can it be that I can have true faith if I cannot know God?”

My friend thoughtfully replied, “I never said that you cannot know God and still have true faith. Rather, I said that God is incomprehensible and that truth does not diminish or create obstacles to our faith.”

“Wait, I’m confused,” I pleaded, “You are telling me that I can know an incomprehensible God? That statement defies logic and it puts Christianity into the uncomfortable position of making unsupportable claims.”

“Ah,” he explained. “You’ve equated two different words as though they mean the same thing. In the purest sense of how languages work, to know and to comprehend are different things. Our word ‘know’ comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means ‘knowledge.’ Looking at Spanish, we have two words for “knowing”: the Greek derived word conocer, which means to know someone, such as to have a close, intimate, or friendly relationship with them, and saber, which means to know something. Our English word ‘know’ combines both those meanings. I can know someone and I can know things about someone. Therefore, when we say that we can know God, we mean both that we can know things about God, such as we might learn from scripture or prayer or life experiences and that we can know God—that we can be in relationship with Him.”

“These word meanings don’t solve the problem,” I protested. “If God is incomprehensible, you can’t truly know about Him or even be in relation with Him.”

 “The confusion arises because you see the words know and comprehensible as meaning the same thing,” My friend continued. “To comprehend literally means to contain something, to envelop it, to surround it, to put boundaries on something. That God is incomprehensible does not mean that we cannot know Him, cannot know about Him, or not be in relation with Him. These are essential for joy now and salvation in the future. But do we contain God? Do we put boundaries on Him as if He was something for us to file away into storage? Is He like our dinner leftovers that we put into containers with fixed boundaries that we control for later use? If we can put boundaries and limits on God, then we can control God. And if we can control God, is He really God, or are we?”

I sat quietly for a few moments. I knew my friend was right. I had entirely misunderstood the meaning of the word incomprehensible. In so doing, I had missed more fully knowing God. And worse, I had judged my fellow Christians as teaching falsehoods about God when they taught the truth that God is incomprehensible.

“You are right,” I finally said. “I now understand this important characteristic of God. Thank you for helping me to have clarity around the words I use to describe God.”

Over the years as I’ve reflected on that enlightening conversation, my knowledge of God has expanded because I have drawn closer to the truth about the characteristics and attributes concerning God. I realized that God truly is incomprehensible.

No human nor any creation in God’s order can put boundaries on Him. Doctrine & Covenants 45 teaches that the darkness cannot comprehend the light. That means that the light sets the boundaries for darkness! God is light. God comprehends all things. He is the one that sets the boundaries, the times, and seasons. The created order worships the Creator.

I am grateful to my friend at Divinity School who taught me that God truly is incomprehensible.


(This article was written at Muley Point, Utah, one of the most incomprehensible locations on planet earth.)

Taylorhalverson

Dr. Taylor Halverson

Taylor Halverson is a BYU Teaching and Learning Consultant. He recently helped edit the new book Knowing Why: 137 Evidences that the Book of Mormon is True and has published and presented widely on scripture, innovation, entrepreneurship, technology, teaching, and learning and has PhDs in Biblical Studies and Instructional Technology. Click here to request a free eBook Memoirs of the Ward Rumor Control Coordinator, a light-hearted look at our beloved Mormon culture. More at taylorhalverson.com.

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