In Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:29ff), John the Baptist speaks of Jesus, calling Him superior, pre-existent, and anointed by the Holy Spirit. What also stands out is that John twice says, “I did not know Him.” This seems odd given that they were cousins. While it is possible that the text merely means they were not well acquainted, there is likely a deeper explanation. It is as if John is saying, “I knew him, but I never reallyknew Him. I never reallysaw until now the full depths of Him. I did not fully realize His glory until God showed me.”
That John missed seeing these deeper realities is understandable, as the Lord hid these qualities to some extent.In Philippians we read,
[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to cling to; rather, he emptied himself by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he thus humbled himself becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father(Phil 2:6-11).
Jesus, though eternally God, cloaked His glory;He allowed Himself to be seen by most as a mere man. Such is the humility of our Lord!
John is now permitted to see more,and he beholds something of the glory of Jesus as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. This is why he cries out, “I did not know him.” We must make a similar journey to the Lord, allowing our faith and understanding of Him to deepen. Is this merely Jesus, the ethical teacher from Nazareth? No, He is far more; He is the Lord! This is our journey with and to the Lord.
Even with one another, there may come a day when we feel compelled to say of someone we have known, “I did not know him.”There are times we see into the depths of a person we thought we knew well only to discover something more (whether good or bad), something surprising.
Sometimes we are surprised in a negative way, such as when someone we thought we knew well does something shocking and sinful. I choose not to dwell on that here. Most of us have had such times when were surprised, were shocked, or even felt betrayed, wondering if we ever really knew the person at all.
In a more positive sense,we ought to presume that there are depths to a person that we do not see or understand. Each of us has some unique glory, some particular gift or role in God’s kingdom, and too often we fail to remember this.
I had such a moment when my sister Mary Anne died.She had been mentally ill all her life, tortured by paranoid schizophrenia and dark voices in her head. Frankly, she frightened me; at other times she annoyed me. When she was taking her medications, she was nearly normal, even if a bit exotic in her thoughts. She loved God; she prayed and dreamed of a normal life with marriage and children. But I never really knew how to interact with her, so I often avoided her.
In 1991 Mary Anne died in a fire,and because her skin had been singed the funeral directors could not adjust her face. Hence, they recommended only a private viewing, with a closed casket for the remainder of the time. At the private viewing I could tell that she had died weeping. I saw her pain as I had never seen it before. It pierced me through, and I wept. I wondered if I had ever really known her, if I had ever really understood her pain and her dignity. I was sad that it took her death for me to understand the depths of her struggle and to recognize her dignity and future glory. The Lord says that many who are last will be first (Mat 19:30).
Many of us never really know the pains and sorrows others have endured. There’s an old spiritual with these lyrics: “Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.”
Yes, some of the troubled and “troublesome” people we encounter have sorrows and difficulties that are hidden from us.Most are troubled for a reason. Remembering this may not excuse bad behavior,but it surely helps us be more compassionate and patient.
Most of us fail to appreciate the glory of others.Each person we encounter has a mystery and glory that is caught up into the very love of God. God knew each one of us before we were born (Jer 1:5). He knit us together in our mother’s womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and every one of our days was written in God’s book before one of them ever came to be (see Psalm 139). This is true even of our enemies.
Often, we fail to recognize the deep mystery of every human person and to reverence it.St. John the Baptist’s declaration “I did not know Him” reminds us all to be careful toward one another and reverential toward the hidden mystery of all God’s children.
In Heaven there is something called the “communion of saints.”Experiencing this will not merely be like being in a crowd of strangers. Rather, we shall see one another more deeply than we can now imagine. We will see each other in the light of God, knowing one another and ourselves more the way He does. There will be understanding, appreciation, and mutual respect that we can’t even fathom now.
God gave St. John the Baptist insight into the glory of Christ, a glory that was preeminent and divine such that he could say, “I did not know Him.”May God grant us insight into the lesser—though still wonderful—glory in one another. We will never fully know one another here in this world, but may our “I did not know him” be replaced by reverence before the mystery of the human person.
Something at Christmas urges me (a man of many words) to write of holy silence. Perhaps it is due to one of the great Christmas antiphons, which speaks of the birth of Christ as a magnum mysterium (a great mystery). During Mass recently, the words of Zechariah came to mind:
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord … Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling (Zechariah 2:11, 13).
There is a common idiom: “Words fail me.” It is in this context that we can best understand God’s call to fall silent before the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation. Notice in the passage above that the call to silence follows the call to “sing and rejoice.”
Is there a difference between singing and rejoice and just plain speaking? Of course there is! By adding the inscrutable sighs we call “song” (a deeply mysterious emanation from our souls) to the words, singing is declaring that “words fail.”
To be sure, words are a “necessary evil” for us, but in using words we indicate more what a thing isnot than what it is. For example, if I say to you, “I am a man,” I have really told you more what I am not than what I am. I have told you I am not a woman nor a chair nor a lion nor a rock. But I have not told what it means to be a man. I have not told you myriad other things about myself that I could: I am a priest; my father was a lawyer and Navy veteran; my mother was a teacher; I am descended from Irish, German, and English immigrants. I have not told you about my gifts or my talents or my struggles or numerous other aspects that make me who I am. And even if I spent several paragraphs relating my curriculum vitae to you, there would still be vastly more left unsaid than was said. Words fail.
Further, words are not the reality they (often poorly) attempt to convey. They are symbols of what they indicate. If you see a sign, “Washington” you don’t stop there and take a picture of the sign. The sign itself is not Washington; it merely points to the reality that is Washington. You pass the sign and enter into a reality far bigger than the metal sign and begin to experience it. Words fail.
Many words are also more unlike the reality they describe than like it. My philosophy teacher once asked us how we would describe the color green to a man born blind. We struggled with the task but were able to come up with some analogies: green is like the taste of cool mint; green is like the feel of dew-covered grass. To some extent green is like these things, but the color green is more unlike these things than like them. Green, as a reality, is so much richer than the taste of cool mint or the feel of dew-covered grass. Words fail.
And if this be so in the case of mere earthly things, how much more so in the case of heavenly and Godly matters! The Lord, therefore, commands a holy silence of us as a kind of reminder that words fail. Silence is proper reverence for the mystery of the incarnation and of God. Words are necessary; without them, orthodoxy could not be set forth, and truth could not be conveyed. But, especially regarding God and the truths of faith, there comes this salutary reminder from St. Thomas Aquinas: Now, because we cannot know what it God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not (Prima pars, q. 3, prologue).
Therefore, fellow Catholics, as the mysteries of the incarnation unfold for us liturgically, Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, bearing blessings in his hand (from the hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”).
There is a phrase in the Scriptures that, while speaking of mystery, is itself a bit mysterious and is debated among scholars: the “mystery of iniquity.” St. Paul mentions it in Second Thessalonians and ties it to an equally mysterious “man of iniquity” who will appear before Jesus’ second coming.
The Latin root of the English word “iniquity” is iniquitas (in (not) + aequus (equal)), meaning unjust or harmful, but the Greek μυστήριον τῆς ἀνομίας (mysterion tes anomias) is probably best rendered as “mystery of lawlessness.” Many modern translations use the “mystery of lawlessness,” though it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Translation issues aside, Paul seems to be writing in a kind of secret code:
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Don’t you remember that when I was with you, I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming (2 Thess 2:1-8).
Although St. Paul tells the Thessalonians that they know what is holding back the lawless one, we moderns struggle to know. Some scholars say that Paul is referring to the Roman government (which I doubt). Others say that it is the power of grace and God’s decision to “restrain” the evil one and thereby limit his power for the time being. Of course, if Satan is limited now, what horrifying things will be set loose when he is no longer restrained! Can it get any worse? Apparently, it can!
But there it is in the seventh verse; even before the lawless one is set loose there already exists the mystery of lawlessness, the mystery of iniquity. That phrase comes down through the centuries to us, provoking us to ponder its rich meaning.
The danger is that we can focus too much on the “man of iniquity,” who is not yet fully here, and fail to ponder the present reality. As St. Paul says, For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Yes, the danger is that we focus on the future, which is murky, and ignore the present.
Hence, I propose that we ponder the “mystery of iniquity,” which is already here. I’d like to explore how it affects us, both personally and collectively. In doing so, we cannot ignore the operative word “mystery.” We must ponder with humility, realizing that some of what we are confronting is revealed, but much of it is hidden. Therefore, I do not propose to “explain” this phrase to you, but rather to ponder its mystery and confront its questions so as to draw us to reverence and a deeper understanding of our need for salvation.
Let’s look at the mystery of iniquity in four parts, wherein we ponder the mysterious reality of lawlessness that seems so operative among us, individually and collectively.
1. “Rational” Man’s Irrationality – Why do we, who are otherwise rational creatures, choose to do that which we know is wrong? Why do we choose to do that which we know causes harm to ourselves and others? Why do we do that which endangers us, threatens us, compromises our future, and further weakens us? Why do we choose evil, knowing that it is evil?
Some argue that our will has been weakened on account of original sin and thus we give way easily to temptation. While this offers some insight, it does not ultimately solve the mystery, for we consistently seem to choose to do that which we know is wrong or harmful.
Some contend that we are choosing what we perceive to be good, but despite our darkened intellects and our tendency to lie to ourselves, deep down we really know better. We know that choosing evil leads to harm in the long run. Our conscience tells us, “This is wrong. Don’t do it.” Yet, knowing this, we still do it.
Are we weak? Yes, but that is not the complete answer. We are staring once again into the face of the “mystery of iniquity.”
2. The Angelic Rebellion – The mystery only deepens when we consider that this is not just a human problem; it is also an angelic one. The presence of demons, revealed to us by Scripture and by our own experience, speaks to the reality of fallen angels.
There was a great rebellion among the angels. Scripture more than hints at the fact that a third of the angels fell from Heaven in this rebellion, before the creation of man (cf Rev 12:4).
Thus, ascribing iniquity and lawlessness to human weakness cannot be a complete answer.
How could angels, with a nature and intellect far more glorious than ours, knowingly reject what is good, true, and beautiful? Here is the deep “mystery of iniquity” having nothing to do with the flesh, or with sensuality, or with human limits. It is raw, intellectual, willful rebellion against the good by creatures far superior to us. The mystery only deepens.
3. The Corruption of the Best and Brightest – The intellect and free will are arguably God’s greatest gifts. Why, then, do they come at such a high price for both God and us? Surely God foresaw that many angels and human beings would reject Him.
Some answer that God also saw the magnificent love and beauty that would be ushered in by those who accepted Him and the glorious vision of His truth. Perhaps God, who is love, saw love as so magnificent that even its rejection by some could not overrule its glory in those who accepted it. Seeking beloved children rather than robots or animals was so precious to God that he risked losing some—even many—in order to gain some.
Others speculate that, at least in this fallen world, contrast is necessary to highlight the glory of truth. What is light if there is no darkness with which to compare it? What is justice if there is no injustice against which to contrast it? What is the glory of our yes if it is not possible to utter a no?
Even these reasonable speculations cannot fully address the mystery of why so many men and angels reject what is good, true, and beautiful; why so many prefer to reign in Hell rather than to serve in Heaven; why so many obstinately refuse to trust in God and obey even simple commands that they know are ultimately good for them. The glory of our freedom and our intellect are abused. Our greatest strengths are also our greatest struggles. Liberty becomes license; lasciviousness and intellect become insubordination and intransigence. Corruptio optime pessima! (The corruption of the best is the worst!)
4. The Final Refusal to Repent – Many today like to blame God for Hell, and they particularly scoff at the notion that Hell is eternal. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the eternity of Hell is not due to a defect in divine mercy (CCC # 393). Rather, Hell is eternal because the decision of the damned is irrevocable.
The stubbornness and hardness of heart of the damned reach a point of no return. How does a soul end up in this state? Surely it happens gradually. Sin is added upon sin and the hardness of heart grows. Over time, the demands of God’s justice seem increasingly obnoxious. The hardened soul starts to sneer at God’s law, calling it intolerant, backwards, and simplistic. Of course, God’s law is none of these things, but as the darkness grows within a heart, the light seems more and more obnoxious and hateful. Soon enough, concepts such as forgiveness, love of enemies, generosity, and chastity seem “unrealistic,” even ludicrous.
When does a soul reach the point of no return? Is it at death or sometime before? It is hard to say, but here we reach the deepest mystery: the permanently unrepentant heart.
Our tour has yielded only crumbs. We are back to confronting our mysterious rebelliousness, stubbornness, and hardness of heart; our almost knee-jerk tendency to bristle when we are told what to do, even if we know it to be good for us and others. Even the most minor prohibition makes the thing seem all the more desirable to us. There lurks that rebellious voice that says, “I will not be told what to do! I will do what I want to do, and I will decide whether it is right or wrong.”
Yes, at the end of the day, we are left looking squarely at a mystery. It is the deep, almost unfathomable mystery of our very own iniquity, our lawlessness, our irrational refusal to be under any law or restraint.
Perhaps it is not a mystery that is meant to be solved but to be accepted and to cause us to turn to God, who alone understands. The mystery of iniquity is so profound and so terrifying that it should send us running to God as fast as we can exclaiming, “Lord save me from myself, from my obtuseness, my hardened heart, my rebelliousness, and my iniquity. Save me from the lawlessness in me! I cannot understand it, let alone save myself from it! Only you, Lord, can save me from my greatest threat, my greatest enemy: my very self.”
Yes, the great mystery of iniquity! St. Paul says, the mystery of iniquity is already at work, but he does not say why or even how. He only says that God can restrain it.
Yes, only God can restrain and explain.
More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, alone, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:9-10).
Here is a song from my youth that celebrates rebellion, iniquity, and lawlessness. The refrain admits that we are “fooling no one but ourselves,” but we do it anyway. It’s foolish and mysterious!
So often in funerals I hear proclaimed the familiar lines from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which speaks to the great mystery we call time; more on its text, in a moment.
If I were to ask you to define time, could you do it in a way that really satisfies? For example, some have defined as “the measure of change.” Well, OK, but that doesn’t satisfy, does it? Ultimately time is deeply mysterious; our attempts to nail it down in words betray its depths more so than reveal it.
The ancient Greeks had at least three different words for time:
Chronos is close to what we call “clock time.” It answers the question of where we are on the scale used to note sequential time. For example, 3:00 PM refers to an agreed point in the middle of the afternoon.
Kairos is related to our concept of something being “timely.” There is often a particularly fitting or opportune moment for something. We might say “It was time to move on,” or “It was time to retire.”
Aeon refers to the fullness of time or to “the ages.” It is akin to our notion of eternity, not as an inordinately long time but as a comprehensive experience of all time summed up as one. Only God experiences this fully, but we can grasp aspects of it. For example, we can look back on our life as a whole and see how many different things worked to get us to where we are now. In so doing, we can come up with a comprehensive meaning to the events of the past. Although the future is hidden from us, we can still conceive of it and steer our lives intelligently toward it. God sees the past, present, and future all at once. Thus, God alone has aeon in its full and perfect sense.
The book of Ecclesiastes speaks beautifully to both kairos and aeon. In its most familiar lines it expresses the kairos notion that there is a fitting time for all things:
There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.
…I have seen the business that God has given to mortals to be busied about. God has made everything appropriate to its time … (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11a).
We can all sense the truth of these lines; certain things are fitting certain times. We are startled, grieved, and even offended when things take place outside of our expectations. That we all have this sense is clear, but where it comes from is less so.
Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes continues on to describe the much more mysterious concept of aeon, the fullness of time:
God has made everything appropriate to its time but has put the timeless into our hearts so they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done. … I recognize that whatever God does will endure forever; there is no adding to it or taking from it. Thus has God done that he may be revered. What now is, has already been; what is to be, already is: God retrieves what has gone by (Ecclesiastes 3:11-15).
Somewhere in our hearts is something that the world cannot and did not give us. It is something that is nowhere evident in the world, yet though cannot perceiving it, we still know it. This passage from Ecclesiastes calls it “the timeless.” We also refer to it as eternity, or even infinity.
Perhaps most mysterious is this line: what is to be, already is. God is not waiting for my tomorrow. My tomorrow, even my whole future, has always been present and known to God. Scripture says,
Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. … All of my days were written in your book before one of them every came to be (Psalm 139:4,16). Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you (Jeremiah 1:5).
Indeed, God is not waiting for time to pass. For him, everything just is; all is eternally present to Him in a comprehensive “now.”
Where did this notion of the timeless come from? In speaking to it, God is appealing to something we somehow “know,” even if subconsciously. Our world is finite; time on this earth is serial. Things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We do not experience anything here of the timeless. Rather, everything is governed by the steady, unrelenting ticking of the clock (chronos). Every verb we us is time-based, rooted at some point in time and never able to break free from it. Everything is rooted in chronological time, but somewhere in our heart we can grasp “the timeless.” It is hard to put into words because we know it at a very deep level, but we do know it.
So, the experience of “forever” does not exist in this world or from it, but it is in our mind and heart! There is no way for us to engage in time travel here in this world, yet instinctively we know that we can somehow! Science fiction and fantasy often feature going back to the past or forward into the future. The world could not possibly teach us this because we are locked in the present and have never actually traveled in time, but somehow we know that we can do it.
Yes, we can paint a picture of eternity even if we have never experienced it. Look at the dot in the center of your analog watch or clock. Let’s suppose that the current time is 2:00 PM, meaning that 10:00 AM is in the past while 6:00 PM is in the future. Yet, at the center dot, they are all the same. This is aeon; this is eternity, the fullness of time; this is a picture of timelessness, of all time equally present. This is where God lives and where, to some degree, we will one day dwell.
Where did we get it from? The world cannot give it, for the world does not have it. The world is finite, limited; it is time-bound, not timeless. Where did we get it?
Maybe it’s from God. The mystery of time is caught up in the mystery of God.
In the secular world, a “mystery” is something that baffles or eludes understanding, something that lies undisclosed. And the usual attitude of the world toward mystery is to solve it, get to the bottom of, or uncover it. Mysteries must be overcome! The riddle, or “who-done-it” must be solved!
In the Christian and especially the Catholic world, “mystery” is something a bit different. Here, mystery refers to the fact that there are hidden dimensions in things, people, and situations that extend beyond their visible, physical dimensions.
One of the best definitions I have read of “mystery” is by the theologian and philosopher John Le Croix. Fr. Francis Martin introduced it to me some years ago in one of his recorded conferences. Le Croix says,
Mystery is that which opens temporality and gives it depth. It introduces a vertical dimension and makes of it a time of revelation, of unveiling.
Fr. Martin’s classic example of this to his students is the following:
Suppose you and I are at a party, and Smith comes in the door and goes straightaway to Jones and warmly shakes his hand with both of his hands. And I say, “Wow, look at that.” Puzzled, you ask, “What’s the big deal, they shook hands. So what?” And then I tell you, “Smith and Jones have been enemies for thirty years.”
And thus there is a hidden and richer meaning than meets the eye. This is mystery, something hidden, something that is accessible to those who know and are initiated into the mystery and come to grasp some dimension of it; it is the deeper reality of things.
In terms of faith there is also a higher meaning to mystery. Le Croix added the following to the definition above: It [mystery] introduces a vertical dimension, and makes of it a time of revelation, of unveiling.
Hence we come to appreciate something of God in all He does and has made. Creation is not just dumbly there. It has a deeper meaning and reality. It reveals its Creator and the glory of Him who made it. The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19:1).
In the book of Sirach, after a long list of the marvels of creation, is this magnificent line: Beyond these, many things lie hid; only a few of God’s works have we seen (Sirach 43:34).
Indeed, there is a sacramentality to all creation. Nothing is simply and dumbly itself; it points beyond and above, to Him who made it. The physical is but a manifestation of something and Someone higher.
In the reductionist world in which we live, such thinking is increasingly lost. Thus we poke and prod in order to “solve” the mysteries before us. And when have largely discovered something’s physical properties we think we have exhausted its meaning. We have not. In a disenchanted age, we need to rediscover the glory of enchantment, of mystery. There is more than meets the eye. Things are deeper, richer, and higher than we can ever fully imagine.
Scripture, which is a prophetic interpretation of reality, starts us on our great journey by initiating us into many of the mysteries of God and His creation. But even Scripture does not exhaust the mystery of all things; it merely sets us on the journey ever deeper, ever higher. Mysteries unfold; they are not crudely solved.
For the Christian, then, mystery is not something to be solved or overcome so much as to be savored and reverenced. To every person we know and everything we encounter goes up the cry, O magnum et admirabile mysterium (O great and wondrous mystery)! Now you’re becoming a mystic.
One of the more difficult biblical themes to understand is that of God hardening the hearts and minds of certain people. The most memorable case is that of Pharaoh. Before sending Moses to him, God said that He would “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex 4:21). There are other instances in which biblical texts speak of God hardening the hearts of sinners, even from among His own people.
Jesus hinted at such a theme in Matthew 13, when He said that He spoke in parables (here understood more as riddles) so as to affirm that the hearts of most people “outside the house” were hardened. He quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 as He does so. Jesus’ own apostles wondered why He spoke plainly only to them and a close company of disciples, but in riddle-like parables to the crowds outside. In His answer we are left to wonder if Jesus has not perchance written off the crowds and left them in the hardness of their hearts. To be fair, Jesus’ remark is ambiguous and open to interpretation.
What are we to make of texts like these which explicitly or implicitly speak of God hardening the hearts of people? How can God, who does no evil, be the source of a sinful mind or hard heart? Why would God do such a thing when Scripture also says this:
• As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11)
• God our Savior … wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).
To be sure, these questions involve very deep mysteries, about the interaction between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, about time, and about causality. The question of God hardening hearts cannot be resolved simply. Greater minds than mine have pondered these things and it would be foolish to think that an easy resolution will be found in a blog post.
Some distinctions can and should be made and some context supplied. We do not want to understand the “hardening texts” simplistically or in ways that use one truth to cancel out others that balance it.
I propose that we examine these texts along four lines:
The Context of Connivance
The Mystery of Time
The Mystery of Primary Causality
The Necessity of Humility
To begin, it is important simply to list some of the hardening texts. These will be referred to as we examine each of the four points above. The following are not the only hardening texts, but they provide a wide enough sample to use in our discussion:
• The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Ex 4:21).
• Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country (Ex 11:10).
• Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance (Is 63:17).
• He [God] has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn–and I would heal them (Jesus quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, in John 12:40).
• They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie, so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thess 2:10-12).
• Therefore, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. … Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done (Rom 1:24, 28).
Point I: The Context of Connivance – In properly assessing texts like these we should first consider the contexts in which they were made and written. Generally speaking, most of these declarations that God hardens the heart come after a significant period of disobedience on the part of those whose hearts were hardened. In a way, God “cements the deal” and gives them what they really want. Seeing that they have hardened their own hearts to Him, God determines that their disposition is to be a permanent one. In a sovereign exercise of His will (for nothing can happen without God’s allowance), He declares and permits their hearts to be hardened in a definitive kind of way. In this sense there is a judgment of God upon the individual that recognizes the person’s definitive decision against Him. Hence this hardening can be understood as voluntary on the part of the one hardened, for God hardens in such a way that He uses the person’s own will for the executing of His judgment. God accepts that the individual’s will against Him is definitive.
In the case of Pharaoh, although God indicated to Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart, the actual working out of this is a bit more complicated. We see in the first five plagues that it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart (Ex 7:13; 7:22; 8:11; 8:28; 9:7). It is only after this repeated hardening by Pharaoh of his own heart that the Exodus text speaks of God as the one who hardens (Ex 9:12; 9:34; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27). Hence the hardening here is not without Pharaoh’s repeated demonstration of his own hardness. God does this as a kind of sovereign judgment on Pharaoh.
The Isaiah texts (many in number) that speak of a hardening being visited upon Israel by God (e.g., #3 and #4 above) are also the culmination of a long testimony by Isaiah of Israel’s hardness. At the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry, God describes (through Isaiah) Israel’s hardness as being of their own doing: For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him (Is 1:2-4). There follows a long list of their crimes, their hardness, and their refusal to repent.
St. John Chrysostom: Of the numerous texts later in Isaiah (and also referenced by Jesus (e.g., Jn 12:40)) that speak of Israel as being hardened by God (and having their eyes shut by Him), St. John Chrysostom wrote, That the saying of Isaiah might be fulfilled: that here is expressive not of the cause, but of the event. They did not disbelieve because Isaiah said they would; but because they would disbelieve, Isaiah said they would … For He does not leave us, except we wish Him … Whereby it is plain that we begin to forsake first, and are the cause of our own perdition. For as it is not the fault of the sun, that it hurts weak eyes, so neither is God to blame for punishing those who do not attend to His words (on a gloss of Is. 6:9-10 at Jn 12:40, quoted in the Catena Aurea).
St Augustine: This is not said to be the devil’s doing, but God’s. Yet if any ask why they could not believe, I answer, because they would not … But the Prophet, you say, mentions another cause, not their will; but that God had blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart. But I answer, that they well deserved this. For God hardens and blinds a man, by forsaking and not supporting him; and this He makes by a secret sentence, for by an unjust one He cannot (quoted in the Catena Aurea at Jn 12:40).
In the passage from 2 Thessalonians, while the text speaks of God as having sent the delusion, the verses before and after make clear the sinful role of the punished.
Of this text St. Augustine wrote,From a hidden judgment of God comes perversity of heart, so that the refusal to hear the truth leads to the commission of sin, and this sin is itself a punishment for the preceding sin [of refusing to hear the truth] (Against Julian 5.3.12).
St. John Damascus:[God does this] so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (The Orthodox Faith 4.26).
The passages from Romans speak of God handing them over only after they have suppressed the truth (1:18), persevered in their wickedness (1:18), and preferred idolatry (1:23). Hence, as a just judgment, God hands them over to sexual confusion (homosexuality) and countless other destructive drives. So although it is said that God hands them over, it is really not that simple. They do not want to serve Him and so He, knowing their definitive decision, gives them what they want.
Thus our first point of distinction in understanding the hardening texts is that the context of connivance is important in assessing them. Scripture does not assert that God takes a reasonably righteous man and, out of the blue, hardens his heart, confuses his mind, or causes him (against his will) to become obstinate. The texts are usually presented as a kind of prevenient judgment by God, that the state of the person’s hardness has now become permanent. They refuse and so God “causes” them to walk in their own sinful ways since they have insisted on doing so.
Point II: The Mystery of Time – In understanding these hardening texts (which we have seen are akin to judgment texts) we must recall that God does not live in time in the same way that we do. Scripture speaks often of God’s knowledge and vision of time as being comprehensive rather than speculative or serial (e.g., Ex 3:14; Ps 90:2-4; Ps 93:2; Is 43:13; Ps 139; 2 Peter 3:8; James 1:17).
To say that God is eternal and lives in eternity is to say that He lives in the fullness of time. For God, past, present, and future are all the same. God is not wondering what I will do tomorrow; neither is He waiting for it to happen. For Him, my tomorrow has always been present. All of my days were written in His book before one of them ever came to be (Ps 139:16). Whether and how long I live has always been known to Him. Before He ever formed me in my mother’s womb He knew me (Jer 1:4). My final destiny is already known and present to Him.
Hence, when we strive to understand God’s judgments in the form of hardening the hearts of certain people, we must be careful not to think He lives in time the way we do. It is not as though God is watching my life like a movie. He already knows the choices I will make. Thus, when God hardens the hearts of some, it is not as though He is trying to negatively influence the outcome and trip certain people up. He already knows the outcome and has always known it; He knows the destiny that they have chosen.
Be very careful with this insight, for it is a mystery to us. We cannot really know what it is like to live in eternity, in the fullness of time, where the future is just as present as the past. Even if you think you know, you really don’t. What is essential for us to realize is that God does not live in time the way we do. If we try too hard to solve the mystery (rather than merely accepting and respecting it) we risk falling into the denial of human freedom, double predestination, or other misguided notions that sacrifice one truth for another rather than holding them in balance. That God knows what I will do tomorrow does not destroy my freedom to actually do it. How this all works out is mysterious, but we are free and God holds us accountable for our choices. Further, even though God knows our destiny already, this does not mean that He is revealing anything about that to us, so that we should look for signs and seek to call ourselves saved or lost. We ought to work out our salvation in reverential fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).
The key point here is mystery. How, why, and when God hardens the heart of anyone is caught up in the mysterious fact that He lives outside of time and knows all things before they happen. Thus He acts with comprehensive knowledge of all outcomes.
Point III: The Mystery of Causality – One of the major differences between the ancient and the modern world is that the ancient world was much more comfortable dealing with something known as primary causality.
Up until the Renaissance, God was at the center of all things and people instinctively saw the hand of God in everything, even terrible things. Job said, The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised … if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil? (Job 1:21; 2:10) The ancients would commonly attribute everything as coming from the hand of God, for He was the first cause of everything that happened. This is what is meant by primary causality. The ancients were thus much more comfortable attributing things to God, even things that we are not. In speaking like this, they were not engaging in superstitious or primitive thinking; rather, they were emphasizing that God was sovereign, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and that nothing happened apart from His sovereign will. God is the primary cause of all that is.
Of this ancient and scriptural way of thinking the Catechism says, And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes [e.g., human or natural]. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).
The key point here is understanding that the ancient biblical texts, while often speaking of God as hardening the hearts of sinners, did not mean to say that man had no role, no responsibility. Neither did the texts mean to say that God acted in a merely arbitrary way. Rather, the emphasis was on God’s sovereign power as the first cause of all that is. Hence, He is often called the cause of all things and His hand is seen in everything. We moderns are uncomfortable speaking in this way.
After the Renaissance, man moved himself to the center and God was gradually relegated to the periphery. Man’s manner of thinking and speaking began to shift to secondary causes (causes related to man and nature). If something happens we look to natural causes, or in human situations, to the humans who caused it. These are secondary causes because I cannot cause something to happen unless God causes me. Yet increasingly the modern mind struggles to maintain a balance between the two mysteries: our freedom and responsibility, and God’s sovereignty and omnipotence.
In effect primary causality has largely been thrown overboard as a category. Even modern believers unconsciously do this and thus exhibit three related issues:
1. We fail to maintain the proper balance between two mysteries: God’s sovereignty and our freedom.
2. We exhibit shock at things like the “hardening texts” of the Bible because we understand them poorly.
3. We try to resolve the shock by favoring one truth over the other. Maybe we just brush aside the ancient biblical texts as a “primitive mode of speech,” inappropriately concluding that God didn’t have anything to do with this or that. Or we go to the other extreme and become fatalistic, denying human freedom, denying secondary causality (our part), and accusing God of everything (as if He were the only cause and shouldered the sole blame for everything). We either read the hardening texts with a clumsy literalism or we dismiss them as misguided notions from an immature, primitive, pre-scientific age.
The point here is that we have to balance the mysteries of primary and secondary causality. We cannot fully understand how they interrelate, but they do. Both mysteries need to be held. The ancients were more sophisticated than we are in holding these mysteries in the proper balance. We handle causality very clumsily and do not appreciate the distinctions between primary causality (God’s part) and secondary causality (our own and nature’s part). We try to resolve the mystery rather than holding it in balance and speaking to both realities. In doing so, we become poor interpreters of the hardening texts.
Point IV: The Necessity of Humility – By now it is clear that we are dealing with the mysterious interrelationship between God and Man, between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, between primary and secondary causality. In the face of such mysteries we have to be very humble. We ought not to think more of the details than is proper, because they are largely hidden from us. Too many moderns either dismiss the hardening texts or accept them and then sit in harsh judgment over God (as if we could do such a thing). Neither approach bespeaks humility. Consider a shocking but very humbling text in which Paul warns us in this very matter:
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore, God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9:14-20)
None of us can demand an absolute account from God for what He does. Even if He were to tell us, could our small and worldly minds ever really comprehend it? My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord (Is 55:8).
SUMMARY – In this (rather too long) post, we have considered the “hardening texts,” in which it seems that God hardens the hearts of certain people and groups—and so He does. But texts like these must be approached carefully, humbly, and with proper understanding of the scriptural and historical context. At work here are profound mysteries: God’s sovereignty, our freedom, His mercy, and His justice.
We should be careful to admit the limits of our knowledge when it comes to such texts. As the Catechism so beautifully states, when it comes to texts like these they are to be appreciated as a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304). This song says, “Be not angry any longer Lord and no more remember our iniquities. Behold and regard us; we are all your people!
In the secular world a “mystery” is something which baffles or eludes understanding, something which lies undisclosed. And the usual attitude of the world toward mystery is to resolve it, get to the bottom of, or uncover it. Mysteries must be overcome! The riddle, or “who-done-it” must be solved!
In the Christian and especially the Catholic world, “mystery” is something a bit different. Here mystery refers to the fact that there are hidden dimensions in things, people and situation that extend beyond their merely visible and physical dimensions.
One of the best definitions I have read of “mystery” is by the theologian and philosopher John Le Croix. Fr. Francis Martin Introduced it to me some years ago in one of his recorded conferences. Le Croix says:
Mystery is that which opens temporality and gives it depth. It introduces a vertical dimension and makes of it a time of revelation, of unveiling.
Fr. Martin’s classic example of this to his students is the following:
Suppose you and I are at a party, and Smith comes in the door and goes straight way to Jones and warmly shakes his hand with both his hands. And I say, “Wow, look at that.” And you say, puzzled: “What’s the big deal, they shook hands…so what?” And then I tell you, “Smith and Jones have been enemies for thirty years.“
And thus there is a hidden and richer meaning than merely what meets the eyes. This is mystery, something hidden, that is accessible to those who know, and are initiated into the mystery and come to grasp some dimension of it, it is the deeper reality of things.
In terms of faith there is also a higher meaning that mystery brings. And thus Le Croix added above, It [mystery] introduces a vertical dimension, and makes of it a time of revelation, of unveiling.
Hence we come to appreciate something of God in all he does and has made. Creation is not just dumbly there. It has a deeper meaning and reality. It reveals its creator, and the glory of Him who made it. The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19:1).
In the book of Sirach, after a long list of the marvels of creation there comes this magnificent line: Beyond these, many things lie hid; only a few of God’s works have we seen. (Sirach 43:34)
Indeed, there is a sacramentality to all creation. Nothing is simply and dumbly itself, it points beyond and above, to Him who made it. The physical is but a manifestation of something and Someone higher.
In the reductionist world in which we live, such thinking is increasingly lost. And thus we poke and prod in order to “solve” the mysteries before us. And when have largely discovered something’s physical properties we think we have exhausted its meaning. (We have not). In a disenchanted age, we need to rediscover the glory of enchantment, of mystery. There is more than meets the eye. Things are deeper, richer and higher than we can ever fully imagine.
Scripture, which is a prophetic interpretation of reality, starts us on our great journey by initiating us into many of the mysteries of God, and his creation. But even Scripture does not exhaust the mystery of all things, it merely sets us on the journey ever deeper, ever higher. Mysteries unfold, they are not crudely solved.
For the Christian then, mystery is not something to be solved or overcome, so much as to be savored and reverenced. To every person we know and everything we encounter goes up the cry, O magnum et admirabile mysterium (O great and wondrous mystery)! Now you’re becoming a mystic.
In our modern culture we tend to use the word “mystery” differently than the Christian antiquity to which the Church is heir. We have discussed this notion on this blog before. In this brief post I’d like to review that, and add a new insight I heard recently from Fr. Francis Martin.
As we have noted before, our modern culture tends to think of a mystery as something to be solved, and the failure to resolve it is considered a negative outcome. So, in the typical mystery novel some event, usually a crime, takes place, and it is the job of our hero to uncover cause of the problem, or the perpetrator of the crime. If he does not, he is a failure. And frankly, if word got out that, in a certain mystery movie, the mystery was not solved, there would be poor reviews and low attendance. Imagine in the series “House MD” if Dr. House routinely failed to “solve” the medical mystery. Ratings would drop rather fast.
But in the ancient Christian tradition, mystery is something to be accepted and even appreciated. Further, the attempt to solve many of the mysteries in the Christian tradition would be disrespectful, and prideful too.
Why is this so?
One reason is that the Christian understanding of mystery is slightly different that the worldly one. For the world, a mystery is something, currently hidden, that must be found and brought to light. The Christian understanding of mystery is something that is is revealed, but much of which lies hidden.
Further, in the Christian view, some, even most, of what lies hid, ought to be respected as hidden, and appreciated rather than solved. We can surely seek to gain insight into what is hidden, and mystery does reveal the depths of things and events. But, respectfully, we dare not say we have wholly resolved or fully comprehended everyone or everything. For, even when we think we know everything, there are still greater depths beyond our sight. Thus mystery is to be appreciated and accepted rather than solved.
Perhaps an example will help. Consider your very self. You are a mystery. There is much about you that you and others know. Your physical appearance is surely revealed. There are also aspects of you personality that you and others know. But, that said, there is much more about you that others do not see. Even many aspects of your physicality lie hid. No one sees your inner organs for example. And regarding your inner life, your thoughts, memories, drives, and so forth, much of this too lies hid. Some of these things are hidden even from you. Do you really know and fully grasp every drive within you? can you really explain every aspect yourself? No, of course not. Much of you is mysterious even to you.
Now, part of the respect that I owe you is to reverence the mystery of who you are. I cannot really say, “I have you figured out.” For that fails to respect that there are deep mysteries about you caught up in the very designs of God. To reduce you to something explainable merely by words is both disrespectful to you and prideful unto myself. I may gain insights into your personality, and you into mine, but we can never say we have one another figured out.
Hence, mystery is to be both respected and even appreciated. There is something delightfully mysterious, even quirky, about every human person. At some level we ought to grow in an appreciation that every person we know has an inner dimension, partially known to us but much of which is hidden and gives each person a dignity and a mystique.
Another example of mystery is the Sacraments. Indeed, the Eastern Church calls them the “Mysteries.” They are mysteries because, while something is seen, much more is unseen, but very real. When a child is baptized, our earthly eyes see water poured and a kind of washing taking place. But much more, very real, lies hidden. For, in that moment the Child dies to his old life and rises to a new one, with all his sins forgiven. He becomes, in that moment, a member of the Body of Christ, he inherits the Kingdom, and becomes the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Spiritually dead, he is now alive, and the recipient of all of God’s graces. These things lie hidden from our early eyes, by they do in fact take place. We know this by faith. Thus there is a hidden, a mysterious dimension to what we see. What we physically see is not all there is, by a long shot. The mystery speaks to the interior dimension which, though hidden from physical sight, is very real.
So mystery in the Christian understanding is not something to get to the bottom of. Rather, mysteries are something to appreciate, something to reverence, something to humbly accept as real. Aspects of them are revealed to us, but much more is hidden.
That said, we are not remain wholly ignorant of the deeper dimensions of things either. As we journey with God, one of the gifts to be sought is that we penetrate deeper into the mysteries of who we are, who God is, the mystery of one another, the mystery of creation, Sacraments and Holy Scripture. As we grow spiritually, we gain insights into these mysteries, to be sure. But we can never say we have fully exhausted their meaning or “solved” them. There remain ever deeper meanings that we should reverence.
In the video that follows, Fr. Francis Martin develops how mystery is the interior dimension of something. In other words, what our eyes see, or other senses perceive does not exhaust the meaning of most things, there are deeper dimensions that to some extent can be seen, and appreciated, but also respected as not fully seen or comprehended.
Fr. Martin gives the example of a man, Smith, who walks across the room and cordially greets Jones with a warm handshake. Jones smiles and reciprocates. OK fine, two men shaking hands, so what? But what if I tell that Smith and Jones have been enemies for years? Ah! That is significant. So the handshake has an inner dimension that, knowing it, helps us to appreciate the deeper reality of that particular handshake. To the average observer, this inner dimension lay hidden. But once we begin to have more of the mystery reveled to us, we appreciate more than the surface. But we cannot say, “Ah I have fully grasped this!” For, even here, we have grasped only some of the mystery of mercy, reconciliation, grace, and the inner lives of these two men. For mystery has a majesty all its own and we reverence it best by appreciating its ever deeper realities, caught up, finally, in the unfathomable mystery of God himself.
This video is part of a series Fr. Martin has done on the Gospel of John. I would strongly encourage you to podcast the series and view it or listen to it. It will bless your soul. Here is the podcast site for the whole Fr. Martin Gospel of John Series: Fr. Martin Gospel of John Series.