According to legend, Augustine of Hippo was walking along the beach when he came upon a boy scooping up water with a shell. The two of them struck up a conversation and Augustine asked the boy what he was doing; he replied that he was emptying the sea. Augustine tried to tell him that you cannot do that—that it was a futile exercise. Eventually, Augustine went on his way and began to reflect on the exchange. If that little boy could not scoop up the sea with his little shell, how much less could he, a human thinker, understand the infinite God?
The incomprehensibility of God is the truth that God is not fully knowable in all that He is.
To say that God is incomprehensible is not to say that we cannot know God in any sense. But Christians have long used the language of incomprehensibility to express the truth that it is impossible for us, as finite creatures, to fully grasp the infinite God. We cannot know God as He knows Himself.
It is a serious error to imagine that we can wrap our finite minds around all of God’s being and all His doing. In Scripture, that error is perhaps most dramatically illustrated by Job’s profoundly unhelpful friends who met him and sought to counsel him in his suffering. Job’s friends had a rather mechanistic view of God; if a person is suffering, God has inflicted that suffering on him in response to a particular sin. This simplistic (and inaccurate) view of God is shown to be dangerous because it adds to Job’s already horrific suffering. Theology matters, and a humble acceptance of and belief in the incomprehensibility of God is vitally important. It is dangerous and often damaging to presume to speak more than we know about God’s will and His ways. It is sobering to hear God’s response to these presumptuous friends, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). Evidently God takes it very seriously when His creatures presume to speak for Him and about Him in ways that go beyond their knowledge.
Our limitless God is incomprehensible to us limited and finite creatures.
We will never know Him as He knows Himself. This might seem disappointing. But I want to suggest that this is good news. In our age, when we have the world’s information at our fingertips, it is frustrating for us not to know something. It sounds like bad news to our ears that God has not revealed Himself exhaustively to us and remains incomprehensible. But this truth is a comfort for us because, at the end of the day, we want to know—and need to know—that there are those whose knowledge and ability go beyond our own. Imagine you are heading into a major medical procedure. You do not ever want to reach a point where you feel you know as much as the surgeon knows. What you want and need to know before you lie on the table and close your eyes is that the surgeon’s knowledge and ability go far beyond yours. If you and I felt we could put God in a box and have Him all figured out, we would find ourselves in a vulnerable and frightening situation. But praise God that His knowledge goes far beyond anything we could ever comprehend.