I once heard a pastor talking about how Jesus’ ministry was all about simplifying things. One of the examples was that Christ took the entire Mosaic Law and summarized it in the Great Commandment.
On the surface that sounds reasonable. Cramming the essential meaning of reams of passages into two sentences is quite a feat. But is loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength simple? What about loving your neighbor as yourself?
People talk about the simplicity of the Gospel, but how simple is the Incarnation? God becomes man. That’s not simple; that’s mysterious. Think about the Virgin birth. Not so simple. The exorcisms and miracles? Also not simple. Dying and rising again, not to mention descending into hell and liberating the captives? Anything but simple.
The idea that God values simplicity for its own sake is baffling. If that were true, why is the Bible written the way it is? God could have given us a four-page FAQ. That’d be simple. Instead he gives us various histories, legal dictates, rituals, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, letters, etc., written by dozens of different authors over many different centuries in at least two different languages.
All Christians agree on the number of books in the New Testament portion of the Bible. Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians read and revere twenty-seven books. But that unanimity breaks down in the Old Testament, where Protestants count thirty-nine books, Catholics forty-six, and Orthodox forty-nine. One thing’s for sure: It didn’t drop out of the sky in a unified, simple format like the Koran. It’s a wonderful, beautiful, holy mess.And that says nothing about understanding and interpreting all those books. There are passages that are so difficult to understand that even a great exegete like St. Augustine could say that many differing interpretations were valid provided that they didn’t violate the rule of faith, the basics of Christian belief. In other words, we may not ever definitely know the right answer; entertaining several possible right answers is the best we can do. And we haven’t much improved on the situation in the 1,600 years since Augustine gave us that encouraging thought.
Simplicity is clearly not a high value here. And so what? Simple isn’t better if it’s wrong. Complexity isn’t a problem if it’s right. Why should we expect simplicity? God is beyond comprehension. I think it’s safe to say that simplicity was off the table from eternity.
I wonder if our desire for simplicity is really a desire for ease, to make God less difficult, to make faith less of a stretch, to make belief a cinch. But God apparently doesn’t have any interest in our belief being easy. Pretty regularly in fact, God makes it hard—harder than we think we can handle. But God is working us, pulling us, growing us.
If God is unconcerned with our ease, he is profoundly concerned with our relationship with him and our growth in Christ. That’s not simple or easy. That’s the Christian life, and it’s one of mystery, nuance, complexity, and wonder. And wherever we find ourselves in that life, we haven’t even scratched the surface.