Commenting on the terrorist threat to the United States, former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld said:
As you know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we know.
Got that? Thank God that Paul wrote Romans and not a certain press office in Washington! Nevertheless, we can apply this idea to faith.
With God there are known knowns. We know he sent his Son, and we know the Gospel surrounding him.
But there are known unknowns. We know there is more to God than we understand, not least what the day of resurrection could possibly look like and how God is going to put all things right. This is what Paul meant by the unsearchable judgments of God.
And there are also unknown unknowns – the things about God we don’t know we don’t know, because there is so much more to him than the human mind could embrace.
Yet having talked about how fathomless God is, Paul then goes on to say at the start of Romans chapter 12 that it is possible for us to know the will of God and that God wants us to know it. It’s often difficult to discern the will of God – we’ve all had experience of that – but Paul gives us a useful tip. To understand the will of God we should present our bodies as living sacrifices (12:2): To be willing to say to God: ‘I am yours because you died for me. I really want to do what you want me to – so help me understand what that is.’ God prizes the right attitude as we aim to find out his will for us. Self-awareness is important: being honest about our motives and the struggle we have in letting Jesus be the Lord of our lives. This kind of dialogue with God goes places in my experience.
But the further clue to discerning God’s will is allowing our minds to be renewed by the Holy Spirit (12:2). If we rarely read our Bibles, the chances are that our outlook on life will be governed more by what newspaper we read and which TV bulletin we watch than the inspired and distilled wisdom of scripture. Some suggest that making sense of scripture is too challenging a process, but it is has been fruitfully achieved for centuries by less well educated populations than ours across the world.
Paul then goes on to say something quite beautiful: that the will of God is good, acceptable and perfect (12:2). Sometimes we secretly think that God is going to be a kind of spoil sport, like the parent who stops children playing because they think that something must be wrong if they’re having that much fun. In faith there is a mysterious dovetailing between what God wants and what is good for us. Sometimes it may take a strenuous exercise of faith to lay hold of this promise, yet as Psalm 34 wonderfully puts it: place your trust in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.