In chapter 10 of the modern theological classic Knowing God, J. I. Packer invites us to stand at the end of the York station platform to watch trains with him. When we first watch them come and go, it’s hard to discern a set pattern in their movements. “[We] will only be able to form a very rough and general idea of the overall plan,” says Packer.
Nevertheless, the plan is there. There is a “magnificent electrical signal box that lies athwart platforms 7 and 8 . . . with little glow-worm lights moving or stationary on different tracks to show the signalmen at a glance exactly where every engine and train is.” In Packer’s analogy, God has that sweeping York-signal-box view of the universe.
We do not. We’re down on the platform where life comes at us in unpredictable, often head-spinning succession. And yet people assess the meaning of life in various ways. Packer’s analogy helps us consider three.
Platform Pessimism and Signal-Box Seeking
First, there are platform pessimists. They think, “Since I can see no elegant master plan from where I sit, there must be no plan . . . and no Master to plan it. Life, therefore, is meaningless.” The platform pessimist has made a rookie philosophical blunder. He’s confused his epistemology with metaphysics. He’s reasoned falsely from the premise, “I see no grand meaning to it all,” to the conclusion, “There is no grand meaning to it all.”
Second, there are signal-box seekers who say, “If I read enough philosophy and physics, collide enough quantum particles, sit with my fist on my chin long enough, fill enough blackboards with enough chalky symbols, then I can find my ‘theory of everything.’ I can explain everything from train routes to how to become irresistible to the opposite sex.”
In Packer’s analogy, God has that sweeping York-signal-box view of the universe. We do not.
Packer comments on the absurdity of this thought: “The harder you try to understand the divine purpose in the ordinary providential course of events, the more obsessed and oppressed you grow with the apparent aimlessness of everything, and the more you are tempted to conclude that life really is as pointless as it looks.”
The most zealous signal-box seeker will often, after much mental exhaustion, join the platform pessimists. He may have an initial breakthrough and declare, “I made it! I made it to the signal box!” But before long, it dawns on him with horrifying clarity that a grand unified theory still eludes him. Life throws too many anomalies his way. He remains on the platform watching cars roll by with his head hung low and a bottle in a paper bag.
Trusting the Stationmaster
There is a third way—what I believe is the only way to lasting and joyous sanity. It is to trust the One who sees and orchestrates the whole glowing signal-box ensemble. A stationmaster knows the interweaving routes and destinations of every glowworm on the signal box. In trusting our Stationmaster, we’re freed from neurotically trying to see the entire signal box ourselves. We can take God at his word. We can trust our itineraries will be posted precisely when they should with precisely what we need to know when we need to know it.
Happiness and security don’t come from knowing everything but from knowing the One who does. If we don’t believe in an omniscient God, we’ll overestimate our own wisdom and try to become omniscient ourselves. That’s a recipe for foolishness and despair.
Happiness and security don’t come from knowing everything but from knowing the One who does.
This is a crucial plot point throughout the Bible. God promised Abraham and Sarah, “Your offspring will outnumber the stars!” But Abraham and Sarah weren’t newlyweds! Abraham was a year shy of triple digits and Sarah had recently celebrated her 90th birthday. A sensible doctor would’ve written the geriatric couple a referral to a psychiatrist, not an ob-gyn. Human-calculated probability of successful pregnancy? Zero.
God promised Moses, “You will liberate Israel from her Egyptian oppressors.” Then, the whitewash of the Red Sea foamed at Moses’s toes while Pharaoh’s troops approached from the horizon. It was death by drowning or death by Pharaoh’s swords. Human-calculated chance of survival? Zero.
Jesus claimed to be the living, breathing fulfillment of the Old Testament’s messianic hopes. The disciples watched in horror as the Promise let out an earth-shaking moan and breathed his last. Reason to hope on a scale of 1 to 10? Zero.
This is the trouble with a human mind left to itself. In each scenario, our minds draw perfectly reasonable conclusions— infertility, annihilation, and despair. Yet, each conclusion turns out to be hilariously false.
If you catch me on a bad day, I can lay out a watertight case for cynicism. You would have a hard time poking a logical hole in my case. There’s an ironclad logic to despair. Often a person can’t reason or logic his way out of his straitjacket; he can only be loved out.
Trust and Rejoice
The psalmist said, “Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name” (Ps. 33:21). This is the kind of trust that says, “I know the One who understands every plot twist, who comprehends what I can’t know, and whose IQ can process the whole sum of existence, so I don’t have to.” God, the only wise God, knows me, cares for me, and works all things for my good and his glory.
So, don’t despair on the platform. Don’t make a mad scramble for the signal box. Trust the Stationmaster and enjoy the ride. As Packer concludes, “We can be sure that the God who made this marvelously complex world-order . . . knows what He is doing and ‘doeth all things well,’ even if for the moment He hides His hand. We can trust and rejoice in Him, even when we cannot discern His path.”