Let me tell you about one of my wife’s biggest pet peeves, and then about a growing one of mine.
It drives my wife nuts when she hears someone pronounce the word mischievous as “miss-chee-vee-us”, which happens often. Of all the mispronounced words out there, this one seems to catch her ear more painfully than most. Even she’s not sure why, but I’m fully confident that our boys, mischievous though they may be, will at least grow up knowing what to call their behavior.
Now for mine. For whatever reason, I’ve begun to frequently hear the phrase “the mischief of God”–and it bugs me. A lot. What bugs me most is that it’s not coming from non-Christians or those who are trying to malign Christianity. It typically comes from Christians who are, I think, trying to find a provocative way to talk about God.
I’ve come across it in a few books and articles and heard it in a few different Christian forums. I even recently heard it at a presbytery meeting during the oral examination of a candidate for ordination. He had written a statement of faith (which, I think, was excellent), and was at the part in his process where he was being examined on the floor of presbytery. The question that irked me went like this, “This is a fine statement of faith and very historically orthodox–but I wonder if you’ve left any room for the mystery and mischief of God in your formulations.”
I have no problem with the phrase “mystery of God”. It’s biblical and historical. It takes seriously the fact that we worship a God whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8) and whose mind we cannot claim to fully know because of the infinite depths of his wisdom and knowledge (Romans 11:33-34). We can only know God to the extent that he has made himself know, and this expression rightly recognizes the distinction between the Creator and his creation.
But I’m not comfortable with the phrase “the mischief of God”. I think the cargo it carries goes beyond what is helpful and perhaps even what is intended by those who use it.
To give those who use it the benefit of the doubt, here’s what I assume they are trying to do. I think it is an attempt to speak in provocatively creative ways about God, spurring us past our dry formulations and static images of a God who is seen as distant, rigid, or joy-less. Who does’t enjoy a little harmless mischief? Isn’t it more fun to think of a God that engages in a little whimsy and fun from time to time? Wouldn’t it be just like this God to disrupt our stereotypes of him and surprise us with unexpected actions and events? If God can be seen as mischievous, then he is more fun, more relatable, and more understanding of our own mischief, right?
However, I don’t think it’s worth using this phrase. It’s misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Here’s why.
The idea of deities who are impish, unpredictable, subversive, impulsive, and capricious isn’t new. It’s what you typically find throughout the history of world religions. From Loki to Bacchus to Hermes to the coyote in Native American mythology, the “trickster god” is one whose actions cannot be predicted, who acts impulsively and even recklessly, and, therefore, who is not to be fully trusted. Is even remotely implying such things about the Triune God helpful in any way? I think not.
Yes, we must admit that God is beyond our control and that we cannot always predict what he will do in any given situation. But we can trust how he will do it.
God will always act in ways that are in full accord with his character. That is, God will always act in ways that are righteous, just, holy, merciful, gracious, and loving. God will not say one thing and then do another (Numbers 23:19). God’s actions are always for the good (Romans 8:28), even if that good comes about in ways that are contrary to what we would have scripted for ourselves.
We can affirm the mystery and even unpredictability of what God will do in a situation without having to sacrifice our confidence in his unchanging character and good intent. We can affirm the dynamic and varied grace of God without having to delve into the unhelpful language of “mischief”.