Without a doubt, the one thing guaranteed to leave me lost in wonder is a new photo release from NASA. Each new glimpse into space absorbs me in the idea that we are seeing stars and galaxies that no human being in history has ever witnessed. I sit and stare at something no previous generation laid eyes on and imagine what future generations might see that I can’t possibly fabricate in my mind. But as much as seeing the pictures captivates me, it’s the numbers that leave me dumbfounded—the incomprehensible distances, the mind-boggling hugeness of the image on my computer screen.
The first photo from the James Webb telescope showed countless little points of light in white and orange and blue. You’d be forgiven for thinking that each white blur looked like a star, perhaps merely a close-up of what we see at night. I thought the same until I read that the little explosions of color were actually galaxies. Multiple galaxies in this one photograph. A single galaxy can contain billions of stars and their solar systems. The Webb photo, which covers only a tiny speck of the universe, contains thousands of galaxies, and the universe itself contains billions of galaxies. The quantities defy understanding.
Then there are the distances. The telescope itself is a million miles from Earth. But its first photo contains orange squiggles that are 13 billion light-years away—if you traveled at the speed of light for 13 billion years, you’d arrive at the squiggles.
Closer to Home
Of course, we don’t even need to leave our own solar system to be amazed by the numbers. Our own sun is big enough to hold a million Earths inside of it. Its heat reaches 27 million degrees Fahrenheit at its core. I could fill pages with information about our own solar system, but how can my mind come to terms with any of it?
Just about everyone, from atheists to lifelong Christians, gaze at these glimpses of the universe in awe. How can there possibly be so much out there—so much space, so many planets, so much fire and energy and matter? Why is it there? Does it exist for a purpose? What does all this abundance say about the place of my own tiny self in the universe?
Whenever I enter one of these periods of being lost in wonder—or even anxiety—about the vastness of the universe compared to my minuscule self in it, my mind finds its way to Job. I have wandered to one of the most powerful and unnerving portions of scripture—God’s speech to Job at the end of that book—so many times that I have committed some of its most powerful phrases to memory.
What can any of us say?
God’s answer to Job—said to be the longest speech attributed to God in all of the Bible—doesn’t come until chapter 38. Up to then, the righteous Job has suffered and has sought answers, only to be met with God’s silence and the inadequate counsel of his friends.
But when God does finally speak, his words blast Job out of his complacent thinking just as much as the suffering had. I don’t mean “complacent thinking” to sound harsh. Job is simply doing what all of us do, which is to try to comprehend how the universe works, to understand what God is up to, what the rules of the game are, what the game itself is. As humans, we can’t help but want to figure things out a bit, so we can feel at least a little sense of control over life.
However, far from making Job feel more in control, God’s poetic words, like the photographs that show stars and planets that are millions of light-years away, leave Job (and me) feeling more humbled and in awe than ever. God asks:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions?
Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line
On what were its footings set,
Or who laid its cornerstone—
While the morning stars sang together
And all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4–7)
That sounds daunting already, but God is only getting warmed up. He goes on this way for four chapters, asking questions about whether Job has any control over creation, both earthly and celestial, as Job listens in stunned silence.
“Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades
Can you loose the cords of Orion?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
or lead the bear with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?” (Job 38: 31–33)
God shows that you don’t even have to go to the heavens to see things too astonishing for human comprehension or control. Did Job have anything to do with creating or sustaining the activities of lions, goats, gazelles, donkeys, ostriches, storks, hawks, eagles, hippopotamuses, or crocodiles?
What can Job say to any of this? What can any of us say? Job is given two opportunities to respond during this speech, and both times he acknowledges his inadequacy to comprehend God and his ways. “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?” he says the first time, and then, “I put my hand over my mouth” in Job 40:4. Later in chapter 42, Job admits, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”
Job is essentially left speechless by what he sees and hears, and so am I. I look around and marvel at the too-muchness of the universe. I feel it when I contemplate the galaxies, planets, and stars, but like Job, I also feel it when I witness God’s extravagance in my own backyard. We have a huge ash tree, and every year I love to sit on our back patio and watch its thousands of yellow leaves fall to the ground. It’s stunning, but why do those leaves exist? Thousands more leaves will fall next year, and in the years and decades after that. And this is only one tree out of hundreds of billions of trees across the Earth. Why does God create so much?
What good does it do to think in these ways? Can it do anything except make me feel tiny and insignificant? As I sit lost in wonder, I find that on the other side of tiny and insignificant lives awareness and awe.
Contentment not Comprehension
The reality of my limited understanding gives me perspective on God’s magnificence. And instead of trying to make things make sense, I try to trust that it makes sense to God.
Like Job, I can’t comprehend God in a way that makes me feel in control. I rely on advanced technology to give me a glimpse of what the sky contains and feel dwarfed by it all, but God dwarfs even the sky. While I look up, he “stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth,” as the psalmist writes. I can draw stick-figure explanations of reality, but I have to realize that that’s all they are. The truth is always more vast. I can’t encompass God, even in my thinking. But I can revere him. I can love him. I can believe—as my faith and scripture and the Holy Spirit reassure me—that he loves me and wants what is best for me. God loves Job and restores him in the end.
I am learning to be content with an amazement that I cannot explain. I let my mind be bathed in the mind-boggling bigness, wildness, incomprehensibility of God and his creation. I stand in awe, and that’s all I need.
Cover image by NASA.