No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
1 CORINTHIANS 2:11-13 (ESV)
The San Antonio Spurs are one of the NBA’s most successful organizations and have a list of truly great former players that runs longer than most current teams’ active rosters. Near the top of their list of beloved veterans sits a fiery Argentinian guard who burst onto the scene an unknown, unorthodox wild card and left the game a bald and bonafide Hall of Famer. Manu Ginobili, whose jersey will be retired tonight at the AT&T Center, did just about everything in his professional career. He received All-Star selections and a Sixth Man award. He won championships with the Spurs and the Argentinian national team. Each of these is a massive accomplishment, but Ginobili is being celebrated tonight because during his sixteen seasons with the team he also won the heart of this city.
Predicting a future this incredible would have been impossible, but early on there was someone important in Manu’s life who was unsure that he had any future in the NBA: the guy who drafted him.
Gregg Popovich is a legend of the sport too, and a surefire future Hall of Fame inductee. He has carried the Spurs through twenty-two seasons of unprecedented success as their head coach, and he has done it all with his own blend of genius and rage. Pop has been instrumental in creating the “Spurs way.” More than a team, the Spurs have become a system, and the key to their longevity has often rested in the franchise’s ability to incorporate talented athletes, adapt them to the team, and maximize their efficiency. Popovich has done this successfully with scores of players, and his track record has given him a great deal of control regarding team management. If someone resists his coaching, they don’t last long.
Manu Ginobili pushed Pop’s philosophy to its breaking point. Popovich, an Air Force graduate with training in foreign intelligence, approaches seasons and rosters analytically, as equations to solve or problems to fix, but Ginobili defied such characterization. In every way, Manu was an anomaly. He might gamble on a steal and lose, fouling the other player or letting them go by for a basket, and just moments later take a game-sealing charge. He was prone to launching errant passes into the tenth row, but he also had a knack for just kind of casually throwing out some of the most astounding passes you’d ever seen. I have lost count of the number of times I shouted “No!” as Manu launched an insane shot attempt, only to cheer like crazy a second later after the ball somehow went in the basket. This roller coaster went on for sixteen years, and the Spurs dominated through all of it.
Ginobili would not be “fixed.” Tired of pulling out his hair and losing his voice on the sidelines, his coach eventually relented.
Pop has spoken often about realizing that Ginobili could not be “tamed.” Attempting to figure him out was like trying turn jazz into an algorithm or paint a Monet by numbers. You couldn’t do it if you tried, and just attempting it would spoil the experience. The best thing Pop could do, for the success of the team and really for his own sanity, was simply to let Manu be Manu.
It would be easy for us, with the benefit of hindsight, to scoff at Popovich’s struggle to get this, but the truth is his approach when confronting the unknown is just like ours. We are every day trying to solve the things we can’t control in our lives. And we are every day struggling. Think about how we try and fail to slot something like peace or rest into our schedules, how quickly we reduce complex people to caricatures to be used and dismissed, how often we turn love into a series of boxes to check and watch as it evaporates before us. Our equations are clearly off. What we want is to find the right sequence or addition to make it all work, but what we need is for something to come and break it all apart.
We encounter God in this space because God is the ultimate unknown. His ways and His thoughts and His glory are beyond our comprehension, and every time we try to figure Him out, God breaks open the box we thought we put Him in. Though this experience always leaves us in awe, somehow we find ourselves returning to the fleeting peace of our own plans and strategies, dismissing God by trying to confine Him. But God refuses to be characterized or taken for granted.
Alexander Schmemann says the frustrations of our lives all point back to trying to tame the one thing we can’t. “The knowledge about God results in definitions and distinctions,” he writes. “The knowledge of God leads to this one, incomprehensible, yet obvious and inescapable word: holy. In this word we express both that God is the Absolutely Other… and that He is the end of all our hunger, all our desires, …the mysterious treasure that attracts us, and there is really nothing to know but Him.”
We live much of our lives finding the right space for the things we care about. We make time for close friends, new TV shows, favorite restaurants. Each thing is given a special slot to maximize our enjoyment of it. What a grace that God refuses to fit where we place Him! What a joy when we finally come to terms with our lack of control! No matter how hard we try, we can’t understand who God is, what He gives us, or what He is doing in our lives like we understand our finances or our schedules. We don’t get knowledge of Him in comparisons to other things or outcomes. God stands alone and speaks past our head right to our spirit. The only way to truly know Him is to throw out the equations altogether and trust His leading. When it’s all said and done, we might have less hair and a raspier voice, but we’ll look around and see we’re the better for it.
God, I come to you today with a humble heart, looking away from matters too great or too awesome for me to understand. Take from me the desire to figure You out, to solve my need for You. Do not let me settle with giving You small windows into my life or slotting You in like I often do with everything else. Remind me that there is no greater joy than to know You more, and give me the humility to learn on Your terms. Break apart today whatever hinders me from hearing You speak to my spirit Your wisdom and truth. AMEN.
In what ways have you tried to “tame” God? How do you compartmentalize your relationship with Him? Are there areas where you prefer to take the lead? Are you only satisfied with God when your life looks exactly as you expect? Consider today how cultivating knowledge of God can loosen your grip. Trust in His way. Listen for His voice. Rejoice in His power.