Guest Post by Dr. Joel Schwartz
I recently had a conversation with someone who asked how it could be anything but arrogance that would lead us to question God’s actions in the world. Someone making a claim about not being able to believe (or seriously struggling to believe) in a God who does a certain thing in the world, puts that person above God. “Who are we to try to tell God what is right and wrong?” I see the submissive intent in such a sentiment, but I think it is misguided. We must ask the question of the intent of Creation and how that relates to our ability to understand right and wrong. If the Triune God created out of desire for relationship with creation, then we should examine how that should lead us to understand what God is trying to do throughout Scripture, and how we should approach this mentality of questioning.
John Walton recently made the case that the Torah wasn’t given as a legal code, but as a guide toward wisdom. God was showing the Israelites the kinds of actions that a wise person does. The goal of wisdom cannot be reduced to the actions we do, for two people can do the same action, while one does it as a reflection of wisdom and the other for reasons ranging from social pressure to folly or some other reason that falls short of wisdom. As a parent of younger children, I’m learning that you give rules when your kids are young, but you must do that with the long term goal of having them internalize the intent behind those rules. If they are unable to move past the rules to the intent, they can struggle when placed in situations where the rules do not clearly apply. However, as they grow, the hope is that they come to see the good that is driving the one giving the rules. This is what God was doing with the Israelites according to Walton.
This idea resonates with what Jesus was doing in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus is taking a number of prohibited actions, and pushing deeper, not just to the intent, but in the way we perceive the world and the value in it. For instance, he says that feeling an intense anger with your brother is akin to murder. I don’t know about you, but I don’t seem to have ready control over when I feel intense anger or not (although we all have control as to how we respond to that anger within us). Some say that Jesus is saying that wanting to do something is the same as doing it or dwelling on the idea of doing something is the same, but I think it is more helpful to think of it in terms of Jesus pushing us farther, to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mathew 5:48). Jesus is serious when he says we should not feel that intense anger if we want to be perfect. However, given that the feeling of anger is often outside our control, Jesus is pushing us to go beyond our actions to the way we see things. Bruxy Cavey has said that there is no response to any situation that is better when done out of anger than when done out of love. The difficulty is training ourselves to have a lens of love toward a situation, when we’re already so proficient with an ingrained lens of anger. This is what Jesus is pushing toward with the Sermon on the Mount, such that we do not allow ourselves to feel justified and fulfilled by our doing certain actions. Rather, if we are to be like Jesus, we need to try to see the world as Jesus does.
Seeing the world in the same way is an important part of any meaningful relationship. If my wife and I see things differently, it can result in conflict. For instance, my wife finds Folgers coffee made in the coffee maker to be insufficiently different from my hand-ground, third wave coffee beans that I use a cone filter and gooseneck tea kettle to make (yes, I’m a coffee snob, thank you, Brett Jameson), such that she’s pretty much just as happy with Folgers as she is with the coffee I make. I joke about how this just further confirms her lack of taste (I mean, look at who she married!!). While this doesn’t cause detrimental conflict in our relationship, it is a difference that reflects how we see the world differently and could lead to conflict (i.e., if we came on a difficult time financially, whether my coffee is worth keeping in the budget, or concerns about the ethics of mass coffee bean farming in order to save money, etc).
As Christians, the most important relationship we have is with the Triune God, who does accurately perceive all that is in the universe. We can trust that when Jesus tells us how things are, that is how things actually are. When we are told that “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers, authorities, and principalities,” that if we see someone with flesh and blood and our response is to see them as our enemy with whom we are at war, we’re seeing them incorrectly. When Jesus tells us, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, loving your enemies doesn’t mean wishing a painful death upon them, or all kinds of evil. I’m pretty sure that Jesus doesn’t want you to pray for those who persecute you to just stop persecuting you, but to genuinely want good for them (which will likely involve no longer persecuting you, but that may not happen as quickly as you’d like). When Jesus says that those known by God are those who clothed Him when naked, fed Him when hungry, and visited Him in prison, their reaction tells us that these are people who didn’t do it to earn points with God, but because they saw a need and met it, unknowingly serving Jesus at the same time. Jesus is pointing us to a way of life that does not make sense in a context where we’re used to seeing might make right.
Yet it doesn’t appear we are expected to have it right in order to be in relationship with the Triune God. Abraham, often held up as an exemplar of faith, demonstrates a disturbing lack of faith throughout Genesis (presenting Sarah as his sister to try to save his life, impregnating Hagar, etc). He was also called a friend of God, despite his seeming lack of trust in many instances. David, a man after God’s own heart, was a murderer and an adulterer. Peter denied Christ after three years spent living with him, yet became the leader of the apostles (and still needed to be rebuked by Paul). These people were obviously not required to have everything right about God in order to be held up as someone close to God. Yet, as they grow closer to God, I think we see that they are transformed by their relationship with God.
God is willing to meet people where they’re at, whatever views they hold of Him. If someone claims that they are unwilling to believe in a God that does something (assuming it to be something God actually does), then I think it is much more in God’s nature, assuming He created to enter relationship with creation, to meet the person there and let that be a starting point. When we encounter God and continue to pursue God, our views of God cannot help but be changed, just as we continue to learn more about all those that we enter into relationship with. However, forcing someone to abandon that view in order to be in agreement with us and our ideas may push them away from growing in that relationship, rather than allowing God to show Himself in the timing and ways that person can handle.
The problem occurs when we think we have everything figured out and we know God fully. If we get to the point where we believe we have complete knowledge of God, then God must perpetually fit inside those parameters. I know my wife incredibly well, but I’ll admit that I still learn things about her on a regular basis. These things I learn are rarely, if ever, completely shocking, but over time, I realize that I didn’t quite know her as well previously as I do now, and I anticipate this to continue through the rest of our lives. If this perpetual growth is true in our relationships with finite beings that we share the most intimate parts of our selves with, how much more is it with respect to the infinite Creator and Sustainer of the universe?