Thursday, October 25, 2012

Providence, Part VI.5: The God Who Seeks Us

The following is also a paper for the Old Testament class I am taking at my church. But I realized my conclusion is also appropriate for my series on God's providence (the reasons for whose suspensions are discussed in the paper) and that it covers some verses I was going to discuss in post 10, so I'm working it in.

One of the biggest Biblical themes throughout the Old and New Testaments is God's steadfast, actively seeking, unconditional love, or "loving kindness" for fallen people like us. We see it in His raising up of the patriarchs and Israelites to make them into His chosen people, His repeatedly calling them to Himself with judges and prophets when they go astray, and most of all in His sending Jesus to us to save us from our sins. But at the same time, we see numerous instances in the Bible of a flip side to this compassion, when God seems to pass people over or even actively reject them in a way that seems utterly incompatible with His loving nature and leads many people to form different views of God for the Old and New Testaments. The reconciliation of these two sides of God's relating to us is the goal of this paper. The difficulty can be seen in the case studies of the lives of two kings: the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and Ahab of Israel.

The Bible's treatment of the Pharaoh of the Exodus (whose identity is not certain) is largely negative, as an oppressor of God's people and an obstacle to His plan to free His people and bring them to the land of Canaan by raising up Moses to be His voice to Pharaoh. But even as Moses performs many miracles and afflicts the people of Egypt with plagues, Pharaoh steadfastly refuses to free the Israelites. The reason repeatedly given for this is that his heart was hardened.

What did it mean that Pharaoh's heart was hardened? Most immediately, whenever it is used in the Exodus narrative it refers to his refusing to have mercy on the Israelites or to acquiesce to God's command to let His people go. Elsewhere in scripture, being "hardened" also means refusing to have pity on one's neighbor (Deuteronomy 15:7), ignoring God's voice (Psalm 95:7-8), the opposite of turning to God (2 Chronicles 36:13), resisting God (Job 9:4), and refusing to understand the gospel (Mark 8:17). Psalm 95:8 also uses the behavior of the Israelites at Meribah ("quarreling") and Massah ("testing"), where they ungratefully demanded water from God, as an example of hardness. So having a hardened heart seems to mean the opposite of living by faith: not seeing God as He truly is, not trusting in His promises, and resisting His purposes.

The next question, then, is who hardened Pharaoh's heart? Sometimes Pharaoh himself does it (8:15, 8:32, 9:34). Other times God is said to harden his heart (4:21, 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8). Other times the passive voice is used and it's not clear who did the hardening. (7:13-14, 7:22, 8:19, 9:7, 9:35). This is a common point of confusion for people reading the story of the Exodus. What does it mean that God hardened Pharaoh's heart? Does this mean He caused Pharaoh to continue resisting when he would otherwise have given in? Did Pharaoh really have a choice to disobey God? And if God is the same now as He was then, does He similarly control our choices today--even if this means driving us away from Him to get glory for Himself in our deserved destruction?

A related, even more troubling story is that of the death of King Ahab in 1 Kings 22. Ahab the king of Israel has decided to go to war with Syria. He invites King Jehoshaphat of Judah to join him, who first wants to inquire for the word of the Lord. Ahab's four hundred crony-prophets all tell him that God is on his side, but Jehoshaphat, suspicious, asks for a "prophet of the Lord". Ahab reluctantly summons Micaiah, another prophet who always prophesies against him. After pretending to agree with the other prophets, he then prophesies that the king of Israel will be killed in the battle and his subjects will be like sheep without a shepherd. He then explains the four hundred false prophets by a vision from heaven in which God sends a lying spirit into their mouths to deceive Ahab into going to his death.

This raises two big questions. First, Micaiah promises to speak only what the Lord says to him, but when he comes to Ahab, the first thing he says is the same lie the other prophets have been telling him. And, of course, he later explains that God Himself sent the lying spirit to the mouths of the other prophets. Does this mean that God lied to Ahab, in spite of all the other verses asserting God never lies (Numbers 23:19, Titus 1:2, Proverbs 30:5, etc.)? (The technicality that the spirit, not God, did the actual lying doesn't seem sufficient)

Taken out of context, these examples depict a darker picture of God than we commonly imagine. He seems highly vengeful and vindictive, to the point of overriding peoples' decisions and lying to them in order to glorify Himself in His predecided wrath on them. It also seems arbitrary--why has God decided not to be good to these individuals and instead lie to Ahab and forcibly harden Pharaoh's heart? The possibility of words "from God" being lies also casts doubt in the very trustworthiness of scripture: how do we know He hasn't also decided to display His wrath on us and give us a false testament of Himself?

Answering these questions by asserting God's right to be merciful on whomever He pleases (Exodus 33:19) and to harden whomever He pleases (Romans 9:18) is unhelpful for me. These arguments reinforce the conception of God as arbitrary--why has He apparently decided a priori to reject people? And, even worse, why does He seem to violate His nature as revealed in His mercy in order to do it? It takes away our security as believers; what if God arbitrarily decides to reject me as He would be right, just, and even glorified in doing so? If God predetermines to reject some people, where is His loving kindness for them?

But, praise be to God, He has also given us in the New Testament and especially in the person of Jesus the way to fit these and other examples into our knowledge of who He is. 2 Thessalonians 2:11 seems to be part of the same quandary as 1 Kings 22: "Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false." But this time there is a clue: the first word "therefore". The reason for God sending this delusion is in the previous verse: "because they refused to love the truth and so be saved."

So God's sending people this delusion is not a priori, it is because they have already rejected the truth He offers. We can infer from Ahab's surrounding himself with four hundred false prophets that he had also rejected the truth. Effectively, if God doesn't give us the truth, it's because we have told Him not to. And even then, God doesn't deprive Ahab of the truth--He tells the complete story to him, and Ahab of course disregards it as God knew he would.

Another illuminating passage is Romans 1, one of the most complete descriptions of human depravity anywhere in the Bible. The order of events is important here: God's attributes have been visible in the world ever since its creation (v20). Sinners had some knowledge of God, but rejected Him (v21), so God gave them over to their impurity (v24), dishonorable passions (v26), and a debased mind (v28). This "giving over" sounds very much like the "hardening" previously discussed.

So we see that God doesn't preemptively harden people to ensure they never get a chance to know Him. The order in Romans is that God reveals Himself to sinners, they reject Him, and only then does He harden them. This hardening takes the form of His reinforcing or amplifying their preexisting disobedience not necessarily to keep them from ever being saved (though that can and does happen) but to condemn their sin and highlight their need for a savior, like the purpose of the law. (Romans 3:20) Also, it's important to remember than sin is essentially a rebellion of the heart, forsaking proper worship of God for idols (Jeremiah 2:13), so God does not reject people for one incidental misstep as it sometimes seems, but for deliberately rejecting Him in their hearts on some level.

So these NT verses, taken alone, seem to provide sufficient explanation for what God was doing in Exodus and 1 Kings and how it fits with His revealed nature as a God who loves and pursues us for salvation, but is also just and sternly punishing of sin. But the Bible was not meant to simply be explained, but to be celebrated and reveled in as God's word. To gain that kind of perspective, we look next to Christ.

One of the things about Jesus that most confused people and may have contributed to His death was His upending of the social order of the time. The wealthy rulers and "righteous" teachers of the law were frequently the targets of His harshest words, while He sought out and ate with the outcast and downtrodden in society. Though Jesus was overall the nicest person ever, He scorned people like the Pharisees who had some idea of what He was really about but rejected Him. But His rejecting them was not final; we do see Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea joining Jesus, and ultimately His using "Pharisee of Pharisees" Paul to spread the gospel all over the world.

Another example is His use of parables. In Mark 4:10-12 He explains that He speaks in parables rather than plainly so that, fulfilling the words of Isaiah, the unrighteous, those who have rejected Him, will not understand and will take some other meaning from the parable. To His followers "on the inside" (the apostles) he speaks plainly, but to outsiders He speaks in veiled parables. Only those who have open hearts to God will really understand the gospel that Jesus presents.

In John 6:65 Jesus says: "'This [the spiritual nature of Jesus' words] is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the father.'" This does not mean that God indiscriminately selects some to come to Him and bars others, but that no one can make any progress towards Jesus while remaining in the flesh or rejecting His help as Lord and Savior. This comes after a sermon in which Jesus takes the "I am the bread of life" analogy to gruesome lengths to drive away people who were following Him with the wrong expectations. Of course Jesus is inviting people to follow Him, but He will make sure you are following for the right reasons. He doesn't just want fans or "like"s, but men and women who are totally given and open to Him, who just want Him and not just the blessings He has to offer.

So again with Jesus, we see God inviting people to follow and know Him, welcoming those who love Him and rejecting those who reject Him, though never without a continuing invitation to return. The only people He said would certainly not be forgiven were those who speak against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:32)--meaning those who fully realize what Jesus is doing in His ministry and call it evil instead of good, indicating a final, settled rejection of God in the flesh. For everyone else, everyone who has any desire to know Jesus, there is hope and an invitation to life in the Son. The initiative God takes is clear in Revelation 3:20: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." God is not just inviting us to come to Him; like a friend in our need He takes the initiative and comes to us, wherever we are, to let us meet with Him.

Or consider our view of God's justice. It is a truth universally acknowledged among reformed Christians that God would cease to be just if He were ultimately the slightest bit unjust to one person. Should we not have the same universal expectation for His mercy? God would not have given the call to believe to everyone (Acts 17:30) and desire them to answer (1 Timothy 2:4) if He did not mercifully give them the opportunity and ability (Acts 5:31, 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25) to do so by repentance--the metaphorical knock on the door.

So, the Christian adage "God acts (or rather, has acted) and we respond" is certainly true. God extends the offer to the gospel to everyone and calls us to respond by belief. (John 3:16,18) We can respond to this offer by opening our hearts and believing, or by hardening them as described. The Holy Spirit says, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert." (Hebrews 3:7-8) Responding to God's initiation by belief is not a work that saves us by our own strength; it is the substitute for works that God has graciously decreed to count as righteousness. (Romans 4:3)

But then, when we respond to God, He also responds in kind to us. The gospel tie-in of God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart seems to be that by the Spirit He takes and amplifies our response into something beyond what we ever could have imagined. If we respond to Him with the smallest inkling of belief and trust, by the Spirit God fans it into a great blaze of faith to our own amazement. In this way God accomplishes the great works of salvation and sanctification in those who could never do it in themselves, though never without our own conscious involvement. (Philippians 2:12-13) And correspondingly, God intensifies the sin and unrighteousness of those who reject Him (as we see in Romans 1). Either way, God's response is inextricably tied in with our willful response, yet the result is beyond what we could accomplish alone. Grace or wrath, God will give us whichever one we ask Him for in our hearts.

It may be difficult to see how God can be good or really desire the salvation of everyone if He drives those who reject Him away, even if it is just. It might seem as if He is letting childish pettiness get in the way of His desire to bring men to salvation. But remember that sin is not just deeds--it is rejecting and rebelling against a perfectly holy God. When we are in a state of sin, we are unable to properly receive His grace; we are apt to think we have earned His blessings or let them content us rather than looking beyond them to God Himself. I think there are times when God's wrath and discipline are really what we need most, even if they drive us farther from God for a little while. And notice that God's grace and mercy are unconditional (not prompted by anything in us); only His wrath is conditional (on our unrepentance).

2 Chronicles 15:2 is a good summary: "The Lord is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you." But this truth cannot be fully understood and celebrated solely from the Old Testament. The human face Jesus puts on this doctrine helps us to understand it and even rejoice in God's boundless grace. Jesus Himself is the embodiment of God's grace, His loving kindness, His continual pursuit of His lost children even as they reject and kill Him. He is living proof of how far God will go--to death--for us, purely out of love. And this love, this crazy desire to be reconciled to us, remains even if we push each other away for a time.

The first application of God showing me this was simply joy in the assurance that He is good, all the time. I first came across 1 Kings 22 ten months ago and struggled with it on and off, unable to intellectually deny that God was a liar. This persistent doubt ate away at my life and joy in Christ and trust in the Bible like a spiritual cancer that seemed to have no cure. After seriously contemplating the possibility that God is not really good, I can appreciate His goodness more fully and am less inclined to take it for granted.

Trying to understand this chapter really drove home the point of this paper for me. I first came across 1 Kings 22 ten months ago and struggled with it intermittently ever since. Although I "knew" I couldn't trust God, I continued to wait for Him to make sense of this for me anyway. In a deeper sense, I somehow knew there had to be an answer even if I couldn't see it. This powerful experience of anxiously expecting and hoping for something, then seeing it come to pass (like in Hebrews 11:1) transformed my understanding of faith and showed me what it means to wait for the Lord.

In my doubt I also came to a better understanding of what it means to harden one's heart against God. There was always a decision before me to be totally done with God, which I always refused to make. I suppose the fact that I had to actively decide to reject God meant that I never really left Him. But it showed me that faith and doubt/hardening are not just states of feeling, but decisions we make, consciously or unconsciously, to throw in our lot with God or to turn away.

I used to misunderstand all the talk thrown around about "seeking God" to mean that I had to take the initiative in my relationship with God and that I had to do more, try harder to improve it and bring about God's promises, which I often took as instructions. My understanding of living a "Christian" life "by the Spirit" simply meant asking for His help in trying to carry out what He had instructed, and my problems stemmed from my failure to do something well enough. (Note that this was not legalism because my ultimate goal was not making myself righteous in God's sight, but simply living comfortably and at peace) I didn't realize that all along it was God who was seeking me.

And even when I did hear God's promises as promises, I had a tendency to apply them too shallowly as "quick fixes". For example, if I were doubting that God would always provide for my needs, I would tell myself some scripture that affirmed this and then stop thinking about it, but continue doubting in my heart. This superficial understanding of God with myself as the initiator frustrated me--why wasn't my relationship with God working?--and made it harder for me to deeply trust Him. This changed when I really understood that God was the initiator in the relationship, not me. I don't have to make everything happen myself; I can put my hope in God to act and expect Him to come through.

Blog-only postscript: The aforementioned crisis of faith brought about by my struggles with 1 Kings 22, among many other doubts about God and the Bible, is why my series on providence has been so delayed. But as of this post, it is back on track!

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