Monday, July 20, 2009

Responding to God’s seemingly arbitrary decrees

job Last week I told you about how I was reading as part of my daily devotions, a chapter or two each morning from Mike Mason’s excellent devotional commentary The Gospel According to Job. The following is a chapter that both my wife and I have wrestled with. But what the author is saying, when considered carefully, is really quite liberating, which is always the case with biblical truth.  Read it over, ponder it over and then please comment on your reaction to this.


"The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord!" (1:21b)

Job's remarkable statement here takes us back to the very primitive (and some would say pagan) concept of chance or luck. Job is basically saying that there is good luck and there is bad luck and that God administrates them both, and not only is it His divine prerogative to do so, but for every one of His seemingly arbitrary decrees He is to be praised. Whether in the casinos of Las Vegas or in the parliaments of the nations, it is God who picks up the roulette ball and places it wherever He will. It is He who shuffles the deck - even if He does not shuffle but rather arranges each card as carefully as He numbers the hairs on a head. Whether luck exists at all, from God's point of view, is a good question. But from the human standpoint, there is so much of the divine patterning that cannot be understood, that we might as well chalk it up to luck. Why does one person have red hair and another brown? Why is one sick and another well? Why does one die young and another live to see four generations - and all without any regard for individual spiritual beliefs? There are no good religious answers to these questions. There is only the nonreligious answer: the luck of the draw.

To believe in God is to accept the nonreligious answer. It is to allow for the fact that the Deity behind the strange and inexplicable facade of this world is a real, living person, and therefore a person with not only rational plans and ideas, but also with nonrational intuitions, feelings, and even whims of His own. To know the Lord in this way is, in some respects, just like knowing anybody else, for in our dealings with other people do we not inevitably run up against a large measure of pure unfathomable irrationality? People would not be people if they were entirely reasonable, and so it is with God. How reasonable is grace? Or love? Many cannot believe in God because they cannot stomach His whims. But to allow the Lord His whimsicalness - and more than that, to bless Him for it - is faith.

This topic turns out to be the crux of a good deal of the long debate between Job and his friends. The friends could never have made the statement in 1:21. It would have been too arbitrary, too superstitious for their liking. Good religious people do not believe in luck; they believe in finding reasons for everything. They are always trying to figure out why they are having a bad day, or why they are sick, or why they are not more happy or prosperous. This type of thinking, which forever tries to appease and manipulate the god behind every bush and rock, is a kind of paganism. In this tight theology there is no room for the sheer arbitrary unreasonableness of the Lord. By contrast, the mind that is able to live with unanswerable questions, letting the roulette ball spin at will and yet still seeing the Lord's hand at work - this is the mind of true faith. This is the faith that can respond, whether in good luck or in bad, "Amen!"

The moment we start thinking that we can discern some pattern to the ways of the Lord, we begin to draw dangerously near to idolatry. We come to worship the pattern rather than the Person behind it. We see patterns everywhere, as in tea leaves, and so grow preoccupied with technique rather than relationship. Patterns become molds into which we try and squeeze all of reality, whether it fits or not. In modern times the most obvious example of this is science. Certainly there are patterns in God's universe to be discovered and legitimately exploited; but no pattern can encompass all of reality. When a pattern or system attempts to be all-inclusive, the final result is that it excludes the most vital factor of all: God. This is not to say that God is not rational, only that mere rationality does not completely define His being.

To the ancient Hebrews pure chance, far from being an idea opposed to God, was one of the very things that proclaimed His sovereignty. Why else would they have cast lots and employed the device of "Urim and Thummim" to discern the Lord's will (see Ex. 28:30)? "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord" (Prov. 16:33). Luck was just one more of the enigmatic channels through which God worked. The mere fact that we are alive at all-is that not lucky? That a loving Heavenly Father has preordained every detail of human lives does not mean that there is any discernible reason why the ball lands on 7 rather than 15. While there is much about God that can be known, this is not what the book of Job is about. Job is about the incomprehensible ways of God, and about the praise that is due Him in bad luck as in good.

(Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job, Crossway Books, 1994: 39-40)


Anonymous said...

The age old question:"How to make God manageble and find the ability to calculate his actions ,specially in our personal lives".I will stick with the answer of Mr.Beaver:"Safe?Aslan is not safe but he is good"For me I find the greatest joy in total submission to a God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ,but that is only partly.If I could understand him completely,I would not worship him but now I worship God,I AM who I AM,and know that I am connected to a world that I do not know yet but is eternal and I will be in it.I live in all consuming expectation.In this is a safety that is total.
Suzanna Meyer

Laurel said...

mmm... I'm not so sure I'm comfortable with the concept of a god "with nonrational intuitions, feelings, and even whims" or "pure unfathomable irrationality"... This will get me doing a lot of thinking, that's for sure.

What I *do* see is a God who has everything in control, who knows all, sees all, and is totally beyond all our comprehension, just as an adult is totally beyond the comprehension of a newborn baby. His ways are far beyond my understanding, and to call them "whimsicle" just doesn't sit right with this logical mind... :)

Glenn Penner said...

I understand your discomfort, Laurel. I share it to a degree. Still, I think we have to be more concerned if we are only worship a God whom we are comfortable with!

Laurel said...

Agreed. I have spent far too long decrying those who want to live by formulae to believe Jesus is a God to be comfortable with (as Suzanna referenced above, "not safe, but good); but "whim"? I haven't searched it out just yet, but seems to me there are a lot of verses that talk about God's plans and "all His ways are just", etc; how does that fit the "pure unfathomable irrationality"? I mean, justice and righteousness just don't seem to fit with irrationality somehow.... maybe that's what doesn't sit right with me.

Laurel said...

ok! :D I figured it out, how I feel about this concept! :)

I *do* believe in a God we cannot understand, but just because *I* don't understand His reasons, doesn't make His reasons unreasonable. :D Even as I typed that I saw the irony, the word "unreasonable": I guess in one sense the fact that *we* can't find the *reason* makes Him un*reasonable*... :D BUT! I stand by my belief that He is perfect and beyond my understanding, and all His ways are perfect and just, and therefore, though I may never understand *why* (certainly not this side of heaven, maybe never, cuz on the other side I may not care any more! :)), I know He has a reason, I know that His Word speaks to me of a God of love and compassion Who never changes and a God of order Who loves me as a Father loves His child. But I also know He is the Potter and we are the clay and I have no right to deny His right to do with that clay as He so desires. That doesn't mean I can't argue with Him (Abraham, Moses, David, Gideon, JOB!! :)), but it does mean that He probably won't give me an answer and even if He did, I probably wouldn't understand it, any more than a newborn understands the pain of hunger.

Thank you, Glenn, I've enjoyed this stretching of the brain, this forcing me to think through why and what and how I believe. I look forward to reading your response! :)

Glenn Penner said...

Great to see you wrestle with this, Laurel. I came to pretty much the same conclusions. But it is good, isn't it, to think through something and come out the other end with your faith in God stronger.

Lorraine said...

Wonderful conversation - glad I could "evesdrop" :-) I've been working through some of these (and other) issues lately too. It's often like trying to wrap a tortilla around my house (it ain't gonna happen :-D )

"...the mind that is able to live with unanswerable questions, letting the roulette ball spin at will and yet still seeing the Lord's hand at work - this is the mind of true faith."

This is tough, but I have heard too many sermons lately (along with other well-meaning Christians" saying things to the effect that they "just can't believe in a god who would (fill in the blank)". I am able to deal with the whimsical-ness of God, because I know that 'al fondo' He is Good, Love, Righteous and Holy. Until I'm all those things and more, I don't think I'll quibble too much :-D

Laurel said...

absolutely! :) And I believe your post "A prayer in the wilderness" fits in here perfectly. Thank you for that encouragement. I totally felt for the person you mentioned a few months ago who wrote and asked to be removed from the mailing list because she couldn't deal with reading about the atrocities that were happening to our persecuted brothers and sisters. I remember trying to read "Foxe's Book of Martyrs" when I first became a Christian, and it scared me so badly I didn't get past the first couple pages. Since then I have learned that Jesus will give me the grace if I need it and not before, but I do need reminding every once in a while. Your experience with the pain was another testimony to hide in my heart and build up my faith. Thank you, Glenn, for allowing God to use you; I pray for you and your family daily.

btw, I bought your book, "in the shadow of the cross" and all I can say is, thank you.