As a Christian, a follower Jesus Christ, I have been amazed at how easily some of my fellow believers seem to understand the Bible as saying things that would mean, at times, that the character of God is almost the exact opposite of the revelation that we find of Jesus in the Gospels. After all, Jesus says, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father…” (John 14:9), so shouldn’t our understanding of the bible and our view of God’s character be congruent?
As a very imperfect disciple (but I hope I am continuing to learn) I have had two very personal
prayers. The first, Lord help me not to do anything that would open the door to the work of “the enemy” in the lives of the members of my family1; and the second, Lord help me not to do or say anything that would betray or misrepresent Your lovely character.
My hope is to write a short series of blogs that illustrate how people sometimes allow a world view that has dominated Christian thinking over many centuries to colour the way they understand passages of the bible, and not ask the basic questions: ‘Does this way of thinking reflect what I understand about the character of God?’ and ‘Is it consistent with the God who is seen in Jesus?’
Over the last few weeks I have been engaged in conversations with friends about how we understand what the Bible has to say about some specific and ‘deep’ topics. One conversation was about government. After all, discussion about the behaviour of the leader of one nation seems to have been ‘trumping’ most other items in the news. The second, and related, discussion has been about God’s sovereignty. Peter Enns, a blogger and member of faculty at Eastern University, wrote, ‘God is not superintending our election process. God did not put Trump in the White House anymore than God put Obama, the Bushes, Clinton, or Reagan in the White House. We did.’2
So what does it mean to say ‘God is in control’, as so many Christians do? And how should we understand Romans 13:1, when it says ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities,for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.’ 3, or for that matter many other verses, like Gen 50:20 (Joseph talking to his brothers) which seem to show God working to determine the outcome of every little event in my life much like the ‘men in hats’ in the brilliant film ‘The Adjustment Bureau’!
The friend who started the second discussion did so by posting an article by an American author Courtney Reissig.4 In the friendly exchange that followed, we acknowledged that we have a large measure of agreement. The challenge is that, while we are both Bible believing evangelical Christians, we can at times approach the scriptures very differently.
In her blog, Courtney Reissig questioned what was happening to her family by saying ‘I began wondering if God hadn’t made a mistake in giving me this awful week filled with sickness.’ She had also said, ‘This is the day that the Lord has made,’ quoting Ps 118:24.
My friend and I agreed that God is the creator of the day but then started to differ on how God manages the problems we encounter. What the bible teaches about how God manages the universe is the topic for my second blog in this series. For now I want to come back to how we read the Bible in the light of the idea that ‘if we want to know what God is like we should look at Jesus’. This, after all, is what it says in Heb 1:1-3 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
So God is speaking to us by his Son and Jesus is the exact representation of God’s being. Not only that. He, Jesus, does not change – Heb 13:8: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Therefore the God of the Old Testament is like Jesus – His character has not changed.
I then began thinking about another family, one in the bible, where it could seem that God is giving its members a series of very bad weeks. One of the Old Testament passages my friend quoted as we discussed the Reissig blog was Genesis 50. It is here in verse 20 that Joseph is trying to reassure his brothers that he will not take revenge for their actions now that their father is dead.
Let’s take a moment to review the series of ‘family bad days’ for Jacob and his sons. To do so we need to go back more than a decade and possibly three in the story of their lives
What had been happening in the family? First there is Jacob’s besotted favouritism of Joseph; this results in Joseph’s arrogance and boasting to his brothers and parents; then there is the brothers murderous plotting, scheming and deception. The result, Joseph gets a really bad series of weeks that turn into years (including slavery and prison) before he enters Pharoah’s service.
Now back to Gen 50:20, which says ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. ‘
The normal understanding of this verse seems to be along the lines of “you planned to harm me, but God planned it for good…” Joseph’s brothers were jealous schemers who planned harm but what are we to make of God’s role in this? Were the brothers exercising free will or was it just the appearance of free will? Was God really meticulously planning it all so in reality the brothers had no choice?
Can we say ‘God knows the big picture; we see only part of what is going on’? Yes, in many ways we must. We are finite creatures who ‘see through a glass darkly’ but God is infinite and sees everything. This is also one of the points made in the book of Job whether it is in the opening chapters concerning the council of God – Job is clearly unaware of what has been happening in the supernatural realm – or in the closing chapters where God challenges Job about his understanding of the world.
However, the assertion that we, as humans only see a small part of what is happening in the cosmos should not take us to an end-justifies-the-means philosophy where we accept that God planned evil for his deeper and infinite purposes; but that seems to be the sentiment in hymns with lines such are ‘God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform’. But this is not the character of God revealed in Jesus!
To be very personal for a moment, I find it difficult to believe, as I would need to if I accepted the God-knows-why-he-did-it approach, that God planned and wanted my father to die just before my seventh birthday because he had some unseen purpose in mind
If I am prepared to see life as a blueprint that God keeps on track, the logical conclusion would be that God planned favouritism, arrogance, boastfulness and murderous attitudes in Joseph and his family, but what would that say about the character of God?
The problem is that Christians often have a world view that ‘God is omnipotent, therefore He controls everything’ but that is not what the bible says. Please do not misunderstand me. God is not out-manoeuvred nor is he on the ‘back foot’. However, not everything in the world in which we live is as God wants it to be. If it were ‘all in God’s plan’ Jesus would not have told us to pray, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth is it is in heaven.’
So when we read Gen 50:20 what do we do? We must not pervert the character of God by saying ‘he planned all this for good’. That would be to throw away our confession that God’s character can be seen in Jesus. The Hebrew word chashab translated in Gen 50:20 as ‘meant’ ie ‘you meant it for harm but God meant it for good’ can have the sense of skill fully used. This approach would be consistent with God as being seen in Jesus and also with what Paul says in Rom 8:28: ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ (Emphasis added)
God would rather that everyone in Jacob’s family had made better choices but he was still able to weave the bad choices into a rescue plan. God is like Jesus, God is love. That is what the big picture of the Bible says. We need to hold on to this as we seek to understand the character God in some of the difficult and maybe poorly translated passages that have been influenced by a different world view.
1I had the story of King David and Bathsheba in mind
3Government and how God works is the topic planned for my next blog.