Sunday, June 20, 2021

You Don’t Know My Father

Let me tell you a story about my father.

Once upon a time (actually, more than once), a very badly behaved little boy sat in the back seat of the family car during a long road trip, deliberately provoking the driver by ramming his pointy little knees into the small of the driver’s back. It was a source of great pleasure to the boy, who disliked long car trips, had become bored and was looking for something fun to do.

From the front seat of the car came a series of calm responses something like this: “Stop that, please” … “I believe I told you to stop that” … “If you don’t stop that, there are going to be consequences”, and eventually, “The next time you do that, we’re going to have to pull over.”

Finally, after the third or fourth transparently intentional provocation, the car eased over to the shoulder of the highway, and child and parent made a trip into the woods together for some clarification as to who was in charge.

Keep this story in mind, if you will.

Christians and unsaved alike often have great difficulty distinguishing between mind and methodology where God is concerned. We analyze God’s methods and draw conclusions about his thinking or his essential nature. But conclusions that are drawn by means of the application of human intellect to the issues with which God is concerned as Creator and Sustainer of the universe in which we live are almost invariably erroneous.

Perhaps a couple of examples of the sorts of errors that are made may help to illustrate my point:

Error #1: God doesn’t care about human suffering

God’s Thoughts About Us

The plain teaching of scripture is that God is full of compassion. No proof is needed that this is true of the Lord Jesus; even atheists concede that the New Testament portrays Jesus as loving. But the compassion of the God of the Old Testament is expressed just as clearly. When God revealed himself to Moses on the mountain, this is what he said about himself:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”

Having explicitly told us what he is like, the writers of the Old Testament go on to tell us over and over again that they too have experienced the compassion of God and can confirm his assertions about himself. The psalmist says:

“Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. For he himself knows our frame; he is mindful that we are but dust.”

And Isaiah cries out with the voice of God:

“Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

Hundreds of verses from the Old Testament could be cited to prove that: (1) God says he cares; (2) God demonstrates that he cares; (3) God is immensely moved by the suffering of his people; and (4) God’s people recognize all these things to be true.

Even where the unsaved are concerned, he is “not wishing that any should perish” and he “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked”.

If you go by what the Bible teaches about him, you cannot avoid the teaching that God is persistently and expansively compassionate and caring to all men.

Man’s Conclusions from God’s Methodology

Now bear in mind that this is the very same God who has famously been referred to as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction”:

“… jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

— Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

That’s a very different picture, isn’t it. What might account for the difference in Dawkins’ assessment of God’s character and that of the Old Testament itself?

One obvious thing is that, well, it’s Richard Dawkins. He has cobbled together a list of pejoratives, bathed them in his usual atheistic vitriol, and gotten some attention for it. Dawkins has no relationship with the God he is describing that might serve to moderate his thinking. Also, Dawkins has a tendency to leap to conclusions and not to question his own assumptions.

But leaving all that aside, the main observation I would make about Dawkins’ critique is that it is a critique from outside. It does not observe what God says about himself, nor does it give the slightest weight to what God’s own children say about their Father.

He looks only at God’s actions — at God’s methods, we might say — and draws all his inferences about God’s character from his methodology. Dawkins does this, making no allowance whatsoever for his own ignorance both of scripture and of God’s purposes, a yawning, cavernous absence of data bordering on the absolute. In every instance he ascribes to God the very worst of conceivable motives. For Dawkins, if God calls homosexuality a sin, he must be homophobic; if God gives instructions to men, he must be a “control-freak”; if God punishes sin after waiting patiently for even the slightest hint of repentance for 400 years, he must be “vindictive” and “bloodthirsty”; and so on. There are no other possibilities.

And a critique based only on God’s methodology is bound to be flawed. Let’s try another example:

Error #2: Men are more important to God than women

God’s Thoughts About Women

God loves women. Some groups of professing Christians have taught and practised that truth better than others. But to the extent that there have been patriarchal abuses throughout church history, these represent failures to follow the teaching of scripture, not an appropriate application of it.

We are likely familiar with the fact that the Lord Jesus was supported in his ministry by women who both followed him and gave him material assistance. The case could be made that at times some of these women understood him better than and valued him more than his own twelve disciples. We read about a woman who anointed the Lord’s feet with perfume and wiped them with her own hair. She got it in a way that nobody else did, and the Lord both commended her for it and told her critics, “Let her alone. She has done a beautiful thing to me.”

Certainly the Lord never treated women as second class citizens, regardless of their history or the fact that men around him referred to them as sinners. Picture him with the Samaritan woman at the well, or in the home of Mary and Martha.

But God’s love for women is not only expressed in the person of Christ. We see in the Old Testament his tenderness to Hagar, Hannah, his provision for Rahab and Ruth, his care for the widow of Zarephath who sheltered Elijah and in many other instances.

His concern is further expressed through the early church and its care for widows in a time when there was no social safety net, which James calls in his letter “pure and undefiled religion”. (Widowers were presumably expected to care for their own needs, and rightly so.)

Again, if you go by what scripture SAYS about God’s relationship with the fairer sex, you really can’t go wrong.

Conclusions From God’s Methodology

So where does this sort of thing come from?

“In Holy Misogyny, bible scholar April DeConick wants real answers to the questions that are rarely whispered from the pulpits of the contemporary Christian churches. Why is God male? Why are women associated with sin? Why can’t women be priests?”

Not a book I’ll be running out to purchase. But again, as with Richard Dawkins and his complete misunderstanding of the character of God, April DeConick comes to the word of God with a bucketful of unchallenged assumptions and therefore examines only God’s methods, rather than what his word says about these things. She rules God’s own voice and the voices of his children out of court when they have anything to say on his behalf, and infers everything about his character from his actions (or, more frequently, from the teaching of his apostles).

She reasons from the outside, as a critic, rather than from the inside, from the position of an obedient child. To April, if there are no female priests, that simply has to be an indicator of disrespect or misogyny; it cannot be anything else. Or if the story of Adam and Eve seems to teach that a woman brought sin into the world, it cannot possibly be a mere statement of fact; it is clearly and intentionally an insult to women.

Again, critiques based only on God’s methodology are doomed to miss the point.

The Problem

The difficulty with reasoning “from the outside in” is that there may well be all kinds of explanations for God’s methodology that are not evident from outside. It is further possible that there are explanations that cannot be made because human beings are not capable of understanding them at all. He is, after all, the Creator and Sustainer of everything that exists. The book of Job has something to say about this. God is speaking:

“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? … Who then is he who can stand before me? Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?”

The obvious answer: Nobody.

So why do we persist in imagining we are entitled to pass judgment on God?

The Rest of the Story

Let’s go back to the little boy going off into the woods with his father to receive his due punishment. If we fast forward forty-something years and put an employee of Child Services in the woods with a camera, we’d have an obvious case of child abuse on our hands, at least from the perspective of the world, wouldn’t we?

If the guilty party was not confronted on the spot, plate numbers would almost surely have been written down, evidence marshaled, and the police would have made their appearance at our front door in due course to dispense justice to my father, who would have clearly overstepped his governmentally-prescribed boundaries. (I’m not sure exactly how they expect a parent to respond to behavior like my persistent and willful childish insubordination, but when they sent Dad for counseling they would almost surely teach him about things like ‘time-outs’ and so on.)

No doubt my father would come home a changed man. Or not.

But under such circumstances Child Services would be very much like Richard Dawkins and April DeConick, inferring things about my father’s character solely from the outside; solely from his methodology. They would lack both context and the required information necessary to make a right judgment as to what my father was doing in the woods.

A Profoundly Different Take

The point often missed is this: As the alleged ‘victim’ of my father, I have a profoundly different take on his discipline from that of Child Services. I know things they don’t. I recognize that my father’s discipline did not come out of selfishness, anger or ego. He was not expressing rage when he gave me the strap; he was expressing love. He actually hated doing it. He put it off as long as he possibly could, and resorted to corporal punishment only when there was no other effective option. I would never have responded to cajoling, appeals, bribes, time-outs or family discussions. I was bound and determined that I would win any contest of wills between us. If my father had not had the option of resorting to corporal punishment, I would quickly have been running our home. And what an epic disaster that would’ve been.

Anyway, as a father myself, I know exactly what my dad went through. I have the context and the inside knowledge necessary to stand in judgment on Dad’s actions. Child Services does not. They don’t know about the number of times he told me he loved me. They can’t picture him helping my with my first paper route when there were too many houses, the papers were too big, or when it was raining on us both. They didn’t see him play street hockey with me and my brothers in the driveway, though I’m sure he couldn’t have had less interest in the sport.

Child Services cannot look back on the endless stream of good things my father gave me. And one of these was loving and consistent discipline. I’m grateful for it today.

But I’ll go further: I was grateful for it THEN. If Child Services had come to the front door for my dad, you can bet they would’ve been peeling me off his pant legs as they took him away, and I would’ve been screaming “Let my Daddy go!” the entire time. Even back then I knew exactly why he was doing what he was doing. I didn’t always like it, but I knew very well why it was happening. There was no sense in my mind as a child that I was being unjustly treated or abused, not because I was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, but because my dad was … well, right. And I was dead wrong.

Standing in Judgment on God

My admittedly unscientific conclusion? I think most genuine children of God regard their own Father’s discipline, choices and what he permits to occur in their experience in much the same way: they trust their Father to have their best interests at heart and to do right by them, even when they don’t understand the mechanics of how he accomplishes his purposes.

And he invariably does. Accomplish his purposes, that is.

Isaiah, again speaking for God, says this:

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Do we really believe that? I know I do. The idea that Richard Dawkins or April DeConick or anyone else on the planet is equipped to stand in judgment on the methodology of God in his dealings with respect to sinners, to his people, or with respect to anything else is simply laughable arrogance.

And to infer things about God’s character, especially the ridiculous, wicked things Dawkins ascribes to him, from the very, very little we know of his actions is one of the greatest fool’s errands any man or woman can ever undertake.

I can only say to such folks: You don’t know my Father.

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