Sunday, April 04, 2021

Be Careful What You Wish For

What are the limits of the patience of God? More importantly, how many of us are wise enough to discern those limits and stop short of them?

Anyone familiar with the gospels recognizes that testing the patience of God is dangerous. Satan once took the Lord Jesus to a pinnacle of the temple and reminded him of the promises of God in the Old Testament about the protection of those who make the Lord “their dwelling place” in the hope that Jesus would jump in order to make a point. The Lord responded by quoting the Law of Moses: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Asking What would have happened if ...? is a fool’s errand, but the Lord clearly set us an example here by responding in the best possible way. Still, many of us live as if the question we should ask ourselves is not “What would Jesus do?” but “How much can I get away with here?”

Persistent casualness about sin and indifference to the importance of pleasing God call into question whether or not we really know him at all. Such an attitude finds us incorrectly presuming that: (1) we know better than the Almighty what is in our interests; or (2) we will be able to learn whatever lesson God may be trying to teach us on an occasion we deem more suitable.

We Know Better

The absurdity of the first notion should be readily apparent. If our Creator and Sustainer does not know us inside and out, then we cannot be known at all. But most of us are not so bold as to suggest we have a more accurate sense of what is ultimately good for us than God himself. We would agree that God surely knows what is in our interests (and for his own glory), long term or short, but would prefer a license to pursue one or two short-term goals of our own before submitting to what we would theoretically agree is his “good and perfect will”. These goals or desires may not be wicked things in and of themselves, but in pursuing them we are forgetting that “You shall have no other gods before me.”

We Can Learn This Lesson Later

Believing we can put off obedience until it suits us presumes that we are children of God, even as our conduct and thought process provide no evidence of this. We have convinced ourselves that God’s treatment of us will always be remedial rather than retributive; his goal to restore and rehabilitate rather than to act in judgment.

But can we really be sure we are God’s children if we have no inclination to obey him? After all, the signal proof of love is obedience. John writes, “Whoever says, ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar.”

What Happens to Those Who Want Their Own Way

For those who insist on having their own way, God has a track record of eventually letting them do so. One problem with refusing to acknowledge him when he makes himself known is that we tend to find ourselves less and less inclined to do so as time goes by:
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”
Once the cognitive processes become debased, it is hard to imagine how acknowledging God gets easier.

So can those who call themselves believers really expect to learn the things God wishes to teach us in our own good time? Or does repeated rejection of God’s goodness demonstrate that we are really not in his family at all?

To put it another way, God is always teaching lessons, but it may turn out the lessons are actually for others. If we are not careful, we may find our lives were actually only illustrations and cautionary tales for a characteristically obedient group of disciples of which we erroneously think ourselves to be members.

Illustrations and Cautionary Tales

Israel as a nation believed themselves to be God’s people. But only an obedient minority was really his. The rest were actually illustrations and cautionary tales, though until judgment fell on them, most surely had no idea of this. Consider the following examples:

  Israel insisted on a king, so God gave them a king

Now there is nothing intrinsically wicked about monarchy. The Lord Jesus is a king. The sin was in Israel’s desire to be like the nations around them rather than to be what God had called them to be. In doing so, they rejected the King they already had:
“Where now is your king, to save you in all your cities? Where are all your rulers — those of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’? I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath.”
They got exactly what they asked for and it turned out rather poorly for them.

  Israel insisted on meat rather than manna

Now there is nothing intrinsically wicked about meat, or about having a craving for it. But there is something quite wicked and ungrateful about despising what God has actually provided and desiring something else instead. Perhaps “wanton” is a better word:
“But they had a wanton craving in the wilderness, and put God to the test in the desert; he gave them what they asked, but sent a wasting disease among them.”
Again, God gave the people exactly what they said they wanted.

  Israel preferred death in the wilderness to a life of faith

To be fair, in the minds of the Israelites who complained to Moses and Aaron, the choice was probably not quite as stark as it may appear to us. When they cried out, “Would that we had died in this wilderness!” it was probably a case of an unfortunate rhetorical flourish rather than an indication of their genuine desire. Likewise, the choice of trusting God to bring them into Canaan against a multitude of enemies probably appeared more like certain death to them than the sure thing it turned out to be.

In any case, God once again gave the people exactly what they wished for:
“Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness.’ ”
Nobody who died in the wilderness could complain that they didn’t ask for it.

Have Thine Own Way

In all these cases, many who started out to all appearances as the people of God ended their time on earth as nothing more significant than illustrations and cautionary tales.

Paul tells the Corinthians:
“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
Not all selfish choices have consequences as drastic or long-term as those made by Israel, of course. But to those determined to have their own way, God is still in the business of letting them do it. Christians intransigent about marrying a very specific sort of woman or man that they are convinced will satisfy them frequently end up with exactly what they thought they wanted, only to find out God knew better. Christians who insist on restructuring the churches they attend in imitation of the world around them find themselves out in the world even as they sit in church. Christians who put money before God often end up with … money.

Be careful what you wish for.

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