Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Agents and Automatons

“Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.”

Not at all his will, despite strong urging.

Apollos had precisely zero interest in doing things the way Paul, with all his godliness and experience, thought they should be done. The two took opposite stances.

Whose Will is that Exactly?

Here and there in studies of this passage we come across half-hearted attempts to make the “his” in “his will” refer to God rather than Apollos. For example, a marginal reading in the ESV suggests “God’s will for him.” The evidence for that interpretation is not strong, and I suspect it is more of a fond wish than an actual translation.

No Christian likes to see other Christians disagreeing. When we do see it, we tend to think one or both must be acting unspiritually.

Even though he had strongly urged Apollos to do something other than he eventually chose to do, Paul does not criticize his fellow-servant. But he also makes no attempt to sugar-coat the distasteful reality that God’s people can in good conscience differ, just as Paul and Barnabas disagreed over John Mark, and just as Paul and Peter differed over how Peter ought to handle the early attempts to “judaize” the first century church.

Morality and Logistics

Christians disagree about what the Bible says and how we should practice it. These matters are moral. They are holiness-related. They are infinitely more important than questions about which good thing you or I ought to pursue with the time and energy God grants us today. If we so frequently squabble about the greater questions concerning righteousness and truth, it should hardly surprise us to find that we also differ about matters of this latter, more logistical sort.

Could the Lord use us better elsewhere, or are we more productive for him staying right where we are? Should we be concentrating on teaching or evangelism? What should our priorities be in the service of Christ? These are not moral questions, but they are legitimate practical concerns for men and women trying to please God, and solid, useful believers often disagree about  them.

Perhaps this reflects an all-too-necessary tension between the “ideal” will of God for us as individuals (our heavenly Father obviously knows which choice we might make would be best for us and for the kingdom of heaven at every possible juncture) and his desire that his servants should serve him voluntarily, and as beings with genuine agency rather than as holy automatons.

Principles in Apparent Tension

These two principles need not be opposed, but may sometimes seem in conflict from our limited perspective. God might easily resolve the apparent difficulty by declaring his specific, personal will to us unequivocally, as he sometimes declared his will about practical matters to the patriarchs, but if he did, we would never learn to prize it and search for it. We would simply take it for granted. We would be sheep, and not in a positive, Psalm 23 way. Blind obedience might be a desirable quality in a servant, but it is surely not what God is looking for in his children.

One example. In Genesis, the Lord asks rhetorically:
Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?”
The answer is no. God did not need Abraham’s opinion or participation. The time had come, and he was moving forward with his agenda. No moral decision was required of Abraham with respect to the question of Sodom’s judgment, and no mere human could reasonably expect to add a single new scrap of information to the infinite counsels of the Divine. Yet God enters into a fascinating back-and-forth with his servant in which Abraham is brought to better understand God’s purposes, reasoning and character without either being lectured-to or left out of the process.

God would not leave Abraham in sheep mode. He wanted him to understand, but he brought him to agreement about the wickedness of the Sodomites and the appropriateness of God’s judgment on them by allowing him to work through these things for himself almost completely unaided.

Workers Together

If God is looking to have the sort of relationship with us that he had with Abraham — and I don’t think that’s a crazy idea — then we are bound to find ourselves in situations where we are left to our own devices to apply what we believe we know about God and his will to our current circumstances, and to come to a place where we are able to move forward confidently and in good conscience. And if we ourselves have difficulty being sure what we ought to do, it is to be expected that our brothers and sisters in Christ may struggle with it too.

I view these struggles not as hints that the work of God in us is inadequately realized, but as confirming evidence that we are genuine “workers together” with God.

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