Wednesday, November 20, 2019

A Better Idea

In theory, all genuine believers agree God knows best. How could he not? He made man from the dust of the earth. He knows us inside and out. Everything we encounter in life is the direct product of interaction with a system God created and which he actively maintains. The New Testament even tells us that we have a sympathetic advocate in the Lord Jesus, one who understands what it feels like to encounter temptation. Right and wrong are not mere abstractions to him; he knows the practical and emotional cost of choosing the good, every single time.

Of course he knows best. Who could possibly argue?

And yet, when the will of God is revealed to us, almost everyone at one time or another has a ‘better’ suggestion to offer. Our bright ideas do not all spring from exactly the same motives, but they are inferior all the same, sometimes appallingly so.

Three Old Testament stories serve to illustrate the various possibilities:

1. Carnality and Desire
“God said to Balaam, ‘You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed’ ... But Balaam answered ... ‘Please stay here tonight, that I may know what more the Lord will say to me.’ ”
God’s original word to Balaam was literally impossible to misinterpret. His directions were crystal clear. But Balaam was greedy. His desire to do something different than God had commanded was all about him personally, and it drove him to continue the conversation with God in hope of negotiating what he thought was a better deal. He wanted wealth, at least, maybe power, and certainly influence, as later events would suggest.

There is nothing positive we can find in such a motivation, although when called to account for their actions after the fact, people driven by the love of money can easily rationalize greed with the claim that they desired to help make the world a better place. “Think of all the good that might have been done,” they will pout. Or, as Judas expressed it, “This could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But, as John adds, “He said this because he was a thief.” All empire building is a product of this sort of thinking.

We can reframe it all we like, but James lays the real motive bare: “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” That pretty much sums it up.

2. Misguided Family Affections
“I will bless [Sarah], and moreover, I will give you a son by her ... And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before you!’ ”
“A bird in the hand,” they say. God offered Abraham a miraculous heir, but Abraham preferred the son he already had. He had thirteen years of fatherhood invested in Ishmael, and he either could not see that the boy was already showing signs of being “a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him,” or else he just didn’t care. That happens too.

Did Abraham’s inordinate attachment to Ishmael signal an inability to appreciate what God had in store for him, and for the world, through Isaac? Almost certainly. Did it indicate his reluctance to write off all his efforts to provide direction to Ishmael? Probably. Was it some kind of backhanded justification for having slept with his wife’s handmaid, and the misplaced desire to have something good come out of a choice that had made his relationships with both Sarah and Hagar unnecessarily difficult? Maybe.

God’s answer came through Sarah, of all people. When she told her husband, “Cast out this slave woman with her son,” our inclination is to say, “Boy, that’s harsh.” But God backed her all the way, not because it’s a good thing to be mean to slaves, but because God’s perfect will cannot be accomplished in our lives when we insist on loading it with our own baggage.

That includes genetic baggage, the toughest kind to leave behind.

3. Protecting a Spiritual Investment
“The word of the Lord came to Samuel: ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.’ And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night.”
It sounds like Samuel had a similar problem to that of Abraham, though Saul was not his son, but rather his spiritual project. Still, the old prophet was deeply invested in Saul’s kingship, and understandably protective of his boy. Perhaps he even thought he was arguing a godly position: after all, God had a greater investment in Saul as king than even Samuel. Surely if he wished to, the Lord could effectively demonstrate his sovereignty and grace by forgiving and restoring Saul, rather than casting him aside. Look at all the glory that would result!

Meh. More rationalizations.

It is exceedingly painful to admit that our spiritual efforts — in many cases, the product of years of faithful prayer and diligent service — have been grossly misplaced. To consign our hopes and dreams to the scrapheap and go back to square one and start again is deeply humbling and incredibly difficult to come to terms with. But sometimes the work of God cannot go forward effectively until we have first cleared away the residue of our previous failed efforts. That means not saving anything precious to us from the old project and trying to use it the second time around.

Except of course maybe the lessons learned.

Better Ideas

God’s ideas are always better. They have to be. He knows what he is trying to accomplish in our lives. We generally don’t. He knows the end from the beginning. We definitely don’t. He knows what we need. We reliably get that wrong.

When God insists on his way, we may initially fuss and fume like Abraham and Samuel, but we will be exceedingly grateful down the road when we see how our own ambitions might have played out had we been allowed to pursue them. God’s discipline is evidence of our ongoing family relationship with him. However intense they may seem to us now, we should all hope for our misguided desires to be as firmly overridden as those of the Old Testament saints.

What about Balaam then? Unlike Abraham and Samuel, Balaam got his way. God gave it to him not because he favored Balaam, but because he had no real relationship with him at all, and no commitment to endlessly keep him safe from the consequences of his own choices. So Balaam died, still chasing unfulfilled desires.

Now really, who would prefer that?


  1. “The word of the Lord came to Samuel: ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.’ 

    It is apparent that this type of statement does not present a problem to you but it might to the newcomer. It seems to contradict or at least not explain the presumption or notion of God's Omniscience. How can God regret something that he is, by definition, aware of from the beginning (if not is responsible for by creation)? In other words, if genetically engineering a mouse to subatomic specifications, and time is not an issue, then it seems there should be no surprises concerning the behavior of the mouse.

    I am trying to resolve this issue by imagining that as a last step there was an injection of a substance called free will which by it's interaction with the mouse system (intellect, personality, physical, and environmental) produces responses and actions defining the finite history of the mouse (of which God, being outside of time, is of course always aware).

    God's regret, surprise (pleasant or otherwise) is therefore the surprise of a painter observing the effects and hues of deliberately mixing different colors (the system) on a canvas without trying to always combine and control everything in the same precise proportions thus getting a potentially infinite number of hues.

    1. Q, you hit the jackpot with that one, prompting a reply way too lengthy for the comments. I hope to post it next Wednesday. Thanks for the useful thoughts.