Monday, June 15, 2020

Anonymous Asks (97)

“Does God make mistakes?”

The Song of Moses says this about God: “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice.” David wrote, “This God — his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true.” Another psalm says the Lord’s understanding is “beyond measure”. The prophet Isaiah said, “O Lord, you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.” Even the pagan prophet Balaam was forced to concede that “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”

Does this sound like Someone who makes mistakes? The writers of scripture claim our God is morally impeccable, utterly reliable, and acts in absolute harmony with reality. If we accept their testimony then, no, God does not make mistakes.

Choice and Error

Now, God may not make mistakes, but he certainly grants others the freedom to do so. When God made the world, he saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very goodincluding the ability to make independent choices, both good and bad, which he built into the minds and hearts and wills of his creatures. Human agency is a good thing. God himself said so. Creation could not have been “very good” without choice. And yet the possibility of error was introduced into creation the moment God allowed men and women to make even a single choice of our own.

Thus when we look around us (and even into our own hearts) we see flaws of every sort. But these are not errors in design. The flaws came later. We are damaged goods, and the world around us has changed in many ways from God’s original design to reflect the moral fall of its stewards. A few of those negative changes are noted for us in Genesis 3: pain in childbearing, power struggles within the authority structures, weeds, hard labor and death. That is far from a comprehensive list! Naturally, fallen creatures with damaged genes pass that damage on to our children, who introduce some of their own poor choices into the mix, and pass the whole mess on to the next generation.

That doesn’t mean giving mankind the ability to choose was a mistake. For all the pain choice has cost the human race, I would still rather be an agent than an automaton.

An Illustration

Let me offer an illustration of the difference between damage resulting from a design flaw and damage resulting from abuse. Once upon a time in my childhood, my father emerged from his workshop with a pained expression on his face, holding up a blunted wood chisel with a blade that vaguely resembled a metal pretzel. One of his children, he opined, had opted to use this fine and delicate instrument as a screwdriver. He was not wrong.

Now, I suppose, in trying to get myself off the hook for my little faux pas, I might have advanced the argument that the wood chisel was an inferior product, and that its designer had made a mistake. Such an argument would not get me very far, especially since my father had taught me how to properly use both a chisel and a screwdriver. The fact that I was too lazy to go through the tool chest and find a screwdriver when I needed one was not the chisel designer’s fault. I was using the chisel in a way he had never intended his product to be used. A blade keen enough to do fine woodcutting cannot simultaneously be made sturdy enough to repeatedly turn metal screws against resistance. That is simply the nature of the material.

So the present condition of the human race and the world around us is not a result of mistakes in the design. It is a result of our own misusing of the good things God created, not least ourselves.

The Appearance of Error

Today, we see mistakes everywhere. God did not make them. Still, there are certain passages in the Bible that might lead us to think he did. One example occurs very early in Genesis, just before the Flood, when “the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” The argument is made that this is God acknowledging a mistake, and there are other examples of this sort of language in the Old Testament.

And yet to be grieved about the outcome of something you have done is not the same as acknowledging error. In fact, nacham, the Hebrew word translated “regretted”, is rendered “comforted” or “consoled” more often than “regretted” on our Old Testaments. It simply refers to a change of emotional state. Which direction is not relevant.

Now, it is admittedly hard to picture the God of Heaven in the grip of strong emotions. We must recognize that the writers of the Bible were painting us a picture of God with the very limited palette of human language, and that the Spirit of God chose ways of expressing God’s feelings that would communicate effectively to widely different cultures across a period of thousands of years. As finite beings of time and space, we cannot really know what God’s emotional life is like. To imagine we can is simply projection.

Still, we know it is quite possible to feel deep sorrow without its cause involving a personal error. For example, the Lord Jesus was so agonized by the thought of going to the cross that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground”. If he could have changed the situation, he would have, but he recognized that what he was about to go through was absolutely necessary. So he said to Peter, “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Grief, yes. Sorrow, yes. But is there any suggestion that the will of God for the Lord Jesus was mistaken? God forbid!

An Argument that Doesn’t Hold Up

This being the case, the argument that God was acknowledging a mistake at various times throughout the Old Testament simply doesn’t hold up. We humans have brought great grief to the Lord over the centuries. We are still doing it today. And yet the Lord Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God”.

In the end, God will declare that it was all worth it. No mistake was made. A “good” creation always had to include agency in created beings, even if the choices of others may sometimes bring us great sorrow.

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