The Sin of the Orthodox

[note: by “Orthodox” I am referring to those who are biblical and traditional in their theology; I am not referring to the Orthodox church]

 

Each time I read the book of Job I find deeper meanings.  As I read it this week, one idea that kept coming to my mind was the sin of those who thought they had God all figured out.

At the conclusion of the book, God responds to Job, and then responds to Eliphaz and his friends.  The friends were, you will recall, the “miserable comforters” who debated with Job about the justice of God. The substance of their great debate could be summarized this way: The friends argue that since God is just, Job’s afflictions must be the punishment for some hidden sin.  Job argues in response (repeatedly): Look, I don’t have any “secret sin” that deserves this kind of punishment, so God is not being just to me.  The friends then accuse him of undermining the notion of God’s justice.  Job responds by repeating what he knows: I am innocent, yet enduring incredible suffering, and this suffering seems to come from God himself.  Again, Job implies, “God is not being just with me”.

Now, of course, we readers are let into a secret.  Chapters one and two describe the scene in heaven where God twice describes Job, “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil”.  In fact, God says, “there is none like him on earth”.  So we know before the dialogue begins that the three friends are in the wrong.  Job’s afflictions are not punishments.  Job is blameless before God.

But imagine if we did not have this information.  Imagine we walked in to the story right where the dialogue starts.  On the one hand, we have three wise, older men who have an exalted view of God and are eager to defend his ways.  They are completely orthodox in their understanding, and their first priority is to protect God’s reputation.  On the other hand, you have Job, who seems to be not only suffering, but positively afflicted by God (the suddenness and completeness of his losses cannot be mere coincidence).  Job argues that he is blameless, therefore God is not being just, while the orthodox friends argue that God is just, therefore Job is not blameless.  Who is right?

Wait: before you answer, again try to strip your mind of what you know from chapters one and two.  And you may find yourself in the position of Elihu.  Elihu is a rather mysterious figure.  He shows up without introduction and his name is not mentioned again after his long speech (chapters 32-37).  His speech does not serve to advance the dialogue at all, and neither God nor Job nor the friends respond to it.  Here is what I think: Elihu is intended to function as a warning to the reader.  His viewpoint and speech (“Job, you are wrong; I know wisdom, and you are speaking folly”) are the natural conclusion we are tempted to draw simply by listening to the speeches (without the prologue).  In his speeches, he not only agrees with the orthodox friends, but is angry at them for not being able to withstand Job’s arguments. 

It is right after his speech that God Himself arrives on the scene and, incredibly, joins in the argument.  God does two things.  First, he reproves Job (chapters 38-41) for failing to understand what Kierkegaard would later call “the infinite qualitative distinction” between God and man.  Job is wrong because He simply is not in a place to understand God’s ways, and therefore is recklessly hasty in saying that God is unjust to him.  The second thing God does, then, is surprising.  He approves Job, especially in contrast to his orthodox friends.  Twice he tells the orthodox, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”.  In fact, God regards this not only as a mistake, but a sin, for which they need to offer a sacrifice and ask Job(!) to pray for them.  God seems less upset by Job yelling at Him than the friends yelling at Job on God’s behalf.

This, then, is the surprising conclusion to the dialogue: Elihu listens and takes the side of the orthodox friends and rebukes Job, while God listens and ultimately takes the side of Job and rebukes the orthodox.  And this is the heart of the book of Job: God’s ways are, in the final analysis, not able to be fully understood by man, simply because we are never in the position that He is in.  Even the most godly (like Job) and the most orthodox and cerebral (like Job’s friends) can never understand God in the same way they understand the things of this world.  In fact, God describes the words of the orthodox friends, who felt they were speaking godly wisdom, as “folly”. 

Now, here is where the rubber hits the road.  I have always taken pride in holding correct, orthodox views of God and theology.  And I still feel that the traditional, conservative, biblical viewpoint is the best way to understand the world in which we find ourselves in.  Yet, books like Job warn me to be very humble about this.  In the end, I have little doubt that my orthodox, evangelical theology will be like the fig leafs the first couple used to clothe themselves: wholly inadequate, and replaced by something else by God’s grace. 

What does this mean practically?  It means that we should be careful that our study of theology should never outstrip our understanding of “the infinite qualitative distinction”.  It means our eagerness to defend God should never come at the expense of loving people.  It means we must learn to live out our worldview fully, all the while realizing that when we see Him all of our previous “knowledge” will be fig leaves of foolishness.

Why Isn’t God More Obvious?

 

By Daniel Jepsen

In his book, Contact, Carl Sagan satirically asks why God doesn’t place a glowing cross in the sky at night to serve as irrefutable proof of Jesus’ resurrection. One could just as well ask why God doesn’t set up a website, or place billboards around.  Why must we read and understand an ancient book to know God?  Bertland Russell, the famous British atheist, once was asked what he would say, if, after his death, he came face to face with the God he had denied in life.  Russell’s response: “Not enough evidence”.

This is not just a question for non-believers.  As Christians, surely we all wonder why the evidence for God can be denied.  Doesn’t God want us to all know Him?  Then why doesn’t He make himself more obvious?  Why doesn’t he shout from heaven?  We certainly agree with Moses’ statement, “You are a God who hides himself”, but we usually have no clue why.

I think the answer to that is in understanding the difference between faith and knowledge, and why God desires faith.

Briefly, knowledge is the intellectual knowledge of what is (yes, I am aware of the different debates about knowledge, but am not going to get into them here, as they do not affect my main point).  Faith is a little more difficult to define.  I define it this way: Faith is choosing, for good but not unassailable reasons, to believe something is true, and then acting on that belief.  This seems to me the definition most inline with the New Testament word (pistis in Greek) which is translated faith, belief, or trust.

Notice a couple things about this definition:

  • First, it is a belief that has consequences.  It is not a trivial thing, for this type of faith affects our choices (unlike, say, the belief that 2 plus 2 equals four, or that the sun is around a million times the size of the earth). 
  • Secondly, it is based on reason and evidence, but it is not compelled by them.  That is, it is not against reason or evidence, but may sometimes go beyond them.  I believe my spouse is faithful to me, not because I can prove it by evidence (I don’t have her video-taped 24/7) but because it is consistent with what I do know of her and our life together.
  • Third, to some degree, it is a choice.  I have no real choice in believing that snow is cold, or that the chair I am sitting in is black.  Unless I want to deny my sense experience, the belief is forced upon me.  Nor can my belief that two  plus two equals four be a faith decision; it is self-evident and irrefutable.  But faith is a flower that can only be cultivated in the ground between reason and certainty. 

 

Now, if this is so, then we may begin to see why God makes faith our only acceptable response to Him: Since faith is a choice, it involves moral, and not just intellectual, implications.  That is, to some degree, I will choose not just whether there is a God or not, but if I want there to be a God or not.  This is not to imply faith has no intellectual content, but to affirm that is also has moral content.  Reason can lead me to the water, but it can’t make me drink.  I still must choose.

This is then consistent with that, as C. S. Lewis said, hell is locked from the inside.  The believer says to God, “I want you”, the unbeliever says, “I don’t want you”, and God says to them both, “Your will be done”.

Finally, we should also stop to ponder the question of what effect it would have on our faith if God was more obvious, and his ways shown with certainty to be true.  For example, why doesn’t God automatically and visibly reward each act of faith and obedience?  Every time I refuse some tempting sin, or every time I obey Him, why doesn’t He boom from Heaven, “Good job!”, and send down a twenty dollar bill (or solve whatever problem is bothering me)?

When put in terms like these, it is easy to see how this would distort our relationship with God.  We would be treating Him as an object, something we manipulate for our own gain.  Faith here would not only be stunted, but warped.

The example of Israel may be instructive here.  If God was ever obvious, it was in His dealings with the Israelites, especially in the early years under the leadership of Moses.  Just think: they saw the plagues on Egypt.  They experienced the crossing of the Red Sea.  They heard God thunder from the top of Mt. Sinai.  In fact, the last verses of Exodus tell us that the visible sign of God’s presence was always with them:

            In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud (representing God’s presence) lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if it did not life, they did not set out – until the day it lifted.  So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels. (Exodus 40: 36-38).

God certainly could not have been much clearer than that.  Yet, the faith and obedience of the Israelites in the desert was anything but exemplary.  Philip Yancey notes:

I also noticed a telling pattern in the Old Testament accounts: the very clarity of God’s will had a stunting effect on the Israelite’s faith.  Why pursue God when He had already revealed Himself so clearly?  Why step out in faith when God had already guaranteed the results? …In short, why should the Israelites act like adults when they could act like children?  And act like children they did, grumbling against their leaders, cheating on the strict rules governing manna, whining about every food or water shortage. (Disappointment with God)

On the contrary, when God wanted to raise up David as His ideal King (thus representing His people) He did so by often seeming silent and even unfair (just check out the Psalms).  In short, God knows what He is doing with us, and His silence and hiddeness have purpose.