There are two ways we can go wrong in our acceptance of God’s activity in our lives: one is always and rapidly to say Yes to him, another is always and mulishly to say No.
We might call the first a “Yes-Sir-God-Right-Now” approach, and the other a “Hell-No-God-Never” approach. One refuses to question God or argue with him, but just rolls over like a dog and surrenders. The other is fat with pride, cocksure of human wisdom, and will ultimately never let God be God.
Almost all of us end up in one of these ditches or the other as we limp our way through life, trying to figure out what it means to walk with God, trust him, and follow his lead.
Rather than providing black-and-white rules on how to figure all this out, the Bible gives us stories about men and women who themselves were trying to figure all this out. There is a constant in these stories—God’s fidelity—but there are also variables—human responses. Sometimes believers vigorously debate God, sometimes they nod a silent Amen. Together, their narratives paint a picture of a life of faith characterized by complexity and tension.
As a clear example, let’s look at two famous, but very different, stories about Abraham: in one he is Sodom’s lawyer in God’s courtroom, in the other he is Isaac’s (near) killer on God’s altar.
Abraham: Sodom’s Lawyer
In Genesis 18, the Lord informs Abraham he’s about to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin. If the situation is as dark and dire as has been reported, God will act—and it won’t be pretty.
At this point, Abraham has a choice to make: One, say, “Okay, God. Do what you gotta do. I’m mean, you are God, after all. What do I know?” Or, two, say, “With all due respect, God, hold your horses. You’re going to nuke the entire population? Just like that? And kill everyone indiscriminately? What if there are righteous people down there?”
If you know the story, you know Abraham did not opt for the “Yes-Sir-God-Right-Now” approach. He became Sodom’s lawyer. And like any decent lawyer, he made his argument. “What if there are 50 or 45 or 40 or 30 or 20 or even 10 righteous people down there?” he asked, working his way down each time. Abraham was respectful, yes. But also persistent. He reminds God of who he is: the just Judge of all the earth. And he asks, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (18:25). In other words, shall not God be godly?
Abraham wouldn’t roll over and play the submissive dog. He stood his ground. Humble, yes, but also bold, full of chutzpah. This story is one side of the complexity of faith. Sometimes God places scenarios in our lives when arguing with him, cajoling him, waking him up, and reminding him of who he is, is what we are called (by God himself!) to do as people of faith. For more examples, spend some time in the Psalms, which are full of people doing just this.
Abraham: Isaac’s (Near) Killer
Fast-forward four chapters in Genesis, and we see a very different side of Abraham. When God tested him by telling Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loves, Isaac, and to sacrifice him, what does the father do? Surely, based on his prior history, he will put on his lawyer’s suit and stand up in the divine courtroom to argue vehemently for his son’s life. He will insist to God that this demand is just plain wrong; utterly unjust; an affront to human and divine dignity.
But, no, he doesn’t. Abraham rises at the crack of dawn, saddles his donkey, and heads off with Isaac toward the mountain of sacrifice—knife in hand. What does he say to God? Nothing. Not one single syllable. He who pleaded for the lives of countless citizens—mostly strangers—doesn’t beg for the life of his own dear son. Of course, as the ghastly story unfolds, there is what Tolkien would call a eucatastrophe—a sudden happy ending—in which Isaac is spared and God promises Abraham a Seed which will be a blessing to all nations. But we didn’t know that at the beginning of this story, did we? And neither did Abraham.
He who was Sodom’s lawyer was prepared to be Isaac’s killer. How do we make sense of that?
The Rich Complexity of the Spiritual Life
These two accounts from Abraham’s life—and there are countless others like them scattered through the Scriptures—exemplify the rich and textured complexity of the spiritual life. When God or his messengers appear, sometimes we hear a response like Mary’s, “Let it be to me according to your word,” and sometimes a response like Gideon’s, “If the Lord is with us, why is all this [evil and suffering] happening to us?” Just like Abraham argued one time and acquiesced another time, so do others: from Jacob to Naomi to David to Jeremiah. Jesus himself pleaded with his Father to take away the cup of suffering before saying, “Thy will be done.”
At the risk of oversimplifying, here is my main point: God delights neither in bootlicking nor pigheadedness. In what does he delight? In having sons and daughters, whose brother is Jesus. Sometimes families get in arguments and debates; sometimes they all basically get along. But, at least in healthy families, there’s enough trust and mercy and compassion to allow room for dialogue. In God’s family, yes, ultimately the Fathers’ will, will indeed be done. But if the biblical story is any indication of how that happens, our Father is very open to hearing from us—even if his children sound like lawyers sometime.
A Closing Thought: Freedom of Speech
One closing thought: In Hebrews, we’re told to enter God’s presence with “confidence” (10:19). A better translation of the Greek word παρρησία would be “freedom of speech.” We have freedom of speech before our Father because we are in the Logos himself, Jesus Christ. No, this doesn’t give us the license to speak heresy or blasphemy or ridicule; he is our Father, after all. But it does mean we can speak with frankness, bluntness, honesty, and assurance. And in our often confusing, complex, stressful, and murky lives, this is a great gift. Because it means as we continue to learn what it means to walk with God in Christ, we know that our Father is always ready and willing to listen.