Everyone wants a God who they can simultaneously worship, understand, and if we’d admit it, control. We want a God who loves us, wants our best and grants our requests. The musical group Jethro Tull illustrated this years ago when they inverted the words of Genesis and observed, “In the beginning, man made God in his own image.” Humankind needed an object of worship, so they made an “enlarged human.” Others describe our desire for a powerful God who is predictable and gives us just want we want as we ask – a “celestial Santa” if you will.
But life and spirituality doesn’t work out that way. We bow at the realization of God’s awesomeness at times, but He doesn’t act in the predictable way that we might desire. To quote The Chronicles of Narnia, God is good, but He’s not safe.
Sometimes we get the answers to prayer that we desire, but then we wonder why God doesn’t act in power to stop the things we know are wrong. Or why he heals one person and allows another to die. Or why a child is killed in a car accident? Or why God allows a godly parent to wither away for a decade with Alzheimer’s?
Suffering, hardship, unanswered prayer cause us to face some choices in the way we understand God.
- Will we choose a syrupy religion and a sugary view of life, where spirituality means trying to sugar-coat all of life’s harsh realities – even to the point where we become those offering defense for God?
- Or perhaps we might come to a cynical withdrawal from God – concluding based on our experiences and the experiences that either God does not exist (atheism) or He exists but He simply does not care nor does He involve himself in the affairs of humankind (agnosticism).
- Or will we choose to believe either that God is powerless to prevent evil & answer prayer (as Rabbi Kushner chooses in Why Bad Things Happen To Good People) or that God is capricious, unknowable, and unpredictable, randomly bringing good to some and evil on others (as in Islam).
THE BIBLICAL VIEW
The biblical presentation of God is a bigger view of God which is less ‘cut and dried’ than we might expect or desire. Let’s look to the Scriptures with a few questions – so that we can evaluate our view of God against the biblical presentation. As we face the reality of life’s hardships, suffering, pain, and prison, our basic question is this: Is our God big enough?
Is our God big enough to make the rules? We all want a little bit of God in our lives – like seasoning on their daily existence – but when it comes to God making the rules (right versus wrong, true versus false, absolutes), we resist. Or many of us prefer to to cut and paste God’s design for life; it’s as if we evaluate the 10 Commandments and decide, “I like commandment numbers 3, 6, 8, & 9, but I think we should throw out the rest.”
This view is the “god-I-can-control-but-who-does-not-control-me” view, and, in spite of its popularity, it contradicts the biblical presentation of the God who:
- Makes the 10 Commandments
- Defines Christian character and lifestyle in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)
- Claims to be the way, the truth, & the life: the only way of salvation (John 14:6)
- Introduces prophetic words with the statement, “Thus says the Lord”
- Tells us to obey because we have been (through Jesus Christ) “bought with a price” (2 Cor. 6:20)
- Promises to answer our prayers if we “abide” in Him and obey His commands (John 14:21; 15:7)
In other words, we’re not dealing with a “God-and-me-as-buddies” equal partnership. We’re dealing with a Master-Servant, Lord-Subject, Creator-Created relationship. One of the reasons we squirm in the face of biblical Christianity is because we all want to be gods ourselves; we want to make the rules. Such a worldview absolutely contradicts the biblical presentation of God/Jesus as Lord of all and we submit to Him.
Is our God big enough to be worshipped? The Psalmist exhorts us to worship and bow down, to kneel before the Lord our God our Maker! The Big-10 start off with two commandments that we worship no other than the One True God.
The Bible presents God as unique, supreme, worthy of worship, the Creator of everything. To worship “worthless idols” is to make ourselves worthless ourselves because we were created by God to worship Him alone!
That’s why the writer of Ecclesiastes urges us to come slowly into the presence of God – without a lot of words – because “God is in heaven & you are on earth; therefore, let your words be few.” In other words, prayer is not just barging into God’s presence with our shopping list. It’s getting quiet and pausing to remember the awesome majesty of the one before we come.
That’s why Jesus affirms the sinner who humbly bows and utters only the “God be merciful to me a sinner” prayer – in contrast to the boastful religious leader who says in effect, “God, let me tell you all the reasons that you’re fortunate to have me on your team.”
Worship is getting perspective on who we are in the light of God’s awesomeness. Go outside the city and observe the stars. Visit the Grand Canyon. Walk along the ocean (during a storm). Observe the thunderstorm (Psalm 29). Read Psalm 104. God is speaking to remind us of perspective!
Is our God big enough to act without explaining? This is obviously the most difficult question as we wrestle with suffering in any and all forms. “Why God?” echoes in our heads. We know. We’ve asked it – many times. Why are people not healed? Why does God allow a perverse, selfish miser to live to age 94 while a young man full of promise and a generous spirit dies after a painful battle with cancer, or a child of leukemia?
To respond to the specific “Why do the wicked prosper?” question, I’d refer you to Psalm 73 where the Psalmist leaves the questions unresolved as he perceives God’s long-term view. The bigger issue pertains to how we understand God.
- Do we demand an answer from God before we believe?
- Or do we accept the reality of unanswered prayer?
- Do we accept the “mysterious” action of God?
- Do we worship and bow down before a God whose timing is not ours?
- Can we accept the reality of “unanswered prayer”?
- Do we accept the fact that – though God is just – He simply doesn’t administer justice the way that we’d like?
We need to spend some time wrestling with God over those things we don’t understand. It may require anger, shouting, crying, pain – but our faith will be stunted until we come before God in honesty about our pain, and then, after wrestling, bow down and echo the words of suffering Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return. The Lord gives and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Is our God big enough to take us outside our comfort zone? When the disciples found themselves in a storm, they first were terrified, then they were angry because Jesus was sleeping through it. “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” they asked.
Jesus’ response reveals His perspective: “Where is your faith?” In other words, don’t you believe that I’m going to take care of you?”
This is where our perspective on God most ties into His calling us into the world: do we really believe that God cares for us? Do we believe He is always with us? Do we believe that He wants to fulfill His purposes in our lives – whatever it takes? Are we willing to let Him take us outside the comfort zone?
As Hebrews 11 illustrates, faith is only faith when we step into the realm where only God can deliver us. A favorite quotation from Hudson Taylor, pioneer missionary to China in the late 19th Century, states it this way: “Unless there is an element of risk in our exploits for God, there is no need for faith.”
So what do we believe about God – even in the midst of our most difficult situations?
- It affects the way we pray
- It affects the way we deal with hardships
- If affects the way we step out into the world as His disciple!