CHALLENGING GOD


By John Telgren

Our God is an all-powerful, holy, holy, holy God. It is not unusual for someone who encounters God in his holy splendor to prostrate himself flat on his or her face in fearful reference. The call of Isaiah in Isaiah 6 is a classic example of this. The covenant people of God at the base of mount Sinai had a similar reaction. The holy presence of God covered the top of Mount Sinai with smoke, thunder and lightning along with his great voice. They were so fearful that they wanted to hear the voice of the Lord no more, and asked Moses to be their mediator so they would not have to hear God's voice directly.

Knowing this about our God, many believers would not want to question or challenge God. Few would even dream of implying God might do something too extreme, unwarranted or even unjust. Yet that is just what Job does in the book of Job. However, Job is not the only one in scripture who is so bold and daring. Maybe it's understandable in Job's case. After all, from a human standpoint he doesn't have much to lose. If God were to smite him, he would die and that would be the end of his suffering. But that is not what Job wants. He wants vindication, but that's another study.

So, is it ever okay to challenge God's decisions and actions? Lets look at some examples of those who boldly challenged the Almighty. The first example comes from Genesis 18:22-33. God reveals to Abraham that he will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. The Hebrew of the passage emphasizes the greatness of their sin in verse 20. Their sin is great "to the extreme" or to put it in contemporary terms, "to the max". Cities that are so wicked would have a reputation for being so. For example, the reputation of ancient Corinth inspired a slang word, "to Corinthianize", which meant to practice immorality. In modern times, places such as Las Vegas have reputations for being infested with immorality as well.

God had every right to destroy these cities, and it is likely that anyone who knew anything about these cities would agree. Then Abraham does the unthinkable. No, it isn't that Abraham tries to change God's mind. It isn't even that he tries to bargain with God to spare the city for a handful of righteous people if they are found in the city. It is in his bold question which could implicate God - "Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?" Wait a minute! What is Abraham saying? Is he speaking foolishly and ignorantly? Why would Abraham say such a thing? Does Abraham believe God would do a grave injustice by slaying the innocent along with the wicked? Abraham knows he is going out on a limb, so he pleads with God not to get angry as he tries to save the city, a wicked city at that. In the end, Abraham could not save the city, but as someone has put it, "Abraham has saved God." If there was any doubt about the justice of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the encounter between Abraham and God and subsequent salvation of Lot and his family has removed all doubt as to God's justice in destroying every man and woman in the city.

The next example is Moses. God made a covenant with the newly formed nation of Israel at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. Israel says "All that the Lord has spoken we will do" (Ex 19:8). Just over a month later, they build an idol and have a feast to the Lord. In response, God tells Moses to "let me alone, that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation." (Ex 32:10). There is no doubt that the people are guilty. God redeemed them out of Egyptian bondage to be his own people, and now they are already rebelling. There is no doubt that God would be justified when he carries out his intent to destroy these people.

"Let me alone so thatů." What is that supposed to mean? Can Moses actually stop God from unleashing his wrath? In saying this, God practically invites Moses to intervene. Just as God revealed to Abraham what he was going to do to Sodom and Gomorrah, thereby allowing Abraham to respond, God appears to do the same with Moses. So Moses responds. Moses cannot appeal to justice because it is clear that God is justified in destroying these people. Moses appeals to God's promise to the Patriarchs recorded in Genesis. But this appeal does not carry much weight because God could destroy the people in the wilderness, start over with Moses, and still be faithful to his promise. (As an aside, God had already started over once before with Noah and his family, and things didn't get any better in the world.) So what can Moses do? What can he say? "Then Moses entreated the Lord his God, and said 'O Lord, why does your anger burn against your people whom you have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?' " (Ex 32:10). God called them "this" people, but Moses continues to call them "your" people. It is interesting that Moses' words sound very much like some of the Psalms. Moses uses the language of prayer when he addresses God. In the end, Moses convinces God to "change his mind" concerning the destruction of Israel.

Another example comes from Amos 7:1-7. Twice God announces judgement on Israel in two visions. Twice, Amos pleads with God, and twice God relents. The picture the author paints of the nation and her sins in the previous six chapters of Amos makes it clear that God is justified in unleashing his wrath against Israel. God had caused the nation to become prosperous. However, many were getting rich at the expense of the poor, so God decides to withdraw his blessing and unleash his judgement. He reveals to Amos through visions what he intends to do, yet Amos manages to swerve the nature of God's judgement.

There are other examples of men challenging God (Hab 1; Lam 2; The lament Psalms; et. al). There are also other examples of men changing God's mind. However, there is something unique about the examples above. What is amazing is that God intentionally involves men in his decisions. Moses could have consented and said, "I'm just your slave, I can't stop you. Besides, you're the boss, do what you see is best". Instead, Moses boldly tells God it would be better if God were to spare Israel so that Egypt would not think that God brought Israel out to the wilderness with the evil intention of destroying them (Ex 32:12). So Moses boldly gives God what he perceives to be a better option, and God takes it! The same could be said of Abraham and Amos. Man is counseling God! God does not get angry!

What does this say about God's sovereignty? These passages demonstrate that there is a give and take in the doctrine of the "immutability of God". One of the things many people overlook concerning the sovereignty and immutability of God is that God does something very unusual in Exodus 6. He reveals his personal name! One does not go around offering his name to others for no reason. When you introduce your name, you are initiating some sort of relationship. When you initiate a relationship with another, you become "vulnerable" to that other person's needs, wants, and wishes. You also increase the potential of being hurt by that other person as well. So being able to know and use another's name is both a privilege and a responsibility. We usually don't think of God in these terms, but here you have it, preserved for us in scripture to teach and reflect on. So the book of Exodus is about how God initiates a relationship with the people of Israel. The Book of Exodus begins with the absence of God, and ends with God filling the tabernacle and living among his people. Since God desires a relationship with his people, he at times invites his people to be a part of his decisions. Isn't that amazing?

Some theologians would call this heresy because this attacks the doctrine of God's sovereignty. Instead of starting with a "doctrine" and going out to scripture to support it, we should let scripture speak for itself, especially in the case of God. God does not reveal himself in theological propositions, logical deductions, and doctrinal formulas. To reduce God to a proposition is really what does him injustice. God reveals himself through his actions, which are preserved for us in scripture. The Biblical authors do not make the attempt to minimize God to the lowest common denominator. The closest thing you have to this are the statements made about God in various Psalms in the Psalter and Psalms sprinkled throughout the rest of the Old Testament. However, these are still connected with a "story". Even the law given at Sinai is inseparable from the history connected to it. To separate law from the story leads to legalism. God is our Father who has come to live among us, not an abstract theological deduction.

God is holy, but he is not so sensitive that his people cannot question him. God is much bigger than we are. He can take it. In the cases cited above, God actually invites his people to challenge him. Oh, doesn't this make us feel so uncomfortable!