So yesterday a friend posted on Facebook a quote from Miroslav Volf about the book of Job, which said: “We either love God ‘for nothing,’ or we don’t love God at all.”
The Bible has many of examples of God appearing capricious, uncaring or downright murderous. Job is one of them; the genocide in Joshua another. I’ve noticed four usual reactions to this:
1) God really is capricious, uncaring and downright murderous. You don’t tend to see this reaction from Christians, for obvious reasons, so I won’t spend much time on it.
2) God seems to be capricious, uncaring and downright murderous, but He is by definition absolutely moral, and if it appears otherwise it is because you are a foolish mortal and your understanding of morality is broken. Our is not to reason why; ours is to love and embrace the genocidal maniac God. This is the usual Evangelical response, and that of Mr Volf above. I won’t spend much time on this either because as we’ll see below, the Bible refutes it.
3) The Bible merely records humans’ experiences of God, and in places they got Him wrong. God isn’t into human sacrifice, and so God didn’t want Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter, and showed no desire to hold him to His vow. And if God isn’t into human sacrifice, He probably didn’t actually want to put Abraham and Isaac through excruciating mental torture and kill any trust between the two of them from then on. Jephthah got God wrong. Abraham got God wrong. I mean, we get God wrong sometimes, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that people in the Bible did too.
The problem with that is that it implicitly puts us above the Bible and we get to pick and choose which bits we think are right and which aren’t. But what if we made that assumption explicit and moved on to stage four, which in practice is not actually so different:
4) God occasionally says and does stuff but He wants us to use our brains and react appropriately to it, rather than take it at face value. In other words, God lays ethical landmines for us to see whether or not we’re daft enough to step on them.
Abraham later, at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, challenges God to be more god-like, to be more good. And far from the “foolish mortal” strategy of the Evangelicals, God plays along. Moses does the same: “Don’t wipe out Israel, that would make You look stupid.” … “OK, I won’t.” There is a strong tradition in Judaism of challenging God, holding Him to our idea of what His morality ought to be–and winning. (Of course those of a Reformed persuasion would be horrified with the idea that God messes with our heads by saying stuff to us that He doesn’t mean, but would argue vehemently that God never really changed His mind, He only appeared to.)
The really scary thing about Joshua is that unlike Abraham and Moses, he took God at His word, even when it led to genocide. He didn’t challenge God to be merciful or just or honourable, but was happy to imagine God as vengeful and murderous. He got the god he deserved.
Now this may seem like some kind of hippy liberal interpretation of the Scriptures but the interesting thing about it is that it’s what every Evangelical actually believes if they’re honest about themselves. Let’s take an example from the Bible:
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.
I know people who have problems with their teenage children, and who do not obey the clearly expressed will of God for that situation. And if you ask them why not, they may reply that this was for the people of Israel, or part of the Old Covenant, or whatever–meaning that presumably, if they were Jewish they would have no problems doing this, but thankfully they are not. And that’s OK, because by interpreting and placing God’s words within a particular context, they’re using their brains and reacting appropriately to what they see in Scripture. They do put themselves above Scripture as its authoritative interpreters, and that’s just fine. (Yes, I stole this idea from Dale McGowan.) Scripture says that God wants us to grow up and become mature, and one expression of maturity is the ability to think for yourself, to make decisions according to the spirit and not just the letter. One great way to get people to think for themselves–which I’ve occasionally done in classes to great effect–is to occasionally say things that are complete nonsense and see who is paying enough attention to question you on them. If we take the example of Moses, then either God is capricious, uncaring and downright murderous and relies on humans to calm Him down, or He also lays these ethical landmines as a way to keep us on our toes… and to challenge us onwards to a better concept of God. Because after all, like Joshua, we get the god we deserve.
Where does this leave us with Job? Now I don’t think Job actually happened; I think it’s pantomime, not history. For one thing it’s written in a completely overblown style–it’s more Lemony Snicket than Antonia Fraser–and it reads like a parable. The idea of a parable is that there’s one teaching point to take away from it, and the clear teaching point to take away from the book of Job is that there is no automatic connection between sin and disaster. Job’s friends–who were trying to insist that there was such a connection–were in the wrong.
But even if it actually did happen, I don’t think we should be saying that if God handed over Job to Satan for Satan to destroy Job’s life just so that God could win some crazy bet with Satan, Job should just suck it up and love God anyway.
No, the Jewish tradition is that Job should fight, resist, rail against God, and hold Him to a higher standard. That’s what happens everywhere else in the Bible, and actually that’s what happens in Job as well. And hey, everywhere else, God seems to appreciate that: He backs down, “relents”–or, as the same Hebrew word is translated everywhere else in the Bible when it doesn’t apply to God, He “repents”–and notably doesn’t say “love me anyway, you puny human”.
Jonathan Ingleby’s Naming The Frame (disclaimer: I’m the publisher) contains a long digression on Job along these lines, which is probably where I get most of this idea from:
Resignation sounds trustful but contains all too easily an element of fear (which is the opposite of trust). In effect it says: ‘I won’t protest about this because I don’t want to get into even deeper trouble.’ Certainly I think that is where Job’s friends are standing. They do not know God well enough, or they do not trust Him enough, to be able to conceive of anybody having an argument with Him. Those of us who have children are often disconcerted when our children ‘answer back’, particularly when they accuse us of being unfair. But we would rather that than their being so afraid of us that they ‘agree’ with everything we say, even when they really disagree in their hearts.
The theology of Job’s friends is sound on the whole. We are all sinners; we reap what we sow; it is impossible for God to act unjustly—it all comes straight out of the textbook. But for all that, God says that they have not spoken correctly about him (42:7). It is Job who is right. God is much more interested in real relationships than in theological correctness…
There are five steps then, to be taken in ascending order:
- There is no God or, if there is, he is not interested in human affairs.
- There is a God, but I don’t want to have anything to do with him because he means only harm.
- Life brings both good and evil. I accept both as coming from God but I will not question.
- I will tell God what I am thinking, even if what I am thinking apparently questions his purposes and his goodness.
- My ‘debate’ with God can be carried on with confidence but I should remember that I do not have the whole picture and God does.
Growing up—the process we see Job going through—means that we treat God more and more as a person. He is not an impersonal force but someone with whom we can argue. Equally, growing up helps us to de-personify evil. Evil things certainly happen, as I have said, but that is the sort of universe we live in. When God intervenes it is to bless us.
What really pissed me off about Volf’s comment was that there’s a very important pastoral issue here. In the story of Job, God hands over an innocent Job to be tortured for basically no good reason other than God showing off. This is, to put it bluntly, abuse. Now when someone preaches about Job in a sizable congregation, there’s more than likely to be one person there who is suffering some kind of abuse at the hands of a more powerful person. Maybe it’s domestic violence and they’ve already sat through sermons on how wives should be submissive to their husbands. What message should our thoughts about God and our thoughts on Job send to such a person? Let’s remind ourselves what Volf said: “We either love God ‘for nothing,’ or we don’t love God at all.”
Now if I’m wrong about God and about the Bible, and Volf is right, then the message we should be sending is, “If God says He loves you, you should be loving Him unconditionally even if His conduct doesn’t seem to fit His words.” But if I’m right, the message we should be sending is, “if God’s conduct doesn’t seem to fit His words, challenge Him on it. Don’t just blindly submit to it. Use your head.” I think my approach is more pastorally responsible.
Now pastoral implications aren’t the means by which we test the validity of theology–although what an interesting world it would be if they were!–but I think I also have a more profound theological truth on my side here. That is, that God binds Himself covenantally to His people. A covenant does not just bind one party to judgement; it binds both. In other words, God submits to having His actions judged. He doesn’t want us to love Him “for nothing.” “ ‘Test me in this,’ says the LORD Almighty.”
Taste and see that the Lord is good. And if He isn’t, call Him on it, and use your head.