Theology: March 2009 Archives

It's Not About You

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I had a friend who used to conclude from his conviction of God's sovereignty and the fact that a young woman he was attracted to happened to cross his path that day that God was sending him a message about his future with that young woman. It was hard to convince him that just because it was part of God's plan that he run across her path that doesn't mean it was for the reason he might think God had them cross paths. It could be because his running into her reminded her of something she needed to be reminded of that day. It could have been because of something unrelated to the two of them, though, for instance maybe because God wanted them each to be at separate locations shortly after that, and the best way to achieve that at the precise times he wanted them to arrive was for them to walk right by each other. It could have even been so that he could have this conversation with me and be reminded that it's not always about him and what he wants.

I Kings 20 is an interesting case study in a chapter we don't look at all that often. Ahab, the King of Israel, engages in continual conflict with Ben-Hadad, King of Syria. It goes on for a while until Ben-Hadad decides he can get the better of Ahab's forces by fighting in the valleys, claiming that the gods of Israel are gods of the hills, and the gods of Syria are gods of the valleys.

At that point God sends a prophet to Ahab to tell him that Ben-Hadad's statement is the reason he's going to hand him over to Ahab. Interestingly, he quotes it as a statement that God is a god just of the hills, where Ben-Hadad seems to have used a plural verb, indicating plural gods (the noun, I believe is the same in either case, so I believe you have to go by the verb to know which it is, because 'Elohim' is a plural name for God; someone who knows some Hebrew should correct me here if I'm wrong, but that's what I think is going on here). If that's right, then Ben-Hadad was referring to God even though he thought he was referring to several gods of Israel (and the evidence of the surrounding chapters is that Ahab did worship other gods), because there is only one God for Israel even if they pretend otherwise.

The result is sobering. Ahab is handed this amazing victory, basically because God thought it was a good time to bring Ben-Hadad down. It's not about Ahab at all. I think it's a natural human tendency to take things going well for us as a sign that God approves of what we're doing, but here's a clear counterexample to that. This has nothing to do with Ahab, and it's clear from the surrounding chapters that God absolutely disapproves of the defining characteristics of Ahab's life. This is about judging Ben-Hadad. Just as Rehoboam was judged by God via Jeroboam's rebellion and subsequent separation of more than half the kingdom, so here we have Ahab benefiting from God's judgment on Ben-Hadad, when it has nothing at all to do with Ahab.

In both these cases, the King of Israel was judged for something else later, Jeroboam for how he ruled once he had his own kingdom and Ahab most immediately for not completing the task and letting Ben-Hadad go, just as Saul had done with Agag and the Amalekites at the very beginning of the Israelite monarchy. Something similar occurs in Isaiah 10, where we see judgment on the God's for doing it for the wrong reason (in that case the king of Assyria gets judged for how he caries out judgment on Israel, since he does it for his own glory and while thinking it's his own power that achieves it).

One interesting part of all this is that God delivers a real blessing to Ahab, one of the wickedest of Israel's many wicked kings. God chose to give him victory with serious odds stacked up against him -- but the reasons God gives for this choice were very clearly nothing to do with Ahab. It's a nice instance of the general principle given to Israel at its founding. They were chosen not because they were large or strong but because God wanted to demonstrate something.

A passage in Thomas Aquinas' discussion of predestination often reminds me of this biblical principle. Aquinas wonders what basis God might use to single out particular people to be predestined for salvation or damned. He can't imagine God does it by something akin to flipping a coin or some such arbitrary method, because God isn't arbitrary, despite how a lot of Calvinists sometimes want to think of God. At the same time, it can't be based on the actions people do to deserve salvation, because everyone at the most basic level does not deserve grace, or it wouldn't be grace. It has to be an unearned gift. [For those stumbling over how a Catholic can say this, see the footnote. This is the official Roman Catholic doctrine, even if it doesn't sound like it to Protestant ears.] So whatever leads God to choose particular individuals to be saved must have nothing to do with their earning it in any sense. It must have to do with other things. In effect, he concludes that God's reasons for choosing certain people to be saved or damned would be for something like artistic reasons. It makes for a greater providential plan to choose someone like Paul, coming out of his Pharisaical training and resistance to the gospel and having his skills to be used in developing the canonical epistles. It makes for greater spread of the gospel for God to work through certain people. It shows God's mercy and grace in special ways. There's plenty of room for God to have purposes that aren't arbitrary that are in some sense about you but not in the sense of the title of this post. It's not about you in that sense.

It should catch our attention that this same pattern recurs in scripture. It's not just Saul, Jeroboam, and Ahab. You see it in different ways with Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson in the book of Judges, to name three other examples. People receive God's grace because of reasons having nothing to do with their own deserving, and in some of these cases having nothing to do with the person at all. They then proceed to take God's grace as a sign of God's favor, or at the very least they aren't grateful enough for God's blessing that they proceed to live in a way that honors the God whose blessing they've received without deserving it. In some of these cases, that vastly understates how significantly they slight God and insult his gracious bestowal of favor. It must be particularly fearsome to receive such blessing only to end up in a place of severe judgment, as Ahab certainly did.

But isn't this the story of the whole Bible? Humanity as a whole has continually rejected God's favor and spat in his face, and his patience and love is shown all the more for his willingness to pursue those he is bringing to salvation even amidst their constant rejection of many of the opportunities God gives to pursue holiness and reject inferior substitutes for God. We would do well to remember the lessons of these figures, because God will bring to completion the good work he started, and he calls us to participate in his transformation of our hearts and wills to serve him as we work out the salvation he's working out in us.

[Footnote: Aquinas does not hold the caricature of Roman Catholic theology that has Christians straightforwardly earning their salvation. Salvation is a gift of grace and totally unearned initially. He does think God, at the end of your life, evaluates the actions you did through the Holy Spirit as being righteous actions, and only in that sense is your salvation merited because the God-produced works you did do match up to what God wants of you in that they were produced by the Holy Spirit. But even this isn't meant to cancel his claim that you don't earn the initial grace that puts you in a position to be transformed by the Spirit to do good.]



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