My early life on a farm taught me that there is only one way to control a large bull. Even an animal that is quite feisty will follow submissively if you lead him around by clipping a rod to the ring in his nose. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. The trick, of course, is to remain safe while you’re getting close enough to clip onto the ring, let alone getting a ring into his nose in the first place! I’ve often wondered how God leads us. Does he use his sovereign power and control? Does he override our wills in order to accomplish his purposes? Does he expect us to follow without question?
It seems to me that God certainly has the capacity to totally control us. He could have controlled our destinies by creating intelligent beings who would not have had the capacity to choose other than himself. But, that would have meant that we are nothing more than pawns on the divine chessboard. However, God chose to create beings who have the power of choice, and it appears that freewill is of even more value than predetermined goodness. In choosing this option, God risked loss and misunderstanding. One of the themes of this week’s lesson is that “God is willing to risk being misunderstood by those He wants to know and love Him” (Teachers’ Edition, 53). Although the lesson’s focus is on the fact that God risks misunderstanding by leading us into trials (or does he allow trials?), I wish to focus on some key global issues regarding misunderstanding of God, which, in turn, might help with understanding our own tribulations.
Misunderstood in His Book
As soon as God committed himself to human language, he risked misunderstanding. How often have your words been misunderstood, even by those who love you? Is it any different when God “speaks” to us in human language? Of course, God is a better communicator than we are, but he risked committing his Word to the minds and pens of human beings. Language changes. There is a constant need for translation and retranslation. Language is related to culture. Metaphors and symbols that may be relevant in one culture can be meaningless in another.
Hebrews 1:1–3 implies the risk that God took. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. . . .“ Observe the contrast. Previously, God spoke through Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, and others, but now he has spoken to us through his own Son. And, also notice the move from lesser to greater: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. . . .” God took the risk that we might think that in his revelation of himself to the biblical writers that we now know actually “what” he is.
There were at least two evident risks in God’s chosen mode of historical (even cultural) revelation. The first is that we will, for example, read the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22) and see it as so far removed from our own cultural context that it has no relevance to us today. The second is, to illustrate, that we may totally ignore the cultural context of Paul’s writings and apply them directly into our own situation. For instance, we misunderstand Paul (and God!) if we think that 1 Timothy 2:9–15 can be spoken directly into the church and worship situation today.
There is also the risk that we might misunderstand the purpose of Scripture. Some see the Bible in almost “magical” terms as if a perfect book provides eternal life. However, Jesus said, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39–40). The strangely wonderful thing about the Bible is that it is totally God’s book and that it is also a human book. “The Bible is not given to us in grand superhuman language. . . . The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect. . . .The Bible was given for practical purposes” (Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, 1:20).
Misunderstood in His Body
Just as it was God’s intention that human beings would “image” him in the world (Gen. 1:26–27), it was Christ’s purpose that his church would paint a picture of himself for the world to see. What a risk! What possibilities for misunderstanding the character of God!
The book of Acts (for example) gives us some idea of the risks involved. The disciples might have “shut up shop” and failed to take the gospel even to Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria (Acts 1:8). Peter might have refused to go to Cornelius of Caesarea (Acts 10). The first church council might have made the safe and conservative decision that Gentiles must first become Jews before they could become Christians (Acts 15). Paul might have ignored the cultural and philosophical context of the Athenians (Acts 17:16–34). Luis Palau says that “the church is only one generation away from extinction.” There was a risk that it might not have even begun.
But the greater risk is that people might become disappointed with God because they are disappointed with God’s people. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). When one surveys church history (even our own), it seems that the church has often seen itself as “marching as to war” with its own. How can we explain or justify the internecine squabbles over Christian perfection, salvation, and (ironically) the nature of Christ?
In our own context, we are inclined to claim status as the “true church” because we “obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 12:17). However, I have young people ask me whether women are treated with equality within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and when I explain the situation in regard to the ordination of women, I am bluntly informed that my church cannot be the true church! The church might also fail to portray a correct picture of its Head by inflexibility, institutionalisation, and a focus on maintenance rather than mission. But God seems to have considered it worth the risk that a finite body would only dimly reflect the Infinite.
Without doubt, the greatest risk for God was in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He might have stopped the reign of sin in its tracks by immediate destruction of Lucifer and Adam and Eve. Instead, he dealt with the sin problem in a “softer” fashion and accepted the attendant risks. Jesus could have failed in his mission and everything would have been lost. We might try to follow Job and his friends in trying to understand why disaster all too often comes to us and find all of the answers fall short (Job 1:6–2:10). Our certainty is found instead in the fact that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). It seems that God risks our misunderstanding so that we might ultimately understand him better.
For Discussion or Reflection:
- What does it tell us about God’s character that he uses a “softer” approach in the giving of Scripture and in his dealing with sin?
- What picture of Jesus Christ is my local congregation portraying in its community?
- What are the factors that limit my own understanding of God? How much do I need to understand of God? What do I do with the questions that are too big for me?
- For further reading: Clark H. Pinnock with Barry L. Callen, The Scripture Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006), 111–32; and Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1958), 33–43.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/100