Sunday, May 13, 2012

Can You Win An Argument With God?

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the Judeo-Christian worldview is the conception of a God who is incredibly down-to-earth (maybe too much so). It is quite reasonable to envision a God who tells mankind what to do. What is difficult to imagine is a God with whom we can debate successfully. Indeed, it is most reasonable to posit a divine being who believes that man should effectively be "seen and not heard". What strains credulity is the notion that God not only wants to hear from us, but that he actually alters his decisions based on the words we speak to him.

One of the earliest examples of this divine condescension involves the patriarch Abraham. As God prepares to destroy a wicked Sodom and Gomorrah, he tells Abraham that he plans to send fire and brimstone upon the city because "their sins cry out to heaven." What follows is a most unusual event. During this exchange Abraham actually begins to negotiate with God; " 'Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city, would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it for the sake of fifty innocent people?'...The Lord replied "If I find fifty, I will spare it." (Genesis 18:24-26). After this initial request, Abraham continues to negotiate, and he is eventually able to wheedle that number down to "ten innocent men." Apparently the bar was not set nearly low enough, for the two cities were ultimately destroyed.

Later on in Genesis, there is another unusual scene in which Abraham's grandson Jacob wrestles with "the angel of the Lord." Whenever this term is used, it generally implies more than the idea that God has sent a simple messenger to speak to man. Rather, it means that God Himself, under the appearance of a human being, is speaking to man. However, not only does Jacob wind up "wrestling with the angel" but, according to the Scriptures, he is even victorious in the battle; "Then some man wrestled with him until the dawn. When the man saw that he could not prevail over him, he struck Jacob's hip at its socket... The man then said let me go for it is daybreak. But Jacob said, I will not let you go until you bless me...Then the man said, 'You shall no longer be spoken of as Jacob, but as Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed.'" (Gen. 32:25-29). Whatever else can be said of this divine WWE, one thing is certain: Jacob wrestled with God and won. Not only does he reign victorious over the almighty, but God actually blesses him for his efforts, and then places him among the pantheon of great patriarchs.

In Exodus, when God tells Moses that he wants him to be His spokesman to His people, Moses protests claiming: "I have never been a man of words... For I am heavy of speech and heavy of tongue" (Exodus 4:10). According to scholars, this passages suggests that Moses was in all likelihood a bit of a stutterer. God responds by telling him to trust in His power, but as Moses continues to protest, the Lord eventually concedes and says in essence; 'Fine. I will ask Aaron to help you, but I am not pleased with your lack of trust.' Once again, God has a specific idea for how he wants things to go, but as a consequence of the objections of one of his servants, he modifies those plans. In point of fact, there are any number of occasions in which God changes his mind in the Old Testament. His reasons for doing this are generally two-fold: repentance and/or intercession. 

There are other examples in the Old Testament of prophets and patriarchs debating with God, but not all of these end in victory. For example, Jonah wants the Ninevites to suffer, while God wants them to be saved. Point goes to God. Or when Job gets reprimanded by God for ceaselessly questioning His motives (though God also compliments Job for his willingness to ask the difficult questions, and then ultimately give him back everything he lost, so...). At any rate, this is not a post about arguments men lose to God- which is pedestrian enough- but rather those arguments that are won.

In the New Testament, Jesus wins many debates against the Pharisees, but there also numerous occasions where he concedes the point. Perhaps the most notable example of this is at the Wedding Feast of Cana. At some point during the celebration, the wedding party apparently runs out of wine, and so Mary brings this to the attention of Jesus; "They have no wine." Based solely on Jesus' response, one might be under the impression that he will ultimately reject her request; "How does your concern effect me? My hour has not yet come" (John 2:3). As a matter of fact, it is difficult to see anything but a sense of annoyance from this exchange (a sentiment not terribly foreign to a son). Yet as if to affirm his own words in the Gospel of Matthew about a son who first says "no", and then says "yes", he too responds affirmatively to her request in the end. Interestingly, there is no moment in this passage that says he changed his mind and consented to his mother's wishes, though he ultimately does. All we hear from Mary after the exchange, are the words; "Do whatever he tells you" (John 2:5). I do not know what happened in the intervening moments between the rejection and the fulfillment of the request, what is inarguable are the results. The jugs were all filled with wine by Jesus, and the wine, according to the Gospel, was nothing short of vintage. As for myself, I can't help but to think of all the times that my mother (or wife) has asked me to do something that I was not particularly inclined to do, and how often my "no" became a "yes" after further consideration. But whatever the case, this mother seems particularly un-phased by what seems to the rest of us to be nothing short of a solemn rebuke. She calmly tells the servers with what I imagine to be a wry smile, 'his bark is worse than his bite.' Subsequently, he fulfills her request [to the brim] despite the fact that this clearly was not the day nor the time in which he intended to begin his ministry.

In this last example I would like to focus on an incident which I believe expresses the underlying reason why God not only is willing to argue with us, but more importantly, why he sometimes even agrees to act in accordance with our will. When Joseph and Mary took Jesus up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, they stayed for about a week. While there, Jesus gets separated from his parents who think that he is with some other family members. But when they haven't seen him for three days, they look frantically around him for him thinking that something terrible may have happened to the boy. In the end, they find him in the temple talking with the teachers about the law of God.

Yet as interesting as the story is what comes next is even more so. First he tells Mary and Joseph that they were silly to worry about him in the first place because, of course, he was about his "father's" business (namely God the Father's). But as noteworthy as this exchange is, what comes next is nothing short of mind-blowing; "But he went back down to Nazareth with them and remained subject to them... growing in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:51) According to this passage, God Himself was obedient to his earthly parents and as a result grew in "wisdom and stature". Hebrews declares; "Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8). Stunningly, what this passage suggests is that "obedience" is the very virtue by which Jesus is made perfect (how a perfect being can be made perfect after he already is perfect is question I will leave to my readers). Far from being incidental, this notion of obeying and being subject to the will of human beings, even wicked ones, is fundamental to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; "For though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to exploit, rather he emptied himself taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6-11). Now this doesn't mean that God is indecisive, or that he doesn't have a specific plan for human beings. What it means is that God is so humble that he doesn't even act like he's God. In other words, he doesn't have (from what I can tell) any divine swagger, nor is he likely to declare with scorn, "Don't you know who I Am?" (pun intended). Rather, he is so humble and respectful of our free-will that, far from crushing us in a debate, which he could most certainly do, he ultimately allows us to quite literally crush him.                  

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