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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Death of Conventional Wisdom

Ideas that are generally accepted as true – conventional wisdom; anything outside the boundary of conventional wisdom draws a second look, the occasional judgmental sneer, and uncomfortable head-scratching. The conventional wisdom I have found most often in the minds of well-intentioned church going Christians is as follows: God is always right and never to be questioned. Everyday folks who depend on their faith in God for their sanity reach blindly for that uncritical line of thinking.

A beloved friend dies. Standing around his casket, those he left behind put forth somber, unreasoned philosophy. “It was his time to go.” “At least he’s in a better place.” “God took him home.” Why do they think such thoughts? It’s conventional wisdom and it would be disquieting to go against it.

No one has the courage to say, “Why the heck didn’t God help them find a transplant for him? Other people get transplants and live a long time. He was only 58. He had many good years left. What was God doing, sleeping on the job?” No, we don’t say that. It never occurs to one that he or she might question God. Conventional wisdom doesn’t question the Almighty.

In the book of Job, we encounter conventional wisdom first in Satan, and then in the words of Job’s wife. Then the seemingly endless cycle of dialogues provide tiresome repetitions of conventional wisdom from the mouths of Job’s three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Finally, a sixth character comes along – Elihu, the angry young man.

The narrator tells us Elihu is angry because Job’s three friends cannot correct Job’s mistaken assessment of his situation. Elihu agrees with their theological position, but it enrages him that they could not answer Job in his relentless commitment to his own innocence. Furthermore, Elihu is outraged that Job would make such claims. Elihu has quietly waited, and now it is his turn and he spews forth conventional wisdom so forcefully, it is almost convincing.

I am appreciative of Gerald Janzen’s commentary on Job (Interpretaion series, John Knox Press). He details 8 ways in which Elihu is off base. This was helpful because by the time I finished reading Elihu’s words (Job, chs 32-37), I wasn’t sure if he was a wise man or another foolish blowhard. The ambiguity is intentional. The book of Job raises questions more than it gives answers. The book of Job provokes discomfort more than it provides spiritual security.

Is something true if someone yells it loudly, with conviction, over and over? Elihu comes off as convincing, and like the three friends, much of what he says is something I would agree with. I would say it if I could be as poetic. But, Job reminds us that it is OK to question God. It is ok to stomp on that conventional wisdom that God is never wrong and is never to be questioned. Just because Elihu gets mad and upsets everyone around him with his anger outburst doesn’t mean we acquiesce and not speak truth.

I don’t think God is ever “wrong.” But if the circumstances of my life suggest that justice has been perverted, I should yell at God, appeal to God, seek God, and demand an audience with God. God is never wrong, but – conventional wisdom aside – God is to be questioned. Abraham - Moses – Job – Paul; those in the Bible who have enough wherewithal to question God are of the most use to God and in the closest of relationships with God.

Elihu is still among us telling us when times get tough, God must have willed it. We can’t question. We just accept it, praise God, and keep quiet (ironically – he has the longest uninterrupted speech in the entire book). We don’t dare question! The problem is if we never develop a dynamic, conversational relationship with God in which we can bring our hard, even unanswerable questions, our faith never grows. In fact, it decays to nothing more than empty ritual and creeds and confession spoken with no conviction. When we confess faith but don’t believe what we are saying our faith is dead.

It’s scary to question God. God is unpredictable.

Still, I believe the best (not the easiest) course for you and for me is to shuck off the confines of conventional wisdom, and dive headfirst into the swirling waters of living faith. Deal with God in a relationship that is unique in that God is interested in you and your interplay with God will be unlike anyone else’s. Be unconventional. Ask questions, upsetting questions, questions that embarrass conventional wisdom. (I hope our church can be a place people feel free to ask those questions.) Be completely real with God – even when you’re mad at God. In the end, like Job you’re drawn closer to God.

The people who stay with conventional wisdom have no idea who God is.


  1. In the end Job repents for having questioned God. The Bible taken as a whole commends faith in God not questions.

  2. I prefer to trust and obey. I ask for things of God in prayer, but if the answer is no, my grace is sufficient then I can accept that.

  3. So, how do you account for gross injustice? How do you account for suffering of the innocent - the needless slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda in the 90's? When a pregnant mom is killed by a drunk driver? The slaughter of millions in Nazi Germany and millions more in WWII and post-WWII communist Russia? Where does "trust and obey" come in when the awful and the unthinkable happens?

  4. Lets first of all pray that the unthinkable doesn't occur. Second, if it does occur, we should, like Job, confess our ignorance of God's ways. Who are mere mortals to question God's purposes?

  5. We are free to pray that the unthinkable won't occur - but it does and has throughout history.

    Your statement "we should confess our ignorance of God's ways" implies God is the source of suffering and evil. When tragedy hits, did God bring it about in accordance with God's purposes? Are you saying the Holocaust accomplished God's purposes? Are you suggesting God caused Hurricane Katrina to accomplish God's purposes? Did God use Stalin to torture and murder 10 million Russians just to accomplish God's purposes?

    And, who are we to question? We are those created in the image of God. We are those who in the Garden of Eden were deemed "very good" (Genesis 1:27, 31. God's creation was complete when God made people in God's image. Does God not desire a dynamic, give-and-take relationship? And if we have an actual relationship, then don't we have freedom to question?

    Why can't a person of faith acknowledge that he is ignorant of God's ways and at the same time question them? Why can't someone do both? What is the harm in questioning God?

  6. Well if God's purpose was to establish the nation of Israel in 1948...

    There is probably no harm in questioning God as long as you repent afterwards. :)

  7. Did Moses repent from preventing God from destroying Israel?

  8. Moses appealed for God to pardon the people. That doesn't appear to me to be questioning God. Rather, he agrees with God, but requests forgiveness.