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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Unsafe God

A New Word

I have just begun Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I am only 10 pages into the book. So I don’t know how profound what I am about to share is in relation to Dostoevsky’s story. But, as to my own thoughts and conclusions in my reading of the book of Job, it is poignant.

The first character Dostoevsky introduces is a young impoverished man named Raskolnikov. From the outset, Raskolnikov’s inner monologue is tortured. He makes the observation that I think strikes the climactic theological note in Job 42. Raskolnikov muses, “… I wonder what men are most afraid of … Any new departure, and especially a new word – that is what they fear most.”

The italics are the author’s, not mine. In America, we seem obsessed with the newest and latest. One of the features of ESPN the Magazine is “Next.” The editors try to identify the next generations of great athletes, the next Michael Jordan or the next Tiger Woods. American ethos would generally reject Raskolnikov’s assessment that we fear paradigm shifts more than we fear anything else.

However, Americans’ obsession with the new and the fad is itself a paradigm. The new word is not the actual answer to the question “what’s next?” The new word is heard when our culture moves on to a different question. We wake up one morning and realize that over the past 3 decades we have stopped asking “what’s next?” That is when we will have been through a paradigm shift, and we absolutely are terrified of it.

The real American Idol (and here I refer to ‘idol’ in the Biblical sense, something that is worshipped in place of God) is liberty. In our cultural ethos, liberty or freedom is valued over everything else. We are addicted to the notion that we are free to ask “what’s next?” We are scared to death that if we stop asking that question, we won’t be completely free. And we contently live under the deception that we are completely free.

When the book of Job became a scroll that was a part of the canon, the holy writings of the people of Israel, the prevailing theological framework rested on the idea of retribution. Sinners are punished. Righteous people are rewarded. People were generally more interested in living within that belief system than actually dealing with the reality of a relationship with God that could not be predicted.

Job discovered that while there is some merit to that theological framework, God would not conform to it. The rules (sinners-punished, righteous men rewarded) revealed truth about God some of the time; maybe even much of the time. But, the man Job discovered that some of the time, righteous people suffered. Some of the time, flagrant violators of God’s laws prospered. Much of the time, the truth was gray, not nearly as black and white as the rules seemed to indicate.

The redactors (editors) lived in a day when God’s chosen people were coming out of the disillusioning Babylonian exile. Their return to the Promised Land happened in waves and with the blessing of the pagan Persian king. There was no Moses parting the Euphrates River. Nehemiah was a slave. He was a slave with a very high position in the King’s court, but indentured nonetheless. He did not boldly thrust plagues upon the land in confrontations akin to those of Moses and Pharaoh. He meekly sought the favor of King Artaxerxes. It is as if the rebuilding of Jerusalem was as much as result of Artaxerxes magnanimity as God’s sovereign will.

Sages and priestly editors living in this world had trouble because their Exodus, Red-Sea parting theology didn’t exactly fit. God wasn’t working through signs and wonders. God was working in the heart of a gentile king. How would those who interpreted the word and the world help the people of God process the situation theologically?

The story of Job suddenly had a relevance it had not previously enjoyed. If Job took place in the days of Abraham and was told as a fireside story for 2 millennia, why had it not become a part of Israel’s scripture? Why was it just a story passed on by bards? Job called into question assumptions about God and the world. Job dared to say the world is unpredictable and we can’t just rely on the rules. We actually have to seek out God!

The people did not want to seek out God. They wanted to rest secure in the rules they knew about God. To actually be in relationship with God was terrifying. Noah discovered this. So too did Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. Likewise Samuel, David, and Solomon. To be sure all of these also discover the wonder of a relationship with God. But as incomparably awesome as it is to be close to God and to talk to God and hear from God, we are reminded by Beaver (in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) God isn’t safe. God is good, but not safe.

In the whirlwind, Job draws close to the unsafe God. Job speaks to and hears from the unsafe God. Seeing that and seeing the way the book of Job dump ice water on the theological presumptions of 5th century BC Israel, we affirm Dostoevsky’s poor Petersburg Student. Yes, Raskolnikov, this new word is what we fear most.

But if we can move past this fear, we can move to that place where Moses takes off his shoes. We move to that place where young Samuel hears the midnight cry and it isn’t Eli. We move to that place where Solomon has enough presence of mind to ask God for wisdom of all things. We move to Elijah’s silence and Job’s whirlwind and Daniel’s lion’s den. We move to that place where we stop reading descriptions of God and we start giving personal eyewitness testimony. We stop discussing ideas about God and we talk directly too Him.

When we enter relationship with God we’ve moved through the ultimate paradigm shift. Once we go there, nothing the world offers is satisfying; nor is it all that unsettling. How could it be? How could anything in this world shake the faith of one who has spent time in the courts of Heaven? To walk in the quiet of the morning talking with the unsafe God is the greatest height to which a man or woman can ascend.

1 comment:

  1. There is no liberty in a world where you go to jail for not buying Obamacare insurance. The real idol America worships is psuedo-science. Science says there is no God and we evolved from apes so we buy or orange- and green- letter bibles. But do we really want to do what God says or are we worhipping human thought as the replacement for God.