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Two Questions

March 8, 2010

Initially this essay was focused on two questions: what is God doing and how is He doing it?  As I began to write, though, I realized I wanted to focus on three points within the second question.  And so, while I intend to provide incomplete and perhaps vague answers to these two questions again, I intend to do so in a manner that focuses more sharply on the triple answers that made these questions worth answering in my eyes.

If you live in the west you live within a culture in which the question of god has been reduced in some important ways.  Namely, the choice is, with the exception of some minority subcultures, one or zero.  And if you choose “one” you almost automatically pick up omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence.  Even if you choose to go off the beaten path into one of the various New Age options that offers a larger menu of gods the odds are those gods are really just the limbs of some monotheistic deity, whacked off and sold á la carte.  I’ve rarely run across the Wiccan who believes in a plethora of small gods, each of whom has their own aims, powers, and grudges.  Instead, they all work together, on the same plan, like the organs of some larger deity who mistakenly self-identify.  So I want to answer the first of my questions in a way that every monotheist and fake polytheist I know can affirm.

What is God doing?  God is setting the world to rights.

Odds are good that if you don’t like this statement it’s because you don’t believe in gods, not because you believe in them but think they’re out to get us, or (as a number of early Mesopotamian societies seem to have believed) just trying to make a living.  So let’s ruffle some feathers.  My next three answers are the ones I think are interesting, and the ones that begin to drive real wedges between groups.

How is God doing this?  Through redemption, suffering, and people.

What is redemption?  Redemption is often used simply as a church word for “setting the world to rights”, but it’s not.  There’s at least one other way, which we are all excessively familiar with, to do that.  I’m going to call this method filtration.

Filtration is just what it sounds like.  When you filter something you take a grid with holes in it and run the substance to be filtered through it.  On one side you end up with all the particles smaller than the grid holes, and on the other those larger.  The point being that you improve the quality of your finished product through removal.  The second point is that you end up removing based on a continuous scale.  Filter water and you think you’re removing impurities, which are solids, and getting water, a liquid.  But if you cranked the hole size down far enough you’d eventually start catching water molecules as well.  Your choice of hole size is a little arbitrary.

Governance runs on a filtration model.  Forget religions, for a second.  Some of them use this model, too, but I live in a governed country, and I feel safer using this as an example.  Governments ensure the safety of their citizens (for those which are concerned with such niceties) by removing bad people from society.  They may go to prison.  They may go to the electric chair.  If there are a lot of them, and they live in another country, they may be shot on the field of battle.  But they are removed, and our societies are doubtless safer for their absence.  Within supernatural religious systems (I specify because some things, like communism, seem to have a remarkably religious character while stridently screaming against the supernatural, and against religion) those filtered out generally burn in some sort of hell, but the point is the same.  They are removed from the society of the righteous.

But God’s primary method of setting the world to rights is redemption.  The centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection for Christianity cannot be understated.  Jesus does not offer to sort through everyone and throw out the bad apples: he offers to heal the whole lot.  This is, of course, predicated on the idea that everyone would be thrown out if that was what God were in the business of doing.  If all you do is filter evil out you’ll never do better than the least evil person you have.  If you want something different you have to make it so.  Redemption is the making right of the broken.  Jesus is not, primarily, in the business of throwing people out, but of fixing them.

Some of us can stomach that.  But how do you fix the broken?  Duct tape is notoriously ineffective when it comes to the shattering effects of the Fall.  Again, we find our example in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Jesus goes down, and back up.  Jesus enters into our lives, takes on our sufferings, and stands back up again.  He takes from us what we could not handle, and triumphs over it.

This is, naturally, the fountainhead of a vast river of uncomfortable Christian theology.  Why forgive?  Because in forgiveness we take upon ourselves the suffering, and triumph over it.  Why engage in acts of charity?  Because in doing so we take hurt upon ourselves on someone else’s behalf, and triumph over it.  Why serve?  Why humble ourselves?  Why fix, and heal, and turn the other cheek?  Because God Himself has chosen to enter into our suffering, and the way of Christ, then, is to set aside our rights and step down into the suffering of others.  Because God has not seen His own rights as more important than our redemption.  Because God has done an obscene thing, and given the finger to His own vast prerogatives.

Which, finally, brings us to our third point.  God is working through people.  How did God save Israel from Egypt?  Through Moses.  How did He give them the promised land?  Through Joshua.  How did He throw back their oppressors throughout the book of Judges?  Through Gideon, Jephthah, Deborah, Ehud, Samson….  How did He guide Israel as the monarchy began?  Through Samuel.  How did He guard the nation?  Through David.  How did he rebuke it, and push it back towards righteousness?  Through Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, Joel, Obadiah….  Obviously God acts on his own here, too.  Moses did not bring plagues on Egypt through his own power, nor did Jeremiah strike unrepentant Judah with the Babylonian armies.  But God has a pattern, and that pattern is to involve people.  There is no such thing as standing on the sidelines.

The point was never to end up in the right eschatological sorting bin.  The point was never to be good and stay out of trouble until the Lord comes.  The point was to push God’s agenda.  To become involved in His great work, fixing the world, through His great methods.  To be faithful not just to the person of Christ, but to the way of Christ, the pattern of Christ.

And here we come full circle.  God is fixing the world.  He fixes us.  He fixes us through entering our suffering and triumphing over it.  He redeems us.  He makes us like Himself.  And He calls us into service.  Service like His.  Service to His plans, and His ways.  To suffer, and lift up.  To redeem.  Here is where we part ways with so many others.  Filtering may be necessary – I don’t claim to know, but even the best physician sometimes amputates.  But I know that God calls us to redeem, that redemption should flow back through us to the world.  That our highest calling is to be like our Lord, and that our Lord, in His glory, suffered and died, that we might be redeemed.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay permalink
    March 8, 2010 9:47 pm

    Great article, Eric! Oswald Chambers in the “My Utmost for His Highest” devotional book is constantly pointing to Jesus’s act of Redemption as the absolute bedrock on which everything Christian is built.


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