Tuesday, April 06, 2010

A champion among stupid theological statements: God won't give you anything you can't handle

Over the years I have heard any number of theological aphorisms that on closer inspection turn out to be false. The whole book of Ecclesiastes is best read as a reflection on the limits of the best wisdom human experience has to offer. Rather than see it as the book of some guy who cynically disobeyed God and whose judgment can't be trusted we should remember that every word of the scriptures is inspired and consider that if one of the authors of scriputres throws up his hands in exasperation at the limits of even the best wisdom we should be wary of simplifying what is complex and remember that that which is crooked cannot be made straight.

Yet we always want to simplify and straighten. Among stupid simplifying and straightening statements in theology none seems more perncious to me now than the axiom "God won't give you anything you can't handle." Now if by that statement someone just means to say "there is no temptation but is common to man", okay. But if the idea is that God won't give you a mission you can't accomplish, well, then that's grossly mistaken.

Not one of the saints in scripture met the end of their lives saying "mission accomplished". Moses died outside the promised land with the knowledge that an entire generation of God's people would die in the wilderness due to their faithlessness. Joshua did not really complete the conquest of Canaan. None of the judges managed to secure more than a temporary reprieve on injustice and war. The kings were generally mitigated disasters. Even Elijah, arguably greatest among the OT prophets, failed to accomplish two things God explicitly and directly commanded him to do (annoint Hazael king of Aram and annoint Jehu king of Israel). Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac and then stopped. God promised Abraham that his descendents would be enslaved in a foreign land for centuries and THAT came to pass long after Abraham was dead.

The pioneers of our faith are failures through and through. Luther did not manage to reform the western church. It splintered. The Puritans failed to reform the church of England and pioneered Presbyterianism. Our best attempts with what we are sure are the most God-given reasons end in failure. There are those who would say this is a sign that God is not really on our side because you can't argue with success and failure is the most compelling argument for God's disfavor. The kingdom divided because of wicked kings but did that mean that Israel stopped being God's chosen people? Did that nullify the promises God made to Abraham or David? By no means!

Yet we are people who like to believe that when it really matters our failures are the surest proof of God's disapproval. We still have a kind of spirituality where we pay lip service to the idea of considering God before men but still believe that we can manage to hold our heads high in front of others because if God is really on our side no one can stop us. We don't really rejoice when we feel we are persecuted for the sake of Christ. Our idea of persecution is that unbelievers think Christians are jerks who believe God approves of them by giving them awesome parking spots going to the mall or that their favorite athletics team won the series. We think of persecution as the neighbors speaking poorly of our church for eating up local real estate and seeming bent on altering the fiscal and political landscape through subculture-wide breeding programs. We consider this persecution? While Michael Spenser was alive I believe he rightly called this sort of thing out as a particularly obnoxious form of self-pity.

Now if God actually only ever gives you no more than you can handle then some saints have aptly joked that it would be nice if God thought less of what they could handle! Let us consider the greatest pioneer of the Christian faith, faith in the power of the coming Christ. Let us consider the one who is often rightly called the first Christian. Why is Mary most blessed among women? For being constantly under the suspicion of being a lying adulteress whose bastard son was executed because he was yet another rab-burrough Palestinian anti-Roman terrorist in waiting? Jesus was our pioneer in death and failure even though He has the words of life. I can say that it's always a temptation to want a resurrection without crucifixion but it is also a huge temptation to still see crucifixion as a sign of failure.

If we tell someone like Mary "God won't give you anything that you can't handle" what do we mean by that? What can we mean by it? If we tell Christians that God won't send you on an impossible mission we don't understand the Lord or ourselves. The Lord saw that after generations upon generations the mission was impossible. In fact Yahweh tells Moses in the most potent terms possible that Israel was GOING TO FAIL! The mission was going to be a complete disaster. The team was going to give up, sell out, and go home. God called Abraham out of the realm of Babylon and he willingly went but after centuries of recalcitrance Israel was sent by war and exile back into the very land of Babylon out of which the great ancestor of the faith had been called. What Israel as a whole did with Yahweh and His appointed prophets, priests, and kings Jesus' own disciples did to Him at Gethsemane. Christ Himself knows what it is like to face unanswered prayers and to be sent on a mission that ends in death. Christ embraced a failure greater than any we fear so as to give us the gift of a victory we cannot obtain, a victory that is beyond what we are really capable of fully imagining.

Yet why, after all of this testimony in the scriptures and the lives of the saints do we persist in supposing that God does, in fact, somehow have this rule that He won't give us anything we can't handle? Do we not remember that the Lord is the first inventor of impossible missions? God tells Noah to build a boat when it had not rained. God comes to Abram and says that through his descendents a great nation will be made. Abram rightly says that that is impossible because he is an old man and his wife is barren. Moses is sent to be the human agent of rescue for a people whom God will spend a generation crushing in the wilderness for their unbelief and disobedience, their unwillingness to trust in His goodness. God comes to the ancestor of our faith with an impossible mission and yet we delude ourselves and each other into thinking that God won't give us anything beyond what we can handle?

1 comment:

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

When the people you know who call themselves christians get all excited about some pastor who is having tremendous
"success" based on the criteria that he who makes the most noise and is heard by the most people is the most "successful" then you have wonder about Moses who didn't enter the promised land ...