A public God and a private God
Why aren’t we bitter toward God when the roof falls in on us and life is wrecked almost beyond repair? Why don’t we call God into question when our young husbands are killed at work and a young family is bereft? Why are we so unlike the psalmists and prophets who speak with a boldness against God that takes our breath away? Part of the answer is that our theology differs from theirs.
Of course prophetic protest is not all we read in their writings. The psalmists contributed to "praise" literature but the strength of their theology and their lives is explained in part because they dealt with the one true God rather than some domesticated deity that has to be protected against criticism by elaborate discussions about randomness and free will. When they said yes to God they said yes to a God that is up to his neck in bringing invading armies, devastating drought, famine and other "natural calamities" (see Amos 4 and Habakkuk 1). When they came away from a conference with God they knew they had been in with the only God there is so that their "yes" was uttered with their eyes wide open. For good or ill, blessing or calamity, this was the God they committed to and more importantly this was the God that committed to them.
But the truth is that we moderns and particularly we Western moderns engage so much in double talk. We have a public rhetoric where God is always in the right and the cause of all our pain and loss is the Devil or our personal and individual sins or bad luck (called "randomness") or human stupidity or human oppressors. These we rage against in public and when some poor "ignorant" soul says she thinks God is behind it all we turn on her like a bad-tempered pit-bull—"how dare she; imagine laying all that awful stuff at the feet of God!" But in private—or at least in a setting not too public—we turn to God and want to know, "What are you up to? How could you let this happen, why didn’t you prevent it?"
Yes, I can see that the logic of the distinction can be maintained between God being involved in bringing it about and allowing it, but the fact is that we’re still sure that God isn’t running the show correctly. If he were doing his job right such things would not happen to us. So on one hand we have God standing helpless before free-will because he can’t interfere—that means he shouldn’t be criticized but on the other hand we privately work him over because he didn’t prevent or immediately remedy the bad situation.
You can’t read the Bible and shut God out of this whole mess. Prophets and psalmists and other biblical characters won’t hear tell of that. They’d rather argue with him, protest before him and ask him to change his mind rather than deny his hand is bringing it about. We usually speak our doubts or difficulties in private so no one will hear but the psalmists sang their protests and the prophets preached them. But they never gave God ultimatums nor did they ever imagine to say, "Dear God we know that you don’t bring calamity on us so it must be Marduk or one of those other pagan deities. Why don’t you go and whack them." And it wasn’t that they were ignorant of secondary causes. They had some basic understanding that wind and clouds and such were involved in rainfall or that eating bad food could make you sick or that it was actual foreign forces that devastated them during battle. They knew all that and still said God was doing it!
We’re just not robust enough for that. Too much political correctness and too much modernist theology still clinging to us from Ritschl and Harnack and others. Can you imagine what would happen if we asked some brother to frame our congregational prayer for us and he said something like this. "Dear God, we haven’t wandered from your will but you have given us over to our enemies. We have tried to walk in your way but it doesn’t seem to matter to you because our enemies prosper at your hand and we go to the wall. You made promises to protect us from the enemy nations and instead you brought them against us and they have destroyed our freedom to worship. When are you going to wake up and do right by us?" See Psalm 44 and ask yourself if that would go over as a hymn in any congregation you know. (I’ve developed this a little in a book you might be interested in. The God who commands the impossible.)
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, the abiding word.com.