Complaining and Lament

Have you ever been reading the Bible and suddenly thought, “Gee, that’s odd”?

I have been going through the book of Numbers. In chapter 11 I read how unhappy God was with Israel for complaining about their troubles in the wilderness (especially about not having meat) even after God had freed them from the Egyptians. At the same time I was reading a book on lament in the Psalms and, of course, in the book of Lamentations.

I thought, “Gee, that’s odd. In Numbers complaining to God is bad, but elsewhere lament (which essentially seems to be the same thing as complaining to God) is good. Which is it?”

I think the answer is a lesson in our tendency to take things out of context. Understanding what’s going on depends on seeing the whole sweep of the narrative in all thirty-six chapters of Numbers and the whole sweep of Psalms, not an isolated chapter or verse.

The first part of Numbers (chapters 1–25) tells the story of Israel’s rising rebellion against God after crossing the Red Sea. Though they begin with obedience, the complaining in Numbers 11 culminates in Numbers 13-14. There all but two (Joshua and Caleb) of the twelve spies rebel against God’s plan to enter the Promised Land because of the “giants” they find there. We see other examples of disobedience in Numbers 15, 16, 17, and 20. God promises that the whole generation will die in the wilderness except for Joshua and Caleb.

The second part of Numbers (26-36) begins with a census just as the first part did, but now a census of the new generation that will enter the land. In these last chapters we find hope and promise.

What we have then in Numbers 11 is not a universal prohibition against bringing our griefs, misfortunes, or even our complaints to God. Rather it is a piece of a story that denounces the ongoing life of rebellion and disobedience of Israel’s first generation out of Egypt.

Complaints to and even anger at God (that is, lament) as found in dozens of Psalms are offered in a larger context of a book about wisdom and worship. In these Psalms of lament, the act of remembering God’s past faithfulness triggers asking what in the world is going on in the present.

Even Psalm 88, the most despairing of all the psalms, is a valid expression to God even when we cannot see God on the other side. For it resides in the context of the whole book of Psalms in which we seek God’s wisdom in the midst of both sorrow and of praise.

It may seem odd to complain to God in a context of worship. But that’s not necessarily how God sees it.

photo credit: Pixabay, GidonPico (dead sea)

The Enemy of Faith

We often consider unbelief and doubt to be enemies of faith. After all, if we perpetually embrace them, we never embrace God. But a very different response can also be the enemy—certainty.

As Tobias Wolf said, “Certainty is one of the greatest spiritual problems of our time.”* When we are absolutely sure of what we believe, we may inadvertently cut God out of the equation. We rest instead on ideas, statements, propositions, logic, argumentation, and viewpoints which we think stand on their own as universal truths.

The Christian faith is full of things we do not know, however. Though we believe in the Trinity we have very little understanding of how Three can be One and One Three. We know Jesus died for our sins but exactly how faith and grace work together in the cross is something we cannot entirely know. The Bible is very sketchy on the character of heaven or hell. And as to how the universe came to be? Well, God did it but a few details seem to be missing.

Mystery is everywhere in Christianity. The Bible is God’s Word but also written by humans. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. The more we try to remove the mystery, put everything in a neat and tidy system, the more we may fight against faith. God wants us to rely on him, not on our convictions.

It’s no coincidence that the certainty of Proverbs is immediately followed by the uncertainty of Ecclesiastes. And not just because so much of both are attributed to Solomon. God gives wisdom, yes, but we don’t have it all. “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it” (Eccl 8:17).

Certainty can engender pride and arrogance. When we are certain, we have no appreciation for human limitations. It means we have little to learn, maybe nothing even from God.

Lack of certainty is an underappreciated virtue which can make room for faith, humility, and love of others.

*Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, April 2016.

Christmas Eve 1968

Fifty years ago next week, a manned spacecraft for the first time entered orbit around another celestial body–the moon.

The year 1968 had been a harrowing one for the country and the world. It began with the devastating Tet Offensive in Vietnam and was followed by the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The “Prague Spring” was crushed by Soviet tanks in August with the tumultuous Democratic National Convention a week later.

Weary and worn, we were ready for some good news. That night, Christmas Eve, the crew of Apollo 8 sent a message to everyone on earth in what has been called the most watched television broadcast in history. Here is what they said:
Continue reading “Christmas Eve 1968”

The Psalmist Reflects on Genesis

In my previous post, I asked, What exactly is meant that people are in the image of God? The answer Psalm 8 offers reinforces these thoughts. As the psalmist reflects on the creation described in Genesis 1 and our place in it, he wonders what makes humans so special. He then responds, “You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet” (verse 6).
Continue reading “The Psalmist Reflects on Genesis”

The Image of God

What does it mean that we are made in the image of God? Over the centuries many options have been proposed for what Genesis 1:27 means.

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Does it mean consciousness or self-consciousness? The ability to think and be rational? Perhaps creativity, since God is obviously being very creative in Genesis 1? Could it be our spiritual nature, the ability to relate to God?

The problem with all of these (and many other proposals) is that they are also all true of angels. Then in what unique sense are humans in God’s image?

I believe the answer is right there in Genesis 1. When God gave the first man and woman in the garden a calling to be fruitful, to multiply, and to subdue the earth, this was not a command to dominate nature but to steward. As Jesus expresses in his parable, stewards are given something that belongs to another and are made responsible to not just protect it but to use it as the owner intended (Matthew 25:14-30).

God’s intention was not to use up the earth for himself. He wanted to expand his loving presence throughout his creation. Genesis 1 describes the formation of the cosmos the way the building of ancient temples were often described in ancient literature.* Temples were places where the deity resided. So the implication is that the whole cosmos is where God resides.

From descriptions of the tabernacle and temple in the Old Testament, we see that various parts were intended to represent the whole earth and the whole cosmos, symbolizing God’s presence throughout creation. A large brass bowl filled with water was called the sea (1 Kings 7:23-26). The altar was to be made of earth and uncut stones (Exodus 20:24-25). Representations of vegetation were to adorn the temple (1 Kings 7: 18-26, 42, 49-50). The seven candles represented the seven planets. The colors of the curtain and the priests’ robes were of the sky.**

The first chapters of Genesis focus on creating a cosmic temple for God to dwell in as well as a sanctuary in the garden as a kind of micro-representation of that cosmic temple where God was also to dwell. Why does God do this? Because his plan is for his ruling presence to expand from the garden (representing the cosmos) to eventually fill the whole earth.

That is the context in which we are to understand what is meant that the man and the woman are in God’s image. They (and we) are appointed vice regents, God’s stewards who participate with him in extending his presence throughout creation. We do this by bringing beauty and order as well as by bringing the Good News of God’s rule to the whole earth.

*John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), pp. 77-85.
**G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission NSBT (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), pp. 46-47.

Widows and Orphans

I have lived with the New Testament letter of James for many decades. And I frequently puzzled over one aspect of a particular verse: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (Jas 1:27) Why widows and orphans? Why not people who are hungry or ill or grieving? Is there something special about orphans and widows that should take our attention?
Continue reading “Widows and Orphans”

Through Old Testament Eyes 4: Who Are the Chosen Ones?

Election is controversial. Of course, I’m talking about the Christian doctrine, not any recent political events.

For five hundred years Protestants have gone back and forth on the topic of predestination and all its implications. The effect for sensitive souls, however, can be to worry and wonder, “Am I one of the elect? Am I one of the chosen, or will I somehow fall outside the bounds of grace?”
Continue reading “Through Old Testament Eyes 4: Who Are the Chosen Ones?”

Prophetic Lament

Throughout my life I have attended worship services in a variety of traditions, but they tended to have one thing in common–they began with praise to God and then moved to confession. This is an appropriate model to follow with much merit. When we see how holy and good God is, we see more clearly by contrast that we are not, and so we confess.
Continue reading “Prophetic Lament”