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Point of decision
Deuteronomy 11: I’ve brought you today to the crossroads of Blessing and Curse.
Free will is both a wonderful gift and a terrible burden. It’s a gift in that it sets us apart from all other creatures. We’re made in God’s image. It’s a burden because it’s possible for us to freely make foolish decisions, which God will allow us to make, and for which he will hold us accountable. The people Moses speaks to stand at a point of decision. On one hand, they have the route to blessing. On the other is the cursed route. Clearly, the Lord wants them to pick “Blessing Street.” However, he won’t force them to do so. Since I have the benefit of being able to turn the pages of my Bible and gaze into their future, I find that, while there are many “blessing stories” yet to be told, there are plenty of the others too; even to the point of near extinction of their race. In his Sovereignty the Lord grants Israel the right to choose. By his grace they’ve arrived at this place of choice and by his grace they’re allowed to decide the next step. However, their choice at this point isn’t without consequences. Some of those consequences are good, others bad. The ability to choose is a gift of God but it’s also a burden because choices have consequences.
Take Away: The exercise of free will can bring wonderful blessings into our lives. It can also be our downfall.
Numbers 14: In this wilderness they will come to their end. There they will die.
It sounds unfair, doesn’t it? God brings them out of Egypt, cares for them and leads them to the land he’s promised. Then, when they’re afraid of the giants of Canaan he dumps them. It sounds unfair; but it isn’t. Here’s what’s happening: he’s giving them their own way. They don’t want to listen to the pleading and encouraging word of Caleb and Joshua, they don’t want to follow the lead of Moses, and they don’t want to trust God. So God says, “Okay.” If they prefer to go back into the wilderness he’ll let them go. The result will be tragic, their bones scattered across the desert. But if they insist, he’ll let them have it their way. Even here there’s grace. Manna will continue to fall, their clothes won’t wear out, and God will still be their God. The words quoted above aren’t a death sentence. Rather, they’re a statement of reality. The Lord will patiently wait until these decision-makers have died off and then give the same command and make the same offer to their children. Passages like this define both free will and grace. On one hand, God won’t force us to obey him. On the other, he’ll never stop working in our lives, patiently calling us to himself and to his purposes for us.
Take Away: The Lord won’t negate our free will, even for our own good.
More on “God did it”
Genesis 50: Don’t you see, you planned evil against me but God used those same plans for my good….
For over 20 years Joseph’s brothers carried the secret guilt of what they did to him. Now, even though Joseph has forgiven them we see that they haven’t yet forgiven themselves. The reason for this is that, if their roles were reversed, they’d still be holding a grudge. When their father dies they’re afraid that it was for the sake of Jacob that Joseph never took revenge on them. When Joseph realizes what’s happening he assures his brothers that he has no intention of striking out at them. Through the years Joseph has had lots of time to think about the flow of events in his life and he’s developed an insightful theology about it all. On one hand, he knows that it wasn’t God who planned evil things against him. Clearly, it was his brothers who did this and Joseph makes no attempt to say the Lord was behind their evil deed. On the other hand, Joseph sees that when his brothers did their worst that they couldn’t derail God’s ultimate plan. God moved in and redeemed their evil act, turning it into good for Joseph and even for those evil-deed-doing bothers. Earlier, Joseph told his brothers, concerning his being sold into slavery, that “God did it.” Now we see that, while this statement isn’t wrong, it’s incomplete. When people act in their own free will to do the wrong thing God has a knack of stepping in and transforming it into something good. My friend, considering that this conversation takes place over a century before the Ten Commandments are given that’s a pretty mature theology.
Take away: God doesn’t do bad things to accomplish his will, but he’s capable of working through bad things to bring his purposes to pass.
Talk about sibling rivalry!
Genesis 37: The story continues with Joseph.
Things finally settle down for Jacob and his journeys come to an end. His many children grow up as he and his wives grow old. It’s time to focus on the next generation. Jacob’s multiple wives plus their maid servants have produced lots of kids, especially sons. The fundamental flaw of this polygamous system is apparent in Jacob’s having a favorite wife who, in turn produces favorite children. The women struggled with this approach and their children aren’t as docile about it as their mothers were. Their sibling rivalry is similar to what their father and his brother experienced decades earlier. When Jacob makes it clear that Joseph is his favorite the other brothers band together in their hatred of him. It’s only a matter of time before this pot boils over and the day comes when the brothers are given a golden opportunity to act against Joseph. At the last minute they modify their plan and rather than murder him they sell him into slavery instead. The thing that comes to mind as I consider this story is the amazing flexibility of God. He works through situations that are mishandled. Had the brothers gotten along I still think Joseph would have become a powerful man. I also think all of their lives would have been easier. Still, when they act as they do, the Lord’s purpose isn’t ruined and the Lord immediately goes to work to accomplish his purpose while honoring their free will. As I read this story, I’m reminded that it’s better cooperate with what God wants in the first place and enjoy his blessing along the way. Still, while the Lord holds me accountable for how I live my life; poor decisions on my part will never negate his ultimate purposes in the world.
Take away: God always honors free will, but he doesn’t let our failures stop him from accomplishing his purposes.
Genesis 6: God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart.
Human beings have been removed from the Garden but they take their sin with them. Immediately, grace begins to flow, an unending river of good will toward these broken creatures. Sadly, the response is to reject the grace and push the Grace-Giver away. The crowning achievement of all God made has degenerated into a self-absorbed, God-ignoring shadow of what might have been. This “free-will” business isn’t working out and like radical surgery is sometimes needed to battle cancer, the Lord makes the painful decision to prune away all the foulness so that humanity will get another chance. For centuries the number of people who chose to respond to God’s grace has dwindled. Now, one righteousness man is left. If humanity is to be saved, it’ll be through him. The focus of the universe is on righteous Noah. We won’t see everything depending on just one man again until the Lord unleashes the eternal solution to the fallen condition of humanity. That will involve a willingness, not to build an ark, but to go to a cross.
Take away: The story of Noah is more about humanity getting a second chance than it is about judgment.
Something new: prayer!
Genesis 4: That’s when men and women began praying and worshiping in the name of God.
Things are really messed up. The human race is fallen. The Garden is gone. The first murder has taken place. It’s all falling apart. This “free will” thing isn’t working out very well. Eve has another son and names him Seth. Seth has a son and names him Enosh. Then a wonderful thing happens: people start praying and worshiping. I wonder how that came about. Is Seth so thankful for the gift of a son that he decides to start worshiping God? Is it Enosh who has a hunger for God and introduces praying and worshiping? I don’t know the answer but I do see here a change for the better; one that brought hope to a hopeless situation. So what does it take in my life? Does it take tragedy…or some great blessing? Does it take someone else finding the way and showing it to me? What does it take to turn me from a life being lived for self to one being lived in fellowship with God?
Take away: Prayer and worship is an “important discovery” for every person to make.
On being my brother’s keeper
Genesis 4: How should I know? Am I his babysitter?
An interesting thing about the Lord’s exchange with Cain is that they both know the answer to the question that’s asked. Obviously, the Lord knows what has happened. Of course, Cain knows where Abel is, after all, he’s his murderer. Cain’s response: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has become one of many famous one liners from the Bible. This murderer not only pretends he doesn’t know about Abel, but that, even if he does know, it isn’t his responsibility to take care of him. On a very specific level, I agree with Cain’s statement. As creatures with free will we’re not responsible for what others do. As a pastor of several years of experience, I’ve heard plenty of excuses from people who place the blame for their failure on someone, anyone, else. Because of that, I agree with Cain on at least one level. However, Cain’s suggestion that he operates solo and isn’t accountable for his brother’s whereabouts is a pitiful failure on his part. Even (and that’s a mighty big “even” in this situation) – even had he not killed his brother, and had poor Abel just wandered off in search of one of his sheep and gotten lost, in God’s eyes, Cain has a certain amount of responsibility for him. Our lives are connected at many points and the Lord expects our behavior to reflect this. Many years down the road, Jesus will help me understand this better in the parable of the Good Samaritan and even better when he takes personal responsibility for my lost condition.
Take away: I’m not responsible for what others do of their own free will, but I am accountable before God to show compassion to them.
Elephants and Monkeys and Kangaroos
Genesis 2: Whatever the Man called each living creature, that was its name.
God gets the ball rolling: sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, and humans. It’s all his handiwork. The crowning act of creation is humanity. The Lord, himself, breathes life into man, who has been made in his own image. Unlike other elements of creation, this creature has something of God inside. He also has free will. At this point the Creator stands back to watch his masterpiece in action. The Lord wants to see what man will name the animals. Right off the Almighty gives up some of his authority to his Creation. Whatever Man names an animal will stand. It doesn’t sound like much but it’s a significant moment. God, the Decider, decides not to decide. Rather, this new creature, this man, will decide. Also, a theological concept is introduced: God, who has all authority, agrees ahead of time to let decisions made by a human being stand. Will Adam do a good job in naming the animals or will he come up with some stupid names? The Lord, no doubt, is interested in what this unique being will do of his own free will. This pretty much overlooked event is actually filled with drama.
Take away: Having free will is part of my being created in the image of God.
The slam of the door of the Ark
John 12: First they wouldn’t believe, then they couldn’t.
John begins his countdown to crucifixion with a summary of Jesus’ relationship with the religious leaders of the day. Our Lord has spent considerable time with them and while those exchanges weren’t necessarily friendly, they were convincing. These men thrive on debate and Jesus gives them more debate than they want: winning the argument each time. He also proves his words by his deeds. On this very day Jesus is dining with Lazarus, the man Jesus called forth from the grave. At first, the leaders investigated Jesus and his miracles. At some point they saw the truth: that the miracles were real, confirming his identity. The problem is that Jesus isn’t one of them. In fact, he’s a nobody from an unimportant place. Surely, the Messiah will be an “insider” and not an “outsider” as is Jesus. They held back, at first, sure that they’d find a flaw in all this that would prove them right. When that flaw wasn’t found they hardened their position. Now, we find that they’re locked in to it. God has allowed them to be the unbelievers they choose to be all along. In this, the Lord didn’t have to shut them out. Rather, he let them be where they wanted to be all along. As I think about this, I hear the slam of the door of the Ark way back in the book of Genesis. I see the thousands of Israelites being marched off into captivity. I fear I see a future Day of Judgment in which people who would not believe are allowed to spend an eternity in that unbelief, apart from God and hope. It’s serious business to refuse to believe.
Take Away: Belief is a matter of the will.