I wrote that the two creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 portray God’s complex relationship to his creation. He is both transcendent over creation and immanent to it. He is both sovereign king and a genuine participant in unfolding events. I noted how this works out in Genesis 3 when God converses with the humans to determine what they have done.
Many Christians struggle with the notion that God is a genuine participant in unfolding events because of how we speak of God being omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. These terms may have some value theologically, but they must be regarded in light of Scripture’s portrayal of God and how he relates to humanity and to creation.
These terms tend to function problematically in our imaginations when they are untethered from Scripture. We tend to absolutize or radicalize these as attributes so that we see God as unchanging, in absolute control, and having predetermined all that happens. This prevents us from reckoning faithfully with Scripture’s portrayal of God in relation to humanity, sometimes changing course or discovering something. That is, we fail to recognize that God is in genuine relationship with his creation.
This is a problem because it affects how we pray and how we respond to suffering. If we think that God is in absolute control and has predetermined everything, there is no reason to pray. And when we suffer, we may feel that we are offending God when we grieve or lament.
In this post, then, I will consider some biblical passages that portray God as participating genuinely in unfolding events.
First, in Genesis 22, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham prepares to do so and as he is about to kill Isaac, God stops him and says, “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son (v. 12).”
Just as Genesis 18:20-33 portrays Abraham getting to know God by questioning him about his judgment of Sodom, Genesis 22 portrays God getting to know the character of the man he has called to begin his mission of reclaiming the nations.
Second, in 1 Chronicles 21 and 2 Samuel 24, God judges Israel because David numbered his fighting men, which in some way was inappropriate. Joab warned him not to do this, but David ignored him (2 Sam 24:3). The prophet Gad confronted David and told him that he had incited God’s wrath (1 Chron 21:9). David could choose from three punishments, but David simply threw himself on God’s mercy (2 Sam 24:14; 1 Chron 21:13).
What happens next is astonishing:
So the Lord sent a plague on Israel, and seventy thousand men of Israel fell dead. And God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem. But as the angel was doing so, the Lord saw it and relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then standing at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (1 Chron 21:14-15).
The angel of the Lord is God himself and he is sent by God to carry out this judgment (he is both identified as Yahweh [e.g., Gen 16:13] and is a distinct character who relates to Yahweh [e.g., Exod 23:20-23]).
This is a fascinating depiction of God as a complex character. As God watches God carrying out judgment, he sees the horror of it and relents, stopping the disaster that he himself was carrying out.
Third, in Isaiah 38:1-5, God tells Isaiah to deliver a message to Hezekiah: “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” There are no conditions to this message.
Hezekiah, on his deathbed, weeps as he turns his face to the wall and prays: “Remember, Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.”
Isaiah is on his way out when God stops him and tells him to go back to deliver another message to Hezekiah, telling him, “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life.”
Fourth, in the well-known story of Jonah, God calls the prophet to announce God’s judgment on Ninevah. Jonah does not want to do this because he knows God’s character very well and he hates the Ninevites.
He doesn’t want to proclaim God’s judgment on Ninevah because he knows there’s a chance the Ninevites may repent. And he knows that God is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).
This is what actually happens. Ninevah calls on God’s mercy and God relents from the calamity he declared.
The Scriptures of Israel, then, portray God as in genuine relationship with humanity, a character who responds by changing course at times. I use the language of “genuine relationship” to emphasize that it is not the case that while Scripture portrays God in this way, he is not really like this.
This leaves with a mystery. We cannot fathom how the God who “declares the end from the beginning” (Isa 46:10) can change course or learn things about humans. And this is why it is important to get to know God as he is revealed in Scripture and not let an undisciplined use of “omni-” language shape our imaginations.
This is critical when considering how to respond to suffering. While the God of Christian Scripture is indeed the sovereign king over all creation, he also participates genuinely in unfolding events.
Just as God’s Spirit groans with the groaning of creation (Rom 8:22-27), we are invited to lament and grieve over human suffering.
Rather than thinking that God is in control, Scripture directs us to hope in God’s ultimate triumph over evil and suffering.