Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Not ashamed to be called their God

I remember the day I walked out of astronomy class, a frazzled, bewildered eighteen-year-old who wasn’t sure if I should be weeping or laughing. I had just learned about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and the worst part of it was that I sorta understood it. After all these years, I learned that Almighty Time was not constant. It made me want to cry.

Being a character in someone else’s epic is like that. One always assumes certain constants: one’s past, for example. No matter what happens, whether I get a PhD or become a homeless beggar, whether or not the Resurrection occurred or will occur, I can say assuredly that I was born in Illinois and spent nine years growing up in Georgia, at the very least. Once an event happens, it is sealed in the great book of History, etched in the stone tablet of the past.

So last night I was shocked to suddenly realize that God re-writes his own history. I’ve never noticed how weird Hebrews 11 is. From the beginning, it’s a weird way to tell the stories.
  • “And through [Abel’s] faith, though he died, he still speaks.” That might make sense if we had any recording whatsoever of his words. How can he still be speaking to us if he never did? Even to say that his sacrifice “speaks” to us on a figurative level, we would need to see some way that it demonstrated faith more than Cain’s similar sacrifice did. Of all things Abel might still be doing, speaking to us is not one of them.
  • “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.” Gosh, that must be a different Sarah than the one I’m thinking of, the one who laughed at the messengers’ news and said, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”
  • “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents…” The NIV changes the passive voice to the active, because the passive construction in the original text makes no sense. The author makes it sound like he is commending Moses for being hidden as a helpless infant.
  • Aside from this detail-quibbles, there is the glaringly obvious truth that these various men and women of faith were all flawed, some of them glaringly so, especially Jephthah whose only act of faith was to commit one of God’s big pet peeves of child sacrifice.
But it’s God’s story, and somehow that gives him the right to re-write even the parts that have already happened. Just like when David steps on the throne and immediately composes a lament for the former king who spent the second half of his reign hunting him down like a villain—Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles; they were stronger than lions. You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you luxuriously in scarlet, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel—God claims his authority as the final interpreter of these various frail and fumbling characters. Once David calls Saul lovely, who can argue? Once God says that Sarah believed, who am I to bring up the technicality that she didn’t?

How different would God’s interpretation of my story be than my own? Are there places where I have declared myself a hyper-sensitive, manipulative, codependent, narcissistic coward, of which God will nevertheless one day declare, “By faith she conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, was made strong out of weakness”? It seems an unfair plot-twist if he changes the story, doesn’t it?

But if I’m only a character, not the writer, I certainly can’t be the critic. O, would that I had the faith to let him interpret my own story!

…Then again, even if I don’t seem to have that faith, he can always go rewriting things to say that I did.


TwoSquareMeals said...

Loved this post! We should go out without my kids and talk. I feel like God is trying to get this message across to me right now. I live so much in the past, in my old sin, seeing myself in that light. "Most," the book I am reading, and my Bible study this week (David and Bathsheba) all deal with this issue. If David can be a "man after God's own heart" after what he did in those two chapters, then God really can rewrite our stories. We have to learn to get past our pasts, after dealing with them honestly, and move onto the bigger picture of who God is and what he is doing with us in his story. David didn't let himself get stuck in the bad stuff. He confessed, he repented, he mourned, he accepted consequences. Then he got up, washed his face, and worshipped. I think that worship thing is the key, but I am still figuring out how. Sorry I am rambling. Let's talk soon, really!

Talloaf said...

God cannot contradict himself. You're seeming to imply that God in Hebrews nullifies what he says in Genesis concerning Sarah and inserts a new 'truth.' I.e. God said in Genesis that Sarah was without faith, but says in Hebrews, "Nevermind, she had faith."

God was sovereign over Sarah and Sarah's faith (faith being purely a gift from God and having no origin in man whatsoever). If God was sovereign then, He had no need to rewrite her story. Something else must be going on here.

Likewise, God doesn't rewrite your story. God was sovereign over your birth in Illinois, and is completely incapable of changing that fact. Likewise He was sovereign over your sins and is completely incapable of changing the fact that you did them. But He completely absolves you of them, He graciously imparts Christ's righteousness to you, and He grants faith amidst all your fallenness (not 8000 years after the fact, pretending like he did it while you were alive) and changes who you are now and who you will become.

Wonders for Oyarsa said...

Em -

I loved this post.

Talloaf -

What an abrasive pontification!

God cannot contradict himself.

Don't tell God what he can and cannot do! If he wants to condemn Saul and then glorify him through David's song, then so be it. If he wants to declare Israel's destruction and then change things due to their repentance, then more power to him. If he wants to let Jesus die and then raise him from the dead, who are you to say no. Better to be willing to embrace apparent contradictions (as Job) than to put God in a box (as Job's friends).

Likewise He was sovereign over your sins and is completely incapable of changing the fact that you did them.

Amazing how God goes from being completely sovereign one minute and completely incapable of changing "facts" the next. The only thing truly sovereign here, over and above God's sovereignty, seems to be your philosophical framework.

Em the luddite said...

Since this blog is supposed to be keeping me in the spirit of listening, I hadn’t planned on trying to defend my own philosophical point. Indeed, it’s a hard point to defend because Talloaf is right: the past is the past is the past, just like five minutes is five minutes is five minutes…

…that is, of course, unless your name happens to be 299,792,458 m/s. (Though even for the rest of us mere mortals, we may find that the closer we get to said 299,792,458 m/s, the more what we thought was five minutes looks completely different, and in fact is completely different.)

But this afternoon I was reading Ovid, and I thought I’d let him chime in as well. In Book VIII of The Metamorphosis, Ixion’s son whose “thoughtless spirit had no faith in gods” replies to Acheloüs’ dubious story of supernatural transformation by laughing aloud:

But who believes the gods have secret powers
To change the very things we know and see?

While those around him “grew uneasy at his blasphemy,” wise Lelex who was “mature in years as well as wit and feeling” chimed in:

The powers of heaven are eternal,
Not to be measured by our time and space,
And what the gods decide, their will is done.

(I’m obviously not trying to use The Metamorphoses to make a theological argument; I’m not supposed to be arguing on this blog at all, after all. I suppose this is just what happens when you throw Ovid, the Bible, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity at an English major and tell her to listen up.)

Daniel Kirk said...

Spot on, Em! Great post. I call this the "hermeneutics of Christological revisionism". Note that as ch. 11 gives way to ch. 12, the point of the passage is that Jesus' faith is the model of the OT characters' faith, not vice versa. Hebrews is shamelessly reading the OT as foreshadowing the "original," who is Christ.