Despite a vast array of geographic and cultural differences, almost every ancient civilization shared one thing in common. A pantheon of gods. Whether it was Odin, Thor, and Frigg or Osiris, Sobek, and Ra, the vast majority of early kingdoms fashioned for themselves deities to worship. This common thread is an indication of a very simple principle that even people thousands of years ago recognized and yet could not accept: We are not in control.
Modern scientific advancement has removed the enchantment from much of the world we inhabit today. We understand now that a sandstorm is a natural phenomenon of arid regions in the world, but the Egyptian people for instance had no explanation for an event like that. They had no control over whether the Nile would flood, whether the sun would rise, or whether the dead would make it safely to the afterlife. Thus, to alienate such a lack of control, they, along with every other early civilization, created gods to explain these things.
The reason that the Nile would or would not flood, was due to how happy Sobek, the god of the Nile, was. Therefore, if the people wanted to ensure a good harvest, Sobek simply needed to be worshipped.
Likewise, if a Norse woman could not conceive a child, the simple explanation was that Frigg, the goddess of fertility, was unhappy with her. All she would need to do in order to remedy her situation then was offer Frigg the worship she was due. If her womb still didn’t open, then clearly, she had not worshipped hard enough.
Now if we take a closer look at the modern age, you may be surprised to find that this approach to our deities, whether it be Christ, Allah or Yahweh, has not really changed. The rhetoric is simple. “God blesses those who are a blessing to others.” “God is faithful to those who are faithful to him.” “Pray, tithe, read your Bible, attend Sunday services, vote for the right things, give to the right people and Jesus will reward you.”
Though no one comes out directly and says it, we propose that these things are merely strings to manipulate the blessings of God. We make God our puppet in an effort to provide our own security. God very frequently becomes a means for some other (and often lesser) end. For what better way for me to control my life, than to control the god who controls the world? Let’s take a closer look at some similar approaches we find in Scripture.
Numbers 11:24-30- So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it. Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
All of Joshua’s life, he has understood God to function in one very specific way. God speaks through Moses. Now Yahweh has thrown Joshua a curveball. No longer will Moses be the only Israelite who represents God. That responsibility, for a time, will be shared by these seventy-two elders. This reality shatters Joshua’s paradigm.
You see Joshua’s identity was bound up in his role of support and tutelage beneath Moses. Now however, God enacts a change that challenges the role of Moses, and by extent, the role of Joshua.
Because of this, Joshua’s knee-jerk reaction is to stop Eldad and Medad from speaking on behalf of God. Simply put, this is not how Joshua wanted God to operate. “My lord Moses, stop them” is an apt response given the circumstance.
It is Moses’ response however that tempers our own loss of comfort with wisdom. Moses corrects his pupils understanding that it is not Moses whom his identity should be rooted in, but rather in God himself. Therefore, let God do as he sees fit, for it is not Moses’, Joshua’s or our place to tell him how he aught to enact his vision in the world.
Job 42:1-7- Then Job answered the Lord and said: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore, I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.
Job, stricken with immense punishment at the hand of Satan, is further plagued by three friends who will not seem to listen to his reasoning. In his mind, the punishment he has received simply does not fit with his crimes. Rightly so, considering the story introduces us to a man of great faithfulness to Yahweh.
His friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are far less convinced. All they have seen is Job’s affliction. In their minds, his divine punishment must be retribution for an equally egregious offense.
This entire book is written to oppose the common belief that God punishes wickedness and rewards righteousness. Job’s account, however, reveals a God who operates far above such a basic principle.
By the end of the book, we see Job conclude that he is simply ignorant, not that he is guilty. He recognizes that the circumstances of his life lay far beyond his good or bad behavior in a God who sees a much bigger picture than he does. He repents of his contention when he realizes how small he is before a vast and immeasurable creator like Yahweh.
God commends Job by concluding, “He has spoken rightly of me.” It is now his poor advisors that are rebuked for their lack of understanding.
If God is truly the merciful and faithful creator he claims to be, who sends rain upon the just and the unjust, why are we so often convinced that it is our faithfulness that will bring us what we seek? If we just pray enough, tithe enough, serve enough, then God will grow the church, heal my illness or bring me a spouse. Perhaps we should listen to Jesus more and Eliphaz less. Treating Jesus like Odin is not a good way to reflect our gratitude.
Psalm 50:7-15- “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
Many of the created gods of history were physically sustained off of the prayers and offerings of their followers. Yahweh declares his being is quite different. Psalm 50 describes for us the divine attribute of ‘Aseity.’ Aseity effectively means that God needs absolutely nothing outside of himself to sustain himself. Imagine if you had an organ that produced all the food, water, love, sleep, etc., that your being needs to exist. This is exactly what our God says he is.
What value does an uncontrollable God provide to a world I cannot control? If God should desire, my heart would stop beating. If God were upset, he could rend the breath from my lungs. If I angered the Creator, could he not take away in an instance all the things I hold precious? Controlling God can often lead us to the dangerous assumption that God is as petulant as we are. He has taught us better than that.
He does not need our sacrifices or prayers to sustain himself and therefore cannot be manipulated by our attempts to offer or withhold such things. God’s aseity tells us two things. The first, is that if God did not create us out of need, it means he created us out of desire. This should affirm our understanding of God from Exodus 34. The second, is that the glorification he demands is not because he requires it. It is because he deserves it.
Micah 6:6-8- “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
When we manipulate God through various means, what we are really saying is that God is not what we want, but rather that God is the means to acquire it. Micah wrestles with the cost of his salvation without yet knowing what will come to pass. God will not ask Micah for his own firstborn child, for he is ready and willing to sacrifice his own on Micah’s behalf.
Faithfulness is not an opportunity to control God. It is an opportunity to appreciate him as the God who offers us peace, security and comfort knowing that he is the one who is in control of all things.
Luke 15:25-32- “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
This older son is no different than his younger brother. All he wants are the things that his father can give him. The difference is that instead of asking his father for his inheritance up front, this son decides he will earn his reward through his faithfulness to his father. Though his approach may seem acceptable, his desire is not where it should be. His father only exists to be used.
It is the Father’s response to his son however that shows us the desire of our own father in heaven. “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
The Father was not looking explicitly for his son’s faithfulness. He was looking for his son’s presence. The Father desired the child himself. But do the children desire the Father or merely what their father can provide them?
Matthew 26:47-56- While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
As the Author Skye Jethani says, “If Scripture has shown us anything, it is that God is notoriously uncompliant with our attempts to control him.” The problem with approaching God in this way is that it is our own lack of trust masquerading as faithfulness. In doing this, what looks to be a trust in Christ, is simply a trust in self. We, like so many before us, attempt to provide our own security.
Christ however shows us a different way. He saw a world in which control was one hundred percent supremely rooted in his Father’s capable hands. Instead of taking up the sword like Peter, he took up surrender like a lamb to the slaughter. Christ’s safety was not determined by his own hand, but rather the guiding hand upon him.
The liberation of the Gospel message comes from recognizing that control is not something we have to worry about any longer. For we now have a God of mercy, grace and steadfast love with us even beyond the veil of death. The most valuable treasure a Christian has cannot ever be lost.
Therefore, we quite literally need not worry about food, drink, clothing, money, elections or death itself, for the God of the universe is with us always. This is not a justification for complacency within the world but rather a liberation from the fear that grips us all. And when a Christian is liberated from such fears as these, what can possibly inhibit us from sharing the love and mercy of the God whom has quite literally abolished our fear? Surrendering our control to Jesus is, in my personal experience, the most effective path to everlasting peace.