272. an uncensored take on omnipotence
Sorry it took so long to get around to posting this but it’s a difficult topic and so this entry has gone through a couple of major revisions. I still don’t think it’s as polished as it should be but I’m tired of working on it and I want to move on to other thoughts in this series.
Please, please, please let me know what you think in the comments section, especially if you disagree.
A Layman’s Theology, Part 2.
In the past few years, there is one epiphany I’ve had about God that has helped me make sense of him and his world and it goes like this:
God is God and can do whatever it is he wants to do because that’s what it is to be God.
There are a number of places in the Bible where we are told to fear God. Many modern interpretations of these verses suggest that a better way to understand the way “fear” is being used is to substitute the word “respect.” But I wonder if by fear, the writers actually meant, well, fear. I mean, think about the world those writers lived in. There were no scientific explanations for the world that surrounded them. An earthquake was not, as we now understand it, the result of a shift in tectonic plates – it was a terrifying display of powers as mysterious as they were cataclysmic. Also, there were no microbiological explanations for illnesses. Our present day celebration of a child’s first birthday harkens back to a time when many babies died in their first months of life (often during childbirth) and so reaching the one year mark was truly a cause to celebrate.
I think it’s nearly impossible for us to understand what a terrible and fearsome world this used to be because while we have not been able to domesticate all of the wild powers of this planet (hurricanes for example), we are able to explain their origins and predict the paths of their destruction. We also know how to prepare for the wrath they bring. Also, modern medicine has extended the length and quality of life in ways that no one could have dreamed of two hundred (let alone two thousand plus) years ago and even when cures are beyond the abilities of modern medicine, death and demise are usually able to be explained in clinical terms.
Science has allowed us to subdue much of what used to terrorize by linking causes to effects. This has led to a subconscious intolerance for that which we can’t predict or understand and I think this has tainted our view of God. It has led to the view of God where some believe that we can influence or predict the behavior of God the way we do natural, physical phenomenon. Some believe we can do this by praying a certain way (more on this idea further down) or recognizing the signs of the times.
I think it is a mistake to lessen our fear of God the way we’ve lessened our fear of nature. God is as much of a unexplainable terror today as thunder and lightning were to the disciples. I think the easiest way to acknowledge this is to concede that God is God and can do whatever it is he wants to do.
It’s this fear that is the foundation for the wisdom spoken of in Psalms and in Proverbs. Yes, God cares for us and provides for our needs the way he does for the birds and the lilies but he does so out of love and grace, not because he has to.
Let me approach this from another angle.
Normally the sentiment, “God is God and can do whatever it is he wants to do” is compacted down into a single, handy word known as omnipotence and it sounds more innocuous when condensed like that but when you unpack that word, don’t you find something like what I just put forward above? So as politically incorrect and cold as it may sound, I really do believe that God does not have to explain himself – the things he does and doesn’t do. And while that notion may offend our ideas of freedom and accountability, they don’t apply to God because well, who are we to judge?
In Romans 9:14-24, Paul takes on this very idea of God’s sovereignty and our disrespect in questioning it. “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” Again, as offensive as it may sound to us, we have no right to question God. I mean, sure we can ask whatever questions we want but God is under no obligation to provide an answer.
Think about the Book of Job. Most of that book is made up of Job asking God why a huge set of calamities have plagued him and in the end, does God explain himself to Job? No. He spends four chapters questioning Job, basically asking Job what his credentials are and how they give him the right to question him.
This uncensored view of omnipotence has actually been a boon for me because I spent my formative years as a christian in churches where they preached what I’ve previously called transactional theology. I would frequently hear sermons where the pastor would say that if you did so and so then God would do such and such. This equation could take the form of the personal, “if you pray for your spouse in a certain way then God will bless your marriage,” or the political, “if this group of lost people would just repent from their evil ways then God would bless this nation.”
On a personal note, there are two things that I’ve always wanted from God: to meet and eventually marry my wife and to interact with him in the personal way that I’ve heard so many other christians talk about. With both of these desires I was told by many church leaders and christian books what I needed to do in order to have God bring these things into my life. But no matter what I tried, I remained single and God remained silent. And for a long time, I beat myself up about this, thinking that I wasn’t good enough or trying hard enough or reading the right books because the way I was hearing the advice, it seemed like a sure thing. If I did the proper actions then, like cause and effect, God would respond with the desired outcome. But that’s not the way things went down.
It was when I finally realized that God doesn’t jump through hoops that I was able to make peace with my situation in life. I came to understand that God is free to impart or withhold whatever blessings he choses and so not receiving what I prayed and tried to work for was not necessarily a result of a lack of some spiritual effort on my part but was merely the way God chose to let my life play out. I was able to relax because as far as I could tell, my being single and not being able to hear from God was not the result of a character flaw or some lack of special knowledge that I wasn’t privy to. It was just God’s will.
Some might object that such a view of God makes him out to be unfair or cruel or capricious, but how so? I mean, isn’t it infinitely more unfair for us mere created creatures to object to the one who crafted the universe, to accuse him of giving us stones when we asked for bread? Isn’t it cruel of us to forget our place in God’s created order and to criticize him for not acting as we think he should – and this after he left the splendor of heaven to commune with us on this dusty, depraved planet, eventually dying an unimaginably cruel and unjust death for we spoiled creatures.
No, I think viewing God in all of his omnipotent autonomy leads to the opposite view – that any and all blessings he imparts are not something he is obliged to provide, rather they are unfathomably loving acts of infinite, unimaginable kindness and benevolence. Simply put, we don’t deserve anything from God (apart from judgement) and so anything we have that is good in our life is there only by his amazing grace.
Thanks be to God.