Good God, what have we done to you?

The man, on a mission for his god, made his final and careful preparations before sunrise. He rose quietly, showered, shaved and dressed, and then prayed. Once he finished his prayers, the most important preparation for his mission journey, he gathered together his meager belongings, ready to check out of his motel and head for the airport. He reviewed his ticket one last time. It was all there–the date, the airline, the flight number: September 11, 2001. American Airlines. Flight 11. What wasn’t there was his real destination. Had it appeared, it would have said, “New York City. World Trade Center. North Tower.”

He closed the door and left the motel. He was absolutely convinced that what he was about to do would honor his god. Sealed with that conviction, he walked out of his motel room into the annals of history.

He did it in the name of his god. In fact, what he did was done precisely because of the god he served.

Good God, what have we done to you?

There was another man. And as we look in on him, he is running. Running, racing, streaking, he clutches the woman’s hand. They race through the lush, luxuriant verdure of that place of pristine perfection. They flee, seeking cover. They have to hide! God is coming! They have already heard His voice in the garden. Their hearts pound, and their eyes bulge.

Why did Adam and Eve run and hide from the God who created and loved them? The answer is quite simple: They ran and hid because of how they understood their God. In fact, their hiding tells us more about them than it tells us about their God. They ran and hid because of the kind of God they understood. It didn’t matter that this God had loved them enough to create them. They were chilled to the bone with fear of Him.

Good God, what have we done to you?

There was yet another man. As we gaze at him, we see him collapse in grief. He had made a vow to God. It was not the kind of vow God wanted. In fact, had the man bothered to look into the history of his people, he would have understood that the substance of his vow was absolutely out of line with the desires of God. He would have discovered that his God had expressly forbidden the very thing he vowed to do. No matter. He made his vow anyway; made it to the God of his understanding. And since he had been successful in his battle, he would now fulfill his vow.

Jephthah’s entire sad saga is recorded in Judges 11. Consider a few key verses from the story.

“And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord. He said, ‘If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the Lord whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.’”

So Jephthah led his army against the Ammonites, and the Lord gave him victory. He crushed the Ammonites.

“When Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, his daughter came out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy. She was his one and only child; he had no other sons or daughters. When he saw her, he tore his clothes in anguish. ‘Oh, my daughter!’ he cried out. ‘You have completely destroyed me! You’ve brought disaster on me! For I have made a vow to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.’

“And she said, ‘Father, if you have made a vow to the Lord, you must do to me what you have vowed, for the Lord has given you a great victory over your enemies, the Ammonites. But first let me do this one thing: Let me go up and roam in the hills and weep with my friends for two months, because I will die a virgin.’

“‘You may go,’ Jephthah said. And he sent her away for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never have children. When she returned home, her father kept the vow he had made, and she died a virgin” (Judges 11:30–39, NLT).

Good God, what have we done to you?

There is yet another story. Can you see the three men huddled around the pathetic figure on the ground? The figure on the ground is a man, though at first glance it doesn’t much look like a man. But he is–a man named Job, gripped by profound suffering. And the three other men who huddle around him have come to bring him comfort. And yet, what they say causes us to recoil. Time and again, Job is told by his friends, “Buck up, man. Straighten up. You deserve what’s happening to you. And so, too, did your children. There’s nothing happening to you that you didn’t do something to earn.”

Why would friends do that to a suffering companion? How could they be so cold-hearted as to say such things to a man in the grip of mortal mourning? The answer may be quite simple, actually. They do it because of how they understood their god.

Good God, what have we done to you?

And finally, this story. The man walks firmly, swiftly, in large steps. His brow is deeply furrowed, his nostrils flare. He is angry. There is one goal on his mind–do away with the group known as “The Way.” He is ready to harass, arrest, or kill in order to accomplish that goal. He will do whatever it takes. And this journey was undertaken to further that goal. Why is he doing it? He is doing because of how he understands his god.

And yet, on his mission of destruction, he is driven to his knees in the dirt by a brilliant light. He voices one question to the voice he hears: “‘Who are you, Lord?’” (Acts 9:5, NLT). The answer to that question is about to change everything for him.

Good God, what have we done to you?

So, there you have it–five stories. Five stories held together by one simple truth: the kind of God we serve determines the kind of life we live.

Running away from God

You know the stories well, no doubt. You may even have paused to consider how in each case the central figure’s understanding of God drove him or her to behave in a very specific way. Adam and Eve sin. They fall from their state of perfection. And as soon as they do so, they are aware of their nakedness and feel, for the first time, shame. And then they hear the voice of God. God is asking the first and most enduring question of Scripture, “Where are you?”

Adam and Eve run and hide. Why do they hide? They have known God up to this point as a loving Creator. So why do they hide? Is it their fear of death? Their feeling of shame? Their fear of God? Whatever else it may be, clearly, there is something in their understanding of God that drives them to run.

Misunderstanding God’s character

Jephthah makes a vow to sacrifice whomever or whatever–depending on which version you read–comes out to meet him if he returns from battle successful. All he needed was to be even somewhat familiar with the sacred past of his people to know that God had expressly forbidden them to offer human sacrifice. The nations around them did it. But they were never to do it. Knowing the God of his people would have spared his daughter’s life. And yet, his understanding of God suggested that if he only sacrificed something great enough, God would crown his efforts with success. Clearly, there was something in his view of God that caused him to make such a dastardly vow.

Job’s friends come to comfort him. He has suffered tragedy the like of which most of us will never experience, so it is natural for his friends to respond by coming to his side. But what is most unusual is how they choose to comfort him. They choose to comfort him by telling him that he deserves what he’s getting!

Apparently, their understanding of how things work in the world and, more specifically, their understanding of how God works in the world, is at the heart of what they say. “God gives good things to good people and bad things to bad people. You are experiencing bad things, therefore, you must be bad.” Their understanding of God drove all that they did and said.

Living out the love of God

And finally, Paul. Actually, at the time the story took place, his name was Saul. Saul is bent on destroying this new sect. He is bent on protecting God from these followers of Jesus of Nazareth. And then he is driven to his knees by the light, and he hears the voice from heaven. He hears the voice that forces the question from his lips, “Who are you, Lord?” Saul is so transformed by his new understanding of God that not only will his name be changed to Paul, but he will be driven from henceforth forever by a new motive–the motive of love. In fact, it is this same man–this fire-breathing purifier of the faith–who will after this say, “The love of Christ constrains me. It is his love that guides and controls all that I do.” (See 2 Corinthians 5:14.) He has a new vision, a new understanding, of God.

Do those ancient stories still apply? Does our understanding of God still have such a direct and formative influence on our lives? The recent Hollywood movie, United 93, suggests that it does, indeed.

The movie is the story of that doomed flight–the last one to crash on September 11, 2001–where the passengers realized what was happening and fought for control of the airplane. The flight crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside.

A brief scene toward the end of the movie pictures the passengers gathering together, marshaling their courage to storm the cockpit. At the same time, the terrorists realize that the passengers now know their destiny and are about to fight back. The tension builds as the terrorists hope to reach their destination–Washington, D.C.–and as the passengers hope to prevent them from doing so and maybe, in the process, save themselves and others.

As the critical moment arrives, the camera pans two scenes. The first scene is the cockpit, where one terrorist prays desperately to his god for help. And the second scene is the passengers, huddled together at the back of the plane, praying, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . .” And as they finish praying, each group moves to carry out what they believe their God might wish them to do.

The kind of God we serve determines the kind of life we live.

The critical need: understanding God’s character rightly

If that is true, then it obviously becomes critical to understand God rightly. Maybe that is why so many years ago, Ellen White penned these words: “It is the darkness of misapprehension of God that is enshrouding the world. Men are losing their knowledge of His character. It has been misunderstood and misinterpreted. At this time a message from God is to be proclaimed, a message illuminating in its influence and saving in its power. His character is to be made known. Into the darkness of the world is to be shed the light of His glory, the light of His goodness, mercy, and truth.”1

Darkness because of a misapprehension of God. A message about His character that will enlighten the world. Could it be that a correct understanding of God may be the most important issue facing our world today? Before you dismiss that as hyperbole by a Christian seeking to increase interest in God, consider the world in which we live. It is a world fractured by extremist commitments to radical gods. We think of the Middle East and terrorism, a reality that constantly lurks. But we must also think of places like Waco, Texas. We can talk about bin Laden, but we must also talk about Warren Jeffs. We can focus on militant Islam, but we can also focus on Northern Ireland and Protestants and Catholics. We can even consider the much lower-level but still painful damage that occurs between liberals and conservatives in Christian churches. Would it be too simplistic to suggest that much of this is driven, plainly and simply, by how we understand God?

If for any reason, we still need convincing of the importance of how we understand God, consider the words of Haddon Robinson: “I don’t know if you’ve been to some of the conferences I’ve been to, but I’ve heard people stand up and say: ‘Look, I don’t preach theology. I think people need to have an experience of God. I think people need to know how to relate. And so what I’m into is helping the people, when they come [to church], to have an experience. I don’t give much time to theology.’

“Well, I thought, you go to a doctor. You say to the doctor, ‘I got a pain in my stomach.’ The doctor says, ‘Well, you need to know I don’t pay much attention to medicine. I took that stuff at school, but I haven’t paid much attention to it. What I’m into is a ‘bedside manner.’ I want people to feel comfortable around me. Look, why don’t we just cut you open and see what’s inside?’

“Not your knife; not my stomach.

“It sounds so good, doesn’t it? We’re into giving people an experience of God. But if you have a deep faith in God and you have a shallow theology, you’ll be giving yourself to superficiality, and you’ll give yourself to nonsense, and you can do great damage to yourself and to others.”2

Isn’t Robinson simply reminding us that the kind of God we serve determines the kind of life we live? Such is the lesson from the late, great theologian, minister and writer, A. W. Tozer: “Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, ‘What comes into your mind when you think about God?’ we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man.”3

The same comes from Archbishop William Temple who said, “If your concept of God is radically false, then the more devout you are, the worse it will be for you. You’re opening yourself to be molded by something base. In terms of your practical life, it would be better to be an atheist.”4

Finally, it was Oswald Chambers who said: “It is perilously possible to make our conceptions of God like molten lead poured into a specially designed mould, and when it is cold and hard we fling it at the heads of the religious people who don’t agree with us.”5 If such is the case, then we must ask: Who is our God? What kind of God do we serve?

As Christians, we affirm that God’s ultimate self-revelation was made in Jesus Christ. With such a confession comes the reality that every facet of our understanding of God must be seen through the lens of Jesus. It means that we must take Him seriously when He says, “‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’” (John 14:9, NRSV). It means that our relationships to those who agree with us as well as to those who disagree with us must be patterned after His life. It means that our treatment of sinners must seek to be as gracious as was His. It means that our mission, like His, is not to condemn the world, but to save it (see John 3:17). It means that we serve a God who is loving and good and friendly and holy and grand and humble. And it means that since we serve such a God, every fact of our theology and, thus, every choice regarding how we live, and every action we take in our treatment of others, must be examined in the light of God’s character. For the truth is difficult to escape: our lives are the outgrowth of the kind of God we worship, know, love and serve.

Randall L. Roberts (D.Min., Fuller Theological Seminary ) is senior pastor of the Loma Linda University Church of Seventh-day Adventists and teaches theology at Loma Linda University. This article is based on a sermon he preached at the church. His mailing address: 11125 Campus Street, Loma Linda, California 92354; U.S.A.

REFERENCES

  1. Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1941), p. 415.
  2. Haddon Robinson, “The Danger of A Strong Faith with A Weak Theology,” Preaching Today, Nº. 276, track 12.
  3. A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), p. 9.
  4. Quoted by Haddon Robinson, “The Danger of A Strong Faith with A Weak Theology,” Preaching Today, Nº. 276, track 11.
  5. Oswald Chambers, Disciples Indeed (London: Oswald Chambers Publications Association, and Marshall, Morgan, & Scott, Ltd., 1955), p. 14.