A number of years ago, I went on my first missions trip. At the time I was excited, but really wrestling with questions of what I was supposed to be doing with my life, frustrated and a little bitter when I saw others around me—some friends and some not-so-much—finding great success. Rather than rejoice at the good fortune of friends who the Lord had blessed, I found myself grumbling over the fact that others who I was working harder than those finding good fortune.
“Didn’t I deserve better?” I thought.”Why was I being treated so unfairly…”
“Where was God in all this?”
Recently I was considering a similar lament recorded in Scripture. In the book of Malachi, we see God’s confrontation of the Israelites over their hard-hearted ways. They were bitter that they were under the thumb of another nation, despite having been returned to the Promised Land. They did not prosper as they saw that God had promised in the Law and through His Prophets. The glory of the Lord was not manifest in the rebuilt temple. And so they grumbled. And their grumbling wearied the Lord:
You have wearied the LORD with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” (Mal. 2:17)
Reading this text (as I have many times over the last few months) reminded me that disciples need to deal with difficult texts faithfully. Think about this one for a moment: in some ways strikes me as a summary of the dialogue between Job and God. There, after many, many chapters of Job’s being pushed to the breaking point by his foolish friends, and he steadfastly defends his character (though increasingly the tone of his defense appears to move into arrogance), God finally appears.
And He’s not happy.
“Dress for action like a man,” He says to Job. “I will question you, and you make it known to me.”
And so God begins: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world . . . who shut in the seas with doors . . . Can you send forth lightning . . . Can you hunt the prey for the lion . . . Do you give the horse his might…?” On and on God goes for two chapters (Job 38:1-40:2), until He turns the question around back to Job, inviting his response:
“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.” (Job 40:2)
And what does Job say?
“Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4-5)
In other words, “I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m a fool for questioning you.”
And then God does it again. Another line of questioning, “Dress for action like a man,” He says. It’s as if by repeating Himself, God really wants to make a very important point: To Job He says, “You don’t get to question me. Period.”
Then we come back to the people of Israel. The grumbling, unrepentant, bitter, jaded people of God… They wonder why God doesn’t answer their prayers and so they say, “God delights in those who are evil.” They ask, “Where is the God of justice?”
Do they really expect Him to answer? And if so, how?
Looking at the rest of the book, God’s already stated upfront His great love for them, having chosen them as His special people, and yet they have rejected Him. He is their Father, and yet they fail to show Him honor. His is their Creator, and yet they fail to show Him any esteem. Still, they expect His blessings to pour out.
Verse 17 is a hard text to deal with (and as you look at the verses that follow, it doesn’t get any easier). It’s one that we really don’t like as people living in the West. We love our autonomy and our belief that we can say whatever we want, whenever we want to whomever we want. But God says to those who question Him, “You don’t get to do that.”
But are we not like the Israelites to whom Malachi prophesied? Was I not like them when I faced continual frustration and presumptuously asked where God was in the midst of it? As if He were taking a nap? What happens when you read a text like this, or one of God’s promises for His people, or the many other difficult texts?
Many of us, I fear, deal with them in the same way that the Israelites did—we grumble when we don’t see God responding as we expect. We question Him when He declares something to be so—even when we don’t like it. We weary Him with our words, rather than deal with the difficult texts straight up.
Does this mean that we don’t get to ask honest questions? Of course not! But, there’s a difference between asking questions and questioning. Dealing with a difficult text honestly and faithfully is naturally going to cause us to ask questions. Interpretive gymnastics, endless caveats, and grumbling against what God has said only wearies Him and frustrates us.