Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Why Doesn't God Make Himself Clearer?

This is a question I've struggled with over the years. Not so much on my behalf - from where I'm standing it's pretty obvious that Jesus is God (but hasn't always been this way) - but from friends I have spoken to and so on. Why doesn't God make himself clearer?

I wouldn't say I've got to the bottom of it yet, but I've got some pointers. My own response to the question is that I trust that God knows what he is doing. But I appreciate for those "on the outside", that's a little trickier. And at the end of the day, there is a big element of "God knows best, not us". Of course, that doesn't stop us trying to figure out how God's way is better than ours in this case. I'm aware there are some wise people reading the blog - if you've got any thoughts on this, feel free to share them.

Here are some of the comments that prompted me to write this:

I am not saying that we should disbelieve all claims of a religious nature, only that there are so many of them and one *cannot* be sure of which one message is true. God/Christ could solve this by telling each of us individually His message, yet he chooses not to. Why?

My problem is not to so much that this isn't 'fair', but that rational people could choose to believe in any one of a number of Faiths. Why doesn't God/Christ just tell us directly, and hence this confusion would be resolved?

A personal message from God would be more likely to produce a successul outcome (i.e. on average individuals would be more likely to follow His message) than what we have at the moment.

I should quickly add that the response I hear most often from Christians is that if God made himself clearer, it would violate our freedom. That's rubbish.

1. We Have No Excuse

When the Bible talks about this, it tends to talk about ideas like who is accountable for what, and whether we have any excuse. And it's quite clear that none of us has any excuse for failing to follow God.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Romans 1:18-23, NIV

I don't think this is saying specifically that it's obvious to everyone that Christianity is true. What it's saying is that there is some stuff about God that is obvious, and we all respond so badly to that that we don't have any excuse.

[Christians, in case there's any doubt, aren't people who haven't stuffed up. We're people who have realised that we have stuffed up, but who have repented (turned around), who keep on repenting when we keep on stuffing up, and we have been forgiven in Jesus. That means that when God considers how badly I've ignored him, because I'm somehow united with Jesus, he actually treats me as being in Jesus, who has already suffered God's punishment for sin and been raised to life. Which is very cool.]

Back to the point. If, by the way that we live, we reject the very idea that there is an all-powerful God who can do whatever he wants and claims authority over us (as we all do), then we aren't going to take much notice if he tells us more detail either.

2. God Making Himself Even Clearer Didn't Help

And that's exactly what we see in history. The nation of Israel, when they came out of Egypt, saw all kinds of spectacular miracles - the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, God guiding them with a pillar of fire and of cloud, God speaking to them as a nation and telling them in detail what he wanted them to do. And how did they respond? They rebelled, time and again. And it wasn't just some of them - it was all of them except two, out of a whole nation.

It's easy, I think, sometimes, to kid ourselves that we are perfectly rational. But experience shows that we are motivated more by pride and by not wanting to lose face than by the evidence. Why else do people take such entrenched (and opposite) positions on issues such as global warming, Israel, religion, politics?

It's worth adding a personal story here. At university, one of my best friends was really interested in Christianity. He came along to dozens of talks and so on, and we had long conversations going into the night. Towards the end of our time there, we got chatting about why he didn't believe. This is roughly how a bit of the conversation went.

[Me] I get the feeling that the reason you aren't a Christian isn't anything to do with evidence. I think it's because you want to keep being the person who decides what's right and what's wrong and you don't want to let go of it.

[Him] Yes, I think you're right.

And he was one of the most "rational" few people I have ever met.

3. God Chooses to Use People

Another reason - and this is really striking - is that God has decided that the main way he is going to show himself to the world today is through people, specifically the Church. (big C in this context means it's all Christians everywhere). St Paul wrote this:

Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ... His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known...
Ephesians 3:8,10, NIV

Why does God use normal people rather than angels or whatever? One of the themes in the Bible is that God often uses surprising ways of doing things, to show the world's priorities are wrong - changed lives are far more important than signs and wonders. So we get Paul in 1 Corinthians talking about how God's "foolishness" shows the world how foolish its "wisdom" really is. God chooses to use the weak people, the people who aren't that impressive, because that way his power is evident all the more and it is all the clearer that he can change people, transform people and use them for his glory.

I don't pretend to understand all of this completely, but I'm profoundly grateful for it. Which is better: to take sinful, mixed up people and save them or to take sinful, mixed up people and save them, change them and then use them to change the world and to declare to all the world how amazing God is?

4. God is Still Fair

It's also worth adding that God is still fair. Yes, some people (like me) get much better opportunities to hear about Jesus than other people. That's partly my fault - part of what we're meant to be doing as Christians is telling other people. So if they're not hearing because we're not telling them, we're accountable for it (e.g. Ezekiel 3).

But the Bible is also clear that if we get better opportunities, more is expected of us. And if we don't get such good opportunities, God isn't as harsh with us. Here are some quotes to back that up.

Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.
Jesus, speaking to some of the towns he had worked in, in Matthew 11:21-24, NIV

That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Luke 12:47-48, NIV

As I said, there's still stuff here I need to think more about. In terms of explaining it, I think my third point needs some more work. If I have more thoughts, I might well post them on here. Feel free to contribute if you have any wisdom on the issue....


John said...

I haven't considered the angle that God saves only his elect, because, while I agree with it, I don't think it's the best answer to the question.

It's not the way, for example, that Paul would have explained it in Athens.

John said...

It's also worth adding that I do think there is sufficient evidence that a perfectly rational person would end up believing in Jesus as Christ and God.

I don't think there are any perfectly rational people though.

As GK Chesterton said:
It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting. It is that it has been found difficult and left untried.

Anonymous said...

"I should quickly add that the response I hear most often from Christians is that if God made himself clearer, it would violate our freedom. That's rubbish."

I would like to ask why you consider this to be rubbish. This is an argument, commonly cited by Christians (ones I have spoken to), not only to answer this question but also to the question of why evil is allowed to exist in the world if God is omnipotent and benevolent.

John said...

Good question.

I think the answer is that God did make himself clearer to some groups of people in the past (e.g. those who met Jesus, the Israelites at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, etc) and he clearly did so without violating their freedom, as they rejected him anyway.

The general existence of evil and suffering one is different. I think the freedom line - that if I hit someone, it should have consequences is part of it. It would violate our dignity in a sense to be acting but not suffering the consequences of our actions. But there's a lot lot lot more to say about suffering and evil than that.

Anonymous said...

It sounds terribly selfish of me I know, but I don't care too much about the response God has had from other peoples in the past. I am an individual not a group and, assuming the Truth of the Bible, I will be judged as such when my time comes. Hence I would like a personal message from God, which I would then follow to the best of my ability.
Funny that you should happen to walk past my house after our recent correspondences! My gardens are looking much nicer now :)
Good luck with the changes you mentioned and I shall check back on your site periodically.


Anonymous said...

BTW - change your settings to UTC +00:00 GB to get the correct times of posting! My post was registered at one hour prior to when it actually was posted.


John said...

I think my time settings are +00 GMT, but we're currently on BST and I couldn't be bothered changing it.

I guess the other issue with signs from God is that it's important to be clear that he is God and we aren't. We aren't in a position to demand anything from him or expect him to do anything for us. Everything good he gives us is him being extra generous.

The key piece of evidence is the way that Christians' lives are changed - if you ask Christians how they became Christians, that's what most people will say. It's also how Jesus said that people would know Jesus was from God. If we're radically different, you've got to find a way to explain that. If not, we probably get a huge chunk of the blame.

And weird that you should get a place on the shortest route between here and the station. Still, I'm only here for a few more weeks, and should hopefully get my car tax sorted out tomorrow. Might catch you around over the next couple of weeks...

John said...

Well, what do you know?

Although UTC +00 and UK +00 both claimed to be +00, UK was actually +01. Wow...

Anonymous said...

Strange isn't it - I have set up my own blog (you can be assured that it is for a trivial and entirely selfish purpose). Took me a little while to work out which time zone actually gives the correct times and don't even ask about the joys of learning how to put in a 'hit counter' and other assorted goodies! It's all done now - I may even feel brave enough to acknowledge the site soon :)


John said...

Ah - I have a hit counter. I just haven't got round to moving it over here yet!

Anonymous said...

D'you ever think about getting your head out of the bible and considering these questions in the clear light of day?

John said...

I think about the questions in the not always especially clear light of day as well.

But I think that if we're evaluating claims about the Christian God, it would be kind of dumb to ignore what he's (reported to have) said.