“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).
One of the common objections to God is that He doesn’t explain Himself adequately. For example, if His love is compatible with suffering, then why doesn’t He explain it better? If He really does exist, why doesn’t He make a more demonstrable show of Himself? Of course, believers see, by faith how God has, in fact, done these things; to the unbeliever, however, faith cannot have such a role. We have to see to believe, and since God isn’t more obvious, then faith is unreasonable.
How, then, does faith reconcile what appears to be very difficult, if not contradictory, thoughts and ideas in Scripture? How can we think about these matters and maintain the kind of faith that pleases God? Here we offer some suggestions for addressing difficulties.
First, by faith we understand that there is more to reality than brute materialism. One of the reasons people see contradiction of ideas in Scripture is that they cannot see the spiritual explanations that are needed to grasp material reality. We are looking for material explanations of material problems, and so we cannot make sense of where the real answers are found. If we close off spiritual reality, then there can be no reasonable explanations for many of the ideas presented in Scripture. Of course they will see problems, for the worldview won’t permit anything else. In other words, the reason for the unsolvable problems in people’s minds is that they have blocked off the possibility of anything outside the material realm, and therefore have forced reality into a materialistic box. Yet if they are going to judge the alleged problems that the Bible initiates, they ought to let the Bible also provide the explanations, which will include the spiritual reality that materialists won’t allow.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the “natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14). Paul had been pointing out that the cross is foolishness to the gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews. They only saw the material cross; they didn’t see the spiritual truth that undergirded why Jesus died and how God will forgive. Paul’s message and preaching were “not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5).
When people trust the wisdom of men instead of the wisdom and power of God, they will inevitably think there are contradictions and that the message is just plain ridiculous. When looked at from the human perspective, what other conclusion can be drawn? But when, by faith, we can see the spiritual reality, then the door is wide open for a greater understanding. If we try to understand everything from within a closed box of materialism, we will be unable to understand spiritual truth.
Paul understood his suffering based on the greater spiritual reality. From a material perspective, it would have made no sense whatsoever, but with an eternal perspective, everything changes. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:
“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
The reality of Paul’s physical suffering was mitigated by the fact that there is a greater spiritual reality that is eternal. If reality were only physical, then Paul’s suffering for the eternal would be the height of folly. Since there is a greater eternal reality, then any suffering we go through for the cause of Christ is reasonable and necessary.
Second, by faith we realize that God is greater than we are and He doesn’t have to explain Himself to us. It’s difficult not to know why things happen as they do. We yearn to know why certain things happen and why God allows or prohibits as He does. While wanting to understand is natural, faith recognizes that God is “able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). God’s wisdom and knowledge are ultimately beyond our grasp (Rom. 11:33-34). This should be expected, frankly, because God, being Who He is, will not be limited by our finite abilities. Faith, then, can look at God for Who He is and be content that God has the answers even if we don’t fully understand.
Job is a perfect example of this dilemma. We see what Job didn’t see, and God never explained Himself to Job. He felt wronged and didn’t know why God allowed his suffering to happen. We hear the agony in his words. “Pity me, pity me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has struck me” (Job 19:21). Even so, Job wouldn’t give up his faith. Continue in Job 19:25-27:
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,
And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.
“Even after my skin is destroyed,
Yet from my flesh I shall see God;
Whom I myself shall behold,
And whom my eyes will see and not another.
My heart faints within me!
God didn’t need to explain Himself in order to be trusted, and we get ourselves into trouble when we try to explain things away based upon our own ignorance. This is one reason why faith and patience go hand in hand. When we trust, we can persevere. When we trust, we can be patient. We may not understand why, but we can trust the One who does understand why.
This also speaks to the fact that God doesn’t do things the way we expect or think. If God were confined only to our finite perspective, He would lack the ability and wisdom that He has. To box God in is really a form of idolatry. His ways and thoughts are not ours (Isa. 55:8-9). We are not His Lord; He is ours. Keeping that perspective is vital.
Third, consider the example of Abraham. As a test case of how this works and is all put together, consider Abraham’s faith as it was demonstrated when he was told to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22). Think about the problem presented:
Abraham was told that Isaac was the child of the Promise. He was the one that Abraham and Sarah had waited for. They were generally patient, and sometimes impatient. They persevered. They struggled. Isaac finally was born and the seed promise was being fulfilled. Then God told Abraham to take Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering.
How can this be? How can God make this promise on the one hand, then tell Abraham to offer him up as a sacrifice on the other? And how can God ask for a human sacrifice at all?
From a purely material perspective, there is no way out of this problem. God is asking Abraham to kill the son of the promise, and this alone is repugnant. Is this not proof that the Bible is erroneous, brutish, and contradictory? If we approach this issue from the material perspective, it is understandable how one reaches such a conclusion.
However, there is another path to this answer, and the real question here is, how does Abraham reconcile this apparent contradiction? The answer is by faith, but what does that entail here?
Now think about this from Abraham’s perspective. What would you do? How would you respond?
First, Abraham already had good reason to trust God. This is the first peg in the puzzle. He had already followed God instructions to move away from the land of his birth to go this new, promised land. Hebrews 11:8-10 explains:
“By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; 10 for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
Second, God made a promise and swore by an oath to Himself, and it is impossible that God would lie. God is faithful. This is the second of the pegs of the puzzle Abraham was working with. He knew he could trust what God promised, so he knew that no matter what else was going to happen, Isaac was that child of promise and that wasn’t going to change.
Why? Because God’s promise was given as a covenant, and God gave Abraham the assurance of this covenant. Genesis 15 describes the extent to which the Lord went in order to show how serious He was about this covenant. By passing between the pieces of the animal, God was giving His word in such a way that bring a curse upon Himself if He failed to keep it.
Hebrews 6:13-19 tells us: “For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, ‘I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply you.’ And so, having patiently waited, he obtained the promise. For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute. In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil…”
The Hebrews writer also reminds us: “By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised. Therefore there was born even of one man, and him as good as dead at that, as many descendants as the stars of heaven in number, and innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore” (Heb. 11:11-12).
This is what Abraham was working with in his own mind. For him, the promise was beyond dispute. No wonder he could be called the friend of God! While Abraham didn’t always understand, he did continue to persevere because He did know that He could trust God. This is what he was bringing to the table of that sacrifice.
Third, Abraham knew that God would always do what was right. Knowing that God will always do what is right is the third peg of working out the puzzle. Recall what Abraham said when God told him that He would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. He talked with God about not destroying the cities based on even a few righteous people should they be found. He asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” The problem, of course, was that there weren’t the righteous people there who could spare the cities. Nevertheless, Abraham believed that God would do justice, that He would always do what is right.
As Abraham and Isaac approached the place for sacrifice, two statements show Abraham’s faith. First, as they approached the place for the sacrifice, Abraham told his young men to stay with the donkey, and said, “we will worship and return to you.” Abraham was confident they would come back. Second, Isaac asked, “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7). Notice the faith presented by Abraham’s reply: “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (22:8). “God will provide” is a statement that shows Abraham’s faith in the Lord to do what is right and just. Abraham may not have fully understood how God would do it, but he trusted that God would take care of things in His own way.
God will do what is right. He would handle things His way. It may not be how we would handle it, and we likely won’t even understand it all. Yet that is okay for the one who has this faith. We know that we can trust God. We believe in His promises. We know He will do what is right.
Fourth, Abraham knew by faith that God was all powerful. Abraham had good reason to trust God, and he knew that God’s covenant was good. He knew God would provide. Now Abraham also knew that God was all powerful, and with this peg in place, Abraham could act with confidence that somehow, some way, God would handle the outcome. If Abraham were looking at this issue from a material perspective, he may well have concluded that there was no way to reconcile God’s instructions here with God’s promises. Yet in Abraham’s mind, how he reconciles this issue by faith is truly astonishing, especially for those times, as seen in Hebrews 11:17-19:
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your descendants shall be called.’ He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.”
This is remarkable because the idea of personal resurrection wasn’t a common belief in the ancient world. People thought that when you died, you were dead and weren’t coming back bodily (as “resurrection” was not just a bodiless existence, but indicates that the body would be alive again even if changed). As far as we know from the biblical text, Abraham was not told about resurrection but rather, by faith, drew the conclusion (inference) that God must have in mind raising Isaac from the dead if He truly intended for the sacrifice to be made. The only way Abraham could have done this was by the consideration of God’s power coupled with God’s promise.
“He considered that God is able…” is a major statement of faith. Again, as Ephesians 3:20 puts it, God is able to do far more than what we are capable of thinking. If we can keep this fresh in our minds, then we have the tools to be able to work through the difficulties and questions that come when we are thinking too materialistically.
Because faith recognizes the greatness and power of God, there is a constant reliance on God. This is often expressed through prayer. Communication with God is vital. “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18). This helps us stay grounded in the truth of who God is and our need to rely on Him. “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). We cannot distance ourselves from God while at the same time expecting that God draw closer to us.
Faith reconciles difficulties by understanding that reality is bigger than the physical, that God is greater than we, that we already have good reason to trust God, that God is true to His promises, that God will always do the right thing, and that God is able. God is all-powerful. Once we see these points, we have the pegs in place to see that what we consider to be difficulties may indeed find greater answers than we at first might imagine.