Why I believe in God (3): his footprints in creation
It is not on the physical universe only that the Creator left his footprints. He has also left them on the story of the human race. He is not, as Deism argued, merely a great mechanic who put the Machine together and then left it to run itself. Nor is he an absentee landlord who left the human tenants of his estate to run it (and make a mess of it) without supervision, intervention or accountability. The very nature of God as Life, Love and Logos rules out such an idea of his relationship with the world. The very reason he made us was that he might love us, walk with us and keep in touch with us. This is what we mean by divine providence. Not only has God made us. He keeps an eye on us, preserves us and governs us; and this providence applies on both the mega- scale and the micro. It takes in the storms on the face of the sun, the fall of the sparrow and the beauty of the lily. But above all it takes in God’s personal, active and intimate involvement in the history of the human race. In the Garden of Eden, God was already on speaking terms with Adam and Eve, and they would have regarded the question whether he existed as an absurd one. He talked with them and he walked with them.
The Fall violently disrupted this relationship, but it didn’t end it. On the contrary, God’s immediate response to their sin was to speak to them. Of course, the tone had now changed. It was admonitory, and even ominous. They had brought a curse on the ground, and yet would remain for ever dependent on it; and to it one day they would return, ‘for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ (Gen. 3:19). But he was still talking to them, and in them to us, and his words were not all gloom and doom. Yes, so long as history lasted there would be enmity between the Seed of the Woman and the Seed of the Serpent, the infernal master-mind behind their sin, but in that struggle her seed would triumph, the human race would be finally redeemed, and for that redemption God himself would take full responsibility. What is more, from the beginning to the end of that great work he would keep talking, and we would know he was there not only because like a great artist he had left behind a sublime portfolio of his work, but because he was still at work; and in the course of that work he kept on explaining it, listening to us and acting for us. From Noah’s Ark to the Empty Tomb, and from Adam in the Garden to Saint John on Patmos, his voice was never silent; and it is still not silent.
The outstanding example of God’s post-Creation activity is his involvement in the history of the people of Israel. How did they know that God existed? Was it because they had mastered Anselm and Aquinas and were familiar with the theistic proofs? Surely not! They knew because he had spoken to them, and because he kept on speaking; and they knew because he kept on fulfilling his promises and carrying out his threats. Indeed, the key figures in their history had been his intimate conversation-partners. Abraham knew God was there because God had called him, directly and personally; and not only had he called him, but he made him a great promise. His descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky; they would inherit the earth; and they would be a blessing to all nations. To any human ears, including Abraham’s own, this was ridiculous. His wife, Sarah, was well past the meno-pause, and he himself was a hundred years old. But they took God at his word, though not without a struggle; and he kept it. Over the next 2000 years he maintained a unique relationship with the innumerable descendants of this elderly childless couple; or, to put it more colloquially, he stayed in touch, and through them he stayed in touch with the whole human race, never allowing them (or us) to forget him.
This meant three things in particular. First, God was an inescapable presence in their daily lives; secondly, he repeatedly perforated their history in a series of mighty acts, sometimes of deliverance and sometimes of retribution; and thirdly, he chose from among them the great prophets who would deliver his messages to the human race.
The key moment in this history of relations between God and Israel was the Exodus, the event which laid the foundation of the nation’s history. After centuries of enslavement in Egypt, Abraham’s family, now vastly increased in number, were groaning under the tyranny of a regime bent on genocide. God heard, and God came down. Such language doesn’t mean that the author of Exodus subscribed to the idea that God lived a few thousand feet above the earth. Throughout the Bible, such spatial metaphors are used to underline the fact that God is far above us in power, knowledge, wisdom, holiness and sheer splendour; far above our ability to manipulate him, and far above our capacity to capture his glory in human words or concepts. He is high and lifted up: the creator of time and space, not confined by them. But at the same time his ear is attuned to earth and his eye instantly alert to developments within his creation.
He has seen, then, the plight of the Israelites, he has heard their cries, he comes down, and he acts. He raises up a leader, Moses; he divides the Red Sea; he guides his people through the desert; he brings them to the Promised Land. This is the story narrated in Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy; and it is narrated not as a national myth, but as a factual history which isn’t in the least bit interested in flattering the people whose deliverance it describes. It is not merely ‘inspired by real events’, like a TV drama-documentary. It is an authentic record of the events themselves, and it is these events which undergird and explain the faith of the nation. They believed in God because they had seen him act; and considering that we, the Christian nation (1 Pet. 2:9), are also the children of Abraham, we have to embrace the Exodus and the events which followed it as key moments in our own national history. We believe in the LORD, the God of Israel, not on the basis of philosophical arguments, but because of what he did for our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But although the Exodus stands out as the supreme Old Testament moment of contact between God and humanity, it is by no means unique. Time and again God acted decisively in human history as his people faced the hostility of such great world powers as the Syrians, the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Indeed, the whole of the Old Testament is a reminder that God is not only the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth, and not only one who makes occasional contact with his world, but a solicitous and ever-vigilant Father who stays in constant touch and makes his presence felt not only in the mega-shifts of world history, but in the lives of individuals.
Fortunately for us, we have well-documented accounts of God’s interventions in key individual lives. Moses, David, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are prime examples. All were men of strong faith, but we have to emphasise once again that that faith was not merely the result of an implanted sense of deity or of logical inference from the coherence of the universe and the structures of the human mind. They believed because of what God had done in their lives; and what he had done in their lives he had also done in our lives as members of the Christian nation. We have a collective memory of unforgettable contacts between God and our people.
Very often, these contacts were oracular, God speaking majestically from such places as the heights of Sinai or the glory of the shekinah. But some key Old Testament figured also enjoyed the privilege of intimate conversations with God: conversations so intimate that God sometimes seems to be speaking to them as his equals. We see this already in Moses. When God calls him (Ex. 3:71-17) he responds with a series of protests , beginning with, ‘Who am I?’, followed by, ‘I don’t know your name’, then by , ‘They won’t listen to me’, and culminating in, ‘I am not fit to be your spokesman. I am not eloquent. I am slow of speech and of tongue’ (Ex. 4:10). Through it all, God engages in patient dialogue with a reluctant prophet.
We find the same thing in the account of the call of Jeremiah who, when told of his appointment as a prophet responds in the same tone as Moses: ‘Ah, Lord God! Behold I don’t know how to speak. I’m only a youth’ (Jer. 1:6). And once again God responds patiently: ‘Don’t say, “I’m only a youth, and don’t be afraid. I’ll be with you.’ But even more remarkable is the interaction between God, Isaiah and King Hezekiah with regard to the King’s illness (2 Kings 20:1-6, Is. 38:1ff.). To begin with, the prophet is sent with the message, ‘Set your house in order. You’re going to die. You won’t recover.’ On the face of things, that seems final, but the king responds by having his own conversation with God, reminding him how faithfully he had walked before him and done what was good in his sight. Then, almost immediately, God responds by sending Isaiah with another message: ‘I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you and add fifteen years to your life.’ On the face of things, this is a remarkable change of direction on God’s part, but looked at more closely it is a revelation of God as one prepared to act as a real conversation-partner, listening to what the King has to say, and incorporating the King’s wishes into the final outcome. We have to remember that it was God’s own initial word that prompted the King’s response, but the key thing is that for the purposes of this conversation God assumes the position of one whose first pronouncement was only provisional and who was thus open to changing his mind.
The most remarkable conversation of all, however, is the one recorded between God and Jonah recorded in Jonah 4:1 – 11. Jonah is angry because though he had been sent to pronounce doom on Nineveh, God now appears to have changed his mind in response to the city’s repentance. Nineveh would not be destroyed after all. This was all very well for the city, and entirely in keeping with God’s character as a gracious and merciful God (Jonah 4:2), but from Jonah’s point of view he had been madeto look a complete fool, he had lost the will to live, and so off he went to mope in the shade of a primitive booth he had built for himself. The booth had not been very effective, however, and God had kindly raised up a large plant to provide some proper covering.
But then the plant withered and died, leaving Jonah even more distraught and angry. Again, however, God speaks, and this time he focuses on Jonah’s inconsistency. He is angry that the plant has been destroyed, and angry that Nineveh, with its huge population, has not been destroyed. For the purposes of the conversation, the Creator-creature relationship has been reversed. God has to justify himself to Jonah. But the really striking thing here is that God and the prophet are sharing the same time and the same space and that God is presenting himself as one who, for the sake of this dialogue, knows no more than Jonah. Neither the one nor the other appears to be aware at this point that the city will repent and that God will revoke his doom.
Before we dismiss the portrayal as ‘primitive’, we should remind ourselves that there is a similar moment in John’s account of the ministry of Jesus. Confronted by the need to feed 5,000 hungry people, the Lord asks the disciples for advice, but the Gospel carefully records that Jesus already knew what he should do (Jn. 6:6). Even so, the question precipitates a real conversation, Jesus learns that there is a young boy in the crowd who has five loaves and two fish, and acting on that information he feeds the multitude.
‘They’ll never believe you spoke with me!’
One of the protests uttered by Moses in his conversation with the LORD was, ‘They will never believe that you spoke to me.’ (Ex. 4:1) The same scepticism prevails still: How can we be sure that such conversations between heaven and earth ever occurred? But Moses, Isaiah, Hezekiah, Jeremiah and Jonah were sure; and they were sure not only because of what they had seen and heard, but because of the sequels. In each conversation, promises were made, and these promises were kept. The LORD did deliver Israel from Egypt; Hezekiah’s life was spared; and the many warnings shared with Jeremiah were abundantly fulfilled. For such men, of course, God was there ‘in the beginning’ and it was not from these conversations that their faith took its origin. But their faith found confirmation, and came to a deeper understanding, through their experience of God speaking to them and with them. That confirmation did not end with them, however. We share in it because we can claim for ourselves the language of Hebrews 1:1, ‘God spoke to our fathers by the prophets’ (italics added). They are our people, part of our history; and taken together with the theophanies of the Old Testament and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the New, they are reminders that even after God drove us out of Eden he still kept in touchBut are such conversations not very much a thing of the past: God no longer keeps in touch? Christians know this is not true. For one thing, God is still speaking to us through the prophets and the apostles, whose words, still vibrant with life, are the church’s most precious possession. But this is not all. In daily prayer we are still in conversation with God, and he still answers. Granted, the answers are not always luminous, any more than they were for Jonah; and God’s being within shouting-distance doesn’t mean that he always comes running, or that he always does exactly what we think is necessary. Prayer is not a case of placing an order with Amazon and receiving the goods by Prime Delivery the next day. But it does mean that time and again he hears us when we share our fears and pray that what we dread will not materialise; and, conversely, that when we pray for outcomes that seem to be too good to be true, he delivers precisely such an outcome (Eph. 3:20).
Every Christian life is punctuated by memorable answers to prayer. God gives the grace that keeps us from going to pieces (Heb. 4:16); he heeds our intercessions on behalf of those who are struggling; he braces us for duty, temptation and pain; he soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds, and drives away our fears. When we are weak he makes us strong. When we preach with poor, lisping stammering tongues our words can become the saving power of God. And every Christian pastor who has seen ordinary men and women triumph over crushing adversity knows that the great promise of Isaiah is as valid today as it was two thousand years ago: those what wait on the Lord still renew their strength, they mount up with wings like eagles, they run and are not weary, they walk and are not faint (Is. 40:31).
Faith finds confirmation (and self-understanding) in the fact that the One it prays to, still hears and answers.