I enjoy playing vintage hymns with my concertina. It is a pleasure to hear songs that, in some cases, I haven’t sung in decades, hymns you may never have heard, like, “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning,” “The Old Fashioned Way,” and “He the Pearly Gates Will Open.”
But there is one hymn with a few lyrics that trouble me, namely, “It Is No Secret What God Can Do.” Although the premise of the hymn is fine (God’s work is renown), one statement ruins it for me: “what He’s done for others, He’ll do for you.”
That statement, in my mind, reflects a misjudgment many Christians make: equating God’s faithfulness with consistency and predictability. Put simply, God does not treat each one of us alike, and we never know what He is going to do next.
God’s faithfulness and His hesed (faithful, steadfast love) indeed do endure forever, as Psalm 136 reminds us time and time again. The Bible often uses repetition to emphasize a key truth, and God’s faithfulness is one of those emphases.
Western thinking is based upon a system of logic developed by the Greek philosophers. The ancient Hebrews, however, thought in terms of principles they could hang onto (like Proverbs), with stories and mental pictures central to their thinking.
Rather than carefully define God and His ways, they hung on to truths about him; they sought to take those truths into account, even if God’s ways, at times, appeared contradictory. They knew God was so big that He filled the universe and beyond; therefore, human understanding of God is limited and His ways, therefore, mysterious (Romans 11:33).
A Macintosh computer usually runs on its unique operating system. A Windows computer operates on its operating system. They are both logical, and they both work. Each system has its advantages and disadvantages. In like manner, we have an operating system in our minds, and much of that is programmed by our cultural roots. The Hebrews had another.
Because we westerners typically equate consistency and predictability with faithfulness (trustworthiness, reliability), we run into many interpretative problems in our Bibles. We want a God who treats everyone the same (a western value) and acts in the same way in response to our behavior (consistency).
Certainly there is plenty of overlap between ancient Hebrew thinking and modern western thinking. For example, God is very adamant about fairness in court, and treating others with justice (Leviticus 19:15 and a host of other Scriptures make this clear). And there is certainly value in trying to systematize the Bible’s teachings about God and the various branches of theology. I am for, not against, systematic theology.
But we need to remember that God does not fit into a box, not even the western box. And so, when we try to determine how God relates to us, we operate on His terms, not our logic. Although we might argue that God is consistent with His purposes, the consistency we are talking about relates to His dealings with mankind, nations, and, yes, His people.
Lois Tverberg writes,
We begin by assuming it’s perfectly reasonable to boil down God’s essence into a list of attributes, to effectively reduce him to a force, a vector defined by magnitude and direction. Then we weigh God’s motives on our scales of justice and demand he make an accounting of himself.
We might resent, for example, that some people or nations are His favorites. That God has His favorites, no one can deny. Abraham was a special friend to God (James 2:23), and Enoch was assumed up to heaven (Genesis 5:24). God’s unmerited love for the Hebrew people was not because of their behavior, but because of their descent from the Patriarchs (Deuteronomy 7:6-8).
God communicated His Word in a variety of ways, not just one (Hebrews 1:1). The Holy Spirit gives believers spiritual gifts as He decides to give (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). We could easily accuse God of being unfair, discriminatory, or playing favorites.
The bottom line is that God is faithful, but where He has not committed himself, He may appear random, arbitrary, and certainly unpredictable.
He may heal Tom, give relief but not a cure to Dick’s ailments, and Harry may quickly succumb to the same disease. The same people might pray for them. These guys might be the same age, in a similar family situation, and appear to be similar in their faith and walk with the Lord.
Sally may witness to Tasha and she accepts the Lord. Susie witnesses in the same manner to Tasha’s sister with no results.
The point is this: faithfulness is an attribute of God, and God demands we treat people fairly. He keeps His Word, stays the same, and is consistent in His faithfulness to His commitments. Nonetheless, His commitments are broad and relatively few. He promises eternal life to those who turn from sin and embrace Jesus by faith. He promises to never leave us or forsake us. He promises to indwell us by His Spirit, to resurrect our bodies, and to discipline and guide us.
What about your toothache? Or your need for a better job? Or your spouse’s behavior? What He has done for others, will He do for you? Maybe. Maybe not.
In C.S. Lewis “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” the lion Aslan represents Jesus. Let me quote some of the conversation about him:
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
God is good and faithful, but is He consistent? At least from our vantage point, the answer must be “no.” God is, however, consistent with His purposes, and His ways past finding out.
I suggest that our quest for consistency is a western obsession. God is bigger than western logic, but He nonetheless makes complete sense. One day, we will understand more fully. 1 Corinthians 13:12 speaks of that time:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.