When God Looks Bad
Often we read the Bible and have a hard time making the connection between God’s role in the Old and New Testaments. How do we reconcile Jesus’ teachings of God’s love and longsuffering, of kindness to our fellow man, of redemption and sacrifice for all people with the Old Testament instruction to pillage and conquer the Canaanites (Numbers 33:50-56), with instant death for one who so much as laid a careful hand on the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:3-7), with stoning an entire family because one man went astray (Joshua 6:18-19; Joshua 7:1, 20-26)?
There are stories in the Old Testament that cause us to stop in dismay and wonder how this is the loving, gracious, merciful God that we learn about in Sunday School and read bedtime stories about to our children. We might fall back on trying to make a distinction between the Old and New Covenants, or by describing the different characteristics and roles of the members of the Trinity, i.e. God the Father compared to God the Son.
But ultimately, those answers aren’t sufficient. God is one in His purpose and plans and character – in each member of the Trinity – and throughout every age of history. We are taught that He is infinitely unchanging (Malachi 3:6; Numbers 23:19). There is no shadow of turning with Him (James 1:17).
And so, God’s ways are not our ways. But even when His ways seem strange to us – unlike what we know of Him – His ways are still the same, and He is still good. In the Old Testament, we are granted a bit of insight into that truth in the book of Jonah.
Normally, we read the story of Jonah as a quick lesson on what happens when we try to disobey God. For example, we can’t run from Him, He is sovereign and in control, etc. And all with an undertone of God wanting, as often happens in the Old Testament, to judge some evil people.
But if we dig into the story a little, we will discover another, probably more familiar and more comfortable element – God’s mercy. In fact, it is a story of God reaching out to Gentiles with a message about the chance of being saved from judgment. Even under the Old Covenant, before Isaiah’s prophetic description of God’s plans of redemption for the Gentiles, we see God at work to reach out and deliver a message about Himself to a lost and undeserving people.
Think about it. The whole story is about God working to bring a city of evil, ungodly, definitely unworthy Gentiles to repentance. Why? So they can be saved from a judgment they have rightly earned. It is the injustice of God’s unprovoked mercy and the total depravity of the Ninevites that makes them completely undeserving of that mercy, that Jonah objects to. It is the idea that God would seek to rescue a people not only wicked and cruel, but who in fact, as Assyrians and sworn enemies of Israel, would eventually participate in the destruction and captivity of the Northern Kingdom of Israel – Jonah’s own homeland.
All of this sends Jonah into rebellion against God’s instructions. He was not told just to arrive, belt them with the announcement of impending doom because of all their evil deeds, and then leave them to it. He was to preach repentance to them, to present a case convincing them of their need to repent so they could thereby escape the judgment they deserved. To us, from a New Covenant perspective, that was good of God. To Jonah, it looked like a bad idea and horribly unfair.
So, maybe it is not so much that God’s actions are inscrutable, as our understanding of them is precarious. Not that we lack some secret key to biblical exposition, but simply because we are not God. He’s looking at the picture from a whole different angle, and what He sees may be very different from what we see. What He knows and understands may be completely unknown to us. In short, what we may misunderstand and call bad, He may call good.
Fortunately, to build our faith, He takes some of those situations, throughout history and in our own lives, and makes them clear to us, allowing us to see what He is really about.
Take the birth of Jesus for instance. Looking at the story from a human viewpoint, it is a completely tragic affair. A girl gets pregnant out of wedlock, her fiancée is compelled to marry her against his own inclination, they are forced into an arduous journey through unfriendly terrain, they are destitute and homeless when it comes to the time for childbirth, and the whole thing ends with a lot of innocent infants being massacred and Jesus’ parents having to flee for their lives to a foreign land not knowing if they will see their home and families again. For a sad tale of a couple who really get their lives messed up, that beats Romeo and Juliet hollow. Oh, and then that baby who came into the world through so much trouble and pain ends up being horrifically executed as a criminal and denied by His closest friends. And yet, from our retrospective understanding of God’s purpose, we celebrate His birth as the sweetest, most joyous event of all time.
And that is just one small portion and the centerpiece of an indescribably complicated story that ties in every day and every person all around the globe for all of time. Think of it. How much more goodness is there in God’s ways, in the whole scheme of time and day by day in our own lives, that we do not yet understand?