God and Choice Theory: Some Thoughts
A few days ago I posted a question on why the God of the Old Testament seems to behave so differently than He does in the New Testament. Was the God of the Old Testament a choice theorist? Several of you commented on this topic – thank you, Paul, Bob, and Tom for helping us with this conversation. I, too, will attempt a comment. What follows is my two cents worth –
Comparing the behavior of God in the Old Testament to His behavior in the New Testament has challenged the thinking of theologians for centuries. There seems to be such marked differences between the two, yet we know that the same God was centrally involved both before (during) and after the Cross. Why the difference?
I don’t claim to have the answer to this vital question. Since coming into an appreciation for choice theory I must admit that I have thought about the question with greater interest. In the process, I have come to recognize the importance of the power of choice and the freedom with which God created us. And since we are created in His image I have to believe that these are qualities He values a great deal. With that in mind, I offer the following ideas to the discussion –
1) The Old Testament Had Its Flaws
Heresy, you may say, but hold on. I actually got this idea from Jesus. A significant section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-48) is devoted to Jesus pointing out that “You have heard that the law says . . .” whereupon He comments on things like anger, murder, adultery, divorce, vows, vengeance, and relationships. After stating what the Old Testament law supposedly demanded, He surprises us by continuing with ” . . . but I say unto you . . .” whereupon He shares a much different response, a decidedly different way of being. Don’t return violence for violence, he encourages, but instead give your cheek to be slapped if that will help. Don’t only want to be in relationship with friends, he offers, but instead behave in a way that will even show love to people you consider to be your enemy.
Jesus, who is the God of the Old Testament, must have had a huge challenge communicating with the human race. I think we really don’t understand the gulf that sin created between us and heaven. Only God coming to our little outpost called earth, and showing us who He really is and what He is really like, would begin to shed light on the events of the Old Testament.
2) We Struggled with LSL (Love as a Second-Language)
As a result of sin, the gulf between earth and heaven was wide, and our ability to commune with God directly was broken. Not severed, but seriously damaged. God’s primary language, which is love, became foreign to us. Communication was an issue. Some of the Bible writers seemed to get this language of love; others not so much. A passage in Genesis is relevant here.
“And the LORD told Moses, “When you arrive back in Egypt, go to Pharaoh and perform all the miracles I have empowered you to do. But I will harden his heart so he will refuse to let the people go.” Ex 4:21
I don’t think that God reached down and forced pharaoh to be obstinate. Most of us agree that God simply knew in advance how pharaoh was going to react to Moses’ demands. This seems to be an example of the kinds of misleading passages sometimes found in the Old Testament. Bible writers said it the best way they knew how, and maybe said it in the way they thought their hearers or readers would understand, but something was lost in the translation.
Many Bible writers did “get” God’s love language, though, and the Old Testament is full of such examples. Take, for instance, a passage from the Psalms.
Listen to me, O my people, while I give you stern warnings.
O Israel, if you would only listen to me!
You must never have a foreign god; you must not bow down before a false god.
For it was I, the LORD your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it with good things.
But no, my people wouldn’t listen. Israel did not want me around.
So I let them follow their own stubborn desires, living according to their own ideas.
Oh, that my people would listen to me. Psalms 81:8-13
This description reveals a God anxious to fill people with good things, and hurt and frustrated that His people didn’t even want Him around. Instead of fire and brimstone and threats and punishment, it simply says then He let us follow our own stubborn desires and live according to our own ideas. To me, this writer is capturing a more accurate picture of God; a picture that emphasizes His love for us, and at the same time reminds us of our ability to either embrace Him and what He stands for or to tell Him to take a hike. And even in the midst of our telling Him to take a hike, He continues to love and support us; to seek us out; to save us.
Language is important. And the words we choose are important, especially so when they depict the character of God. An obvious theme throughout scripture is the theme of choice. God created us with the ability to choose and He has sought to maintain that freedom from the beginning. Let’s keep this theme in mind as we read the messages of scripture.
C.S. Lewis commented on this topic when he wrote in his classic book, The Great Divorce, “In the end there will be but two classes of people—those who say to God, Thy will be done, and those to whom God says, thy will be done.”
Of all our choices, this really is the ultimate choice.
Good work Jim! i love the CS Lewis quote. As a boy, I was raised reading the wonderful series with many christian themes — The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis.
I didn’t meet the writing of C.S. Lewis until college, but I have appreciated him a lot ever since. I am reading a new biography on him as we speak. If you haven’t read The Great Divorce, I strongly encourage you to do so. Incredible writing.
Thanks Jim. C.S.Lewis has been both thought provoking and inspiring to me over the years as well.
I’m challenged when I think about this matter of choosing God to think about the question of what options we believe are available to us. As you often mention – Glasser says that we always choose what we think is in our own best interest (if I didn’t get that just right, please revise as needed – I think that’s the idea though).
If that’s the case, and I do think it is, then what we’ve been taught about God, or what we’ve just absorbed from information around us gives us the raw material with which to make our decision about God. Even stories from the OT provide a lot of material for misinformation. What appears like us to be a choice against God may not be at all. I know you’ve had some discussions with Glasser about God – and as far as I know he seems to have somewhat of an Agnostic attitude. He certainly isn’t in the group of those who are saying “God, Thy will be done” I assume he doesn’t perceive that a belief in God, let alone devoted service to him that would allow God to direct all of his choices, to be in his best interest. Where does that leave him?
Who – if they knew the truth about God (which none of us really do) would not choose Him?
I too have been trying to understand the word pictures and the words attributed to God in the 1st Testament that seem so contradictory to what I know to be true about God. Here is a little possible way of thinking about it . . . First I ask, “Does God bring adversity and prosperity?” (I realize that beginning with a misguided question can take us down the wrong path, so feel free to adjust a better question if you need.) “Or is He in our adversity and prosperity?” Just as the Bible says the “sun sets,” and Galileo was excommunicated because he explained that the earth is not the center of the universe, we have adjusted our understanding of the “setting sun” to match science and still believe our Bibles have truth for us. Is it possible, in the same way, that the references of God doing something out of character (forceful or threatening) is more of a reflection of human limitations to describe God in the midst of our calamity or prosperity? There is no doubt or question that basic human nature is extremely egocentric, yet when it comes to taking responsibility for our own choices, we are very good at blaming. So are the mentions of God’s hand bringing harm or calamity really our own misapplication of vocabulary similar to the “setting sun?” This may all sound too complicated, but I am really searching for a better understanding of the passages of the 1st Testament that are troublesome for me and so many others.
Thank you, Karen, for sharing from your heart on this. Your thoughts have helped me understand things a bit better.
Thanks for many inspirings comments on the topic.Since God is God and I believe the Bible is His word, there are passages in His Words my human brain cannot understand at all times. My problem is that I want to trust His word, and not come into the situation where I pick and choose what matches my wanted picture of God. At the same time the Bible itself tells us that God has spoken to us in so many different ways, maybe to reach so many different people? So what I read is what I read, but God alone knows that what he did was righteouss, true and loving when I wonder. Even in the new Testament there are passages about Jesus where I wonder. It doesn’t feel right to destroy peoples tables in the temple although you disagree with what they are doing in the temple? Or speak to the Phoenician woman in a seemingly harsh way. But I believe – when knowing God is love- that nothing of what Jesus did was done without friendliness and love shining through his eyes for those who were willing to see. Am I willing to see that, although I do not always understand it? And am I willing to show the same when I put down a limit to my students? God loves all people, also the victims of other peoples bad choices.
Thank you Nina, I journey with the same endless falling-in-love-trust with God. . . . even though I don’t always understand. Yet, I know our God wants us to know and understand Him to the best of our ability, so I keep my heart and mind open to new insights and connections that could possibly answer the most troubling “apparent” contradictions. We live in a brilliant age, and I have friends who can’t find the answers who are abandoning the Bible and God all together. It is for those I keep searching for new and honest ways to have these kinds of discussions.