From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference
If there’s one lesson we can learn from church history it’s this: God’s work has survived moral rum-dums and downright bad people down through the ages. It can survive one more: me.
We looked last time at failures among the people of God. It is a sorry tale, but it has a flip side: God never gave up on them, throughout Scripture and down through history. One could draw many lessons from this, but I’ll focus on just two.
First, God is a gracious God. Abraham “believed God,” it says in Genesis 15:6, “and God counted it to him as righteousness.” It wasn’t Abraham’s own righteousness that placed him in a reconciled relationship with God. His righteousness was a gift credited to him simply for opening his mind and heart to believing what God said.
One might look at it this way: he got as far as not rejecting God outright, and that was far enough. He believed God. It’s not a great thing to believe God. It’s not like curing AIDS or spending years in Haiti earthquake relief or founding a whole structure and organization to help the poor in Calcutta. It’s not even like becoming a 100% recycler, or running for school board, or serving on a mission to stop human trafficking.
As far as we know, Abraham had done nothing of that sort. He had been gracious toward his nephew, Lot, perhaps, in Genesis 14. That’s the most noble thing I can find in him. Except for this: he believed God. To believe God actually is a great thing, contrary to what I wrote just now. It is a crucial of aligning one’s core being with the loving, personal, and ultimate reality that is God himself.
Consider what it is to disbelieve in God. If there is no God, then to disbelieve in him is no problem, but if God is, then to disbelieve in him is to reject his reality in one’s mind, with effects reaching from there to one’s will, one’s emotions, and one’s behavior. Where else but in one’s mind could one begin to align oneself with the reality of all realities? Where also but in one’s assent to that reality could one even begin to have any kind of relationship with God who made it all?
This mental assent—this belief, in other words—is only the beginning, but it is the essential beginning from which everything else flows, and without which there is only rejection, alienation, and distance from God. This belief is also, by God’s grace, all that he asks of us; he supplies the rest, as he did with Abraham: “Abraham believed God, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
This is still the way to become one of the people of God: to give that first, simple assent, and let God take it from there. That initial agreement with God also involves knowing that we cannot be our own gods, though we have tried, each of us in our own way, and that it was wrong to try to go it alone: we need God to be our God. (There is more on this here.)
God took Abraham the rest of the way. Through the course of his life, we see that seed of righteousness growing, as he learns to intercede with God for lost men and women, for example; and as he gives continuing grace to his grabby nephew Lot.
And so we also see, as the family history continues down generations, that the deceiver Jacob wrestles with God until God turns his life around, and that the timid and inconstant man Moses becomes the great leader of a nation and the deliverer of revelation. The story is repeated again and again. Every Christian today can tell his or her own version of the same. God gives grace.
He does it with a kind of gentleness, too. What I mean is that he rarely thunders his word from heaven. We know of only one flash-of-blinding-light, voice-of-Christ conversion (there may have been others since the first century but I do not know of them). God has a way of working *with* his creation, not counter to it, even in his works of salvation.
There are exceptions, to be sure. Creation was corrupted through the Fall, and God has stepped in and turned certain things back to right from time to time. He has done this in small ways from time to time; it is a foretaste of the end when he will “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). His miracles have served mostly to validate his revelation while reflecting his love and justice; although in the case of Christ’s resurrection, it was to accomplish the key healing of relationship with God that would bring restoration not only to humans but someday to all of creation.
Other than a constrained number of key moments, though, God has usually worked through rather than against the course of his creation. And why not? He made it; why would he go about unmaking it all the time? Always he guides the river by adjusting its banks. Sometimes he stops and restarts the flow completely: but this is the exception, and not the general rule.
And so it is with his calling of a people of God. After Babel he did not skywrite his revelation; he did not re-arrange all the stars in the sky to proclaim his truth. Rather he took one faulty yet faithful man as the one through whom we would begin to inject his message back onto the earth. Abraham became the father of a faulty yet faithful son and family, and as the years went by they became over time the founders of a faulty people of God, yet one in whom faithfulness could still be found, just as it could be found in its fathers.
How else can I say this, but that God works through people and through history. He lets the river flow, even though from time to time he digs out new banks to change its course. God intended this world to be a real world, where real things happen, not just so-called “spiritual” things (“churchy” and “devotional” sorts of things). Real spiritual things happen when real people live out the life of God in real connection with other people, with God’s creation, and with God himself.
And so God started a gradual process rolling all those centuries ago with Abraham. The point of it was that God would bless his people for his glory, and that they would be a blessing to all nations.
That latter thought might raise a whole new set of questions in your mind. We’ll come back to that tomorrow: what does it mean to bless all nations, have God’s people ever really done that, and how in the world are we doing now? The short answer is that God’s work in the world has progressed, sometimes slower and sometimes faster. It has survived and continued in spite of genuine rumdums and idiots like me—and God has even blessed flawed people like me. That gives me a lot of hope.
I need to footnote this by repeating what I wrote in the first entry on this subject. This topic, God’s people, belongs in any discussion of major turning points in the history of God’s work in the world, so I cannot leave it out. On the other hand, there is no way to do it justice in the time and space available. Its story ranges over thousands of years and across the entire globe, and it touches moreover on several serious social controversies. I am not going to pass it by, but as I enter into it, I make no pretense of being comprehensive. I will instead take just a very brief look at a few aspects of general interest over the course of three posts.