My phone rang. I picked up: “Hey, Paul! It’s Stacey.” I’d just been opening the mail, including a letter that alerted me to some health-care related business I needed to do for my mother. Like many people, I find the paperwork and regulations intimidating. Mom’s business matters make me sad, because I’m helping her be happy and cared for during her final years. My stomach felt a bit upset… and at that moment, my friend called—one of my favorite people to chat with. I smiled at God’s timing. Then, a few months later, I happened to call my friend at a perfect moment when she was dealing with her own difficult situation.
Serendipity! You’re in the midst of some problem, perhaps a problem that you’ve dealt with for a while, and then at the perfect moment, a friend calls … or an unexpected event happens … or you get some good news. I remember when a life-changing opportunity opened up for me at a very painful moment when I wasn’t sure what to do next. The Lord introduces experiences into the flow of our lives, sometimes guiding us, sometimes reassuring us that God is there. I could provide numerous personal examples besides these.
The term “providence” comes from the Latin Deus providebit, a translation of the phrase in Genesis 22:14, YHWH jireh, “The Lord will provide.” In that story, faithful Abraham is willing to sacrifice his promised son to God, but God provides a ram instead.
Needless to say, providence is one of the beautiful doctrines of Scripture. We long to be guided and used by God. We long to know that God has been at work whether we knew or not (Hos. 11:3). But our lives run aground sometimes; difficulties come to even the most devoted Christians, while mean people seem to avoid trouble. As we seek to walk with God—to seek God’s Lordship and companionship—we face challenges.
It’s good to linger on the Bible’s more strange stories. The Bible witnesses to the amazing care of God but what about the stories that depict life in all its unfairness, imbalance, and extremity? How do we deal with these kinds of stories when we look to the Bible for help, other than to ignore them? Over the years I’ve “collected” several passages, which originate from among different narratives and sources within the biblical material.
* Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the guests (angels) who visit him at Sodom (Gen. 19:1-11). Later the daughters have sex with their father, Gen. 19:30-38. And yet who among the family is punished for sin? It’s Lot’s wife, who merely looks back on the destruction of the cities, Gen. 19:26.
* Onan must impregnate his late brother’s wife (Gen. 38:8). Onan, however, withdraws and “spilled the semen on the ground,” because he knows the offspring would not be his. So God kills Onan (Gen. 38.10)!
* Among the Bible’s several assassinations (e.g., Judges 4:17-21, 2 Sam. 3:27, 4:5-8, 13:28, 18:14, 20:10) , Ehud drove a sword into Eglon’s stomach, but Eglon was so fat that his fleshy abdomen closed over the sword, preventing its extraction, so Ehud left it there and snuck out. Eglon’s attendants delayed coming to him because they thought he was going to the bathroom (Judges 3:12-30).
* Abimelech’s family is slaughtered when he assumes power (Judges 9:1-6)
* A concubine is gang-raped and dismembered, and no one is punished, although the crime is used to incite tribal warfare (Judges 19).
* David slaughters 200 Philistines and gives their foreskins to Saul in exchange for Saul’s daughter, Michal.
* Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, and he is subsequently murdered (2 Sam. 13).
* Menahem sacks Shallum and rips open the wombs of all the pregnant women there (2 Kings 15:15). Subsequently, he becomes king of Israel.
* King Ahaz offers his children as offerings to the gods (2 Chron. 28:1-4).
* A group of little boys taunt Elisha as a “baldhead.” As the result of Elisha’s curse, two bears appeared and mauled forty-two of the boys (2 Kings 2:23-25).
* King Ahab covets the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite. So Jezebel arranges that Naboth be falsely accused of cursing God and the king, so that he could be stoned to death and the king could have his vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-16). A similar story of people sacrificed for the benefit of the powerful: Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, whom David had killed, 2 Sam. 11:11-27. Naboth the Jezreelite was the man whose vineyard King Ahab coveted. (1 Kings 21:1-16).
* The ark had to be carried in a certain, respectful way (Numbers 4:15), not on a cart. When Uzzah tries to steady the reacquired ark when the oxen stumbled, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (vs. 7; the whole passage is 2 Sam. 6:1-11).
* King Josiah tries to restore faithfulness to Judah, 2 Kings 23:25. This would’ve seemed like a good opportunity for divine blessing of his efforts. Yet Pharaoh Neco kills Josiah at Megiddo, and disaster resulted (2 Kings 23:28-35).
* Ananias and Sapphira lie about their donation and are struck dead (Acts 5:1-11). But didn’t Peter lie about his relationship to Jesus (Matt. 18:15-18) and yet did not receive the promised punishment (Luke 12:9)?
* I hate to use the term “collateral damage” to refer to Bible events, but sometimes people suffer on account of miraculous events. One example is the slaughter of the innocents, Matt. 2:16-18, where many families suffered terribly on account of Jesus’ birth.
* Another is the execution of the Roman guards held accountable for Peter’s divinely-accomplished release from prison (Acts 12:18-19).
* The appearances of God within the biblical text sometime seem surprising. Why does God intervene, or speak, at certain points but not others? Why is Joseph imprisoned for two years, simply because the chief cupbearer forgot him (Gen. 40:23-41:14)? Why, indeed, does God finally remember the Israelites after many years of their suffering (Ex. 2:23-24). Even the Israelites seem to have forgotten God in that time, for the text does not say they cried to God, only that they cried for help.
Interpreting such stories theologically can be challenging; I encourage you to think about the meaning and purpose of some of these troubling scriptures. I’m glad these stories are here for several reasons. First, the Bible (to use a contemporary expression) “keeps it real,” which, for me, makes the whole Bible more true and believable. Do you have terrible events in your life that defy explanation? Many of us do, and we hear about others. (During the time I wrote this book, a widow of a 9/11/01 casualty was herself killed in a plane crash.) As you look at your own life, you can see how God worked in some of some of your personal circumstances for good, as the scripture promises (Rom. 8:28), while other circumstances defy attribution to a loving God. I could also list many wars, genocides, injustices, and horrors of our human eras; one of my college classes, in fact, just recently speculated about the fact that, following the American Civil War, another hundred years would be necessary to bring civil rights for African Americans. The classic question is, Where is God amid all this suffering?
If we expect the Bible to contain only beautiful moral lessons, we’re liable to take offense by the stranger and more violent stories. In fact, we’re liable to take offense anyway, for some of these stories verify the stereotype of the biblical God as an inconsistent and hard-to-please “smiter.” But the Bible does not sugarcoat the fact that life contains violence, horror, uncertainty, unease, and the disappointments that are part of real living. As we struggle to make sense out of life, we can take assurance that the Bible, too, depicts inexplicable events, analogous to those we hear every day, just as the Bible expresses honestly the psalmists’ questions, unease, and troubles.
Second, and importantly, such stories potentially can point us toward Christ. I don’t mean that they are connected prophetically or typologically to Christ. I mean that God is not removed from suffering but has always been present in the lives of his chosen people, through good and terrible circumstances, though the nature of his presence can be hard to fathom. Jesus, a suffering Jewish servant who is also God incarnate, came to his own people, shared their sorrows, and took on the full pain, unfairness, and horrors of human experience. The “problem of suffering” will always be difficult because we cannot see the whole of life or the whole of God’s activity. But we can feel assurance that God in Christ experiences our suffering and provides a way toward our ultimate victory in him.
Third, the Bible contains praises to God in spite of the randomness and difficulty of life. The Hebrew word hesed can be translated “steadfast love” or “loving kindness,” both translations complementing the other. A very small selection of verses affirms God’s faithful love.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever (1 Chr. 16:34)
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation (Ps. 13:5)
I said, ‘O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments (Neh. 1:5)
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! (Ps. 25:7)
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings (Ps. 36:7)
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him (Ps. 103:11)
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end (Lam. 3:22).
God’s hesed never fails. Although some of the Bible’s stories are dark and horrible, the overall witness of the Bible is God’s constant love and care.
Fourth—I’m “stretching” on this point—I think the Bible provides an honest picture of life’s tragedies in order to prepare us for service. The Bible calls us to take the side of persons in terrible situations (Matt. 25:40, Heb. 13:3). Have you visited a nursing home and seen the infirmities of old age? Have you seen combat or helped a veteran? Have you visited a prison? Have you befriended a rape victim, or a Holocaust survivor, or an impoverished person, or someone else who has suffered? If you’re a Christian whose life and faith are comparatively sheltered, the Bible is a good place to begin broadening your outlook.
Fifth, the Bible is replete with narratives of God’s provision. Although the Bible does not spell out details of how God works, the Bible is crystal clear that God does work! Here are several other stories—again, arising from different narratives and sources within the Bible:
* Hagar has given up hope after her water has run out and leaves Ishmael to die. But the angel of God comes to her and gives her divine assurance. At that point, she realizes she has been close to water all along, and God remains with them (Gen. 21:15-21).
* Jacob is about to face his brother after many years, and he is greatly afraid. He prays to God for deliverance (Gen. 32:9-12). His prayer is touchingly answered when he meets his brother and unexpectedly is embraced lovingly by Esau (Gen. 33:1-11). (At some point I wrote in my old Bible’s margin, Jacob, though blessed, was still full of fears.) Not only that, but Jacob experiences his unanticipated time of testing as he wrestles with … who? A man? God? An angel? (Gen. 32:22-32).
* Joseph experiences the betrayal of his brothers, the betrayal by Potiphar, yet another betrayal by the chief baker, and years of imprisonment before he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and became a ruler in Egypt (Gen. 37, 39-41).
* Tamar schemes and presents herself as a prostitute in order to finally become pregnant—by her father-in-law Judah. One of her offspring, Perez, is ancestor of Jesus (Gen. 38).
* David slays Goliath with what seems an extremely ineffective weapon (1 Sam. 17:4ff).
* Saul, on the other hand, has excellent means to slay David but is prevented from doing so (1 Sam. 19:10).
* Solomon becomes king of Israel, amid the scheming of his mother and even of the prophet Nathan (1 Kings 1-2).
* Elijah prophesies concerning Ahab’s death (1 Kings 21:20f). Ahab dies when an Aramean soldier simply shot an arrow at no one in particular, and the arrow struck Ahab in a vulnerable place between his armor (1 Kings 22:34).
* Elisha’s servant Gehazi cheats Naaman of money. Although not present at the time, Elisha knew and cursed Gehazi and his descendents with leprosy (2 Kings 5:19b-27).
* Ahithophel gave better advice to Absalom, to pursue David. But God led Absalom to also seek the advice of Hushai, who advised Absalom not to be hasty. Absalom followed Hushai’s advice, which sounded better but contributed to his (Absalom’s) downfall (2 Sam. 17:1-23).
* In that same story, a woman hid Ahimaaz and Jonathan, and then lied to Absalom, which allowed David to escape safely (2 Samuel 17:15-22).
* Esther, a Jewish woman in the Persian king’s harem, becomes queen of Persia and, with her guardian Mordecai, is able to save her people from massacre.
* The Assyrian king Sennacherib taunts the people of God and blasphemes God. God’s angel struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (Isa. 36-37; 2 Kings 18:13-19:37).
* Jeremiah is cast into a cistern to die. He is saved only because an Ethiopian eunuch, Ebed-melech, heard about it, and the king happened to be at a place where Ebed-melech could speak to him (Jer. 38:1-13).
* The thief on the cross has not believed in Jesus and scarcely has what we’d call faith. But with the barest amount of belief he reaches out to fellow “criminal” Jesus with a word of compassion and regret. The man gets more grace than he would’ve dreamed (Luke 23:39-43).
* You could argue that the two fellows walked to Emmaus had less faith than the penitent thief. The thief knew Jesus would come into his kingdom, whereas the two fellows thought the promised kingdom was no more, now that Jesus was gone. They too, get “extra grace” (Luke 24:13-35).
* The Ethiopian eunuch studies Scripture by himself, when Philip encounters him and helps the man discover Jesus. The Spirit had merely instructed Philip to go toward Gaza, and after meeting with the eunuch, Philip doesn’t even proceed to Gaza but is sent elsewhere (Acts 8:26-40).
* Peter is able to evangelize the centurion Cornelius thanks to the Holy Spirit’s “cross-referencing” of visions (Acts 10).
* Peter is imprisoned, and his friends pray fervently for him. Subsequently an angel releases Peter from prison, but when he returns to his friends’ house, they don’t believe (Acts 12:6-17).
* Paul and Timothy had success in Lystra and Iconium, and then as they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, “having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” they tried to go into Bithynia. But the Holy Spirit forbade that, too. So they went to Troas, where Paul had a vision to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10).
* Paul and Silas are released from prison because of an earthquake, which also led to the conversion of the jailer and his household (Acts 16: 25-34).
* Paul glorified God when God raised Eutychus from the dead; but Eutychus had died because he drifted off during Paul’s long sermon and fell from window (Acts 20:7-13).
* Paul wanted to go to Rome and preach; he would’ve been released by King Agrippa but Paul had appealed to the emperor (Acts 26:30-32); so Paul was sent a prisoner to Rome, but when he arrived, the Roman officials had received no charges against him (Acts 28:21). See the whole dramatic story: Acts 21:17-28:30.
These stories, too, require prayerful interpretation on our part, for some are violent, untoward, and strange as well. Others are closer to our own experiences of serendipity Does the Bible spell out God’s role in these events? Not always! In some, God is scarcely mentioned, if at all. But the Bible witnesses to or implies a mysterious but real and strong guidance amid the very human course of things.
The Bible also gives us confidence in God’s ability to use us. The Bible is filled with characters God used. We should never raise ourselves to the stature of Moses, David, Gideon, Nehemiah, Mary, Peter, Stephen, Paul, and others. Remember that these people had specific roles in the history of God’s salvation, greater than our comparatively small place in God’s scheme. But, as we seek a deeper relationship with God in Christ, their stories give us confidence in God’s ability to use different people in astonishing ways.
Although I dislike that expression “One person plus God is a majority”—the saying sounds too much like “God is on my side, therefore I’m right and everyone else is wrong”—the expression points to the deep truth of God’s power to accomplish his will.
Be forewarned! God may use us for purposes beyond us, and that his purposes may either include or transcend our personal agendas. God may accomplish great things in our lives, but he may use us for great things in other people’s lives; or God may use times of trouble and failure in order to bring about important things down the way. God’s providential signs and wonders happen within a context beyond our comprehension (Eph. 3:20). As we look to Christ and his Spirit, we open ourselves to God’s love and amazing possibilities.
1 The first eight (not including the paragraph on assassinations) are listed in Jason Boyett’s enjoyable Pocket Guide to the Bible: A Little Book About the Big Book (Orlando, FL: Relevant Books, 2006), pages 184-185.
2. In his book Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), Graeme Goldsworthy writes, “There is often a failure [in the church] to think through how the link between the people and events of the Old Testament are to be made with us as, presumably, New Testament people. This failure leads to some major defects in preaching, not the least of which is the tendency to moralize on Old Testament events, or simply to find pious examples to imitate” (page 3.). He suggests that we stay conscious of “the theological thrust of [a] particular book of the Bible within the wider context that links this to the coming of Christ” so that our existence is defined b our relationship to Christ (page. 151).
3. For a deeper treatment of the absence of a “theodicy” in the Bible is G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: The Providence of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1952), chapter 8. Also Theodicy in the Old Testament, edited by James L. Crenshaw. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983. Walter Brueggemann writes: “In [Israel’s] narratives and hymns celebrating Yahweh’s justice, Yahweh is said to be a ‘lover of justice’ … That must is not in dispute…But Israel is realistic and candid about its life situation. It knows very well that life is not as just as it might be if Yahweh’s passionate, sovereign will for justice were enacted … Israel is aware that there is more to Yahweh than justice: there is holiness and downright capricious irascibility” (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997], pages 739-740). See his several discussions therein concerning testimonies and counter-testimonies concerning the affirmations and ambiguities of God’s nature in Israel’s experience of God.