God’s Unfaithfulness

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Not surprisingly, I deconstructed many of my beliefs about God through teaching children. Faith like a little child is so clarifying. It’s so devoid of the systematic, the splitting hairs. A child’s faith calls it like it is.

We were working through a reader on the time Elijah informed Ahab that his whole kingdom would experience famine until he repented of his wickedness. We spent days discussing how the body can survive only so long without food and water. We analyzed the emaciated cows on page 5. We predicted how God would use the crows to feed Elijah. “The eggs!” a couple of them shouted. “Maybe he’ll eat the birds?” another wondered.

Happily, no crows were harmed in this story, and neither was Elijah. “Did God provide for Elijah?” I asked the group of six-year-olds. “YES,” they shouted. “Was God faithful to Elijah?” “YES.”

And because I was curious, I asked, “What do you think happened to all the people in the famine?”

“Oh, they died,” the kids informed me.

“Do you think God was faithful to them?”

“No-o,” they droned.

If that makes you uncomfortable, don’t blame me — I’m not the God who starved an entire nation to rattle one wicked king and then ignored all their prayers for basic sustenance.

Because if we’re defining faithfulness by “God meeting our basic needs” (as we just did in Elijah’s case), then no, he wasn’t faithful.

I didn’t tell my kids any of this, of course. That was my own thought process as I zipped the readers back into the Ziploc bag and all hell broke loose during center time clean up.

But I thought about it again, yesterday, when I read to them a lesson on prayer. “God doesn’t answer our prayers for bad things,” I was teaching them, “but God will always give us what we ask for if we ask for good things that we need.”

Except he doesn’t. He doesn’t all the time give us the things he promises. There are many times when you ask, and it won’t be given to you; you seek, and you never find; you knock, and the door remains bolted from the inside.

And of course, I’ve learned all the caveats — God’s grace is sufficient, God works all things together for good, you have to ask in faith (are you sure you didn’t believe hard enough?).

It’s an elaborate system of caveats and exceptions to the basic promises that God is faithful, he will always come through, and he will provide for our basic needs. But the promises don’t always hold true. His yes doesn’t mean yes, and his no doesn’t mean no. Contrary to Jesus, not all of his children are clothed like the lilies or eating like the sparrows.

And the caveats of spiritual improvement don’t always function, either — the sufficient grace or the peace that passeth understanding down in our hearts. We get emptiness, silence, and angst. We get the joy of wondering where God is and what he is doing and what is the point in believing all of this.

We’re left with famine while God seems busy giving out A plus grades when the student didn’t study and free Starbucks drinks “just because he loves me” and a spiritual insight “right when I needed him most.”

It is, frankly, abhorrent to me that God would prioritize getting a cappuccino to one of his princesses who woke up a little down today while his other princesses are getting slaughtered on the other side of the world. (And how convenient that those who get the most from God materially seem financially positioned to get the most, anyway.) It is abhorrent to me that people attempt to find God’s love in neglect, that God’s perfect plan involves so much hate, violence, and evil.

But this doesn’t make me doubt God’s love. It just makes me doubt that humans have figured out a predictable pattern in this mysterious God’s ways.

I’ve given up on believing in a system of how God works — particularly regarding prayer. In fact, I don’t petition God for anything anymore. There’s nothing more terrifying than being at the end of your humanity and knowing that God might choose to withhold his divinity. There’s nothing more devastating than hoping against hope for a miracle of a more earthly nature and getting the final “no — I think I’d rather work on your spiritual improvement right now.”

What happens happens. If he’s determined to ignore the pleas of innocents as a way to show them his sufficient grace, so be it. Who’s to argue with God, so why try?

And yet I believe in a God of love. And yet I believe in the possibility that God does intervene in this world in a way that doesn’t make him a capricious monster.

That’s the mystery, always — how an omnipotent and loving God can interact with or tolerate or coexist with finite humans and the evil let loose in a once-perfect world. To deny the omnipotence or the love of God or the distinction between good and evil is to leave one utterly without hope. It makes God out to be a monster.

To deny the seeming absence and capriciousness of God is equally hopeless. It makes you out to be a faithless, doubtful sinner.

I believe in God, but I don’t believe in systems about God — and what that exactly means, I’m not sure.

I think it means believing in God as he is, not in God as he does — God as goodness, light, beauty, truth, love. Because there are always some glimpses of them, somewhere, if not in your life right now, than in your past and hopefully your future and definitely in someone else’s life. And those good things are just as real (and hopefully more real) than the bad.

I think it means acknowledging when God is here and when God isn’t here, being grateful for the good and grieving for the evil. God is in the good things. God is not in the bad things, and he hates them as much as you do, so why he doesn’t stop them, I don’t know. Sometimes God answers your prayers, good or bad. Many times he doesn’t, and I’m not sure why.

I think it means that God is hidden and obvious, absent and here, faithful and unfaithful, according to human definitions and human experiences. For some reason, certain faith-filled people experience him one way, and certain faith-filled people experience him another way, and we’re missing crucial information to mesh those two experiences into one, coherent, loving, omnipotent deity.

But here’s the certain hope, often uncertain: in the end, the very end, goodness and love and God will win. Humanity has always known this. We don’t always get eagles ex machina or the free Starbucks or the basic sustenance to survive (or maybe we do), but somehow, someday, when the story ends, we’ll make good on our hope in God.

P.S. See Psalm 89 for proof I’m not a heretic, plus more thoughts on good and evil.

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47 thoughts on “God’s Unfaithfulness

  1. Fran Johns

    This is just beautiful. And beautifully thought out. Sometimes, watching today’s news — & I’m old enough to have lived thru McCarthyism, Watergate and a workplace-rape pregnancy pre-Roe v Wade — It’s hard to digest the meanness, tragedy & injustice so often prevailing. But yes, goodness and love and God will overcome all in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David

    Y’know, it’s fitting that you named this blog after a Hebrew phrase. Because you use this place to show the best of Jewish traits: you *wrestle with God.*

    Yasher koach!

    (This is what we say to someone who’s just done a mitzvah — and not just any mitzvah, but usually an act of worship. Lit. “straight strength!”; fig. “may you be strengthened by your good deed.” It is, and I say this with ALL of those meanings in mind, *fully* applicable to what you’ve just written.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bailey Steger

      That is a HUGE compliment. Thank you. As I’m learning more about Judaism, I’m finding I resonate a lot more with their interactions with scripture and God than most Christians’.

      Like

      • David

        Well, I mean, /I/ certainly think we’ve got a lot of stuff right. ;D And thank *you* for realizing it was meant to be very high praise.

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      • Bailey Steger

        I haven’t done much studying either, but I remember reading (can’t remember where!) that the Jewish tradition is more open to wrestling and mystery. They preserve and cherish the argumentation as well as the conclusion (rather than being obsessed with “the one right interpretation/doctrine”). Even in the Pharisaical tradition, the way they interpreted scripture was not remotely literalist and was very creative. That’s the part of their tradition that so far resonates with me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • mustardseed1332

        That resonates with me, as well. I always enjoy hearing other perspectives, especially when the other party is also willing to listen. It’s not about convincing others of my own beliefs (those are ever changing and growing anyway), but rather just giving and taking more perspective. Our God is so huge, there is no way one person can fathom all of His ways, so it can’t be wrong to hear what other people are seeing.

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      • David

        “They preserve and cherish the argumentation as well as the conclusion.”

        Oh boy, do we EVER. :) When I get home, can I crack open a volume of Talmud and show you a quote? I’m /very/ confident that I can flip it open to a random page and show you the Talmud *arguing with itself*. It’s good clean fun! (And in fact the approved way to study Talmud is to have a single long-term study partner, and read a bit of Talmud every day, and argue about it.)

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      • David

        I think, after you see this quote, you’ll be like “Oh. THAT’S why it didn’t carry over. ‘kay!”

        That said:

        Here’s a chunk of the actual oral law. “If one was reciting the sections of the Shema in the Torah, and the time of the Shema’s recital arrived, if he directed his mind to it, he has fulfilled his obligation.”

        And so the commentary asks: “What is the meaning of ‘if he directed his mind to it?'” Good question! I was wondering too. It continues: “Not that he must entertain specific intent to fulfill the Torah’s commandment, but that he must simply intend to recite the words of the Shema.”

        But wait, there’s a problem — which the commentary itself raises: “How can it mean that he intends to recite the Shema? The case is one where he IS reciting the Shema from the Torah!” And then there’s a reply to THAT (which I find wholly unacceptable, by the way), and then it wanders off into a discussion of /related/ laws of reciting the Shema, citing rabbi after rabbi, most of them arguing with each other, for pages and pagess.

        I don’t think Christianity would’ve spread too rapidly at all, if it were like this. (I’m also like “NOOOO, this is the least interesting example to choose!”, but I did say I’d crack it open at random. It can’t all be fascinating!)

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      • David

        BTW, if you’re looking for a Christian thinker who’s got a Talmud-ish style, Aquinas is your man. He’s a pleasure to read, though much more concise than the Talmud; he gets in and out of each question quickly, whereas the Talmud loves to tell stories and take detours into questions like, “Did Moses know the exact moment of midnight? How about David?”

        But Aquinas is fun and informative and WAY easier to keep track of, so there’s much to recommend him. Also, you look *really smart* if you can namedrop him! Not that that’s my motive here or anything. Ahem.

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      • David

        It *probably* should have occurred to me that majoring in Christian Studies might involve a couple-three encounters with Aquinas, yeah.

        Might even say it was a touch presumptuous to “introduce” him to you. Sorry ’bout that!

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      • Bailey Steger

        Oh, my goodness! Don’t apologize! I went to a nerd school. I daresay most Christian programs (unless, obviously, they’re Catholic) wouldn’t spend much time on Aquinas. And I’d never before thought of him in this “Talmudic” light before — that, alone, was a really helpful reintroduction. I always like seeing what people along different spiritual journeys think of “classic” authors I might have otherwise written off as dogmatic or problematic when seen solely within my past understanding of Christianity.

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      • milkandpickles

        It’s kind of about a boy and his father (or two boys and their fathers), but it has so many themes like friendship and growing up and growing into your faith that I think you’d really like it now. And there’s plenty of Talmud discussion in there too!

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  3. Karen Wright

    Wow Bailey, I always feel like you are writing about so much that I’m thinking about.

    I may have mentioned Peter Rollins before. I read his book, The Idolatry of God. If I could summarize his book, it would be: Life sucks, there is no secret to unlock to make it not-suck, no one has an answer for suffering,happy endings are never promised, nothing can satisfy you, and God can’t either, but what He can do is come alongside you in whatever it is, and that is the promise of Jesus, to be with us on the road even if things never get better.

    The most interesting observation he makes is that in trying to make God the satisfaction for our longings, we have turned God into an idol, and have turned God into something He is not, namely, what you’re talking about: a fixer of problems. And that all breaks down when there are some problems in the world He never fixes.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Sharon Beam, Licensed Professional Counselor

    My comment suddenly disappeared. I was doing a little edit but I was trying to say at the end that what I heard in Rick Warren’s message I recently listened to was that God could easily get rid of all the bad in the world. But then we would be no more.

    Instead God chooses to forgive us and to allow us a way out of this fallen world through grace. Until then, we learn from the bad stuff as best we can.

    I hope the rest of my post is still there somewhere because this will make a lot more sense with it. 🙃

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      Oh no! I don’t see any more of your comments, so it might have disappeared into cyberspace forever. :(

      I’ve heard that line of thinking before. I think it still doesn’t let God off the hook, because he could easily redeem everything. And I don’t think there’s much to learn from evil, from babies dying and serial murderers and even everyday heartbreaks. Is Warren talking about evil more of like a purgatorial process — a part of the forgiveness and grace of God to bring about redemption? I’m curious about what he means by “learning” from the bad things.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sharon Beam, Licensed Professional Counselor

        Well, I think maybe it came across more as God could get rid of all the bad things in the world, but that would include us because we have sin. So because of grace and forgiveness we live, but with the consequences of sin. (All sin, not just our own sin, though we do have the consequences of our own sin). Much like we still love our children and forgive them for making mistakes but we still allow them to have consequences to help build their character. So instead of raising brats who never have consequences we are building mature people. I’m not doing it justice at all. Warren does not speak of this lightly. He is living with the suicide of his son, which occurred a year or two ago. I think it will be better for me to let him speak for himself. Go here: http://pastorrick.com/listen
        Look for the series called “How to Get Through What You’re Going Through”. The particular one I’m referring to is from May 12, 2017. It’s the best explanation I’ve heard of this topic. It helped me to understand. I hope it helps you too. It was just great timing for me to read your post after I’d listened to this. I listen most days, they are meaningful to me. If they are not to you, I won’t be offended! :)

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  5. Abigail

    This is great food for thought. I have struggled with this issue a lot, wanting to acknowledge the hand of God in life but also finding “God helped me find my keys!” theology incredibly cringe-worthy, since God often does not intervene when it matters so much more.

    Listening to the Hamilton soundtrack last fall, I encountered the line “And when my prayers to God were met with indifference, I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance.” In the context of the song and show, the seemingly triumphant line displays the hubris which led to Hamilton’s downfall, but nonetheless, I related to it immensely. Back when my life was consumed by health issues and an endless torrent of atrocious, unwanted thoughts, I would plead with God to heal my brain. I believed that I couldn’t honor and obey Him unless I could stop thinking awful things all the time; thus, I felt that He was obligated to step in and fix my situation. It seemed that He responded with indifference, so I focused on my own efforts, using my stories as a means of catharsis, truth-seeking, and even self-justification.

    Oddly, this preserved me from having a serious faith crisis, because I had to ask extraordinarily difficult questions when I was in middle school and accepted that there weren’t satisfying or universal answers available for many of them. In the long term, thanks to health improvements and other life changes, my issues did go away. I’m grateful for the healing and restoration I have experienced, and I know that I wouldn’t trade my life experience and the lessons I’ve learned for an easier, happier life. Nonetheless, it makes me FURIOUS sometimes to credit God for providing, because I had to work and strive like He wasn’t there and would never show up. I want to take credit for what I’ve accomplished, and I justly do in some respects, but it’s hard to hold the tension between thanking God for healing and appreciating the ways that I used my writing, my analytical mind, and my affections to fight back against my mental problems and pursue righteousness and everything I loved.

    Ultimately, I believe that those abilities were gifts from God, and that the relationship with Jesus that I have forged through my pain and hard questions leads to the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Still, my prayer life stinks, because it’s hard to bother praying about anything when God didn’t answer you when you needed it most. Frankly, I don’t WANT God to intervene in other areas of my life, because that shows that He could have done it earlier.

    I ask deep questions and contemplate the ways in which God seems unfaithful, but to cope with life, I’ve had to accept that all I can do is submit my own life to God’s will. It’s not my job to surrender anybody else’s, so instead of getting bogged down in questioning whether my conclusions can still apply or be acceptable in another person’s circumstance, I try to focus on what I absolutely know is true: God ultimately is good, and He is working ultimate redemption.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      This is so raw and real, and I relate to literally everything you said.

      For me, I’ve seen a lot of redemption and love and good things happen from “writing my own deliverance” — that is, people doing good and showing mercy and being honest and loving in an ordinary, nonmiraculous way. I simply acknowledge God in that, and that is enough for me.

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  6. Thomas Edmund

    Hi there – what a great honest post I really like this:

    “But this doesn’t make me doubt God’s love. It just makes me doubt that humans have figured out a predictable pattern in this mysterious God’s ways.”

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Allison Caylor

    The words that come to mind are “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

    I think the book of Job is a story exploring — not explaining, but exploring — the ways and reasons that good people suffer. Job was righteous. God loved him. And to show his own glory through Job, God allowed Satan to destroy his family, everything he owned, and even his health. How is that faithful? How is that just? How can we expect anything from Job but that he “curse God and die”? And yet when he accuses God, God himself comes and rebukes him — not by saying (what I firmly believe) that he is good, but that he is GOD. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

    So it’s a fearful faith that we have. An acknowledging that his ways are higher than ours: grander and more wonderful, and also more terrible and unknowable.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Allison Caylor

      I don’t mean by the way that I have God’s ways and the problem of evil figured out. :) I just think that Job is the best help we have for all that.

      Like

  8. balzone9

    here, ill tell you an old folklore tale; it was told down from generation to generation before writing had ever been invented and the only way of passing on knowledge was through stories.
    Before the universe was created: there was only the source. The source was EVERYTHING and ALL that was and he knew he was wonderful. he said ” iam so marvelous ,i am amazing and truly brilliant. i am ALL…. Everything that ever could be thought was there all as ONE and everything ! LOOK!!! I am the ALL..i am the only thing that ever will be and i am so amazing and wonderful BUT…. i know that i AM all these things but i cannot experience how wonderful and amazing i am because its all that i am!!!I know how amazing and brilliant i am yet i cannot experience it because in order to experience how Beautiful and wonderful IAM, i must know which i am NOT, so i much experience which i am not. but how on ever could i do this when i am ALL and the only one to experirnce? i know, i must let every part of which IAM splinter off me, forming a smaller parts of myself throughout the universe and each tiny splinter can go and create all that i am and all that im not , so that once its all complete i will know how Wonderful iam and i can experience who i am by learning of what i am not and who i AM!
    And as each splinter comes back to make me whole i will have experienced all the lifetimes, all the creations and all the universes and i will know how truley magnificent i am!!

    And that is why we should never judge others or cause any other living creature harm,as we are all just experiencing and creating for the essence of ONE being

    Liked by 2 people

  9. myliron

    Hey really enjoyed reading your post and seeing the things you have been mulling over. I think for me my question to your answer is that I believe God doesn’t always answer our prayers because if he did we would treat him like a genie that we can get whatever we want from rather than a two way relationship!
    I think he also doesn’t always answer with a yes to test our faith and show us what is in our hearts because we are usually blind to our own faithlessness in him❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      My only problem with that is asking for justice or healing or something along those lines isn’t at all like asking for a pony or a new car or something selfish and temporary. It seems rather cruel to withhold necessary things that God Himself says he desires above all else for us in the name of making sure we don’t treat him like a vending machine. Aren’t we supposed to cast all our cares on him and be fully dependent? Doesn’t he give grace upon grace without expecting anything in return? Further, I just can’t fathom the idea that God would ignore or not answer my prayers for a friend’s healing or peace to the persecuted simply or primarily to show me *my* faithlessness. That seems like — well, it puts me at the center of the universe; it makes my need to see my faithlessness a bigger deal than justice or peace or healing for some other poor soul. These are the things I wrestle with!!!

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  10. Sharon Beam, Licensed Professional Counselor

    I am loving the open thinking in this thread. Another piece of understanding came to me through something I was reading. There is evil in the world because humans are given free will. And we are so human that we end up making choices that hurt us and others. Some of it started with Adam & Eve and consequences of their actions of allowing the devil into their lives. And that’s where the bad stuff in life started. It sounds trite, I know, but I think it’s true.

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