A recent post from David – “Where’s your god now?” – prompted me to write a review on a book I have just finished reading:
Disappointment with God: Three questions no one asks aloud by Philip Yancey
It is a book written to try and respond to the disappointment which, he argues, many people, for a range of reasons, feel with God. One of the triggers in writing the book – and around which much of the book revolves – is a conversation Yancey had with a friend who had come to a point where he no longer believed in God. Reflecting on their conversation, Yancey felt that behind what was going on were three large questions:
- Is God unfair?
- Is God silent?
- Is God hidden?
In his book Yancey reflects on these, and other, questions from a biblical perspective and makes some fascinating observations.
- He points out that in the Old Testament, God had laid out for his people a clear set of rules by which to live and receive blessing – and they soon turned away and neglected / rejected God. God was acting fairly towards them and they rebelled
- While the people of Israel were wandering in the desert God provided many instances of clear and direct guidance to them – and they ignored him and went their own way
- When God did turn up and appear directly to his people they were afraid and wanted Moses to act as an intermediary.
Yancey concludes, based on this study, that even when God was demonstrably acting fairly, speaking to his people and present amongst them they still turned against him and wanted something else. Yancey suggests that:
These dismal results may provide insight into why God does not intervene more directly today
As he continues to explore these questions he makes some interesting observations.
- He points out that Old Testament is full of people asking similar questions of God and God choosing to answer in a variety of ways
- That he hadn’t been silent – he had spoken through his prophets
- He had withdrawn his presence due to his people’s behaviour
- He wasn’t acting – as they were calling on him to do – as a sign of mercy
- That he suffered along with his people
- That he grieved over what was going on
Yancey asks what the life of Jesus contributes towards answering those three questions and he suggests that:
- Jesus, in what he said, made God’s will clearer than it had been before
- In Jesus, God has taken on a real, physical shape in the world
- Unfairness – Jesus healed some but not others, he didn’t “wipe away tears from all faces”
Yancey starts chapter 15 with these words
If ever the time was ripe to settle the question of God’s existence, it was while Jesus walked on earth. Jesus had one splendid opportunity to silence the critics forever.
He talks about how people called on Jesus for signs but points out that even though those closest to Jesus saw the miracles he did it didn’t stop them running away and deserting him. Even that wasn’t enough.
And Yancey points out that the question as to why God doesn’t sometimes act came into ultimate focus at the death of Jesus. And he says:
The spectacle of the Cross, the most public event of Jesus’ life, reveals the vast difference between a god who proves himself through power and One who proves himself through love
And Yancey goes on to talk about some of the results of this death:
- It made possible an intimacy that had never before existed – we now have direct access to God
- As we reflect on Jesus we see the Father
- None of the outrage and despair which we find in the Old Testament is present after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes there is still suffering but the way in which God’s people engage with it has changed forever due to the cross of Christ
- There is still a realisation that everything is not yet right – quoting Hebrews 2 “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to they. But we do see Jesus”
- We now have the amazing privilege of God dwelling in us through his Spirit
And then Yancey suggests that the way God engages in history has changed:
- In the Old Testament, the focus is on the powerful God, creator, holy, passionate
- In the Gospels, the focus is on the life and work of God the Son on earth
- In the rest of the Bible the focus is on how God’s people – the church – how to live as people “in Christ”
and he says:
He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye.
Creation seems to be delegation through and through. I suppose this is because He is a giver
The progression—Father, Son, Spirit—represents a profound advance in intimacy. At Sinai the people shrank from God, and begged Moses to approach him on their behalf. But in Jesus’ day people could hold a conversation with the Son of God; they could touch him, and even hurt him. And after Pentecost the same flawed disciples who had fled from Jesus’ trial became carriers of the Living God. In an act of delegation beyond fathom, Jesus turned over the kingdom of God to the likes of his disciples—and to us.
One of the implications of this is that if God seems silent and hidden and unfair then the church has some significant responsibility for that.
There is much more in the book – his detailed look at the story of Job is well worth looking at – but Yancey avoids giving easy answers to difficult questions.
He speculates about why God doesn’t explain what is going on and suggests:
- God keeps up ignorant because enlightenment might not help us
- God keeps us ignorant because we are incapable of comprehending the answer
and he talks about two kinds of faith:
- a childlike faith where we “swallow the impossible”
- a “hang-on-at-any-cost faith” where we continue to believe even when there is no obvious reason to do so – and he points to some of those listed in Hebrews 11 as examples of that
And he points to a future hope when everything will be made well even while we struggle with the events that are going on around us.
Its a fascinating book and if you want to explore these ideas further, I suggest getting a copy of the book and working through it. You may not agree with everything in it but it gives some deep and challenging insights into some of these difficult questions which we grapple and wrestle with.