What To Do When God is Unfaithful?

What To Do When God is Unfaithful

We often talk about human unfaithfulness. Novels become bestsellers partly to the extent their plots involve the right amounts of betrayal, infidelity, and intrigue. Why is this? The answer is that human beings are prone to unfaithfulness even though they know it is a vice rather than a virtue. Unfaithfulness is all around us. Not just in marriages. How often don’t we fail to live up to our friend’s expectations? How often don’t we break our own rules? We disappoint friends, let down colleagues, break promises to our children, etc.. In short, being human is to be unfaithful.

But then God. “God is not a man that he should lie,” tells the Pentateuch us. God is the rock upon which we stand; the secure foundation upon which we build our lives; the shelter against the storm; the shield against the enemy. When we fall, God will catch us and bring us to a safe haven (and heaven when our lives are over). God is the trustworthy and comforting presence who will make our plans succeed and shelter us from the storm. Let’s just face it, where human beings are unfaithful, God is faithful.

The Unfaithful God

Except God isn’t. At least, not at all in the sense described above. In all truth, God’s faithfulness looks so much like unfaithfulness that it becomes harder to describe God as faithful the longer you think about it. Some people are lucky enough to never encounter the discrepancy between the promise and actual lack of God’s faithfulness. Most people, however, are acutely aware of the problem. Of course, as good Christians, such thoughts are never really allowed to be foregrounded in our consciousness, but once we become honest with ourselves (and honest with, I guess), we have to admit that God has a glaring problem. The biblical God, that is.

Now, there was a time when such questions did not really surface. The theological imaginary of people in the past (and that was most people because, in earlier days, just about everybody believed in God, one way or another) simply did not have room for a questioning of the goodness and providential action of God. A few exceptions come to mind: Voltaire and Hume. But on the whole, God just got away with being unfaithful without people ever coming to a point where they said: Hey, this doesn’t add up.

Explaining God’s Unfaithfulness Away

You had the usual explanations; the same that can still be heard today in conservative circles. God has a better plan; God knows best; God is testing you; Give it back to God and let God take care of it, etc. In and of themselves these explanations are not really bad. They simply acknowledge the discrepancy between God’s promise of faithfulness and the actual lack of faithfulness and then proceed to portray the situation as a paradox the truth of which we cannot really fathom. After all, God is God and we are but human. We don’t have the whole picture, or so goes the explanation. And thus, it is best to solve the issue by means of the paradox.

Personally, I agree with the basic idea of the paradox since paradox is the only way through which we can learn to think beyond the limits of our own thought. The paradox and the metaphor for that matter help us to imagine the unimagined and thus stimulate us into thinking differently about God. I’m all for it. In fact, I think paradoxical thinking is the only way to make any stride forward in thinking correctly about God, reality, humanity, and the meaning of life. But the solutions offered are not enough in this case.

They don’t do justice to God. What God is that who “takes” two of your five children away in “his” (that particular God is always male) wisdom? Never mind that the parents never recover from the loss; never mind that the remaining children are emotionally damaged to a point that the rest of their lives will continue to be deeply affected. Such wisdom! What God is it who kills 250,000 people with a massive tsunami, because—you know—God knows best? What God allowed the genocide of 25 million native Americans and the murderous enslavement of 13 million people from Africa? What God allows young girls to be locked up in underground cells so they can be raped until they die?


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Doing Justice to Suffering

How many thousands cried out to God for help in vain as they were burned at the stakes? How many millions beg the good Lord to save their children from deadly diseases or famine today? How many millions called on Yahweh as the trains transported them to the genocidal concentration camps where they would meet their final destination? I mean, come on people, you don’t do God a service by creating a paradox in which God possesses higher wisdom, has better plans, etc. Not only don’t these explanations do justice to God, they also fall horribly short in addressing the reality of suffering in the world. And for those who think it necessary to upholds God’s sovereignty at the expense of countless human lives: shame on you and your God! Such a God deserves neither worship nor recognition!

I’ll gladly be called a heretic for no longer wanting to defend such a God or joining the ranks of those serving that God. It is much better, then, to simply acknowledge that God is unfaithful. Rather than unnaturally enforcing statements from biblical writers as to God’s providence, goodness, and care upon a world that not even remotely conforms to it, we should look at the world and recognize the glaring discrepancy between world and word.

Beginning Anew

I genuinely believe that only such honesty can be a true starting point for beginning anew. After all, the Bible proclaims that God so loved the world. Well, if this whole God-business, this God-talk, that we employ on a daily basis, is the result of this loving God, then it only makes sense that we make the reality of this world—the object of God’s love—the hard datum of our thinking about the God who loves. Until we do this, our God-talk is merely an attempt to defend our own imaginary God-construct, no matter how strongly we insist on it being biblical.

For those who discover and name God’s unfaithfulness, only two options remain: denying God or reconceiving God. The former is quick and simple: become a faithful atheist. The latter leads down a difficult path, both for the believer and for God. God may be faithful, but in a radically different way than we tell ourselves God is. Perhaps God’s faithfulness does not so much consist of pulling a bunch of providential strings or preventing us from harm that is coming our way.

There is in my opinion only one way forward. It is to put God and world together. The God who loved the world is the God who became flesh and participates (present tense) in the world. When we put God and world together—and dare the adventurous thinking of God beyond the so-called “biblical” God, which is usually merely a codified image of our own making—we must put God and suffering together.

Ascension Day

Today is Ascension Day. We celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven and await his return on the clouds. But let me tell you two little secrets. Jesus ain’t coming back on the clouds. We’ve been waiting for almost 2000 years now and Jesus is not in sight. We need to transcend the expectation of the early church (And I’m happy to be totally wrong on this point). Secondly, and more importantly, God never left. To put it concisely: If God, then divine suffering. If God is real, then God suffers the blow of every hammer, every rape, every act of racism, every abuse, every bullet, every life of poverty and situation of exploitation. God suffers the world at every moment in time and struggles for its redemption.

That’s how faithful God is and it is the only faithfulness that will do. This is the hard faithfulness that we may (and must) embrace. God is not directing the course of our lives or busy conducting the affairs of the world. So don’t expect God to be the puppeteer from above and don’t explain the problem away when the heavenly puppeteer doesn’t come to your aid. God never moves away from suffering and God will never take us out of the suffering. Rather, God is in it all, through suffering and struggling God moves through history toward God’s goal.

What to do when God is unfaithful? Embrace the world and its suffering and then think God anew. I dare you to think such a faithful God.

Photo by D A V I D S O N L U N A on Unsplash

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

4 Responses

  1. Excellent! The problem with western orthodox Christian theology is that the central theme of Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection is suffering, and the eventual victory over it. “I will never Leave nor forsake you,” is all fine and good, but it is human nature to prefer a God who “fixes things,” rather than shares in our suffering. The promise that we will do “greater things,” points to the fact that God has given us the mandate to “fix things.” It is not his intention to micro manage or pull puppet strings, but is only when we enter into a partnership with God that wheels of the Kingdom of God get oiled. Even so, there will be missteps, hardship and sorrow.
    Again, our limited concepts of God put him in a box that fails to realize that God cannot be both coercive and loving at the same time.

  2. Door de Schrift op Lutherse wijze te benaderen – als een correcte biografie over God – concluderen we terecht dat God volop vrij spel krijgt en telkens weer uit de wind wordt gezet door onderdanige aanbidders. Deze geloofshouding behoort op de duur irritatie op te wekken, vind ik.

    Het lijkt me dus vrij duidelijk dat we dienen te lezen ‘zonder Luther’ om alsnog de theodicee niet aan te wenden tot het schrappen van God.

    De woorden en daden van de grote leraar Jezus de Christus bevatten al wat nodig is om God te bedaderen als de niet-mens die geen vat heeft op de geschiedenis, tenzij dan door onze bewuste omgang met zijn goddelijke Tegenwoordigheid. Hoe groter het Christus-bewustzijn, hoe meer kans de planeet krijgt tot transformatie in het Rijk Gods waar Jezus zo naar uitkeek.

    We moeten opnieuw beginnen bij Christus.

    1. Nog even herhalen wat ik op FB schreef:

      Wij jij schrijft, is eerder een Calvinistische en evangelische benadering van de Schrift. Ik ben in de leer geweest bij Luther, Bonhoeffer en een stel vrijzinnige lutheranen die me geholpen hebben mijn theologie op een geheel andere leest te schoeien. Maar in mijn kritiek hierboven klinkt er nog veel terug van die vroegere gereformeerde/evangelische god die soeverein heerscht over de volkeren en in wiens hand de wereld veilig beschut is. Daar schroom ik niet in.

      Luthers theologie bestaat uit een deconstructie middels het kruis van theologische denksystemen (in zijn geval het middeleeuws scholasticisme) om zo de weg vrij te maken voor de genade. Wij zijn daarin aangewezen op wat God van godzelf geopenbaart heeft, het lichaam van Christus aan het kruis. Juist bij de Lutherse theologen van deze eeuw is er geen acceptatie van de Bijbel als een correctie biografie, maar, in navolging van Luther, een concentratie op de persoon van Christus. Christus is het Woord. Christus is de Persoon die de mens van buiten zijn wereld aan wordt gesproken.

      Het kruis is de ondergang van de menselijke afgoden en maakt de weg vrij om via de ondergang van God zelf in Christus te gaan begrijpen en interpreteren hoe anders die God is dan wij denken. Anders in ontologische zin, maar veel meer nog, en daar gaat het om, anders in de zin van liefde en nederigheid. Maar het kruis gaat verder. Het staat niet toe dat wij in abstractheden denken of van een afstand toekijken. De betekenis van het kruis wordt ons alleen duidelijk wanneer het ook ons kruis wordt en wij deelhebben aan Christus.

      Dus nee, je hebt het echt bij het verkeerde eind met wat je hierboven over Luther zegt. Zoals ik al zei, niemand kent de theologie van het kruis.

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