Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Does God Need Us?

When Gentiles, who do not posess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They should that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness... - Romans 2:14-15

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? - Romans 10:14

As a Quaker, it is my conviction that every person - regardless of their status or circumstance - has access to the inward light of Jesus Christ. I confess with the authors of both Old and New Testaments that, "the word is very near to [us]; it is in [our] mouth and in [our hearts] for [us] to observe." Despite all the hurdles that keep us away from God, the living presence of the Holy Spirit draws near, pressing at our hearts and inviting us into the loving embrace of our Savior.

At the same time, I am also convinced that the good news needs to be preached. Hearing the gospel story - the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus - has the power to transform us, when we receive it in the light of the Spirit. The inspired preaching of modern day prophets has the power to call us into deeper relationship with God. In my own experience, God has used other people - living and deceased - to shape my walk. I cannot imagine how I ever could have been saved from the death-dealing worldview of the present order without the faithful witness of so many brothers and sisters.

So, which is it? Does God directly inspire and draw us into Christ's Kingdom without the need of human intermediaries? Or does God work through people who are called to the work of proclamation? As is often the case with the things of the Spirit, the truth seems to be found in the midst of paradox. The above passages, both taken from a letter that Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, demonstrate the tension between two truthful answers. Yes, God's witness in the human heart is sufficient for Christ's sovereign work of grace. And yes, God uses human beings as instruments of grace, mercy and salvation to the world.

My take-away from this is two-fold. First, I am convinced that God is in control. In a certain sense, God does not "need" us. Our wrong actions - whether out of willful disobedience or simple ignorance - are never able to foul up God's long-term purpose for the cosmos. This is deeply reassuring for me. No matter how badly I - or humanity in general - screws up, God will find a way to enact his loving purposes.

On the other hand, I am convinced that God's intention is to use each of us as agents in the holy work of healing the world. How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? God wants us to share the good news that we have received! God wants to use our lives to proclaim the riches of his glory, through our words and deeds, through our family life and daily work. Amazingly enough, each of us is truly necessary for the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. Though it would seem to us that God does not need us at all, in some mysterious sense we are indispensable!

What is your experience of the way God pours out love and salvation? How have you seen God transforming your life and the lives of those around you? How have you made sense of the paradox of God's work, which needs no intermediaries but yet is so often accomplished through the faithfulness of particular women and men?


RaqueL said...

Nice to meet you.

joe said...

Well, I think God is ultimately unknowable, so that if we think we know something about him, we're wrong. I see this as something akin to an ant and a man - the ant may dimly see the actions of the man, but is not going to be anywhere close to understanding what he is all about.

So no, I don't think God does need us, because if he did then in some sense he would stop being all-powerful. Indeed, the very idea is dangerous, in my view, because it leads to spiritual pride.

A also believe that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, so we can't really measure what God has done for us individually beyond what is his general grace. Which again leads to humility - God has no favourites, he doesn't bless some and ignore others because of their spirituality.

Our role, I think, is not to ask God what our special place should be, but to sacrifice ourselves in humility and allow God to do with us what he wants.

Bill said...

Great post. I think the key statement here is "I am convinced that God's intention is to use each of us as agents in the holy work of healing the world." As opposed to something like "I am convinced that God's intention is to use each of us as agents in the holy work of converting and baptising unbelievers."

I too believe in the "inner light" although we Wesleyans call it "prevenient grace." God's grace is at work in everyone.

While I definitely believe it is important to proclaim the gospel, I also believe the manner of that proclamation can differ among people. While some may be gifted speakers or writers who can draw folks to Christ with words, many who try proclamation that way do more harm than good when it comes to advancing God's kingdom. Some proclaim the gospel best by the witness and testimony of their lives, drawing folks to the gospel and to Christ through the example of their lives.

So I'd say a primary way to proclaim the gospel is to get on with God's work of healing the world. As St. Francis said, "Proclaim the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary."

Just some random thoughts early in the morning. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

Marcus said...

I think Bill stated it well with "Some proclaim the gospel best by the witness and testimony of their lives, drawing folks to the gospel and to Christ through the example of their lives."

When I came to the church, I was convinced by example, not words. I had heard the words all my life, both the good and the bad, but I had always seen those in the faith talk out of both sides of their faces when it came to faith. I loved the word I was hearing, but I loathed the assholes that came with it. No one walked it.

I met one family who did, and it changed me. They never had to say a word. That was all it took. Just one family who could talk a little at a time amongst each other about their faith and spend the rest of their time living it, rather than the other way around.

The Gospel isn't that Jesus lived, died, or rose. John the Baptist preached the Gospel. Jesus Himself preached the Gospel. The Apostles that walked around with Jesus preached the Gospel. Those who Jesus affected preached the Gospel. Logically, that Gospel that came out of Jesus' mouth was not "I died for your sins so that all may be forgiven." He hadn't died yet. John the Baptist was beheaded before Jesus saw the cross.

Jesus preached the Gospel and made it simple so that we could take it into our hearts, shut up and live it without too much internal or external bickering to get in the way of all that joy.

That's why the Quakers appealed to me so much at first: at their best, they know how to shut their mouths in worship and steadfastly do what is right, simply and without too much unnecessary ceremony.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

It is good to see you comparing the two passages from Romans — 2:14-15 and 10:14. Obviously a great deal more could be said about how these two fit together, and I hope you will feel move to say some of it at some future time.

Micah Bales said...

@Joe There's a lot of truth in what you're saying, but I ultimately disagree with you on several points. In a certain sense, you're right that God is unknowable - in that God's ways are above our ways, and God's thoughts are above our thoughts. However, despite our limited human nature, it is my experience that we can know God, through the life, teachings, death and resurrection of God's Son, Jesus. Because God dwelled fully in Jesus, we have seen God's glory. Through Jesus, we are invited to truly know God. Even to be his friends!

I also disagree with you that God does not desire for us to ask what our special place should be. God pours out unique gifts on each of his creations, and we are all called to excercise our gifts in particular ways, as God intended. I believe that we are to actively seek God's Kingdom, pursuing righteousness, justice and a greater understanding of God's will.

Perhaps this is simply a difference in emphasis, but I am very skeptical of "other-izing" God too much. God has made Godself known to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and God has laid out fairly clearly what is expected of us. While it might be more comfortable to protest that we can't really know God, I believe that we do know him, and we are responsible.

@Bill Thanks for the kind and encouraging comments, and for a little bit of education on Wesleyan theology! I agree with you that there are many ways to proclaim the gospel, which are certainly not limited to verbal preaching. I think that some parts of the Church over-emphasize verbal statements of faith, while other parts de-emphasize them so much that our confession of Jesus Christ is in danger of being lost. I hope that we can seek together to honor God in both word and deed, sharing the love and mercy of Jesus.

@Marcus Thanks for this comment! I think that the gospel is a rich, multi-faceted thing. And I think you're right that Jesus was proclaiming the gospel long before the crucifixion. The content of the gospel is certainly far more than the one dimensional understanding of, "Jesus died for your sins," that is preached in many churches. In my own experience, I find that Jesus is himself the gospel. His life, presence and self-sacrificial love enfleshes the truth about who God is.

@Marshall I have always found Romans to be a very challenging epistle - intellectually, theologically and spiritually. I feel like an infant when I read it, and I hope that you and others will share your discernment on this, Paul's most complex and lengthy theological reflection.

One thing that I am very aware of is the fact that a faithful engagement with Romans is essential if we are to have a fruitful discussion with our brothers and sisters in the Reformed tradition.

Marshall Massey said...

Micah, I agree that Romans is a monumental piece of work. Whether we agree with it in whole or only in part, it seems astonishing that a single man, Paul, could have had that much insight — so much of it fairly new even to him — to spill out in a single letter to his fellow believers.

Just speaking for myself, I have found Joseph Fitzmyer’s commentary on Romans for the Anchor Bible series, very helpful through the years. You might want to take a look at it — or even just buy a copy blindly, if this is an epistle you find yourself turning to frequently.

Robert Barclay, as you maybe already know, interprets Romans 10:14 in the light of the Quaker equation of the Gospel with “the saving spiritual Light” within us: Apology, Props. V & VI §23. I think he felt this was necessary to preserve that other key Quaker doctrine: that God gives everyone a chance at salvation, and does not predestine for damnation those who never get a chance to hear the outward Christian message.