The Adult Sabbath School Lesson: Promotion of a Reckless God?

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Published:
September 15, 2022

At the time of this writing, the global church was halfway through the 2022 3rd quarter Sabbath school studies, entitled In the Crucible with Christ. This is a dedicated attempt to assure the church that Jesus is always in the “trenches” with us during life’s most devastating punches. But there is something not quite right with the presentations. And I think it begins with the author’s use of the “crucible” metaphor – that when “dross” is subjected to intense heat, it metamorphoses into “gold.” Through this purifying process Christians are encouraged to view trials and difficulties as God’s way of bringing about this desired transformation. And, like gold from dross, the goal is to make them better. But there are limits and dangers to metaphorical usage. Not every part fits. The relevant comparison might be only a particular point which, if not properly clarified, could wrongly infer that all aspects of the referent are equivalent.

There is a focused attempt in the weekly lessons to prove an underlying thesis that “pain, suffering, and loss don’t mean that God has abandoned us; they mean only that, even as believers, we now share in the common lot of a fallen race.” This observation is welcoming, because Gavin Anthony, the principal author, understands that pain and suffering afflicts all humans. But he could not stop there without assigning some privilege to the Christian. So he continues: “through Jesus and the hope He offers, we can find meaning and purpose in what seems meaningless and purposeless and that somehow, even if we can’t imagine how, we can trust the promise that ‘all things work together for good to those who love God.’” (Rom 8:28, NKJV)

The notion that we Christians have privilege because Jesus shields us, or at least blunts life’s incessant arrows, is debatable. It is hard to prove that “all” things ultimately end better for the Christian than the non-Christian. But this wasn’t an insurmountable concern until I detected a second problematic teaching, particularly in the first four weeks, and scattered throughout the lessons. It was the idea that God actively leads us into troubles.

Example 1

We first encounter this “teaching” in Week 1, while the author was discussing God as the Good Shepherd (Psalm 23). In the midst of his exploration Anthony poses, almost abruptly, the question of how the sheep ended up in “the valley of death.” He conjectures that this was no accident. And quoting Elisabeth Elliott’s Quest for Love, the author suggests the Shepherd might have led the sheep there, and explains why: “It was needful for him to traverse that darkness in order to learn not to fear.” And, as if anticipating pushback on this theology, Anthony (or Clifford Goldstein, or both) even posits a rationale on God’s behalf: “the Shepherd might be willing to risk being misunderstood by permitting us to enter a dark valley.”

The problem with this explanation is that the writer seems to ignore context. A cursory reading of the text shows that, in the first three verses, the Shepherd directs all the actions – “He makes me,” “He leads me,” “He refreshes [me],” “He guides me.” These are actions that the sheep/narrator apparently follows with delight. But in verse 4, which references “the valley of the shadow of death,” the psalmist changes focus. He introduces a “though” clause which is followed, not by a directive from the Shepherd, but a personal confessional statement by the narrator. The English Revised Version captures it beautifully: “Even if I walk through a valley as dark as the grave.” (23:4)

It is reasonable to interpret the conjunction: “Yea though,” “Even though,” “Even if,” etc. as an appreciation by the “sheep,” who feel assured that the Shepherd would be nearby to lead them back “to the paths of righteousness.” (23:3 KJV) Otherwise what’s the point of the Shepherd exposing the sheep to danger in the first place?

Example 2

Sometimes when we’re too invested in our theses we find tortuous ways to confirm them. This seems at play in the author’s retelling of the Exodus episodes at Marah and Rephidim (15:22-27; 17:1-7). These accounts recall the sojourners’ desperate relief at finally finding water at Marah only to discover it was too bitter to drink. A few days later the parched and dehydrated travelers would camp at Rephidim, where they finally thought they’d find water. But that too was a mirage.

To the lesson’s author these “bitter” experiences were not random occurrences. They happened under God’s watch and leading for a reason. This thinking prompts a rhetorical question at the beginning of Week 3’s lesson which leaves no room for doubt about God’s agency in this process. Anthony asks: “It is easy to understand that Satan causes pain, but will God Himself actively take a part in guiding us into crucibles where we experience confusion and hurt?” The thought is left hanging but the implication is clear: when we encounter these harsh experiences, they are meant to teach us something about ourselves and God. In the story of Marah and Rephidim we are left with the unmistakable inference that God intentionally, leading by the pillars of cloud and fire, directed the thirsty wilderness travelers – including vulnerable children and the elderly – to places he knew had no drinkable water.

The obvious question is: why? The answer though is mucky. There are sprinkles throughout the lessons alluding to the Last Generation Theology idea of human perfectibility, which makes me wonder whether this is part of the calculations. For instance, in Week 4 under the caption “In His Image,” Paul’s statement: “For whom he foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom 8:29 KJV), is presented as revealing “God’s plan that those who submit their lives to the Holy Spirit may be ‘conformed to the image of his Son.’” Then the author connects Ellen White to Paul and, in what feels like a conspiratorial whisper, confides: “But there’s another dimension, ‘The very image of God is to be reproduced in humanity. The honor of God, the honor of Christ, is involved in the perfection of the character of His people.’” (The Desire of Ages, p. 671)

Example 3

Week 4 introduces Job. Here is the quintessential biblical character often paraded as proof of God’s absolute power over his creation, even if actions attributed to him are clearly unethical. The preamble to Job (chapter 1) presents Satan as a member of God’s council. And God’s relationship with Satan is sufficiently cordial that they gamble on Job’s future actions. With the bet secured, Job’s life would never be the same. It started with his sons and daughters, then his servants, down to his animals. All were killed because God gave Satan permission to hurt an innocent man. By the time the afflictions were extended to his body, Job was broken – a King Lear figure flailing at god killing for “sport.”

But lesson author Anthony sees things differently. He explains the “real” reason Job put up with his horrendous ordeal: “And one of the things that kept him persevering was gold – not a gold medal: rather, he was looking into the future and realized that if he held on to God, he would come out the better for it – he would come out like gold.” Two paragraphs later, evidently for emphasis, the gold analogy is repeated: “Being proven to be gold seems to be an incentive for Job here, something to fix his eyes upon, and that helps him pull him through his troubles.”

But to boil Job’s character down to a simple transactional proposition is to misread the book and its protagonist profoundly. Job’s story was never meant as a literal happening from which theological positions derive. The book makes little sense unless placed in its proper context, with most contemporary biblical scholars supporting a late exile or post-exilic composition. In that situation an artist, with a flair for the dramatic, penned an allegory as his contribution to the exiled community’s search for reasons why they, God’s people, ended up under harsh enemy rule. Were they in exile because they sinned against their God? This was the prevailing understanding and one championed by Job’s friends.  Or was their suffering unconnected to any individual or corporate transgressions, as Job professed and was seemingly endorsed by God? To conflate the artist’s creation, including his god and a character called Job, as a representation of how God behaves, is to saddle an ethical God with too much bad behavior.

But supposing we play devil’s advocate and go along with the argument that God reserves the right to subject his created beings to pain and suffering, to test their loyalty. Then again, to what purpose? Such a god might pass the cruelty test and earn our frightened obedience, but in the absence of manifest benevolence, he could never enjoy our devoted worship. Unless we take the author’s surmising that “Sometimes, when in the crucible, we get burned rather than purified” seriously. But if we did, then why would God do that? Isn’t such behavior the devil’s domain?

An omniscient and benevolent God would not subject his children to sadistic tests he knows they would fail. If 40 years of wandering in the desert was a test, what did it achieve? How did this test improve the lot of the multiple thousands that left Egypt? Besides Joshua and Caleb no other adults who embarked on the momentous journey from the other side of the Red Sea entered the Promised Land. Similarly, even if we presumed the Job story is literal, it leaves a nauseating odor in our nostrils about the god it depicts. Why would God be so cavalier about human life he would apathetically allow Job’s children and dependents to die?

But I don’t believe this is a true characterization of the God Jesus tried to show us. Matthew’s Jesus says something different: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for fish, give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (7:9-11) It seems to me we are the problem. We legitimize a bad god, one we’ve created, by our indifference to other people’s pain, suffering and death. It is thus that we expose our own moral bankruptcy.

Grappling with the Problem of Evil – how to reconcile evil and suffering with an all-powerful, all-knowing, supremely benevolent God – is always laudable.  And just recognizing that the problem is real is an achievement in itself, particularly in church circles. But there is a wrong and right way to approach the subject. One clearly wrong approach is our penchant to provide a one-size-fits-all answer to perplexing problems. Instead, confessing our ignorance or maintaining silence when we just don’t know, would be the wisest course. But in this series the projections of God are too deeply steeped in Old Testament imagery which is notorious for mischaracterizing God. We often don’t capitalize on our advantage – Jesus’ first advent. He came and showed us who God really is, so that if we can’t imagine Jesus leading us into evil or temptation, we should not defend the proposition that God does.

It comes down to this. It is important what sort of God we portray in the Sabbath School lessons. Millions of church members throughout the world believe that, if it is published in the quarterlies, then it must be true. This is an unfortunate reality we should contend with as a global church. If we are careless in how we present God in church teaching, we can then plant erroneous views about him that risk seeping into members’ world views. If authors project a reckless and callous God, we risk internalizing such tyranny and reflecting it in our homes and other social settings. Because we change into what we uncritically behold.
 

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

Image Credit: Dan Brown from London, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

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