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God Tempers the Wind to the Shorn Lamb

Full disclosure, I don’t buy into the saying I often hear from Christians: “God says it. I believe it. That settles it.”

I don’t think it’s that simple.

I’ve read several things in the Bible with which I disagree, and I feel justified in doing so. I don’t view the Bible as an unchanging statement of reality that forever applies exactly as it may have when it was originally written. For example, I’m not partial to the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” rule propounded by Moses—and I hope you aren’t either. I recognize that the command was given to curtail the worst of the brutality that was commonplace at that time. However, Jesus makes it clear in His Sermon on the Mount that we should move beyond that approach. Although once helpful, it was never anything more than a step in the right direction.

Old Rules, New World

I’m also not a believer in the ubiquitous prescriptions for the death penalty that we find in the writings of Moses. Thus, I’m not going to clamor for laws today to make it a capital crime to curse one’s parents. Neither am I implying that cursing one’s parents is acceptable behavior.  

I’m not going to urge today’s legislatures to make adultery punishable by death as the writings of Moses do. Without denying the enormous pain that can be caused by adultery, I’ve also seen sincere confession and repentance from perpetrators, and an amazing level of forgiveness from betrayed spouses. I would hate to see compassionate spouses robbed of marriages that could have been saved because the law says the guilty must be executed. 

God Loves Us All

There are quite a few assertions in the Bible that don’t mesh with my understanding of both human and divine reality. Another classic example for me is Malachi 1:2, 3 which is repeated in a shorter form in Romans 9:13, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” 

I happen to subscribe to a view of God that says He loves everyone. After all, 1 John 4:8 says”God is love.” I would go so far as to say that God never ceases to love. He loves the lost just as much as He loves the saved.

I believe there’s nothing I can do to make God love me more than He already does. And there’s nothing I can do to make Him love me less—though my actions and attitude do have consequences. My actions may lead to either eternal life or eternal nonexistence. But either way, God still loves. And I don’t believe God ever hated Esau.

Author’s Opinion? Or God’s Word?

There’s another passage that bothers me: “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread (Psalm 37:25, NIV). 

I’m willing to accept that the writer of that psalm had, himself, never seen the children of the righteous begging for bread. But if we insist that this passage is a blanket promise about an immutable reality, we have a problem. Because most of us know of situations where a lot of children have not only begged for bread but have died of starvation. And it’s hard to believe that none of those children—not even one—had righteous parents. 

Would it be legitimate to acknowledge that the preceding passage—however strongly believed by the writer—is a form of hyperbole? Or at least a case of limited knowledge or naivety on the part of the writer? Might that psalm be an opinion of the writer rather than an eternal truth from God even though it appears in the Bible?

In 1 Corinthians chapter 7, while speaking of the pros and cons of being single versus married, the apostle Paul attributes some of his advice directly to God. In verse 10 he says: “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord).” In verse 12, he writes: “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord).” And further along in verse 25, he says: “I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” So might there be other personal opinions in the Bible that aren’t flagged in the way Paul has flagged these?

No Temptation Beyond What We Can Bear

In 1 Corinthians 10:13, we read: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

Note that in the NIV a footnote says: “The Greek for temptation and tempted can also mean testing and tested.” So this text isn’t just about allurement toward sins such as sexual immorality and idolatry. It likewise encompasses the temptation to abandon our faith in God, in our fellow humans, in life itself, because our personal world is crumbling around us. Tragedy and atrocity almost always bring major temptation in their wake.

1 Corinthians 10:13 seems to suggest that God—or God’s appointed agents—are involved in designing, assigning and overseeing temptations/tests/burdens for humans. But, thank goodness, God will never allow anything to come our way that’s more than we can bear. So if we succumb or have a breakdown or give up in despair, we’re always without excuse. The implication is that it’s always our own lack of spirituality and fidelity that’s to blame because God never pushes us beyond our limits.

When I was a teenager, I heard a preacher use an old aphorism to explain Paul’s 1 Corinthians 10:13 assertion. And I immediately decided the aphorism was nonsense. It went like this: “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” 

I grew up on a farm where we raised sheep. I saw lambs which had been born in weather so severe that they died from exposure before their mothers could get them licked clean. And I said to myself: “Whoever came up with that statement never raised sheep in a cold climate.” 

In fact, the deliberate steps we took to make sure that lambs weren’t born outside in savage weather was proof that we knew God could not be depended on to temper the wind to the shorn lamb. 

Maybe I was asking too much, or focusing on the wrong thing. Maybe I was reading into the aphorism more than the literal text. Sheep are shorn in the spring when the weather has already been tempered for the most part. So maybe it’s a true statement after all—if we limit it just to shorn lambs. But what about a mother sheep that rejects her own lamb—as is not uncommon in the case of twin lambs? What is the scope of God’s protection of the lambs? And are there similar interventions on behalf of other animals?

Keep in mind, all these thoughts were running through my teenage mind because I’d been listening to a sermon about how God involves himself in human lives. The sermon wasn’t about lambs. It was about what God does to mitigate the negative winds of life that blow against you and me. The aphorism—to put it bluntly—is fanciful thinking about God and lambs that, in turn, is being used to illustrate a supposed truth about God and humans.

Does God Review Every Trial?

In the decades that have passed since my rejection of the shorn-lamb theory, I’ve increasingly come to question that God is personally reviewing everything that’s about to happen in every person’s life to ensure that no human will ever face more testing/adversity/pain than they’re able to bear. I find that image of God’s role in our lives to be repugnant, certainly not loving. The idea flies in the face of freewill and natural consequence. With God playing such a role, cause and effect no longer exist in any meaningful way because all outcomes are tweaked by God.

Most of us experience things so disturbing that every fiber of our being tells us they aren’t of God’s doing. The cruelty, the barbarity, the sheer number of victims removes any possibility that we could attribute such a situation to a loving God. Take the Holocaust, for example. Did God temper every atrocity to ensure it wouldn’t be more than each victim could endure? Or was evil truly running riot? 

Did God decide which Israelis would be terrorized, wounded, raped, tortured, taken hostage or killed in last year’s October 7 attack by HAMAS? Did God ensure that no one became a victim who wasn’t strong enough to handle it? And has God been intervening to make sure that every person in Gaza whose home, family, and hopes have been decimated, are strong enough to handle such losses? How does “not beyond what you can bear” work in practice?

It’s cold comfort when a victim of tragedy is reminded by “the first cousins of Job’s comforters” as I call them, that God won’t send them more than they’re able to bear. In fact, I’ve heard sufferers being assured that the sheer magnitude of their suffering is proof positive of how strong God recognizes them to be. And I’ve listened as sufferers have cried out in anguish that if only God didn’t see them as so strong, maybe they could have been given a lighter, less-painful, less soul-shattering burden to bear.

Trials and Tribulations

In my role as a congregational pastor, I’ve watched people emotionally disintegrate as adversity after adversity piles up, crushing them. I’ve struggled to provide comfort and encouragement to those whose loved one sought final escape from unremitting physical or emotional pain through suicide.

Does Paul’s admonition for us in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, to test everything and hold onto what is good, apply even to how we respond to what we read in the Bible? How much should we feel obligated to apply every text exactly the way it is written? How much should we allow for the possibility that the writer may be expressing personal opinions based on the time and place? How much weight should we place on the overall trajectory of the Bible’s accumulated statements over many centuries, rather than just on random specific assertions?

The Bible declares itself to be a divine-human collaboration. Men wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. They wrote in a specific language with the corresponding limitations of that language. They wrote from the perspective of their personal experience. Their comments are based in a specific culture and social environment from which the prevalent worldview for their time would have arisen. Sometimes what they say demonstrates amazing timelessness. At other times not so much. 

When those commenting on already-problematic scriptural passages go so far as to make totally unsubstantiated and disprovable statements such as “God tempers to wind to the shorn lamb,” we’re in danger of developing a dramatically skewed view of how God relates to the array of complexities and adversities that all humans have to face in varying degrees. 

About the author

James (Jim) Coffin is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. After retiring from denominational employment in 2011, he served for nearly 12 years as Executive Director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Advent Health’s Central Florida Division. During his ministerial career, he worked in both the United States (26 years) and Australia (10 years), serving 9 years as a youth pastor, 4 years as assistant editor of the Adventist Review, 5 years as senior editor at Signs Publishing Company in Australia, and 18 years as senior pastor at Markham Woods Church in Longwood, Florida. He has authored three books, written some 100 op-eds for the Orlando Sentinel (usually addressing religious or social/ethical topics), and has written widely for an array of Adventist publications and websites. He and his wife, Leonie, have three adult sons. More from James Coffin.
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