Rules of Engagement

Being invited to wrestle with God feels just a bit like being told to jump in the arena and fight with a lion. As C.S. Lewis so pithily remarks in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, He is “not like a tame lion.” And as many who have gone before us have discovered, crossing the line with Him can result in devastating consequences.

So what does it look like to be friends with God? It’s not like He will stop being the almighty Ruler of the earth, nor will we stop being frail, needy mortals. What happens when we have a difference of opinion? Is that the point where our friendship breaks down and we return to a state of respectful resignation before Him, or does He want us to push back? How do we argue with the Judge of the universe?

When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. Then the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?
Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
Genesis 18:16-17, 20-21

Abraham walked this fine line with terrifying audacity and unrelenting humility. God had taken him into His confidence. He had formed a special relationship with Abraham and had told him the amazing things He had in store for him and His descendants. He had even hung out at Abraham’s house and had dinner with him. But when God revealed His plans to destroy the city where Abraham’s relatives lived, Abraham faced a real conundrum. He knew how to handle a dispute with men, but what were the rules of engagement when disagreeing with God?

The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.
Genesis 18:22

Abraham did not meekly accept God’s revealed intent. He did not bow before God’s sovereignty in compliant determinism. Instead he remained standing in God’s presence, continuing to assert the same intimate status that they had shared up till then. In fact, he took a bold step further and approached God with an incredulous, almost reproachful question.

Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing–to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Genesis 18:23-25

Would God really act this way? It seemed so out of character for Him! How could the Judge of all the earth violate His own standards of right and wrong? Abraham argued vigorously against God’s plan, appealing to God’s own justice, righteousness, and compassion. There was a lot more than just the preservation of Abraham’s loved-ones on the line. This was about God’s own integrity, and Abraham wasn’t about to let go of that without a fight.

The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Genesis 18:26

God reassured His friend. No, He would not destroy a city with that many righteous people still living in it. He would be true to His character and would spare it, if fifty righteous ones were actually found there.

God is not a tame lion, but He is a loving one.

Abraham could have stopped there. God’s integrity had been established. His character was no longer in question. But the fact was, Abraham really didn’t want anything bad to happen to his relatives. This was a matter of personal interest, but wasn’t that reason enough between friends? Did he have a firm enough platform from which to plead for something that he just really wanted?

Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?” … “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?” … Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?” … Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
Genesis 18:27-33

Abraham ventured out in fearful faith, with no defense in hand but an appeal to their relationship. He relentlessly pursued God in a bargaining duel, closing in the gap each time God stepped back and gave him a little ground. He knew he was treading on thin ice, pushing God so far, but with each round of success he felt like he might just be able to get a little closer to getting his way. But even in the midst of such boldness, Abraham never forgot Whom he was sparring with. As he poked and prodded forward, he repeatedly affirmed his smallness and unworthiness before God, and God’s right to get angry and put him back in his place.

So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.
Genesis 19:29

Amazingly, God played along. He did not rebuke Abraham for being so forward. He did not shut down the argument with a “Because I said so!” And in the end, He honored Abraham’s wishes. Out of His love for Abraham, He went to great lengths to spare his relatives.

What are the rules of engagement when we are compelled to wrestle with God? For starters, we already have to be His friends, to be walking the course of our lives in communion with Him. With that relationship firmly established, we may boldly approach, argue, persist, even negotiate. But we can never forget Who it is we are wrestling with. He is not a tame lion, but He is a loving one. He may or may not grant us our wish, but He will not devour us for bringing it to Him boldly.

7 thoughts on “Rules of Engagement”

  1. First, I love the formatting with the text + verses. Typography is important!

    Next, I love how you truly believe that the Bible has precise things to say to us, and not just fuzzy metaphors. So few people believe this, who simultaneously use knowledge of God to heal and grow, instead of shame and control. May God continue to bless you in increasing knowledge of him!

    Next, I suggest investigating the “stand in the breach” metaphor in Ezek 22:29-31. Then find the same idea in Is 59:14-21, where God, after failing for the umpteenth time to find someone to intercede (as Abraham and Moses and others had done), decides to send Jesus. Pretty cool stuff! Oh, Amos 3:7 is also neat. 🙂

    Finally, check out Job 38:3, 40:7. “Gird up your loins like a man” is God’s way of telling Job to stand up like a man. Don’t grovel, Job! You are made in my image: act like it! It is a wondrous thing to be told, and I know of no commentator who has ‘noticed’ this.

    1. I have been wanting to unpack that interplay between Moses and Yahweh, maybe in an upcoming post in this series. As for Job, anytime I go near that story I get pulled into it–it parallels so much of my own experience. I will need to sit a long time with it before I can digest it into little posts.

      Thanks for your blessing–I need it. I have always believed that theology is the foundation for all we do and think, but good theology is so often divorced from the problems of messy humanity. God had to take me through my own “messes” to give me new questions to take to His Word. He also had to move me to an eastern culture to give me the lenses to appreciate His Narrative. I love His teaching methods, even though I wouldn’t always choose them for myself. 🙂

      1. The tension between theology which matches experience well, and systematic theology which is pretty and coherent, reminds me of the empiricist vs. rationalist schools of thought in philosophy, which were compared extensively by the pragmatists, including William James. I think both methods are useful, but I rarely see the empiricist form of theology done. It’s as if we’re stuck in Aristotelian times, where we just have to read the Bible and stroke our beards and it’ll all come to us. Hah!

        It’s sad that pain seems a better teacher about God than joy, but I have found that to be true. I don’t think it has to be that way, but these days, I have just accepted it as how things will be until enough Christians can band together and figure out how to push forward toward glory instead of do our best to avoid terrible sources of pain and suffering. Maybe folks like you and me can shift the basis of learning from suffering to joy. I leave you with one of my favorite passages:

        Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2)

        Ahh yes: sin is almost incidental compared to the race being run, Jesus had a strong reason to push forward, and he despised the shame that many of us are painted with so thoroughly. Talk about deserving the throne!

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