Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The OT and the ‘So What?’ Factor

What relevance does the Old Testament have to us in the 21st Century? How can the trials and tribulations of an ancient agrarian, nomadic and violent world bear any relevancy in today’s Australia?

The cultures of the ancient Near East drew their stories from an understandably similar palette. However, whilst prima facie the characters looked similar, the characters’ motivations in the Israelite stories were radically different. The God of the Israelites was a God that spoke to them and lived directly in amongst them; not housed in some Olympian idyll, but right there in amongst the tents. The God of the Israelites was a God that controlled the three biggest fears of the ancient world: the sea, the desert, and the darkness; he created the sea, he walked with them through the desert and provided manna, quail and water out of rocks, he burned as fire to light their nights. The God of the Israelites was a generous God, given to blessing his creation with abundance, fertility and security. The God of the Israelites was the only God, not one of a hierarchical pantheon, and all came from him.

In all these aspects and more, the God of the Israelites was radically different from the other gods of the ane. He was consistent in his behaviour and could not be ‘bought’ with superstitious ritual or object.

The third world setting might have changed, but the fundamental questions that the Old Testament answered for the ancient Israelites remain fundamental questions for us today:
  • Who is God?
  • Why is he important?
  • Why do I keep ‘stuffing up’?
  • Will God love me if I keep ‘stuffing up’?
  • What can I do to keep God on my side?
  • Why doesn’t God solve all my problems for me?
  • If God loves us, why are there still wars, brutality, rape, injustice, starvation, and suffering?
  • How do I know he exists?

Who is God?
God is the Creator of all livings things; he created the heavens and the earth. As such we owe him our very lives.

Why is he important?
He is important because he created us and our world. Unlike us, he is not bound by the rules of this earth; he can move events and people around like a jigsaw, so that his own divine purposes are met. He can punish us for our sins and reward us for our hearts, if he so chooses. He is not beholden to other gods, nor does he take orders from them. He is the one and only God, with absolute power to remake his creation. That he has promised us he won’t destroy his creation again—and has thus far kept his promise—is a sign of his faithfulness to us, even when we don’t deserve such love.

Why do I keep ‘stuffing up’?
We continue to ‘stuff up’ because we are fallen humans. Before we allowed Satan to tempt our egos, we had a great future mapped out for us. We had named all the animals, we had only to live in the most wondrous garden and manage and maintain these creatures. But we allowed Satan to twist our sense of perspective, to allow us the indulgence of thinking we could be as powerful as God, and we got found out and punished as a result. Having opened our minds to pride, greed, envy and conceit, the genie wouldn’t go back in the bottle and these same traits cause us to ‘stuff up’ today.

Will God love me if I keep ‘stuffing up’?
The entire Old Testament is a testimony to God’s forgiving love. Yes, he still loves us, even when we repeatedly ‘stuff up’. Sure, we get punishment meted out—and deservedly so—but we always get his mercy thrown in for free, with a seemingly endless supply of ‘Fresh Chance’ cards to prove it.

What can I do to keep God on my side?
Absolutely nothing. God’s love for us is not dependent upon our acts, but our hearts. But even someone whose heart is against God is still loved by him. It is just unfortunate that the heart’s owner will likely never know, nor feel his love.

Why doesn’t God solve all my problems for me?
The Old Testament makes clear that we are responsible for the choices we make concerning how we live out our lives. God can and does move the big pieces around, he can and does attend to the little details to smooth our paths, but we are responsible for whether we work in harmony with him or not. Therefore, the Old Testament shows a pattern of maturation: the more mature the person is, the more they incline their hearts and lives to God. But the process of maturation is not based solely on the passage of time; our wise decisions are based on our experiences, our experiences based on our failures, our failures based on our decisions. We need to fail many times, to find out what is right and wrong for ourselves, before we can accumulate enough experiences to begin making wise choices. God doesn’t want us to rely lazily on him for providence; he wants us to ‘figure it out for ourselves’ and come to love him through realising the anguish and heartache that comes from not loving him first.

If God loves us, why are there still wars, brutality, rape, injustice, starvation, and suffering?
Because of the same reason that God doesn’t solve our problems for us, he also doesn’t take away our need to collectively realise that pride, greed, envy and conceit undermine our own life happiness. It is painful for the victims, yes, but perhaps through their pain they will be able to glimpse a God that has promised them a happier, brighter future in eternity than their pained existence here on earth, and while they are here, suffering, they may be an example to someone else of how to live with dignity and grace. Or they may cause one hard heart to become softer through the witnessing of their sorrow. It may also be that God wants us to have a worthy comparison between this life and the next, or to help us make better decisions about the people with whom we share our lives here on earth.

How do I know he exists?
You don’t, at least not until you open your heart and offer him the opportunity to begin a relationship with you. He may no longer choose to come to you as a burning bush or a pillar of fire, he may choose not to send a glowing angelic vision in white, but he can still speak directly into your head. His is the voice of your conscience; he is the ‘small quiet voice within’ that sometimes answers your thoughts of anguished ‘why me?’ He is the sense of wonder and astonishment as you watch a spectacular sunrise or sunset. He is ‘the muse’ that spills words and ideas out from under your fingers as you type on a blank page. He is the shiver that runs up your spine as you listen to a piece of music. He is the shiver that runs down your spine when you are playing something—music, sport, a game—and you realise you are ‘in the zone’. He is the agony of guilt when realising that you have forgotten to say ‘thank you’ to him. He is the ecstasy that comes to you in a crowded room when he whispers in your head that, yes, he does love you. He is the tear that runs silently down your cheek as you realise that you love him too and you are so, so sorry for all of your millions of sins that you can’t stop repeating.

These questions and answers are just as valid today as they were several millennia ago. Our post-modern sensibilities would perhaps ask the same questions in different ways from our ancient agrarian, nomadic ancestors; the answers for the ancients formed their songs, and for us the song remains the same.

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