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God's Parenting Strategy

by Alex Wilson

(reprinted from the Word & Work, August, 2003)

Introduction: Philip Yancey’s stimulating book, Disappointment with God (Zondervan, 1988) has a very thought-provoking take on the question of why God doesn’t perform miracles more often for His people’s benefit. The bottom line is: the rareness of miracles is often part of His parenting strategy! The rest of this article is condensed from chapter 2, “What If.”

The book of Exodus showed God stepping into human history almost daily. He acted with utter fairness and spoke so that everyone could hear. If God has the power to act fairly, speak audibly, and appear visibly, why does he seem so reluctant to intervene today? Perhaps the record of the Israelites in the wilderness contained a clue.

Imagine a world designed so that we experience a mild jolt of pain with every sin and a tickle of pleasure with every act of virtue. The Old Testament records a “behavior modification” experiment almost that blatant: God’s covenant with the Israelites. God resolved to reward and punish his people with strict fairness. If they were obedient, they were promised protection from virtually every kind of human misery. On the other hand, if they disobeyed they would become “a thing of horror and an object of scorn to all the nations.”

Within fifty years the Israelites had disintegrated into a state of utter anarchy. Much of the rest of the Old Testament recounts the dreary history of the predicted curses — not blessings — coming true.

God [also] simplified matters of guidance when the Israelites camped in the Sinai wilderness. If the [pillar of] cloud moved, God wanted his people to move. If it stayed, that meant stay. God set up other ways, like the casting of lots and the Urim and Thummim, to directly communicate his will. And he spoke his will in a set of rules, codified into 613 laws. Few people complained about fuzzy guidance in those days.

But did a clear word from God increase the likelihood of obedience? Apparently not. They marched when told to sit tight, fled in fear when told to march. They made a national pastime out of inventing ways to break the 613 commands.

I also noticed [this] pattern in the Old Testament accounts: the very clarity of God’s will had a stunting effect on the Israelites’ faith. Why pursue God when he had already revealed himself so clearly?  Why step out in faith when God had already guaranteed the results? In short, why should they act like adults when they could act like children? And act like children they did, grumbling, cheating, whining.  [Miraculous,] crystal-clear guidance may serve some purpose — for example, get a mob of just-freed slaves across a hostile desert — but it does not seem to encourage spiritual development.

These dismal results may provide insight into why God does not intervene more directly today. Some Christians long for a world well- stocked with miracles and spectacular signs of God’s presence. But the follow-the-dots journey of the Israelites should give us pause.  Would a burst of miracles nourish faith? Not the kind of faith God seems interested in, evidently. The Israelites give ample proof that signs may only addict us to signs, not to God.

-Alex Wilson lives in Louisville, KY. he is Editor of Word & Work, and one of the   preachers for the Portland Avenue Church of Christ


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The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10