Chapter 10 – The Grace of Contending
“If four workers can build a shed in fifteen hours, how many workers will it take to build a shed in three hours?” Who cares!
Alright, the manager of the project might care. But there is no such person because this question is nothing more than a despicable word problem designed to drive us crazy when we were taking tests as students. To make matters worse, many of us were warned not to ask questions about our test questions, but to read the problem again and choose the best answer.
It is possible the scars I bear from word problems are responsible for my reluctance to question God about my circumstances. After all, God doesn’t make mistakes. But what am I supposed to do when my trial doesn’t make sense? Do I press the issue or guess and move on?
It wasn’t until I worked through the Old Testament book of Job during a graduate class that I began to find help for this dilemma through the theology of “contending.” I had always considered arguing with God a dangerous proposition. My closest encounter with a contender had been in an Alcoholics Anonymous session where a leader made an obscene gesture at God and cursed. I was attending the session with a friend who wanted me to consider opening our church building up to the group. I passed.
What do we learn from Job about approaching God with our disagreements? Job’s suffering was not a result of sin, as his friends suggested, but he did sin when he questioned God’s wisdom. Job forgot the limits of his human perspective and when God had heard enough, He spoke out of a whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” (Job 38:2-3)
What strikes me most is the fact Job lived another day to enjoy the favor of God. He questioned God, crossed a line or two, but didn’t incur the full wrath of the Almighty. Perhaps he escaped because he despised himself and repented in “dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
We should not assume God ignores any blasphemous or statements on our part, just because we are in the midst of a personal storm. He understands our trials, but He still holds us accountable. Yet, I am convinced there is another sin that is potentially more harmful because it involves a spiritual state and not just a sinful word spoken in a moment of passion. When Cain and Abel offered sacrifices to God, God rejected Cain’s sacrifice, but accepted Abel’s. Many have suggested Cain failed to offer his best, but regardless of the reason, Cain didn’t handle God’s rejection well. The Bible says, “So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Gen 4:5). And that’s where his face stayed: “downcast.” God tried to engage him in a conversation with the stern warning, “sin is crouching at your door” (Gen 4:7), but Cain continued down his path of rage. It isn’t hard to understand how he eventually came to murder his brother in an open field.
Cain killed, in part because he refused to contend. Had he been honest with God about his feelings of rejection, he might have been able to work through his anger. While it is true he might have sinned in his conversation with God, at least his brother would still be alive.
I don’t view a heated discussion with God lightly. Yet, I would rather risk His discipline than hide from His presence and allow Satan to devour my soul uncontested. I have learned to raise my hand and question God, not to place Him on trial, but to acknowledge my frustrations and seek His guidance. But where is the critical line? What should I not say, and how should I not say it?
The Apostle Paul prayed for God to remove a “thorn in the flesh” that tormented him in his ministry. While we don’t know the exact nature of his condition, we know Paul desperately sought healing. In his second letter to the church at Corinth he wrote, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (2 Cor. 12:8), but the thorn remained. The Lord answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Do you think Paul wondered why he was allowed to suffer when He had given so much to the kingdom? His thorn was a test to keep him from becoming conceited, but once the lesson was learned, was it really necessary? I personally believe the Lord’s refusal to deliver Paul from his thorn was a very difficult pill to swallow. Yet, he knew Christ’s power would be displayed in his weakness and was willing to live on the sufficient grace that was promised.
It does not appear Paul sinned when he pleaded. Therefore, we can assume it is permissible to ask God for confirmation when we aren’t sure the pain we have been asked to bear is necessary. He is not offended as long as we are ultimately obedient and willing to be used for His glory.
On the other hand, Israel fashioned a golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Law of God. They grew impatient and exchanged the Living God and his faithful servant Moses for an idol. God’s wrath was poured out on them and they learned the hard way there is a line one must not cross.
Both Paul and the Israelites were challenged by God’s timing but one chose to seek His will while the other stepped outside of it. This is the line: We can question our circumstances and God’s involvement in them, but we must do so with a spirit of humility and obedience, even if it kills us.
What value, then, is there in contending with God if we have ultimately determined to live for Him regardless of our circumstances? Wouldn’t we save ourselves a lot of anxiety by accepting events as they occur without asking “why?” We might at that. But is this God’s will? Did He create us with a free will only to watch us refuse to face our fears and doubts and merely accept life as it comes? I am convinced there are two reasons why God is very pleased when we raise questions.
First, we learn by attacking tough questions. School debate teams are more than vehicles for people who love to argue. They nurture a thirst for truth and share
ideas in a public forum where they can be tested. Questions expose weak logic and give others the freedom to share opposing theories and conclusions.
I have walked with many people through the valley of doubt and fear and joined them in their confusion. Seldom have we discovered “why?” Yet, in our quest for resolutions we have uncovered other truths of great value. Like the man who sold everything he owned to purchase a priceless pearl, sometimes the things we find in our search for the things we seek are the most important.
The process of debate not only helps uncover unexpected truths, but it also exposes impure motives and hidden sin. The writer of Hebrews tells us God uses our trials as a form of discipline: “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:10-11).
The sin that has lodged itself in our hearts is not easily extracted. It is enmeshed in a web of rationalization and self-justification. But trials break through our defenses and while we may never win a single argument with God, He leads us in victory over ourselves.
Therefore, contending produces maturity. It opens the door for godly instruction which yields eternal fruit. And while we might prefer an easier course, we know our stubborn hearts must be challenged if change is to occur.
Secondly, God is pleased to hear our questions, because on occasion He chooses to change our circumstances. His intervention is not guaranteed, but when it happens we are overcome by joy and filled with praise. God uses our testimony to encourage others in their faith and draw attention to the glorious working of His power. We do not possess perfect knowledge to ascertain with certainty when and how God will move in our lives. Yet, when we have pleaded as Paul, and witnessed His providential hand, we must honor Him with thanksgiving.
Within our #2 Pencil Faith framework, the “Law of Possibilities” affirms God can stay true to His will, even as He meets our needs and sometimes changes the course of our trials. We may not know with certainty how He will act, or how He will use our actions, but we know He is able. We learn to trust His wisdom as He weaves people, places and things together for His ultimate purposes.
We should pray, believing God will hear us and possibly change our circumstances. To think less than this would ignore James’ statement, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). In the asking, however, we should pursue God’s ultimate design for our lives and put aside our personal agendas (James 4:3).
God permits our contention, and in my opinion welcomes it, as long as we trust Him to do what is best. I have seen people collapse under the false assumption their questions are going to imperil their salvation. It is true we must eventually grow in our faith and move past our earthly struggles. But if we deny their existence we can damage our relationship with God. Grace is a broad shoulder upon which our tears can pour down. Our Father already knows our pain. It is fruitless to ignore it, and pretend we don’t care. And it is downright dangerous to think for one moment He doesn’t care for us.