God Can’t Win

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They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep’”(Luke 7:32).

Sometimes we just won’t be pleased.  Jesus casts about for a word-picture to describe the people he is teaching:  “To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like?”(Luke 7:31).  He describes these children in a marketplace who are unhappy with whatever game is suggested.  If someone wants to play wedding, they won’t dance.  If someone wants to play funeral, they won’t weep.  Nothing satisfies them.

He explains the reason for this unflattering comparison:  “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’  The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him!  A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”(Luke 7:33-34).  If God’s prophet is disciplined, he’s too disciplined!  If God’s prophet is indulgent, he’s too indulgent!  God tries very different approaches, yet his people reject them both.  God can’t win!

Jesus is exposing a spirit that still thrives.  We think that we always have a good reason to reject God and his message.  We always find something to criticize.  And we fail to see that we’ll never be pleased.

Consider some areas in which (because of our stubbornness) God can’t win:

  • I don’t pray when things are going well because I don’t feel that I need God’s help. Then when things fall apart, I wonder where God is.
  • If God exercises justice, then I say that he is bloodthirsty and unforgiving. But if God forgives, I say that there is no justice, God is not good, and maybe he doesn’t exist.
  • If the gospels agree perfectly, then I say that they might be copying each other and are untrustworthy. If they don’t agree perfectly, then I say that they are too inconsistent to be believed.
  • If God lets me live without boundaries, then I am miserable. But if he gives boundaries, I resent him and find him restrictive.
  • I want God to accept me as I am, yet I don’t like how I am. I want God to change me, but I want to be able to tell him how and in what ways.
  • When my sins are exposed, I justify and excuse them. But when sin ruins my life, I ask how God could let this happen.
  • I want God to reveal more of his will, yet I reject what he has revealed because I want more.

Jesus’ picture of children in the marketplace shows us God is not really the problem.  We are the problem.  If I won’t be pleased, that’s not God’s fault.  God has the right to decide how he will act, rule, and speak.  I need the humility to accept God on his terms, not mine.

This is why when the Bible describes God’s words, it often comments on the proper attitude that should accompany them.  “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls”(James 1:21).  God’s word must be received with meekness that respects his right to instruct.  “But this is the one to whom I will look:  he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word”(Isa. 66:2).  Trembling reflects the fact that God’s will and power are not subject to what I think about them.

This topic is also complicated by the rise of internet communication and social media.  Words are so abundant in our time that they no longer represent careful thought and rarely deserve careful thought.  We are not used to “trembling” at the words of anyone.  We have little practice “receiving with meekness” anyone’s instruction.  Our custom is to evaluate other people’s words and actions based on what we like and think.  So it is natural for us to begin to apply these practices to God’s actions and words.  The problem is that we end up treating God as if he is the one who must please us—instead of the other way around.

With these thoughts about the danger of pride damaging our ability to accept and relate to God in mind, this paragraph from James takes on added urgency:  “Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’  Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Be wretched and mourn and weep.  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you”(James 4:6-10).  We have a series of choices we must make.  Will we submit to God? Will we lower ourselves?  Will we turn from our sins?  Will we resist the devil?  Suddenly, with such problems so close to home, the thought that I might criticize God for his words, actions, and choices seems ludicrously inappropriate.  Could it even be that my criticism and complaining about God are an attempt to distract myself from my own failings and weaknesses?  Am I throwing up a smokescreen to avoid mourning for my own sin?

Jesus’ words expose the clear and present danger that we would think we have a very good reason to reject God and his word.  Sometimes we just won’t be pleased.  Will we try to put him in a position where he can’t win—or will we humble ourselves before him?

by Jacob Hudgins