January 15, 2006
AN AUTHORITY PROBLEM
This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:2
Thomas Nagel doesn’t believe in God, and he doesn’t want to believe in God. Professor Nagel is brilliant. He has degrees from Oxford and Harvard, and he teaches philosophy and law at New York University. But he doesn’t claim that he is too smart to believe in God. He doesn’t claim that logic and evidence disprove God. On the contrary, Nagel admits that some things may point to God’s reality, but he doesn’t want God to exist. Why not? Because of what he calls an authority problem. Nagel says,
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God… It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
Professor Nagel says he has a “cosmic authority problem.” He doesn’t want a world where everything owes its existence to God, where God knows things we can’t know unless the Lord reveals them to us, where the Lord has the first and final word, and where everyone must answer to God. Nagel says he’s not the only one with an authority problem. He says that other intellectuals use “evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind,” even when some of the explanations defy common sense. These evolutionary explanations are attractive not because they are so rational but because they eliminate God from the picture. Nagel says, “Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world.” Without God we can make ourselves our own final authority.
Doing Our Own Thing
Professors and intellectuals aren’t the only people with an authority problem. From an early age, children don’t want to be told what to do. They don’t want advice or help. A two-year-old’s favorite saying is, “I do it myself.” He wants to do his own thing and make up his own mind, no matter how little he knows, no matter how much smarter and stronger his parents know. Sometimes a child can have such an authority problem that he wants his parents not to exist. He covers his eyes with his hands or hides his head under a blanket, figuring that if he doesn’t look at his parents, they cease to exist, and he can live in his own little world.
Even when we get older and grow beyond “the terrible twos,” we don’t necessarily outgrow our authority problem. Nowhere is our authority problem stronger than in the area of religion. Newspaper ads urge you to “attend the church of your choice.” Why the church of your choice? What do you base your choice on? Whether you like the style of music? Whether you “fit in” and “feel comfortable”? What makes a church worth attending? Apparently it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s “the church of your choice,” and you can “make up your own mind.” But what if the important thing about a church is not whether I happen to like it but whether it is faithful to God’s authority?
Whether we happen to be atheist or religious, we tend to hate authority. We would rather make up our own mind, even when we’re mindless, than submit our minds to the authority of someone who is wiser. We’d rather make our own decisions, even when we don’t have a clue what’s right and wrong, than submit our decisions to the will of someone who is better.
Sometimes it’s good to question authority, especially when people in power are cruel or when they stifle open discussion and honest questions. Part of growing up from childhood to adulthood is learning to think for yourself and take responsibility for your own decisions. Part of being a good citizen is not just saying “my country right or wrong” but challenging unjust actions and working to make your community and nation more just. But let’s be honest: much of our resistance to authority is not because the authority is wrong but because we are self-centered. We want to be self‑reliant, to feel good about ourselves, to make up our own mind without anyone else telling us what to think or do. We don’t want any higher authority to interfere, not even God himself.
What does God think of all this? What sort of attitude does he like? The Lord says in Isaiah 66:2, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” God likes people who listen when he talks, who humbly realize that God knows better than they do, who are contrite and sorry when God shows that their lives don’t meet his standards, who take him so seriously that they tremble when he speaks.
Have you ever trembled at what God says? That’s a good test of your relationship to God. If you’ve never trembled at his Word, then you don’t know the true and living God at all. If you make up your own mind, rather than depending on God to make up your mind for you, then you’re taking yourself more seriously than you take God. You have an authority problem, and that can be fatal.
Did God Really Say?
The idea of making up your own mind is an old one. It goes back as far as our first parents, Adam and Eve. God placed Adam and Eve in a splendid garden and said that they could eat the fruit from any tree in that garden except one. God called that forbidden tree “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Or, to put it another way, it was the tree of making up your own mind, of deciding for yourself what’s good and what’s bad. As long as Adam and Eve took God’s Word as their supreme authority and left that tree alone simply because God said so, they would live under God’s blessing. But if they ate of it, they would be making up their own minds, they would be depending on their own knowledge of good and evil rather than God’s authority, and they would fall away from God and into the grip of death.
When that old serpent Satan slithered into the picture, the first thing he did was to raise misgivings about God’s character and the reliability of his Word. The serpent said to Eve, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?” That’s how Satan always starts out: “Did God really say…?” If Satan can twist God’s Word and get you to question it instead of trembling at it, his work is half done.
Eve responded that of course God hadn’t said they couldn’t eat from any tree. “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” Eve told the serpent, “but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.”
“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. That’s another of Satan’s favorite lies. Once he undermines the authority of God’s Word, the next thing he does is to flatly deny the certainty of the judgments God warns about. “You will not surely die,” he said. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” That made a lot of sense to Eve. She knew what God had said—but what if God was just trying to hold her down and keep her from reaching her true potential? Eve stopped trembling at God’s Word and made up her own mind. So did Adam. People have been making up their own minds ever since—and perishing in the process.
When God speaks, the only fitting response is to tremble. When God speaks a word of warning and judgment, we should tremble with fear. When God speaks a word of promise, forgiveness, and hope, we should tremble with joy. Trembling at the Word—that’s the kind of response God wants. There are really just two alternatives: you can make up your own mind all the way to hell, or you can tremble at God’s Word all the way to heaven.
Isaiah, the prophet God inspired to write about trembling at the Word, knew what it felt like to tremble himself. Isaiah wrote, “I saw the Lord, seated on a throne, high and exalted.” In that vision, Isaiah heard angels calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.” Isaiah cried, “Woe to me! I am ruined!” Isaiah saw his own sin in the light of God’s holiness, and he couldn’t help trembling with fear. That’s when God cleansed Isaiah and assured him of forgiveness and commissioned him to live for the Lord and carry his Word to others. Like Isaiah, you and I need to encounter that same great God, to be shaken up by him, to tremble at who he is and at what he says. Only then can we become persons who are pleasing to him.
Laughing at God’s Word
One way some of us react to the Word of God is to laugh at it, to greet God with a sneer. Everything is a joke. Nothing is sacred. The way to be somebody is to be a wise‑cracking, smirking smart aleck. We treat other people with disrespect. We treat God with disrespect. The most tender and loving invitations from God are treated like a joke. The most solemn and fearful warnings of hell produce only a sneer and a snicker.
The Lord Jesus speaks again and again in the Bible of how he is going to return and judge the world and condemn the wicked to everlasting fire. That should be enough to shake us to our very foundations, to make us tremble and cry out for forgiveness and salvation so that we can face his blazing glory. But for some, the message of Jesus’ coming and the final judgment is just another reason to laugh. The Bible says, “In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised?’ But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:3‑7).
Laughing at God’s word was fatal in the past, and it will be fatal in the future. The Bible reminds those who scoff at the message of Jesus’ return that this isn’t the first time people have laughed at a message of coming judgment. When God told Noah that a terrible flood was coming, Noah and his family trembled at the message. They believed God’s word and went to work building a huge boat, just as God commanded. But while Noah trembled and worked on the ark and preached of the coming judgment, the people around him thought it was all a joke. Build a giant boat on dry land, nowhere near any body of water? A flood so bad that even the highest peaks wouldn’t be safe? What a laugh! But those people found out that it was easier to laugh at God’s Word than to tread water for weeks on end, and they were all swallowed up in the flood of God’s wrath.
Or look at what happened when God decided to destroy the city of Sodom. First he sent his messengers to warn someone there who was still loyal to the Lord, a man named Lot. The messengers told Lot to get his family out of the city. So Lot went out and spoke to his son’s in law, who were pledged to marry his daughters. He said, “Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!” But, says the Bible, his sons‑in‑law thought he was joking. They laughed and laughed. But they weren’t laughing quite so hard the next day, when God’s fire fell on Sodom and burned them to ashes. Lot trembled at the word of the Lord and was saved. The others laughed—and perished.
Snarling at God’s Word
Other people don’t laugh at the word of the Lord. Instead, they snarl at it. It makes them angry. It’s easy to blame God for all your troubles, and to blame anybody who speaks God’s Word for making you miserable. That’s what King Ahab did. He snarled at the word. Ahab was a king of Israel more than 800 years before the time of Jesus. God’s prophet Elijah spoke out against Ahab’s cruelty and idol worship, but Ahab and his wife Queen Jezebel just got worse. God didn’t send any rain on the land, and there was a terrible drought and famine. After three long years of that, God sent Elijah to meet with Ahab. And what was the first thing Ahab said when he saw Elijah coming? He was furious and snarled, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”
“I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah answered, “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commandments” (1 Kings 18:17‑18). How often hasn’t it happened that somebody in a position of leadership strays away from God’s truth, and then, when a reformer speaks God’s Word and confronts the disobedience and calls the people back to God, the reformer gets blamed for causing trouble and division. But who’s the real troublemaker? Even in some churches, you can propose any idea you like that conflicts with the message of the Bible and get away with it. But just try challenging the false teaching, just try to warn against the new ideas and practices that violate the Bible, and you can soon get labeled a troublemaker.
King Ahab got angry at Elijah for speaking the truth, and he later showed the same attitude toward a prophet named Micaiah. Ahab was trying to decide whether to go and fight in a certain battle. He had all sorts of yes‑men, false prophets and preachers, telling him what he wanted to hear: “Go, for the Lord will give you the victory.” But another king was there who took God more seriously, King Jehoshaphat, and he asked Ahab whether there was any real prophet of the Lord around. Ahab said, “Well, yes, there is one, but I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. His name is Micaiah son of Imlah.”
That’s how Ahab operated. He didn’t evaluate himself in terms of God’s Word. He evaluated the Word in terms of himself and his own preferences. He hated anybody who didn’t tell him what he liked to hear, and he didn’t want to hear from them. But finally Ahab sent for Micaiah. Sure enough, Micaiah had more bad news. He announced that when Ahab went to the battle, he would be going to his death. Ahab lost his temper. “What did I tell you? He never prophesies anything good about me, but only bad.”
Ahab threw the prophet into prison and marched off to battle. As an added precaution, he even diguised himself and stayed away from the main fighting. But a soldier in the other army shot an arrow in the direction of Israel’s army, not aiming at anybody in particular. That arrow somehow flew straight to a tiny gap in Ahab’s armor and wounded him. The king suffered all day until he finally bled to death that evening. King Ahab snarled at God’s Word, and it destroyed him.
Cutting Out Some Parts
Another reaction to the Word is to cut out any part of the Bible that we don’t happen to agree with. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, liked some parts of Jesus’ teaching, but he didn’t want to believe that Jesus was himself God, he didn’t want to believe in miracles, he didn’t want to believe in resurrection, he didn’t want to believe in the final judgment, so Jefferson had his own Bible in which he removed everything he didn’t like.
Centuries before Jefferson another political leader decided to cut God’s Word into pieces. Jehoiakim was king of Judah at a crisis point in the history of God’s people. Times were tough, so what did the king do? He built himself an extravagant new palace, using forced labor and squandering enormous amounts of money. God inspired the prophet Jeremiah to denounce the king for indulging himself at the expense of the poor. Jeremiah predicted that the king would “have the burial of a donkey” (Jeremiah 22:13-19).
How did King Jehoiakim react? Did he tremble and seek forgiveness? Not a chance! The arrogant king sat down beside the fire in the winter wing of his new palace and had one of his servants read to him from a scroll of Jeremiah’s writings. Every few columns, the king would take a knife and cut off a chunk of the scroll and toss it into the fire until he had burned it all.
But God’s Word can’t be destroyed as easily as the paper it’s printed on. God simply inspired Jeremiah to speak his message all over again. The same words were written on another scroll, along with many similar words of judgment that God decided to add. Jehoiakim ended up dead before he turned forty, and God’s Word of judgment against the nation came true just as Jeremiah had said.
It’s tempting to slice away at the Bible, and not just for Jehoiakim or Jefferson. Still today some people would like to destroy the whole Bible and others would like to at least cut out some parts. Maybe you know some parts of the Bible that you don’t agree with or don’t like, and you’d like to cut them out. You may even be able to find someone who’s willing to do it for you. Plenty of preachers and scholars are more than willing to change the Bible’s teaching to fit current preferences. They don’t tremble at the Word. They snip and twist and make their own “improvements” on the Word. But as St. Augustine once said, “If you believe what you like in the gospel and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”
If we try to cut God’s Word down, God’s Word will cut us down. That was true of Jeremiah’s book, and it’s true of every book in the Bible. “If anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy,” says the Book of Revelation, “God will take away from him his share in the tree of life” (Revelation 22:18-19).
Yawning at God’s Word
It’s deadly to laugh at God’s Word, or to snarl at it, or to cut out the parts we don’t like. But perhaps the most common and dangerous reaction these days is simply to yawn at the Word. Maybe you find the Bible boring, irrelevant to the things that concern you most. You don’t have a strong negative reaction to the Bible’s message. You don’t have any reaction at all. You just ignore it and neglect it and greet it with a yawn. If that’s your reaction to God’s Word, you’re not alone.
Many people worry about money, sickness, crime, and other problems, but surveys find that less than one in twelve worries a lot about going to hell. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). But many of us are scared stiff about bodily matters and hardly think at all about our souls. We have no fear or respect whatsoever for the God who controls our destiny.
Sometimes people yawn at God’s Word because a preacher has somehow managed to make it boring. But all too often, the reason we yawn at the Word is that we just don’t take God very seriously and we don’t much care what he says to us. Our interests are elsewhere. If God can make himself relevant and entertaining, fine, but otherwise, we’re not going to listen to his Word. And we’re certainly not going to tremble at it!
We’ve got it all backward. If we find that there’s a huge gap between Scripture and our lives, then we had better stop asking what’s wrong with the Bible and start asking what’s wrong with us. We had better stop demanding that God’s Word be made relevant to us, and start asking how we can be made relevant to God’s Word. We had better stop focusing only on our immediate concerns and start paying attention to what concerns God. We had better stop insisting on making up our own mind, and start asking God to direct our minds. We had better stop greeting God’s Word with a yawn and start trembling when the Almighty Lord of heaven and earth speaks his Word.
Trembling at God’s Word
“This is the one I esteem,” says the Lord, “he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” A bit earlier in the book of Isaiah, the Bible says,
For this is what the high and loft One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. I will not accuse forever, nor will I always be angry, for then the spirit of man would grow faint before me—the breath of man that I have created. I was enraged by his sinful greed; I punished him, and hid my face in anger, yet he kept on in his willful ways. I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him, creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the Lord. “And I will heal them.” But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. “There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked” (Isaiah 57:15–21).
Those are the words of a God whose forgiveness reaches out to us and touches us when all hope is gone, and he is also a God who can reach forth and crush us when we don’t take him seriously. To those who are humbly sorry for sin, who mourn under God’s judgment, God brings forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ. But to those stay stuck in their authority problem, who refuse God’s Word to the end, there is no rest, no hope, no peace.
Lord God, your goodness is astonishing, and your judgments are terrifying beyond imagination. Shake our spirits and shatter our pride with the majesty of your presence and the force of your Word. Destroy our complacency, overcome our authority problem, and humble us under your authority. Move us to believe everything in your written Word, the Bible, and move us to trust in the fullness of your living Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.