Thursday, July 11, 2013

When Is It God's Will?

I think elections are fascinating things. Somehow, despite being actively opposed by nearly half of the population, a president manages to govern an entire county. Somehow, despite having to share a lunchroom table with her opponents, a classroom president manages to stay friends with everyone. Sometimes we welcome a particular election result, and sometimes we gripe about it for four or eight years (maybe even longer). Decades later, we look back on certain leaders with admiration even though we likely would not have supported them at the time. Occasionally, my affection for a particular politician will evaporate overnight. Politics and the elections behind them are curious beasts.

Although no vote was ever cast, I would guess that transitions of power in ancient Israel were just as intriguing. In today’s OT lesson (1 Samuel 16:14-17:11), we read part of the transition from Saul to David. David, of course, had already been chosen and anointed king—even though hardly anyone knew it (see 1 Sam. 15). Saul was still the ruler of Israel, but he had managed to lose God’s support, and, not surprisingly, the king of God’s people had a hard time ruling without the support of that all-important constituency of one. In today’s reading, Saul is tormented by an evil spirit, and David is asked to play the lyre for him in order to bring peace to the troubled king. Saul’s love for the young musician grows, and he chooses him to be his royal armor-bearer. Ironic, of course, that the outgoing king, who doesn’t even know he’s on his way out, chooses his already-appointed successor as an attendant.

The opening verse from today’s reading is what got me thinking about elections: “Now the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.” I read that, and I wondered what made the author so sure that the evil spirit was from the Lord. Actually, that’s a pretty bold statement—that God himself was responsible for the evil that tormented a person. That’s a mixture of oil and water, of gasoline and matches. Yet the author is clear—it’s Yahweh himself who sends the evil upon the king. I wonder what sort of attribution would be made if Saul were more popular?

I think the reason the bible is able to attribute evil to God himself is because both the author and readers of scripture know how the story ends. With generational hindsight, it becomes possible to say that God himself withdrew his favor from Saul—even tormented him. At the moment it happened, I’m not sure it would have been so clear. But we know what happens. We know about David and Goliath. We know about Saul’s plot against David. We know about his struggles with the Philistines. We know about his military defeat and eventual suicide. And, perhaps more importantly, we know about David and his victories and his popularity and, despite his foils, his heart-in-heart relationship with God. And so we can look back and say that God had his hand in the whole thing—even in the convoluted, underhanded, rather earthy way that it all happened.


It takes years and years and years for us to figure out how God is working through a particular situation. It takes generations for us to look back and see how a dark spot in our history turned out for good. None of us is in a position to connect all of the present dots with certainty. The affair of human beings continue, and God’s relationship with the world continues, but figuring out how the two overlap and intersect and even coalesce into one takes generations. I am encouraged, therefore, that I don’t have to figure it out. Faith isn’t understanding how. It’s trusting that even the outcomes I don’t like are somehow a part of God’s loving relationship with the world.

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