AUDIO VERSION: YouTube Podbean
Sam and Wendy succumb to the temptation to have sex and it ruins their relationship. Grieving the loss of the man she had hoped to marry, Wendy doesn’t understand why her friend Amy landed such a good marriage. After all, Amy and Bill also had sex while dating, so why didn’t Bill lose respect for her and dump her the way Sam did with Wendy? Why isn’t Amy suffering the same consequences as Wendy when they both made the same mistakes?
Then there is teenage Rick, the good kid from a good family who always felt like he was missing out on an exciting life by following the rules. After watching his rebel friend Nate get away with all kinds of minor crimes, Rick decides just once that he wants to experience the thrill of breaking the law. So he shoplifts a candy bar—just one dumb little candy bar—and God comes down on him like a ton of bricks. The store owner decides to make an example out of Rick and now he’s sitting in a jail cell while his friend Nate is still up to no good. Where is the fairness in this? Why does God nail Rick for one little thing while He lets Nate get off scot-free?
And there is Paula, a surgeon. She’s so tired during an operation that she can barely keep her eyes open. So she cuts a few corners to hurry the process up and ends up doing a sloppy job. When her patient comes down with complications, he sues her for malpractice. Paula has seen many of her peers successfully lie their way out of the same kind of predicament, so she tries to use the same tricks that they do. Only in Paula’s case, her lies are exposed and she ends up utterly humiliated. Why is God being so hard on her?
Can you identify with any of these people? Have you ever found yourself grumbling at God for being unfairly hard on you while He lets other people off the hook for the same offense? In spiritual matters, comparison always leads to complaining and a general feeling of discontent. Comparing only drags us down, which is why we shouldn’t do it. But we do it anyway, because we just can’t help it. So where does this leave us? When we’re green with envy over the fact that someone else is getting away with breaking the rules while we’re getting nailed, can we get more help than a simple reprimand to stop comparing? Yes, we can. When it comes to spiritual matters, there are always brief answers, and long answers. In our material, we like to give long answers that will help you think more deeply about important issues, such as Divine judgment. And Divine judgment is the very thing we’re taking issue with when we start grumbling about how unevenly God hands out the consequences. So now let’s get into it.
BIG PICTURE, SMALL PICTURE
Whenever you find yourself concluding that God is being a meanie, you can be sure that you’re totally oversimplifying whatever issue it is that you’re upset about. We don’t do this on purpose, but given what limited, self-centered creatures we are, we naturally focus on the few pieces of the puzzle which we feel most interested in. Meanwhile God is a big picture kind of Guy and His decisions are based on far more variables than we can see.
When we humans gripe about God’s actions, we’re acting like little Tommy, who calls out a protest when his father suddenly jerks the van into another lane of the highway. Little Tommy is absorbed in the video game he’s playing, and all he wants from the vehicle is a smooth ride. Since Tommy’s personal comfort is the only factor he’s focused on, when his father does something that causes Tommy to be uncomfortable, Tommy feels justified in complaining at his father.
Now Tommy’s father Matt has a lot more on his mind than Tommy’s comfort. Certainly Matt cares about his son’s preferences, but Matt also cares about avoiding collisions with other vehicles on the road. As Matt drives, he is taking in the big picture: he’s monitoring many variables and basing his decisions on what is happening around him. What other drivers choose to do impacts what Matt chooses to do. When another vehicle suddenly lurches into Matt’s lane, he jerks the steering wheel to one side and barely avoids a nasty collision. Matt’s decision really benefited Tommy, but Tommy doesn’t begin to appreciate it because Tommy doesn’t have the maturity or wisdom to grasp the complexity of driving on a highway. The end result is that Tommy complains against Matt even though Matt is operating the van in a way that is best for Tommy’s welfare.
We’re all little Tommys with God in many areas of life. Often we don’t mean to be, but like Tommy, we simply don’t have the ability to understand or appreciate the wisdom of God’s decisions. The best we can do is learn to start giving God the benefit of the doubt, but reaching that point takes a whole lot of time and maturing. Sure, it’s easy to think God is for us when our lives are going smoothly. It’s when He starts pouring on the problems that we find ourselves quickly assuming the worst about Him. This isn’t one of those pretty facts about humans, but it’s a reality nonetheless, and facing up to how we really operate will really help us in the process of spiritual maturity.
When it comes to assessing the way God is handling our lives and the lives of others, we tend to make very poor judgments. We don’t appreciate how He’s helping us when He brings consequences into our lives—we just focus on the misery that those consequences are causing us. We don’t appreciate how He’s helping other people by shielding them from the consequences we’d expect them to have—we just focus on how jealous we are that we don’t get to be them.
Realizing how out of touch we are with the big picture, and recognizing how prone we are to thinking the worst about God are two very useful steps to take. But now let’s progress beyond these steps and talk about some of those big picture elements that we’re ignoring. After all, Tommy’s annoyance with his father would flip to gratitude if he could recognize how his father’s choices just saved him from getting tangled in a bad accident. In the same way, the more we understand some of the factors God is dealing with, the more we’ll learn to appreciate the choices He makes.
Let’s start expanding our view of God’s judging style by discussing this issue of defining wrong. When we find ourselves envying the way someone else is getting away with doing wrong, we’re using a very limited definition of “wrong.” Usually what we’re calling “wrong” is the fact that someone went against God’s general moral code. For example, Sarah knows that God doesn’t want mothers killing their unborn children just to save themselves some inconvenience. This is exactly what Sarah did in her own life, and now doctors tell her she’s too damaged to have any more children. But then there is Rita—a woman who got three separate abortions in her past, but today she’s a very joyful mother of four thriving children. Sarah hates Rita and Sarah feels like God is terribly unfair to not punish Rita the way He’s punished Sarah. After all, Rita did the exact same thing.
When Sarah broods over the fact that Rita has gotten away with sinning, what Sarah really means is that Rita has done a specific external action and is not displaying any external negative effects that Sarah can see. There are major flaws with this logic. In the first place, consequences for sin come in many forms, many of which are invisible to third parties. Just as someone can be in very poor physical health without looking ill to you, someone can be emotionally, mentally, and spiritually distressed without showing any signs of it on the outside. So when we observe someone smiling, and then we leap to the conclusion that our 30 second interaction with that person is solid proof that they are leading a blissful, carefree life, we’re being utterly absurd.
In this world, there is no such thing as a perfect life or a perfect person. We all have problems, and we all put effort into hiding many of our problems from others. The Rita who Sarah is envying is not a real person—she’s just a figment of Sarah’s imagination. The real Rita has plenty of problems in her life. Like all humans, she has worries, fears, and insecurities. Certainly she has four children, but her relationship with them isn’t perfect. She has struggles just as all mothers do. If Sarah were to get a more accurate view of Rita’s life, she’d realize that the perfect image of Rita she’s obsessing over is completely unreal. And yet even if Sarah could see evidence of Rita’s life having other problems, that wouldn’t stop Sarah from fuming because Rita has one thing that Sarah desperately wants: biological offspring. Sarah wants to bear children, and since she’s been told that her abortion scars are the reason she can’t carry a child, she wants all women everywhere to suffer the exact same consequences that she does for the specific act of getting an abortion. Here again, Sarah’s reasoning is flawed.
God is a huge Fan of variety, and He weaves variation into everything He makes and does. Being unable to bear children is not the only negative effect God has come up with for abortions. He causes that one act to have a wide variety of different consequences. Some people have terrible nightmares, others have flashbacks, others have health complications that are not related to fertility. And still others—like Rita—simply don’t have any problems that are directly linked to her history of abortion. You see, Sarah wants God to abide by a very simplistic pattern of behavior which He’s never going to do. If twenty women all get abortions, God will ensure that it affects each individual in a different way. We can say the same for any situation. Sixty men drink alcohol, but only some become alcoholics, only some end up with liver poisoning, only some destroy their families with their drunken rages, and others simply don’t get ensnared at all.
In real life, there is variation everywhere we look. Not only does God cause the same choices to result in different initial consequences, but He then goes on to vary the secondary consequences as well. Let’s take our sixty men who drink alcohol, and focus on the six who became raging alcoholics who go home and beat their wives and kids. Then what? Do they all end up divorced, hated, and alone? Not hardly. Some end up spiraling ever downward but others turn around and make full recoveries.
Why is it that 100 men can cheat on their wives and only some will be written off forever while others will be offered reconciliation and still others will go on to have an even better marriage than they had before they were unfaithful? How come 40 women can work as prostitutes and only some of them end up dying of sexually transmitted diseases while others do not? Who is causing some murderers, thieves, and liars to never get caught while others get the book thrown at them? We need only look around at what is actually happening in this world to realize that things are never going to be as simplistic as we want them to be when we’re caught up in the throes of jealousy. Raymond spends years planning how he can poison his wife and he never gets caught. But when Everett murders his wife using the same method, he ends up getting executed. Is it fair? No. Fair implies no mercy, no grace—just a strict adherence to the rules. But God is a loving, generous Being who delights in being merciful and gracious, and so often when we’re complaining about His judgments, we’re complaining about displays of His love, grace, and mercy in action. What kind of sense does it make for us to gripe against the qualities of God that make things like salvation and forgiveness possible? Where would any of us be if our Maker wasn’t the sort of Being who delights in being kind to His creatures?
UNIQUE PLANS FOR UNIQUE CREATURES
Let’s go back to Sarah and Rita. Why hasn’t God given Rita the same health problems He’s given Sarah? Because Rita isn’t Sarah. God has two different plans for these women. We humans are not like cookies on a baking sheet which are all made to come out the same. We’re each unique, and God deals with us each as individuals. While Sarah is fixated on the fact that Rita got abortions, God is not. God sees Rita as the complex person that she is. When He looks at Rita, He doesn’t just see a woman who got three abortions. He sees a soul who He has created for the purpose of growing closer to Him. The consequences that God is and isn’t putting into Rita’s life are all part of His plan to steer her down roads that will be best for her soul in the longterm. The same is true for Sarah. While Sarah is viewing her scars as evidence that God is holding some angry grudge towards her, this isn’t the case at all. God’s plans for Sarah do not involve her having biological children, so He has created consequences in her life which have permanently closed the door to a road that He does not want her to go down. It’s not about punishment, it’s about being guided. God has wonderful plans for Sarah, just as He does for Rita—but they are different plans that will unfold in different ways. God doesn’t view one set of plans as better than another—they are just different the way that the colors blue and green are different. Blue looks good in the sky, but green looks best on trees. The sky isn’t better than trees, and trees aren’t better than the sky. Both elements are wonderful in their own way.
It’s when we oversimplify God’s view of us that we slip into a clone mentality which causes us to feel that the same actions should always result in the same consequences. But no, they really shouldn’t. This is God’s creation, not ours, and He insists on having a ton of variation. So while you do A and get B, another fellow will do A and get C, someone else will do A and get D, and so on. This is how God likes it, so when we demand that He stop being so variable, we are making a request that He’ll never say “yes” to.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF SIN
Now God has a general moral code, and general laws, such as “treat others the way you’d want to be treated.” Since no one wants to be punched in the nose, we are correct to say that Jose did “wrong” when he punched Lee in the nose. Jose’s actions clearly violate God’s general moral code, but this simply isn’t the big deal that we often make it out to be.
In church, when preachers talk about sin, they are usually talking about violations of God’s general moral code. Once you’ve had this very narrow definition of sin hammered into your brain enough times, you start to think it’s the only definition that counts. But it’s not.
Christians use the term sin to refer to different categories of actions. Sometimes they use the term to refer to visible behaviors, other times to internal desires or thoughts. The least popular usage of sin among Christians is the most important one to God, and that is when we use sin to refer to spiritual rebellion.
Spiritual rebellion is when your soul gets defiant with God. Just as you can’t argue with a human who you’ve never met, your soul cannot give God a bunch of attitude until God initiates a conversation. Being the variety loving Being that He is, God introduces Himself to each of us at different times. This means that the fact that you know who God is does not mean you can assume someone else does as well. You telling someone about Jesus accomplishes nothing unless Jesus Himself chooses to confirm who He is to the soul of the person you’re talking to. If Jesus chooses not to do this—which is often the case when Christians are witnessing—then your words will just come across as meaningless noise (see Witnessing Realities: Why Your Testimony Is Irrelevant).
Spiritual rebellion is a response to specific convictions from God. A man can steal, for example, without being guilty of spiritual rebellion. Even if that man lives in a society which says stealing is wrong and he intentionally breaks that law, he is still not guilty of spiritual rebellion because in his mind, he is only defying other humans, not God Himself. For the man’s stealing to have the chance to become an act of spiritual rebellion, God would first need to convict the man’s soul that God does not want him to steal things. Human pastors are not God, so listening to a sermon about stealing is not the same as having God personally convict you that stealing is wrong. Now let’s say our man steals 20 things without ever receiving convictions from God. But as he’s planning his 21st heist, God speaks to the man’s soul and tells him not to steal. The man is now forced to respond to God. He can either respect God’s opinion, or tell God to stuff it. Let’s say our man tells God to stuff it. He is now in a state of spiritual rebellion. He’ll remain there until he decides to change his rotten soul attitude. He hasn’t even stolen his 21st thing yet, but he’s already in trouble with God because of his attitude. You see, soul attitudes are always more important to God than actions. Why you do what you do is far more important than what you actually do.
Because our feisty thief is giving God a bunch of attitude, perhaps God will decide to have him get caught on his 21st heist in order to motivate him to repent out of his bad attitude. Or perhaps God will have him not get caught because God wants to work with the man outside of a jail cell. The point is that God has a specific agenda for the man—an agenda which He is not going to share with you—and His specific agenda may best be served by having the man get caught, or having the man not get caught. As an outside observer, you know nothing of what is going on between the man’s soul and God. When they see someone steal, many Christians leap to the assumption that the thief understands he is breaking God’s moral code. Well, no, this is not necessarily the case. The thief might only think he’s breaking the laws of humans, which is a very different scenario.
HOW WE JUDGE vs. HOW GOD JUDGES
Now when we are personally guilty of spiritual rebellion, we tend to project our same motivations onto others. Joan knew God was telling her not to cheat on her husband, but she did it anyway. Now whenever Joan sees another woman cheating, she assumes that woman has the same rotten soul attitudes Joan had when she had her affairs. Joan then wants God to come down hard on those other women—to punish them for a sin that Joan has decided they are guilty of. And yet what does God do? He judges each woman individually, and unlike Joan, He considers the whole complicated mess that is each life. While Joan isolates one specific behavior and acts like that behavior makes each woman worthy of being condemned, God isn’t using Joan’s very biased and vicious system.
When we don’t personally struggle in an area, we tend to want God to be merciless towards those who do. It took a modest amount of effort for Mason to remain a virgin before he was married, but he was able to do it because God empowered him. Instead of recognizing that it was God—not his glorious self—who kept himself from succumbing to temptation, Mason is looking down his nose at men who are failing in the virginity department. He then gets really angry when God allows men who have been sexually promiscuous to find godly wives and establish good marriages. Mason thinks only virgins like himself are worthy of such blessings. But what does God say? God judges each man individually. Unlike Mason, God takes into consideration the complex mess that is each life. God also understands that He doesn’t distribute resources evenly. To Mason, God gave a good birth family, strong self-esteem, and supportive Christian friends who encouraged him to hold the line. But God put Joe down in a home with an abusive father and an absent mother. When Joe then becomes a sex addict who craves female affirmation, God understands that adult Joe is trying to find the motherly love he never had as a child. God does not expect Joe to live up to the same standards that Mason has. God understands that sex means very different things to these two men. For Mason, refraining from sex was a very doable thing, which is why God convicted him strongly to do so. But for Joe, abstaining from sex was impossible which is why God has not made this a priority in His relationship with Joe. It is Mason who is on Joe’s case for his past sexual activity. God is not on Joe’s case at all, because God knows that Joe has not spent his life romping in sheets just to spit in God’s face. God sees that Joe really wants to please Him, and when God has convicted Joe in other areas of Joe’s life, Joe has responded with the right soul attitudes. Because God was intentionally withholding the resources Joe needed to remain a virgin, He didn’t require this of Joe. He only required it of Mason, who He knew had the resources he needed to obey. See how it works? These issues are far more complicated than we think they are when we’re getting all miffed about how God is operating. Comparison always starts with us totally oversimplifying the situation, and that leads to us making very wrong assumptions and casting very wrong judgments.
INDIVIDUALS, NOT CLONES
Once we understand that God has a unique plan for each of us, and once we realize that He educates and matures us all in different orders, we can see that we’re really wasting our energy getting all upset about what someone else is doing. Because God loves variety, He treats us all differently. To Him, there are a billion ways for Him to accomplish the same goal. In your life, God chooses what specific way He wants to deal with you. This isn’t a group decision—it’s His decision. When you do something, He decides what kinds of consequences your actions will have both in your life and in the lives of others.
Now God has invented many general cause-and-effect patterns—what we think of as the “laws of the universe.” Generally speaking, premarital sex will damage a romantic relationship and cause both partners to start viewing each other in a negative light. The more sex happens, the more cumulative this effect becomes until the relationship tanks. This is the natural order of things—it is a pattern that God invented purely out of His own desire to do so. But for every pattern God sets up, He creates countless exception scenarios. We began this post with the story of two couples who had premarital sex. In the case of Sam and Wendy, God had the natural order of things kick in and their relationship was ruined by their sexual activity. But because God wanted Bill and Amy to progress to marriage, He protected them from experiencing the consequences that their behavior would normally have. It’s not a result of favoritism, it’s a result of God unfolding different plans in different lives.
In the case of teenage Rick, we have a young man who has a history of respecting God and obeying His convictions. So when Rick decides to give spiritual rebellion a serious try, God comes down hard to keep Rick on the right path. It’s not about God being unfair, it’s about God loving Rick and pushing him to stay on the wise path. Meanwhile, Rick’s crime loving friend Nate is in an entirely different place with God. Nate is just starting out in his relationship with God and he’s got many issues that God wants to work on before God even begins to help Nate rein in his life of crime. So while God is working with Nate on other issues, God is shielding Nate from getting caught by the police. It’s not a case of God giving Nate a free pass to sin, it’s a case of God having different priorities for Nate than He does for Rick. God gets to choose whatever priorities suit Him, and it’s really not our place to come along and criticize His decisions. God’s priorities for someone else really don’t have bumpkus to do with your own walk with Him. In your life, what matters is that you keep in step with God’s unique plan for you.
Dr. Paula, our humiliated surgeon, is in a similar position as Rick. Defying God isn’t something she’s made a habit of and God comes down on her hard to discourage her from progressing down the road of spiritual rebellion. God is looking at the big picture, not just the present. He is steering Rick and Paula away from life paths that could lead to eternal misery. This isn’t God being mean, it’s Him demonstrating His personal love for these two souls. He is encouraging them to thrive, not wither, and He’s using negative consequences to help them make wise choices.
If we had all the facts in any scenario, we would view God’s actions very differently. We would see how positive His motivations are, and we’d see all of the harm, hurt, and tears He is steering us away from by doling out just the right consequences at just the right time. It is understanding God’s attitude towards us and realizing how much wiser He is that causes us to release all that He takes away and to embrace all that He brings.
God starts off being for us, and it takes a lot of intentional rebellion on our part for Him to decide to be permanently against us. If you’re currently caught in the grip of envy and comparison, ask God to help you narrow your focus onto your own walk with Him so that you’ll stop being distracted by what anyone else is doing. At the end of the day, all that matters is what’s going on between your soul and God. The experiences He leads you through in this life can all end up drawing you closer to Him if you are willing to apply yourself to learning the lessons He wants you to learn instead of wasting time trying to figure out what He’s teaching other people. As a general rule, God isn’t going to share His plans for other people with you, because they are irrelevant. All that matters is what’s going on between your soul and God. You’re either moving forward and cooperating with Him, or you’re resisting and stagnating. Choose forward motion, and you’ll end up so engrossed in your own relationship with God that you won’t have time to worry about anything else.
Understanding Conviction: Invitations to Engage
Understanding Divine Judgment: Illumination, Empowerment & A God Who Delights In Mercy
Help for Stressing Christians: Is God punishing you?
Understanding Divine Judgment: How God Ranks Sin