By Larry Short
If you would have asked me that question a year ago, I think I would have had a much different reaction. “Respect us?” I would have asked, perhaps scratching my chin thoughtfully. “Wow, I don’t know. I guess He respects our right to make decisions for ourselves. But how could He REALLY respect us? After all, He is God, and we are not. We are utterly depraved, He is utterly holy. What’s to respect?”
I might have even secretly wondered if the question itself was a bit blasphemous!
But two things I have studied in the Word recently have caused me to drastically change my perspective on this question. And the implications of what I have learned have both frightened me and given me a new and profound respect for our Creator. I hope I can share these impacts with you here.
Job, God, and Satan
Several months ago, the Young Adults Ministry finished up a very interesting study in Job. I confessed to them that there was something about this story that had always bothered me … and that is the apparently unfettered access Satan has to the throne of God.
And more than that, the apparent respect with which God treats Satan in the story! In Job 1 He asks Satan two questions as if He really cares about the answer (and, by extension, cares about, respects, perhaps even loves Satan himself): “Where have you come from?” and “Have you considered My servant Job?” He listens patiently to Satan’s answers, then tells him: “Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” He speaks with authority … and respect. To the devil!
This has always troubled me deeply. God abhors evil, right? And no single created being more fully represents evil than Satan himself. If I were God and saw Satan hanging with the angels in Heaven, I think I would throw a major thunderbolt and watch him plunge in smoking flames! I certainly wouldn’t ask respectful questions, listen patiently for the answer, and then give him (nearly) free reign to torment the man Scripture says was the most righteous person on the planet at the time! What on earth (and in heaven) is going on here, anyway?
Jesus and Judas
Recently I was reading the New Testament and was struck by this verse, right between the eyes. I realized quickly how similar the situation (or, at least my reaction to it) was to the God and Satan story in Job 1. This is from John 6, shortly after Jesus has given a difficult teaching about being the Bread of Life. Verse 66 says that “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” as a result, and He asked the 12, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”
Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” But Jesus replies, in verse 70: “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” And John offers this footnote: He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.
And that’s when it hit me: Long before Judas actually betrayed Jesus, Jesus knew he was going to betray Him! How long? I asked myself. And I realized there really only was one answer: For as long as Jesus knew Judas, even before the day He selected this scumbag to be one of the 12, He knew.
If you and I were in Jesus’ shoes, extending the honor of apostleship to 12 individuals who agreed to follow us, and knew that one of them would ultimately stab us in the back … would we do it? Not me, no way! How could I work shoulder to shoulder with that person, day after day, in my most intimate and troubled moments, and look him in the eye, knowing that? I have a hard enough time just tolerating the coworkers in the cubicles around me when they talk too loud on the phone!
The enormity of the chasm between me and God
It was at this very moment that I realized anew the terribly vast gulf that separates me from God. God truly loves even His most vicious enemies. That love is demonstrated in respect. The One who told us, “Love your enemies” treated Judas no differently than He treated all the other disciples, even though He knew of the pain and destruction that would come from Judas’ choices. And God created Satan, knowing full well that he would become the devil. Scripture teaches that Lucifer was the highest of God’s creations. It seems to be in God’s nature to give His creatures, whom He endowed with free choice, a wide latitude to make decisions even if those decisions are bad and harmful.
Why is the need to show such respect for people’s freedom of choice so difficult for me? I think the real reason is that it is much easier for me to hate people than it is for me to hate evil. For God, the very opposite is true. And with that realization, you see how enormous the chasm between me and God truly is.
The implications of profound respect
So, does God respect me? Absolutely He does, more than I ever realized before or probably ever could realize. I am His precious creation, just as Judas was. His love for me is infinite, and this infinite love manifests itself in respect.
So, what is the practical implication of this respect? When you truly respect someone, you give them complete freedom to live in accordance with their own choices. They are an independent entity. They can choose to accept you, to love you in return, or they can choose to reject you. You certainly don’t “weight” things by coercing or forcing them to do one or the other.
I’ve heard it said that God is ultimately pro-choice, and I realize now what that means. He respects our freedom to choose to such a great extent that He will even allow us to make life miserable for others (as Satan did for Job). In fact, one of the most heinous evils I can think of is a person who would hurt, or even kill, an innocent child (born or unborn). It’s hard not to wonder, Why does God allow that? Why doesn’t He stop the person who commits such terrible atrocities? Why did God create Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin or Osama Bin Laden? I think the answer relates to respect. Each of those has the freedom to choose, and that freedom entails the power to choose to hurt others.
So, ultimately, what will come of this freedom? I think the final story will be very sobering, but also very good news, depending on how you look at it: Ultimately, there is justice! As we choose an evil path, Scripture says we are hardened in that path, and that hardening ultimately results in separation from God. The evildoer will not always have the power to hurt others with his evil. In God’s good timing, in this life or the next, there will be justice. A lake of fire is coming for Satan and his angels. People ask: “How could a loving God create Hell?” The answer is, Hell is the only logical possibility when you couple our freedom to choose evil, with the fact of God’s ultimate love and respect for us and our choices.
That hardening and condemnation is bad news for the person who chooses it. But the one who will choose life, who will choose God, who will choose the good, God will also confirm on that path of choice. We will be softened to God and the journey will lead us away from injustice, away from the pain wrought by evil, toward willful submission and obedience, and ultimately to Heaven. To borrow C.S. Lewis’ terminology, that is the “great divorce” that is coming, the separation of evil from righteousness, Heaven from Hell. History is the process of God using His winnowing fork to work out the balance between absolute love and absolute freedom of choice.
On which side of His winnowing fork will you fall? God’s respect for you means that you alone, in all of Creation, can choose the answer to that question.