God’s Obnoxious Friends
Every one of us, I’m sure, has a friend we wish we didn’t have. You know the sort: the obnoxious friend, the really colossal copper-plated bore, the one-subject expert, the incessant autobiographer, the crackpot inventor. The variations on this sort of friend are endless, but our response is always the same. Patiently, with gritted teeth, we jolly them along, try to exhibit signs that it’s late and it’s time for them to go, and privately hope the moon goes through a few phases before they’re seen again.
But we don’t drop them either, do we? The reasons are as endless as the variations: maybe we’ve known them since first grade, and someone you’ve known that long just can’t be shunted off. Maybe they’re friends of our parents, or even relatives, and we feel the burden of being family. Maybe we’re simply trying to be decent about things and not add one more to the levels of social indecency with which the world is already filled. We shuffle along with them, feeling resigned, feeling taken advantage of, and above all feeling provoked. Provoked, because no matter how decent we try to be, we can’t escape the feeling that we are being put upon—that someone is presuming more about our good feeling toward them, or more about their importance to the universe, or more upon auld lang syne, than they have any right to. Faith, hope, and love are the three great things that abide, but they don’t wear nearly as well when they are taken for granted.
I am sure that when the devil pursued Jesus into the wilderness (Matt. 4:3), he did not do it out of any motives that come near to faith or hope or love, but out of fear. From the day Jesus was born, and probably even for a long time before that, this once-mighty angel had seen in Jesus nothing but a monumental threat to what he regarded as his own sphere of influence, which was “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (Matt. 4:8). He responded to that threat by recruiting a number of hard-eyed proxies to do the work of snuffing out this threat for him, starting with Herod the king. When the proxies failed, it was up to the devil to get on with it himself. So once Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan—the surefire sign that the ball was now in play—the devil tracked him into the wilderness and got down to the business of personally tempting Jesus away from his identity and mission.
Characteristically, though, the devil doesn’t actually make the move himself. Instead, he suggests, for the best possible reasons, that Jesus do the job for him. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matt. 3:3). Notice: the devil doesn’t produce loaves with a little arsenic in them and invite Jesus to eat. That would be much too crude. He suggests that Jesus, as a routine matter of authenticating himself as the Son of God, turn some stones into bread. In other words, if you’ve got the powers, let’s see them.
Except that Jesus’ powers as the Son of God are not conjuring tricks to be shown off like an exhibit at the circus. His powers as the Son of God have but one purpose, and that is to testify to his Father in heaven. The moment Jesus would begin gratuitously doing the devil’s bidding, he would not only be betraying that purpose, but he would also be accrediting the devil’s authority to demand the display. And so Jesus turns the play around: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).
The devil then tries another tack. Standing with Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, he takes Jesus at his word and quotes Scripture to him. “If you are the Son of God . . . throw yourself down. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” And again, Jesus turns aside the invitation: “It is also written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (vv. 5–7). Strike two.
So the devil throws it all on the table, takes Jesus up to “a very high mountain,” and offers him control of everything he sees if he will “bow down and worship” him. This, of course, is the real attack, which Jesus repulses completely: “Away from me, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matt. 4:8–10). It’s then that the devil gives up and goes away, and the angels come and wait on Jesus. If there had been champagne in Jesus’ day, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to hear the angels popping a cork.
Yet there is something peculiar about these responses. Why would it have hurt so much for Jesus to have done what the devil asked? So what if he turned a few stones into bread? Why is that a mistake? Doesn’t Jesus later on turn water into wine and a few loaves and fishes into a banquet? When the devil makes him the offer of the kingdoms, why doesn’t Jesus say what both of them surely knew: “Those kingdoms don’t belong to you, they belong to my Father, and they’re not yours to give away.” Above all, why not take a Superman leap from the temple roof? Can you think of a better way to put the world on notice that you’re not just some wandering rabbi from Nazareth? Why not “put the Lord your God to the test”? Isn’t that what we ought to be doing? Isn’t that what God invites us to do? The prophet Isaiah says, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear” (Isa. 59:1). Isn’t this what God tells the prophet Malachi to do? “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it” (Mal. 3:10). Doesn’t King David say, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4)?
The answer to this is related to my example of the obnoxious friend. I try to make it a rule in my classes, as an encouragement to participation and curiosity, that there is no such thing as a stupid question—until it is asked the second time. I learned that from my ninth-grade algebra teacher, and it’s never been disproved. You welcome a question generated by a real interest in knowledge; you resent a question generated by lack of attention. Just so in this case. The Lord says through Malachi, “Test me . . . and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven” so that you can see and believe. But not if you have already been shown and didn’t pay attention, or want only to be entertained, or think that this somehow makes God your toy whose buttons you can push at any time to get the desired result. Do not, in other words, presume. Because presumption will get you a response wholly and entirely other than the one you so routinely expected. The people of Israel, in the desert, were not offering Moses a demonstration of their faith but of their lack of faith when “they quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’” Moses knew what was really motivating their demand for turning sand into water; they didn’t really believe it could happen, and they wanted this to be the basis for a no-confidence vote in Moses and in God. So he responded: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” (Exod. 17:2). This was such a transparent ploy that hundreds of years later King David was still talking about it in Psalm 78:18–22:
They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed. Can he also give bread or provide meat for his people?” Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; his anger rose against Israel, because they did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power.
But the testing of God is not always as simple to discern as it was in the deserts of Sinai long ago. We do the same thing, although we attach it to different rationales and justifications. We test God—we provoke God—especially in those cases when we take no responsibility for what we ask. There is a pious way of doing this, and it sometimes takes the shape of what we call “stepping out in faith” or “letting go and letting God.” What this usually means is that on great occasions, we have to set aside the usual means of discovery, throw caution a little to the winds, and go ahead in the expectation that God is going to make it right. After all, God is a sovereign God, and if we have understood his will correctly, then we have only to follow him and all will turn out right.
It’s true that in the Christian life we “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7), that many times we have to put aside the evidence of our senses and trust God in some extraordinary ways, like Peter trusting Jesus (Matt. 14) to the point where Peter got out of the boat and, keeping his eyes on Jesus, walked on water. But you’ll remember that Peter didn’t just heave himself out of the boat on his own initiative; he did so because Jesus told him to step out. It’s a different case when we decide, purely on our own, that because we want a certain result, we can throw ourselves at that result without reckoning on the consequences, and then expect that God will come bustling up in a hurry to keep us from hurting ourselves.
I have seen more than I like of churches and Christian people who commit themselves to plans and strategies that were nothing but pure folly—buying a property, making a career choice, dealing with a life-threatening crisis—and then wrapping it in claims to be expecting a miracle or claiming the promise. What is really going on in these cases is an example of people throwing themselves from the roof of the temple and expecting the angels to bear them up. They are not trusting God but testing God. They are not living by faith; they are trying to take God’s faithfulness hostage to their own plans. Far from this praising God, it provokes him. It was always Jesus’ direction to count the cost: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” (Luke 14:28). Those words make the difference between following God and testing him. You’ve heard it often said that there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. There’s also a fine line between prayer and presumption, but it’s the line Jesus is walking here when he says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
And we know what this is like, because all of us have had our patience tested or our good manners deranged by our obnoxious friends—and if you have an obnoxious friend, you know just what I mean. They expect you to bail them out; they expect you to put up with their misbehavior; they expect you to overlook their boorish disregard for your feelings. The problem this poses for our Christian lives, however, is this: How eager are we to be God’s obnoxious friends? How easily do we provoke God by taking no responsibility for what we ask or do and then holding God responsible to fix our follies?
The mercy here is that God is patient even with his obnoxious friends. As much as the obnoxious friend provokes, infuriates, and exasperates us, there is still something that restrains us from just dumping them then and there. In our case, it might be simple niceness or politeness. In God’s case, it’s called grace. Because the truth is that we are all God’s obnoxious friends. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But God does not turn his back on us. In fact, he does more than we could imagine: he sends his Son to redeem us and remake us in his own image; and as we conform ourselves to the image of Jesus Christ, we become less and less like obnoxious friends and more and more like his own family. We learn to walk with God but to let him set the pace. That is when we have truly learned what it is to live by faith and not by sight.
Allen C. Guelzo is senior research scholar in the Council of the Humanities and director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.