I recently spent the evening with the chaplain of the Chicago Bears, Ray McElroy. He told this autobiographical story. There were two boys, I think ages 6 and 8, who were the trouble of the town. If anything went wrong in the neighborhood, everyone knew who must have done it: one (or both) of these two boys. They got into a ton of trouble, to the point that their mom was exasperated. She didn’t know what to do. So, she decided to bring them to church so that the senior pastor could talk some sense into them.
She started with the six year old. There the little guy was, sitting the senior pastor’s office, all by himself. The senior pastor, who was a big guy, met eyes with this little trouble maker. The pastor, with cringed brow and an ominous voice, said to the boy, “Son, where is God?” The boy was so afraid that he didn’t answer. The pastor straightened up in his chair, as the boy slunk lower in his, and repeated, “Young man, where is God?” The six year old was really afraid now. He was eyeing the door. The senior pastor stood up on his feet behind his desk and said forcefully to the boy, “I said, Where is God?”
At this, the boy jumped out of his chair, scurried out of the office, ran out of the church, headed down the street, into his home, up the stairs, and plunged into his bedroom closet. He shut the closet door. His older brother heard him run in, so he went to his brother’s closet and knocked. He asked, “Tell me, what happened? What did he do to you?” The six year old cracked open the closet door and fearfully whispered, “Oh, brother, we really did it now! We are in a load of trouble! God is missing, and they think we did it!”
Where is God? Funny stories aside, God’s people often ask the same question. In the book of 1 Samuel, God’s people were reeling with the same question and confusion. God didn’t make sense to them. Can you relate? In 1 Samuel 4, Israel fought against their enemy, the Philistines, and lost 4,000 men. Israel concludes that the loss was due to the fact that they did not bring the ark of the Lord into battle. So, they procured the ark of the Lord and carted it into battle with them. Maybe having “God” with them will guarantee a victory. However, they ended up losing 30,000 men in battle! On top of that, they lost the ark of the Lord, too!
When the ark was in “exile” with the Philistines, it began to do amazing things on its own. We learn in 1 Samuel 5 that the ark defeated the Philistines and their god, Dagon (whom he decapitated and mutilated). All by itself, without the help of the army of Israel, the ark of the Lord defeated the Philistines, doing what Israel could not do. The Philistines were so overwhelmed by the unaided power of the ark, that they sent it away on an ox cart, back to Israel (1 Samuel 6). Upon arrival, the Israelites were so overjoyed to see the ark, that they rushed out to greet it. However, 70 of them—God’s chosen people—looked directly at the ark, and God struck them dead on the spot. Really, that’s what God did.
Where is God? After reading these chapters, we’re to understand that God is wherever he wants to be, doing whatever he wants to be doing. God cannot be manipulated by us. He is not under our control, to cart out into our battles, whenever we feel like it. He cannot be tamed or domesticated by us. He gives life and can take away life, whenever he feels like it. He does not owe us any explanations, much like the king does not owe the smallest mouse in the poorest peasant’s home an explanation for his decisions in his kingdom. We are made in God’s image and God will not be remade into humankind’s image.
Once we understand this, we are prepared for the jaw-dropping reality described in 1 Samuel 7. Though God cannot be controlled by us and will never be controlled by us, he does put himself within our reach. He is just a turn away.
The quickest way between two points is a straight line. The quickest way between you and God is 180 degrees.
The uncontrollable, omnipotent God of the Bible, has put himself within our reach. We just need to turn around to find him. This is the great biblical doctrine of repentance. In order to find God, turn away from the course that leads away from God, and turn to God. To repent is to turn away from sin and to turn toward God.
Repentance is a form of grace, for through repentance, we fall into the embrace of a God who can save us. As Samuel said to the Israelites, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 7:3).
C. S. Lewis wrote (Mere Christianity) that if a man is on a road that’s taking him in the wrong direction, then the way to move forward is to turn around and go the other way, so that he can get on the right road. The most progressive person is the one who turns around in order to move ahead. The quicker you can turn around, the more forward you’ll go.
Where is God? Turn around and you’ll find him. To move you to repentance, consider the suffering love of Christ. Few can stand unmoved when they learn about the One who loved us until his last breath. Turn around and fall into his loving arms.
© Samuel Kee, 2012