Pious excuses for unbelief
In Isaiah 7, God sends Isaiah to speak to Ahaz, the king of Judah, about the looming threat of an attack by the combined forces of Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel. God's promise: "Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah." God continues, "Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven." Ahaz's reply may strike us as pious and respectful: "I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test," and so we may be surprised when Isaiah comes back with, "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?"
What exactly was wrong with what Ahaz said? Isn't it commendable that he doesn't need a sign and that he refuses to put God to the test? But the problem isn't so much what he said as what he meant in his heart. Ahaz refuses the sign not because he already has faith in God's word, but because he has already decided not to trust God, and he doesn't want God to inconveniently impose himself in a way that would be impossible to ignore. We see his scheme play out in the history of 2 Kings 16. Rather than trusting God's promise, Ahaz bribes the king of Assyria (using gold and silver from the temple) to come and attack Syria and Israel. It works for the short term, but in the next generation Assyria predictably turns its sights on Judah and advances all the way to the gates of Jerusalem before God rewards King Hezekiah's faith by defeating them there.
Although Ahaz dressed up his unbelief in pious language that can fool those who only look on the surface, God's prophet sees right through the deception and deals with the underlying stubbornness. His example is one we all need to learn from. Almost no one will tell you that although they know God they refuse to give him honor and thanks because they hate the idea of submitting to their creator (Rom 1:21). Unbelief prefers to come up with plausible excuses to hide the reality both from others and from the unbeliever himself. The atheist may say that he is ready to believe in God if only someone could show him some evidence, but the christian who takes up this challenge is likely to find that anything supernatural has been ruled out from the start, so that his atheist friend is perfectly safe from ever finding the evidence he demands.
Recently when Chelsea and I were out to dinner and our waiter found out that I was a theology student, his response was along the lines of "That's great - I don't believe in God, but I don't criticize - whatever's good for you." The goal of course was to present himself as very tolerant which plays well in our current society. Under the surface however, the soul that knows God and desperately desires not to meet him is playing an angle. As long as he can shift belief in God from the realm of the objectively true or false into the domain of the subjectively helpful or unhelpful, he can shield himself from any consideration of the question. Belief in God is all well and good for people who need that, and since he doesn't need it (so he thinks) there's no need to worry about it.
Of course not every question or objection we may encounter is a smoke-screen. People will pose honest questions that deserve honest answers. Like Isaiah, we need have the discernment to perceive where the heart of the matter lies, so that we can press the claims of Christ both gently and effectively. Let the devil lie and scheme as he wishes, our calling is to cut through the darkness by simply telling the truth.
But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
-2 Cor 4:2
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