Michelle: “Hello Pastor John, I’m a 25 year old avid listener of the podcast from New Zealand. I work at a University and often have conversations with academics and University staff alike, who are all mostly older than I am. By God’s grace, I would sometimes have the boldness and courage to speak with them about Christ and challenge their unbelief. The normal accusation against God that would be posed to me would go something like this: ‘God owes us because he made us.’
“To elaborate, they would say things like, ‘If I can be a good father to my child and forgive him when he rebels against me, then why can’t God do that for us? He made us after all,’ or ‘God must bless us because he made us,’ and ‘Why all the mystery? God owes us the explanation to all this, because he made us.’ Now, I believe that God doesn’t owe us anything, but in fact, we owe him everything. However, can you please help me explain this better to my non-believing colleagues?”
Let me try to answer Michelle in three different kinds of steps.
“Don’t be surprised that high-level academics will be among the most blind people in the world.”
1. First, for her own encouragement and stability, it would be good, perhaps, to remember the words of Jesus, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Matthew 11:25). In other words, Jesus tells us not to be surprised that high-level academics will be among the most blind people in the world. The apostle Paul warned about the very same thing when he said, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20). Paul gives the reason why God reveals these things to those without any worldly credentials like this: “So that no human being might boast in the presence of God. . . . Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:29, 31).
In other words, the underlying problem is pride and self-exaltation and a deep desire not to find our significance and satisfaction in God’s greatness, but rather in our own. That’s the first thing I would say to Michelle. I don’t think that means, however, that we should give up on proud academic types any more than our kind of pride should be given up on.
2. Here’s the second thing to say. Paul did give an answer to the question of why God doesn’t owe us, but rather we owe him. He said it in two ways, in fact. In Romans 11:34–36, he said, “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
In other words, none of us could ever give counsel to God, since he knows everything. And all our knowledge is dependent on his, so we can never put him in our debt by offering him any counsel that he doesn’t already know. In fact, Paul says we have never given anything to God that would put him in our debt as one who should pay us back, because everything is his already. Instead, he says in verse 36, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” In other words, since all things come from God, and are sustained through God, they exist to call attention to his glory, not our glory. That’s the root issue of proud people. They don’t like everything existing for God’s glory. They want some ground of boasting in themselves. That’s the first way Paul says it in Romans 11:34–36.
“God doesn’t owe us. We owe him. Everything is his already.”
Here’s the second way he says it in Romans 9:20–21. He says that God is like a potter, and we’re like pots. And then he says, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder” — pot to the potter — “‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay” — right there is the key issue — “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” In other words, creation has no right to tell the Creator how he should have done his work, or how he should run his work. I think Michelle should make that point, which she does, I think, and then let it stand. If people reverse it and say that the creature has natural rights to dictate to the Creator, that mistake is going to be exposed sooner or later.
3. Here’s the last thing, the third thing, that I think just might open a window or door with the people that Michelle is working with. Jesus told a parable in Matthew 18:21–35 about a servant who owed the king a million dollars — actually millions and millions, just off the charts, zillions of dollars. The king canceled the debt for this servant, and when the servant went out, he showed that his mind-set had not been humbled to the point where he believed he really was a debtor to mercy.
Instead, he acted like he deserved to be forgiven, so he choked his fellow servant who owed him ten dollars, and tried to make him pay. I think that parable is very relevant to Michelle’s question. Doesn’t it teach that when we have the mind-set that thinks God owes us forgiveness, doesn’t that mind-set of you owe me naturally lead to an arrogant abuse of other people? Not just God, but other people, and that’s what might cause her colleagues to sit up and take note.
“Our underlying problem is a deep desire not to find our satisfaction in God’s greatness, but our own.”
The mind-set of being owed — you owe me, God! — is the essence of pride, and that leads to the destruction of others. You can see it in history, but the mind-set of owing God everything, being a debtor to mercy, expecting nothing because of our merits but only freely in mercy, and deserving nothing good from God at all, that leads to a life of brokenhearted humility and service. Paul put it just that way. He said, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). If you are treated better than you deserve, then you have the mind-set to treat others better than they deserve.
So, maybe that might give a breakthrough to Michelle’s friends and help them see that it is a good and beautiful thing to humble ourselves as debters to mercy, rather than demanding of others, including God, that they owe us.