I had another tough question come in from a friend and spent some time turning it over this morning. I figure if he’s asking, the answer might be useful to someone else too, so to you, dear reader, I offer my response as well:
Your question was, “Can you explain ‘He gives and takes away?’ Since God doesn’t punish, what might he take away?”
That’s a heavy question. It hits a lot of people on a very personal level. It’s also not one that I can give a short, pithy answer to. Although I’m not sure I’ve ever given a short, pithy answer to a theological question. They’re usually wrong.
So, rather than give an answer, I’ll share a bit of thought process.
First, there’s an assumption in the question that God doesn’t punish. There are definitely times in the Bible that God does actively punish, although it’s usually on a national level rather than an individual level. There are some times that God does actively give or bless people in scripture. Let’s hold that in an open hand for a minute.
Second, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away,” is from Job 1:21. The context of Job is a drama that teaches Jewish people how to respond to struggle and pain. As Job says this, he’s just had three servants come and tell him that he’s lost everything he owns and his family is dead. Job’s response is to acknowledge that he didn’t come into the world with anything, he won’t leave with anything, and God is sovereign over all. He’s saying, “It wasn’t really mine anyway.” This is true. When he says that God took it away, though, he’s wrong. According to the narrative he’s not aware of (irony), Satan took it away with God’s permission as a test – some sort of celestial bet, although God gives permission. So within the immediate context, the statement, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away,” was wrong, and basing theology off of it is dangerous – as dangerous as basing theology off his friends’ statements that what was happening was his fault and God was punishing him (which was still a very common belief in Jesus’ time).
Third, people want to reduce theology to the simplest possible, most easily digestible form. They want black and white; always and never. What we see in the whole of scripture, though, is “sometimes.” For those who want consistency and certainty, it’s easiest to say “consistently, certainly sometimes.” God is God, and he’s allowed that. What we see is that sometimes God does give. Sometimes God does take away. Most of the time, he lets stuff happen and leaves his justice for later.
So the statement he gives and takes away is accurate. Sort of. Sometimes.
The greater truth is in the heart attitude behind it, though. We remember that God is sovereign. Everything that we have, whether given actively or inherently is from him. I tremendously enjoy the air he gave me to breathe this morning. Someday I’m going to stop breathing it. I go. Everything I have goes. God remains. God is greater than me. God is greater than my stuff. The mini-lesson found in the following verse, what the audience is supposed to get, is that even though Job thinks God is actively responsible (he’s not) is: “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”
It’s a statement of peace. It means that whatever our circumstances are, God remains, and we find our worth and being in him. Growing resentful or angry at him for our circumstances is sinful. Worshiping him in the midst of pain is glorifying.
What we should be saying as we echo that statement is that it doesn’t matter who’s fault it is. God is God and God is Good. He doesn’t stop being God in hard times. It’s what Paul echoes in Phillipians 4:11-13 – “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
So maybe it’s God’s fault and maybe it isn’t. Maybe stuff just happened and he didn’t stop it. We still worship, though, because worship isn’t about us and what we have. It’s not transactional. It’s conversational. It’s relational. It’s about who he is and who we are in him.
I hope that answers your question. If not, bug me more. I’m cool with that.
I haven’t been feeling particularly moved to “blog” lately, but if anyone has any honest questions – not “heh-heh what about this” questions with the intent of trying to trip me up, but honest questions seeking answers, head over to the contact page. I’ll be happy to make posts from them and leave your name out of it.