According to an old Jewish story, a poor tailor talked to God: “I have committed only minor offenses,” he said, “but You, O Lord, have committed grievous sins. You have taken away babies from their mothers and mothers from their babies. Let’s just call it even. You forgive me, and I’ll forgive You.”
A rabbi, overhearing the prayer, exclaimed, “Why did you let Him off so easily? You might have forced Him to redeem all Israel!”
An unsettling story? Probably so. Most of us learned early in life that “talking back” to our elders—God included—was simply not allowed.
But could it be that with God, exceptions are allowed? I think so, at least if the Bible is our guide. Now the Jewish tailor did carry it a bit far when he offered to forgive God’s “sins.” Yet the Bible reveals a certain honest brashness when human beings confront the great God of the universe.
Unleashing a flood
For example, when God told Abraham that He was pondering the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham recoiled in horror. “What? Destroy the innocent with the guilty?” he demanded. “You can’t do that! You’re the Judge of all the earth!” (Genesis 18:23–25).
And when God threatened to wipe out the stubborn Israelites at Mount Sinai, Moses shot back, “If You do, You’ll ruin Your reputation with the Egyptians!” (Exodus 32:11, 12). And Moses’ final plea—even in the classic King James Version—is as daring as the prayer of the Jewish tailor: “Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people” (verse 12, KJV).1
Another striking example is provided by “patient” Job. He remained unruffled with the adversary’s first attack, saying, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).2 But by chapter 3, he’d had enough. He cursed the day of his birth (verse 1), unleashing a flood of epithets that would make most Christians blush. Later in the book, he complained that God “crushes me with a tempest and multiplies my wounds without a cause; he will not let me get my breath, but fills me with bitterness. . . . Though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse” (Job 9:17–20). Job also complained that God “destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (verse 22).
Even that well-known verse “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15, KJV) is more defiant than the King James Version suggests. One modern version renders it, “See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face.”
Deep inside, my questions . . .
I can sympathize with those who are afraid to talk back to God, for though I was never tempted to snip out the livelier parts of Job, I did grow up with a deep respect for God—a respect reinforced by certain biblical stories that drilled home the dangers of getting too bold with Him. Just for touching the ark of the covenant, for example, Uzzah was stricken dead on the spot (2 Samuel 6:6, 7). And when a bunch of youngsters jeered at Elisha the prophet, making fun of his bald head, a couple of bears charged out of the woods and mauled 42 of them (2 Kings 2:23–25).
As a result of these two stories in particular, I had a cautious—and impoverished—prayer life. I pasted a smile on my face, assuring the Lord that all was well. But deep inside, my questions were begging for answers. It would be many years before I discovered that God’s friends could be blunt with Him—and live to tell the tale.
But why are some of us so reluctant to tell it like it is and others so bold? I suspect that the answer lies partly in our upbringing and partly in our body chemistry. Many cultures of the world reinforce the notion that those in charge are always right. Authorities are to be obeyed, not questioned.
I experienced that authoritarian tendency in a painful way at the seminary when I took a class from a professor who was always right—even when he was wrong. On one occasion he gave a test, but he graded it inconsistently. On my test, for example, several of my right answers were marked as incorrect, even though others in the class with the same answers as mine went unscathed.
Taking my paper to the professor in private, I assumed justice would come easily. Surprise! He felt affronted by my visit and refused to reconsider!
Undaunted, I asked a couple of my classmates for permission to use their tests (with their names carefully removed) as proof. They agreed. But such evidence simply raised his ire further. Now he insisted that the matter be taken up with the seminary dean. I was delighted. After all, the evidence was beyond denial.
Surprise again! The dean was also unmoved. And when the grades appeared, mine was a notch below those of my two colleagues whose tests I had borrowed and whose answers were the same as mine.
In spite of the bad grade and the frustration of the whole scenario, I did learn an important lesson: it isn’t enough for an authority figure to be right. Justice can be effective only when it is recognized as justice by those involved.
“I never talk back to God”
As for God, I’m convinced that He’s always right—and, ultimately, He’ll be seen to be right. That’s the consistent testimony of the Bible. In the meantime, however, from a human perspective, God’s rulership of the world sometimes seems very much in the wrong. To all appearances, this world is in a mess. And since it’s the Christian’s responsibility to defend God’s reputation—we are, after all, His witnesses—we must cry out, “Lord, can’t You do better than that?”
My experience with God has been deeply enriched by the discovery that I can be open with Him. But as I’ve observed people more closely, I’ve discovered that not everyone feels as liberated as I do by the idea that they can be blunt with God.
Being increasingly intrigued with some of the differences I was observing in people, I decided to check out some of my hunches during a seminar I was conducting with a group of adult Christians. After one of my presentations, I distributed slips of paper to those present and gave them a multiple-choice quiz; stressing that no one answer was correct. I simply wanted them to express their feelings and convictions. I asked just one question: “How do you feel about talking back to God?” They could choose from any of the five possible answers:
- I never talk back to God. I accept everything that happens as His will.
- I sometimes feel like talking back to God but choose not to on principle.
- I sometimes feel like talking back to God, but I don’t because I’m afraid.
- I do talk back to God sometimes, but when I do, my conscience bothers me.
- I talk back to God, and my conscience doesn’t bother me a bit.
I found the results intriguing. Of those who responded, 26 percent (74 people) picked number 1. They said they never talk back to God. The response for number 4 was exactly the same as those for number 1 (74 people, 26 percent): they did sometimes talk back to God. Twenty-six percent (also 74 people) said they talk back without any qualms of conscience. Finally, 21 percent marked either 2 or 3—they feel like talking back to God but don’t either because they believe it’s wrong on principle (17 percent) or because they’re afraid to do so (4 percent).
I placed myself in either 4 or 5. I talk back to God, but I’m not sure whether my conscience bothers me a lot—sometimes I think it should. In any event, I know myself to be a convert from number 2 because for a long time, I had questions begging for answers, but I felt afraid to bring them to God’s attention.
So, can you talk back to God? You may not need to. But be gentle with those who must. In our troubled world, many are searching for the friendly face of God. For them, the heavens are as brass. They cry aloud, but no one seems to answer. If that is your experience, there’s a prayer in the Bible that could transform your life. It was Jesus’ prayer on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
But this wasn’t just Jesus’ prayer. It was David’s prayer too (Psalm 22:1). And it can be your prayer. If somehow you could find the courage to utter those words, it just might be your first step back to God. For then you would have told Him that you know He’s there, and you’ve asked Him for help.
And that’s a prayer He loves to answer!
Alden Thompson is a professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington, USA, where he has taught for 49 years. He lives in College Place.
1. Bible verses marked KJV are from the King James Version.
2. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture texts are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.