Determining how God is at work in history is one of the hardest theological challenges. People of faith pray for deliverance, trusting God to hold back the waters of the sea or help them elude their enemies pushing them over the border in Myanmar or rid them of the malignancy growing in their bodies. Fervent prayer may not create the conditions for which they pray. Yet, somehow many continue to trust that God’s providence will prevail.
Reading narratives of deliverance in Scripture evoke hope for God’s mighty acts to be victorious once again. Many preachers and Sunday School teachers have been following the lectionary texts from Exodus in this extended season after Pentecost. We have noted the trickery of Shiphrah and Puah, the resistance of Pharaoh’s daughter and Miriam, and God’s call of Moses. We have pondered the extended saga of Israel in Egypt, questioning why deliverance was long delayed.
In these early chapters, the writer declares that God has “heard their groaning,” and “remembered God’s covenant,” “seen the misery of the people,” and has “come down to rescue them from the power of Egypt.” The suffering of the people touches the heart of God, although God leans the plans for deliverance upon humans who are themselves part of the oppressed. Is this the means by which God has come down to rescue?
God’s commission to Moses is for him to go to Pharaoh and “bring my people out of Egypt.” God’s promise is very simple: “I will be with you,” and the proof that it is truly God who sends him is this: “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall all worship God here on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). What? It is only after the liberation is accomplished that Moses will know who propelled him into this high stakes mission?
I often hear persons wonder out loud why God doesn’t work in our day as God worked in biblical times. It appears that God does work in the same way. I believe that God is always calling humanity to do the needed holy work and that God is the power behind the actions of those courageous enough to trust God.
In a world where things can go terribly wrong—such as the human evocation of climate change that wreaks havoc—God is using every means to mend creation. The incarnation of Jesus teaches that God’s primary means of conducting redemptive work is through a partnership with humans who were tasked at the beginning of tending God’s handiwork. A long grinding and luminous history of evolution antedates the human arrival, yet a particular stewardship is required of those whom God has granted dominion.
Kathryn Tanner reminds us that God works in history at a different level than humans. For Tanner, divine and human agency are not in competition with one another. Because God is not in the same order of being as creatures, God’s power is universally extended and is at work in all things. Thus, there is no zero-sum game that suggests the more God is at work, the less humans can do—and vice versa.
In times of challenge, trusting that God is at work empowering humans to work for the good of all is reassuring. It also prompts courageous action.
Molly T. Marshall