Before Men and Angels, part 1
Thoughts from reading the Conflict of the Ages (COTA) series. Join the COTA in a Year reading group on Facebook.
In the opening chapter of the series, Why Was Sin Permitted, the stage for the controversy between good and evil is set. In the face of evil and rebellion, whose origin is mysterious, God does something that is simply baffling and perplexing.
God could employ only such means as were consistent with truth and righteousness. Satan could use what God could not—flattery and deceit. He had sought to falsify the word of God and had misrepresented His plan of government, claiming that God was not just in imposing laws upon the angels; that in requiring submission and obedience from His creatures, He was seeking merely the exaltation of Himself. Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 42.
Satan accuses God of injustice and self-exaltation, and the apparatus of evil is more diverse than the apparatus of goodness. Satan makes claims that falsify God’s word. He makes statements that contradict what God says. As a result:
It was therefore necessary to demonstrate before the inhabitants of heaven, and of all the worlds, that God’s government is just, His law perfect. Satan had made it appear that he himself was seeking to promote the good of the universe. The true character of the usurper and his real object must be understood by all. He must have time to manifest himself by his wicked works. Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 42.
The incredible unfairness of the situation is troubling. One accusation, and God has to suffer through this thousands-of-years-long play, this elaborate experimentation with sin that costs Him dearly. The accusation is easy, the defense is long and costly.
Yet the greater wonder to me is that God deems it necessary to “demonstrate before the inhabitants of heaven, and of all the worlds, that [His] government is just, His law perfect.” Why?
Out of all the options to handle rebellion, including ignoring it, quieting it, taking a hands-off approach and letting everyone figure out who’s right, God chooses the one option where He ultimately pays for Satan’s rebellion (and subsequently, the sin of mankind)… And the story hasn’t ended! We are still in the middle of this controversy; God is still in the middle of this demonstration process. I do not understand this, but I do not question that this incomprehensible wisdom behind God’s decision is the highest kind there is.
In the face of Satan’s (verbal) accusations, God takes it upon Himself to demonstrate, by words and action, over a long period of time, the falsity of His opponent. God responds to His creation; He is not unaffected by sin and rebellion.
In fact, God is essentially wooing His own creation to believe Him, placing Himself as the pleader, convincing men and angels that His government is just, His law perfect. This is God, the Creator! The Creator pleading with His creation? It sounds utterly ridiculous.
But such is the humility of God. So humble that it makes me perplexed and uncomfortable. How can this be? He makes Himself subject to His creation.
My natural response in this type of situation would be to appeal to God, “Lord, show Yourself strong.” He is in fact showing Himself strong, but not in the way I think what strong means. And in the end, when all beings in the universe will finally acknowledge the justice and goodness of God, what we will not find is God sitting on His throne looking all smug saying, “I told you so.”
God is a God who is touched by the feeling of our infirmities (Heb 4:15). This is not only true when Jesus becomes our High Priest; this is who He is from the beginning. And these infirmities are not just our feebleness; they include all of our sins and rebellions. God is touched by our sins. He is not unaffected by our rebellions.
In the controversy between good and evil, God is not the One watching the spectacle from above. He is the One being watched. This is humility.
Who is before men and angels? God is.
More of this from the sanctuary later.
“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.” ― Abraham Joshua Heschel
How would you describe this moment: standing on a precipice, you view the extensive terrains made up of lush green meadows, forests, and blue streams. Or at this time of the year, the orange and red leaves that signal winter’s coming. How would you explain what happens when in silence, you watch the evening’s sun sinks into the horizon? Perhaps this word would do for now: Wonder.
Heschel would describe these as moments when one comes face to face with the ineffable, moments when we part with words.
Awesome though they may be, I thought that these moments are like birthdays. They come rarely (only once a year), far in between, and you can’t ask for it. Until I saw that quote above, I never thought that I could ask for wonder.
But when one has the God of the universe as Friend and Father, why couldn’t one ask for wonder? It’s like saying to God, “Impress me.” Why, of course He’ll do it! Talk about a guaranteed answer to prayer.
A few years ago I made up a list of 10 things I like about God (part one and part two). This was my number 5:
5. God’s Mysteriousness
God is mysterious and His ways are past finding out. I like how there are many, many things that I don’t know or understand about God. He keeps me curious and amazed, and I can actually ask Him to amaze or make me wonder, and be in for a real ’whoa’ experience.
Romans 11:33 – Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unfathomable (inscrutable, unsearchable) are His judgments (His decisions)! And how untraceable (mysterious, undiscoverable) are His ways (His methods, His paths)!
Job 9:9-11 – Who made [the constellations] the Bear, Orion, and the [loose cluster] Pleiades, and the [vast starry] spaces of the south; Who does great things past finding out, yes, marvelous things without number. Behold, He goes by me, and I see Him not; He passes on also, but I perceive Him not.
This post is my gratitude for the little surprises God had for me everyday this week (which is number 4 on the list). I don’t have to wait until I get to a mountaintop or the beaches in Bali to bottle up wonder and store it in memories. I can have a dose everyday, for to wonder is to worship. And far more incredible than to wonder at the grandeur of His creation, is to wonder at God Himself.
Ask for wonder. You’re in for a real treat.
There are many ways to be a tourist. For example, one can remain in one’s own vacation bubble, as is necessary sometimes for recovery and rest from daily toils, or one can break through and be immersed in the world and culture on site.
I tend to like cultural experiences and usually try to discover the lives and customs of the local people. What is their reality like? How do they think? Et cetera, et cetera… I can’t pretend that I immerse myself completely, like those who would walk on foot and visit neighborhoods, shops, and houses, but at least I can ask questions to the people I interact with and to the local tour guides.
But in Bali, it is very hard to ignore its cultural and religious artifacts, since they are simply in sight everywhere you turn. Temples are ubiquitous, and the locals’ belief system is visibly displayed not just in their Hindu ceremonial precessions, but also in their architecture and daily customs. I would say it even dictates Bali’s economy and weighs in on Bali’s social progress vis-à-vis modernity and secularism.
For example, every morning the Balinese put out sesajens, or small offerings composed of flowers, rice, and salt in bamboo leaf trays all over the place. You would find them by the streets, statues, in front of houses, restaurants, counters… basically everywhere. These offerings, in oversimplified terms, are to please the gods and prevent their wrath upon them.
Every house and building in Bali has its own altar, whether small or big, which is put at the front of the house near the entrance gate. Bridges would have statues of some manifestations of Hindu gods on both sides of each end, to protect the space and prevent evil spirits.
Many statues, poles in buildings, pillars, and even trees would have sashes of a particular kind around them. The motif is called poleng. It is a piece of cloth with black and white squares, a symbol of balance, akin to the Chinese yin and yang. But it’s not just any generic notion of balance; it particularly symbolizes the balance between good and evil. The alternating black and white signifies good and evil that coexist everywhere; one cannot be present without the other.
This concept, it seems to me, is very Hindu, for a lack of a better description. The three main deities that compose the Trimurti in Hinduism (kind of like the Trinity), Brahma, Wisnu (Vishnu), and Siwa (Shiva), are the creator god, sustainer god, and the destroyer/transformer god, respectively. The destroyer god is feared the most, but he is not seen as evil, since his work is necessary to get rid of old things and transform them to a newer state.
Poleng around an altar.
Though I do not subscribe to the Hindu belief system, I admire its cohesiveness and pervasiveness in the Balinese society. Believing in something means that their whole lives revolve around it and it’s publicly displayed, even if their motives may be combined with fear of the gods. Their religion is not a private matter. It dictates how they spend their money, their daily activities, how they deal with birth, marriage, and death, and every aspect of life. There is not one thing that is purely secular. Take the economy, the emblem of development and modernity. If every building needs to have an altar, it means that every building project in Bali must needs to budget to build the altar, no questions asked. It is not a small matter, optional, or of a low priority, because in their minds, they simply would not tolerate an unprotected house or building.
It is refreshing to see something that is systematic and consistent in a world that is increasingly subscribing to a buffet style belief system. In a way, this is the kind of integration that I yearn for with my own belief system. I mean, the fact that every house has an altar is so mind-blowing to me. What would it look like if every Christian had the same regard for sacred things in their houses… to see their belief as central and pivotal to daily activities…