Holistic Eschatology and the Courage to Pray

The two primary topics I’ve been interviewed on for podcasts over the last few years are 1) humans made in God’s image (based on my book The Liberating Image) and 2) holistic eschatology (based on my book A New Heaven and a New Earth). These topics address creation and eschaton, that is, the origin of God’s good world and the consummation of that world as God brings it to its intended destiny.

An Earthy Spirituality

What both books have in common is a focus on God’s purposes for human flourishing in the context of earthly life. God deemed the world “very good” in the beginning (God doesn’t make junk) and God desires to redeem this world the corruption and distortions of sin (God doesn’t junk what he makes).

This holistic focus seems to have touched a nerve with many Christians, who are tired of the church’s traditional limitation of spirituality to the interior life and an ethereal heaven hereafter.

This doesn’t mean that we should play off concern for this world against spirituality. Rather, what we need in an earthy spirituality, where we live in God’s presence in the midst of the complexities of life in the real world, rather than seeking escape from this world.

Holistic Eschatology and an Open Future

This earthy spirituality was the topic of a podcast interview that I did for the God Is Open website. The website title alludes to what has come to be called Open Theism, the view that the future is genuinely open and not predetermined by God, “because God is alive, eternally free, and inexhaustibly creative.”

Here is my interview on holistic eschatology posted on the God is Open website.

The interview can also be found on YouTube.

The Courage to Pray

Because Open Theism is interested in the reality of prayer, by which we are able to impact God to act differently in a genuinely open future, the God Is Open website posted the audio of a sermon that I preached in 2017 on Moses’s intercession on behalf of Israel in Exodus 32 (“The Courage to Pray—Learning from the Boldness of Moses in Exodus 32”).

Exodus 32 recounts Israel’s idolatry of the Golden Calf and God’s decision to destroy them in judgment. But when Moses interceded for the people, God changed his mind and forgive them.

I preached this sermon in my home church, Community of the Savior, which uses the Revised Common Lectionary. I wove together aspects of the four lectionary Scriptures:

I began the sermon with a reference to the speechless person in Matthew 22 and ended up contrasting this with Moses’s bold prayer to God. I ended with Philippians 4:6. Along the way, I reflected on our own assumptions about God that often get in the way of honest prayer.

You can listen to the sermon on the “God Is Open” website

Or you can listen to the sermon on the Community of the Savior website.

If you want to read the sermon, you can download a PDF here.

The Boldness of Moses and Abraham’s Silence

The topic of Moses interceding for Israel at the Golden Calf episode is the starting point for a chapter called “God’s Loyal Opposition” in my new book, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021).

Here is the Table of Contents:

Introduction: Does Abraham’s Silence Matter?
Part 1: Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible
1. Voices from the Ragged Edge
2. God’s Loyal Opposition
Part 2: Making Sense of the Book of Job
3. The Question of Appropriate Speech
4. Does God Come to Bury Job or to Praise Him?
Part 3: Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straitjacket of Tradition
5. Is It Permissible to Criticize Abraham or God?
6. Reading Rhetorical Signals in the Aqedah and Job
7. Did Abraham Pass the Test?
Conclusion: The Gritty Spirituality of Lament

I recently wrote a short blog post in which I contrasted Moses and Abraham, as part of a series on the argument of the book.

Society of Biblical Literature Session on Moses and God in Conflict

I will be giving a paper on Moses’s intercession at the Golden Calf incident at the Society of Biblical Literature in San Antonio on November 22, 2021. I was invited to give this paper last year, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic it was postponed to this year. There will be four papers in a session on “Characterization of YHWH and Moses in Conflict (Crisis) in the Pentateuch,” which is jointly sponsored by two SBL program units: the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures and the National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

Here is the abstract of my paper, entitled “How and Why Does God Change? Exploring the Logic of the Divine Shift after the Golden Calf.

Practical Implications of Biblical Themes

Topics like the image of God, holistic eschatology, and boldness in prayer are vitally important for Christian living with honesty and hope in this fractured and broken world. In everything I’ve written on these (and other) subjects, I’ve tried to tease out various practical implications for life.

For those interested in following up on the implications of Open Theism for issues of Christian living (including prayer), see The Openness of God A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), chapter 5: “Practical Implications.” The book (which was voted one of Christianity Today’s 1995 Books of the Year) has five authors, each of whom wrote a separate chapter. Chapter 5 was written by David Basinger, my colleague at Roberts Wesleyan College.

Podcast Interview on the Image of God and the “Cultural Mandate”—Everyday Christianity

I was recently interviewed by Jason Estopinal, who runs a website called “The Laymen’s Lounge.” The website hosts podcasts and other resources dedicated to addressing issues of faith, theology, and biblical interpretation that have a direct bearing on the everyday lives of Christians. This is theology for ordinary laypeople, not for pastors, professional theologians, or scholars (but that doesn’t mean anything is dumbed down).

Here is Jason’s description of what the website is all about:

The Laymen’s Lounge is a resource for everyday Christians (those who make up the majority of the Church) to learn how to do everyday life with other everyday theologians. Theology is for laymen too: all people of faith need to seek understanding of how work and play, at home, the office, the garden, or anywhere else, relates to the God of the gospel and the gospel of God.

Theology is about paying attention to God’s presence and activity in all areas of life. Here in the Lounge you will find help in answering key questions, such as “What is the gospel?” and “what is God like?” We will bring scholars, professors, pastors, and missionaries into the lounge to help us wrestle with questions and issues that are part and parcel of daily living.

This site is for anyone who wants to think harder about the Christian faith and how to live as Christians.

Please feel free to stay as long as you like, and encourage others – friends, family, and even grandma (if she knows how to log on to the internet) – to visit. If they do, they’ll find everyday theology for everyday Christians living everyday life.

Jason had been trying to get me to do an interview from before the pandemic, but lots of things got in the way. I was finally interviewed for the Laymen’s Lounge on the topic of being made in the image of God (with a focus on the “cultural mandate” or how our faith affects everyday life).

Here is Jason’s introduction to the interview (taken from the website):

Listen in as we sit down with Dr. J. Richard Middleton to discuss the forest and the trees of being image-bearers, God’s purpose for the world, God’s generosity, the great change that took place the moment God resolved to create humanity and good Jamaican and world reggae for your listening pleasure.

Jason lives in Hawaii, so it was great having him welcome me at the start of the podcast with Aloha!

He is also a music fan and knows quite a bit about reggae. He posted links to three reggae songs (two from Jamaica, one from South Africa) on his website right below the interview.

The Importance of Lament for Understanding Genesis 22

This is the second in a series of blog posts where I’ll outline the argument of my new book, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God, which is scheduled to be published by Baker Academic this fall (October or November 2021).

This is a follow-up to my post called, Abraham’s Silence–Why Genesis 22 Has Been a Puzzle to Me.

Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible

Although my book Abraham’s Silence is explicitly focused on interpreting Genesis 22 (known as the Aqedah or the Binding of Isaac), the book begins by examining how the Bible views the realities of suffering and especially how it affirms the validity of our challenging God about suffering, in bold prayer.

After an introductory chapter (called “Does Abraham’s Silence Matter?”), Part 1 of the book addresses “Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible.”

This section includes two chapters, one on the existential power of the lament palms as Israel’s normative “protocol” for processing personal and communal pain in relationship with God (chap. 1: “Voices from the Ragged Edge”) and one on the intercession of Moses and the prophets on behalf of Israel, when God was about to bring judgment on his people (chap. 2: “God’s Loyal Opposition”).

Lament Psalms and the Processing of Pain

My problems with Abraham began when I discovered the lament psalms.

I starting studying and teaching the lament psalms many years ago, after having gone through a time of personal darkness. I lost my way in life and began to doubt God’s goodness.

As a result, I stopped praying; this wasn’t intentional on my part. But I now realize that it was a natural outcome of the fact that I was unsure whether God was trustworthy.

So I found it immensely encouraging to learn about the lament psalms. Fully a third of the psalms in the Bible are laments or complaints, prayers from the ragged edge of life that articulate pain honestly to God. These prayers not only complain to God, but they ask for redress.

Lament prayer revitalized my faith at a time when it was imperiled. Ever since then, I’ve been teaching the lament psalms as model modes of prayer for sustaining our relationship with God in difficult times.

Along the way, I wrote a short meditation on lament, called “Voices from the Ragged Edge: How the Psalms Can Help Us Process Pain” (1994). I expanded this meditation for the chapter on lament psalms as a resource for developing and sustaining a robust life of faith.

Moses’s Boldness before God at the Golden Calf

And then there’s Moses, who interceded for Israel after the idolatry of the Golden Calf—and thereby prevented God from annulling the covenant and destroying the people (Exodus 32–34).

This is how Psalm 106:23 remembers the incident:

Therefore [God] said he would destroy them—
    had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
    to turn away his wrath from destroying them.

Moses interceded again after the people refused to enter the Promised Land when the spies told them of the giants who lived there; once again God accepted Moses’s prayer and did not destroy them (Numbers 14–15).

After Moses, various prophets deliver a message of judgment to Israel, calling for repentance; they then turn to God and ask for mercy and postponed judgment, to give the people a chance to repent.

Jeremiah is so persistent that God has to tell him three times to stop interceding, since God can’t bring judgment if he keeps praying.

Later, God laments in Ezekiel 22:30 about the lack of prophetic intercession:

I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one.” 

My study of lament psalms and the intercession of Moses and the prophets (along with my own personal experience of lament prayer) has led me to believe that that the God of the Bible values vigorous dialogue partners. This God invites us to approach the divine throne room with courage, expressing our genuine needs, including our complaints.

So the resounding question of my book is, Why didn’t Abraham do this? Why didn’t he bring his lament to God over the command to sacrifice his son? Why didn’t he intercede for Isaac?

In my next blog post (The Contrast between Job and Abraham), I’ll explain how the book of Job figures into all of this.