By Greg Forster: part six of a series.
In my last post I noted that, without realizing it, the biblical images I had chosen for imagining God as a worker could be organized in a progressive scale based on what the various kinds of workers had stewardship over:
- God as a doctor: Human body (material bodies of intelligent creatures)
- God as a shepherd: Animals (sentient but non-intelligent creatures)
- God as a farmer: Plants (living but non-sentient creatures)
- God as a potter: Minerals (non-living creation)
Starting in this post, we ascend from the body of the intelligent creatures (humans) to their minds and souls. In this post, I consider the scriptural image of God as a counselor, a worker who helps people exercise stewardship in exercising the capacities of their individual minds and souls (always expressed, of course, in the actions of their bodies and managment of their property). In the remaining two posts I will consider two other scriptural images of God as a worker whose work is concentrated on minds and souls.
The divine savior king is called a “wonderful counselor,” the first of the names Isaiah gives him in that familiar passage. “Counselor” is one of the many words by which we attempt to translate the essentially untranslatable word paraclete in Jesus’ new-epoch-defining promise to pour out the Holy Spirit to create the church after he ascends. The psalmist declares: “Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors.”
The significance of the image of God as a counselor becomes clear the most quickly, I think, if we compare this new type of image, involving mind-and-soul work, to the previous type. (These observations will also hold for the two other types of workers I’ll look at in the next posts.)
1) I started this series with the question, “Do we really think of God as a worker?” Here I can ask instead, “Do we really think of a counselor as a worker?”
All the images we’ve looked at are familiar as scriptural images, but they need to be considered in a new way if we are to overcome the inadequate conceptions of God we have inherited from generations of dualism. However, as we transition from images of workers who steward physical things to images of workers whose work involves the mind and soul, the way in which we need to consider these images afresh changes.
Everyone knows that a potter, farmer, shepherd or doctor is a worker. What’s challenging is really to think about God in the way these images invite us to. Just because a potter or a shepherd is a worker, our natural instinct is to find an abstract teaching that we can reduce the image to (for the potter, “God has sovereignty”; for the shepherd, “God is loving,” etc.). We disconnect the rich imagery of the work these workers do from God, even though the images are there precisely to connect our understanding of God to what we know about that work.
By contrast, our dualism creates a different disconnect in the case of a counselor. We have little difficulty thinking of God as a counselor, but we don’t really think of a counselor as a worker. I don’t want to overdraw that claim; in the modern world we do have professionals in “counseling,” as well as “consultants” and a variety of other professions whose job is to help people think through their challenges (whether that’s a marriage in trouble or a business restructuring).
But I submit that we only half acknowledge that these are really workers. It is, of course, necessary to pay them to make their services available in a sustainable way. But counseling and consulting are (unfairly) viewed as not quite really, seriously work. The counselor is thought of as a sort of professional best friend; the consultant we tend to view as someone who is either too highly qualified or too little qualified to hold a “real job.”
Reclaiming a holistic understanding of work involves reclaiming the “soft” professions as work. Artists are workers. Politicians are workers. It is our dualism that hinders us from seeing them as such.
Helping people strive after wisdom as a counselor is work, because the process of striving after wisdom is work. Helping people strive after wisdom is vital and important work because the process of striving after wisdom is vital and important – and very difficult – work. Which leads me to my second point.
2) The previous images pictured workers who have stewardship over certain things (human bodies, animals, plants, minerals). But human beings do not have stewardship over one another the way they have stewardship over other things.
In the case of our physical bodies this is less of an issue because we can, with permission and in the right context, care for the needs of another person’s body as if it were a thing we had stewardship over. That is the material nature of the body.
Not so with minds and souls. We are made to relate to one another as fellow stewards and to work cooperatively, not relate to one another as steward and thing to be stewarded. (That is why slavery is such a monstrous evil.)
God, on the other hand, does precisely exercise stewardship over human beings. Jeremiah’s terrifying image of God as a potter and the nations as his clay makes this all too clear. Even when tempered with the more comforting version of this image in Isaiah, the emphasis is still on God’s sovereignty.
This introduces a tension in an image like “counselor” that would become a paradox if we tried to absolutize the image. We are not related to God the way we are related to human counselors. God is the counselor who – to put it bluntly – owns us, and we can never really hear counsel from our cosmic owner the same way we would hear counsel from any human, however wise or influential.
At the same time, the Bible is clear that God really is a counselor – that God’s sovereignty does not simply swallow up all aspects of our relationship with him such that the only thing he ever does is command and the only thing we ever do is obey. God does want us to make our own choices and, by doing so, learn to be wise. And it is the nature of the mind and soul that it is essentially free and must make its own choices, in one sense (but only in one sense) unconstrained by compulsion.
We are living in a generation when it is especially hard to keep this semi-paradoxical quest for wisdom in submission to but not compelled by God at the center of the Christian life. That is where it belongs, as is clear from such passages as the Parable of the Sower or the first psalm.
But among Protestants, the mainline/evangelical split leaves us either overemphasizing the freedom of the quest for wisdom (reducing God to a mere advisor) or overemphasizing submission to God (reducing God to a mere dictator and removing the quest for wisdom entirely). Meanwhile, Roman Catholicism experiences a parallel split in which differing visions of the role of the church as mediator of God’s wisdom drive a parallel cycle of conflict.
Here we see how important God’s role as counselor is. Kings are not counselors, kings have counselors. Yet the coming of the divine savior-king is marked by the reign of a king who is himself a counselor. And his kingdom is built by the pouring of his Spirit, as counselor, into the hearts of his people.
And God, as our counselor, is a worker. God is at work building up our wisdom. I think that changes our whole mental image of sanctification if we take it seriously. And it may shed new light on the problem of how to seek wisdom freely, yet in submission to God.