One of the difficulties of the Christian life lies in trying to understand a God whose plans are different than ours, whose ways are higher than ours (Isa 55:8-9). Especially in the current political climate — both in America and in the United Methodist denomination — we may find ourselves scratching our heads and saying, “God, I just don’t get it. What on earth are you doing?” We find it easy to believe in God when we receive a “yes” to our prayers, and sometimes even when we hear a clear “no.” But when God works at oblique angles — giving less-than-straightforward answers and taking us in odd directions we never expected — we may grow frustrated and perturbed.
When trying to make sense of God’s sometimes unusual choices, I often turn to the story of Jeremiah’s meeting with the Rechabites (Jer 35). Jeremiah receives a word from the Lord that he must invite the Rechabites to the house of the Lord and offer them wine to drink. If God had given me this message, I would have expected that a party was about to take place. If God says, “Offer them wine,” you would expect that they are supposed to drink, right? But instead, the Rechabites refuse to drink, and they tell Jeremiah about the vow they made to their ancestor Jonadab and have faithfully kept: they must not drink wine. The text doesn’t indicate that Jeremiah was shocked at God’s initial command to offer the Rechabites wine, which would suggest that Jeremiah did not previously know of their vow or predict the direction his conversation with them would take. As a result of the surprising refusal, Jeremiah must have experienced some confusion. Did he hear God’s voice correctly? Had he just committed a faux pas against his guests for which he must now profusely apologize? Had he lost his prophetic edge? After all, he thought he had been faithful to the voice of God — so why did this happen?
God then announces to Jeremiah that the faithfulness of the Rechabites stands in stark contrast to the unfaithfulness of the people of Judah, who have repeatedly sinned and chased after other gods. The whole point of the invitation was to provide a visual demonstration of faithfulness. Thus, the straightforward direction we might expect the story to take — offer them wine, and they will drink — is not at all the direction God intends to go. God often works through oblique angles.
Sometimes we refuse to see the direction God will take because cultural expectations cloud our view of what God is doing. When Samuel goes to Jesse’s house to anoint the next king of Israel, for instance, he is at first fooled by the appearance of Jesse’s eldest son Eliab (1 Sam 16:6). The cultural expectation that the firstborn should inherit greater blessing and responsibility likely contributed to Samuel’s error in judgment. But God made it clear that the unexpected needed to take place: the youngest son would become king, because God does not look at the outward appearance, but on the heart (v. 7). God works at oblique angles.
At other times, our own desires or concerns may prevent us from hearing God’s will clearly. At the end of Acts, for example, Paul is compelled by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem (20:22), whereas the disciples in Tyre tell Paul through the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem (21:4). If the Holy Spirit does not contradict itself, then someone must have misinterpreted the message. A clue to sorting out this dilemma comes from Paul’s description of the Holy Spirit’s revelation in 20:22-23: Paul does not know what will happen to him, but he will face imprisonment and afflictions. If this is the same message that the disciples in Tyre heard, their concern for Paul’s well-being may have caused them to add to the message: rather than hearing only “pain and suffering awaits,” they added, “…so don’t go!”
When we find it difficult to understand what God is doing and the Spirit’s directions don’t make sense, we need to consider whether God is working at oblique angles. It can be difficult to clear away the clutter of cultural expectations and our own distracting desires, but faithfulness does not require us to immediately understand the directions of the God whose ways are higher than ours. Faithfulness requires us to listen and obey the God who speaks — the God who sometimes says, “yes,” sometimes, “no,” and often simply: “This is the way; follow me.”