God as a Farmer, Potter and Counselor


I’m shamefully behind posting here on HT as my series on biblical images of God as a worker has continued at The Green Room.

God as a farmer:

God, like most farmers, is a no-nonsense kind of person. With the image of God as shepherd I emphasized that God has all practical knowledge; he knows how to change a tire as well as he knows the Pythagorean Theorem. God as farmer makes me think of God as “practical” in another sense; he’s task-oriented and he doesn’t put up with frivolous or irresponsible distractions.

To the unjust, God as farmer is downright terrifying. His winnowing fork is in his hands, and he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. The wicked tenants are massacred. I find that even the Parable of the Sower, which I cover in week 1 of my introductory small group class on Making Sense of the Bible, consistently makes people nervous.

Even on a lesser scale than that, though, God is very no-nonsense. In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the workers who complain to the boss that others were paid the same as them for less work are presumably God’s people. They’re workers in God’s field, and they’re not cast out in the end. But neither does God deal very gently with them. He addresses one of them as “friend” but then says: “Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

God as a potter:

No doubt there is an “art” to farming and shepherding and even to medicine. But that is something different from what we normally mean by “artistry.” The “art” of caring for living creatures is to cultivate and protect their organic life and nature, which grows of its own. To transform them into something other than what they are in themselves would be an offence against the life and nature within them.

There are exceptions on the margins. We groom and decorate our bodies, and within limits, that’s fine. With animals there is more room for such artistry on the margin – check out a dog show. With plants there is even more, as a garden will show.

But the “artistry” of work with inanimate nature is not on the margins of an otherwise fixed nature. Inanimate nature is completely open to reshaping by our work because it has no life of its own. And we are made to be artists in our work with inanimate nature.

God is an artist in this sense even with us, with our human nature and in our historical development, because God is God and he can shape or reshape our nature without offending against the intrinsic goodness of that nature (since he made it and is its only ultimate ground). We are not artists with humans and animals to this extent. But we do have such a great degree of dominion over inanimate nature (see point 1) that we can exercise artistry with it, and are called to be.

Such artistry is not just for “artists,” of course. Or, put another way, we’re all “artists” in this sense.

God as a counselor:

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.

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