If success makes us feel that God loves us, does that mean God does not love those who fail?

Q. I am certain Jesus loves me, and I love Him. After all, I am His creation and He made the ultimate sacrifice for me. That said, have we taken that concept too far as Western Christians? Have we assumed too much when it comes to how much Jesus loves each of us “personally”? Have we become too arrogant or prideful in our assumption?

Frequently an athlete will say after a win,”I thank Jesus for this win,” which is great, but what about the losing competitor? Are we assuming that Jesus does not love them as much?

Some time ago I heard a lady tell the story of how she missed an airplane flight and she was glad the Lord had caused her to do so because the plane went down and all the passengers were killed. It appeared to me that she made the assumption that Jesus loved her more than the other 200-plus folks who made the connection.

Is this taking our understanding of Jesus’s love for each of us personally too far? In other words, have we in this day and age misinterpreted God’s love for us individually and become arrogant, like James and John who requested that they alone were loved so much that they should be seated on the throne next to Jesus?

I certainly agree with you that when good things happen to us or bad things don’t happen to us, we tend to feel gratitude toward God and a sense that God loves us. I also agree with you that there are the troubling implications that perhaps God does not love people as much for whom good things do not happen or bad things do happen.

So there is another way to look at it. We could say that the gratitude we feel towards God is actually a recognition of his character as a loving, gracious, generous, and merciful God, and that any success or mercy we might experience triggers this recognition in us. But the success is actually the result of the hard work and perseverance of someone to whom God has given talents and ambition (for which they should genuinely be grateful to God), while failure or tragedy are misfortunes that happen to people in a world that God has created with a moral framework but in which God does not determine every specific event. If a person is spared a misfortune, direct divine intervention may not have been involved, but that person should nevertheless take the experience to heart and resolve before God, with gratitude, to make the best use of the time they will still have in this life.

This would avoid the unfortunate implications of the first view. However, perhaps it removes God too much from the picture. So I would actually recommend a third view. It is generally the same as the second view, except it allows for the possibility of direct divine intervention in particular cases, for God’s sovereign purposes. In those cases, the recipient of the blessing or mercy could well recognize it as coming directly from God, but others looking on would not necessarily have the benefit of that insight. So in such cases I would recommend being just as careful as we would be under the second view. We would not say in public, “I’m convinced that God spared my life for a purpose,” if there were others who were not spared.

I think the principle that applies is, “What you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God.” So, for example, if you are a young athlete who wins an important tennis match, you could thank God for the gifts of health and strength. But also be sure to congratulate your opponent on his or her excellent play and say what a pleasure and privilege it was to compete with him or her. And do not attribute your victory to direct divine intervention!

Why did God let Saul keep ruling, and why did Saul’s army hunt an innocent man?

Q. Why did God allow King Saul’s rule to continue so long after He withdrew from Saul? Also, why would King Saul’s army willingly hunt to kill an innocent man?

We don’t know precisely how long Saul ruled after God’s Spirit withdrew from him, but it does seem to have been a period of some years. Perhaps the simple answer to the question of why God allowed Saul to continue to reign is that time was required to prepare David to be a better kind of king than Saul had been. During his years serving Saul, first as a court musician and then as an army commander, and during the years when he was  fleeing from Saul, David had the opportunity to gain much experience and learn many lessons that enabled him to be a better king. Unfortunately there seem to have been some lessons that David failed to learn or forgot, but overall he made Israel much more the kind of place God wanted it to be than Saul did.

This may be best illustrated by the answer to your second question. When Saul, out of jealousy, first told his son Jonathan (the crown prince) and his commanders to kill David, Jonathan defended David and so Saul agreed not to kill him. But Saul soon became jealous and murderous again. It seems that, without telling Jonathan, he wanted his commanders to kill David, but they did not cooperate. However, a foreigner named Doeg the Edomite told Saul that the priests at the city of Nob had helped David, and so Saul went there and had Doeg kill all the priests and their entire families.

This seems to have been the beginning of a reign of terror. The implication was that Saul would also kill the entire family of anyone else who helped David. (This might explain why Nabal, for example, would do nothing for David, although his bad character alone may be sufficient to explain that.) We learn later in the Bible that Saul had also killed many people from a tribe that the Israelites had sworn to leave peacefully alone. Saul did that in order to take their land.

So we can imagine that Saul’s soldiers and commanders feared for their own lives and for the safety of their families and that is why they pursued David, even though they knew that he was innocent. When a person in power is bent on doing wrong, unfortunately that leads many people who are under that person’s power to do wrong as well.

While David was guilty of his own sins against Uriah and Bathsheba through the abuse of his kingly power, he certainly did not have a reign of terror as Saul did. For the most part the Israelites under his reign were free from oppression and enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity during which they worshiped the true God. That is why the Bible uses David as the standard by which it measures all subsequent kings. The book of Kings, recorded by the prophets in Israel, puts it this way: “David had done what was right in the eyes of the Lord and had not failed to keep any of the Lord’s commands all the days of his life—except in the case of Uriah the Hittite.” And as I said before, perhaps it was to give David time to develop into this kind of king that God allowed Saul to stay on the throne for several more years.

Did God agree to a suggestion to give Saul a depressing spirit?

Q. Is their a description of a meeting, presumably in heaven, in which King Saul is discussed? God’s present but is letting subordinates talk and make suggestions. None of the suggestions are acceptable to God until one participant declares that he would give Saul a depressing spirit. God likes this idea and the matter is settled.

I believe you are thinking of two Scripture passages at once. There is a passage in 1 Kings much like the one you describe, except that the discussion is about King Ahab. The prophet Micaiah tells Ahab:

I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’

“One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’

“‘By what means?’ the Lord asked.

“‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said.

“‘You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the Lord. ‘Go and do it.’

“So now the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The Lord has decreed disaster for you.”

There is another Scripture passage, in 1 Samuel, about the Lord sending a depressing spirit to Saul, but it says simply:

Now the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul, and the Lord sent a tormenting spirit that filled him with depression and fear.

So I hope that answers your question about whether there was a meeting in heaven about what to do about Saul, who had disobeyed God. The meeting was actually about Ahab, who had also disobeyed God and who was, in fact, one of the most wicked kings Israel ever had.

Each passage raises further questions, however. How could God make use of lying or deception? And how could God send someone depression? I discuss these questions in these other posts, which I invite you to read:

Does God let us use deception for a good cause? (Part 3)

Did God really send an evil spirit to torment Saul?

Why did Jesus explain his parables only to his disciples and not to others who may have had open hearts?

Q. In response to a previous question, you said, “Parables were the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ purposes because they either reveal or conceal the message, depending on the state of a person’s heart. They reveal the truth to those who are open to it, but conceal it from those who aren’t ready for it yet.”

The disciples’ hearts were obviously open to Jesus’ teachings, and Jesus definitely knew that, and he explained the parables to them in private. However, there could also have been people in the crowd who had open hearts, i.e. their state of mind was open, and they were willing to listen. Nevertheless, because they were not Jesus’ disciples, they didn’t have the chance to hear Jesus’ elaboration.

I have been thinking about this for a while now … is it because Jesus “had plans” for those non-disciples to understand the same truth some other time via some other means? Would appreciate if you could help me understand. Thanks.

Let me say two things in response to your question.

First, when we see the expression “the disciples,” we shouldn’t necessarily understand that to mean only the twelve disciples whom Jesus chose to be apostles. That is the meaning in some places in the gospels, but in other places the word “disciples” refers to anyone who was following Jesus closely in order to understand his message and live by it. For example, when Luke introduces what is known as the Sermon on the Plain, he says, “A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.” So Luke distinguishes between “his disciples” and the others who came to hear on this occasion, and the disciples were a “large crowd.”

The word “disciples” also means more than just the twelve apostles in the episode you are asking about, in which Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower. Matthew says that after Jesus told this parable, “The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?'” Luke says similarly, “His disciples asked him what this parable meant.” But Mark elaborates a bit more about who these “disciples” were: “When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.” So I think we should understand that in this case, as likely in other cases, anyone with an open heart could remain after the teaching and listen in on the explanation.

The second thing I would say in response to your question is that the people who heard these explanations and elaborations from Jesus did not treat them as something they were supposed to keep to themselves. They shared them with others. That is how the explanations got to be included in the gospels: They became part of the oral tradition that was handed down to later generations from those who saw and heard Jesus, which provided the content of the gospels. And I would say that the “disciples” (probably a large number) who heard these explanations got the impression from Jesus himself that they were supposed to share them with anyone who had an open heart and mind.

So even in Jesus’ own time, the explanations would have fanned out by word of mouth into the crowds for open-hearted people to hear, and down through the years they would have circulated ever more widely. Now that they are part of the Bible, they have gone around the world. So Jesus himself set in motion the process that has made these explanations available to anyone, anywhere who truly wants to understand and obey.

Is God’s “wrath” toward people who reject Jesus consistent with God’s love?

Q. It says in the Gospel of John, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” Some argue that this is not consistent with the message of love that God has has toward all his creation.

Actually, it is rejecting Jesus that is not consistent with God’s message of love for his whole creation. Jesus came bringing a message of love and reconciliation between people and between people and God. To reject that message is to go contrary to God’s intentions as announced by his Son Jesus.

How should God respond to people who do that? The term “wrath” certainly does indicate divine displeasure and even anger. We can understand why God would feel that way towards people who do not want love and reconciliation. But “wrath” also refers to God enforcing the consequences of the choices that people make. If people persist in rejecting Jesus and his message, then we can see how God would ultimately give them what they are insisting on and leave them in a place of alienation from God and others. This is not inconsistent with God’s purposes. It is God upholding his purposes by making sure that those who reject them do not interfere with them.

But I think we always need to keep in mind that in such cases, the choice to reject Jesus and remain alienated from God and others is one that people make themselves. The Bible tells us that God is very patient with people because he does not want anyone to perish. Instead, he wants everyone to come to repentance.

So we should not read the statement you’re asking about and think that it means God is just waiting for people to say one thing against Jesus so that he can pour out his wrath on them. God gives people every opportunity, right up to the last moment, to believe in Jesus rather than reject him. (Consider, for example, how God used Saul of Tarsus, a former bitter enemy of Jesus and his followers, to spread the message of Jesus as the apostle Paul.) So I would say that everything in the statement you’re asking about depicts God upholding his loving purposes, not working against them.

Should Christians pray the imprecatory psalms (the prayers for the destruction of enemies)?

Q. Should Christians pray the imprecatory psalms?

Let me say first that I think “praying the psalms” (that is, making the psalms in the Bible our own prayers) is a good practice. However, people who do this are often uncomfortable praying the so-called imprecatory psalms, in which the psalmists ask God to destroy their enemies.

I devote an entire lesson to the imprecatory psalms in my study guide to the Psalms. It is Lesson 10, on pages 59–63. You can read the study guide online or down load it at this link. I hope the lesson will give you a perspective on the imprecatory psalms that will help you decide whether to include them in your devotional practice of “praying the psalms.”

Why did God hate Esau even before he was born?

Q. Why did God hate Esau even before he was born?

In response to your question, please see this post:

When did Esau “break off the yoke” of Jacob?

In that post I note specifically that while in Romans “Paul quotes the statement from Malachi, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,’ we need to appreciate that the Hebrew language uses the term ‘hated’ in contexts like this to refer to a son or wife who is not favored, by contrast with one who is favored. The meaning is, ‘I favored Jacob, but I did not favor Esau.'” Malachi’s statement, and Paul’s quotation of it, reflect this usage. So God did not actually “hate” Esau. Rather, he chose Jacob instead to continue the covenant line.

Does God already know who will choose to believe?

Q. God is omniscient, doesn’t that mean he already knows those who will go to heaven eventually and those who wouldn’t? I know we all have freewill. But doesn’t God know already if I’m going to use my freewill or if I’m going to do His will?

In response to your question, please see these posts:

Why does God make people He knows are going to reject Him?

Doesn’t the Bible teach election based on God’s foreknowledge?

Was it a sin for David to have many wives?

Q. My question is in regards to David’s many wives, was that not considered sin? was it something kings shouldn’t do, a recommendation from the Lord, but not going against God’s command? I understand he had plenty of trouble at home because of all the children from different wives. But when he is called a man after God’s own heart, that makes me think his polygamy is not looked at as a sin.

Your question is similar to the one I answer in this post:

How could God call David a “man after his own heart” when he committed adultery and murder?

In that post, I note that God described David in that way specifically in reference to the way David would regard the kingship, by contrast to the way Saul as king had encroached on priestly powers. I say in that post, “David set an example for all subsequent kings by never acting as if he were a divine king or priest-king.” I think the phrase also references the way David always repented when confronted with his own sin. By contrast, when confronted with his disobedience, Saul did not repent but instead insisted that he really had obeyed.

God specifically confronted David, through the prophet Nathan, about his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah, and so, as I also say in that post,”no divine approval of David’s actions can be found in the earlier description of him as a ‘man after God’s own heart.'”

We may say the same thing about David’s polygamy. The law of Moses said specifically about any future king the Israelites might have, “He must not take many wives.” The term “many” is not defined in terms of a specific number, but it seems that David did have “many” wives. Before he became king over all Israel, he was king over the tribe of Judah in Hebron, and he had six wives at that point. The Bible then tells us that “after he left Hebron” to become king of all Israel, “David took more concubines and wives in Jerusalem.”

As you noted, this caused “plenty of trouble at home.” Absalom, the son of the third wife, murdered Amnon, David’s firstborn, the son of his first wife, in revenge for Amnon raping Absalom’s sister Tamar. Absalom later incited a violent rebellion against David and nearly displaced him as king. And even after David chose Solomon to succeed him, another son named Adonijah nearly took over the kingdom instead. Solomon ultimately had Adonijah executed.

This was a culture in which polygamy was accepted, particularly because it was an agricultural society that depended on human labor, and so families simply had to have children. Kings practiced polygamy to be sure that they would have surviving children who could succeed them on the throne. But it must be admitted that royal polygamy went way beyond that need, as kings  married the daughters of other kings to form alliances, and they also had large harems. The law of Moses warned that an Israelite king should not have many wives, “or his heart will be led astray,” and that is exactly what happened to David’s son Solomon. The Bible says that “he had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.” Specifically, the women he married in order to make alliances with other countries wanted to keep worshiping their own gods, and Solomon built temples for them and even joined them in worshiping those gods. For this God punished him by taking most of the kingdom away from his dynasty.

So there seem to have been many good reasons why the law told kings not to have many wives. David was thus not an exemplary king in that way. And so what I say in the other post also applies to your question: “No divine approval of David’s actions can be found in the earlier description of him as a ‘man after God’s own heart.'”

Why was Moses not allowed to enter the Promised Land?

Q. Why was Moses not allowed to enter the Promised Land? I’m aware of his disobedience, I just feel that it’s too much! Too harsh a punishment.

James, the brother of Jesus, writes in his New Testament epistle, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Other versions say “judged by a stricter standard” or “judged more severely than others.” These all mean basically the same thing, and what James says about teachers applies to all spiritual leaders. God does judge and, when necessary, punish them more strictly than others. Why? What spiritual leaders do affect their followers, both directly, in terms of the consequences of their decisions and choices, and indirectly, through their example.

Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because when God told him to speak to a rock so that it would send out water for the Israelites to drink in the desert, Moses struck the rock  with his staff instead. Certainly the direct consequences of this action were not bad for the Israelites. They had been in danger of dying of thirst, and this action saved them. But the indirect consequences were very dangerous spiritually.

God had told Moses to gather all the Israelites together in front of the rock, and God had given him these instructions: “Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water.” Instead, Moses gathered the Israelites and said to them, speaking for himself and his fellow leader Aaron, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then he struck the rock twoice, and water came out.

In response to this, God told Moses, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” Another translation puts that this way: “You did not trust me enough to honor me and show the people that I am holy. You did not show the Israelites that the power to make the water came from me. So you will not lead the people into the land that I have given them.”

So more was involved than the seemingly small distinction between speaking to the rock and striking the rock. For one thing, instead of speaking to the rock as God’s agent of provision and care, Moses spoke to the people, and he did so with hostility and anger. This misrepresented God’s merciful disposition to do good for the people even though they had been grumbling and complaining. Moses also took credit for the action himself: “Must we bring you water out of this rock?” Anyone who is entrusted with the responsibility of acting on God’s behalf must always be very careful to make sure the God gets all of the glory, credit, and praise. If they are not careful, people can be led to glorify other people instead, robbing God of the glory that belongs only to him.

So while it might seem to us that God gave Moses a severe punishment for a small infraction, God was aware of the potential wide-ranging and long-lasting effects of his example, and God needed to stop those effects from spreading.

Your question is similar to the one I answer in the post linked below, and so that post may also be of interest to you.

Why did God reject Saul as king for making one small mistake?