In Genesis 18, God considers wiping out Sodom and Gomorrah. As he contemplates the decision, with Abraham hovering nearby, he asks a fascinating question: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (Gen. 18:17). In a sense, there is no need for God to include Abraham in his decision. The Lord certainly has all the wisdom and information he needs to take the right action. But he does bring Abraham into it, and that choice makes me wonder why, in this situation and so many others throughout Scripture, God doesn’t simply leave people out of it and act on his own?
To look at another example, when God wants to get rid of Pharaoh and set the Israelites free, why doesn’t he just wipe Pharaoh out? Why drag Moses into it and go through so much trouble? Or when Goliath needs to be defeated, why doesn’t God do it himself rather than involve the young, untested shepherd David? Or when more than five thousand hungry people gather in a remote place and Jesus’s disciples ask him to send them away, why does Jesus tell them, “You give them something to eat”? (Matt. 14:16).
As far back as the garden of Eden, God has called on people to do things he could just as easily (or much more easily) do himself. One of the first tasks Adam is given is to name the animals God has created. Why didn’t God name them? Sometimes God’s inclusion of people in his plans adds several layers of complication. When he wants the Ethiopian eunuch to hear the gospel, for instance, God first brings in an angel, who then goes to Philip, who then is told to hurry to the road on which the Ethiopian is traveling and to approach the man in his chariot.
When it comes to including human beings in carrying out his purposes, efficiency doesn’t seem to be God’s biggest priority. He seems much more focused on teaching and changing the people in whose lives he is intervening. When my children were little, I used to let them help me with projects as a way of teaching them skills and values I hoped they would adopt. Those times together also built our relationship. God’s call on people’s lives is not only about completing a task. It’s about loving and shaping them.
When it comes to including human beings in carrying out his purposes, efficiency doesn’t seem to be God’s biggest priority.
On the day the Lord considered whether to bring Abraham into his decision about Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham had already experienced some of the biggest moments of his life. Three visitors from the Lord had come to tell him that his aged wife, Sarah, would give birth to a long-awaited son by that time the following year. At the end of that visit, as the men prepare to leave and Abraham is still processing this miraculous news, the Lord decides to discuss Sodom and Gomorrah with him. The Lord’s thinking process is revealed in Genesis 18:18–19: “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
God is doing more than simply working a miracle for Abraham and Sarah. He is preparing Abraham to be a leader for his people. What follows is the famous conversation in which Abraham intercedes for the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah, asking God if he would spare the cities for fifty righteous, then forty-five, then forty, and all the way down to ten. Abraham has passed a test, and he is becoming the leader God wants.
Hundreds of years later, Moses also becomes the kind of leader God wants, but at first, Moses certainly prefers for God to leave him out of it and accomplish his overthrow of Pharaoh on his own. Moses answers God’s call by offering a string of reasons why he is not the right man for the job—people won’t listen to him, he doesn’t speak well, and so on. “I will be with you” is God’s reassurance to him, emphasizing that God is including Moses in his plans, not simply dumping an impossible task on him (Exod. 3–4). Wiping out Pharaoh would be easy for God. He doesn’t need Moses for that. At one point, in the midst of the many plagues on Egypt, God says to Pharaoh (through Moses), “For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exod. 9:15–16). God is establishing his own authority in the minds of the people. He invites Moses to be part of it.
Today, God still allows us as individuals, and the church as a whole, to take part in what he is accomplishing in the world. What can we learn from people in the Bible about how partnering with God works?
God’s call often comes as an interruption of the plans people already had. Abraham is sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day when God unexpectedly shows up. Moses is minding his own business as a shepherd when he encounters God in the burning bush. Philip is busy preaching and ministering when he gets called away to go find the Ethiopian. Are we willing to be interrupted from our own agenda to do what God calls us to do?
The people God calls often feel inadequate for what they are called to do, but God promises to be with them. God often calls ordinary people, or people others don’t think are up to the task. This is true of David, Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Jesus’s disciples, and others.
Those whom God calls realize they are part of a story that is bigger than themselves. They are willing to play their part, even if the fulfillment of their story doesn’t happen for many years or generations. After Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, “the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39). Philip plays his brief but pivotal role in the eunuch’s conversion, but the two never meet again.
Answering God’s call almost always requires courage, as can be seen in every biblical example mentioned so far.
Those whom God calls are willing to put themselves in his presence and listen to what he says. The three angels who visit Abraham and Sarah go on toward Sodom, “but Abraham still stood before the Lord” (Exod. 18:22). One reason the conversation happens is that Abraham shows he is listening and is ready.
Partnering with God can be difficult, scary, inconvenient, and confusing, but it can also be thrilling and life-giving. We have the chance to answer God’s call every day and partner with him. Usually those opportunities don’t come in burning bushes or from angels with big announcements. They are usually simpler. We have the chance to help someone in need, or fulfill our duty to people who are counting on us. God doesn’t need us, but he still calls us. How will we answer?