“What shall we say them? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (ESV)
This is tough stuff for modern ears. After explaining that the designation “Israel” was always intended to be one about God’s choosing folks to be a part of His promise to bless the world rather than simply a genetic line, Paul anticipates a challenge: It’s unjust of God to choose some and not others; to invest all this time in our descendants and then open the doors to just anybody.
Paul’s response? That’s how God has always worked, choosing some and not others; working His plans to completion through some folks for the benefit of others folks. As an example of this Paul points to Pharaoh whose heart was hardened by God so that He could bring the people of Israel out from slavery in the manner that He did.
At this point, a lot of folks today call for a full stop and protest loudly: THAT’S EXACTLY THE PROBLEM!!! How is it fair that God would choose someone like Pharaoh (or anybody else!) to receive judgment and punishment like that. I thought He was for everybody. Paul’s response to these folks: Get over yourselves. God is God and you are not. He created you, the rest of the world, and everything in it. He can use and choose it however He pleases. You are in no position to be able to meaningfully question Him or what He does.
Now, that’s a very honest and true response, but it’s not very pastorally sensitive. If we are going to be helped by this, we have got to get the character of God right and keep it firmly in mind. God is 100% loving and He is always 100% just. He always does the right thing. Always. His choices are always just and not simply because He makes them. At the same time, everything He does is motivated by His love for the people He created and is intended for their good. Everything.
Those truths are simultaneously true all the time. If we see something He has done that seems to contradict one of them, it doesn’t. We just don’t understand Him and what He has done as fully as we could. But, because He’s God and we’re not, He doesn’t owe us an explanation. Often He does explain, but not always. For the situations that fall in the “not always” category, we rely on the situations in the “often He does” category to give us confidence that He’s still the same even when we don’t understand Him.
The key is to not let the times we don’t understand keep us from embracing the life He offers. We must lean into the times we do and allow the faith those grow in us to carry us through the others. Fortunately, if we are willing to do a little bit of work, the times we do far outnumber the times we don’t.