Don: Does God need to exercise grace for His own sake? The following passages would suggest so (emphasis added):
“I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake,… (Isaiah 43:25)
“For the sake of My name I delay My wrath,
And for My praise I restrain it for you,
In order not to cut you off.
“Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,” declares the Lord God,… Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and your abominations. I am not doing this for your sake,” declares the Lord God, “let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel!” (Ezekiel 36:22-32)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23)
Why would God give grace for His own sake? Scripture again points to a possible answer. First, there is the strange story of Balaam and his talking donkey. The Israelites, having been released from bondage in Egypt, were causing great trouble to the tribes whose territories they passed through on their journey to the Promised Land. So a tribal chief, Balak, sent emissaries to a man believed to have influence with God, Balaam, asking Balaam to use his influence to get God to help Balak and his people make the Israelites go away…
So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam and repeated Balak’s words to him. He said to them, “Spend the night here, and I will bring word back to you as the Lord may speak to me.” And the leaders of Moab stayed with Balaam. Then God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent word to me, ‘Behold, there is a people who came out of Egypt and they cover the surface of the land; now come, curse them for me; perhaps I may be able to fight against them and drive them out.’” God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” So Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak’s leaders, “Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” The leaders of Moab arose and went to Balak and said, “Balaam refused to come with us.”
Then Balak again sent leaders, more numerous and more distinguished than the former. They came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor, ‘Let nothing, I beg you, hinder you from coming to me; for I will indeed honor you richly, and I will do whatever you say to me. Please come then, curse this people for me.’” Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the Lord my God. [This begs the questions: Who is the recipient of grace, and what is it for?] Now please, you also stay here tonight, and I will find out what else the Lord will speak to me.” [Balaam is being disingenuous. On the one hand, he refuses to go; and on the other, he says “Please stay here while I ask if God has changed His mind.] God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do.”
So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey and went with the leaders of Moab. [Note that “the men” did not come to call Balaam—he went to them and with them of his own accord. God was not pleased:]
But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding on his donkey and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand, the donkey turned off from the way and went into the field; but Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back into the way. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path of the vineyards, with a wall on this side and a wall on that side. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she pressed herself to the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he struck her again. The angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place where there was no way to turn to the right hand or the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam was angry and struck the donkey with his stick. And the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Then Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a mockery of me! If there had been a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.”
Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed all the way to the ground. The angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to me. [This makes me wonder: Does grace always result in something good, or could it result in an adversarial situation?] But the donkey saw me and turned aside from me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, I would surely have killed you just now, and let her live.” Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the way against me. Now then, if it is displeasing to you, I will turn back.” [That “if” seems odd, given all the signs of God’s displeasure he has been given.] But the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but you shall speak only the word which I tell you.” So Balaam went along with the leaders of Balak.
When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at the city of Moab, which is on the Arnon border, at the extreme end of the border. Then Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not urgently send to you to call you? Why did you not come to me? Am I really unable to honor you?” So Balaam said to Balak, “Behold, I have come now to you! Am I able to speak anything at all? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I shall speak.” And Balaam went with Balak, and they came to Kiriath-huzoth. Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep, and sent some to Balaam and the leaders who were with him.
Then it came about in the morning that Balak took Balaam and brought him up to the high places of Baal, and he saw from there a portion of the people. (Numbers 22:7-41)
The next two chapters describe how Balak took Balaam to various places to curse Israel; but instead of curses, only blessings came out of Balaam’s mouth.
Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam, and he struck his hands together; and Balak said to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have persisted in blessing them these three times! Therefore, flee to your place now. I said I would honor you greatly, but behold, the Lord has held you back from honor.” (Numbers 24:10-11)
Again we see grace for God’s sake, not for Balaam’s sake.
Later, Balaam devised a plan to bring into the Israelites’ camp women from the various tribes around to seduce and sicken the Israelite men and bring about their destruction:
Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves. (Numbers 31:16-18)
So Balaam did, in the end, succeed in bringing a curse on Israel, not through his mouth but via a stratagem of sex and disease (a plague).
In this entire story, who is the recipient of grace? Who needs it? Can we find grace only in good outcomes, or might it sometimes be found in unfortunate outcomes? We can see that God has plans for Israel, for Balaam, for the donkey, for you and for me. His plans are embellished with grace and forgiveness and mercy—not just for our sakes but for His. What does that really mean? Is there something about grace for my sake, leading me in the path of righteousness for my sake, that implies that grace and righteousness are about me and who I am and what I do? Is it possible that God’s grace and forgiveness is done for His sake? If it were done for my sake, could I claim some credit for it? Could I justify its application to myself?
Grace cannot be conditioned on anything that I do. I cannot deserve it, I cannot earn it, I cannot respond to expectations of it; otherwise it is not grace. God leads us into paths of righteousness for His name’s sake because He alone is the righteous one. Give Balaam credit for recognizing that when the will of Man is tested against the will of God, God’s will will prevail. Is it grace that overpowers the will? This was evidently the case with the conversion of Saul the persecutor of Christians into Paul the Apostle of Christ:
Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:1-9)
It is unambiguous that Saul’s will was overpowered by God’s grace. He was told exactly what he must do. Would he have recognized this dramatic and seemingly unfavorable about-turn in his life—a fall from his horse, sudden blindness—as grace for God’s sake? Could Saul’s own will have fought back and won?
Robin: It puzzles me how Balaam could have persisted in trying to defy God, given all that happened to him.
KB: I try to apply what I learn in the Bible to my own life. Oftentimes, without realizing it, we go against God’s will. Other people may see that and caution us to take another route. But when we really want something—when we are pressured by life and society and Satan—we get blinded, we don’t listen and we ignore God when he says “No, you shouldn’t be cursing Israel, you should be blessing it.” We should pray God to help us see the right direction, because we tend not to see it, as Balaam’s case shows us.
Michael: But God’s will was done in the end, not Balaam’s.
KB: That is a comforting thing.
Michael: But Balaam’s will prevailed over God’s insofar as he eventually succeeded in bringing a curse on the Israelites through the women and the plague.
Robin: God was so clearly trying to give grace, even resorting to supernatural means, yet in the end Balaam rejected it. He put his own will ahead of God’s. God does not force His will upon us.
Michael: Yet God put words into Balaam’s mouth—blessings that Balaam had intended to come out as curses.
Donald: Are God’s will and God’s plan two different things? We talk about God’s plan for each of us. How do I know what is His plan for me, His will for me? When do I go off the rails? Is it when it becomes more about me than about Him? How do we know that an outcome that seems bad at the time but turns out later to be beneficient is God’s plan? God leads us in the direction of His plan for us, His will concerning us; but it can be hard to recognize or know His plan. How can we be sure that we are following it?
David: If grace is for God’s sake, perhaps His plan is too. This would accord first with The Way of Daoism—it is its own path and we can go along with it or we can try to find our own way; but ultimately we will fail. Second, it accords with Frank Tipler’s Omega Point Theory, which posits that at the End of the Age—at the Omega Point—all of Creation (the entire universe, us included) contracts back into a singularity, a unity, with the Creator. This plan is for His sake as much as for ours. And third, it accords with Process Theology, in which God is a Being supervising His own Becoming—again, it is about Him, not about us. It is about fulfilling God’s original plan for the garden of Eden, in which all is in unity with Him and His will alone is done.
Robin: Perhaps God is our spiritual GPS, constantly re-routing us to where we need to go.
Mikiko: God gave us the Bible so we could know His plan for our future. He loved us so much and wanted us to have everlasting life and to know Him. Satan is ruling this world right now, but God’s plan is for Armageddon followed by a new heaven and earth, a new garden of Eden, with Him in charge.
Don: God intervened with Saul and Balaam to move them away from the path and the plan that they were on. In both cases, there was a blindness—Balaam did not see the angel blocking his way, and Saul was turned literally blind—which was necessary to get back on the path of righteousness for God’s sake (Psalm 23). Do we relinquish our will by accepting God’s grace? Is that the deal? Or can we have both will and grace?
Anonymous: For God’s plan and for God’s sake, He will overcome our will. He will save Israel, no matter Man’s will in the matter. He will convert Saul, no matter Saul’s will in the matter. He leads us to the path of righteousness for His name’s sake—for His own sake. His plan for Himself is to be glorified, and for Man to be saved. It’s our decision whether to be saved or not, but it does not affect God’s plan. God prevails. The Israelites were given a lot of grace, despite their many transgressions. So was Balaam, yet he preferred an earthly reward of gold and silver.
Michael: There is a disarming quality about grace. We have to relinquish something in return for it. It is the only way we can “give back” the grace we receive.
Anonymous: It’s not for us to pass grace on to others, as though it came from us. It is not ours to give. It is not hoarded and so does not turn toxic if we give something—our desires, our will—back to God in return for it. But that giving back is a matter between me and God, not between me and my fellow wo/man, though it will lead to a difference in the way we treat others.
Donald: Do we “give something up” or do we just change direction in order to accept God’s grace and His plan for our lives? If I follow God’s plan, I will lead a fulfilled life—I don’t see that I am giving anything up.
Anonymous: You don’t have to give something up to receive grace, but it will turn toxic if you don’t.
Donald: Hoarding is form of selfishness. What do we mean by “sake” as in “for my sake”?
Robin: In human terms, “for my sake” has a selfish connotation, but God is not selfish.
KB: And since He is our benefactor, “for His sake” means “for our sakes.”
Michael: In the parable of the Talents, punishing the servant who hoarded the talent suggests a selfish master who expected to get richer.
Mikiko: God wants us to live in peace and happiness in paradise on Earth. The meek will possess it and find exquisite delight in the abundance of peace (Psalm 37) in the new heaven and new earth we are promised.
David: The notion of doing things for God’s sake fits perfectly with Process Theology. In order to Become, God the Being must act selfishly. Since we are a part of both the Being and the Becoming, how could it be otherwise?
Don: Peace may be the final outcome of grace, as Mikiko says, though Balaam did not seem to find much peace from the grace he received! Perhaps grace is a turbulent process.