There is a major principle in the world of translation: “You cannot translate something you do not understand.” What this means for our project is that before we can even attempt translating a passage into Kwakum, we have to make sure we understand it ourselves. As our team has wrestled through various passages, there have been many times in which the Kwakum translators have posed this question to me: “Why would God do that?”
Let me give you a couple illustrations. The first one comes up right away: “Why did God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden?” You may have asked that one, but there are some questions that arise for them that I would never have thought of. For instance, “Why would God continually overlook the firstborn?” In the Kwakum culture (similarly to the Jewish culture) the firstborn son has a lot of authority and privilege not accorded to the other children. So, when God chose Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David (just to name a few) to play special roles in his Kingdom, he was overlooking their older brothers. Why would God do that?
As a group, we often spend time thinking through potential reasons. But at the end of the day, the root issue comes down to the fact that God is not like us. God does not work like us. God does not think like us. Even in translating the little that we have, there have been many times in which our translators have said, “This is not the god that we have been taught!”
The prophet Habakkuk faced a similar situation just before the nation of Judah was taken off into exile. Habakkuk looked around him and saw violence, iniquity, destruction, strife, and contention. He prayed to God, but saw no response. This led him to cry out, “How long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?” (Habakkuk 1:2a). In other words, like my translators, Habakkuk was asking, “God, why are you doing this?”
Unlike my experience, God actually replied to Habakkuk personally,
“Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.” (Habakkuk 1:5-6)
In case you didn’t catch it, Habakkuk was asking, “Why are you not doing something?” God responded, “I am doing something. I have sent the Chaldeans (Babylonians) to come and take the Judeans out of their country to be slaves in Babylon.
In response to the Lord’s claims, Habakkuk has a “wait…what?” moment asking God how he could do such a thing. He asks, “How could you use a nation that is more corrupt that Israel to judge Israel?!” Or in other words, “God, why are you doing this?” God responds again, helping Habakkuk to see that this is in the end good for the Israelites and that he will also judge the Babylonians. In fact, God even made him some promises like, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). And so, in the end, Habakkuk concluded,
“Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18)
Habakkuk, the prophet of God, who questioned both the perceived inaction on God’s part, and then the actual action that God chose, concluded that God deserved praise. Even when God didn’t do what he wanted, even when God did do what he didn’t want, he trusted in God.
I Expect God to Be Like Me
Through the process of translating, and seeing the translators’ reactions (and even feeling my own reactions), I have come to the conclusion that God is nothing like us. God does not do what we would expect him to do. I shouldn’t be surprised. God said it himself in many places (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9). But alas, I do find myself wondering at times, “God, why did you do that?”
I think this question reveals that deep down, I expect God to be like me. In any given circumstance, I expect that God would do what I would do. It seems to me that the world would have been better without sin. If I had to choose, I would abandon in a heartbeat my own will (which often chooses sin over righteousness) for a will that only chooses to do what is right. I wouldn’t have put that tree in the garden. However, (and this comes as a surprise to literally no one) I am not God. As such, I know that what was best was for the tree to be in the garden. Why? Because that is what God did. And I rejoice.
I wonder how you question God. Perhaps you have caught yourself praying, “Why did you make me this way?” Or, “Why did you put me in this family?” Or, “Why did you take my child?” Or, “Why did you let me make such bad decisions?” Whatever it is, we all have these questions. We all wonder why God does things the way he does. I don’t think we need to feel bad about the questions. Habakkuk was a prophet of the Lord, afterall, and he asked them. But I do think we need to take the time to recognize that these questions betray a misunderstanding of who God is. God is not like us. He does not think like us. He does not act like us. And though it can be difficult to acknowledge it in the moment, that is a good thing.
…Yet I Will Rejoice in the Lord
You know those feelings of regret that you have? How you wish that you could take back the words, or actions, or even thoughts? God never feels like that. We make decisions based on limited understanding, sometimes without enough sleep, and always with a sinful nature. God is not like us. He is not limited. He does not need sleep. He does not sin. Everything God does is good. In fact, we define what is good by what God does and who God is.
So after the questions, and the realizations, our thoughts should fall in line with Habakkuk, “…yet I will rejoice in the Lord.” Though I may never get married, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. Though I may never have biological children, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. Though I will never again on Earth see my wife’s face, yet I will praise the Lord. Though my children choose to follow the path of destruction, yet I will praise the Lord. Why? Because God is not like us, and that is a good thing.
Not long ago, a young couple in Cameroon who have recently been baptized lost their unborn child at 39 weeks. We have told parts of this story before, but it is hard to describe the horror of the situation. In many ways I long to go back, knowing what I know now, and just take a few very simple steps that could have avoided the tragedy. I am tempted to look back with regret, wishing for a different outcome. However, right before we left, we interviewed this young woman, who’s name is Mami. We asked her what she had been learning from the passages of the Bible we have already translated. Her response floored us.
Mami said, she had been learning that God often uses evil for good, something she had learned through the story of Joseph. It turns out that Mami had been estranged from her family for years because of her desire to honor the Lord. However, when she lost her child, God touched the hearts of her relatives. Instead of the expected joy at her loss, they felt compassion. In the end, Mami told us that she believed that God took her child so that she could be reconciled to her family. You can listen to her testimony in the video below.
I have experienced some loss, plenty frustrations, and I admit to wondering at times what God is doing. But in those times, I pray for the grace to recognize that God is not like me. He has plans I don’t know, and some I cannot even understand. He knows more, loves more, and plans far more than I ever could. I pray that all of us would trust him. He has proved himself faithful time and time again. And I am so glad that he is not like me.
Here’s Mami’s testimony: