And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’”
The sovereignty of God is one of the great mysteries of Christian faith. I’m certainly not going to sort it all out in one edition of Life for Leaders. I couldn’t do so definitively in a thousand! Today, my purpose is fairly modest. I want to help us pay close attention to one surprising verse in Genesis 8 so that we might see how this verse helps us answer the question: Do our actions affect God’s actions?
After the floodwaters subsided, Noah exited the ark, along with his family and the rest of the creatures on the ark. When his feet hit dry ground, the first thing Noah did was to build an altar so that he might offer sacrifices to God upon it. Genesis 8:21 describes God’s response to Noah’s actions: “And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’”
The bottom line is clear: God will not again curse the ground, causing it to be flooded and thus destroying “every living creature.” Why has God chosen this new course of action? According to verse 21, it is a response to Noah’s sacrifice. The Hebrew of this verse is clear. God smelled the pleasing smoke of the sacrifice and then promised to himself that he would never again wipe out the creatures of the world.
At this point, preachers and commentators get stirred up. Some emphasize the literal sense of the story, claiming that God changed his mind in direct response to Noah’s worshipful activity. Others look beyond the literal story, seeing God’s grace between the lines. Rather than trying to resolve this tension, I would suggest that we live with it. Scripture, it seems to me, teaches that our actions really do make a difference to God. Take prayer, for example. The Bible teaches that our prayers do affect what God does. At the same time, it would be contrary to the whole sweep of the biblical narrative to claim that mere human action somehow caused God to be gracious. Grace, by definition, is unmerited. It is freely given. It flows from God’s basic character.
Thus, I believe that Genesis 8:21 shows us, on the one hand, that human activity does count with God. In the mystery of God’s will, what we do makes a difference. At the same time, when we read Genesis 8:21 in light of the whole biblical narrative, we see God’s grace at work. Even though “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (Gen 8:21), God will never again wipe out humankind as he did in the flood. Why not? Because the Lord is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6).
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Do you think your actions affect God’s actions? Why or why not?
How does the tension illustrated in Genesis 8:21 make a difference in your life?
Gracious God, to be sure, we will never fully understand you. Your ways are not our ways. Your greatness and glory exceed our comprehension. Sometimes it seems that we end up believing things about you that don’t quite make sense. Yet we believe, acknowledging our limitations.
Thank you, Lord, that our actions do somehow really matter to you. And, thank you, that behind and beneath all things lies your sovereign grace.
May I act today as if what I do really matters, because it does. And, at the same time, may I rely fully and finally on your grace, your sovereignty, your love. Amen.
Image: Landschaft mit dem Dankopfer Noahs by Joseph Anton Koch, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.