Can we really trust the “god-of-my-plans”?

November 21, 2013

keller_bookIn his new book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller shares a story told by Elisabeth Elliot in a novel she wrote in the ’60s called No Graven Image. Elliot describes an American missionary in South America named Margaret who has devoted her life to translating the Bible into an indigenous tribe’s native language. The tribe’s language has never before been written down.

Key to her work was the discovery of a man, Pedro, who knew the unwritten dialect that Margaret needed to learn in order to translate the Bible into that particular language. He began the to teach her the language, and her painstaking work of systematically recording  and documenting it moved forward.[1]

Pedro, she believes, had been the answer to her prayer. “God now seemed to be bringing things together. Margaret imagines the possibility of bringing the Bible to a million people in remote regions of the mountains.”[2]

One day she arrived at Pedro’s home to continue their work. She discovers that Pedro has a painful, infected wound in his leg. Since Margaret was equipped to provide routine medical care, she gives him a penicillin shot. It turns out he is allergic, and he begins convulsing from anaphylaxis. Within moments, and despite her fervent prayers, he dies.

All the years of labor are wiped away. “As for translation of the Bible, of course, I cannot go ahead without an informant. God knew about that when Pedro died. I do not write prayer letters [to my supporters] anymore, for I have nothing to say about my work. It seemed, on the night of Pedro’s death, as though Finis were written below all I had done.

The books ends, and there’s no happy ending or silver lining for Margaret. Her only consolation is found on the last page, which includes this line: “God, if He was merely my accomplice, had betrayed me. If, on the other hand, He was God, He had freed me.”[3]

Elliot gave a lecture at Keller’s seminary shortly after the book was published. After drawing attention to the preceding line,

[s]he went on to explain to us that the graven image, the idol of the title, was a God who always acted the way we thought he should. Or more to the point—he was a God who supported our plans, how we thought the world and history should go. That is a God of our own creation, a counterfeit god. Such a god is really just a projection of our own wisdom, of our own self. In that way of operating, God is our “accomplice,” someone to whom we relate as long as he is doing what we want. If he does something else, we want to “fire” him, or “unfriend him,” as we would any personal assistant who was insubordinate or incompetent.

But at the very end, Margaret realizes that the demise of her plans had shattered her false god, and now she was free for the first time to worship the True One. When serving the god-of-my-plans, she had been extraordinarily anxious. She had never been sure that God was going to come through for her and “get it right.” She was always trying to figure out how to bring God to do what she had planned. But she had not really been treating him as God—as the all-wise, all-good, all-powerful one. Now she had been liberated to put her hope not in her agendas and plans but in God himself. In short, suffering had pointed her to a glorious God, and it had taught her to treat him as such.[4]

Keller (and Elliot) raise the troubling question, Why did God allow this bad thing to happen? According to my previous way of thinking, I might have said something like, “Really horrible, evil things happen in the world. God hates it for you and suffers alongside you. In the end he’ll make it all right.”

This isn’t a horrible answer, but it doesn’t account for God’s will in the matter. It’s true, as orthodox Christian teaching has it, that God doesn’t cause evil. But how does that let God off the hook—if that’s what we imagine we’re doing by asserting that God doesn’t cause evil?

God has the power, we Christians believe, to answer prayer and prevent evil and suffering. Nearly every time evil and suffering happen, a prayer has gone unanswered, a petition has not been granted. Why does God answer some prayers and not others? Is it because he isn’t as powerful as we imagine? Is it because prayer doesn’t really work? Is it because he really just lets events run their course naturally?

I hope not! Yet, in so many words, that’s what we learned about God and suffering in the mainline Protestant seminary I attended. The theological deficiency here is that we have failed to make sense of God’s sovereignty, which is a clear biblical theme. Pastorally speaking, a god who fretfully wrings his hands over suffering but can’t really do anything about it isn’t very comforting, to say the least.

No, Keller and Elliot have it right: The correct answer to the question, Why does God allow this bad thing to happen? is this: We don’t know, but we can be sure God has his good reasons. So we can trust him.

Besides, if we could fully comprehend his reasons, God would be less than God.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 170.

2. Ibid., 171.

3. Ibid., 172.

4. Ibid., 172-3.

8 Responses to “Can we really trust the “god-of-my-plans”?”

  1. Clay Knick Says:

    Very well done!

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree we cannot “figure God out”; he is much above our ken. However, in my opinion I would say that with respect to suffering or thwarted plans, God at least very highly likely has his reasons (meaning, he is no just doing “whatever he wants” in the sense that we might do that), and I think that those reasons are at least very highly likely to be towards the ultimate good end of his children. Not as a limit on God that we impose, but one that he seems to have taken on himself. “And we know that all things work together for good for them who love God, who are the called according to his purpose.” “How much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”

    So, why the thwarting and pain? Because we are not in a position to see what is best, as God is. I also think this question raises my “Doctrine of Competing Principles.” Two otherwise good things may clash with each other, in which case one has to win out over the other, or both be modified somewhat. Who knows whether someone else’s prayer may be at work which calls for a different result than my prayer would seem to, and who knows which prayer is more “important”? We have to leave it to God to work all those things out, as only he can.

  3. As a missionary, I know that a sense of “calling” – or better yet, of having been sent by God – to fulfill a certain task is the anchor that keeps us from running away when the going gets tough. I really don’t follow the logic that says that translating the Bible had become an “idol.” That seems non-sensical to me.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Two thoughts: If the thing you’re called to do ends in (what appears to be) complete failure and heartbreak, as was the case with this missionary, wouldn’t you question whether or not you were called? I probably would. After all, a call isn’t something written on a golden plate that falls from the sky. The possibility of misunderstanding our call always exists.

      As a pastor who had to talk about and defend my call as part of the ordination process, I’ve certainly heard testimonies from fellow clergy who talk about their call as an “anchor,” but given the subjective nature of such things, I don’t know that I experience it that way.

      Second, the author wasn’t saying that translating the Bible had become an idol; rather, her belief in a God who was her “accomplice”—who works according to her plans, who would do her bidding or ensure her success. She apparently needed to learn that God is God, whether she was successful or not.

      Not that I’ve read Elliot’s book, but it sounds to me like “idol” is probably too strong a word. Still, I get her point, and I think it’s a good one. If our plans don’t come to fruition, we can still trust that God has his reasons.

      Keller says in the book that this novel, based on real-life events in Elliot’s life, was very controversial when it was published.

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