Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 2)

Hillary Clinton and Bill Shillady

(To read Part 1 of this series, click here.]

Last week, CNN interviewed Hillary Clinton’s pastor, the Rev. Bill Shillady, a United Methodist, on the eve of the publication of his new devotional book. The interviewer asked him if his faith was challenged by the election results. He said the following:

It wasn’t a challenge to my faith in terms of believing or not believing in God. I’m a bit of a process theologian, which means that, as life goes along, I believe in an all-loving God who may not always be in control, rather than an all-powerful God who is not loving. But I was definitely depressed for a few months after the election.

Frankly, if that were the choice we Christians face—between a God who is all-powerful but not all loving or all-loving but not not all-powerful—then we’d all have good reason to be depressed! If it were true that our all-loving God “may not always be in control,” then how can we possibly trust or depend on him? After all, God makes many promises to his children in scripture. How do we know that he has the power to fulfill them?

Fortunately, the Rev. Shillady has offered us a false choice: to say the least, God can be all-loving and all-powerful and also allow Donald Trump to be president! And that would be equally true if Clinton had won.

What’s tragic, however, is that so many Methodist laypeople, Secretary Clinton included, are being taught otherwise!

Still, Shillady’s words are a timely reminder of why we need a firm grasp on God’s providence.

So let’s go back to the controversial 2007 post from pastor John Piper, which he wrote after the 35W bridge collapsed and killed 35 people and injured 145. Was Piper right or wrong?

Piper begins by saying that on the night the bridge collapsed, the appointed scripture for his family devotion time was Luke 13:1-5. He writes, “It was not my choice. This is surely no coincidence.” I assume Piper means that the reading came by way of a pre-determined calendar of scripture readings or a devotional book.

If so, Jesus’ words in that passage couldn’t be more timely. Jesus and his disciples have just received breaking news: Pontius Pilate massacred Galilean worshipers in the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s likely that the messengers who delivered the news expected Jesus to endorse a widely held theological interpretation of tragedies such as this one: God was punishing its victims for their particular sins. Instead, Jesus says the following:

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Notice that Jesus’ other example of recent tragedy—a tower falling on people—couldn’t be more closely related to the 35W bridge disaster. So I agree with Piper: The fact that this scripture was the appointed text on this particular evening is surely no coincidence… Unless of course meticulous providence doesn’t exist, in which case coincidences abound.

Because even my saying that this was “no coincidence” requires a lot of providential string-pulling: For example, months or years earlier, God, foreseeing the 35W bridge tragedy, inspired someone—a devotional writer or publisher—to choose Luke 13:1-5 as the reading for this particular day, after which God made sure that this devotional book got into the hands of John Piper and his family, and they were reading from it the night of the tragedy.

Pastor and author Tim Keller makes a similar point about the establishment of his church, Redeemer Presbyterian, in Manhattan:

Redeemer exists to a great degree because my wife, Kathy, and I were set to New York City to start this as a new church. Why were we sent? It was because we joined a Presbyterian denomination that encouraged church planting and that sent us out. But why did we join a Presbyterian denomination? We joined it because in the very last semester of my last year at seminary, I had two courses under a particular professor who convinced me to adopt the doctrines and beliefs of Presbyterianism. But why was that professor at the seminary at that time? He was there only because, after a long period of waiting, he was finally able to get his visa as a citizen of Great Britain to come and teach in the United States.

This professor had been hired by my U.S. seminary but had been having a great deal of trouble getting a visa. For various reasons at the time the process was very clogged and there was an enormous backlog of applications.

What was it that broke through all the red tape so he could get his visa and come in time to teach me that last semester? I was told that his visa process was facilitated because one of the students at our seminary at the time was able to give the school administration an unusually high-level form of help. The student was the son of the sitting president of the United States at the time. Why was his father president? It was because the former president, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur? I understand that it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door.

What if the security guard had not noticed the door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction. In that case – nothing else in that long string of ‘coincidences’ would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city. Do you think all that happened by accident? I don’t. If that did not all happen by accident, nothing happens by accident.

I like to say to people at Redeemer: If you are glad for this church, then even Watergate happened for you.

Very seldom do we glimpse even a millionth of the ways that God is working all things together for good for those who love God. But he is.[†]

Even Watergate happened for you. 

Do we believe that God has the power to work in the world like this? Do we believe that God loves us enough to work in the world like this?

If not, then let’s stop thanking God for happy coincidences. They are nothing more than the outworking of blind physical forces and ungoverned human will.

And you might say, “Yes, but I believe God’s providence applies to good things that happen in the world! Every good thing happens for a reason, just not the bad things!”

With a moment’s reflection, however, I think you’ll see that you can’t have one without the other. God will often have to work through pain, suffering, sin, and evil—as he did in the events of Watergate—to arrive at those events that are good for us and our world—for example, the founding of Redeemer. Besides, as Job wisely said, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” We can know that Job was espousing good theology, by the way, because the very next sentence tells us, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”

Years ago, during a wilderness period in my spiritual life, I was a skeptic on the doctrine of providence. When I heard someone thank God for something that I considered trivial, I often thought, without saying out loud, “If you’re going to thank God for something that goes your way, are you prepared to blame God when things don’t go your way?”

Although I would never put it like that today, my logic was sound: If God is in control, he’s in control all the way. It cannot be the case that we live in a world in which some things “just happen,” as I’ve heard more than a few pastors say, while other things reflect God’s providence. Why? Because the things that “just happen” affect everything else in the world. There’s a ripple effect—or as Keller puts it, a “butterfly effect”—of unimaginable consequences from even one small, seemingly insignificant event. Not to mention that all along that causal chain, God’s people are praying, and the God to whom they’re praying has promised to answer our prayers and grant our petitions.

Years ago, I argued with a friend in ministry about whether “God cares who wins the Super Bowl.” I was emphatic: Of course God cares! How could he not? He’s got players, coaches, team owners, front-office personnel, stadium vendors, and fans of both teams, all of whom God loves and all of whom care passionately about who wins and loses. For many, their livelihoods depend on or are deeply affected by the game’s outcome. Moreover, many of them are Christians who are praying to a God who tells them in his Word that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” All means all, including the snap of every ball in every play!

Why would a Christian believe that God doesn’t care about who wins the Super Bowl? Do we believe that God has “more important” things to care about—global terrorism, hunger, nuclear proliferation, racism, etc.? In which case, we think, God is “too big” to care about something small and insignificant like a football game. In believing this, however, we’re really saying that God is too small to care: He’s merely a bigger, more perfect version of ourselves: like us, he has a limited amount of time and attention to give to things and people in the world. Every moment he spends redeeming a heartbreaking loss for an Atlanta Falcons player (or fan) is one less moment he has to spend on North Korea’s nuclear program.

Is my logic wrong here? Is the underlying assumption not a faulty belief that we’re competing for God’s attention alongside billions of other people or things in the universe?

Anyway, I didn’t make it more than three paragraphs into Piper’s essay, and I’ve written over 1,700 words. I’ll write more soon!

Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 265-6.

20 thoughts on “Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 2)”

  1. The complexity of considering the dynamic of events associated with every human who has ever lived and how they relate to the whole is beyond man’s comprehension. Add to that weather, natural disasters, and all other non-human causal events and it gets exponentially more daunting.

    Someone once said in one of my Bible study classes, “how do we know if some lone individual living a thousand years ago had an effect on today’s world?” We don’t. But it is easy to conjecture that if he had children and grandchildren that there were effects. Most probably small, but perhaps some were history changers.

    I believe that God is in control of all of this. Others don’t. But, if as you point out, if God has all of the attributes we believe Him to have, then it follows logically that He is in control of it all.

    1. I wrote several more paragraphs on the subject since you posted this. Be sure to check it out. 😊

    2. Here’s the best part: “It cannot be the case that we live in a world in which some things “just happen,” as I’ve heard more than a few pastors say, while other things reflect God’s providence. Why? Because the things that “just happen” affect everything else in the world. There’s a ripple effect—or as Keller puts it, a “butterfly effect”—of unimaginable consequences from even one small, seemingly insignificant event. Not to mention that all along that causal chain, God’s people are praying, and the God to whom they’re praying has promised to answer our prayers and grant our petitions.”

  2. Amen brother!

    Bottom line is that God is so much greater than anything we can imagine. Our thoughts are anthropological. His “thoughts” are cosmic.

  3. I agree that God is in charge of every single thing that happens in the history of the world (including, for example, that David committed adultery against Bathsheba, as Christ came from that lineage [both tracks]). However (and I almost always have one!), consider the statement, “For whom he did FOREKNOW, them he did also predestinate….” Could it not be that God’s foreordination is “tied into” what “state of heart” he knew we would ultimately have? It seems to me that, without doing violence to providence, God can “start with something” and then weave everything else around that to accomplish the exemplification of that “starting with” (and all his other purposes that he had in creation and history). Thus, if it were actually possible for me to know my son’s heart fully (something solely in the bailiwick of God), could I not arrange all my interactions with him to “bring that out” of him? Only, God can do that perfectly, including where he puts you in history to begin with (what year, what family, what socio-economic status, etc.) So, I don’t consider it inconsistent with God’s providence to suppose that the one thing God did not “make” happen was the nature of our hearts; rather, foreknowing that, he “wrapped” all of history around it.

    Where did “what we are” come from, then? I consider that God is so great that he could, because he wanted to, create “free choosers,” because he wanted people who could “love him back” of their “own free will” (and love that is “coerced” is no love at all). Just consider God in the first instance–is he not a “free chooser”? Can’t he do “whatever he wants”? So, then, are we not “made in the image of God”? Is God proscribed, for some reason, from creating us to be “like him” in that respect? I don’t find him to be so “proscribed.” I find that to be one of the “infinite mysteries” of God. But I cling to it because I believe in love, and that God is love, and I don’t see how those things can be unless we are “free choosers.”

    1. Tom, I have wrestled with a question that Grant brought up last year in one of our many arguments on the question of God’s sovereignty and free will. And it’s a question you implicitly answer in your second paragraph: If we don’t freely choose God (after, this Arminian hastens to add, being enabled by the Spirit to do so), could God have created us differently such that we would freely choose him?

      The question was something along those lines. Grant can correct me if I’m wrong.

      It was a good question: it forced me to wrestle with it, after all. But here’s the problem with the question: It assumes that our ability to freely choose God (even after the Spirit intervenes preveniently, as we Methodists say) doesn’t exist—it’s an illusion. It’s all determined in advance by how God made us.

      Like you, Tom, I don’t believe that. I believe that our ability to freely choose, however corrupted by sin and in need of healing by the Spirit, exists independently of how God made us. Therefore, we truly have the ability to freely choose or reject God’s offer of salvation in Christ. I believe God made us that way.

  4. Let’s go to how it is “explained” in the Bible. As I understand the story, God created man in His image and initially man was without sin, embarrassment or any mentioned flaw. The relationship between God and man was one of perfect love both ways. When the “evil one” entered the picture, man/woman was tempted to disobey God and the relationship was broken. The “right to choose” is what brought about the fall and the sinful nature of man. The rest of the Bible is about the lengths God was willing to go to restore that relationship by washing away that sin. (This is way too short, and misses many other important points).

    So, given our ability to understand, it certainly seems that man was a “free chooser” from the beginning. For His own good reasons God allowed man the ability/right to disobey. Why God did this is not explained, but it was obviously His decision since He could have easily prevented it. Man’s free will certainly made a mess of things! 🙂

    One question for Tom; once you get to Heaven and are in perfect relationship with God, will you still have the “right to choose”? Personally, I don’t think that being in a state of total devotion will lessen the quality of love I have for God, or He has for me. I hope it will increase it.

  5. So are you saying, the only “free choices” we can make after Adam are for evil? Absent God “intervening” to make us choose for good (which, would that be “free choice”?)?

    As far as heaven, I think once we have seen how our bad choices in this life led to harm, we are in the presence of God, the Devil is not around to tempt us, there is no “original sin” effect, and so forth, we would and will only “choose rightly.” Not that we will “lose” free choice.

  6. Our differences regarding free will notwithstanding, none of us appears to be disagreeing with the point of this blog post, right? 😉

  7. Definitely agree.

    I’m not even challenging Tom on “free choosers”. We can find plenty of Scripture to support both free will accountability and God’s predestination. It’s not an argument that can be “won”. I was simply raising some interesting questions.

    I think the following quote from Sprugeon comes close to my own position:

    “Men sin as freely as birds fly in the air, and they are altogether responsible for their sin; and yet everything is ordained and foreseen of God. The foreordination of God in no degree interferes with the responsibility of man. I have often been asked by persons to reconcile the two truths. My only reply is — They need no reconciliation, for they never fell out. Why should I try to reconcile two friends? Prove to me that the two truths don’t agree….These two facts are parallel lines; I cannot make them unite, but you cannot make them cross each other. Permit me also to add that I have long ago given up the idea of making all my beliefs into a system. I believe, but I cannot explain. I fall before the majesty of revelation, and adore the infinite Lord.” **

    ** from Spurgeon’s Sermon on Christmas and Easter

    I think that is beautiful!

    1. I like this. I might ask how he defines “foreordination,” but since I already believe that God foresees and is using everything for his good purposes, I doubt we’d be too far off. And like Spurgeon, I don’t think any man-made “system” can adequately contain what God has revealed in his Word. Let’s not try to jam it in like a square peg in a round hole.

  8. Not without God’s help. Not without God’s grace.

    So, it depends on what “freely” needs to mean to you.

    1. I understand your position and recognize many great saints (including yourself!) believe that. I think there are passages that can be read both ways. One that stands out to me is: “But without faith it is impossible to please him. For he that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” Hebrews 11:6. Means to me: The “believing” and “seeking” is on our part, and that it is which is “pleasing” to God, and based on which he extends salvation to us. Another one: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man will open the door, I will come in to him, and share a meal with him, and he with me.” Revelation 3 something. Seems to say that the “opening the door” is our part. But, as I say, I don’t contest that there are other verses people rely on to disagree.

  9. Perhaps it would help to share my own experience. All of my life I was trying to please God, and I felt that I was failing. Whatever good I did, I soon offset with bad. It was like Luther seeking to be perfect, and beating himself up at the confessional for his shortcomings. Then one sad morning fifteen years ago I woke up in a Chicago hotel room totally broken. I had failed again. I finally dropped to my knees and begged God to help me. I knew I could never do it on my own. I stayed on my knees all day until I finally fell asleep. When I awoke the next morning I felt a change. All I can say is that from that moment on the demon that had been tormenting me never returned. It’s not that I became perfect either. I just felt that I was in peace with my God. He was in control.

    Peter Marshall was said to have commented about a popular novel: “If God is your co-pilot, your sitting in the wrong seat”.

    That’s pretty much my estimation of my role vis a vis God’s role in my life.

    I’m glad that your confident in the power of your free will. I hope it never fails you.

  10. Certainly no argument with your good testimony. I would simply respond to your last, “confident in the power of your free will.” I’m not at all confident in any ability of mine to always obey God, and I quite frequently don’t. I also recognize that if my salvation depended on my complete obedience, whether “to start with” or continuing thereafter, I would not be saved (and neither would anybody else). But I think my point is distinguishable from that impossibility.

    Let me give my own experience, given yours. Though I believe I was saved when I was five (but have no memory of it, just remember the baptism–judging from “actions thereafter”), I went “astray” for about ten years and totally “stopped believing.” However, I “returned.” The particular “moment” that to me consummated that return, and after which I no longer had any doubts, was when I said to my family, “I don’t see how it could be true, but you are so happy and I am so miserable that I am going to try to believe it.” Nothing greater on my part than that. (Although I made a pretty momentous decision in the immediate wake of that.) But, I still “did something.” I made a “step” toward faith (meager as it may have been). Until I did that, I had no confidence. Afterwards, I did. So that is the “type of thing” that I am saying I believe a person is “capable of” doing, without any “imbuing” of God to enable him to do that.

    In your case, without presuming to correctly “interpret” it, I might venture to say, God did not “force” you to your knees to cry out to him. That was a “step of faith” on your part towards seeking God’s forgiveness. That’s the way it looks to me, anyway.

    1. And I would agree with your assessment in both cases. Turning it over to God is an act of will. In my case it was surrender. In yours, it seems to have been “taking down the wall”, which is also a form of surrender. I think that’s a common thread. Did God “draw us”, or “woo us” to Himself? I think so.

      So thankful that He did, and that I surrendered.

      1. One last comment! 🙂 Agree totally with the wooing–my thought is the “succumbing” to the wooing is “our part.”

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