Resentment is deadlier than any physical illness

August 31, 2017

At last night’s Bible study, we talked about Galatians 4:13-14: “You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.”

We don’t know for sure what this “bodily ailment” was, although I, along with many scholars, believe that it’s the same affliction as Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. It likely caused Paul some kind of disfigurement, which I suspect, given his words in Galatians 4:15 and his humorous aside in 6:11, is related to his eyes—perhaps Graves’ disease. At least one student in class wondered if God’s blinding him at the time of his conversion didn’t leave his eyes permanently injured. Recall that Paul regains his sight only after “something like scales fell from his eyes” (Acts 9:18). Add to this condition the ancient superstition about the “evil eye,” and it’s easy to imagine that many people who saw Paul would have “scorned and despised” him. But not the Galatians.

But that’s pure speculation. My point is that Paul was only able to lead the Galatians to Christ and establish their churches because of a personal setback he experienced: he was waylaid in their country by a serious illness. God used this setback as a blessing.

The God of the Bible often redeems setbacks.

The thorn in the flesh, for instance, “was given” (divine passive) in order to keep Paul humble. Whenever a divine passive shows up in scripture, we rightly assume the “giver” of the gift is God. Despite Paul’s pleading, Christ refused to remove Paul’s thorn: It was a blessing to him, however painful.

In fact, it was a blessing from God even though, at the same time, it was also a “messenger from Satan [sent] to harass me” (2 Cor 12:7). How can something be both a gift of God and a “messenger of Satan”?

Ask Job. In Job 1-2, God allows Satan to bring great harm to Job and his family, within limits. Satan is testing Job, who, Satan believes, won’t serve God for nothing: as soon as God removes his protective hedge, Job will renounce his faith.

Job, of course, passes the test, and like all successful trials (James 1:2-4), God uses the experience to strengthen Job’s faith. The book climaxes with Job repenting “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). To paraphrase Genesis 50:20, “What Satan intended for evil, God intended for good.” For us believers in Christ, this will always be God’s intentions for trials that come our way.

I told the class that many years ago, pastor John Piper wrote a controversial blog post about his own experience with cancer. He urged readers with the disease not to “waste” it, by which he meant that God has a purpose for allowing us to get cancer—just as he had a purpose for allowing Paul to get his “thorn in the flesh”—and our own attitude can risk frustrating this purpose. (I defended Piper’s blog post back in 2014 and would gladly do so again today.)

One of Piper’s detractors, T.C. Moore, wrote the following about Piper’s post:

If God is sovereign in the way New Calvinists like Piper conceptualize divine sovereignty (as absolute, unilateral control and coercion over every molecule in the universe), then cancer simply cannot be merely “permitted” by God (as Piper points out), but has to be “designed” by God as a gift for human beings. That’s the good and necessary consequences of Piper’s theology no matter who likes it or hates it. Sorry, that’s just the way it is folks!

While I don’t “conceptualize divine sovereignty” as “absolute coercion” (that’s a loaded word!) of every molecule in the universe, orthodox Christian theology teaches that God sustains every molecule in the universe into existence at every moment; he designed the physical laws that govern them; and he superintends their behavior such that, if he wants them to affect us in certain ways, they will. Otherwise God will ensure they won’t, either by letting nature run its course or intervening to cause a different outcome. Either way, the outcome reflects God’s will.

As for Piper’s distinction between what is “designed” versus “permitted,” I agree with that as well (as I argued in my earlier post). What’s the alternative? God “permits” some bad thing that he doesn’t have the power to prevent? Then he’s no longer permitting it; he’s a helpless bystander. In which case, he’s no longer the God of the Bible, to say the least. There is no “mere” permission apart from God’s purposes. And if God keeps the promises in his Word, then we can trust those purposes are both good and for his glory.

Moore went on to accuse Piper of doing a “complete 180” in a later blog post when he says he hates cancer, and that it is “regularly an accomplice in the life-robbing work of our ‘final enemy,’ death (1 Corinthians 15:26).”

But Piper has done no such thing! “What Satan intended for evil, God intended for good.” God always has the power to redeem evil, and he promises his children he will. I’ve given several examples above. But I’ve left out the greatest example: If God has the power to transform the worst evil that the world has ever seen—his Son’s death on the cross—into the greatest good the world has ever seen, then he can certainly redeem any lesser form of evil that comes our way! It’s not hard for God to do this! And his Word promises he will! Why do we doubt him?

Would you rather shake your fist at heaven and say, “Why is this happening to me?” or approach the throne of our heavenly King and ask, “Why are you allowing this to happen to me now, Lord?”—What are you up to, God? What are you trying to teach me? How can I glorify you through this experience?

Inasmuch as I’ve suffered in life, with matters far less serious than cancer, even I know resentment is deadlier than any physical disease.

30 Responses to “Resentment is deadlier than any physical illness”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, the difference between “allowing” versus “coercing” may be somewhat along the lines of one of my own favorite illustrations, the “playwright” versus the “actor on the stage.” God is the “playwright” responsible for how the whole “play” of history goes, but within the play, each person is “acting” according to his own desires and purposes (including God).

    Thus, when Jesus was here, he was the “actor” on “God’s behalf” (indeed, God himself in the flesh), whereas the religious “rulers” were “acting” on the Devil’s behalf (whom they willingly followed, even if they were ignorant of the fact that it was the Devil who was behind it). “You are of your father, the Devil,” Jesus said. So, we know that the rulers were acting “evilly,” as they wanted to do, whereas Christ was acting in a holy manner. But as to the “course of the play,” God was “directing” that Jesus would be “on stage” AT THE SAME TIME as these evil rulers, so that Jesus would end up being crucified by them, which would accomplish the salvation of all who come to God in faith. God did not compel these “actors” to do other than what they wanted to do–he instead “arranged everybody” in the play at the right time and place to accomplish his ultimate purpose.

    I take this to be somewhat the thrust of the controversial passage in Romans 9. God “placed Pharaoh” at the same time as Moses, so that his heart would end up being “hardened” at the preposterous notion that he should let his slave labor force depart at the demand of some nomadic upstart. Thus, God as the “playwright” hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but at the “actor on the stage,” Pharaoh acted precisely as he wanted to. The part about Jacob and Esau is a little harder to interpret in that respect, but to me still fits with a “free choice” understanding. God “placed them” where he did, irrespective of any choice or conduct on their part. God the playwright knew what kind of “actors” they would elect to be in the environment God placed them in (again, through no choice of their own). Having done so, God as the actor “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau based on their own hearts–he did not “force” them to be good versus bad. The fact that he did so “in the past” is not determinative. Something like that. Even if I am not doing justice to that particular example, I think my playwright and actor distinction works well enough to be right, though a “puzzle or two” remains (as it does with most instances of trying to construct a “theology” of a particular issue).

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    If Jacob and Esau were where they were by no choice of their own, and if God knew what they would kind of actors they would “elect to be”, how is that really free choice? Free choice would be the ability to choose a or b free of any external influence. It seems like a circular logic to me. ??

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      I don’t see how putting two brothers in the same situation (twins), knowing how differently they would react to that based on their hearts, constitutes God making them do what they did. They took totally different paths. So, not compelled, just put in the situation where “what they were inside” would come out.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Okay. I’ll buy that for the moment, so now fit in the fact that God “loved Jacob and hated Esau” before they were born or had done anything.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      That’s the toughest passage to chew on for a free choice advocate in scripture, I think. However, consider the fact that God knows everything in advance, so even though they had done nothing yet does not preclude God’s “foreknowledge” of what they would do, and therefore loving or hating them accordingly. The previous chapter says, “For whom he did FOREKNOW, them also he did predestinate.” God “calls the end from the beginning,” one prophet says. The focus here may be more on God’s knowing everything in advance, and acting/loving accordingly, rather than ARBITRARILY choosing whom to love or hate.

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    I end up in the same place though. If God knows everything before it happens, then it seems to me that it must happen that way.

    That’s why I say it’s a mystery. That God can be sovereign without doing damage to man’s free will. It’s not something we can explain, but the Bible clearly says that both are true in many different places. I’m okay with not knowing how God accomplishes that.

    As for my own free will, it seems to have gotten me into trouble more often than not. I’m happy to say, “God, you lead and I’ll try to follow”.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      I don’t doubt that everything has to happen as it does/will, given God’s foreknowledge. But the question remains, WHY did God select for things to happen that way? That’s where foreknowledge as to the hearts comes in for me. Still a mystery for me as well, but I just have to stubbornly cling to a “free choice” theology because it seems to me that is necessary to love, which is the primary point of everything.

  5. Grant Essex Says:

    As you know, I love C.H. Spurgeon. The following is the beginning of his sermon on predestination. I think it says it pretty well:

    A Sermon
    (No. 241)
    Delivered on Sabbath Morning, January 16th, 1859, by
    the
    REV. C.H. SPURGEON
    At New Park Street Chapel, Southwark.
    “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”- Rom 9:15

    DO NOT IMAGINE for an instant that I pretend to be able thoroughly to elucidate the great mysteries of predestination. There are some men who claim to know all about the matter. They twist it round their fingers as easily as if it were an everyday thing; but depend upon it, he who thinks he knows all about this mystery, knows but very little. It is but the shallowness of his mind that permits him to see the bottom of his knowledge; he who dives deep, finds that there is in the lowest depth to which he can attain a deeper depth still. The fact is, that the great questions about man’s responsibility, free-will, and predestination, have been fought over, and over, and over again, and have been answered in ten thousand different ways; and the result has been, that we know just as much about the matter as when we first began. The combatants have thrown dust into each other’s eyes, and have hindered each other from seeing; and then they have concluded, that because they put other people’s eyes out, they could therefore see.

    (you can find the rest on line)

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Without for a moment doubting the sagacity of the noteworthy Spurgeon, or denying his observation of the incessant debate on this issue, I nonetheless point up the fact that this issue has more than mere intellectual curiosity import to me. The view of “absolute predestination,” by which I mean that God simply selected which persons would be saved without any regard for any merit or lack of merit in themselves, and conversely sentenced the rest to hell on the same basis, is obnoxious enough to some people as to render them adverse to belief in the faith. Indeed, this was a substantial factor in my own ten-year “detour.”

      Consequently, this fact motivates me to resolve, to the extent possible, whether in fact the opposing free choice view can be held consistently with scripture. Without denying the number of verses that are marshaled in favor of predestination, I make the effort to see if those can nonetheless be read in a fashion which allows for them to be consonant with many other passages which, on their face at least, seem strongly to suggest a free choice view. (“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man will open the door, I will come in to him….” “Choose you this day whom you will serve….” “Oh Jerusalem, how often I would have…, but you would not.” And so forth.) In keeping with this valiant effort on my part, I have endeavored to show that Romans 8 and 9, two passages very often touted as proof of absolute predestination, are consistent with free choice under my “playwright/actors” analogy. Whether I have succeeded or not I leave to your judgment; however, I give this explanation for my continuous effort on this issue, which is key to me, at least.

  6. Grant Essex Says:

    And, I believe that I agreed that man is responsible for his actions. This would not be fair if he had no free will say in the choices he made. So, we agree on that. But, I still maintain the absolute sovereignty of God over everything. That’s the mystery. It’s not either, or. It’s both, IMHO.

    Gotta hit the sack for today. Shalom.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      We may be close to agreement. However, what I particularly maintain is that with respect to the specific sovereign decision of God as to whom to save and whom to damn, that must take into account something about the person himself, in order for there to be “fairness.”

  7. Grant Essex Says:

    The last thing I worry about is God being fair. If He is fair, I am doomed. I hope for Mercy. None “deserve” to go to Heaven. Only Jesus had a perfect deed slate. You may think that you are pleasing God with one act, but consider all the times you displease Him. Not you in particular, Tom. The universal you (we).

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Just the opposite. He is pleased that we do. Just know it’s not enough to obligate Him to save.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      I understand that nobody deserves Heaven, including yours truly. I don’t think that is the issue. The issue is, under absolute predestination, God “consigns” certain people to Heaven and others to Hell based on nothing in the person. That’s what, were it true, would be utterly unfair.

    • brentwhite Says:

      It’s not that our good deeds, post-conversion, don’t count in our favor and are rewarded, but classic Reformation doctrine (reflecting ancient Christian belief) rejects the idea that these deeds can be meritorious: they are, first of all, enabled by the Holy Spirit (though I would say we have opportunity to “consent”) and, as you say, Grant, when we consider our sinfulness, we remain hopelessly indebted to grace.

  8. Grant Essex Says:

    Tom, you keep assuming that God has to account for His actions. Who is the judge of whether God is “Fair or Unfair”?

    • brentwhite Says:

      Grant, I’ve heard this objection before from “presuppositional apologists.” I’m not sure I agree. God himself has instilled within us a sense of justice, through his Word and in human conscience, however impaired that is by sin. As we reason through difficult scripture, it’s not inappropriate to use, as one criterion, this sense of justice as God has revealed it to us. We believe that God is absolutely committed to justice, after all: he is not “fair,” thank God, but he is perfectly just. So it’s O.K. to interpret scripture in light of that. From my perspective, it’s not so much that we’re “judging God”—in a sense we’ve already judged him to be perfectly just—as reasoning through controverted passages of scripture based on what we know for sure about God.

      I don’t think even many five-point Calvinists would argue that what God has revealed about the dynamics of human freedom and God’s election and sovereignty are perfectly clear in the Bible.

      Do you see what I mean?

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Not only do I agree, but heartily so. That’s why I keep saying that Election/Predestination is filled with “mystery”.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Grant, that is an interesting question, but I think the Bible answers it. Abraham says, “Will not the God of all the earth do what is right? Will he treat the righteous as the wicked? Far be it from you, far be it, to do such a thing.” When God picked Noah to save from the flood, it says that Noah was a righteous man. When Peter was sent to Cornelius to open the door to the Gentiles, Cornelius alms giving is pointed out. So I think the Bible teaches God’s “fairness.” (I see that Brent has already answered while I am drafting this.)

      • brentwhite Says:

        Grant, I need to emphasize that God’s “unfairness” is not unjust: Our sins have already been punished on the cross (not that God won’t still discipline his children for disobedience). God’s wrath has been fully satisfied. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness ensures that, in a sense, God treats us perfectly fairly. We are really, genuinely, 100 percent righteous through Christ—only not because of any intrinsic righteousness on our part. But given that Christ has clothed us in his righteousness, it is, in a sense, fair or just for God to save us.

        But, yes, this salvation is made possible by the initial unfairness of grace.

  9. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I am not sure I know what you mean by saying, “this is made possible by the initial unfairness of grace.” Are you taking the position that God is acting “unfairly” when he grants salvation to some but not to others based on no merit or lack thereof in the “selected” versus the “damned”? If so, then under an absolute predestination model, I totally agree. It is not only “unfair,” it is unrighteous as well.

    If you mean, however, that “we all deserve Hell, so it’s quite okay for God to just select some and not all, even though that may seem ‘unfair’ to those not selected,” then I would agree with you that this is unfair; and, I would maintain, is unrighteous as well. First, I don’t think “everybody deserves Hell” is correct under absolute predestination theology. Instead, that teaches, before time began, and without regard to any merit or lack of merit or any action taken or not taken or otherwise, God simply selected some for salvation and chose to damn the rest. A predestination reading of Romans 9 would support that view. I don’t see how that could be either fair or righteous. I can’t see how an unconstrained action of God to just decide to send people to Hell passes muster under any view of fairness or righteousness that we are familiar with. Certainly it does not meet Abraham’s test that I referenced above.

    Finally, if you mean, God is “going beyond” any obligation of “fairness” by saving us when we don’t deserve it, I can go with that to a degree, but with a caveat. Under a free choice model such as mine, I agree that all have sinned and fallen short, and the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. So, since we all willfully sinned on our own initiative, and not due to any compulsion by God, we all deserve Hell, and God is being MORE than fair if he saves us from Hell. Note, however, “more” than fair. “Better” than fair. Not “worse” than fair. Grace always gives someone better than they deserve, not worse.

    So the question still remains, then, is God “being fair” to those who are damned? (Since he will never be “less” than fair.) To my way of thinking, this “fairness” is due to something DIFFERENT in the damned than what is in those graciously saved. God is not just saying, “I pick you, I reject you,” like some “He loves me, he loves me not” flower plucking exercise. If he were, then that would be being unfair to those who are damned, because they are being rejected when they are “just as good” as those being saved. Abraham would say that God would not be “doing right” if he were acting that way. Consequently, I maintain that God “sees something” in those he selects that is different from what he sees in the damned, even though it is true that this difference still necessitates “grace” to obtain Heaven as a result.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I meant unfair as in “more than fair.” And yes, I believe God’s election is based, in part, on what he foreknows that we will freely choose, once God liberates our will enough (by the power of the Spirit) to choose.

      And having read these arguments enough in the past between you two, I anticipate that Grant will say that he isn’t saying that God elects based on a “flower-plucking exercise,” but that his election is based on his own counsel, to which we have no access. He wouldn’t say it’s arbitrary, in other words.

      You and I, though our positions aren’t identical, are willing to spell out election in a way that Grant isn’t.

      Isn’t that right, Grant?

  10. Grant Essex Says:

    Well, I certainly agree that it is not arbitrary. And, that God has His own good reasons for how he orders all things in His creation, including man’s role and destiny. It might well be for the reasons you speculate, but then it might be much more complex. I can only assume that, being GOD, the reasons are perfect.

    I may have more to add later, but I think you have the gist of it.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Let me say, Grant, that I too believe God to be perfect, as a result of which all his reasons for doing what he does are perfect. To me, that is not the issue in this debate. It is rather a question of what MEN are saying about what God does. I’m saying, I disagree with those who say God acts without regard to what is in the men he is acting towards, because I don’t believe that to be consistent with God’s unquestioned “perfection.”

  11. Grant Essex Says:

    Here’s a verse from Phillipians that bears witness to my “Both God’s sovereignty and man’s free” will can operate at the same time.

    12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

  12. Tom Harkins Says:

    Grant, I certainly see the weight of the verse for your position (strongest one I know of). However, is it really inconsistent with my playwright/actor analogy? God is certainly working out his plan in Christians’ lives (and in every other respect) “for his good pleasure” all the time. But this does not mean that the “actor on the stage” is doing anything other than acting “of his own free will.” Hence the admonition to “work out your own salvation.”

    Second, however, and more importantly, I certainly do not contest that God’s Holy Spirit is interacting with our spirits to assist us in our walk. For example, he intercedes with groanings which cannot be uttered. If we are sons of God, we are being “led by the Spirit.” Consider, however, the fact that we do not always follow the Spirit’s leading. We are admonished not to “quench” the Holy Spirit. Thus, as far as the Holy Spirit being the “actor on the stage” (as contrasted with the playwright), in fact we are NOT always following his lead. Thus, our actions are NOT always consistent with God’s plan, insofar as his being the actor on the stage is concerned. The only sense in which we are always acting in his plan is in his capacity of the playwright.

  13. Grant Essex Says:

    All analogies have strengths and weaknesses. In your example I might say that God’s plan trumps our will. However, His plan does anticipate our will and works it into the story.

    How’s that?

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      There is no question that “God’s plan trumps our will.” We can’t defeat God’s purposes, no matter what we do. It is also true that God “anticipates our will and works it into the story.” So basically I agree with what you say. However, as far as what you don’t say, I would add that our will is not always consistent with what God wants in and of itself. In other words, we can do things that violate God’s laws which are harmful to ourselves and others, which God is in no wise making us do, nor “guiding” us to do. For example, consider King David. I can’t imagine that David’s adultery and murder were what God wanted David to do (in God’s role as “on stage”). “But the thing that David did displeased the Lord.” He harmed himself and others, and “the sword never departed” from his house as a consequence. Nevertheless, God had some purpose which he accomplished regardless–it was through Bathsheba that Christ came, as to both Joseph and Mary. Similarly with Joseph–his brothers “meant evil,” but God “meant good.” My point is, we have free choice to “disobey” God, doing what God does not want us to do (“neither entered it in my mind”), but God nonetheless weaves everything together. This is why I hold to the “playwright/actors” analogy. I agree that no analogy of mine is “perfect” in explaining how God acts, but it seems pretty good to me as far as helping me make sense of it all.


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