“If you want to find God, you have to go back to where you lost him.”
I told you a couple of years ago how this quote from a medieval theologian named Meister Eckhart, alongside Paul Zahl’s incisive podcast about it, shook me up. Zahl put into words something that I had experienced myself: I lost God! It happened in the late-’80s, some time during my sophomore year of college. I told you a little about my experience in this blog post.
At that point in my life, in 1989, the Baptist church of which I was a member had recently called a new pastor. I’ll call him Steve. He had been a New Testament professor at a Southern Baptist seminary. He was an intellectual, which appealed to me. He was evangelistic, like me. In fact, I took the Baptist equivalent of the Evangelism Explosion course with him.
But Steve was also a self-identified “moderate” in the so-called “holy war” within the Southern Baptist Convention. The “moderates,” like my pastor, lost. Theological conservatives, whom Steve always disparaged as “fundamentalists,” took over the denomination’s institutions and leadership posts. Out of this conflict a relatively small new Baptist denomination, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, was born. My church joined it, and until I became United Methodist several years later I was a member of CBF churches.
I loved Steve. He was a good preacher whose preaching style has surely influenced my own to this day. He was kind, funny, and down to earth. He brought a jolt of new energy to the church, and for a while the church was growing under his leadership. On balance, however, his influence in my life, as I see now, was harmful: Most importantly, he sowed seeds of doubt within me about the authority and trustworthiness of scripture. He helped form within me an “us versus them” mentality toward many of my fellow Christians—”God, I thank you that I am not like other men… even like this theologically conservative evangelical.” (Please note: Now I am a theologically conservative evangelical.)
Not coincidentally, it was around this time that I started becoming the “angry young man” whose anger dominated and defined the next 20 years of my life. I’m not exactly blaming Steve for this—God knows that there were many deep-seated reasons for my anger, which I’ve spent years sorting out (with the help of paid professionals!). But Steve, a Christian leader whom I greatly admired, was angry, too. He had been hurt, professionally and personally, by fellow Christians. And he had a chip on his shoulder about it.
Through his influence, in part, I came to believe that anger is a justifiable emotion—rather than a deeply destructive one.
Also around this time, I fell in love with the music of The Clash. In one of their songs, they sang the following: “Let fury have the hour/ Anger can be power/ You know that we can use it.” Maybe they can use that anger; I can’t, as I now realize. It overpowers me. I end up hurting myself and others.
I recount my experience, I hope, without anger. Along with the apostle Paul, I say, “By his grace I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10)—itself a statement of God’s sovereignty and providence the 19-year-old version of myself would have denied.
My point is, it was within this context that I heard a news report on a Christian radio station about Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989. This was the “World Series earthquake,” which interrupted Game 3 between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s. During this news report, the drive-time morning host said, “I have friends in the Bay Area. I just got in touch with them, and I thank God that they’re safe!”
I thought, “Hold on a minute! You don’t get to thank God for sparing the lives of your friends if you don’t, at the same time, blame God for failing to keep hundreds of others safe.”
This seemed to me like the most obvious fact imaginable. Why didn’t anyone else point this out to him?
Those dumb evangelical Christians, I thought. Thank God I’m not like them!
It was around this time—if not this very moment—that I lost God.
When I say I “lost” him, I only mean it figuratively. God never lost me. I don’t believe that I lost my salvation during this time. And it’s not like I completely abandoned God. I remained a faithful churchgoer, if not a faithful Bible reader, pray-er, or Christian witness for many years to come.
But something changed within me. I fell out of love with God. I stopped trusting him. I couldn’t see how God was in control of the world, and our lives within it. I stopped believing God had a “plan” for my life. I was angry at God.
How desperately I needed a hard-nosed, credible, intellectual Christian pastor to knock some sense into me!
In fact, I would have benefited from a pastor like John Piper, who described putting his daughter to bed on the same evening that the 35W Bridge collapsed near his church in Minneapolis:
We prayed during our family devotions. Talitha (11 years old) and Noël and I prayed earnestly for the families affected by the calamity and for the others in our city. Talitha prayed “Please don’t let anyone blame God for this but give thanks that they were saved.” When I sat on her bed and tucked her in and blessed her and sang over her a few minutes ago, I said, “You know, Talitha, that was a good prayer, because when people ‘blame’ God for something, they are angry with him, and they are saying that he has done something wrong. That’s what “blame” means — accuse somebody of wrongdoing. But you and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand.” Talitha said, “With his pinky.” “Yes,” I said, “with his pinky. Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”
Piper’s words are true! We don’t “blame” God for earthquakes and other natural disasters because blame implies that God has done something wrong. God would only have done something wrong if the people who died in the 35W Bridge disaster or the Loma Prieta earthquake were entitled to more life in this world. They are not. None of us is. Every moment of time we have is a gift from God. Every heartbeat is a gift. Every breath is a gift. Each one of us will die some day—assuming the Lord doesn’t return first. And this will happen not merely through illness, or accident, or an act of violence—but through God’s will: “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
All death is ultimately God’s judgment against sin (Genesis 2:17; 3:19). When God decides to bring our life to its appointed end, we sinners will have no right to complain. Yet because God loves us, and he is perfectly good, we can trust that he will have done so according to his good purposes.
Until then, we can praise him that he graciously lets us continue to live—for however long he does so.
I made a similar point in my sermon on October 8, preached in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre:
Honestly, every time there’s a national tragedy like Las Vegas, some people will use that as an excuse to shake their fist at God and say, “How could you let this happen? How could you let these people die like this?” But this question gets it exactly backwards: The question is not “How could a loving God let these people die,” the question is “How could a just God let the rest of us sinners continue to live? How could a just God allow us sinners to live day after day, hour after hour, moment after moment, in open rebellion against him and his loving rule?” When we hear about someone committing treason against the United States, many of us say, “They ought to still be brought before a firing squad and shot!” We heard that kind of thing about Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted his post in Afghanistan and was suspected of being a traitor. “He should be shot!” some say. But what about us? Who do we think we are? When we hear about a tragedy like Las Vegas, why not fall on our knees and thank God that he has let us live for another day—because none of us deserves this life! How merciful God must be—that he keeps on giving us one opportunity after another to repent. Yet most of the time, most people, in most parts of the world, say no.
Why then does God let us continue to live? So that we will be saved. We are living in a season of mercy. But it won’t last forever.
The words of Piper’s daughter point to this truth: “Maybe he let [the bridge] fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.” “Yes, Talitha,” I said, “I am sure that is one of the reasons God let the bridge fall.”
God wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.
Undoubtedly true. This is one reason—one of a hundred, one of a thousand, one of a million reasons—that God let this bridge collapse. Does that seem harsh?
It’s not nearly as harsh as an eternity in hell! And if God used this bridge’s collapse to wake people up to the reality of heaven and hell, and the opportunity that they have right now to repent of their sins and receive God’s gift of saving grace, then God was only merciful to do so.
If you think I’m wrong, or that I’ve misrepresented God’s Word, please tell me how in the comments section. Thanks!