A couple of days ago, in the Twitterverse, Joel Osteen posted the following:
So my question to you, dear readers, is this: Is he wrong?
Many years ago, I would have said yes, he is wrong… emphatically.
In fact, my Christian faith was badly shaken on the morning of October 18, 1989. This was the morning after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay area of California, minutes before Game 3 of the World Series was set to start. The Oakland A’s were playing the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park.
That morning, I was driving to work in Atlanta (I was a co-op student at Georgia Tech at the time), listening to a Christian radio station. After a news break describing the earthquake, the radio host said the following: “I have friends out on the West Coast in the Bay Area. I talked to them last night. They’re doing O.K. I just want to thank God for their safety.”
Something within me recoiled: “No!” I thought. “You don’t get to thank God for saving the lives of your friends unless, at the same time, you blame God for not saving the lives of the earthquake’s many victims.” (Wikipedia tells me that 63 people died and 3,757 were injured.)
Even to this day, while my interpretation of the event has changed, the logic is sound. Isn’t it?
If God possesses the power to keep our friends safe during an earthquake—and who could deny that he does and still be within the realm of orthodox Christianity?—then surely, by that same power, he could keep everyone safe. Indeed, every time we pray for the safety of friends and family who are traveling home for Christmas, for examples, or who are facing surgery, or who are dodging IEDs in war zones, we believe that God has the power to intervene in the world to keep our loved ones safe. If God has the power to do so for relatively “small” events, as we perceive them, then he has the power to do so for big events.
If “thanking God” for loved ones’ safety isn’t hot air, and we really mean it, then we must conclude that in cases in which people die, God has reasons for allowing their deaths. In other words, getting back to Osteen’s tweet, “nothing can happen without his permission.” He “ordains” it.
There is far too much scripture to back this up. Read, for instance, Psalm 139, with its high view of God’s sovereignty: “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me… [I]n your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”
Or how about Job 1? Recall that God gives Satan permission (explicitly!) to harm Job—first his family and livestock, later his own health. Again, this affirms Osteen’s tweet: “He [God] may not have sent it,” but God permits Satan to work this evil. Jesus himself acknowledges the constrained but very real power that Satan has over this world when he calls him the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31) and the “prince of this world” (John 14:30).
Indeed, when Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness with the gift of “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8), Jesus doesn’t respond by saying, “You and I both know you don’t possess that power, Satan,” in which case Satan’s offer wouldn’t be tempting at all. No, Jesus is really tempted because he understands that Satan does possess the power to give him these kingdoms… because God has allowed him some degree of power to influence our physical world. And we see Satan exert this influence in Job 1-2.
Another way of putting it—if it helps—is like this: Just as God allows free but fallen human beings to work great evil in the world, so he also allows free but fallen angelic beings to work great evil in the world. Indeed, it’s not clear where one stops and the other starts, if Paul is right when he says that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12).
Nevertheless, after Satan kills Job’s children, Job responds with these difficult words, which were even used as part of a popular praise-and-worship song 20 years ago (“Blessed Be the Name of the Lord”): “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Even though Satan is the direct agent of harm, God is ultimately responsible for it.
I can anticipate an objection: Yes, but this is Job speaking, not God. What if Job is mistaken?
But even if he were mistaken, we still have to deal with the next verse (emphasis mine): “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” At the very least, in attributing the deaths of Job’s children to God (whether Job is right or wrong to make the attribution), the premise holds: God, the author of a life that none of us deserves and to which none of us is entitled, is permitted to take that life when he pleases (“it is appointed unto men once to die,” Hebrews 9:27—appointed by whom?). Otherwise, Job would be “charging God with wrong” in saying so.
But even in the face of this tragedy, Job can still say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord” Why? Because he knows the truth of what Paul would later say: that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).
If you’re still not convinced, let’s take a New Testament example, which I’ve discussed before: Paul and his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Notice the divine passive in v. 7: “a thorn was given me.” In other words, the thorn was, in one sense, a gift from God, which he gave him, Paul says, “to keep me from becoming conceited.” This is an example of what C.S. Lewis calls a “severe mercy”: God has done something for Paul that is in his best interests, even though it causes great pain.
But notice that God is not the direct cause of the thorn: Satan is. This “gift from God” is at the same time a “messenger from Satan” sent to “harass” Paul. How can it be both? In this way: What Satan intends for evil, God intends for good. (See Genesis 50:20.) In other words, while Satan wanted to hurt Paul and hamper his ministry with this “thorn” (a symbol for violent persecution, perhaps, or a physical ailment), and God had granted Satan the freedom to do so, God transformed it into something that would be in Paul’s best interests.
Indeed, if Romans 8:28 is true, God does this all the time. And when God permits something far worse than a “thorn”—something that actually kills us, like earthquakes—we can still say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord”—because, at the very least, we get heaven and Jesus: “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Anyway, while I understand why you might object to the Bible’s high view of God’s sovereignty—as I did myself when I entered into a long season of spiritual drought during my sophomore year in college—I hope you’ll agree that I’ve represented the Bible’s teaching accurately.
As I’ve said in previous posts, I am deeply comforted by the idea—cliché though it be—that “everything happens for a [God-ordained] reason.” Even at our worst, if we are in Christ we can be sure that our lives are not spiraling out of control. On the contrary, God is working in our best interests.
After all, how many of us cite Jeremiah 29:11 as a favorite verse? “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Does God have plans for us or doesn’t he? Or does something like an earthquake, devastating though it be, have the power to derail God’s plans for us?
Otherwise God does not have the power to intervene in the world, and our Lord would be lying when he teaches us to petition our Father with urgency and persistence.
Prayer makes a difference in the world because we believe that God has the power to make a difference in the world. Contemporary Christians, not least of which contemporary Methodists, can be very earthbound and human-centered in our worldview: we can overemphasize what we humans can accomplish at the expense of what God accomplishes for his glory.
I urge us to be more supernatural in our outlook. This starts, I believe, with a robust view of God’s sovereignty and providence.
It starts, well… by believing what Joel Osteen says… because his words reflect the truth of God’s Word.
In fact, my only small quibble with Osteen’s tweet is that he says, “Don’t try to figure it out.” I would nuance it a bit: “Don’t worry about it if you can’t figure it out.” Besides, as one pastor has said, “There may be a thousand reasons God allows something to happen, and you may only see one or two.” Or none, at least on this side of eternity. And that’s O.K. We’re not God.
We’re not God… I like that! The 19-year-old version of myself would have benefited from that helpful reminder.