Posts Tagged ‘God’s sovereignty’

Devotional Podcast #14: “How Great Thou Art”

February 15, 2018

In this episode, I ruminate on answered prayer and something that a Pentecostal Christian told me one time.

Devotional Text: Luke 11:1-13

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Thursday, February 15, and this is Devotional Podcast number 14.

You’re listening to Elvis Presley, of course, and his recording of “How Great Thou Art.” He originally recorded this song in 1966 for his Grammy-winning gospel of the same name. But in 2015, the song was remixed with a new orchestral arrangement, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. So this version is taken from the 2015 album, on vinyl, If I Can Dream. And it sounds amazing, as I hope you can hear.

I want to talk today, briefly, about Pentecostal Christians. Elvis himself grew up Pentecostal, in the Assemblies of God Church. Pentecostalism, if you don’t know, is that branch of Protestant Christianity that places a strong emphasis on the more conspicuous spiritual gifts—like speaking in tongues, prophecy, and physical healing. In principle, I have no problem with the idea that the Holy Spirit may give these gifts and do powerful things through people; I’m not what’s called a cessationist—in other words, I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit stopped giving these gifts to Christians after the age of the apostles. I see no biblical warrant for believing that. Are there excesses in Pentecostalism? Are there abuses? Are there charlatans who take advantage of their credulous flocks? Of course! Pentecostals, no less than the rest of us, need to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God,”[1] that’s for sure.

And I strongly disagree, theologically, with the widespread Pentecostal belief that receiving the Holy Spirit, or being baptized by the Spirit, is something that happens, only to some Christians, at some point after a person is born again. I also don’t believe that the evidence of having received the Holy Spirit is this one particular gift of speaking in tongues. No, I believe we all receive the Spirit at the moment of conversion.

But I don’t mean to be overly critical. in my own life I tend to love people who love Jesus—and seek to build their lives on the foundation of God’s Word. And that describes most Pentecostal Christians that I’ve known—so they have my love and respect!

Plus, there are things that we non-Pentecostals can learn from Pentecostals—like the fact that when Pentecostals go to church, they mean business! They expect the Holy Spirit to do something… powerful!

For example, I drive by a couple of Pentecostal churches between my church and my house. I know nothing about them beyond their church signs—but I like their church signs! One of the churches is called “Perfecting the Saints Church International.” I like that! They go to that church on Sunday morning expecting the Holy Spirit to perfect them. When we show up at church on Sunday morning, what do we expect the Holy Spirit to do? I pass another church on the way home called—get this!—“One-Way Inner Action Church.” I-N-N-E-R Action Church. When they go to that church, they expect that the Holy Spirit is going to do something active, inside their hearts!

I like that! I also like the way many Pentecostals pray. In my experience, they pray with this same expectation that God is going to respond to them in a powerful way—even if it means working a miracle.

I knew a Pentecostal back in high school. Her name was Christine. We were talking one day, and she said something to me back then that has stuck with me to this day. I was Baptist back then, but it’s not hard to imagine that she said back then could have applied equally to us Methodists—and most other modern Christians in the West!

She said, “I have a lot of admiration and respect for you Baptists.” And I said, “Really? Why?” And she said, “Well, you just really believe in Jesus… you have a lot of faith… in spite of the fact that you never see any miracles… you never expect anything supernatural to happen.”

You never expect anything supernatural to happen. Is that true? Was that true for me then? Is it true for me now?

Maybe so! Let me give you an example. Last September, our church finance committee was making year-end projections for our budget, and we were looking at what we feared might be a substantial shortfall. So I challenged the church leadership to pray. And I prayed. Within a week of that meeting, we received a substantial offering check, a portion of which we could use for our operating budget. Basically, this money eliminated the budget problem in one fell swoop. We would no longer be sweating it out the last few months of the year—the way our church usually does at the end of each year. No begging or pleading on my part. No big campaign to raise the money. I was relieved!

But… I promise you, if I could have written down my first thought, upon receiving that check, it would have sounded something like this: “What a relief! We’re going to be just fine. We don’t need that miracle after all!”

Do you see the problem?

All I can say in my defense is, this money didn’t feel like any kind of miracle at the time—it felt like normal, every day event. Nothing too far outside of the ordinary. Surprising, yes, but not supernatural. So at first, I failed to see that this was God intervening in a powerful way to answer my prayers—and the prayers of others.

It’s as if God’s handiwork was hidden from me. I couldn’t see his fingerprints on this particular gift—even though they were all over them.

But isn’t that usually the way God’s providence works? When God does something, it rarely looks like a miracle. It rarely looks supernatural. It rarely looks like anything out of the ordinary.

Isn’t it instructive, therefore, that the portion of the Lord’s Prayer that has to do with asking God to give us things is this humble petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Because from our human perspective, our daily bread—at least for those of us living in wealthy industrialized countries—is one thing we don’t believe we need God to provide. “We’ve got that taken care of, Lord. We’ve got a freezer full of it. Our pantry is well-stocked.” we think. So we don’t need God’s help with daily bread. Physical healing? Yes, by all means! Financial aid for college? You bet! A promotion for work? Yes, please. But daily bread…?

And yet Jesus tells us that our daily bread—insignificant, humble bread—is itself a gift from God. It’s our problem that we have the luxury of taking it for granted. It still comes from God. And if even bread comes from God, well, tell me what doesn’t?

So… getting back to my Pentecostal friend’s observation—“You believe in Jesus without expecting him to do anything supernatural.” She may be right. And if so, I repent.

But let’s not underestimate God’s activity in our lives: if we only expect God to act supernaturally, or miraculously, then we may fail to appreciate that God is always doing stuff for us—always giving us exactly what we need, always working in every part of our lives and our world—even when he’s not doing anything supernatural!

If we can live our lives with that perspective, then we will live lives of gratitude to God for his faithfulness to us. Amen?

1. 1 John 4:1

Devotional Podcast #12: “Did God Give Me the Flu?”

February 6, 2018

Short answer: yes. But listen to (or read the transcript of) this podcast for the long answer.

Devotional Text: Psalm 38:1-3, 8-11

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Tuesday, February 6, and this is Devotional Podcast number 12. I’m still homebound with the flu, which you can probably hear in my voice.

You’re listening to a song from 1979 called “Daytime, Nighttime Suffering,” written and sung by Paul McCartney and performed with his band Wings. This is the B-side of his single “Goodnight Tonight.” By the way, if you asked me to compile a list of favorite McCartney songs, including his work with that other famous group he was in, this would be in my Top Five.

Just by chance—or so it seemed—my devotional reading last Friday—when I was in the throes of influenza—included Psalm 38. Let me read verses 1 to 3 and 8 to 11 now:

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath!
For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin…
I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
and my nearest kin stand far off.

I love that last verse: “My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague.” That’s the truth! The flu feels a lot like a plague, and my cat, Peanut, was my only companion the first couple of days, as I was quarantined to my room. Could there have been a more appropriate scripture to read for when you have the flu?

Well, that depends, you might say. David was attributing his flu-like symptoms to God: God, he said, was punishing him, or disciplining him, because of some particular, unspecified sin or sins. Do I really believe that God would do that today—to me?

To which I say, “Of course I do!” For one thing, God foreknows everything that’s going to happen in the world, including the fact that I would be exposed to the flu virus when George coughed last Monday without covering his mouth. Now, simply being exposed to the virus doesn’t mean I’ll get the flu. Suppose, on that very morning, I prayed that God would keep me healthy through this severe flu season. Then I can assume, when this invading, viral enemy penetrated by immune system and gave me the flu, that God answered my prayer with a resounding “no.” God chose not to keep me safe.

Why did God do that?

After all, Jesus teaches us that prayer changes the world—that our Father is happy to give us what his children pray for—if he can do so in a way that’s consistent with his will. Which means, if he doesn’t give us what we pray for, he must have good reasons—whether we know what they are or not!

I simply can’t comprehend the resistance, especially among my fellow Methodists, to the idea that “everything happens for a reason.” By all means, it’s a cliché, but it’s still true! Read Psalm 139, a powerful psalm about God’s sovereignty, and tell me that everything doesn’t happen for a God-ordained reason! Verses 4-5:

Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.

How can that great promise of Romans 8:28 be true—“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good”—if “all things” doesn’t also include something like the flu? I hate to be a wimp, but the flu is kind of a big deal! How is God using the flu to help me right now? How is he using it for good? So of course he allowed or arranged for me to get the flu for a reason!

In fact, I completely concur with C.S. Lewis, who wrote the following:

I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.[1]

That’s exactly right. The Bible teaches repeatedly that God tests us when we suffer. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4. “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” Hebrews 12:6-7. There are many similar verses.

When it became clear, Friday morning, that I had the flu, I responded to the bad news in a way that I never have before. Normally, thoughts such as these would cross my mind: “Well, there goes the weekend! There goes my Sunday sermon! There goes my ability to see my son play basketball, or to go running, or to go to that party Saturday night! This is going to put me way behind!” But I didn’t respond that way.

Instead, I said, “Thank you, Father. I know you’ve got some good reasons for giving me this flu. Let it do its good work.” In fact, even just slowing down and being still has been a great blessing.

Over these past few days, for instance, I’ve had some sweet prayer and Bible-reading time. I’ve been reminded of how utterly dependent I am on God for everything I have and am. I’ve been reminded of people in my life who love and care for me. On Sunday morning, I happened to listen to a Keith Green album that I purchased off eBay recently—and God used it to convict me of sin and as a means of worship.

That’s all good! Thank you, Jesus!

So did God give me this flu? Of course he did! Thank God!

1. C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.

Devotional Podcast #7: “When the Agony of Defeat Isn’t as Agonizing”

January 24, 2018

In this episode, I talk about the upcoming Super Bowl, and what we can learn about God from the Eagles’ inevitable defeat… Just kidding! Like nearly every American outside of New England, I’ll be rooting for the Eagles!

This podcast features the Beatles’ “I’m a Loser,” which I recorded from their December 1964 Capitol album, Beatles ’65. (Yes, I know it originates on the UK album Beatles for Sale.)

Devotional Text: Genesis 50:20

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Wednesday, January 24, and this is Devotional Podcast number 7. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will release a new episode on this podcast channel, in addition to the sermons that I also post here.

You’re listening to the Beatles and their song “I’m a Loser,” which I recorded from their December 1964 album on Capitol Records, Beatles ’65. British people or Americans who came of age after the CD era will know that the song originated on the Beatles’ UK album Beatles for Sale.

Well, Super Bowl season is upon us. The game is set. And once again, for better or worse, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have made it to the big game. This means that, come February 4, out of a population of 320 million Americans, about 315 million of them will be die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fans! Those of us living in Atlanta will be donning green and silver, that’s for sure!

Almost as inevitable as a Patriots victory is the likelihood that at some point—during the game, on the field, or after the game in interviews—a star player will do or say something to  acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the reason for his or his team’s success, and that Christ deserves all the thanks and praise.

Years ago, when I was going through a season of doubt in my life—long since past, I’m happy to report—this behavior used to annoy me: I thought, “Sure, It’s easy for this guy to thank Jesus… His team won! Would he be thanking Jesus if his team didn’t win?”

Now that I know better, I hope I can speak for Christian athletes everywhere when I say that, yes, by all means, win or lose, we always, always, always have reasons to thank Jesus!

If you look in your Bibles at Genesis chapters 37 through 50, you’ll read about a man named Joseph. Joseph was the favorite son of his father Jacob. Remember: Joseph was the one for whom his father made him the “coat of many colors”—and his older brothers were insanely jealous of their little brother. At first they wanted to kill him, but cooler heads prevailed. So they sold him into slavery in Egypt instead. But that’s just the beginning of Joseph’s troubles! Over the course of decades, Joseph suffers a lot. Until finally, he rises through the ranks and becomes, next to the Pharaoh himself, the most powerful man in Egypt. Thanks to his wise leadership during a famine, he helps save millions of people from starvation.

And finally, Joseph has a reunion with his brothers—the same ones who caused all his suffering in the first place! And, despite the brothers’ fears that Joseph would kill them, he forgives them instead. And he tells them something remarkable. In Genesis 50:20, he says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.”

In other words, what Joseph’s brothers did to him was genuinely evil. The suffering he suffered was genuinely painful. The stuff that happened to him was genuinely bad. But that wasn’t the end of his story. God transformed that evil, that suffering, that pain—into something incredibly good. He used it ultimately to save the lives of millions.

We see this same dynamic at work in the apostle Paul’s life in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul describes what he calls a “thorn in his flesh.” We don’t know for sure what this “thorn” was—it could have been a physical affliction; or it could be related to the persecution he suffered. Whatever it was, it was a trial in Paul’s life that caused him pain, and it was evil. In fact, Paul says it came from the devil himself.

But once again, that wasn’t the end of the story… God transformed that evil thing from the devil into something very good for Paul. It was necessary, Paul said, to experience this thorn in order to keep him humble, to keep him depending on the Lord rather than trusting in himself.

The same principle applies: Satan intended to harm Paul, but God intended it all for good.”

What’s the worst thing that the devil or anyone else or anything else can throw at you? Whatever it is, if you only trust in Jesus Christ, he will transform it by his grace into something for your good.

Do you believe it?

I’ve talked in the last episode and in recent sermons about our need to “fall in love” with Jesus Christ again, or to “stay in love” with him. How can we do that if we don’t believe that he has a plan for the pain and suffering we’re experiencing—that no matter what—even when we’re experiencing something bad—God is somehow using it for our good?

And that’s why the hypothetical football star I mentioned earlier has the ability to thank Jesus—win or lose. Because God is doing something good for us in both victory and defeat.

So, see: we can pity New England Patriots players, coaches, and fans: They don’t often get to experience the genuine good that God can bring out of defeat!

But seriously, if you struggle to believe that God has the power to transform evil into something good, remember the cross: God used the greatest evil the world has ever seen—which was the death of his Son Jesus—to accomplish the greatest good the world has ever seen—which is the salvation of everyone who believes in Jesus.

Surely, surely, surely God can take every lesser form of evil, pain, and suffering and do the same!

Unanswered prayer is not a challenge to God’s sovereignty, Mr. Campolo

November 22, 2017

This article made the rounds recently on a United Methodist-related Facebook group of which I’m a member. Bart Campolo, the son of prominent “progressive evangelical” Tony Campolo, describes how he lost his Christian faith incrementally. The process began during his ministry with the urban poor, when he found, time and again, that God wasn’t answering his prayers.

“It messed with my theology,” he explains. “I had a theology that said God could intervene and do stuff.” But after a period of unanswered prayer, Bart admits: “I had to change my understanding of God. Sovereignty had to get dialed down a bit.”

Campolo admitted that changing his view of God’s sovereignty was “the beginning of the end” of his faith. Why?

“Because once you start adjusting your theology to match up to the reality you see in front of you, it’s an infinite progression. So over the course of the next 30 years…my ability to believe in a supernatural narrative or a God who intervenes and does anything died a death of a thousand unanswered prayers”.

Campolo continued: “I passed through every stage of heresy. It starts out with sovereignty goes, then biblical authority goes, then I’m a universalist, now I’m marrying gay people. Pretty soon I don’t actually believe Jesus actually rose from the dead in a bodily way.”

Campolo went on to say that “progressive Christianity” is a stepping stone to atheism for many others.

Maybe so. But if Campolo believed that God’s sovereignty was proven (or not) by Campolo’s perception of God’s ability to answer his prayers, then I wonder how orthodox he was to begin with.

Speaking from my own experience, the “higher” your view of God’s sovereignty, the less concerned you are with whether or not God grants your petitions in prayer. Why? Because your overriding concern is that God’s will be done, not your own. If something other than your petition comes to pass, you can trust that God allowed or enabled it for good reasons—and the ultimate outcome of not granting your petition will be better for you, for your neighbor, for the world, or for God’s kingdom than otherwise. Whether you can grasp even one of possibly millions of reasons that God didn’t grant your petition is beside the point.

And why should you know what those reasons are? Who do you—a finite, sinful person—think you are? To put it mildly, what do you know that God doesn’t? Who are you to judge what God “ought” to do? It’s preposterous when you think about it—at least for those of us who believe in the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and providence.

After all, from God’s vantage point, which transcends time, only he foreknows the myriad and potentially eternal consequences of granting or not granting your petition.

In his masterful book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller discusses chaos theory and the famous “butterfly effect”: that a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific. Yet no one would be able to calculate and predict the actual effects of the butterfly’s flight.”[1] No one except God, that is.

Now, if even the effects of a butterfly’s flight or the roll of a ball down a hill are too complex to calculate, how much less could any human being look at the tragic, seemingly “senseless” death of a young person and have any idea of what the effects in history will be? If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about. The history-butterfly effect means that “only an omniscient mind could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free creatures toward… provisioned [good] goals… Certainly many evils seem pointless and unnecessary to us—but we are simply not in a position to judge.”[2]

Elsewhere, Keller has said these helpful words:

At the very least, we need to approach the “problem” of unanswered prayer with great humility.

Besides, in his model prayer for us, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In his 30 years of drifting toward atheism, was Campolo praying for that? Because if he were, he would have found that God answered his prayer about 10,950 times. Had he been praying for other bare necessities, he likely could add hundreds of thousands more answered prayers for things he routinely took for granted.

“Yes,” the skeptic might say, “but Campolo was going to receive his daily bread anyway—he lives in the most prosperous country in history, after all. He didn’t have to pray for it, and he probably didn’t most of the time.”

That’s probably true. And yet, someone who believes in God’s sovereignty also understands that nothing in the universe “happens anyway”—not apart from God’s providential grace. That you were born in a prosperous country into a middle-class family, that you enjoy life and breath with which to serve the urban poor, and that you receive something so humble as daily bread—all of these are gifts “from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

If we forget to ask our Father for these gifts, yet he gives them anyway, can we at least remember to say thank you?

(And thus concludes the grumpiest Thanksgiving message you’ll likely read this year! 😉)

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.

2. Ibid., 101.

Sermon 11-05-17: “To Live Is Christ”

November 10, 2017

 

Just in time for Thanksgiving, today begins a 4-part sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians—a letter bursting with joy and gratitude. Paul’s tone should surprise us: After all, he’s writing this letter from prison, facing trial and execution for his faith. Moreover, his missionary work—his vocation to reach the Gentiles with the gospel—appears to be seriously hampered. How is Paul able to be so happy?

Sermon Text: Philippians 1:12-26

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

It’s November, which means—as far as I’m concerned—it’s almost Christmas. I love this time of year. This year, during the Thanksgiving/Advent/Christmas season I’m planning on re-watching one of the greatest movies ever made: I’m referring, of course, to It’s a Wonderful Life. Most of you have seen this holiday classic. It is so good; it’s so deep; it’s so rich.

You remember the basics of the story: George Bailey is an ambitious young man who has dreams of leaving Bedford Falls, the small town he grew up in; seeing the world; going to college; being a world-renown architect or engineer; building things. Accomplishing things. Being successful; being rich. Living the American dream. But through a series of unfortunate events and circumstances beyond his control, he ends up stuck in Bedford Falls, running his late father’s Building and Loan, watching his friends and even his little brother achieve the kind of success that he himself always wanted to achieve—as if being married to Donna Reed wasn’t enough for him! What was his problem?

Regardless, toward the end of the movie, his incompetent uncle loses $8,000 of the Building and Loan’s money, and the police suspect that George stole it, and pretty soon he’s going to be arrested. His life is in ruins, or so he thinks. So he contemplates suicide until an angel intervenes to save his life. The angel shows George one example after another of how much better his fellow townspeople’s lives are as a result of George’s life. George sees that every unlucky break, every setback, every disappointment, every perceived failure in his life played a role in blessing the lives of others. It was almost like someone was behind the scenes of George’s life, pulling strings, coordinating events, making things work out in a particular way. And although the movie doesn’t come right out and say it, we Christians can watch this movie and know that Someone was doing these things. While things weren’t going according to George’s plans, they were going  exactly according to Someone else’s plan. This is how God works in our world, for those of us who believe in his Son Jesus.

More than anything, this is what today’s scripture is all about.

I’ve called this new, four-part sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “Reasons to Be Thankful.” Philippians is all about gratitude and joy. Why am I offering this series? Because I want to prepare us for Thanksgiving, for one thing. I also want to prepare us for making a financial commitment on Stewardship Sunday, which Luther will tell you more about next week. More than anything, I want you and me to be as happy in the Lord as Paul himself is. And you may say, “I’m not Paul!” And that’s right. You’re not. His life was much more difficult, filled with much more suffering, much more pain, much more loss, than our lives are! And yet his life, as is clear from this letter, is characterized by great joy. That’s what I want in my life. Don’t you? Read the rest of this entry »

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 6)

October 18, 2017

Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd is no fan of John Piper!

(Click the following to see previous posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4Part 5.)

Eight days after the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis, pastor and theologian Greg Boyd responded to John Piper’s blog post on the subject, which Piper wrote the same evening as the disaster. I don’t know whether Boyd self-identifies as an Arminian; I know that some of his critics have identified him as such. But for some of these critics, unfortunately, “Arminian” has come to mean “non-Calvinist Protestant,” rather than an adherent to a robust Christian theological tradition.

One thing I know for sure is that Boyd is an “open theist.” This means that from Boyd’s perspective, God has limited himself to operating within our current time. Therefore, the future is unknown and unknowable to him: God can only know what might happen at any moment. I wrote the following in my original post in this series:

Does this mean that God is less than omniscient? Does God not know everything, as Christian theology has always maintained? Not all, the open theist would say. God does know everything—at least everything there is to be known—all knowable facts. Since the future hasn’t happened yet, however, any future event is not a knowable fact. Therefore, that God doesn’t know the future doesn’t compromise his omniscience.

Therefore, when bridges collapse and people die, this surprises God as much as everyone else. The open-theist apologist would then say, “Of course God hates this evil and suffering, but what could he do about it? His hands are tied!” [Or maybe I should say, “He’s tied his hands!” assuming God has limited himself to our time.]

Of course, this raises a question: Why is God, who knows all facts—including whether or not a bridge is properly designed, the tensile strength holding a bridge together, and the the external forces working against it—unable to anticipate the collapse of a bridge?

Or if God can anticipate a bridge’s collapse—not even by knowing the future but by knowing all pertinent facts about the bridge—yet does nothing to prevent it, how does open theism solve the problem for which it was apparently made to order?

My point above is this: as a defense of God’s goodness, open theism, in addition to being heterodox, is a non-starter. Even if God doesn’t know the future for certain, he would be better able to at least predict the future, based on his perfect comprehension of all contingent events happening at any given moment, such that he could still intervene to prevent disaster from striking—assuming he wants to. And I don’t think Boyd denies that God could miraculously intervene once disaster strikes. Therefore, if God—who has perfect knowledge of all contingent events at every moment and the power to work miracles—doesn’t want to stop a disaster, we still have to ask why.

And we’re right back where we started: Why does God allow evil and suffering? What would be Boyd’s defense of God’s goodness in this case?

One thing is for sure: He did not like John Piper’s blog post on the 35W bridge disaster. In this post, I want to begin analyzing what Boyd wrote.

Boyd begins by summarizing Piper’s post (not referring to Piper by name—why? They were in the same city! Everyone knew whom he was talking about!), concluding his summary with the following:

This pastor interprets Jesus to be saying that “everyone deserves to die,” for “all of us have sinned against God.” And this, he insists, is “the meaning of the collapse of this bridge…”

What is more, this pastor argues that catastrophes like this one are God’s “most merciful message,” since they mean there’s “still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction.” For this reason, the message of the collapsed bridge is “the most precious message in the world.”

This is a perfectly fair summary of Piper’s interpretation of Luke 13:1-5. (As I said earlier in this series, I agree with Piper’s interpretation as well.) But he goes on to say that Piper’s teaching “honestly concerns [him]”:

First, his interpretation of Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was somehow involved in Pilate’s massacre and the falling tower of Siloam. He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.”

I would agree with Boyd that, apart from the rest of scripture, Luke 13:1-5 neither implies that God was involved nor uninvolved in these tragedies. But the question of what this passage “assumes” is different: If we believe that Jesus assumes that the Bible is a truthful record of God’s revelation to us, then it’s fair to say that Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was “somehow” involved.

Was God “somehow” involved in the tragic events that befell Joseph in the final story arc of Genesis? Of course! Although God’s involvement wasn’t apparent until Joseph’s retrospective theological reflection on those events in Genesis 50:20: “As for you [Joseph’s brothers], you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

Was God “somehow” involved in the tragic events that befell Job? Of course! Satan initiates these events, but only with God’s explicit permission. I emphasize this fact because Boyd appeals to the freedom and power that demonic forces have to work evil in the world. Indeed, these forces are free, and they do have power. It is likely, given the constrained amount of power that God allows Satan to have in this world, that these evil forces played an important role in the bridge’s collapse. By all means!

But given the precedent of Job 1 and 2, Satan doesn’t work this evil without God’s permission.

In the New Testament, we see this same dynamic at work in Paul’s discussion of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12: the thorn was both a “messenger from Satan” sent to torment Paul and a gift from God to keep Paul from “becoming conceited” (v. 7). So it’s not either God or Satan; it’s both/and. Satan can do nothing apart from God’s providential permission.

For a theologian of Boyd’s stature, this should be baby talk. He should know—as classic Christian theology has always maintained—that God sustains everything into existence at every moment. No creature, no matter how free, lives independently of God. So God is necessarily involved in everything that (even) free creatures do. But even more, the Bible promises that God is working through “all things” for the sake of his children and his redemptive purposes (Romans 8:28).

Tim Keller, perhaps quoting someone else, called God “the great Alchemist”: only God has the power to transform evil into good. If he can transform the worst evil the world has ever seen (the cross of his Son Jesus) into the greatest good the world has ever seen (the salvation of all who believe in Christ), then he can surely transform all lesser evils, including the 35W bridge disaster.

Let’s look at the next sentence in Boyd’s post:

He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.”

Here Boyd gets off track: He conflates God’s “message” embedded within a tragedy with the “ultimate reason” for the tragedy itself. They’re not identical, unless God’s sole purpose in allowing a tragedy is to communicate a message. In the case of the 35W bridge tragedy, we can infer that Piper believes that God let the bridge fall for many reasons, only one of which was to communicate a message about repentance:

Talitha said, “Maybe he let it 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.”

“I am sure that is one of the reasons.”

Given these words, it’s clear Piper distinguishes “reasons” for a tragedy from the “message” communicated through it, and that he believes that there are many reasons. Even if God were communicating only one message through the 35W disaster, he’s still allowing it for many reasons.

Boyd continues:

In fact, if you read on five more verses, you come upon another catastrophe Jesus confronted: a woman who had been deformed for 18 years. Rather than assuming that God was somehow involved in this deformity, Jesus says this woman was bound by Satan (13:16). He then manifested God’s will by healing her.

See my words above about Job and Paul, both of whom suffered physical illnesses in which God is explicitly involved, alongside Satan. He continues:

This is what we find throughout the Gospels. They uniformly identify infirmities (sickness, disease, deformities, disabilities) as being directly or indirectly the result not of God’s punishing activity, but of Satan’s oppressive activity.

Even this isn’t true. What about the healing of the man born blind in John 9? Here are verses 1-3:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

Clearly, the gospels do not “uniformly” identify infirmities as being “directly or indirectly” the result of Satan’s “oppressive activity” rather than God’s activity—since this man was born blind so that “the works of God might be displayed in him.” Surely Boyd wouldn’t argue that Satan wanted God’s works to be displayed in the blind man! While these verses don’t rule out that Satan’s oppressive power is also at work, Jesus himself doesn’t go that far: we only know that God is the ultimate cause of the man’s blindness. Either way, Boyd has misrepresented the gospels.

I’ll continue to look at the Boyd post next time.

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 5)

October 16, 2017

An earthquake disrupted Game 3 of the 1989 World Series.

[To read earlier posts in this series, click here.]

“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!

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 4)

September 18, 2017

This is Part 4 in a series of posts. Click here to read previous posts.

I’ve been arguing on my blog for years that we Methodists are not, in general, well-equipped, theologically, to deal with tragic events—such as the recent hurricanes that ravaged the east coast of Texas, the Caribbean islands, and Florida over the past few weeks.

Case in point: Read this article from last week entitled, “Ask the UMC: How do United Methodists understand human suffering from natural disaster?

(What an ambitious title, by the way! Did we convene a General Conference without my knowing it, so that this author—whoever it is—could speak on behalf of the entire church?)

Needless to say, no one asked yours truly—a United Methodist—how I understand human suffering from natural disaster. I find this article deeply—though typically—insufficient.

The author quotes a John Wesley sermon called “The Promise of Understanding”:

[W]e cannot say why God suffered evil to have a place in his creation; why he, who is so infinitely good himself, who made all things ‘very good,’ and who rejoices in the good of all his creatures, permitted what is so entirely contrary to his own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works. ‘Why are sin and its attendant pain in the world?’ has been a question ever since the world began; and the world will probably end before human understandings have answered it with any certainty” (section 2.1).

By way of interpretation, the author writes the following:

While Wesley admits we cannot know the complete answer, he clearly states that suffering does not come from God. God is “infinitely good,” Wesley writes, “made all things good,” and “rejoices in the good of all his creatures.”

Our good God does not send suffering. According to Wesley, it is “entirely contrary to [God’s] own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works.” Suffering is not punishment for sin or a judgment from God. We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.

Let me begin by saying—and I mean this as respectfully as possible—”Ultimately, who cares what Wesley said?” The Rev. Wesley himself, a convinced Protestant, would likely appreciate my saying this. We are supposed to be “people of one book,” and that book is not ultimately a collection of Wesley’s standard sermons: it is the Bible.

Having said that, I disagree that this author has interpreted him correctly. Notice Wesley begins by saying that we don’t know why “God suffered evil to have a place in his creation.” While I think Wesley’s words are a bit strong here, this is one sentence from one paragraph of one sermon preached over the course of a long life of published sermons, tracts, magazines, and books. Wesley “never had an unpublished thought,” so the old joke goes. This paragraph hardly exhausts Wesley’s thinking on the subject.

While I don’t have the reference now, one of my Wesleyan theology professors in seminary said that Wesley didn’t hesitate to explain the divine origin of at least one or two natural disasters that affected England in his day.

Besides, what we know from the rest of Wesley’s corpus is that he was a “greater good” apologist for evil, like most of his contemporaries: In other words, now that sin and evil are a part of this Creation, God will use them redemptively in order to bring about a greater good. Wesley would likely point to Romans 8:28 and some of the scriptures I’ve dealt with as part of this series of blog posts.

Regardless, Wesley is speaking about God’s allowing evil to begin with; not what God is doing with evil and its “attendant pain” right now.

The author writes that Wesley “clearly states that suffering does not come from God.” He does no such thing! Notice how easily the author conflates evil with suffering. Why does he or she do this? To say that evil does not originate with God is not the same as saying God doesn’t send suffering. Do I have to rehearse my arguments from scripture in the previous three blog posts? For example, recall that God literally struck down Ananias and Sapphira for their sin in Acts 5. Was that not suffering? Or what about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12? There is clearly a sense in which God wanted Paul to suffer from his “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble. Or what about those Christians in the church in Corinth who got sick and even died from eating the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:30)?

While we might say that in a world without sin God doesn’t want his children to suffer, we no longer live in such a world. In our world, God does want us to suffer if by doing so he can accomplish his good purposes—as the Bible and our own experience prove that he can.

I’m reminded of a question that Rob Bell raised in his book Love Wins. Bell was kind of, sort of arguing—in that mushy, hard-to-pin-down, Rob Bell sort of way—that it doesn’t make sense that God would send sinners to hell. Why? “Doesn’t God love everyone and want to save them? Does God not get what he wants?” Mark Galli’s response, in his own book God Wins, was dead on: “Yes, but God wants more than one thing!”

God wants more than one thing. This is true when it comes to suffering.

By all means, all things being equal, God doesn’t want a world of sin, evil, and suffering. But not at the expense of creaturely freedom. In other words, God obviously wants this world of sin, evil, and suffering more than he wants a world in which sin, evil, and suffering are impossible.

In the end, it will be clear that all the suffering of this world, alongside God’s redemptive plan for it, will be to his glory. I can imagine some ways in which this might be true—and our best Christian apologists have helped us to imagine it—but whether I can or not is irrelevant: the fact remains that if God didn’t want the world in which we live, we would live in another world.

If you disagree with my logic, please tell me why.

Notice the question-begging that “Mr. or Ms. UMC” engages in with the following statement: “We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.”

Yes, but why? Could God not have created a world without such a “system of processes” or “physical environment”? Sure, if you’re a “process theologian” who denies God’s omnipotence, or an “open theist” who denies God’s foreknowledge, then you might have a case. But even I, who doesn’t have the authority to speak for the entire United Methodist Church, knows for sure that our denomination’s founding documents and doctrines rule out such a belief.

Finally, notice the contradiction in the author’s citation of John 9:

When Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind, the disciples ask Jesus the question we are asking. “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). Jesus, why does seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?

Jesus’ answer, “Neither he nor his parents,” tells us that the disciples are asking the wrong question. “This happened,” Jesus continues, “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Jesus asserts that it is in our response to suffering that God is found, in moments of everyday grace and in grand and sweeping gestures of care and solidarity with the suffering. God’s mighty works are found in hospitals and nursing homes and shelters.

“Why does this seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?” By the author’s logic, Jesus ought to say that the man was born blind because he was born into a “system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.” And given that this happened to him—and no one knows why—now God can redeem his suffering through a miraculous healing.

But this isn’t at all what Jesus says.

Instead, Jesus says God sent this man’s suffering, and Jesus even tells us the reason: “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” Jesus’s words only rule out that God isn’t punishing the man for his sins, or the sins of his parents, not that God didn’t enable or allow the man’s suffering for a reason.

The author asserts that “it is in our response to suffering that God is found,” but that’s not true in this case: God is also found in the man’s being blind in the first place. His blindness was a part of God’s plan for his life—for a good reason! To glorify God!

If you think that my words sound cold-hearted, how would you interpret Jesus’ own words?

When I read officially sanctioned Methodist articles such as this one, I’m struck by how human-centered they tend to be. It’s as if Methodist thinkers such as this author imagine that we human beings exist for our own sake, rather than for God’s—as if our happiness is God’s chief concern, and when we’re unhappy, then something has gone badly wrong, and God owes us an explanation. Sadly, these Methodist thinkers tell us time and again, there are no explanations.

Of course there aren’t explanations! It’s as if we’re looking in the wrong end of the telescope and asking why our universe is so small!

Just this morning, one UMC pastor, Drew McIntyre tweeted the following:

He’s writing in response to something that Methodist bogeyman John Piper said (taken out of context, as most tweets are):

Given what I’ve written above, you won’t be surprised at my response to Drew:

Anyway, speaking of John Piper—and picking up where I left off in my previous post in this series—these words from his controversial blog post on the collapse of the I-35W bridge resonate with me. This is an example, I believe, of “turning the telescope around” and looking at the question of suffering from the correct perspective:

All of us have sinned against God, not just against each other. This is an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge. That any human is breathing at this minute on this planet is sheer mercy from God. God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on those who do not treasure him above all else. He causes the heart to beat and the lungs to work for millions of people who deserve his wrath. This is a view of reality that desperately needs to be taught in our churches, so that we are prepared for the calamities of the world.

The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world.

What can I say to this but Amen?

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.

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 3)

August 29, 2017

(If you haven’t read the previous two entries in this series, please do so: Part 1 and Part 2.)

In my previous post, I made it through three paragraphs of John Piper’s controversial blog post from 2007 on the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, not far from Piper’s church. Recall that Piper has just said that the “appointed” reading for his family devotional the night of the disaster (I assume he was using a devotional book or calendar of assigned readings) was Luke 13:1-9. As I said last time, I agree with Piper that this was “surely no coincidence.” This scripture ought to be a go-to passage when natural or man-made disasters occur.

But even believing that some mundane event is “surely no coincidence”—which most of us Christians believe at least occasionally—requires a degree of God’s control that we otherwise deny when we say that everything doesn’t happen for a reason, and that some events fall outside of God’s providential plans.

In the fourth paragraph, Piper writes:

Jesus implies that those who brought him this news thought he would say that those who died, deserved to die, and that those who didn’t die did not deserve to die. That is not what he said. He said, everyone deserves to die. And if you and I don’t repent, we too will perish. This is a stunning response. It only makes sense from a view of reality that is radically oriented on God.

Has Piper correctly interpreted Jesus’ words? Did Jesus imply that everyone deserves to die—and “perish” eternally?

Let me consult one liberal mainline commentary—Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock’s The People’s New Testament Commentary. Boring and the late Craddock were professors at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, the seminary I attended:

People, especially religious people, want a satisfying explanation for tragedy. Those killed were sacrificing at the temple in obedience to the biblical command. Were they perhaps actually hypocrites, so that Pilate’s outrageous slaughter was the just punishment for their sin? Jesus offers no explanation but eliminates the false idea that tragedy is God’s punishment for sin.[1]

This is deceptively close to being true: Among other things, Jesus is saying that tragedies aren’t necessarily God’s punishment for sin. I can buy that. But this passage can’t rule out all tragedies. In fact, the Old Testament is rife with tragedies that, we’re told, are God’s punishment for sin.

And what about the New Testament? The cross itself was the greatest tragedy: to say the least, it represents God’s punishment for sin—although the punishment wasn’t suffered by those who deserve it. Jesus warns that the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 will, in part, be punishment for sin. I’m sure that the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 were tragic to their families, yet these too were punishment for sin. The death of church members in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 for receiving the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” was punishment for sin. The Book of Revelation obviously reports many tragic events that have resulted or will result from sin—not only eschatological events, but also churches whose “lampstands” will be “removed from their places” on account of their sin.

How, then, can Boring and Craddock arrive at this inductive inference except by reading this passage in a vacuum? I admit their interpretation sounds nice to modern ears: The “nice” liberal god of mainline Protestantism rarely if ever punishes anyone for sin, so of course his hands are clean when disasters occur.

But at what cost does this “nice-ness” occur? We can infer the answer in their next paragraph:

There are no explanations for such tragedies, but they still point us to the reality that we live in a world in which we are not in control, and constitute a call to repentance. Jesus’ hearers are urged to avoid constructing an explanation for the evils of life and to see such calamities as reminders of the fragility of life; anyone, relatively good or evil could find himself or herself standing before the final Judge without any advance warning.[2]

I agree that tragedies remind us that life is fragile and they “point us to the reality that we live in a world in which we are not in control,” but does that imply that “there are no explanations for such tragedies”?

Have they thought it through? Have they never found comfort in the assurance that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28)? Does “all” not mean all? If God allows something that he might otherwise prevent (assuming, as classic Christianity always has, that he has the power to do so), then it’s untrue to say that “there are no explanations for such tragedies” (beyond blind physical forces and ungoverned human will). There are explanations for all tragedies; it’s just that one of those explanations isn’t necessarily “because the ones who died were sinners, and the ones who survived weren’t.”

In fact, we’re all sinners (Romans 3:23), and the Bible warns us that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). And not just physical death—spiritual death, eternal separation from God. Jesus came to save us from that consequence.

Isn’t this the plain meaning of Jesus’ twice repeated warning, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”? In other words, Jesus’ hearers were likely going to remain safe from tragedies such as the ones that befell the worshipers in the Temple when Pilate murdered them, or those victims of the tower’s collapse. For all we know, they would live to a ripe old age and die of natural causes. Does that mean that they were O.K. with God? No, Jesus warns them: None of you is O.K.! You all must repent or face judgment and hell.

Why? Because we’re all sinners who deserve death, judgment, and hell. Which is precisely what John Piper says.

1. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: WJK, 2009), 231.

2. Ibid.