Posts Tagged ‘God’s sovereignty’

Disagreeing with a UM pastor about God’s sovereignty—surprise, surprise

May 10, 2017

Here’s a blast from the past: a blog post in which I explain my disagreement with a fellow United Methodist pastor and author named Jason Micheli. I’ve never met him, but years ago he was gracious enough to let me write a guest blog post on his blog.

Read the article that was posted on Ministry Matters, a United Methodist-affiliated website. Here is a relevant excerpt:

Platitudes and reasons suggest God is behind the suffering and the suck in our lives. They suggest a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will. But that is not the world as scripture sees it. As St. Paul describes it, the world is groaning against God’s good intentions for it (Romans 8:22). In the language of scripture, suffering is a symptom of our world’s rebellion against God; it’s not a sign of God’s plan for our lives.

Maybe we conjure a different world, a world of tight causality, because the opposite is too frightening.

Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel. They are.

Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question “Why?” has no answer. It often does not.

Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us without warning, for no reason, and from which no good will ever come. They can and they do.

It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, a reason behind every pitfall in our lives, but think about it: The logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster. Such a god is certainly in charge kind of god, but such a god is not worthy of our worship.

Truth is, God doesn’t use or deploy suffering. God is present with us in suffering. In fact, in Jesus’ cross we witness that God, too, suffers in the brokenness of the world.

So, what do you say when there’s nothing to say?

For God’s sake, don’t say, “God has a reason.” Try saying, “There’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.”

I commented on a friend’s Facebook link as follows:

To his credit, Jason Micheli, the author of this piece, knows how to push my buttons. Years ago, I argued with him more than once on this topic on his blog. As he so often does, he employs scripture in very selective ways to try and bolster his point. Not that we don’t all do this, but Micheli’s omissions are glaring.

For example, here are a few scriptures to the contrary: Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis 50 (“You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good…”); Psalm 139 and its high view of providence; Romans 8:28 (obviously); Paul’s words about his “thorn in the flesh,” which was both a “messenger from Satan” and a gift that “was given” (divine passive) to keep Paul humble; James’s words in James 1:2-4 about the purpose of trials; Peter’s words in 1 Peter 1 about the “necessity” of God’s testing us like gold being refined by fire. All these scriptures suggest that suffering, whether caused by God or merely allowed by him, happens according to God’s plan or, yes, “will.”

In fact, whether Micheli likes it or not, Job’s testing by Satan also happens according to God’s will. God literally gives Satan permission to do what he does. (Also, where does Job “curse God”? That’s what his wife wants him to do, but he never does. Another problem with Micheli, in my experience—he plays fast and loose with scripture.)

But even more, Jesus commands us (in parables and other teaching) to petition God, who, we believe, responds to us in prayer, at least sometimes. When God doesn’t give us what we ask for, we can ask why: But there is no satisfactory Christian answer to that question that implies that God doesn’t have the power to intervene, or that whether or not God does is completely arbitrary. That being the case, we can rightly assume that God has good reasons for either granting our petitions or not. If he has good reasons, then how is even suffering arbitrary?

Does Micheli believe that God had the power to prevent him from getting cancer? Or—perhaps more to the point—was God responsible (even indirectly, through doctors and modern medicine) for Micheli’s remission? I’m sure that Jason has rightly thanked and praised God for sending his cancer into remission. I believe he’s said as much on his blog. If that’s the case, then that implies that God had the power to prevent his suffering in the first place—that, indeed, God had some reason for allowing it. Just as God has some reason for sending it into remission.

Our Arminian tradition agrees: We speak of God’s “antecedent will” and God’s “consequent will”: Antecedent will is what God would will in world without sin; consequent will is what God wills in this fallen world in which we live. We know that Wesley himself held a high view of God’s sovereignty, and his disagreements with Calvinism centered on one point: whether or not God decrees or foreordains the salvation or damnation of individuals.

Where I agree with Micheli is that of course our words of assurance about God’s sovereignty and providence can sound glib when someone is in the midst of pain and suffering. By all means, an emergency room, a deathbed, or a crime scene is likely not the right time to talk to victims about the meaning of pain and suffering. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to think these things through at other times.

God wants us to make wise decisions, but he can redeem even foolish ones

April 6, 2017

doRecently, I had a conversation with a friend who was mulling over a major life decision. He sensed that God was calling him to change his career, but it wasn’t clear. He said, “I wish I could know for sure if this is what the Lord wants me to do.”

As I listened, I became newly sympathetic with a complaint made by theologian Phillip Cary. In his book Good News for Anxious Christians, he says that over the past few generations a novel idea has entered the mainstream of evangelical Christian thought: that the primary means by which we hear God speak to us is not through studying the scriptures, reflecting on them, and letting them guide our decisions, but by discerning a “voice” or intuition inside our heart and believing that it comes from God. Cary insists that it doesn’t.

The practice of listening for God’s voice in your heart has only recently displaced Scripture as the most important way, in the view of most evangelicals, that God reveals himself to us… The idea… was that when you have a big decision to make—say, about marriage or your career—then you are supposed to seek guidance from God (good idea!) and the key way to do that is by listening to how he’s speaking in your heart (bad idea!).[†]

While I have no reason to doubt that Cary fairly represents the evangelical tradition, I can’t go all the way with him: Doesn’t God guide us in our decision making—even through intuitions or dreams? And if we refer to this guidance as God’s “voice,” I have no problem with that—so long as we don’t believe that whatever God “tells” us this way is equal in authority to God’s Word.

But I agree with him that we put unneeded pressure on ourselves if we expect to hear this “voice” (sorry for all the scare quotes) every time we have an important decision to make. Like Cary says, God gave us the gifts of our minds and wisdom to reason things through. We are not wrong to use them! In fact, let’s trust that God will guide us as we do so.

Besides, the most important and perhaps least appreciated way that God guides us is through providence. Providence is the doctrine that says that God is always guiding us through everything that happens in our lives and the world. God is always at work through circumstances in our lives, both good and bad.

Do you see how God’s providence takes the pressure off—at least a little? Getting back to my friend’s dilemma, there isn’t necessarily one right choice that he needs to make, otherwise he is “out of God’s will” unless or until he corrects his mistake and gets back on the path that God chose for him. God is infinitely resourceful: not that God doesn’t want us to make wise decisions in the first place, but God can redeem even foolish ones. If my friend makes a poor choice and regrets the decision, guess what? God will bring good even out of that choice.

Haven’t we all had experiences in our lives about which we say, “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, but I’m glad it happened to me”?

Providence means that, in a sense, wherever we are right now is where God wants us to be. Which means at every moment we can accomplish God’s will for us: which is, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us, to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010), 2-3.

Being grateful that our lives don’t go according to plan

March 29, 2017

I shared a version of the following in a recent sermon, which I’ll post later today.

It’s become a cliché these days to talk about “narratives”—a pretentious word for stories. If you’ve studied liberal arts in college, you’ve learned a lot about narratives. In theology school, homiletics professors speak of “narrative preaching.” Even on political news shows and in White House press conferences, we often hear about narratives—for example, someone is always trying to “change the narrative.” In a recent episode of Mockingbird Ministries’ podcast, The Mockingcast, co-host Scott Jones interviews a positive psychologist named Emily Esfani Smith, who also had something to say about narratives.

Smith has written a book about what it takes to live a meaningful life. She said that one thing we need to do is to see the way in which all the events in our lives weave together to tell a story: which means, “Taking your experiences,” she said, “and knitting them together into a narrative that explains who you are, where you came from, and where you’re going.” She said,

Storytelling is particularly powerful when it comes to dealing with a low point or an adversity that you’ve experienced because these are kind of blips in our narrative—these are places where the story that we’re living was not the story we expected to live. And so we have to integrate those experiences into our story and kind of understand how they shaped us.

She said that this involves what academics call “counterfactual thinking”:

Thinking about some pivotal event in your life and imagining that it hadn’t happened and asking yourself how your life would have been different if that hadn’t have happened. So if you went to X college, what if you had gone to Y college? You moved to X city. What if you had stayed home or moved to Y city?

Researchers find that this is a powerful builder of meaning because it helps you realize the benefits of taking the path you did end up taking.

In other words, people who are happiest and most fulfilled in life are those who have learned to be grateful that their lives don’t go according to their own plans. The low points, the adversity, the setbacks, the failures, the disappointments—all of these things, which we might have dreaded at the time, are good and necessary for us because they help to shape us into the people that we are.

I completely agree—even though she’s speaking from a purely secular perspective.

From a Christian perspective, however, this seems even more true. Why? Because we understand that our heavenly Father is constantly working through adversity, setbacks, failures, and disappointments. He’s constantly redeeming these events—making them work out for our good, for the world’s good, and for his glory.

Sure, things may not be going according to our plans—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going according to his!

Like Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and faced one adversity after another, we can say of any evil or harmful thing that the devil sends our way: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done.” We can say with Jesus, “In this world we will have tribulation. But take heart: Christ has overcome the world.” We can say with Paul, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” We can say, “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”

As I’ve said many times on this blog, nothing has helped me more during these past five years than learning to appreciate that God is in charge, and I can trust that he knows what’s best for me. Yet, for reasons that have nothing to do with Mr. Wesley—who spoke of God’s sovereignty often—we Methodists tend to be allergic to the idea.

Not me! I’m gratified to know that Dr. Smith’s research hints at the Story, even if she doesn’t name the Storyteller.

Remember: When angry, direct your anger toward God

January 28, 2017

mockingbird_devotionalI realize I’m going to the well of The Mockingbird Devotional twice in one week, but there’s a reason this book was my go-to gift this past Christmas. It’s good!

In today’s devotional, Paul Zahl reflects on Exodus 17:2, which describes the Israelites’ anger at Moses shortly after being delivered from the Egyptians:

Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

Notice that Moses rightly understands that the people’s anger was misdirected: Despite their words and actions, they weren’t angry at Moses; they were angry at God. “Why do you test the Lord?” He was the One who was ultimately responsible for their being in this predicament—on the verge of dying of thirst—not Moses. And that’s true for all of us who are facing any kind of hardship.

After all, even if God didn’t cause it, God certainly had the power to prevent it. Why didn’t he?

Of course, you might say that we shouldn’t get angry at all, and I’m sure that’s true. Anger is almost always destructive. And don’t resort to saying, “Yes, but Jesus was angry when he overturned the money-changers’ tables.”

Do I need to point out that we’re not Jesus?

No, by all means we should trust that, despite the fact that our lives aren’t going according to our plans, they are going according to God’s—and that God’s plans are always better than our own.

I don’t deny that we ought to feel that way. But when we don’t, which—let’s face facts—is most of the time, here’s some good news: we can do something productive with our anger: we can blame God!

One recurring theme of my blog over the past few years is my affirmation of God’s sovereignty and providence, which is another way of saying that God is, indeed, “pulling the strings.” That being the case, when we find ourselves angry, at whom ought we to be angry? As Zahl says in his devotional, nothing good comes from being angry at people. God, however, is big enough to absorb our anger. Let’s be angry at him.

Try it. For a second, stop blaming the “SOB” ruining your life, and instead blame God, who, by definition, must be pulling the strings. It will be for your good to have done so, though I don’t expect anyone to pickup on that until… “Afterward” (Edith Wharton).[†]

Paul Zahl, “January 28” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 57-8.

Where do evil and suffering fit into God’s plans?

January 24, 2017

A regular contributor to Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, who calls herself “RJS,” wrote a post that further illustrates the problem with the way that many evangelicals discuss issues related to God’s sovereignty and providence. If you didn’t read my post on the subject last week, please do so. Then read RJS’s most recent post.

I wrote the following comment, to which I hope RJS responds.

You say Genesis 50:19-20 shouldn’t be a “catch-all propositional truth thrown at people in times of pain.” For that matter, what propositional truth should be “thrown at” anyone in the midst of their pain. Pastoral sensitivity is necessary no matter what. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t propositional truths. I wouldn’t necessarily quote James 1:2 (“Count it all joy, my brother and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds…”) when someone is in pain, even though someone’s pain would usually qualify as a “trial.” Right?

Regardless, if God can work “even through the evil actions of humans,” as you say in your last paragraph, I fail to see the distinction between what counts for “God’s plans” and what doesn’t. You seem to imply that God’s plans only use “good events.” But if God foreknows what sinful humans will do, and he’s at work, a la Romans 8:28, through everything, how can “every evil and tragic occurrence” also not be part of his plans—unless you accept some form of open theism and believe that these events take God by surprise. (Not judging here, just trying to understand your point of view.)

I’m speaking as a Wesleyan-Arminian, by the way. I’m not a Calvinist troll. But in my way of thinking, if God has plans at all, how can those plans not take into consideration the evil and sinful things that humans do—or even so-called “acts of God” that harm people?

Besides, every event that happens in the world—for good or evil—has a ripple effect on history, affecting the lives of hundreds, thousands, or more. At what point will God start enfolding these myriad consequences into his “plans”?

With that in mind, I still find Timothy Keller’s words about providence and the “butterfly effect” persuasive. As I wrote in an earlier blog post:

In the scientific realm of chaos theory, there’s something called the “butterfly effect,” which says 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] Should it be any easier to figure out God, and why God is doing or allowing something to happen?

Pastor Tim Keller reflects on this and writes: “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.” Yet often when things don’t go our way, we’re the first ones to think, “That’s not fair! If I were God, I would run the universe differently.” But as you can imagine, we’re not really in a position to judge.[2]

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

2. Ibid., 101.

“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”

January 18, 2017

unbelievable_banner

A recent episode of the Unbelievable? radio program (and podcast), “How I Lost My Child but Kept My Faith,” featured Jessica Kelley, who describes the heartbreaking experience of losing her 4-year-old son to brain cancer. To cope with her son’s suffering, she adopted what’s often called a “warfare” view of human suffering, influenced by pastor and theologian Greg Boyd. As best I can tell, it’s a form of “open theism,” which limits the extent to which God knows the future and his power to change circumstances in our world.

Open theism is such a non-starter for me, on biblical grounds, I haven’t investigated it deeply: I’m not sure if Boyd would say that God limits his foreknowledge (if that were possible) or that God can’t know the future with certainty. Boyd’s concern, I think, is his mistaken belief that if God knows the future infallibly, this knowledge therefore determines it, thereby overriding human free will. I’ve heard him say that God can only know (whether by choice or by necessity) probabilities of events occurring—given every antecedent event happening at any given moment.

This seems crazy to me. Even fallible human parents can often know, with a high degree of certainty, what their child will do under a certain set of circumstances. Yet God can’t?

Besides, God’s foreknowledge does not determine. As William Lane Craig, among other apologists, has argued, while God’s knowledge of future events is chronologically prior to the events happening (obviously), it is logically subsequent to these events happening: God “sees” humans and other free agents (including angels and demons) making choices, and “what God sees” becomes the basis of his foreknowledge. God can intervene to change future outcomes as he sees fit without running roughshod over free will.

In other words, God factored in the free choices of human and angelic beings (including, in the case of humans, our prayers) when he created the world. He factored in the sin, evil, and suffering that would often result from these free choices. He factored in our human need for discipline and punishment. And he factored in the need for our world to be governed, as a rule, by stable physical forces. Whatever else God factored into this world that he created, he did so according to his good purposes and for his glory.

Therefore, having done so, we can be confident that what God causes or allows to happen right now is in accordance with his will: even—and I say this with fear and trembling—a 4-year-old dying of brain cancer. (I’ve written at length about the difference between God’s antecedent and consequent will, which might prove helpful. Click here for more.)

I find the doctrine of God’s sovereignty immensely comforting. But if you don’t, what’s the alternative? One Unbelievable? listener, “Wallace in Charleston,” puts it like this:

One question I would have liked to have asked Jessica, especially when she spoke of Jesus’ miracles of healing, is whether she believed God had the power to heal her son? Given her theological comments, it seems she would have had to answer no—”God didn’t have the power, because of these other wills and forces in the universe that, at least in my son’s case, were stronger than God’s.”

But think about the devastating implications of such an admission for Christian hope. How can I trust that a God who was powerless to heal my child will someday have enough power to raise him from the dead? How could such a God could ever accrue enough power to raise all the dead and create a new heaven and a new earth?…

I can sympathize with how Greg Boyd’s theology has appeared comforting to Jessica as she watched little Henry die, but I’m afraid that comfort comes at too high a price and has implications that are not comforting at all. Better to own the sovereign hand of God and say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

Another listener, “Tim from Saskatchewan,” emphasized that we believe in God’s sovereignty because of scripture.

[Jessica] stated that most Christians start with the assumption that God is sovereign. But through her experience, she’s come to understand that God is not fully in control, but works on the side of good. She quotes John 10:10 to defend her position, which says Jesus came to bring life.

The issue I have is that Christians don’t assume God is sovereign: the Bible states it explicitly. Jesus didn’t come to make alive people feel better; he came that dead people may receive life. It’s impossible to read John 6 and not think that the Bible is clear that God is in full control of everything. Isaiah 46:10 says, “My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” The fact that Christ was slain before the foundation of the world [Rev. 13:8] shows that the immeasurably horrible suffering of the cross was part of God’s plan. He didn’t do the best he could; he did exactly as he planned.

I would only add that our belief in sovereignty is based on much more than John 6.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I like Jessica. I’m sympathetic with her. And I find her story deeply moving. I also agree that Satan and his evil forces are at work in our world, opposing God’s people and the work of God’s kingdom—possibly even causing the evil of brain cancer. By all means!

But if I were Justin Brierley, I would have asked her: Does God have the power to prevent Satan from causing this harm? If her answer is yes—and how could it not be if God has the power to create the universe and everything in it, including Satan himself—then the difference between God’s causing and God’s allowing the disease, while important, isn’t as great as it first appears. Her version of open theism hardly solves the “problem” of evil.

“Expectation is a planned resentment”

November 22, 2016

I read the following from the November 22 entry in The Mockingbird Devotional. I’m including the first paragraph here, so I can remind myself of it from time to time:

Alcoholics Anonymous has a popular saying: “Expectation is a planned resentment.” We expect to get the promotion at work, and when we don’t, we are resentful. We expect our fellow motorists to follow traffic laws (and common sense), and when they cut us off, we are resentful. We expect our spouse to meet all our needs, and when they don’t, we are resentful. We expect the church to be a functional, loving institution, and when it isn’t, we are resentful. Yet resentment is useless, like a weapon aimed at a target that always, somehow, boomerangs back at the shooter. And over time, resentment can turn into bitterness, or worse, hate.[†]

To these examples of unmet expectations that turn to resentment, we can add plenty more. I myself have been, at times, a raging cauldron of resentment—whose culprit, I now see, was an unmet expectation, a sense that life wasn’t going the way it ought to go; that life wasn’t fair; that I wasn’t getting what I “deserved.” Worse, I felt as if other people were getting something I wanted, which they didn’t deserve.

Last week, I wondered aloud how we can “enjoy God forever,” as the first article of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says. One way, surely, is to surrender to God our expectations: If I recognize I have no right to anything good, I can receive the good that comes my way as nothing but pure gift.

Wouldn’t that be something? Don’t you want to live that way? Wouldn’t you be happier if you could live that way?

On second thought, let’s hold on to one expectation only: that God will continue to love us and work through every circumstance for our good. Let’s replace every other expectation with that one. Let’s learn to say, “This may not be what I planned. This may not be what I wanted. But it is what God wanted for me at this moment. God will give me the grace to handle it. And God will use it for my good.”

There’s probably a Thanksgiving message in there somewhere.

David Zahl, “November 22” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 388.

Wesley’s Revision of The Shorter Catechism, Part 3: How do we “enjoy God”?

November 17, 2016

jwc_the_shorter_catechism_front_cvr_smTo refresh your memory, the first article of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which Wesley endorsed without revision, is the following:

Question 1. What is the chief end of man?

Answer. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

A couple of years ago, on William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith podcast, Dr. Craig described a sermon he had recently heard, which attacked the commonplace idea that love is more “decision” than feeling:

I attended Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada. One of the pastors there is Erik Thoennes who is a Professor of Theology at Biola University. He is a very insightful theologian and a wise man. His text for his sermon was Hebrews 13:1, “Let brotherly love continue.” He gave a whole sermon on just those few words. The sermon was just filled with all sorts of nuggets of wisdom that I found very provocative and helpful. One of them was his criticism of the view that love doesn’t involve emotions. One will very frequently hear it said that love is not a feeling, love is a decision. This will often be said in marriage counseling situations, for example, where you may not feel love for your spouse anymore but you make a decision, “I will love her” (or “him”) and we will work through this problem.

Kevin Harris: Make a commitment.

Dr. Craig: Or with someone else that is particularly disagreeable – a boss or family member or even perhaps a persecutor. It is very often said that when we are commanded to love others – even love our enemy – that this is a decision. It is not some sort of emotional feeling. Thoennes was disagreeing with that, which has become I think sort of the conventional wisdom. He said this can lead to the attitude, “Well, I have to love you but I don’t have to like you.” So, you can regard other people in such a way that you don’t really have any affection or feeling for them, but you treat them in a loving way. He said that’s true – that with many people, we never can get past that point in our lives. There will be people for whom we never have the chance to really build an emotional bond of affection.

Kevin Harris: But we love them anyway.

Dr. Craig: Yes, we treat them in loving ways. We make a decision to act in a loving way toward them whether we have those feelings or not. And he recognized that. But he said if you think that that is all that love is – that that is the end goal of love – then he says you have fallen short. He says a full and mature love will involve a genuine affection for the other person. This is a reflection of the way that God loves us. He said that he’s afraid that many people may think of God’s love for them as a love that is without affection. They think, “Well, God loves me but he doesn’t really like me.” When you think of what that would do in your relationship to God, I think you can imagine how debilitating that would be if you think that God really doesn’t like you as a person. But he sort of tolerates you and loves you because he has to. It is almost as though if love were not an essential property of God, if he were freed from the necessity of loving you, then he really wouldn’t love you if he didn’t have to. Read the rest of this entry »

God “puts a hook in the nose” of adversity

September 27, 2016

In 2 Kings 19, Judah’s King Hezekiah is afraid for his kingdom: He has watched Assyria lay waste to one nation after another, including, by this point, the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Now the king of Assyria, Sennacherib, is threatening to do the same to the Southern Kingdom.

Hezekiah prays a desperate prayer for God to intervene. God answers his prayer through the prophet Isaiah, who shares with Hezekiah the word that the Lord spoke concerning Sennacherib (from 2 Kings 19:21-28).

“She despises you, she scorns you—
    the virgin daughter of Zion;
she wags her head behind you—
    the daughter of Jerusalem.

“Whom have you mocked and reviled?
    Against whom have you raised your voice
and lifted your eyes to the heights?
    Against the Holy One of Israel!
By your messengers you have mocked the Lord,
    and you have said, ‘With my many chariots
I have gone up the heights of the mountains,
    to the far recesses of Lebanon;
I felled its tallest cedars,
    its choicest cypresses;
I entered its farthest lodging place,
    its most fruitful forest.
I dug wells
    and drank foreign waters,
and I dried up with the sole of my foot
    all the streams of Egypt.’

“Have you not heard
    that I determined it long ago?
I planned from days of old
    what now I bring to pass,
that you should turn fortified cities
    into heaps of ruins,
while their inhabitants, shorn of strength,
    are dismayed and confounded,
and have become like plants of the field
    and like tender grass,
like grass on the housetops,
    blighted before it is grown.

“But I know your sitting down
    and your going out and coming in,
    and your raging against me.
Because you have raged against me
    and your complacency has come into my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth,
and I will turn you back on the way
    by which you came.

I find this passage to be a powerful and incredibly comforting message of God’s sovereignty. Sennnacherib believes that he’s been calling the shots, yet he hasn’t done anything that God hadn’t “determined” and “planned” from “days of old.” The very God whom Sennacherib has been mocking is leading him like a domesticated farm animal.

Lest I be accused of divine determinism, I see nothing here to suggest that Sennacherib isn’t acting freely, including the freedom to work great evil, for which he will be judged: it’s just that God, knowing “before all worlds” what Sennacherib would do in these circumstances (“I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in”), has factored Sennacherib’s freely chosen actions into his own plans—to work around them and through them to accomplish God’s purposes.

Needless to say, if God works his sovereign plan even through his enemies, how much more so through his beloved children?

Think of how this applies to our lives. No adversity we face has taken God by surprise. As with Hezekiah and Judah, God has “factored it in” and will redeem it. If only we’ll believe it!

Notice also that this isn’t the neutered God of mainline Protestantism who does nothing with evil except suffer it alongside us. God is active. Indeed, he is the main actor in its midst.

Does this thought not reassure you and comfort you? It does me!

Sure, process theology solves one problem, but at what price?

August 25, 2016

This is the third and final part of my response to a blog post by fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Valendy.

Here’s the heart of his second response to me:

When I take up the struggle you ask me to consider, I come on the side that no one, not even God, is “in control.” Just as there is great comfort in your responses about God being in control, I find comfort in believing that no one is in control. In the language of the “omni’s” of God, I yield the omnipotence of God to the divine goodness of God (omnibenevolent). I see there are many scriptures that point to God in the way you speak of and understand this theology and even respect it. I also find there are scriptures that point to God not being all powerful and thus the role of intercessory prayer changes from trying to get God to intervene to God being the companion that walks with us and is able to take the berating that comes in authentic prayer (see the Psalms that call God out on all sort of reasons).

I find the most powerful thing that God can be in a time of suffering and pain is companionship. We are never alone. God does not abandon us or leave us wondering if God could correct the pain then why would God not do such a thing…

Now his cards are on the table: Rev. Valendy “yields the omnipotence of God to the divine goodness,” presumably because he believes that, in this world of evil, God’s power is in conflict with his goodness—just as David Hume famously did:

Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?

While Valendy believes that God is not quite impotent, he does believe that God’s power is severely limited: As much as God might want to prevent evil and suffering, he can’t.

This is process theology, in other words. Yuck! What comfort does it bring Valendy to believe that “no one is in control”? Only this, I imagine: God is off the hook for evil. It was somehow already there before he started creating. He doesn’t have the power to defeat it. In which case, how can God ensure the eschatological promises that are writ large across Old and New Testaments? How can God ensure his kingdom will come in all its fullness?

Elsewhere in his comments, he writes that if God were in control as orthodox Christianity has maintained, then that would mean that God doesn’t “needs us to companion with God to help usher in the Kingdom.” Given that this flies in the face of the doctrine of God’s aseity—that God is utterly self-sufficient and needs nothing from anyone or anything—I thought Valendy might have been speaking carelessly. Given his words above, however, I now believe that he meant it literally.

From his perspective, God does need us human beings to ensure God’s promised future. If that were true, well… we would be in deep trouble.

I wrote the following in response to his comments. If I’ve misrepresented Valendy, I hope he will correct me:

I sense that you are ready for this conversation to end. At the risk of wearing out my welcome, I have a few more thoughts I’d like to share.

My original challenges to you assumed that you and I share the classically orthodox position that God is all powerful. I’m guessing you don’t, as you indicate when you write that God’s (mere) companionship never leaves us “wondering if God could correct the pain then why would God not do such a thing.” By this, you imply that God doesn’t always (or often) have the power to change our circumstances, even if he wants to.

But you’re O.K. with God’s not being all-powerful because, you believe, this attribute conflicts with his goodness. No all-good and all-powerful God would allow human suffering or evil without doing anything to stop it. This is the old Hume argument.

I’m sure you’ve heard the classic theodicies (there are many) defending God’s goodness in the face of evil without, at the same time, sacrificing God’s omnipotence. I’m guessing you don’t find them persuasive? Still, I would love to see you engage the arguments some time.

You say there are scriptures that indicate that God isn’t all powerful. Which ones? And how are you reading those scriptures?

You told your other commenter that you don’t take scripture “literally.” Why, then, are you reading those scriptures that suggest God isn’t all-powerful in such an overly literal way? “I don’t interpret the Bible literally,” you told your other commenter. “But when it comes to this verse here and that verse over there, I’m going to take them very literally, because they happen to support what I already believe.” That doesn’t seem quite right, does it?

After all, even inerrantists believe in progressive revelation (see Article V of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy), and we understand that God is sometimes portrayed anthropomorphically. We also read scripture “literally” in the sense that we read it with respect to genre and the author’s intentions. Poetry, metaphor, parable, figurative language, hyperbole… we inerrantists believe that these aren’t meant to be taken as literal history.

With these things in mind, I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that scripture as a whole affirms anything other than God’s omnipotence. Even the few scriptures I cited for you (2 Cor 12, Gen 50, Rom 8:28) should be enough to challenge what you’ve said about God’s sovereignty or providence. But you didn’t engage my argument. You told your other commenter that you take scripture seriously—yet you don’t argue from scripture? Why?

You also told the other commenter that you don’t believe scripture is the Word of God; Jesus is. That’s fine. I know where you’re coming from. But can you name even one thing that you know about the Word of God that is Christ, which isn’t also revealed in the word of God that is scripture? [ed. note: Or put another way, one thing that we know about Christ today that is contradicted by the Christ portrayed in scripture?]

Finally, when you pray an intercessory prayer, do you believe that God might do something other than “be present with” the person you’re praying for? If so, how does that do justice to Christ’s own words about the power of prayer?

Again, he says he takes scripture seriously. I see no evidence of serious engagement with scripture in this blog post—or others of his that I’ve read.