Posts Tagged ‘providence’

“No man can prevent God from blessing you”: meditation on Genesis 25:23

June 19, 2019

Genesis 25:23And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”

The story arc that begins with this verse and continues through chapter 33 describes many unlikely ways in which God blesses and prospers Jacob—often in spite of himself! For instance, according to the ancient law of primogeniture, Esau, Jacob’s firstborn twin brother, should receive the birthright and blessing of his father, Isaac. But God has another plan, which the wily Jacob is more than eager to implement, however unwittingly.

Since God chose Jacob rather than Esau to carry forward his covenant promises through Abraham (see Genesis 12:2-3), why doesn’t God simply enable Jacob to be born first? Wouldn’t that have been far less trouble for everyone involved? Yes, but since when does our Father seem interested in sparing us, his chosen ones, from trouble? Moreover, how often do we look back on this trouble and think, “While I hated it at the time, I now see that it was good for me”?

One of the most harmful sins I commit is comparing myself with others—in my case often fellow ordained clergy, including district superintendents and bishops—and believing that I’m not getting what I need from them. Or, indeed, that they are standing in the way of something I need. Success is a zero sum game, I fear, and there’s only so much of it to go around. (Again, I’m not proud of this; it’s a sin to feel this way!)

To say the least, this scripture says otherwise. If God wants me to have something, he will ensure that I have it. No one and nothing—not the will of man or even powerful institutions—can impede God’s sovereign choices. And because I am in Christ, I can be sure that what God chooses for me will always be in my best interest.

So God is saying to me, through today’s scripture, “Trust me, Brent! Don’t be afraid that I’m giving you anything other than what is best for you at this and every other moment! No one and nothing can stand in the way of the blessing with which I want to bless you. No one and nothing can prevent you from receiving my very best for you!”

“Suffering is a part of the plan”: meditation on Genesis 25:22

June 17, 2019

Genesis 25:22: “The children struggled together within her, and she said, ‘If it is thus, why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord.”

“Why is this happening to me?” Like the rest of us, Rebekah believes that answering God’s call and fulfilling his plan for her life is supposed to be easy—or at least easier than any alternative—if we are doing it right. Indeed, this seductive idea is at the root of Satan’s question to Jesus in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God, you are entitled to a far easier life than this! Surely your Father doesn’t want you to starve out here! Use your power to transform these stones into bread.” (See Matthew 4:3)

We who are adopted as “sons” (both men and women) of God through faith should expect no better treatment from Satan. When we suffer, his temptations will be along the same lines: “You are a ‘son’ of God, adopted into God’s family, made holy with Christ’s holiness, as highly favored as God’s only begotten Son, and loved by your Father exactly as much. Why is this happening to you? You deserve better. Or maybe you’re not who you think you are. Maybe God doesn’t love you as much as you think.” And resentment and fear soon follow.

Don’t listen to the devil!

Suffering is a part of God’s plan for our lives. Rebekah should have said—not, “If it is thus, why is this happening”—but, “Because it is thus, here’s why it’s happening.” “Because I am answering God’s call, this is one reason why life is incredibly difficult right now. Because I am doing his will, this is one reason why life is a struggle.”

Here comes the hard part: Trusting that God, who is big and powerful enough to prevent suffering, is also big and powerful enough to allow it for reasons we finite, sinful humans can’t understand. Trusting that God has a better blessing than we can imagine on the other side of suffering. And trusting that he has perfectly equipped us through his Spirit to handle it.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”: a meditation on Psalm 42:5

April 16, 2019

The following reflection on Psalm 42:5 comes from the handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation

42:5: Notice the psalmist is now talking to his soul, not God. And one thing he is telling it, as in v. 4, is to remember those times in your past in which you experienced the fullness of God’s presence. If God seems absent at this moment, it is only temporary.

I’m unimpressed with well-intentioned social media memes that urge us to “move on” from the past, to get over it (as if our therapy bills don’t prove how difficult that is!), to look to the future alone. “You can’t change the past,” they tell us.

Respectfully, I disagree: While we play a role in shaping the future—by all means—the future is largely outside of our control. (Think of tourists in Paris right now who are changing their itineraries because of yesterday’s out-of-control events! A building that stood for almost a thousand years and survived two world wars, among other things!)

So, no… it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that the past is practically the only thing we can change! Not the events themselves, obviously, but our interpretation of them. We can grab hold of the promises of God’s Word, which assure us that nothing happens to us, his children through faith in his Son, except that which he causes or allows for good reasons, and always in the best interest of our souls (Rom. 8:28; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7)—given the freedom he grants us to disobey him and make mistakes.

We may experience a healthy kind of regret and shame over events in our past, which are fruits of true repentance, but we don’t stop at regret and shame: We go one step further. We tell ourselves (and pray) something like this: “Gracious Lord, if it took that mistake, that failure, that setback, that heartbreak, that disappointment, that suffering, that sin, to bring me to this place of greater love for you, greater trust in you, greater dependence on you, then I thank you for these events in the past![1] They have made me into this person that I am today—and the person I am becoming in the future.

“If anything had happened differently, I would be someone else. But you want me to be the person I am today—not because I’m perfect right now but because I’m one day closer to becoming that person you are making me into! After all, you did not create me once, when I was born, or even twice, when I was born-again through faith in your Son.

“Rather, you are ‘creating’ me through everything that happens to me—good, bad, or indifferent.

“So I will be grateful. Indeed, along with the apostle Paul, I will give thanks, not in spite of everything, but for everything (Eph. 5:20)—because everything that happens to me has been sifted through your redemptive, providential hand.”

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”

That’s an excellent question!

1. Please note: I’m not for a moment implying that we should “go on sinning so that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1). Rather, I’m saying that God “factors in” our sinful choices and uses their often harmful consequences for our good. Consider the younger son in the parable of Luke 15: Would he have been better off had he never left home, squandered his father’s wealth, and brought himself to utter ruin? Of course not! He was saved through the experience! Apart from it—had he stayed home—he would have remained as lost as his older brother—even if he were outwardly obedient to his father.

Osteen: “Quit losing sleep over something that God ordained”

December 13, 2018

A couple of days ago, in the Twitterverse, Joel Osteen posted the following:

So my question to you, dear readers, is this: Is he wrong?

Many years ago, I would have said yes, he is wrong… emphatically.

In fact, my Christian faith was badly shaken on the morning of October 18, 1989. This was the morning after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay area of California, minutes before Game 3 of the World Series was set to start. The Oakland A’s were playing the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park.

That morning, I was driving to work in Atlanta (I was a co-op student at Georgia Tech at the time), listening to a Christian radio station. After a news break describing the earthquake, the radio host said the following: “I have friends out on the West Coast in the Bay Area. I talked to them last night. They’re doing O.K. I just want to thank God for their safety.”

Something within me recoiled: “No!” I thought. “You don’t get to thank God for saving the lives of your friends unless, at the same time, you blame God for not saving the lives of the earthquake’s many victims.” (Wikipedia tells me that 63 people died and 3,757 were injured.)

Even to this day, while my interpretation of the event has changed, the logic is sound. Isn’t it?

If God possesses the power to keep our friends safe during an earthquake—and who could deny that he does and still be within the realm of orthodox Christianity?—then surely, by that same power, he could keep everyone safe. Indeed, every time we pray for the safety of friends and family who are traveling home for Christmas, for examples, or who are facing surgery, or who are dodging IEDs in war zones, we believe that God has the power to intervene in the world to keep our loved ones safe. If God has the power to do so for relatively “small” events, as we perceive them, then he has the power to do so for big events.

If “thanking God” for loved ones’ safety isn’t hot air, and we really mean it, then we must conclude that in cases in which people die, God has reasons for allowing their deaths. In other words, getting back to Osteen’s tweet, “nothing can happen without his permission.” He “ordains” it.

There is far too much scripture to back this up. Read, for instance, Psalm 139, with its high view of God’s sovereignty: “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me… [I]n your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

Or how about Job 1? Recall that God gives Satan permission (explicitly!) to harm Job—first his family and livestock, later his own health. Again, this affirms Osteen’s tweet: “He [God] may not have sent it,” but God permits Satan to work this evil. Jesus himself acknowledges the constrained but very real power that Satan has over this world when he calls him the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31) and the “prince of this world” (John 14:30).

Indeed, when Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness with the gift of “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8), Jesus doesn’t respond by saying, “You and I both know you don’t possess that power, Satan,” in which case Satan’s offer wouldn’t be tempting at all. No, Jesus is really tempted because he understands that Satan does possess the power to give him these kingdoms… because God has allowed him some degree of power to influence our physical world. And we see Satan exert this influence in Job 1-2.

Another way of putting it—if it helps—is like this: Just as God allows free but fallen human beings to work great evil in the world, so he also allows free but fallen angelic beings to work great evil in the world. Indeed, it’s not clear where one stops and the other starts, if Paul is right when he says that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12).

Nevertheless, after Satan kills Job’s children, Job responds with these difficult words, which were even used as part of a popular praise-and-worship song 20 years ago (“Blessed Be the Name of the Lord”): “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Even though Satan is the direct agent of harm, God is ultimately responsible for it.

I can anticipate an objection: Yes, but this is Job speaking, not God. What if Job is mistaken?

But even if he were mistaken, we still have to deal with the next verse (emphasis mine): “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” At the very least, in attributing the deaths of Job’s children to God (whether Job is right or wrong to make the attribution), the premise holds: God, the author of a life that none of us deserves and to which none of us is entitled, is permitted to take that life when he pleases (“it is appointed unto men once to die,” Hebrews 9:27—appointed by whom?). Otherwise, Job would be “charging God with wrong” in saying so.

But even in the face of this tragedy, Job can still say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord” Why? Because he knows the truth of what Paul would later say: that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).

If you’re still not convinced, let’s take a New Testament example, which I’ve discussed before: Paul and his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Notice the divine passive in v. 7: “a thorn was given me.” In other words, the thorn was, in one sense, a gift from God, which he gave him, Paul says, “to keep me from becoming conceited.” This is an example of what C.S. Lewis calls a “severe mercy”: God has done something for Paul that is in his best interests, even though it causes great pain.

But notice that God is not the direct cause of the thorn: Satan is. This “gift from God” is at the same time a “messenger from Satan” sent to “harass” Paul. How can it be both? In this way: What Satan intends for evil, God intends for good. (See Genesis 50:20.) In other words, while Satan wanted to hurt Paul and hamper his ministry with this “thorn” (a symbol for violent persecution, perhaps, or a physical ailment), and God had granted Satan the freedom to do so, God transformed it into something that would be in Paul’s best interests.

Indeed, if Romans 8:28 is true, God does this all the time. And when God permits something far worse than a “thorn”—something that actually kills us, like earthquakes—we can still say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord”—because, at the very least, we get heaven and Jesus: “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Anyway, while I understand why you might object to the Bible’s high view of God’s sovereignty—as I did myself when I entered into a long season of spiritual drought during my sophomore year in college—I hope you’ll agree that I’ve represented the Bible’s teaching accurately.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I am deeply comforted by the idea—cliché though it be—that “everything happens for a [God-ordained] reason.” Even at our worst, if we are in Christ we can be sure that our lives are not spiraling out of control. On the contrary, God is working in our best interests.

After all, how many of us cite Jeremiah 29:11 as a favorite verse? “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Does God have plans for us or doesn’t he? Or does something like an earthquake, devastating though it be, have the power to derail God’s plans for us?

Heaven forbid!

Otherwise God does not have the power to intervene in the world, and our Lord would be lying when he teaches us to petition our Father with urgency and persistence.

Prayer makes a difference in the world because we believe that God has the power to make a difference in the world. Contemporary Christians, not least of which contemporary Methodists, can be very earthbound and human-centered in our worldview: we can overemphasize what we humans can accomplish at the expense of what God accomplishes for his glory.

I urge us to be more supernatural in our outlook. This starts, I believe, with a robust view of God’s sovereignty and providence.

It starts, well… by believing what Joel Osteen says… because his words reflect the truth of God’s Word.

In fact, my only small quibble with Osteen’s tweet is that he says, “Don’t try to figure it out.” I would nuance it a bit: “Don’t worry about it if you can’t figure it out.” Besides, as one pastor has said, “There may be a thousand reasons God allows something to happen, and you may only see one or two.” Or none, at least on this side of eternity. And that’s O.K. We’re not God.

We’re not God… I like that! The 19-year-old version of myself would have benefited from that helpful reminder.

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

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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.

“If we starve, he will be our everlasting, life-giving bread”

November 14, 2017

I’ve never been tempted to believe the prosperity gospel. I suspect that if I did believe it (and to be clear: I don’t!), I would hold fast to Jesus’ promise in the Sermon on the Mount about God’s faithful provision in Matthew 6:31-33:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Of course, the moment I write this, I’m reminded that Jesus has just said that we should not lay up for ourselves “treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (vv. 19-20).

But still… Matthew 6:31-33 is the word of our Lord Jesus. It’s true. At the same time, however, we have Jesus warning his disciples that they will face persecution and even death on account of their faithfulness to him (e.g., Matthew 5:11-12; Luke 6:22; Luke 21:16-18; John 16:33, among others). We see in the Book of Acts and throughout the apostles’ letters examples of great suffering and death among the saints. Paul himself writes, in Romans 8:35, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”

Presumably, each of these troubles will come to Christians at least sometimes. Paul himself describes ways in which he experienced nearly every one of them in 2 Corinthians 12:16-33.

So how do we reconcile Jesus’ promises in Matthew 6 about the Father always providing for us with the expectation that disciples will experience trouble—even to the point of hunger, nakedness, and death?

John Piper explains this with eloquence in his book Don’t Waste Your Life.

What, then, does Jesus mean, “All these things—all your food and clothing—will be added to you when you seek the kingdom of God first”? He means the same thing he meant when he said, “Some of you they will put to death… But not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 16:16-18). He meant that you will have everything you need to do his will and be eternally and supremely happy in him.

How much food and clothing are necessary? Necessary for what? we must ask. Necessary to be comfortable? No, Jesus did not promise comfort. Necessary to avoid shame? No, Jesus called us to bear shame for his name with joy. Necessary to stay alive? No, he did not promise to spare us death—of any kind. Persecution and plague consume the saints. Christians die on the scaffold, and Christians die of disease. That’s why Paul wrote, “We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).

What Jesus meant was that our Father in heaven would never let us be tested beyond what we are able (1 Corinthians 10:13). If there is one scrap of bread that you need, as God’s child, in order to keep your faith in the dungeon of starvation, you will have it. God does not promise enough food for comfort or life—he promises enough so that you can trust him and do his will.

When Paul promised, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus,” he had just said, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13, 19).

“All things” means “I can suffer hunger through him who strengthens me. I can be destitute of food and clothing through him who strengthens me.” That is what Jesus promises. He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). If we starve, he will be our everlasting, life-giving bread. If we are shamed with nakedness, he will be our perfect, all-righteous apparel. If we are tortured and made to scream in our dying pain, he will keep us from cursing his name and will restore our beaten body to everlasting beauty.[1]

Do you see the radical God-centeredness of this perspective? I never encountered this in any seminary class or United Methodist-oriented Bible study. Why not? What’s wrong with us? Don’t we believe this is true?

Jesus’ great promise of the Father’s provision in Matthew 6:31-33 isn’t mostly about us; it’s about us in relation to our Father: our Father will give us whatever we need in order to continue to glorify him in whatever circumstance in which he places us. That’s all Jesus promises—yet that’s everything we need.

1. John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 94-5.

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 »