Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Keller’

The difference between living as a “son” and a “slave” in Galatians 4

June 9, 2018

In Galatians 4:1-7, which I covered in my sermon last week, Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Paul here describes something objective that God has done to ensure that through faith in Christ we can have forgiveness of sins and a right relationship with God.

The objective character of what God has done for us on the cross cannot, in my opinion, be overemphasized. I have little patience, therefore, with subjective theories of atonement such as Abelard’s Moral Influence theory, which argues that the cross isn’t so much about what God has done for us—once for all, objectively, to take care of our problem with sin—as our response to it: “See how much God loves you that he was willing to suffer death for you? Doesn’t this melt your heart? If so, what are you going to do in response? Don’t you want to give your life to Jesus now?”

If that’s what the cross means, God help me!

Because I am—apart from the work of the Holy Spirit—a hopeless and helpless sinner. If my salvation depends even an iota on what I do in response to what God has done on the cross, I am lost! There are moments, even now, having been a Christian for a few decades, when I feel the weight of my sin, when I need reassurance. And in those moments my only recourse is to the cross: here is what God has done for me—objectively—to deal with my problem with sin. Sometimes I need to convince myself of this, intellectually.

I need to tell my soul something like this: “Brent, it’s true that you continue to sin, and you sometimes feel as if God won’t forgive you. But remember the cross. Remember the great exchange that took place. Remember that your sins were imputed to Christ, who paid the penalty for them in full. Every single one of them! There is no sin that you have ever committed or ever will commit that wasn’t ‘nailed to the cross’ (Colossians 2:14) with Christ. Also remember that his righteousness was imputed to you, meaning that you’re only able to have a right relationship with God because of the gift of Christ’s righteousness, not your own. Now, because of this double imputation, what’s true of Jesus is true of you: You, Brent, are God’s beloved son, with whom your Father is well-pleased.”

I can tell myself words such as these even when I’m not feeling it.

Not that this is usually the case. Usually, I do feel a sense of assurance that I’m a child of God. See Romans 8:16. Where does this feeling of assurance come from? Paul tells us Galatians 4:6: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”

There was a period of time—from what I’ve read, in the middle of the 20th century—when many preachers would talk about how Abba, the Aramaic word for father, was literally baby talk—the equivalent of “Daddy” or “Papa.” It’s a word for “father” that’s easy for an infant to say—among a child’s first words. But we preachers aren’t supposed to say this anymore: In fact, while it’s true very young children called their fathers “Abba,” so did grown children. It just means “Father,” no more, no less. Don’t make more of it than that, scholars tell us.

But not so fast… If Abba doesn’t suggest or imply something more than simply “Father,” why does Paul distinguish it from “Father” (Greek: patēr) at all? Of course Abba means more than “Father”! It suggests a greater intimacy with God—the same intimacy that Jesus himself had with his Father; indeed, Abba is the word Jesus used. J.B. Phillips put it nicely in his translation: “Father, dear Father.”

So we enjoy this same intimacy with the Father. And this intimacy ought to penetrate our emotions. This goes beyond a faith that resides only in our heads!

So Paul is giving us something in these verses, Galatians 4:4-7, to feed both head and heart. If we are authentically Christian, we should normally feel a sense of intimacy with our Father. But when our emotions fail, we have the objective certainty that God has done everything necessary—objectively—to bring us into a right relationship.

In my sermon on this text, I also made a point that I had never previously made about Paul’s contrast between living as a slave versus living as a son and heir. I received this insight from Tim Keller. He made his point by talking about the prodigal son: Keller said that it seems very humble on his part to ask his father to “treat me as one of your hired servants,” but it isn’t; it betrays a lack of faith in his father’s love and mercy.

To illustrate this point, he writes the following:

Alexander the Great had a general whose daughter was getting married. Alexander valued this soldier greatly and offered to pay for the wedding. When the general gave Alexander’s steward the bill, it was absolutely enormous. The steward came to Alexander and named the sum. To his surprise Alexander smiled and said, “Pay it! Don’t you see–by asking me for such an enormous sum he does me great honor. He shows that he believes I am both rich and generous.”

So, when our hearts convict us and we’re tempted to doubt that God loves or forgives us—or that he does so only grudgingly—the problem may be a lack of faith on our part, not excessive humility! So we need to repent.

Devotional Podcast #22: “God’s Wrath and the Gospel”

March 16, 2018

This is Part 2 of my reflection on the Bible’s most popular verse, John 3:16. Today I tackle an unpopular subject: God’s wrath. Why does a God of perfect love have wrath? I hope my words help make sense of it. Scripture is Numbers 21:4-9.

Devotional Text: Numbers 21:4-9

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Thursday, March 15, and this is devotional podcast number 22.

And it is a jungle out there—at least if this 1974 hit song, written by Ian Anderson and performed by the band Jethro Tull, is true. I recorded this from their album WarChild. “He who made kittens,” Anderson tells us, referring to God, “put snakes in the grass.” And that’s literally true when it comes to today’s scripture in Numbers 21:4-9.

Remember, this is the second podcast related to John 3:16. To hear the first in the series, go back and listen to devotional podcast number 21.

As I said last time, to understand the Bible’s most famous verse, we have to look at this short passage from Numbers 21—because Jesus refers to it in John 3:14-15 when he says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

In Numbers 21, the Israelites are nearing the Promised Land after almost 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And now, a new generation of Israelites is complaining to Moses about his leadership and God’s providential care. Verse 5: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” And what does God do in response to their ingratitude, their blasphemy, and their lack of faith? He sends poisonous snakes in their midst… to kill them.

Why? Because, as uncomfortable as it makes modern people feel, God has wrath toward sin. God is giving us a small picture of his wrath in Numbers 21. Wrath is God’s justifiable anger toward sin and evil. When we think of the word “wrath,” we probably think of losing one’s temper and being out of control with anger—flying off the handle. Needless to say, I hope, God does not lose his temper, nor is he out of control or flying off the handle. In fact, God’s wrath is a consequence of his love: Because God loves this world, and especially his image-bearing creatures within it, he is angry at all the sin and evil that harm it. I hope that makes sense. Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #20: “Hard Luck Stories”

March 9, 2018

Hard luck stories… Everybody’s got them. Is that all they are, though? Hard luck? That’s just the way life goes, so get used to it? Not if the many promises in God’s Word are true.

Devotional Text: Psalm 66:10-12

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Friday, March 9, and this is devotional podcast number 20.

You’re listening to the song “Hard Luck Stories,” written by Richard Thompson and performed by him with his wife Linda on the duo’s 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver.

Here’s why I’m playing this song: We all can tell “hard luck stories” about our lives. Of course, the song warns that the people to whom we tell them may grow weary of hearing them. Nevertheless, we all have them. But what do we make of them? Are they truly the result of “hard luck” and that’s just the way life goes? Not if God’s many promises in scripture are true.

Take this passage from Psalm 66:10-12, for instance. The psalmist says,

For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
you let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.

This scripture reminds me of the plight of Jacob in Genesis 31 and 32. After 20 years of being away from his family home in the Promised Land—of living and striving alongside Laban, his uncle, father-in-law, and nemesis, God tells Jacob, in chapter 31, verse 3, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

And Jacob obeys. He packs up his wives, children, servants, and livestock. He leaves his Uncle Laban. And heads home. Even though doing so, as far as he knows, may cost him his life. The last time he saw his brother, Esau, after all, Esau was hell-bent on murdering him—because Jacob had cheated him out of his inheritance and his blessing. He’s desperately afraid. His fear isn’t alleviated when he sends messengers ahead of him, who report back to him: “We saw your brother, Esau. And good news! He’s coming to greet you. And he’s bringing with him about 400 of his closest friends.”

Jacob, ever the conniver, divides his people and property into two camps and sends one camp on ahead: “That way,” Jacob reasons, “if Esau comes to one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.” Genesis 32:8. He also arranges a bribe for Esau—offering him a large share of his livestock and servants. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 01-07-18: “Rewarding Prayer”

January 18, 2018

This is the first of a new six-part sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. In this sermon, I talk about Jesus’ promise of a reward for praying the way that he teaches. I suspect many of us haven’t experienced prayer as “rewarding”—at least as much as God wants us to! I want that to change! I also talk about the privilege that we have in calling God “our Father.”

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:5-9

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

Many of you have seen the funny meme that has circulated this past week, in the wake of the `Bulldogs’ overtime victory over Oklahoma. It looks like this: [show meme on screen] “If you made any promises in overtime, service starts at 9:30 or 11:15 this Sunday morning.”  And so we could change ours to 9:00 or 11:00, but same difference. The point is, many Georgia fans were praying during that game last Monday—and chances are that some of them made promises to God: “I will go to church, Lord, if only you’ll let the Bulldogs win.”

This is funny. I like it. But by the end of the sermon, I hope you’ll see why, according to Jesus, this is terrible theology.

But this meme is about prayer, and today at HUMC we’re beginning a six-part sermon series on prayer—specifically, the Lord’s Prayer. We sort of began last week by looking at a parable about prayer—the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18. As we saw last week, Jesus told that parable to encourage us disciples to pray always and not to lose heart.

A natural follow-up question to last week’s sermon is, “O.K., I get it, Pastor Brent. I need to pray a lot more than I do now. Tell me something I don’t know! But how do I do it?”

And to answer that question, Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew chapter 6. We’re going to look at just the very beginning of the prayer today—“Our Father”—and the four verses leading up to it. The four verses leading up to the Lord’s Prayer tell us how not to pray.

The first way not to pray, Jesus says, is to do it for the sake of any audience other than God: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #4: “Thank God for Unanswered Prayer”

January 17, 2018

As someone who’s interested in Christian apologetics, I used to think that unanswered prayer posed a bigger “challenge” to Christianity than I do today. I explain why in this podcast. The gist is this: I know my own heart to some extent. I often don’t know what’s good for me. And I often want things that ultimately cause me harm. Our Father, by contrast, only wants to give us “good things,” as Jesus says. So we can trust him.

Devotional Text: Matthew 7:7-11

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Wednesday, January 17, and this is the fourth podcast of my new series of devotional podcasts. I’m posting new podcasts in this series every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I’ll also post my Sunday sermons whenever I get around to it. So stay tuned.

You’re listening to the song “Beautiful One,” by the band Daniel Amos, sometimes known as DA, from their 1986 album Fearful Symmetry. It’s hard not to hear echoes of the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe.”

Years ago—eleven, to be exact—I attended a debate in Atlanta between Christopher Hitchens, a well-known British political commentator, author, and journalist, and Timothy Jackson, one of my professors at the Candler School of Theology. At the time, the late Mr. Hitchens was staging debates with religious people as part of a publicity tour for his new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens was a quick wit and a famously fierce debater, and, although you wouldn’t know it from the boisterous reactions of Hitchens partisans in the audience—it was his book tour, after all—my guy, Dr. Jackson, won the debate… handily. In fact, the debate sparked my interest in Christian apologetics—the art of defending the Christian faith—that remains to this day. It’s hard to remember this now, but I started my blog in 2009 in part to address skeptical questions about the Christian faith.

One such question is the challenge posed by unanswered prayer. How do we square the fact of unanswered prayer with Jesus’ own words on the subject—for example, Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Or John 14:13: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

There are many good answers to this question, but I like this analogy from science: Chaos theory teaches us that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could be “magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific.”[1] So even a seemingly small event like a butterfly flapping its wings can change the course of history in ways that we can’t predict. Now think about our prayer petitions: the things we ask God to do for us will likely be far more significant than a butterfly flapping its wings; and only God can foresee whether the consequences of granting our petition will ultimately be good for us, for everyone else, and for the rest of Creation.

My point is, if God doesn’t grant our petition, we can trust that he knows best; we certainly don’t. As pastor Tim Keller puts it, “God gives us what we would have asked for, if we knew everything that God knows.”

I like that answer… I do! But it’s still a little academic.

How about this answer: Often God doesn’t give us—his children—what we ask for because God wants us to be happy—I mean, deeply happy; with a lasting kind of happiness, an invulnerable kind of joy. And we simply don’t know what we need in order to achieve that kind of happiness. But God does.

In that same passage from Matthew chapter 7 that I referred to a moment ago, Jesus says, “[W]hich one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”[2]

Notice Jesus says that our Father will give us “good things.” I hate to say it, but I’m not convinced I want good things much of the time!

Don’t get me wrong: I want things! For example, I desperately want recognition… I want people to praise me… I want people to appreciate me… I want people to show me how much they love me.

And you might say, “What do you want? A medal?” Yes! That’s a good start!

And if I don’t get a medal, I’d be willing to settle for lots of money! I’m not hard to please!

My point is, the things I want… even if I got them, they would never be enough. I would never be satisfied. God knows that!

So thank God for unanswered prayer! I mean that literally… Thank God! Our Father only wants to give his children good things. See, I’m the one asking for stones, and my Father gives me bread instead. I’m the one asking for a serpent, and my Father gives me a fish instead. Or, from Luke’s gospel, I’m the one asking for a scorpion, and my Father gives me an egg instead. Thank God!

God wants us to be happy… Our problem is our willingness to settle for something far less than happiness. Listen to the way C.S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain:

George Macdonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.[3]

“O God, I’m weary from hunger. I don’t want to starve any longer. Give me your bread of life. Give me your Son Jesus! Give me Jesus, and I’ll be satisfied. Amen.”

That’s a prayer that God will answer every time!

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

2. Matthew 7:9-10 ESV

3. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 47.

Sermon 12-24-17: “We Saw His Star When It Rose”

January 4, 2018

Today’s sermon investigates three different responses to the news of the newborn king: from King Herod, from the scribes and chief priests, and from the magi. At different times, our own responses to Christ our king may be similar to each of these. How can we become more like the magi?

Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12

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“We three kings of orient are/ Bearing gifts we traverse afar/ Field and fountain, moor and mountain/ Following yonder star.”

Literally one of my favorite Christmas hymns. Just a beautiful melody. Yet it’s wrong in nearly every detail!

First, these magi worked for a king—they were courtiers; they were not kings themselves. They believed that the movement of the stars foretold important events happening on earth; likewise, when something important was happening on earth, they believed that it would be reflected in some way in the stars. So their job was to study the night sky, discern what important events might be happening here on earth—or might be about to happen—and report to their king what the “latest news” was. Also, we have no idea how many of them there were—probably more than three. The “three” comes from the number of gifts they gave to Jesus, but that doesn’t indicate how many of them there were. And they weren’t from the Orient; they were from the Middle East—likely Babylon, or the Persian Gulf area. So there probably weren’t three; they weren’t kings; and they weren’t from the Orient. But besides that it’s a great song!

Notice verse 2: They came to Jerusalem seeking the newborn “king of the Jews” because they saw his star rising. We don’t know what this star was—it might have been a natural astronomical event or a miraculous event created by God to lead these men to Jesus. We don’t need to get hung up on what the star was. It sounds to me like the star that led them from Babylon to Jerusalem might have been a completely natural event—highly unusual but scientifically explainable, which the wise men, because they were the world’s leading experts on the movement of stars and planets, were able to see.

But then, in verses 9 and 10, when the star moves and comes to rest over the place where Jesus is, it sounds like that is a supernatural event.

Does it matter? Not at all! If it was a natural event—which astronomers today can study and explain scientifically—it was a natural event designed by God before the Creation of the world to appear at this particular time and place in order to lead these wise men to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Just think: God is so powerful, so sovereign, so in control of this universe that he doesn’t even need to work a miracle that defies the laws of physics in order to be active in the world: he can work through natural events. God is always working at every moment in every event and through every person to accomplish his will in the world! This is called the doctrine of God’s providence, which means that we can know that everything that happens in the universe happens according to God’s plan and purpose! By the logic of providence, God is constantly intervening in the world, so, in a way, “miracles” happen all the time—even when modern science can explain why something happens. A scientific explanation is merely the most superficial reason; there’s always a deeper reason. And God is always behind it. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 12-17-17: “My Soul Magnifies the Lord”

January 4, 2018

In today’s scripture, Mary visits her relative Elizabeth and finds her pregnant, thus confirming the angel Gabriel’s message to her in last Sunday’s scripture. She exclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” In the same way, we need to teach our soul to “magnify the Lord.” Too often, however, we Christians magnify our problems instead. As I point out in this sermon, our God is so much bigger than any problem we’re facing.

Sermon Text: Luke 1:39-56

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“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” What does this mean for us today, and how do we do it? That’s mostly what this sermon is about.

The last verse of the scripture I preached on last week was Luke 1:38, which immediately precedes today’s text. After the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’s going to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to the God’s Son Jesus, Mary courageously responds with some of the most beautiful words ever spoken: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Let us hear now the next sentence of that verse: “And the angel departed from her.”

And the angel departed from her.

Mary, undoubtedly, has dozens of questions at this point: “Is this really happening to me? Am I dreaming? Am I hallucinating? How will I tell Joseph? When should I tell Joseph? Will Joseph believe me? Will we still get married? What will our families think? What will our friends think? How am I supposed be the mother to God’s own Son? Am I smart enough? Am I wise enough?”

Mary could not google the answers to any of these questions. And even if smartphones existed in the first century, it doesn’t seem like Gabriel would be the type to say, “Just message me if you have any further questions.” He is not Aladdin, and Mary does not have a lamp. Gabriel has left Mary to face a frightening, uncertain future all by herself—without the benefit of any further angelic appearances. Remember: even the angels who visit the shepherds on Christmas night don’t show up at the manger. The shepherds report that event—secondhand—to Mary and Joseph.

My point is, in verse 38, Mary has submitted herself to God’s will, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t scared. Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not also terrified. And being faithful doesn’t mean you don’t have any doubt.

Or else, Gabriel’s words to Mary in verse 36 would make no sense: “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” Why does Gabriel tell her this? To give her a sign—a way of reassuring her and confirming for her that everything that he told her will come to pass. Mary knows that Elizabeth is unable to have children. And in verse 24, Luke tells us that Elizabeth has kept her pregnancy a secret. So Mary would have no way of knowing that her cousin is pregnant. So if she shows up at Elizabeth’s house and finds her pregnant, well, that’s a pretty good sign that the angel was telling the truth! Read the rest of this entry »

Advent Podcast Day 21: “Peace Among Those with Whom God Is Pleased”

December 23, 2017

From the first day of Advent until Christmas Day, I’m podcasting a daily devotional. You can listen by clicking on the playhead below.

Devotional Text: Luke 2:13-14

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s December 23, 2017, and this is Day 21 of my series of Advent podcasts. You’re listening to the Vince Guaraldi Trio from 1965, and their very interesting rearrangement of “The Little Drummer Boy,” called “My Little Drum.” This comes from the 1965 soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

When we hear the Christmas story in the Bible, it often sounds better in the classic King James translation. In fact, many people of my generation think it sounds best of all when we hear Linus read it in the TV special. Let’s listen to that now:

[Play clip.]

Of course, our preference for one translation over another often comes down to style or nostalgia. But the classic King James rendering of the second half of verse 14 is misleading, if not wrong: “on earth peace, good will toward men.”

This translation makes it seem as if the angels are pronouncing God’s favor toward everyone in the world… without condition. And let’s face it: if that were indeed what God’s Word intends to say, well… it would fit in nicely in our culture, which values “inclusion” above all other values.

Just last Christmas, a columnist in the New York Times named Nicholas Kristoff interviewed Tim Keller, the now recently retired pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Over the course of decades Keller had great success reaching young people in their twenties and thirties with an uncompromising gospel message in one of the most secular cities in the world. I was glad to see Keller being taken seriously by the so-called “paper of record.” Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 11-26-17: “Rejoice in the Lord Always”

November 30, 2017

Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Does “always” really mean always? If so, I suspect most of us struggle to obey these words. Our main problem, as I point in this sermon, is that we usually rejoice in our circumstances: “I got the job, therefore I rejoice!” “She said ‘yes,’ therefore I rejoice!” “The tests came back negative, therefore I rejoice!” But notice Paul says to rejoice in the Lord. If we are in the Lord, we always have reasons for joy.

Sermon Text: Philippians 4:4-13

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

The family and I went to my in-laws house in Snellville on Thanksgiving. After the meal, I stayed awake watching football as long as I could—without being rude—before creeping back to the spare bedroom and taking a nap. When I woke up, everyone—my entire family and my in-laws—were no longer watching football. They were watching a movie on the Hallmark Channel. Maybe you’ve seen it? It was that one about this man and woman who meet but don’t get along at first. In fact, they don’t even like each other. But over time they start to secretly fall for one another. But they can’t tell each other, because there are all these obstacles that stand in the way of their relationship. And then, at the very end of the movie, all the obstacles are removed. They finally say, “I love you.” They kiss. And it’s clear they’re going to live happily ever after.

Have you seen that one?

Actually, this one was almost exactly like You’ve Got Mail except it was set at Christmastime. At the end of the movie, the woman gets everything she wants, including a big promotion at work, the perfect Christmas gift, and the man of her dreams. So of course she is deeply happy! She has reason to rejoice! If she got passed over for the promotion; if she lost her job; if her Christmas wishes went unfulfilled; if she didn’t end up with Romeo, well… she would be not be rejoicing. And we the viewers would not be rejoicing.

Because our ability to rejoice depends on… how things turn out. We need the “happily ever after,” or something reasonably close to it, in order to experience joy. That’s because we rejoice in our circumstances—when you get the promotion, when you fall in love, when your dreams come true. If the circumstances are bad, not so much.

Yet notice Paul’s words here in verse 4: “Rejoice in the Lord”—when? “Always.” And as if that weren’t clear enough he repeats it: “Again I will say, rejoice.” Read the rest of this entry »

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.