My last few posts laid the groundwork for the Providence of God. In this post and the next few, I want to address the reality of suffering in the life of the Christian.
One of the great frustrations I have experienced as a pastor is dealing with the fallout from the false teaching of the health and wealth purveyors. Many people live very broken lives because of their experience with the health and wealth 'gospel'. Much of this is due to the fact that this teaching has, as a foundational base, the false belief that all suffering is due to a lack of faith in the Christian.
That is one of the reasons for this post, but the second, and more important to me, is the fact that, as a church, Covenant Fellowship has recently been going through quite a time, with sickness, death and loss of jobs happening in rapid succession; therefore, I thought that it might be helpful to examine God’s providence in all stages of life, providing comfort and confidence in the great Hope found in our God!
So, before we go any further, let's examine what God's Providence is NOT.
1. God’s providence is not based upon the song - Que Sera Sera -- with the repeating refrain of ‘whatever will be, will be’. This makes God's Providence a blind, unknown, unfeeling force which causes things to happen. The atheist would be in total agreement with this mindset – the ‘forces of nature’ are driving the boat, a chance interaction of atoms, molecules etc. Suffering to this mindset is simply the happenstance of fate, not the guiding and governing of God.
2. Nor is suffering and providence simply the karmic outplay of events. Some think (as did Job’s friends) that God’s providential care is karmic in its outworking. Christians sound more like Hindus when they say things like, “That person got what was coming to them”, as if God’s providential plan is somehow working out the karmic balance of the Universe. Truth be told, if we got what was coming to us, we would all be in the same boat. No, God’s providential care is not a Christian balancing of the karmic forces. We see this refuted in the pleas of the psalmist as he sees the evil prosper and the good die, or suffer.
3. Then you have those who see suffering as an illusion – that it is not God’s providential plan that is being played out, but that we simply must understand that pain and suffering are illusory. This mentality sounds noble and lofty in many ways, but is unworkable in the real world. Buddhism and Christian Science promote this mentality. When suffering and tragedy strike, regardless of your belief in the illusory qualities of suffering, it still occurs.
I have stated, in an earlier post, that the definition of God’s Providence is “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” And we have now established that God’s providential care is not capricious, or arbitrary, but performed according to His most holy plan. His providential care is also not karmic or illusory. And we will see that this matters when it comes to the subject of suffering. We are not simply puppets in the hand of God, but are His beloved children, who are under His constant guidance, and loving care.
SECRET WILL vs. REVEALED WILL
As regards God’s providential care, we will find that there are two aspects of it that need to be addressed. First, in Deuteronomy 29:29 we read -- "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." This passage clearly states that there are aspects of God’s Will that are hidden from mankind, and there are aspects of His Will which are revealed to us – these are found in His word; much to the chagrin of many modern day so-called prophets who claim to have some secret extra-biblical ‘word’ revealed only to them.
Why is it important to understand these aspects of God’s Will? Simply put – we will not know nor understand everything that occurs in this world, as some things reside exclusively in the realm of God’s hidden will. And frankly, quite often suffering falls within this realm. Now, first let us look at suffering as regards the revealed will of God.
Some suffering results directly from our fallenness; i.e. a person suffers the ravages of drunkenness or drug addiction – in the Word, God warns of the damage of drunkenness – and man, fallen and self-centered, will ofttimes suffer from the ravages of a self-imposed disease. Or maybe one runs with a rough crowd, and suffers beatings and/or worse. God clearly warns about running with a bad crowd. You see, some suffering is simply caused by our self-focused decisions, decisions which all fallen man is susceptible to; there is nothing secret about why these things occur.
Viewing the big picture, we all suffer from the decision of our father, Adam. When Adam fell, we all fell, and therefore we are all now heirs to the inheritance of Adam’s fall – i.e. sin, sickness and death. So, all suffering is rooted and grounded in a known cause, sin, at the end of the day. The best, most noble, most Godly people in the world get sick, and die for the same reason that everyone else does, this is the legacy of Adam, whose sin and rebellion brought sickness and death into the world.
We know this because, as it stated in Deuteronomy 29:29, this fact is revealed in God’s Word; Romans 5:14 – “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…" 1st Corinthians 15:56 - "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law."
However, with that being said – we often struggle with the suffering in our life, or the lives of our loved ones, when the cause of the suffering is rooted in God’s secret will. When I lost my daughter at 18 months, I could not figure that one out. When a godly person is lost before their time (in our eyes), we often ask God “WHY??” Robert Murray M’Cheyne, an amazing man of God died at the ripe old age of 29 years old. David Brainerd, the missionary to the Native Americans, suffered with TB most of his life before it took him at 29. And we can only ask “WHY?”
However, if we trust in a loving and caring God, while we may not understand the why of it, we can trust that God’s loving care was in it. When Huaorani warriors martyred Jim Elliot in an Ecuadorian jungle at the age of 29, it would seem to us to be a gross miscarriage of justice, or worse, a mishandling of the events by God. After all, Jim was down in Ecuador attempting to minister to those people. If that were your view, you would have to read, as Paul Harvey put it, the rest of the story. Elizabeth, Jim’s wife, and a group of missionaries continued his work in Ecuador, and many people in the Auca tribe came to know Christ, and some of the very same warriors who had killed Jim and his friends, became elders in the local church there.
To God be the glory – Jim Elliot understood this better than many people, as he said when writing of missions work being more important than life – “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
What of Joseph’s suffering, as I posted a few weeks ago? He suffered greatly at the hands of his brothers, his master, and friends, yet at the end of the day, it all worked out for God’s glory and the salvation of God’s people Israel. What about Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law? She suffered the loss of her husband and both sons, forcing her to return, with Ruth, to Israel from Moab. Did God have a plan for this woman, who insisted on being called Marah (bitter)? Well, let’s see – Naomi was forced to return to Israel, where Ruth met Boaz, they wed, Ruth had a son, named Obed – who had a son named Jesse – who had a son named David, through whom the Messiah came!
My friends, we all too often want an answer for all suffering, but truth be told, some things are simply hidden within God, but we can trust that His love and care guide us every step of the way as we go through the trials of this life. The so-called healers that claim all sickness stems from a lack of faith simply do not understand or appreciate God’s holy, perfect and wise providential plan for His children. Sometimes our suffering is a mystery.
I will continue this line of thought in my next post...
“Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will.” - Jonathan Edwards -
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
My last few posts laid the groundwork for the Providence of God. In this post and the next few, I want to address the reality of suffering in the life of the Christian.
Monday, May 18, 2009
In the last post on this subject, I developed a working definition of God’s providence; in this post I would like to examine why we can be confidant in His providential care.
What does the Bible say about God’s providential care of all creation? Listen to Elihu describe God’s providence in Job 37:1 – 13 - "At this also my heart trembles and leaps out of its place. Keep listening to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth. Under the whole heaven he lets it go, and his lightning to the corners of the earth. After it his voice roars; he thunders with his majestic voice, and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard. God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend. For to the snow he says, 'Fall on the earth,' likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour. He seals up the hand of every man, that all men whom he made may know it. Then the beasts go into their lairs, and remain in their dens. From its chamber comes the whirlwind, and cold from the scattering winds. By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast. He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning. They turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world. Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen…”
Listen to the Psalmist as he speaks of God’s providential care in Psalm 104 -- Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent. He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters; he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind; he makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire. He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they fled; at the sound of your thunder they took to flight. The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them. You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth. You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills; they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches. From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man's heart. The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers. He made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. You make darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep about. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they steal away and lie down in their dens. Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening. O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it. These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works, who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke!
Remember the description of God’s providence; He is actively involved in sustaining and governing all of creation. Now, what about His children specifically; what of the redeemed? This same God whose providential care upholds the very universe itself, has promised His children that they would never be forsaken [Deuteronomy 31:6,8]; that He will be with them till the end of the age [Matthew 28:20] that their names are written on His palms [Isaiah 49:16]. This same God promised us salvation through His work poured out graciously on us, not through our own efforts and works [Isaiah 59:16; Ephesians 2:1 – 9]; Salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. This same God promised us that He was preparing a place for us in John 14. This same God has promised that He will return to bring His children with Him that where He is, we may be also.
This same God who has promised us salvation is the same one described in Colossians 1:15 – 17 -- He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
We do not simply rest in God’s promises, but we actually rest in God himself. His promises are true and trustworthy because of who He is! Our comfort is not primarily found in the idea of a predetermined path, but trust in a loving Lord. We trust the one who is trustworthy, and carries out His purposes in a most holy, wise and powerful way. Even though we cannot always understand all the things that befall us, we can CONFIDENTLY say that we know that our God watches over His children, and nothing can separate them from His love! Which is not based upon our worthiness, but based upon His Son.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
First, imagine if we were at the whim of ‘fate’ – what type of comfort can we take in knowing that nothing more than impersonal, unfeeling fate has directed our path? We have no comfort in that, do we? Now, contrast that with knowing that a loving, caring Father is watching over our every breath, our very hairs are numbered by Him! That brings comfort in a fallen world that is ofttimes chaotic and confusing.
It is also important because we know at the end of the day that nothing will separate us from the love of God. When we get a diagnosis that tells us all is lost, we know that all is not lost – that our loving Savior, in His providential care, will watch over and guide us – whether or not He heals us in this life does not change our eternity!
We also know that, because we are His, God will guide us in our decisions. Even when these decisions turn out in a way that seems counter intuitive to our plan, we can rest in the fact that our great Shepherd leads and guides us, even when the path grows exceedingly dark and narrow. If we are truly the sheep of His flock we can trust, even when things seem to be going badly, that He is watching over us.
We know that because of God’s providential care, we may undergo trials and testing, but it is for His glory and purpose. We can look at trials as James does in James 1:2 – 4 – 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. Or as Peter says in 1st Peter – that the trials we go through test our faith, refining it like hold, to the praise, glory and honor of Jesus Christ.
It is important when we face tragedy in life. We all will, at some point, be faced with tragedy. But, if we can say with confidence that God is in control, we can trust that somehow, some way, His perfect, holy plan is being executed. As I wrote in the last post, the life of Joseph was marked with what seemed to him, I am sure, like tragedy; yet he ended up saving the lives of not only the people of Egypt, but his own family – the very people who had sold him into slavery.
And there are other examples found within Scripture; what of the tragedy of Lazarus’ death [John 11]? Through his death, God’s plan was executed in that, through his being raised from the dead, many people believed, and God was given glory.
And what of the most horrific tragedy in history? The death of Jesus Christ; what did this make possible? Well, only the salvation of an entire people for all eternity. All of this was according to the purposes of our glorious triune God!
When we live our lives in light of the providence of God, with a full confidence in that providential care, we will encounter the same trials, testing and tragedies that all others face. The difference is that we will not mourn as those who have no hope. Instead, we, like Job will say, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” – Job 19:25 – 27 –
Posted by Ray at 6:30 AM
Friday, May 15, 2009
I just returned from Alistair Begg's Basics Conference. I have attended for seven years and have never been disappointed; however, not every year has been as good as this year.
The speakers were; John Lennox, John Piper, and Alistair Begg. And each man challenged us.
I would highly recommend, if you were unable to attend, going out and listening to the available media from the conference.
As I scanned the blogosphere today, I was again reminded how quickly we draw our swords and go at one another within the body of Christ, all the while the glorious news of the Gospel is marginalized by sectarian or worse, fratricidal violence.
We have an enemy, not of flesh and blood, that we are encountering. Let us be about doing warfare with him, using the tools given us by God. Yes, when those who call themselves Christians are causing damage, let us point that out, but let us pick our battles carefully, and ensure that we are not attempting to advance our own hobby horse.
Listen to the message from John Lennox. What is important? Let us grow in maturity to separate the noise from the true problems in evangelicalism.
Posted by Ray at 12:14 PM
Thursday, May 07, 2009
Over the next few posts I want to examine God’s providence in four, (hopefully), progressive stages. This post will examine God’s providence from a high-level. I want to look at, and hopefully answer the question:
How do we define God’s providence?
What spurred these posts was a series of difficult events that have affected our little church. I felt that the study would be helpful to those going through difficult times.
So what do we mean by ‘God’s Providence’? The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines providence in the answer to Question 11: “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”
Notice what the Catechism says: we often think of God’s providence in a static sense – not in the sense of actively preserving and governing all things. We (most of us) believe that, while God controls the events in the world, he does so in a reactive way – responding to situations as they crop up, as opposed to the Biblical perspective that states that God is actively involved in a second-by-second upholding, and governing all things.
Then, we must ask, what exactly does He control? Many would say that God only does the good things, but has no control over the bad ones. While I would agree that God is not the first cause of evil, He uses the evil works of fallen man and Satan to fulfill His purposes. To paraphrase J.I. Packer “The nature of God's "concurrent" or "confluent" involvement in all that occurs in his world, as - without violating the nature of things, the ongoing causal processes, or human free agency - he makes his will of events come to pass, is mystery to us, but the consistent biblical teaching about God's involvement is overwhelming…”
While it is unbiblical to state that God is not in control of all things, it is equally unbiblical to state that God is the root cause of evil – rather He uses the evil that exists in this fallen world to make His perfect will come to pass.
Let us consider an example found in Genesis 50:15 – 20 -- When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him." So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this command before he died, 'Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.' And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, "Behold, we are your servants." But Joseph said to them, "Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
In the Scripture cited, Joseph’s brothers had committed an evil act, they admitted it; they had thrown their brother into a well, and then sold him to traders who took him into Egypt to be auctioned off as a slave. We can only imagine Joseph’s mindset initially; this young man who had had such grandiose dreams about people bowing down to him etc. He must have been traumatized, hurt and bewildered. Yet, God had a plan – and as Joseph rises in importance in the house of Potiphar, it seems that God HAS taken care of him, but wait! Potiphar’s wife trumps up a charge of attempted rape against Joseph and he is sent into prison… Where is God in all of this? Another evil deed – the lie of Potiphar’s wife has tossed our hero into the jailhouse! But wait, maybe the baker or the cupbearer will speak well of Joseph when they get before the Pharaoh? Nope, they forget about him! Does it seem like God has been involved in this at all? Does there seem to be a plan? No, at least not a good one!
And yet… Eventually Joseph does climb the rungs of power ending up as the second most powerful man in Egypt. And in this role he not only saves the lives of many Egyptians, but also the embryonic tribe of Israel! And in Genesis 50, we find Joseph explaining God’s providence to his frightened brothers. What THEY meant as evil, God meant for good. Their evil plan was driven by their jealousy of Joseph, the first cause of the evil was in their own hearts – yet, God used the evil deeds of the brothers to save the nation of Israel!
God is no absent watchmaker! Hence, the definition, again from the Westminster Catechism, which fits very nicely is “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”
More on this in my next post....
Posted by Ray at 5:46 AM