Doodle: Trite Comfort from the Sovereignty of God

Sovereignty of GodAs someone famously stated about the human experience, perhaps with just a hint of unhealthy cynicism: ‘life is hard, and then you die.’ For most, life is undeniably hard and for all death is unavoidable. But as a pastor I am convinced that God exalts the humble and is gracious towards the lowly; as Jesus promised, God comforts those who mourn. And one of most powerful means of God’s grace in difficulty is his church, those who are called to weep with those who weep and bear one another’s burdens. The latter end of 2018 has not turned out how my wife and I hoped, raising significant uncertainties over our future and ministry. In this time I have been overwhelmed by the support from my family in Christ, not to mention grateful to God for his wise provision of the church.

However, one of the recurring exhortations we have heard is to remember that God is sovereign. As one pastor has put it, Christians are always (too) ready to give the Romans 8:28 treatment, “Trust in God, because he works all things for the good of those who love him.” Now without going into too much detail, we must also remember that God’s sovereignty does not guarantee everything will work out for the better now, or even in this life. Trials are not the dark clouds pregnant with precious water, nor does suffering precede God’s best blessings. This is not what God has promised. As a good friend recently reminded us in his sermon on Romans 8, God is not doing something hard now in order to give you something better next. That is simply not what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty; it is in fact little more than baptised positive thought, the erroneous belief in the power of positive thinking.

God’s sovereignty does not diminish hurt, confusion or suffering. He is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort during those seasons. When we travel through the dark valley of sorrow and suffering it does us great good to cling to our sovereign God. A God who is powerless to order our world would not be worth trusting when it appears to be crumbling. However, merely stating the sovereignty of God can be little more than saying God is moving the pieces on the board from a distance. The true and living God, on the other hand, is an incomparable help and strength in trouble. So while I am not saying that exhorting someone to take comfort in the sovereignty of God is a platitude, in my own experience it tends towards being treated like that. Most Christians are convinced that God is sovereign over our lives, from suffering to unplanned joys to the frustration of failed plans. But if the first thing you want to tell a Christian who is hurting or overwhelmed by uncertainty is that they must remember God is sovereign: maybe don’t.

Ishmael AbrahamRecently I have been rereading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, where I came across a passage that perfectly illustrates this caution. In Gilead, John Ames is relaying a sermon he preached on Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. Preaching that part of Genesis he reminded his congregation that despite the seeming cruelty of those narratives, “the child is within the providential care of God. And this is no less true, I said, if the angel carries her home to her faithful and loving Father than if He opens the springs or stops the knife and lets the child live our her sum of earthly years.” Only Ames cannot stop there, for no matter how many times he has preached on God’s sovereignty and providence he confides that his own answer to suffering has never even satisfied himself. “I have always worried that when I say the insulted or downtrodden are within the providence of God, it will be taken by some people to mean that it is not a grave thing, an evil thing.” Read that last sentence again. John Ames was uncomfortably aware that merely appealing to the sovereignty of God can seem to make little of the situation and diminish one’s suffering.

When I set out to write this post I did not have a specific point in mind. And please do not hear me suggesting that we should not encourage one another with the truth of God’s sovereignty. Just be sensitive enough to know that the person suffering is very likely struggling with God’s sovereignty over their situation; in other words, knowing that nothing happens apart from God’s will can make suffering all the more disorientating. God’s children are often confused by what their heavenly Father is doing. Far from letting go of God’s sovereignty we must treasure it. Only we must also be careful of reducing it to a trite statement of careless platitude. If my son suffers from a crippling fear of the night I must surely do more than remind him the sun will rise in the morning. Praise God, for it will. Only now we wait patiently and hope for what we do not see (Romans 8:25). So while we wait, wrestling with the sovereignty of God let’s encourage, support and help one one another, because as C. S. Lewis wrote in Perelandra, “God can make good use of all that happens. But the loss is real.”

Doodle: Interpretation versus Information

LibraryA few weeks ago, after the men’s Bible study that I am involved in, someone asked me what study notes and material I received at Bible college. We have been reading through Romans and anyone who has read it carefully will be familiar with the occasional confounding phrase, even passage. Therefore the question is understandable. Furthermore, I remember being in awe of Bible teachers as a young Christian in my teens and assuming that with enough commentaries I would be able to do what they did. However after an honours in theology and just over five years in local church ministry I was able to answer this man’s question quite differently to how I might have ten years ago. While there is no denying my library has grown in that time, while my savings have shrunk, what I have learnt formally and in my day-to-day Christian life is that reading and understanding the Bible has less to do with information and more to do with interpretation. Let me explain.

At college we did have courses on specific books of the Bible: Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, Ezekiel, Mark’s Gospel, Acts, Romans, and Ephesians. But, as you might picked up from that list, many books were excluded, even though I lived on campus as a full-time student. You might also have noticed from the list above that seemingly more important books, if one can make such a distinction, were omitted: Genesis, Isaiah,  John’s Gospel, and Revelation. But the value of the book studies we did, along with other more general courses, was that we were taught principles for interpretation, tools for faithful reading. What are those? Simply put, we were equipped to read biblical texts carefully, in context, and by considering things like genre and original or authorial purpose. For example, in our course on Ezekiel we learnt tools for understanding Ezekiel that can be applied to all Old Testament prophecy. Sadly, such an approach is all but lost in many churches today where Bible verses are treated like the sayings of Confucius, explaining the vast theological confusion that currently reigns.

In his useful, compendious, free, and excitingly titled essay New Testament Hermeneutics, G. K. Beale provides a few questions that might further help you understand what I mean by interpreting the meaning of a text:
1. Does the meaning reached fit with the larger context?
2. Is it in harmony with rest of biblical revelation?
3. How well does it illuminate the rest of the passage?
4. How does it compare with other commentators’ interpretations?

What you will notice from Beale’s questions is that commentaries are only mentioned in the last. The preceding questions deal with reading the passage in its context (historically and in the biblical storyline), making use of clearer passages in Scripture, and considering a passage or verse within its immediate surroundings. How you read the Bible is in some ways more important than what you read about the Bible. In the same way that you do not pick up a novel, open up to a page at random and read a couple of sentences believing that that is what the novel is about, we should not treat Scripture as a repository of unrelated but inspiring sentences. Meaning is determined by close reading, knowing the context, and comparing your interpretation with the rest of God’s revelation in Scripture.

HermeneuticsIn conclusion, if these disparate thoughts can actually be brought together, the Christian faith is not housed in a body of work or library but in the living text, God’s inspired words. We benefit immensely by reading scholars who have sought to correctly interpret the Bible throughout history, we even learn as we study those who interpreted it incorrectly. But at the end of the day we must meet God in his Word, as he addresses us in his text. This is how God has chosen to reveal himself, rebuke his people, and reach those who do not know him.

Doodle: Keep Preaching to the Choir

“Now I know I’m preaching to the choir,” is something I have caught myself saying in the pulpit on numerous occasions, teaching on the importance of belonging to a local church. We say similar things when we discuss passages in small group that emphasise meeting together, encouraging other Christians and living in community. It is a cliché and therefore about as useful as it is original. When we meet together to hear God speak – as the Bible is read, taught, and applied – we may be the metaphorical choir but that does not make us any less in need of being convicted by the Spirit. Imagine a believer in the church who received the letter to the Hebrews shouting, after 10:25 was read, ‘Hey, we’re here; stop preaching to the choir.’ It’s ridiculous because God’s Word gathers us and addresses the gathered. Furthermore, you need only read Hebrews 10:24 to see that merely meeting together is inadequate, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.”

ChurchThere is more to being a part of the church than meeting together. We must make no apology when emphasising the value as well as the purpose of meeting together, as if all of those who are gathered are committed to stirring one another up to love and good deeds. The gospel we preach does not simply say, ‘Come to church.’ That is the nominal poison believed and preached in many South African churches, especially among older generations. No, the gospel says that Christ has saved us for himself and to minister to his people. We need to keep preaching to the choir because there are people regularly attending church who play no active role in encouraging others. If people are uncomfortable with the demands of Jesus then it may be because they do not know or love him. Certainly, one of the ways we show our love for Christ is by being concerned for the interests of his people (Philippians 2:19-30). Keep preaching to the choir.

Christ taught that the numerical size of local churches is a fraught statistic, attendance can mean very little. Therefore, just as we do not apologise for preaching Christ and him crucified week after week, we should not baulk at challenging the gathered church about their personal investment in the local church. We preach the gospel Sunday by Sunday because it is a grave mistake to think the church visible is the church invisible. In a similar way, we keep seeking to convict Christians with regards to their love for God’s people, or lack thereof. Just as we keep preaching to spiritual corpses (Ephesians 2:1-3) we must keep preaching to the choir. We must regularly call for faith and repentance, not forgetting that all Christians still have much repenting to do. So keep preaching to the choir.

Since John Calvin kicked off this short series of posts thinking about our gifts and using them to serve the local church, I will quote him as we finish. “And this is the place to upbraid those who, having nothing but the name and badge of Christ, yet wish to call themselves Christians…Either let them cease to boast of what they are not, in contempt of God; or let them show themselves disciples not unworthy of Christ their teacher” (3.6.4).

Doodle: “It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe as Long as You’re Sincere”

Our world loves to trade in platitudes when it comes to questions about truth, morality, and tolerance. For example the statement, “exclusivity is intolerant” sounds gracious and diplomatic, understanding and inclusive, even if in reality it is a thoughtless and logically inconsistent statement. Another cliché, which I want to briefly tackle in this post, says, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.” In other words, if someone earnestly believes something then who are you to tell them that they are wrong? This statement supposedly draws the line between arrogant fundamentalism and tolerant inclusivity. But in the points below I want to challenge this platitude, which essentially claims that sincerity trumps truth.

It is inconsistent

What I mean is that no one actually thinks that you can believe anything as long as you are sincere, and that no one consistently abides by that position. To swap the words around: most of us agree that sincerity does not equal truth or validate what is false. Very few people believe that the holocaust was a good thing yet Hitler’s zealous sincerity is undeniable. Thus British philosopher John Hicks has said, “To say that whatever is sincerely believed and practised is, by definition, true, would be the end of all critical discrimination, both intellectual and moral” (McGrath, Bridge-building). No one defends defunct truth claims, such as bride burning in India or the daily human sacrifices carried out by the Aztecs. We simply do not consistently hold to the claim that people can believe whatever they want if they are sincere. When we say that we reveal intellectual laziness and logical inconsistency, which leads into the next point.

It prizes ignorance at worst, and apathy at best

What I really suspect is behind the sincere faith argument is indifference and an unwillingness to engage critically or endeavour to reach conclusions about truth. It says more than, ‘We can’t really know,’ and means something closer to, ‘I don’t care.’ When I state that people can believe whatever they want to I gain the license to give no thought to what I believe. Therefore it is an active decision to live ignorantly in the dark, though it appears enlightened and tolerant. The postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty writes, “Nobody except the occasional university first year believes that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good”. Believing that sincerity trumps truth is the decision to remain ignorant, a refusal to engage thoughtfully, and ultimately rests on apathy. 

It is arrogant and offensive

ApologeticsThe implication of this position is ironically intolerant. Hidden in the statement is the insinuation that everyone else has got it wrong. All those shades of truth in the world, theological statements, philosophies, world views, and belief systems are wrong, or maybe right in part. As Christian apologist Alister McGrath says, “It is not individual religions that have access to truth; it is the western liberal pluralist.” When I smugly suggest that you can believe anything granted you are sincere I am making a value judgment on what you believe: it is insufficient, inadequate, and incomplete. My position of radical tolerance supplants your position, with a condescending dismissal. Because the statement says, It does not actually matter what you believe. Whatever beliefs you hold, build your identity and meaning around, are irrelevant.

It is a dogmatic faith position

Finally, the statement has an underlying theological position, reducing any concept of God to a sort of LCD (which I have written about in the post linked above). Timothy Keller writes in The Reason for God, “Ironically, the insistence that doctrine do not matter is really a doctrine itself. It holds a specific view…touted as superior and more enlightened than the beliefs of others. So the proponents of this view are guilty of the very thing they forbid in others.” This belief – contained in the statement we are discussing – undermines most of what many people believe. When someone claims that people can believe anything as long as they are sincere what you should hear is that there is no truth. You also should not miss the note of patronising dogmatism, which side-lines all other beliefs and makes sincerity more important than someone’s actual position.