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.”

Reflection: Heaven and Friendship

Grafitti by Bansky A thought came to me the other day. Large portions of our lives are spent enmeshed with the transient. So much of this life is fading away, receding from view, as we approach the horizon, moving through time’s inescapable passage. We leave things behind. And many of us won’t have the chance to return to precious memories. Friendship too can fall into that abyss of antiquity. Towards the end of my fourth year in Cape Town I noted that all the special times spent with friends were not only unrepeatable but also numbered, one less jointly juncture we would own: one less hike, possibly our last coffee, or a penultimate theological discussion. We live in the shadow of the end and we are running out of moments together.

A very good friend of mine, wise beyond her years, once told me: ‘saying goodbye creates one of the most unnatural feelings.’ The people we spend our lives with will not always be around, or even on the other end of a phone line. In Stevenson’s classic Jekyll and Hyde, Utterson says to his dear companion Lanyon, who wanted nothing more to do with Dr Jekyll: “We are three very old friends, Lanyon; we shall not live to make others.” Our lives as fraught with loss and full of the unrepeatable; we forever long for something or someone that has been.

Writing these reflections down brought another thought to mind. Towards the end of last year I went away with the leaders and boys from my youth group. For part of an evening we shared some encouragement from the year past along with what would strengthen us in the year(s) to come. I told them it was glory. The sure hope that I would see my brothers again in eternity, beyond the horizon and free from time’s relentless march. Glory is the absence of goodbyes. Each and every precious moment will not fall beneath the shadow cast by uncertainty and temporality. Our fondest memories actually provide a pattern for the future. For there will be more like them shared with the friends we have not lost.

Listen to David Brainerd’s diary entry from the 19th of August, 1742: “I prayed with [Mr Bellamy] and two or three other Christian friends, and we gave ourselves to God with all our hearts, to be His for ever. Eternity looked very near to me while I was praying. If I should never see these Christians again in this world, it seemed but a few moments before I should meet them in another world.” Brainerd understood that the world to come was resplendent with relationships, unending friendship in the undying light cast by our eternal God, the one who gives us into communion with himself and each other.

I often catch myself joking about glory, talking casually about it being an opportunity to meet and spend time with great Christian figures from the past. It very well might be. But upon reflection I cannot imagine leaving those who were dearest to me on earth for those I barely know in heaven. Now I realise this is beginning to sound quite speculative, so I will finish off. Is it not a marvel that our hope enmeshes the transient with the eternal? Friendships will continue into heaven. And while it is sometimes hard to imagine, glorified friendships will be more magnificent in the unadulterated presence of our God.

Author of Gilead, RobinsonTo close, here is a fitting quote from John Ames, in Gilead: “We know nothing about heaven, or very little, and I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us…but I believe Boughton is right to enjoy the imagination of heaven as the best pleasure of this world” (p189). What pleasures surpass real friendship?