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.”

The Wickedness of Word of Faith

We have written about evil, darkness, and sin at Rekindle, but last week I encountered first hand an evil that both broke my heart and enraged me. A friend in our church who is facing a far from optimistic cancer prognosis was urged to pray using Jesus’ name and his own authority as a believer (see previous post). This increasingly popular teaching says that God does not want us to ask for things according to his will, rather we must use the power of Jesus’ name to rid our lives of sickness and whatever else ails us. In other words, “You’re sick because you do not have enough faith or because you haven’t prayed using a specific formula.” Quite frankly, to say that to a Christian – with faith and the fruits that evince it – is not merely unloving; it is wicked. It is evil. In this post I will highlight a small selection of the innumerable biblical responses to this false teaching.

Jesus’ faith

Jesus at Mount of OlivesI touched on this in my previous post. But it is too important to skip over. When you state, “Don’t pray: your will be done,” because it is too submissive and weak, remember that that is exactly how Jesus prayed (Matthew 26:39). So you must either rebuke the Son of God or desist from your folly. When Peter calls on Christians to follow Christ’s example in his first epistle we should note that he remembers Jesus’ suffering, death, and that he trusted the Father without wavering (1 Peter 2:13-25). Jesus’ faith is not shown in him demanding a better reality from his Father but in submitting to the Father despite unanswered prayers.

Jesus’ teaching

Following on from the previous point, we turn to the manner in which Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). Correct: the very phrase scorned by those in the word of faith movement is one Jesus encouraged his disciples to use. I am astounded that Jesus got it so wrong. I guess if he had taught his disciples to pray properly they might have avoided persecution and martyrdom. Silly Jesus. If only the apostle John had access to the teaching of Andrew Wommack or Benny Hinn he could have avoided being exiled to Patmos (Revelation 1:9). Choose today whom you will follow.

Paul’s suffering

Since we are on the topic of Jesus’ apostles, I shudder to think about how paltry Paul’s prayer life must have been: imprisoned (Ephesians 3:1); abandoned by his friends, left alone and cold (2 Timothy 4:9-18); shipwrecked (Acts 27:39-44); and unable to pray away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). In fact, just read 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10. For in the first century the Lord certainly chose weak vessels, akin to jars of clay, which showed the power of the gospel and gave all glory to God. Luckily for us today we have super-apostles who boast much greater ministries than the embarrassment that was Paul’s. If only a copy of Joel Osteen’s I Declare was mixed in with the parchments he requested from Troas.

Prayer is made into a mantra

CandlesReturning to the my introduction, telling someone that God has not answered their prayer because they failed to append “I claim this in the name of Jesus,” is highly problematic. Firstly, notwithstanding what I have written above, it reduces God to a parent withholding something from their child because they have not said the magic word. Imagine God saying to his child, “I would have healed your cancer, if only you had asked me properly.” Secondly, it also reduces God to a vending machine: put in the right amount and click the right buttons and you will be blessed. The power of prayer is reduced to how we ask and not who we are asking: our heavenly Father. I do believe that God invites us to boldly approach him in prayer, but to claim that our wording or specific invocations will force God’s hand is witchcraft, blasphemous, and self-deifying. God hates these things.

The inevitability of death

Lastly, though much more could and must be said against this alarmingly popular heresy, we turn to the matter of death. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief opens with, “You are going to die,” and he is right. For we read of only a few names in the Bible who did not, and they are marked exceptions. Two years ago Jan Crouch, the co-founder of TBN, died during TBN’s healing month. To add satire to irony, The Babylon Bee wrote, “Baffled prosperity gospel preachers have begun offering theories Tuesday on how Crouch could possibly have passed away, given her overabundance of faith, her supernatural ability to name and claim health and wealth at will, and her decades of collecting donations while promising that God’s will is for everybody to be wealthy and healthy.” Why, if we have inherited all of this power, and need only claim wellness or chide sickness, do we succumb to it in death? Because the word of faith movement is a lie; an evil lie that robs people of faith.

Admittedly I wrote this post while emotional and incensed, though I do not think the heat is without light. The word of faith movement is wicked not because it promises things that God does not. It is wicked because when the things it promises do not materialise faith itself is brought into question. Telling someone that God wants them well when they are dying could be the difference between them persevering in the faith and falling away because their mantras have failed them. So I want to address any readers who have said the sorts of things critiqued in this post. If you speak these wicked words you need to repent. You need to humble yourself before the God of mercies and turn from this evil. And you need to pray for those people you have deceived.

The Folly of Word of Faith

At the end of 2015 I went to our local hospital to visit Richard, an older man in our church who had fallen deathly ill while on holiday.  After we had prayed, he told me someone else from a church in our area had also come and prayed with him. But before I could rejoice in this news, Richard added that this person had corrected him for concluding his prayer with: “Your will be done.” Astonishing: he was told that he should not pray like that. Instead he should use his authority as a believer and the powerful name of Christ to claim wellness and healing. Apparently we are not meant to ask but demand.

AWMII spent time explaining that that simply is not what God teaches in the Bible. But recently another man in our church was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Meeting him he asked me what I thought about Andrew Wommack’s healing ministry. Once he had told me more about the videos, testimonies, and promises of AWMI I answered him. Though the points below formed my response to the question about Andrew Wommack in particular, they serve generally as a critique of all healing ministries, or the ‘word of faith movement’, including those fronted by Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, and Paula White.

We do not have greater faith than Christ

To claim that we must have more faith in order to be healed (or prosper in general) has some troubling implications. The biggest is that it is hard not to conclude that healthy and wealthy Christians have a greater faith than Christ. For his prayers were not able to deliver him from suffering and death. But, as I have argued in an older post, Christ’s faith was strong as he prayed in Gethsemane, “Not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus’ faith is not questioned by his unanswered prayers, but evident in them. Suffering does not result from a lack of faith, nor does healing depend on great faith. That is unbiblical nonsense. Christ demonstrated unmoving faith in both his life and death, when he was well and as he suffered.

We do not know better than God

Don't waste your cancerThe refusal to submit our prayers to God’s will is actually an arrogant refusal to submit to God, which the Bible also calls sin. As John Piper writes in the provocatively titled Don’t Waste Your Cancer, “Healing is not God’s plan for everyone.” How Christians can say things like “God wants you to be well,” and “I know God plans to heal you,” is incredible. For God actually says, ‘You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring…You boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil’ (James 4:14-16). Hear what God said to Job, ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel without knowledge?’ (Job 38:2); and a little later, ‘Shall a faultfinder content with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it’ (40:2). To put it a little bluntly, Job 38-40 essentially shows God telling both Job and his friends to shut up, because they do not know plans he has for Job.

We should not love this world more than the next

I recently developed some of John Calvin’s theology on suffering, and few writers have helped my thinking as much as he has. In his Institutes (3.9.1-3.10.6) he contrasts our present life with the future life. I encourage you to read the whole section but will highlight just one incisive point he makes, which is relevant here: we must desire heaven and hate this life. It sounds wrong, but Calvin uses hyperbole, much in the same way Christ said we must hate our family, even our own lives (Luke 14:26; also see John 12:25). Because Calvin shared Paul’s hope (Philippians 1:20-26) he could ask, “If we should think that through death we are recalled from exile to dwell in the…the heavenly fatherland, would we get no comfort from this fact?” (3.9.5). Calvin presses this to the point of discomfort, showing that all of us cling to tightly to this life and view. “If it befits us to live and die to the Lord, let us leave to his decision the hour of our death and life, but in such a way that we may both burn with the zeal for death and be constant in meditation” (3.9.4).

John Calvin on Suffering

Institutes volume 1One of my goals for 2017 has been to work through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in its entirety, with the hope of engaging with it in 2018 by way of blogging. I have drawn on his work in the past: challenging comfortable Christianity and in thinking about God’s sovereignty. But the reason I am writing this post now – as one untimely born – is because over the past few weeks I have found myself drawing on the Institutes for both pastoral counseling and preaching. While this post will focus on some gleanings from Calvin and suffering, I hope that it will be an encouragement to the reader that studying theology has practical value. Theological study is far more than a rite of passage to pastoral ministry; it is a vital aspect of any pastoral ministry.

Distinguish between punishment and discipline

I am sure you have heard, ‘I don’t think God sends suffering, because he loves us.’ But when you read the Bible we learn that it is precicely because God loves us that he sends suffering. Calvin captures this well, “Children are beaten with rods, not to pay the penalty for their sins to God, but in order thereby to lead to repentance” (3.4.33). So he says that suffering in the Christian life is future and not past orientated, “While we as children of God are afflicted by the hand of the Heavenly Father, this is not a penalty to confound us, but only a chastisement to instruct us” (3.4.33). The point Calvin drives home is that when we face trials and afflictions God is growing us through the experience, he is strengthening our faith. When we suffer we generally think it is the result of three things: (a) the work of Satan, (b) the result of our sin, or (c) the absence of God’s love. Calvin deals with the first of those under the next heading and he encourages us to consider the possibility of the second along with the absurdity of the third. “He who in the end profits by God’s scourges is the man who considers God angry at his vices, but merciful and kindly toward himself” (3.4.34). Grasping this biblical truth is a comfort and balm for Christians who suffer: our Father loves us and in his sovereignty sends both happiness and hardship, to turn us away from sin and back to himself.

Learning from the suffering of Job

William BlakeDiscussing the sovereign will of God, Calvin (2.4.2) looks at Job 1, where Job suffers at the hands of the Chaldeans. Though it is the Chaldeans who kill his shepherds and ravage his flocks (Job 1:17), if we look back a few verses we learn that this stems from Satan (Job 1:12). However, Calvin writes, “Job recognizes the Lord’s work in it” (Job 1:21). Considering these three verses, Calvin asks, “How may we attribute this same work to God, to Satan, and to man as author, without either excusing Satan as associated with God, or making God the author of evil?” That is an important question to which Calvin offers an excellent answer: Satan sought to drive Job to desperation; the Chaldeans are motivated by greed or envy, or both; and God’s purpose is to exercise the patience of his servant. It is that last point that we battle with, even if it is undeniable as we read the text (Job 1:11; 2:6). Even if we emphasise that God allows this suffering to come upon Job, we cannot evade the fact that God is sovereign in Job’s suffering. Calvin argues that we must observe the distinction between purpose (or end) and manner. For while the deed (or manner) is simultaneously attributed to God, Satan, and men, the outcome is that God’s righteousness and the faithfulness of Job is made apparent and contrast with the wickedness of Satan and the Chaldeans. The point for us to take away is that God is sovereign in suffering, but his purpose is that he is glorified through our genuine and persevering faith (1 Peter 1:6-7).

True biblical hope

In a lengthy section on the continuity between Old and New Testaments, Calvin shows how the promises made to Israel were for future blessedness, eternal life in the presence of God. Calvin is astounded that some think God promised the Jews “nothing but a full belly, delights of the flesh, flourishing wealth, outward power, fruitfulness of offspring, and whatever the natural man prizes” (2.10.23), the same things many false teachers promise God’s people today. So in 2.10.7-22 he outlines a few conclusions we can draw from Israel’s faith that are analogous to our own: happiness is elusive and ephemeral, many of us experience it only in snatches; death still stalks our world and therefore we must hope for immortality; and the abundant blessings promised to God’s people are surely not known in this groaning creation. The hope for them, as it is for us, is to know God and enjoy him forever. Thus Calvin writes, “Souls, unless they be joined to God through righteousness, remain estranged from him in death. On the other hand, such a union when present will bring everlasting salvation with it” (2.10.8); “They whom he, who is judge of death and life, had received into his tutelage, care, and protection are not snuffed out even by death” (2.10.9). That is biblical hope: the certainty of an imperishable and unfading future kept for us by God as we are kept by his strength (1 Peter 1:3-5).

In conclusion, Calvin does not deny the joy of knowing God in the present life. But we should not deny its troubles. Taking Calvin’s three points together we can have confidence in our afflictions, which come from God and are designed for our good and his glory. Suffering comes in order to train our faith and fix our eyes on the hope that will not fail. For we know a God who is sovereign and in control. He will use all things for his glory and the good of those who love him.

Doodle: Childlessness and the Sovereignty of God

I have now written a couple of posts arguing against the position of many Christians that says married couples must at least attempt to have children. Most recently I challenged what I believe are weak arguments against deliberate childlessness, developing another post I wrote on the topic last year. This shorter post is a personal note, appended to those linked above. And I am writing it because though I stand by my position, my wife and I recently had a child; in fact, we knew my wife was pregnant when my first post went up. So here, very briefly, I want to answer some of the pointed criticisms and more emotional reactions to my posts.

God is sovereign

Institutes volume 1One comment on my original post read, “You aren’t the one who decides if you have kids or not. You may do your best to prevent it, but if the Lord wants you to procreate you are going to have kids.” AJ, who posted the comment, could not have been more correct. We had decided that we did not want children, but God willed something else. I am reading through Calvin’s Institutes this year and it was certainly no coincidence that I read this the day before my son was born, “Augustine rightly complains that wrong is done to God when a higher cause of things than his will is demanded” (1.14.1). Calvin also writes that we must accept God’s secret purposes. Though that section addresses speculation, it applies well to sovereignty. Later, Calvin writes, “If we had quiet and composed minds ready to learn, the final outcome would show that God always has the best reason for his plan (1.17.1).

Children are a gift

Since God is sovereign it follows that children are the result of him giving them to us. They are not something everyone is entitled to, nor are they something every married couple should expect (or demand) from God. This is surely part of the reason children are called a blessing throughout the Old Testament. My wife and I are very grateful for our son. Our experience of him has been serendipitous, an unlooked for delight. But because children are a gift, a blessing from the Lord, all of us must remember what the Puritan Samuel Rutherford wrote in one of his letters, “I write my blessing to that sweet child, whom you have borrowed from God; he is not heritage to you, but a loan, love him as folks do borrowed things.” We are not entitled to children, as Rutherford says they are not our heritage but borrowed from God. We are entrusted with children, to treasure and take care of them.

How to we respond to God’s sovereignty and gifts?

Theodore LewisThis is the question all of us must answer, and not only when God gives or withholds children. At another point in his Institutes (1.16.6), Calvin shows that the scope of God’s sovereignty is ubiquitous, “Nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination.” This, Calvin says, means that discontentment with our lot is nothing other than the attempt to rid ourselves of God’s purposes. AJ’s comment on my post touched on this, “Hopefully if your wife does get pregnant the child is not aborted. Surely a pastor would not do that.” I would want to add that no Christian would do that. But the point as I conclude is the question: how do we respond to God’s sovereignty, and the gifts he does or does not give us? One of the names we were considering for our son was Felix, which is Latin for lucky or fortuitous. The name we settled on was Theodore, ‘gift of God.’