the god of our sentimentality
One thing that makes the Bible so believable is that is does not back down from facing the hard questions about God or human nature. Unfortunately, in order to maintain some sort of hope or dignity in ourselves, we often keep a safe distance from these hard questions. In our various church traditions we tend to avoid looking these uncomfortable questions directly in the eye. Our readings of the Bible are selective and we cherry pick portions that affirm to us what we want God to be like but circumvent the Texts which show characteristics that seem to contradict our imaginary deity. This makes us feel good until reality strikes in the real world and we suffer affliction. Shallow theology will not do in the face of suffering. We need, rather, to sink our roots deep down in the Scriptures as to be ready for any contingency. As it is, what do we do when we face difficulties? Unfortunately, more often than not, we complain ... so today I wish to wrestle with the concept of how we can change our thinking about our lot in life so that we would glorify God by being content in the conditions He has placed us in. We will cover the subject of complaining and murmuring along with God's fairness.
I confess that I personally murmur, complain and am sometimes irritated at some of the slightest inconveniences, like a lost sock or a computer meltdown. Living on this earth I suffer and have my share of problems. That is to be expected. And to be frank, my own world I live in is fragmented which can make it difficult to be recollected and centered in Christ. Daily life can be complicated, disorganized and haphazard. With all the duties I attend to, the routines can create a compartmentalized existence. Sometimes I face hardship but overall I must acknowledge that my life is a good one. I daily maintain and build Monergism.com with a team of people with the objective of heralding the supremacy & coherence of Jesus Christ in all things, but, being on the Internet, along with great encouragement, we brush up against some of the strangest characters you can imagine. Most of the letters we receive are good ones but online Christianity seems to draw out some wacky people. My desk and bookshelves are chaotic and cluttered but in a way that I understand. Each day there are more emails piled up than I know what to do with, some that I even answer. There are endless stacks of tasks waiting for me to complete. But I thank God I have a lovely wife who takes great care of me, yet most of my family are distant and fragmented (there's that word again). My friends are scattered all over the world since we have moved so many times but I have one or two growing friendships here in Portland. But as you know, relationship challenges can sometimes be daunting. Furthermore, there are Websites' to mine, blogs to read, books to purchase, most of which I will not have time to read. In the midst of all this chaotic enterprise I am supposed to meet with God. It is actually a delight to pray and spend time with God. This is actually my favorite time -- one that I look forward to, yet this frazzled world calls me away from it ... and that is why we went on a retreat this weekend, away from the city to a nice quiet location.
Although I have just expressed a litany of things that may seem like complaining, overall I have a pretty good life and should have little to complain about. So when I was recently reminded of the complaining of the Israelites who were severely disciplined by the Lord, I must admit that I have been guilty at least murmuring under my breath. The fact is, there are people who have it much worse than I in the world, but even so, do any of us ever have a right to murmur against the Lord for our conditions, whatever they are? It is worth considering that whenever we mumble to ourselves in complaint about a situation we are in, we are actually complaining about God's gracious providence to us. In other words we are making a commentary on God's fairness to us, are we not? Oftentimes when we don't like what we see, we complain, and it seems to me, Americans more so than others since we somehow think we have personal rights ... but as Christians how we react to various conditions and situations is a place where we can give the best witness to a hostile or indifferent world, but it is often the case that this is where we are worst. Why is this? Perhaps because most of our shallow theology has given us a selective memory of what God is actually like, and what our position is before Him.
This selective theology is very popular these days and has rubbed off on a greet deal of evangelicalism. Although Clark Pinnock is an open theist, when I was recently reading his response to a Calvinist piece on election by Robert Reymond, I noticed a kind of superficiality in his writing that many in the modern church could perhaps relate to. Without really quoting the Scripture much in his response, except to remind us that 'God is love', Pinnock critiques Reymond's view by appealing mostly to sentimentality. Instead of giving us a full orbed view of God, we are given a one-dimensional god whose only characteristics are the ones we happen to like. He characterized Reymond's God as an unloving God, determining all moral good and evil including, for example, the rape of women. That Reymond's God is all determining and all-encompassing. Pinnock concludes by calling this profoundly at odds with the central message of the Bible and should be strongly rejected. He calls Reyond's view an obsession with God's absolute power that obscures God's goodness. While I understand the necessity to proclaim God's love, Pinnocks' response seems overly selective. There is a centrality of the loving work of Christ all though Reymond's writing, so Pinnock's critique seems more than a bit off kilter. Pinnock appeals to his readers with emotional pleas that point to horrifying atrocities which his own God of love would never do and argues that God's character cannot be like that because 'He is love'.This appealing to our sentiments rather than actually taking the time to see what the Scriptures actually teach is endemic of our Christian culture. We want a God we can keep in line. But to honor God we must hold the whole counsel of Scripture in proper tension, not just do away with the part of divine revelation we feel uncomfortable with it. This type of theology has contributed to the decline of honest biblical exegesis.
It surprises, frustrates and angers many like Pinnock that God might actually ordain an evil event to come to pass. But do we stop to consider that whatever we receive here in this world is most certainly better than we deserve. In fact, anything less than the full wrath of God poured out on us is supremely merciful, so who are we to complain whatever befalls us here. I am not claiming these situations are not difficult. Life is very hard, especially in extreme situations like the one described, but we must consider that God might ordain and use that evil to bring about an even greater good. The Scripture has endless examples of such events climaxing in God ordaining the crucifixion of His own Son. If we take a close look at Pinnock's complaint it does not fit the facts of real life or divine revelation but comes off simply as an Americanized, preconceived notion of a tame genie-like god who only loves in a sentimental way at all times. Our secular culture has absorbed some of this mentality when it produces bumper stickers which say things like "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" which misses the point that if justice were done He would "bomb" all of us and He will "bomb" eventually all who do not ultimately yeild to Him. Their perception of Jesus as a simply a sentimental deity was most likely given to them from well-meaning Christians.
The witness of Scripture goes directly contrary to Pinnock and is pervasive. We will endure great hardship on this earth - Jesus promised this and this is the beginning of God's just judgment against the world that he unleashes in the Book of Revelation prior to his return. Pinnock would disbelieve in a God who could ordain any kind of evil, even though the Scripture is replete with examples that He does indeed do so. These are hard teachings but we must face them if we are to correctly represent God in this world and endure to the end. That is not to say we need to represent God as a mean ogre, but rather to try to come to an understanding of God by being honest with all the data. Anything less is gross misrepresentation. Take a look with me at just a few passages which show judgment on this earth coming from God on normal people like you and me -- then judge for yourself whether they are comparable to Pinnocks' example of God ordaining girl being raped.
Deuteronomy 20:10-16 (English Standard Version) "When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes"
So in this passage, especially the last verse, God just gave the green light for Israel to commit genocide and earlier kill or take into forced labor of those outside Israel's' boundaries. Of course, there were no prisons in those days so slavery was a normal practice in its stead. We use prisons today for the same thing. But God, and justly I might add, told Israel to put to death all in the land they were going into. This is no movie folks, this is a real and historical command from God to His people. Hello, is anyone listening? Someone might protest, but doesn't this violate the command "thou shall not kill"? No, because is is a judicial sentence. There were many commands to put people to death for violating God. But since God is always right, He passed judgment on a these peoples as a whole and He determined that they deserved to die by the sword, and this included livestock and infants on a mass scale. That is hard to bear, but it gives witness to God's holiness. Or what about that event that took place on a much more massive scale called the Flood, where God decided to take out the entire human race in one fell swoop, except for eight stragglers. Do you think that those God drowned in the flood were any worse people morally than we are? You are deceived if you do.
And so, no evil event of any magnitude should surprise us, because it is still better than we deserve. What about an event that takes place every day that is even greater than the judgment of the flood? What event could be greater you ask? That event called death which takes out every one of us. That is God's judgment against us all, or have we forgotten this? Without God's will not even one sparrow falls to the ground, not to mention all human beings. You mean its God's will that we die? Yes, it was a judgment God pronounced against us all in the original garden.
Or consider in the New Testament book of Revelation. Those who disobey Christ will...
"...drink the wine of Godâ€™s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he "...will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night..."
These, and the many texts of God's judgement are meant to make us all feel uncomfortable because God wants to remind us of our desperate condition. The cotton candy theology that we are all used to just won't hold up under either biblical scrutiny or in real life when suffering actually comes. What is more comforting to you, that God has a purpose in your suffering or that he has none? That God has control over suffering and will make sense of it one day or that suffering is completely outside his control? These are rhetorical questions folks.
The fact is that not only do we suffer but God became a man to suffer with us and for us. Jesus Christ is the ultimate speaker of all our laments, complaints and praises. His life, death and resurrection should clear up many of our most important questions about evil and whether God indeed cares for His suffering and bruised creation. Every cry of pain finds solidarity in Christ. God alone is all-sufficient, that is, satisfied in Himself alone but through Christ He communicates His sufficiency to the creature (that's us), so that the full measure of grace in Christ fills us in every way. We will suffer but as we abide in Him, He bears us up and makes us content to endure in all situations. Though we are not sufficient in ourselves, we are sufficient in Christ.
We are called to yield to God's wise and fatherly disposal in every condition, and many times this means we are to be silent under His rod of discipline, knowing that we are in His school and that the passing sufferings we endure here will appear as nothing when we finally behold our blessed hope. God would have us depend on Him though we do not now understand our pain nor how he will bring about deliverance or purpose in it. If we do depend on Him He will often bring the improbable to pass. "Keep quiet under afflictions oh my soul. God has acted and so I am satisfied in my judgment in what He has done. I freely take pleasure in your disposal God. You may remove my burden in due time or if you choose to keep the burden there make me pleased that your hand is in it." In whatever condition God puts us in we should not only be content but see His good hand in it. If we choose to see evil in our condition(s), then we actually complain against God's providence for us. But remember He has promised to deliver us. In the meantime we must learn and witness to the world around us in whatever condition He has placed us in. Like David, we must say, "it is good that I was afflicted."
If we are to be content in hard situations we need to look beyond second causes and see God's hand in all things. Otherwise, if we think like Pinnock, we will be unable to bear up under it for we will not be sharing in Christ's sufferings. We must see the wisdom of God in EVERYTHING, and take pleasure in it though we do not necessarily understand it. Remember, Christ sees much further than we do, and we only see what is right before us. So we must continually remind ourselves when undergoing sufferings that had it not been for this pain we are enduring, perhaps we would have become lost or undone -- therefore we do not lose hope when God gives us much or gives us little for He is all wise and has a purpose in it we do not see. But when we see God in our suffering, we then trust in His love as unfailing. But if God is not in the affliction, like the god Pinnock represents, and suffering simply happens by chance or is outside the control of God's sovereignty, then the suffering becomes meaningless and we can then only despair of all hope.
Let us pray that we would submit willingly and gladly to whatever condition God sees fit to bring about in our lives. Pray that WHATEVER the affliction, may we be at peace, no, more, that we would have the God who gives peace ... for difficult times will come. It is not a question of if, but of when affliction will come, so let us be ready by looking carefully into Scripture, having a right view that does not manufacture a god of our own choosing. Let us, rather, face reality by drinking the down the full revelation of God.
Remember that God always has a purpose in affliction. We may be shaken in our affliction but God promises that we will be the better for it. To this suffering Christ calls us, that we may follow Him by taking up our cross daily. He will turn our affliction into glory and will bring us from darkness to light. God uses the evil in our lives to bring about good (Rom 8:25-30). All our afflictions are sanctified in Jesus. If we suffer poverty, did not Jesus suffer the same? If we are afflicted, disgraced, cursed, did not Jesus also endure these things? Like Job we pray, "the Lord has given and the Lord has taken away: blessed be His name". If you lack, remember that Jesus takes from us that He might be all in all. We can have no certainty in this world except in the covenant which God has made with us in Christ.
"....We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesusâ€™ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." 2 Cor 4:8-16