Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tornadoes, Terrorism, and Other Reasons we need a Sovereign God: Part II

As I write, the clean-up from terrible storms that tore through the south three weeks ago continues. Two weeks ago when seeking to address these storms, and other current and terrible events from a proper God-centered perspective, no one was aware that this same region of the country would continue to reel from the effects of storms in the upper mid-west, which in turn caused massive flooding along the southern Mississippi River, and in turn have forced officials to intentionally flood lesser populated areas for the sake of cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans, LA, in a game of “lesser of two evils.”

Our God on the other hand, knew of these events even prior to creation! Furthermore, the Scriptures declare that His good and sovereign purposes are accomplished in such things. And this truth, whether applied to national crises such as storms and terrorism, or personal crises such as my own family has sometimes faced, gives the kind of assurance to believers that only a sovereign God can give.

Still, these blanket statements of God's complete control over all things beg further questions in our minds. How can such horrific events as the Japan nuclear disaster, or the perishing of newborn babies, or the flooding of entire town and subsequent washing away of history be part of the plans of a God who is always good?! Admittedly, no final answer to these questions can be given on this side of eternity. Yet even in the midst of this uncertainty, the Scriptures declare that there are things we can know for sure, and things in which our hope must lie, not only during crises, but throughout every moment of our lives.

In Deuteronomy 29:29, Moses sucinctly describes this juxtaposition when he says to the people of Israel: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law." The first phrase of this statement speaks poignantly, if bluntly, to our present situation. Put simply, Almighty God is not obligated to explain Himself or His actions to any of us! There are things that take place in this world in which lie God's "secret things." The Hebrew term here translated "secret" means, in its verbal form, "to conceal." Whether it is because of our self-centerdness, or because God knows we would never understand anyway, He has chosen to keep certain of His purposes hidden from us. As I said in the last post, the ultimate why question simply cannot be answered.

And never have such Biblical truths been more profoundly driven into my own heart than in times of personal and family crisis! On a Sunday night almost 6 years ago, my then-pregnant wife went into pre-term labor. Sixteen hours later, our son Seth was born just before noon and five weeks early! Early reports were not good, and we sat, as do many new moms and dads in this situation, on "pins and needles." It would be fifteen days before he would be allowed to go home, and in that time period, a myriad of tests, and painful procedures such as spinal taps would have to be performed. Today, he is a healthy, 5 ½ year-old little boy who is the delight of his father’s heart, and full of energy. But in the midst of that crisis, the uncertainty and anxiety were palpable. Additionally, as I ponder the wonderful way our trying story ended, I’m acutely aware of young parent’s whose stories do not end on such a joyful note. I have pastored those families, and officiated at those funerals where the casket in front of me was unnaturally small. As always, the question comes: Why?

In such a situation, both sides of Deuteronomy 29:29 are imminently applicable. First, just as God isn't obligated to explain why He allows the things he allows. To speak bluntly, His reasons for this are His business!

Still, we have yet to look more closely at the other half of this verse: "but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law." My wife and I have learned through the above and other examples that while God chooses to keep some things to Himself, He does not want us totally ignorant. But while such events may tempt us to search for knowledge of the events themselves, God uses such events to steer us toward knowing Him. God doesn't want the United States to know why we have experienced an historic number of terrible storms, or why we continue to live anxiously in the current environment of terrorism, just as God didn't want me to know why we had to helplessly watch our second-born son spend more than two weeks in NICU. But through all of these things, He does want humanity to know Him. And when we know Him, we learn other things the Word has revealed:

Our Dependence: Isaiah Chapters 13-23 describe the future of a number of powerful nations that existed in the prophet's day. . . powerful nations, I might add, that either longer exist, or have barely survived to the present day in a severely weakened state! In this section of Biblical prophecy, God through his servant Isaiah predicts the destruction of Babylon (13:1-14:23), Assyria (14:24-28), Phillistia (14:29-32), Moab (15:1-16:13), Damascus (17:1-14), Ethiopia (18:1-7), Egypt (19:1-24), and a host of other nations. The political context of these passages suggest that Isaiah, through these predictions, is warning Judah not to enter into alliances with these countries to shore up its own security. This is also consistent with the overall political nuance of Isaiah's message: "Trust in the Lord, not in alliances with foreign and pagan nations." The point is simple: Judah will not find security in any nation, only in God!

With that said, the question must always be poised as to where our hope lies. In the wake of a natural disaster or attack of terror, some will hope in the cooperation of local, state and federal government. Still, even the most efficient coordination efforts cannot totally prevent the damage. Some may even hope in the return of Christ.(In fact, I hear there are a few expecting Him to make His entrance this Saturday, but I digress onto the ridiculous!) But while Scripture commends such hope, it does not do so on the basis of escape from the hardships of life. In addition, the second coming didn't prevent believers along with unbelievers from feeling the wrath of last month’s storms.

Similarly, while waiting on my son’s health to improve years ago, I was forced to continually ask myself whether the greater portion of my hope lay with the excellent physicians and nurses who treated him, or in God who at this very moment continues to allow his now-healthy heart to beat. During any crisis, be it personal, national, or somewhere in between, the first step to finding peace is to realize that we are often more vulnerable than we think we are! Such a realization will compel us to look to God alone.

Our Responsibility: We may not know why God allows calamity, but even the one casually aquainted with Scripture knows what God expects of us when such clamity strikes. It is during times like these that the public at large is able to see the feet, hands, and compassion of Jesus Christ Himself through the presence of His church. And God commands that we act, not only as His mouth, but as His hands and feet.

Bob Foster is a walking example of this principle. Struck blind in an auto accident, Bob could have spend the rest of his life asking why. Instead, he asked what. And over the past several years since his accident, he has walked the halls of nursing homes in Howard County, ministering to residents there, and leading over 40 of them to faith in Jesus Christ! In short, we may not know all that God is doing through crises, but the text of Scripture is clear as to what our responsibilities are during such times.

Our Calling: Some things God doesn't intend for His people to know. Other things He wants us to know! And Deuteronomy tells us that those revealed things are for the purpose of our observing "all the words of this law." I don't know all the reasons God allows intense trial, but none of that allows me to abdicate my responsibilities as a husband, father, neighbor, citizen, and pastor! Sometimes, we simply don't know what God is up to. We do, however, know from the Bible what He wants from us in obedience, and those requirements don't change in bad times.

Our Confidence: Moses tells us that the things God has revealed have been given to us "and to our sons forever." My last post dealt more specifically with the neccesity of believing in a sovereign God, but this emphasis must be reiterated again. Promises of a secure eternity, the end of sin and death, the final, triumphant return of Jesus Christ and the subsequent inauguration of an eternity of the glory of God are things we can be confident in only because the God we serve has declared the end from the beginning! It is illogical, not to mention unBiblical, to claim that God has somehow lost control of His creation, yet at the same time claim absolute assurance of His promises in Scripture. You simply cannot have one without the other!

This requires believing the hard truth that God really does control all things. It requires believing that although he is not responsible for sin and evil, such things are used, even against the will of those who perpetrate them, toward the advancement of an ultimate good. As Rick Warren has simply stated, we aren't in heaven. We are on earth! And this means that heartache, destruction, pain, death, sadness, sickness, perversion, crime, poverty, injustice, confusion, and other issues will always be with us on this sin-sick planet. But the Word of God tells us that even these things are under His control. Such a truth may be difficult short-term, but in the long run, it is the only basis on which we base our confidence in His promises, and cry along with John in absolute certainty, "even so, come Lord Jesus!"

For Further Reading:

Bray, Gerald. 1993. The Doctrine of God: Contours of Christian Theology. Downers Grove, IL: Intevarsity Press.

Packer, J.I. 1973. Knowing God. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

McCullough, Donald W. 1995. The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Ware, Bruce A. 2003. Their god is Too Small: Open Theism and the Undermining of Confidence in God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Tornadoes, Terrorism, and Other Reasons we need a Sovereign God: Part I

Does God know the future? Furthermore, has God declared the future? How much control does He actually exert over His creation? Questions of this sort often seem to be relegated to the "ivory towers" of theologial conjecture. But when the kind of chaos—both positive and negative--that has recently affected our nation encloses itself around our lives, those deeply philosophical questions quickly become the ones for which we seek answers.

While we try with all our being to think of God as good, right and just, we look at the soaring energy prices at home, with the devastation brought about by terrible storms throughout the south last week against the backdrop, and ask in anguish the age-old question best coined by the prophet Amos: "Does disaster come to a city unless the Lord has done it?"

Philosophers of Religion call this question one of "theodicy," or an attempt to explain and justify the actions of God. Why would He allow such devastation? Yet when disaster of this magnitude strikes, any attempt to verbally express what God is up to seems to fall short, and those who claim to have a handle on God's plans (think Jerry Falwell after September 11) seem as naive as they really are.

Still others assume that God must simply be "asleep at the wheel." Throughout the American media the assumption seems to be that "God can either be all-powerful, or all-good, but he cannot be both." As the average American surveys the landscape in our country today, it would be easy to come to the same conclusion, regardless of how ahistorical and unBiblical such a position would be.

The ironic thing is how many suporters of this view of God exist inside Christendom! A relatively recent theological movement called open theism, which has been afoot in the church for a little over 15 years now, takes the side of this populist view of God: namely, that He doesn't control everything that happens in the world, and that He too is often caught off-guard by the chaotic events of our planet. Such a view goes beyond the historical debate between Calvinists and Arminians, which deals primarily with the extent of God's sovereignty over against the extent of man's freedom. The current debate moves beyond the issue of "free-will" to suggest not only that God doesn't predetermine events in history, but that He sometimes is competely unaware of these events!

Gregory Boyd, Senior Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Minneapolis and Open Theism's most vocal proponent, introduced this view of God to the church en masse via his 2000 book God of the Possible. Boyd's intentions were honorable. Seeking an explanation for the seemingly inexplicable suffering many Christians are forced to experience in life, Boyd simply suggested that perhaps our concept of God as omniscient (all-knowing of all past, present and future events) was in error. Says Boyd, "The open view, I submit, allows us to say consistently in unequivocal terms that the ultimate source for all evil is found in the will of free agents rather than in God."

On the surface, this view seems to serve as the ultimate and final answer to the question of theodicy: God isn't causing the affliction because He is love, and would never send something like this on a person. This is not to say that open theists believe God is ignorant of the possibility of catastrophe, but rather does not know that something will actually happen. Therefore, catastrophes like the tornadoes of last week aren't something caused by God. They just happened! In reality, God is just as surprised as the rest of us, because often He simply doesn't know about coming affliction, much less how severe it will be. Similarly, the squeeze you and I have felt over this past month as gas prices have risen by double-digit percentages, and the accompanying anxiety over whether we will be able to afford transportation are not the result of a God-ordained event. They can't be, because God is just as much in shock over these things as we are!

Furthermore, it must be asserted that the Scriptures do indeed place the responsibility for evil squarely upon the will of man. The justice of Osama bin Laden’s extermination by American military forces is vindicated by his evil acts over the years against innocent human beings, and his behavior is the epitome of human depravity within a context most conducive to its development.. But is this where the questions end? Is there no higher purpose behind chaos and catastrophe? In the end, Open Theism's attempt to "get God off the hook" leaves the seeker with little hope, and little incentive to look to the God of Scripture for an answer. To seekers of truth, a deeper investigation must ensue.

Contrary to the claims of open theists, the historical view of God, while not answering every question definitively, gives great hope to the one who truly believes. The Scriptural teaching concerning God's sovereignty can basically be boiled down to three truths:
1. All that God decrees or permits is ultimately for good, because God cannot sin, nor does He tempt others to sin.
2. All evil falls upon the shoulders of men.
3. Evil is thus allowed by a sovereign God, but He is not responsible for the evil permitted.

One Biblical example among many that could be given summarizes these truths well. In Isaiah 10, the prophet foretells of the destruction of the nation of Assyria. In the 8th century B.C., Assyria was to the world what the United States is today to the world: a lone superpower. Yet because of her disdain for and mistreatment of the people of God in Israel, God through Isaiah foretells of their ultimate demise.

Still, this demise did not come until after the Assyrian armies invaded Israel, killed, raped, maimed and scattered God's people, and settled in the land to intermarry with the leftover Israelites and create a new, Samaritan race. Furthermore, God through the prophet declares that the plan to invade Israel did not belong first to Assyria, but to God Himself as punishment for Israel's idolatry. This ironic juxtaposition is revealed by the grammatical structure of the text: "Ah Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. But he does not so intend, and in his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cutt off nations not a few." (10:5-7 ESV)

The text could not be any more clear! God ordained that His own people should be utterly and embarrasingly defeated at the hands of enemies even more godless than they were! Yet while the evil actions of the Assyrian armies is used by God to correct and ultimately bring His people back to Himself, the evil desire behind those actions is the fault of the Assyrians. In this passage, Isaiah has struck the correct balance between divine sovereingty and human responsibility, and he has done so without diminishing God's knowlege and power, or man's culpability and free choice to do evil.

How can the prophet do this? Ultimately because his prophecy is based within a more fully-orbed picture of a God who really does control everything, even those unimaginable and horrific events that boggle the human mind. That true and Biblical picture of God is given by the Lord himself to Isaiah later in the text, and in a way that reminds His followers in the midst of seeming chaos to stand on the promises of His sovereign will: "Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done."

Such a picture of God gives people hope in times of uncertainty. But it does far more than this.

As our nation struggles to make sense of last week’s storms, while simultaneously bracing itself for any potential backlash from Sunday night’s fatal confrontation with bin Laden, followers of Jesus Christ are called upon to be the feet, hands, voice and compassion of God Himself. And the church for the most part has responded beautifully, as is but partially evidenced by meals served and rebuilding already taking place by my own denomination's disaster relief efforts in the area.

But how do we connect the relief efforts with the above lessons on a sovereign God? What hath Isaiah 46 to do with Matthew 25:31-46? I will speak to this issue more particulary next week. But for now, suffice it to say that it is not only Christians who need a sovereign God in times of crisis. Now, more than ever, the people of Mississippi, Alabama and surrounding areas need a God who is sovereign! Receiving the truth about this God means that we also accept the hard truth that these tornadoes were His storms, traveling His path, and accomplishing His purposes!

But what purpose? How could those purposes have possibly included the hundreds of innocent lives lost? How can we conceive of a God who allows such things? These questtions have no easy answer, and what His purposes were will likely never be fully known on this side of eternity! But this much we know--the same great God who controls the weather commands that we give shelter, food and clothing to the homeless, hungry and naked. And with these supplies, He also commands that we communicate to the victims of this disaster that God is not only great. He is also good!

How can this be? Reflection on this question will come next week.