Monthly Archives: May 2013

Something Old and Something New

T-storm

Sometimes we find a new source of encouragement in old, abiding truths expressed by a man of God of days gone by.

Men of God have been writing on the topic of God’s sovereign design in our hardships long before I heard the neurosurgeon say the word, “cancer.” Here are two such writings that have greatly strengthened me in hard times – one new (to me) and one from way back.

1) John Calvin (posted recently by Kevin DeYoung on his blog. taken from Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.17.1. To see DeYoung’s original post, click here.)

John Calvin:

Now this, also, ought to be added, that although either fatherly favor and beneficence or severity of judgment often shine forth in the whole course of providence, nevertheless sometimes the causes of the events are hidden.

So the thought creeps in that human affairs turn and whirl at the blind urge of fortune; or the flesh incites us to contradiction, as if God were making sport of men by throwing them like balls. It is, indeed, true that 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:

either to instruct his own people in patience,

or to correct their wicked affections and tame their lust,

or to subjugate them to self-denial,

or to rouse them from sluggishness;

again, to bring low the proud, to shatter the cunning of the impious and to overthrow their devices.

Yet however hidden and fugitive from our point of view the causes may be, we must hold that they are surely laid up with him, and hence we must exclaim with David: “Great, O God, are the wondrous deeds that thou hast done, and thy thoughts toward us cannot be reckoned; if I try to speak, they would be more than can be told” [Ps. 40:5].

storm_Christ

2) C.H. Spurgeon  (From Morning and Evening, August 31, on Isaiah 51:5)

In seasons of severe trial, the Christian has nothing on earth that he can trust to, and is therefore compelled to cast himself on his God alone. When his vessel is on its beam-ends, and no human deliverance can avail, he must simply and entirely trust himself to the providence and care of God. Happy storm that wrecks a man on such a rock as this! O blessed hurricane that drives the soul to God and God alone! There is no getting at our God sometimes because of the multitude of our friends; but when a man is so poor, so friendless, so helpless that he has nowhere else to turn, he flies into his Father’s arms, and is blessedly clasped therein! When he is burdened with troubles so pressing and so peculiar, that he cannot tell them to any but his God, he may be thankful for them; for he will learn more of his Lord then than at any other time. Oh, tempest-tossed believer, it is a happy trouble that drives thee to thy Father! Now that thou hast only thy God to trust to, see that thou puttest thy full confidence in him. Dishonour not thy Lord and Master by unworthy doubts and fears; but be strong in faith, giving glory to God. Show the world that thy God is worth ten thousand worlds to thee. Show rich men how rich thou art in thy poverty when the Lord God is thy helper. Show the strong man how strong thou art in thy weakness when underneath thee are the everlasting arms. Now is the time for feats of faith and valiant exploits. Be strong and very courageous, and the Lord thy God shall certainly, as surely as he built the heavens and the earth, glorify himself in thy weakness, and magnify his might in the midst of thy distress. The grandeur of the arch of heaven would be spoiled if the sky were supported by a single visible column, and your faith would lose its glory if it rested on anything discernible by the carnal eye. May the Holy Spirit give you to rest in Jesus this closing day of the month.

 

 


Learning to Live Under a Sovereign God – Part 3

This is part 3 in a series, so be sure to check out part 1 and part 2 if you need a little bit of context.

It’s that feeling you get when another kid that’s braver than you has the guts to stand up in class and confront the teacher about something that seems unfair. In your mind you’re thinking, “Wow! I can’t believe he just said that! He’s gonna get it now.” That’s the feeling I get when I read Habakkuk. He’s asking what we’re either too afraid or too self-centered to ask because we don’t understand our circumstances in light of God’s sovereignty. Our lives make as much sense as 2 + 2 = 13. And they’re all upside down in terms of attaching our theology to our feelings. And it hurts. And we don’t understand why. Know that feeling?

Habakkuk knew it well.  So did Job. They both approached God for an explanation. And we can tell what sort of attitude they came to God with from God’s responses to them. Job gets silenced and humbled – meaning he spoke in a self-serving way and shouldn’t have spoken. Habakkuk gets a gracious answer and the delegation of a very important mission – meaning he came humbly and was ready to receive whatever answer. In short, ‘Why’ + ‘It’s all about me’ = Bad. ‘Why’ + ‘What about Your glory?’ = Good.

Habakkuk asks God for an explanation, and instead of crushing Him, God affirms his humble courage by explaining some things. It’s here, in this dialogue, that we get one of the most revealing glimpses into the inner mechanics of God’s sovereignty at work in the “real world” where we live. If you’re suffering and struggling to grasp God’s sovereignty, stop reading this blog and go read Habakkuk first – then come back and read this.

To sum up Habakkuk’s 3 short chapters, the prophet complains to God about rampant corruption and a perceived lack of justice in Israel. He asks God,  “Why the delay in judging sin?” God responds by revealing to Habakkuk the rising power that He is building in Babylon. He was strengthening them up to sweep through and conquer Israel as a judgment for her sins. This answer shocks Habakkuk. In confusion, he asks God how He could prosper a violent, idol-worshiping empire in order to use them as a tool of judgment. He measures Israel’s sins against Babylon’s and concludes that God is prospering the really, really sinful ones to judge the sinful ones – which to him, seemed like a step away from justice, not a step towards it. Then God reveals more of the picture to Habakkuk, showing him that after Babylon is used as a tool to judge Israel’s sins, they will be greatly judged for theirs as well. So what is Habakkuk’s conclusion after being given a glimpse into God’s sovereign design?

“…my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. “ (3:16-19).

To put hypothetical words into Habakkuk’s mouth, I imagine he would have said, “Wow! God is moving all of mankind in a grand scheme. This is going to be terrifying (being invaded and made slaves to a massive empire), but I will wait with faith for the day that our captors will be judged and we’ll be free again.  God is in charge and He will carry me through this. The just will live by his faith, so I will focus on being a just man.”

How come God doesn’t always explain to us why things are the way they are? Habakkuk sums up the reason perfectly. “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait…

spider-web

God – in His sovereignty – is unfolding the most intricate series of “things” (can’t get the right word, sorry). It’s a more complex web than we could possibly imagine. He is weaving together judgments, mercies, consequences, forgiveness, testings, circumstances, encounters, and more. And He’s simultaneously serving them to nations, groups, local churches, individuals, orphans, widows, queens, kings, presidents, beggars, etc. And all of these “things” are linked to sin and its consequences because all of those involved in His plan are sinners. So He is – at the same time – judging with consequences and offering mercy, punishing pride and rewarding righteousness. And ALL of it links through the cross! The trunk to which every tiny twig is connected is the glory of God. He is weaving it all together to demonstrate His ability, power, and majesty. His intent is for us to be beneficiaries of this process, not victims of it. One of the most amazing parts of this reality is that even though our individual corner of this web of God’s creation is tiny, He explicitly states that we are no less significant to Him. His degree of care for you was nailed in plain sight for all to see. The bigness of His plan does not negate His care for each part of it. You know that saying, “better to do a little well, than a lot poorly?” Yeah, that doesn’t apply to God.

tree

Imagine opening up the server room at one of Google’s facilities and seeing a massive screen with a visual representation of all of the bytes of data that are traveling through that room linking together seemingly endless connections and links. And that’s a design of man’s making. Now imagine how much more complex the power and abilities of a Sovereign Designer must be to manage the universe. I admit, it is hard to imagine. And that’s good because God is transcendent. But don’t let that “out of sight, out of mind,” pattern we all tend toward rob you of seeing your personal connection to this grand meta-narrative.

It was as if Habakkuk – as a representative of everyone who will ever question the sovereign choices of God with an honest bewilderment – was given a glimpse into a mere tiny corner of the most intricately designed engine that is human existence. And God’s intent in granting that tiny glimpse was to so overwhelm us with the task that He has assigned to Himself that we would fall to our knees and let go of the question, ‘why.’

I asked, “Why cancer? Why now? Why Heather? Why not me? Why two motherless children (which was hard to ask because we cried out to God for a couple of years to even have those children)? Why!?

In the intensity of a trial, your “why” is as big as the universe. But here’s the process God had to take me through (it’s the process He will take you through too if He has designed deep trials into your life): Take that “why” and hold it up to the brilliant light of a sovereign plan – a meta-narrative – in which He is weaving every minutia of detail together into a grand collective whole that will in the end exalt His abilities as both Designer and Sustainer. In time, your “why” becomes smaller and smaller, and God becomes bigger and bigger. This is a work of grace.

Say along with Habakkuk, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and I don’t understand it all, but I see God’s power at work unfolding His master plan. I will trust in Him, and I will trust Him.” There’s a difference. And we need His grace to help us do both.

How do you live under the hand of a sovereign God? You already are. Nothing needs to change in one sense. On the other hand, ask Him to show you new layers of His sovereignty and to build up your trust. He will – in His time and in His way. Were you hoping for one of those, “7 steps to living in line with God’s control over your life,” kind of answers? Nope. It’s a work of grace. It’s both passive and active – active in that you should be asking God to do that work and choosing to live in line with it by building up godly character habits, and passive in that you can’t change your own heart.

How do you live under the hand of a Sovereign God? The same way you got saved, the same way you get sanctified, and the same way you’ll be glorified.

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6)

“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things…” (Phil. 2:12-14).

Next post: A book review of John Piper’s “The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd.” This book ministered to me greatly through my darker weeks and months recently. I’m hoping to convince you to read it too. You’ll see a little bit of why. (And I promise to try to get the post length down to a more manageable size.)


Learning to Live Under a Sovereign God – Part 2

NOTE: This post is part 2 in a series. Please check out part 1  for a fuller context.

Knowing that God is in charge of everything can be a neat, tidy, easy truth sometimes – that is, if you try not to think about it too much. When life is rolling along nicely and everything is going well for you, God’s control is no problem. It’s easy to accept because the weight of it isn’t pressing in on you. It only seems to be such an agreeable truth because His will happens to line up with your plans and your life.  But when His control of your life steers your circumstances in opposition to your expectations, plans, opinions, etc. then how do you respond?

You will never truly know how deep your submission to God’s sovereignty goes until it is tested. Living through those tests is simultaneously the most excruciating and most rewarding thing a person could ever experience. And it is only because of the rewards and the benefits that I hope that God will test you as He has been testing me. Trust me, if there was a way without the pain, I would wish for that instead. But they are inseparable in His design. How else can we claim to follow Christ if we won’t follow Him through pain, considering the joy set before us as He did?

praying-hands

In the previous post, we posed two questions:

– How can God claim both goodness and omni-ability, and yet still allow bad things to happen to people He claims to love?

– Can there be responsibility for us to act/think/be a certain way if God is ultimately in control of everything we act/think/say? Isn’t there a tension between these two claims?

 

For the sake of time and space, I’m going to assume a certain level of understanding on these topics already and attempt a skim treatment. (Hopefully I’m not too far off in guessing the understanding level of my audience. Come to think of it, I’m not actually sure who my audience is. That’s one of the strange aspects of going through a major trial – God can use it to channel grace through you to people you’ve never even met.)

The answer to these questions begins in Romans 5.

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (vs. 12, 18).

Sin – by definition – is crossing the “line” of the will and character of God. In short, to sin is to go against God. As soon as God created beings with the freedom to obey Him or not, the possibility for sin came into existence. But Romans 5 is clear, the decision to plunge humanity under sin’s weight was made by one representative, literal human being – not by God. Every betrayal, every sickness, every emotional pain, every physical pain, every instance of suffering, every act of evil that you’ve committed or been the victim of – all of it traces back to Adam’s choice on our behalf. There is sin because we are sinners. Scripture – while affirming God’s all-encompassing sovereignty – denies any option of charging Him with responsibility for our sin-caused suffering.

Because sin is at the root of all suffering, if God is not the author of sin, then He is not the culprit in my suffering. To be convinced of this, a person needs to absorb the following passage and really chew on it.

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, I am being tempted by God, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” (James 1:12-18).

 

James makes a concerted effort to credit us (as a collective race) with the consequences of evil as a result of our sinful choices and then to credit God with good. Scripture is full of examples of God working to hold the evil of humanity back from its full expression. In fact, scripture promises a full restoration of creation and justice for all sins committed.

In short, God is in charge of it all. He exercises an active, overarching control over everything – including your freedom to choose between right and wrong. Scripture is consistent in holding you responsible for all of your thoughts, actions, and feelings while attributing simultaneous control over them all to God. Illogical? Yes. Inconsistent? In a sense, yes. Confusing? People have been debating the implications for 1600+ years.

 

So there’s the sovereignty of God in a nutshell. Trying to describe it in a few paragraphs is like taking the energy of our sun and condensing it into a popcorn seed without letting it pop. But it was important to summarize in order to set up the next post.

 

Here’s the trick: A truth so complex and paradoxical as this is intended to have some pervasive impacts on how you think, how you feel, and how you live. Just how do you live under the hand of a Sovereign God? We’ll ask Habakkuk in the next post. He knows.