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We are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.
C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 43.
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 118.
“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” Paul, in 2 Cor. 12:2-4 in the Holy Bible
I would love to take the time to tell you what I think about this book that has captured the hearts of so many Christians (in the same vomit-worthy fashion of The Shack), but this review says it just like I would. Why would we be more impressed with a four-year-old’s highly dubious account of heaven when we have inspired Scripture to tell us ALL THAT GOD WANTED US TO KNOW ABOUT HEAVEN???
And notice in 2 Cor. 12:4 that Paul declares that what he saw and heard cannot be told because man is not permitted to utter it.
This leaves only two choices: believe the Bible or believe Colton Burpo (the four-year-old). You decide.
Sorry is not a magic formula which wipes the slate clean in every sense, and neither is God’s grace. There is a difference between, on the one hand, forgiveness and restoration to fellowship, and, on the other, going back to the way things were. Some actions so fundamentally change relationships, reputations, and even personalities that there is no going back. We lie to our people if we tell them otherwise.
Carl Trueman, “Why I Believe in the One Great Heresy”
The idea that past sin, no matter how bad, how destructive, how long it lasted, should be forgiven immediately and have no lasting consequences is what Westminster Seminary Church Historian Carl Trueman, a Brit, writes about in this excellent article. Read it if you dare.
The third and final answer to the question of whether God is responsible for my troubles is one many believers don’t like to consider—that God providentially ordains trials, troubles, suffering, sickness, and even death according to his divine decrees for my life. In this scenario God brings troubles into my life because he knows the future perfectly, and he knows that troubles in the life of the believer will ultimately bring fruit:
For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:11)
The problem with this answer for many Christians is they wrestle with how God can be good if he ordains trouble and suffering. A God who ordains and decrees suffering does not seem to be just, loving, compassionate, merciful, good or kind. In order to preserve these attributes of God, the doubting Christian may be tempted to remove culpability from God by removing his responsibility for initiating troubles. But this would be a big mistake.
God is sovereign and whatever he does is good and just, whether we think so or not. We must remember the declarations of God’s sovereignty and our absolute submission in Scripture in the metaphor of the Potter and the clay:
But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand (Is. 64:8)
“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel (Jer. 18:6).
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Rom. 9:19-21)
These passages teach a truth that goes down sideways for many of us: God can do what he wants, and we can’t question him. The truth is, we don’t like to say God is responsible for trouble, not just to protect God from accusations of being unloving, but also because by doing so, we negate our right to criticize what God decides to do with our lives. We simply do not like to cede to God that much control of our lives. We are like Adam and Eve, forever believing the lie that we can be like God and decide our own destiny. And we forever suffer for our lack of submission to the trials and troubles God knows we need in our lives.
The biblical answer is that God absolutely IS responsible for the trials, suffering, and trouble in our lives, and what a comfort that is! How is that a comfort? If God were not in control of all things, directing, initiating, and providentially ordaining everything that comes to pass, life would have a certain element of chance to it. If chance played even a miniscule part in the unfolding of events in this life, it would threaten the ability of God to truly be sovereign over all. Chance could emerge and cause God to have to change his mind.
But chance is an illusion, and God is sovereign; and that is the only comfort in my trials, troubles, sickness, discouragement, and so on. That everything that happens to me is omnisciently decreed by a loving God who works all things for my glorification and his own glory means that nothing is without meaning and importance. Every trouble has a purpose, every trial has reason. No tears are wasted, no sorrow pointless. Everything is being used to make me more like Christ.
B. B. Warfield said it best:
It is because we cannot be robbed of God’s providence that we know, amid whatever encircling gloom, that all things shall work together for good to those who love him. It is because we cannot be robbed of God’s providence that we know that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ—not tribulation, nor anguish, nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril, nor sword…Were not God’s providence over all, could trouble come without his sending, were Christians the possible prey of this or the other fiendish scheme, when perchance God was musing, or gone aside, or on a journey, or sleeping, what certainty of hope could be ours? “Does God send trouble?” Surely, surely. He and he only. To the sinner in punishment, to his children in chastisement. To suggest that it does not always come from his hands is to take away all our comfort.
“God’s Providence Over All,” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, (ed. John Meeter; P&R, 2001), 1:110. (emphasis mine)
Once we have acknowledged and become thankful worshipers of God for every good thing we experience, we are ready to ask the question of whether God ordains trouble in our lives or not. There are only three possible answers to this question.
First, we might say, as Open Theists do, that God cannot foresee the future, and therefore any trouble that comes into our lives is as much a surprise to God as it is to us. In this scenario God is not responsible for our troubles, but neither can he help much beyond sympathize with us. Hardly a biblical or satisfying picture.
Second, we might say that Satan is responsible for our troubles. The devil is an easy target, after all. We are allowed to hate him and everything he does. In this view, God would never wish evil or trouble upon his children, so it must be the devil’s fault. God’s role in the whole mess is to stop the devil from going too far. In other words, God allows troubles, but he does not ordain or initiate them. So God is able to wiggle out of responsibility merely from the fact that he is not the direct cause of trouble.
I dare say that most Christians probably hold this position. It preserves enough of God’s control over my life that I don’t feel too out of control, but also provides a scapegoat so I don’t have to be mad at God when trouble comes. But as everyone who holds this position knows, if the trial or suffering is severe enough, God ultimately gets the blame anyway.
If these aren’t really legitimate answer to the question of whether God is responsible for the trouble in our lives, what’s left? In Part 3 we’ll examine what I believe to be the biblical answer and the only satisfying one.
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson made headlines on November 28, 2010, not for his receiving skill on the field, but for his Tweets off the field. After dropping what would have been the game winning touchdown catch against the Steelers, Johnson got on his Twitter account and typed:
“I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO…”
Within hours Johnson was being roundly criticized for having the audacity to blame God for his own failure. People from all walks of life recognized his perceived impudence for holding God responsible for his trouble. Yet the incident revealed a common sentiment among many that God should, in fact, remove trouble from our lives.
So, is God responsible for the trouble in our lives?
This is a trick question, I know. But your answer reveals much about your view of yourself and your view of God.
The very fact that suffering, trials, sickness and pain exist reveals that there is something not right with the world. A person who believes in evolution cannot say as much. For the evolutionist, these are just a natural part of the random nature of the universe as the process of blind natural selection grinds forward. An evolutionist, therefore, believes the world is exactly as it should be. To the Christian (and yes, I do set these as contradictory), there is something inherently wrong with the world, something that can be summed up in one word: sin. The sin of Adam that plunged all humanity into condemnation also brought a curse upon the world and everything in it. We are all, every one of us, born cursed into a cursed world.
If we dare object that this state of affairs is not “fair,” we must explain why. Most people who claim that depravity, the doctrine that every person is born in rebellion to God and completely corrupted in all aspects of his nature, is not fair, either believe that they are not depraved, or at least not as bad as the Bible describes us in Eph. 2:1-3:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
But if we object to this description of our depravity, then we have to explain why we choose to sin multiple times, maybe hundreds of times, per day. The problem is that we simply don’t reckon sin the way God does. We tend to see only the big, outward, and ugly sins as truly sinful. If we haven’t committed adultery, embezzled money from our company, or murdered anyone today, then we feel that we haven’t sinned. But God sees all! Every internal thought of petty jealousy is as much a transgression of the law of God as adultery. Every thought of fear when we should trust, every critical word from our tongue, every lustful thought, every deliberation of how superior we are to another person, every indulgence of resentment toward a past hurt, every act of anger toward another; these are all sins that we wrack up by the hundreds day after day. Our sin debt before God is wracking up condemnation faster than the national debt counter in New York City.
And so the question of whether God is responsible for the trouble in our lives is a little more complex than a simple yes or no. We are responsible for the mess in which we find ourselves. We deserve no good thing. We don’t deserve a happy life; don’t deserve to even live. The only thing we deserve is condemnation, the wrath of God and hell. It’s almost impossible to emphasize this enough. If we got what we deserve we would all be immediately plunged into eternal separation from God.
Ephesians 2:4-7 proceeds to tell us, however, that God did not leave us in our natural state, but reached down to us in the incarnate person of his Son who gave himself to atone for our sin by satisfying the wrath of God on our behalf so that we might be justified and forgiven:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
So is God responsible for the trouble in our lives? Before we answer that we must acknowledge that He is most definitely responsible for everything good in our lives. How ungrateful would it be for us to only ask the question about the bad without confessing loudly that every last thing in our lives that we enjoy is entirely of God’s good grace to us.
So what about the trouble in our lives? Part 2 of this essay will take up that question.
Each year Christmas night finds members of my family feeling some melancholy. After weeks of anticipation, the Christmas celebrations have flashed by us and are suddenly gone. And we’re left standing, watching the Christmas taillights and music fade into the night.
But it’s possible that this moment of melancholy may be the best teaching moment of the whole season. Because as long as the beautiful gifts remain unopened around the tree and the events are still ahead of us, they can appear to be the hope we are waiting for. But when the tree is empty and events are past, we realize we are longing for a lasting hope.
So last night, as Pam and I tucked our kids into bed, we talked about a few things with them:
- Gifts and events can’t fill the soul. God gives us such things to enjoy. They are expressions of his generosity as well as ours, but gifts and celebrations themselves are not designed to satisfy. They’re designed to point us to the Giver. Gifts are like sunbeams. We are not meant to love sunbeams but the Sun.
- Putting our hope in gifts will leave us empty. Many people live their lives looking for the right sunbeam to make them happy. But if we depend on anything in the world to satisfy our soul’s deepest desire, it will eventually leave us with that post-Christmas soul-ache. We will ask, “Is that all?” because we know deep down that’s not all there is. We are designed to treasure a Person, not his things.
- It is more blessed to give than receive. What kind of happiness this Christmas felt richer, getting the presents that you wanted or making someone else happy with something that you gave to them? Receiving is a blessing, but Jesus is right—giving is a greater blessing. A greedy soul lives in a small, lonely world. A generous soul lives in a wide world of love.
It’s just like God to let the glitter and flash of the celebrations (even in his honor) to pass and then to come to us in the quiet, even melancholic void they leave. Because often that’s when we are most likely to understand the hope he intends for us to have at Christmas.
Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them … or they do not see it, or they justify it … because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.
T. S. Elliot, The Cocktail Party (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), 111.