15/12/2014 8:10:36 AM
Providence: Am I Suffering Because God Is Teaching Me? (Part 1 of 3)
Posted under: Theology
Here in New Brunswick, we all have a common pool of experience with mosquitoes. We have all sat out to enjoy the splendour of a maritime evening and we have all had that serene moment interrupted by the buzz and the bite. I for one take a special delight in killing them. Strategies are laid out and scores are kept. Each successful strike triggers a surge of delight. Unfortunately, as humans, we also all have a common pool of experience with thinking of God like this. That He is in a state of leisure enjoying the universe He has made until the incessant buzzing of our sin gets too loud. And then...swat!
You can feel the pulse of this fear by putting your finger on any of the religions that we have made. Attempts to appease the gods, superstitions to ward off spirits and even just living as a good person (or maybe as a just good enough person) all spring from this impulse.
Hopefully, we have been convinced by the gracious deliverance offered by the Father through Jesus and the abundant life given by the Spirit that God is not like me on my porch on a warm June evening. But this way of thinking tends to linger. We are as likely to be rid of it easily and swiftly as we are to be bug free simply because the ember end of a mosquito coil glows beside us.
Take, for example, the following statement: “I’ve been trying to look at my life and see what it is I’ve done that God is trying to teach me about.” I have heard variations of this a number of times from people who are going through periods of hardship. Can you hear the assumptions behind it? Is this just a watered down form of the idea that God is out to get us when we mess up? On the surface this assumes that God picks things to happen to us in order to teach us. And it assumes that he does so based on the way we have been living. Behind even this is the assumption that our circumstances all come from God. Is this how it works? Can we really draw a straight line from what we’ve done to what we get? Does everything that comes to us happen because God chose it?
We will look at the second question first: does everything that happens to me take place because God chose it for me? As soon as we cast out the question this way we can feel tension on the line. Everything? Do we mean every little thing? Rain on my birthday and rust on my car? The bit of snow that found its way past my cuff and the exact number of mosquitoes that found their way through my defenses this summer? And do we mean every single thing? The end of each day is not just the addition of another link to a chain of pleasant events. Nor do we always (ever?) have the ability or opportunity to look back on it all and knowingly sigh with contentment. If our lives were more like the novels that always end happy we might be more willing to say it is all of God. But our last chapters can leave jagged edges.
Yet the Bible pushes us in this direction. All occurrences in the realm of nature are attributed to His hand. It isn’t just that the sun rises and the rain falls on the good and evil alike, it is that God makes them do so (Matt. 5.45). Job 37 paints a picture of constant control and not just occasional intervention by God. So yes, even our traditional Halloween snow storm came because “to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth’” (v. 6, NRSV). The comfort in looking to the birds and the lilies is not just to see that they are fed and clothed, but that God is the one doing it (Matt. 6.26-30).
Even human activity is spoken of in similar terms. Kings and kingdoms rise and fall on His decision (Dan. 2.21; 4.24-25). David declared “My times are in your hand” (Ps. 31.15) and Paul attributed his apostleship to God’s prenatal plan for him (Gal. 1.15-16). Our position is due to His decision: “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts” (I Sam 2.6-7). The apostles were so sure that even the most ‘mundane’ event was under God’s control that they cast lots to pick between two candidates for Judas Iscariot’s post among the twelve (Acts 1.23-26; Prov. 16.33)!
None of those verses outright say that all things always happen because God chose them to, but they present this as the way things work. Ephesians 1.11 confirms this by saying that God “accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.” The way that the 1689 London Baptist Confession says it is that God “doth uphold, direct, dispose and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence...” (5:1). If you follow the trail of smoke you always come back to providence; that is, to God’s choice in governing His world.
This is not an easy thing to say. Next time we’ll explore why it is hard to say and what we need to include in our answer.