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The question you ask yourself when you see headlines like this is “Why?” And perhaps also, ‘Why France?’ According to an article from Le Monde published this February, of 22 known terrorists in France, 15 have been of French nationality and 13 have been French-born. To understand more than the English-speaking mass media can tell you about why this is happening, you need to be there, speak the language, read policy documents, listen to how people talk, and ‘get’ the inferences, the politics and the jokes. And you probably need to come from outside France. I am a protestant Christian from Britain, and having lived and worked in France for nearly 2 years, I see reason to believe that radical Islam’s beef with France is not random.
Before we begin in earnest, let me present you with a paradox: why should we pray for God to move the hearts of many hardened political leaders in such a way as to orchestrate world peace, if we are among those who insist that our same God cannot move the heart of an individual in such a way as to orchestrate their acceptance of Christ?
If we applied all the ink spilled on free will/predestination to our intercessory prayers, I think we’d get somewhere faster. In the first case – prayers for conversion – what is appealed to is the power of the human will to choose or reject God, a liberty that many insist God cannot encroach upon. In the case of world peace, what is emphasised is the power of God to move human will. On the one hand, we insist on humans controlling themselves independently of God; on the other, we insist on God controlling humans. There is a double standard here, and it becomes more recognisable when we accept that world peace is not actually a ‘state of being’ – it’s a complex matrix of actions based on the motivations of multiple human hearts with desires for self-advancement and self-protection that have driven them, thus far, to be at conflict with each other. And I well believe that even after a given conflict is taken up with inter-governmental giants like NATO and the UN, the conflict does not really heal; it just stops expressing itself in physical violence for a time.
That said, being the first to reduce weapons and cease fire requires immense self-sacrifice, humility, strength in the face of the world’s scrutiny, and you will most likely be hated you whatever you do. And so achieving worldwide peace would appear to be a monumental task. If we believe that God cannot move one human heart to accept Christ, how can he infuse into many sin-dead human hearts the humility, strength and will to self-sacrifice required to achieve peace in a world that they are continually filling with sin? So many prayers have been said over so many conflicts, and it seems that God has turned a deaf ear. Is God unfaithful or powerless to help these people? I personally don’t think that God is either of these things. I think the problem is that in praying for God to ‘move the hearts of our [unbelieving] political leaders’ to bring about a New Jerusalem of political peace with the present age being in the state that it is, we might be trying to square a circle. Not that I think God necessarily couldn’t do that – in the Bible there are instances of him moving the hearts of faithless rulers to do his bidding on earth (albeit to be instruments of his wrath rather than his grace) – but I just don’t think that bestowing godly motivations onto hearts that reject God, fits well with the way God works. If God wants to be recognised as God and have the world reconciled to himself, and be glorified by the nations who are content to cease from raging in vain and to instead be still and know he is God, he will normally do this through agents who are proud to bear his name and be heralds of his covenant, because with the exception of some strategically placed pagans, such as Balaam, this is the way he has a precedent of having acted.
God’s limitations – where we draw the line (or don’t), and why
In the case of conversion and that of world peace, the lines regarding God’s limitations are drawn in places that, as it stands from this perspective, produce a self-contradictory view of God, and one that seems to satisfy human sensibilities in conspicuous ways. In the case of conversion, God’s limitations in view of humanity’s free will accommodate our innate desire for self-determination, cushion us from disappointment when people we’ve prayed for don’t convert, and take perceived blame off God for not sparing these people from hell. In the case of world peace, God’s all-powerfulness cushions us from feelings of fear and hopelessness and accommodates our desire to feel secure and protected (or in some cases it even enables us hold God responsible and cushion humanity from blame). These two viewpoints accommodate human desires, swerve uncomfortable questions about the nature of God and humanity, and cushion human dissatisfactions, whilst offering an inadequate portrait of God. Both scenarios of prayer, for personal conversion or for world peace, require self-sacrificial resolutions of heart to be worked in the beneficiary of the prayer, but the problem is that it is assumed that God should orchestrate this irrespective of the beneficiary’s desire in the one case, and that God cannot thwart the human will to say ‘no’ in the other.
Much of this also sits in line with what appears unrepugnant to the naked secular eye, and where things comfortable to the naked secular eye converge too much with things comfortable to children of God who are alleged to crucify daily the nature that put them on a par with the secularists, I get a niggling twinge of concern. It is easy to embrace a God who sends nobody to hell, and not too hard to accept a God to who wants to save everyone from hell but can’t – but not a God who wants to save everyone from hell and doesn’t do it. It is easy to embrace a God who can quell our discomfort about war, suffering and conflict because he is powerful to overcome them – not a God who isn’t powerful to overcome them, or a God who is powerful to overcome them but doesn’t because he has bigger fish to fry. But God was never in the business of making himself easy to embrace. He does all things for his glory and in accordance with his nature; he cannot do the one and not the other, and he repeatedly manifests his nature in the Old Testament and the New through his words and deeds.
There seem to be some assumptions behind these things that are used and believed by some people I know, and so I’ve drawn up a list of them. I’ve read enough to know that they’re fairly common standpoints in themselves. But lest I appear to be setting up any straw men, I will say that I cannot think of many individuals for whom all apply, even though all of them apply at least to one person I know and have heard from:
1) That God doesn’t orchestrate things that he hates.
2) That God cannot be good if he has the power to send sinners to hell and uses it.
3) That God cannot be good if he does things that sit against natural human sensibilities.
4) That God cannot use sinful and evil vessels such as war to lead to ulterior purposes that we cannot yet see.
5) That ‘good’ precludes punishment for sins for the non-repentant.
6) That God, if he is to be worthy of his names, epithets and titles, must ‘deserve’ these by the reckoning of human beings, and not by his own reckoning.
7) That people are intrinsically good.
8) That the human creature has rights over God and ‘deserves’ anything from him.
9) That the human desire to enjoy ease and avoid pain is what drives God’s plans for humanity.
10) That human beings who fall short of the glory of God naturally deserve heaven, not hell.
All of these, I believe, are false. But there is one more that I want to discuss, that I feel encapsulates all of them. The final false assumption is the assumption that if something about God that is revealed in Scripture seems morally unacceptable to us, the problem that needs ‘fixing’ or ‘understanding’ necessarily lies either in the understanding of the Scripture or in the Scripture itself, and not in the heart that finds it morally unacceptable. And I find this false because this heart, whomsoever may lay claim to it, has inevitably yet to be moulded into the full likeness of God’s heart, and if it were, would agree with God on every point, that God had been morally right and just in what he declared, being one with the heart of God that declared it. Such a heart, struggling, ought not resign itself to its own resistance to becoming reconciled to God’s point of view in the name of decency, if it longs after godliness. For to insist that ‘we won’t understand this until we get to heaven and everything is revealed’ and to refuse to argue any further because of the moral discomfort of doing so, is to actively resist pursuing and reconciling one’s own heart to the heart of God, and in a sense, to refuse to crucify that part of oneself to God, as if human conscience uniquely transcended the corruption of the rest of the human creature. What kind of Christian sets an ‘acceptability’ limit to his own sanctification, if sanctification involves having one’s heart transformed into the likeness of God’s heart? And what if God should declare, before all that remains to be sanctified in us is sanctified and before we see Christ face to face and are transformed into his perfect likeness, “Yes, I ordered all of the Canaanite babies to be killed, and it was right and just of me to do so because this was the Word I delivered to Samuel the Prophet according to my Spirit-breathed Scriptures”? Would we dare utter that God was not good in doing this? Would we blaspheme against the Holy Spirit of God by calling him evil, to our ruin? In the event that God declared this to us, what should we reply? “But God, I thought you were better than that?” Is it not a sign of our own feebleness that we try to make excuses for the mind of Christ, as if we were ashamed of him? We’ve desensitized ourselves of the horror of God appointing for his only begotten Son to be nailed to a tree to die a bloody death in order to save former murderers, rapists, fraudsters, people more-or-less like what we once were and struggle not to be any longer, from our just punishment. Can we believe in such a brutal God as that? We can, and we do, or we would not live by that same cross.
There is something of the perceived ‘brutality’ of the Old Testament God in the cross. The kind of God who would proposition to nail his only begotten Son to a tree and leave him to die there for the sake of wretches – albeit with that Son’s full compliance, willingness and co-design, if we are good trinitarians – but it was propositioned nonetheless. We see how the means justified the ends to our benefit, and so we love God. But what about the instances of ‘brutality’ in God in which the ends are less apparent, or are less engrained in our culture as necessary? Figure Abraham. He saw no reason at all why it was a worthy or right thing to sacrifice Isaac for God. But he didn’t ask God questions. He just prepared himself to do the unspeakable, and he affirmed that God was good and right in commanding it. And those who are Abraham’s sons, as opposed to sons of the devil, are Abraham’s sons because they do Abraham’s works, said Jesus to the Pharisees, and those non-Jews who are in Christ must still be Abraham’s sons, because they are of necessity grafted onto Abraham’s genealogical tree, said the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews. If God asked you to kill your son for no reason at all, would you do Abraham’s works or would you doubt God’s goodness as the Israelites in the wilderness over the manna? Then what would you think of God’s goodness if he ordained for someone else’s son to be killed… what if God ordained lots of people’s sons to be killed…? Would God still be good then, or does the buck stop with you and Abraham?
“Surely Not, Lord!”
For me, the Apostle Peter is a prime example of how we are prone to posing limitations on God based on what we esteem he couldn’t or shouldn’t do if he is a good God. Now, the Apostle Peter was up on the mount with Jesus when Jesus was gloriously transfigured; it was the Apostle Peter to whom Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter replied correctly, “You are the Christ”. He was one of the most commonly mentioned Apostles in the gospels, and Jesus seems to have allowed him into his ‘inner circle’. But maybe his knowledge of Isaiah 52 and 53 wasn’t so good. When Jesus told Peter that he was going to be judged and put to death and that he was going to rise on the third day, Peter’s response is what a lot of people’s is, who insist that God cannot possibly will for anyone to suffer, or who, when it is put forward that God indeed willed Christ to suffer, find insufficient the reasons that God gives for making anyone else to suffer because they cannot see any obvious redemptive plan that may or may not be behind it, and on this ground, reject the notion that God stands over human suffering. When we reach these conclusions and insist that we must actually be interpreting the Bible ‘wrongly’ if we come to understand that God stands over people’s suffering as he stood over Christ’s, I think that we are effectively saying with Peter, “Surely not, Lord!” And the response of the Son of God to that kind of objection was, “Get behind me, Satan!” I cannot count the number of people who have struggled to understand why Christ responded so vehemently to Peter here. But I think it lies in the essence of what Peter was saying: Peter, not knowing the ultimate redemptive purpose for which God’s Son was to be brutally slain, refused to believe that a good and loving God would do that. Had he understood that Jesus was dying for the redemption of the world, the utilitarian principle might have put Jesus in the right in his eyes – but Jesus seems to be angry here, because an absence of utilitarian principle is not sufficient justification for unbelief, disgust or disavowal of what God himself has declared. In saying what he said, Peter put human limits and conditions on his trust in God’s words, assuming that they could not be God’s words if those limits and conditions were not met. Peter, essentially, was telling God that if he did such-and-such, he would be wrong. In so doing he was exalting his imperfectly informed, humanly weak judgement before God’s. To my mind, the indignation of the Author of Life (Acts 3:15) against Peter is the same here as it was when God spoke out of the whirlwind to Job: “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? … Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” (NLT Job 38: 2,3) Well might the Author of Life have been furious with Peter for putting him in the wrong, and said, as he did: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Do we need to know the reasons why God does things, if we are to believe that goodness and righteousness are intrinsic to his nature, and that his works, law and commandments are an expression of that nature worked out in a fallen world by sinful human instruments? Have we a right to say, with Peter, “Surely not, Lord!” just because we have a myopic vision and a sense of what is good and right that falls short of God’s? Shall our whole understanding of how God works be shaped by the things of man: human moral conscience, human liberty, human self-determination, freedom of the human will; rather than the things of God: the freedom of God’s will, God’s liberty, God’s moral conscience as an entity unshackled to human moral sensibilities, and most importantly, his right to be recognised as the only God and Lord of heaven and earth? For before there was a human being with moral sensibilities on the face of the earth there was Father, Son and Holy Spirit, unchanging and eternal in nature; and before we of the past two millennia were born and could exchange theological discourse about his nature and limitations, there was the Fall from Eden, the marring of God’s image in mankind, and the generational disease of ungodlikeness that made human nature other than God’s nature. Do we presume to exalt the concerns of a marred moral conscience above God and make those determine what God does? What is the essence and spirit of the things we allow to define our theology? Is it what we see him do and declare through Moses, the history-writers and the prophets; or is it what we can comfortably bear to believe he is? “Blessed is he who is not offended by me”, said Jesus. He did not recant anything he said because he was too repugnant for people to believe in him – he went on being offensive to people’s consciences until they crucified him. He did not even care to clarify what he meant by, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall live in me and I in him” even though the Bible records that many turned away from him in disgust after he said this, and even though more recent history tells that it was this point, charged with all of the political and ecclesiastical implications it carried at the time, which was the main theological sticking point upon which the martyrdom of so many of our forefathers in English Reformation was given its justification.
God’s Sovereignty, Predestination and Moral Discomfort
As some will have recognised by now, I hold to the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God – and the rest of this article is probably going to reek of it too. Not every Christian will agree with me on this – but do hear me out. To arrive at an agreement with this doctrine, I had to suspend my own sense of right and wrong to take in what the Bible was presenting me and what arguments seemed in keeping with it, and to mould it onto that. Along the way I learned a lot about liberal ideology and humanist assumptions about the inviolability of the freedom of the human will that are sold to us as universals on the authority of man-made institutions. This was easier for me to see from a bird’s eye view than for others, perhaps: the home environment in which I was raised was not Christian and did not leave me with a theological or spiritual heritage in which to grow, and so there was no room for the assumption that there was anything in me that didn’t need to change, and that included my moral conscience, which had hitherto been formed with the things of man in mind, and not the things of God, and I knew it well, because there was no spiritual fixture of my own heritage that could protect my natural assumptions from masquerading as anything holy or sound that God might have incorruptibly bestowed upon me. The result of this is that I am freer than some others to view God as good and righteous in respect of anything that his Word says he ordained; I am not bound by a need to ‘explain away’ anything by recourse to indirect interpretations that hang on archaeology or anthropological research for their authority. Questions such as “How could a loving God…” do not make me sweat and shuffle my feet, or prompt me to say or imply that God isn’t the Lord of all the heavens and the earth to exonerate him from responsibility, or mumble the excuse that there are some things we will only know when we see Christ face to face. I can say with the Psalmist, in relative conscientious impunity, “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases”, and that includes things like, “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they … will throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matthew 13: 41a-42), although it is a thing that I accept with a heavy heart and affirm that it is right to feel grief, as Jesus himself wept over Jerusalem for not knowing the time of her visitation (check out the active verb phrase in that Matthew quote: ‘The Son of Man’s angels will throw them’. There is nothing here about sinners ‘choosing’ hell: although the role of human will in soteriology is a complex one and ought not to be discounted by reductionist arguments such as the one that could facetiously be drawn here, this popular way of talking about hell almost leads one to think that it is a place into which sinners simply wander in a passive and unknowing manner, which according to this passage is far from the case: it is a place into which the Son of Man’s angels actively throws them; hell is a place where people are ‘sent’. To my mind, this is why we must preach the gospel with the same fervour and restless urgency of the Apostles, in order to be God’s instruments of grace now, as the Apostles were then, to spread the Word, so that by hearing, “as many as were ordained to eternal life, believe” (Acts 13:48 KJV). Yes, it is sober, and a matter for great weeping and re-prioritization; it is news such as ought to turn our lives upside down. The Son of Man has said he will come like a thief in the night: there is no time to lose. Well might the Apostle Paul say, “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:2-3 ESV).)
Coming back to the list of assumptions above, if we accept that these assumptions are false, then our view of God is morally repugnant to the naked secular eye – and to the eye of many Christians. I am in no wise to refute humanism or liberal Christianity here, or to refute any particular brand of theology that some might perceive I’m having a dig at, but it behoves the individual Christian to ask, when they hear a theology or an ideology: is it things relating to God and the concerns of God that he has revealed by the Holy Spirit, or the things relating to man and the concerns of man as are apparent to political or naturally-felt ‘common sense’ arguments, that seem to be forming the stuff of the assumptions behind what I’m hearing? I do not necessarily view the repugnance of God to those whose opinions are formed of the stuff of human concerns, to be a bad thing as far as God is concerned. In this regard, I here take interest in the case of those non-believers who are such by ‘conscientious objection’, and I see it to be foolhardy to let our arguments for God rely on the theodicies (God-flattering arguments) that we build to pander after their affections, as if in tacit admission that God is undesirable and unworthy of praise simply as he is. To turn the issue on its head, it is my belief that if people find God repugnant, it is that they are unworthy of God, and not that God should be unworthy of them. Is it more of an indicator of Biblical faithfulness or is it less, when our God’s nature and character seem offensive to people still dead in their sins that have not been “transformed by the renewal of [their] mind”? Again I repeat, Jesus said, “blessed is he who is not offended by me” and Paul, “the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to those who are being saved it is the power of God”. The reactions of non-believers to the Judeo-Christian God, in Jesus’ time, were rightly that of disgust and ridicule. Why, on the surface, would a loving God knowingly and intentionally nail his only begotten Son to a tree and make him die an agonising death? “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10a). We know in retrospect that God did this as a propitiation for the sins of mankind – but the cynical outsiders who might have come up with this accusatory question mightn’t have understood that or taken it for an answer! If non-believers still view our God as repugnant, doesn’t it go to show that we still worship the same God as the first Christians did? (And should we be concerned, in this respect, when Christians try to make excuses for God?)
Onto this morally awkward kind of question we could model any other question that prompts an answer, in the absence of all Biblically-situated knowledge about God, of “because God is evil”. Why does God allow human beings to kill each other in war? Why doesn’t God end all war? The answers might not satisfy emotionally, but they’re there: firstly, human beings kill each other in war because they have sinful hearts and their actions are evidence of their hearts. Secondly, God has promised to end all war at the appointed time when the sin of humanity will be purged, and the righteous will receive everlasting reward, and the unrighteous will receive everlasting punishment. Now I’m the Predestinationist and the ‘Sovereignty-of-God’-ist, and I’ll answer as charged. Why does God let war go on now, if he’s sovereign? Because God promised an appointed time for the end of war, it has not arrived yet, and God always keeps his promises. I believe that the doctrines of Predestination and Sovereignty go hand-in-hand on these issues, because they both fundamentally assume that God can move human hearts to make godly decisions. Not that I believe that God ordinarily moves the hearts of non-believers to make godly decisions, because a decision is godly if done in the Spirit, and non-believers do not have the Spirit. If we say that humanity’s free will alone decides what his heart will be moved to do, then whilst God cannot ‘make’ a human heart believe, he cannot grant prayers for peace either, because if belief is an affair of the heart, peace is an affair of many hearts – and if even moving the heart of a non-believer to accept him is something, then moving the heart of a secular institution that deliberately writes him out of their affairs to be the ‘man of peace’ under his banner is something else entirely. My own belief is that human will itself, whilst free and active, is subject to predestination. Human will is still free because in exercising it, man acts according as his desires lead him – desires which God has placed into him. I hold to this synthesis that I cannot pin down any better until I’ve done more research, and am prepared to bear with paradox in the time being. Notwithstanding this, I’m starting to realise what I do not believe. To assume that God is more sovereign in some aspects of his dealings with the human heart than in others, is to paint a picture of a God whose nature is unstable.
How can this inform our prayers?
Nobody likes to hear of death. We yearn for the future days of eternal life and peace, when God will “shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4). God has promised to do this, and we look forward to that day, but we are still in the “former things” – the temporary stage. We know that God despises the evil of these “former things”. God himself said, “Do I delight in the death of the wicked? Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23) God does not delight in death or pain, but as regards the age to come, the Ezekiel quotation sheds light on how distinct and unconverging the two paths are: repentance and life on the one hand or wickedness and death on the other, and precious little in between. Our temporary state in this life is no longer one of Edenic peace and harmony, and it hasn’t been for millennia. My belief is that whilst God hates war, he deems it necessary for this age as well as the Old Testament times. In Judges, God sent the Israelites to war with the Philistines and the Canaanites “only in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before.” (Judges 3:2b). Did God do this because he delighted in the death that would reign among these nations of unbelievers? I think not – and Ezekiel 18:23 makes that clear. Evidently, God taught Israel war because it was something that wasn’t going to go away any time soon, even if it wasn’t going to last forever. I think that this is something that can be said of us, too. Among his end times prophesies Jesus promised, “And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.” (Matthew 24:6). Can we know that we are not in the end times now, and that if we pray, we are not praying against the Word of God, in which God has revealed his intentions? Moreover, even if we are not in the end times, to what end do we pray by default that war might cease wherever and whenever it arises – without any other reason than the fact that it is war? Why should we pray for the immediate abolition of war if Christ has proclaimed a prophecy for the future concerning it? If we do not pray against the Word of God in this way today, by making it a custom we may be praying against it on the day the prophecy is fulfilled.
If we will pray for an end to war per se, let us not do it in a way that is blind to the purpose that God has for his Kingdom, because it is the Kingdom that features most highly in God’s priorities, and it is to this end that on the top of our prayer agenda in the prayer our Saviour taught us – before any human concerns for aid or support are aired – is “Hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come”. Firstly, war is one background amongst others upon which the redemption of the nations is going to be perfected, because Jesus promised that it would happen in the lead-up to the end. Secondly, I believe that onto this background of conflict, one of the main roles will occupied by God’s Kingdom on earth – that is, his church: his sons and daughters in Christ, folks like us, if we are in Christ. God has almost always displayed his grace to the world through his own appointed people – through the Israelites, through Christ, and through the gathering of his elect in Christ. God ultimately desires for his name to be known among the nations to save the lost so that his Kingdom may come, and one very obvious way to do that is through the church. So I think that the focus of our prayers should be about what God’s church does in conflict zones, rather than just the conflict zones themselves, because this is what will advance God’s purposes for these nations for their good. And if we pray also that the international leaders come to faith and acquire the motivations and desires of Christ very quickly, then there is much room to rejoice if God grants our prayer!
For all that generalized peace might grant the people within conflict zones ease and freedom from pain, it would not advance the far-reaching cause of God, which could encompass these things also. If we are still of a mind to believe that God cannot influence the heart of a non-believer to believe in him, then it constitutes a divine exception all the more when God influences the untransformed heart of a non-believer to bring about his purposes through self-sacrifice, humility and strength, along with joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. All of these latter things, essential in peaceful but conflict-ridden dialogue, are fruits of the Holy Spirit, whom non-believers cannot have. But even if non-believers have a worldly shadow of them, what copies of these things does it profit God’s purposes for the Kingdom if a non-believer to displays them and Christ’s glory is not thus proclaimed to man? No doubt there is some profit, or God would not raise up leaders with evident virtues, but I am convinced that it is not where the most profit is to be had. Moreover, if Christ is the motivation of God’s elect to sacrifice self-interest in the name of doing what God honours, then what of other motivations? If human lives, money, power, global standing and personal reputation are at stake on a global level, what, besides Christ, could be sufficient motivation for sacrificing these immensely dear interests for the sake of justice and kindness, which will most likely go unrecognised and win only scorn and judgement from the critics? If anything could stand in the place of these interests, would our God smile on an other force, ideology or god occupying that coveted and elusive space in the human affections if it wasn’t himself? Whom would God be pleased to have the nations praise and call their ‘saviour’? The UN?
When people who attribute God’s gifts to other gods in their lives, God’s reaction appears, from Hosea, to be one of sorrow and wrath: “For their mother has played the whore; she who conceived them has acted shamefully. For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’ Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths” (Hosea 2:5-6 NIV). I understand that God speaks to Israel in this place as his own, and that the nations in which there is much conflict are not Judeo-Christian. But although they may now not know Christ, they once did; the Arab nations were one of the first among the nations that the apostles visited, and the Eastern Orthodox Church is still alive in Russia and Ukraine. These nations do stand very much where Israel stood in Hosea, having run after other gods, even if these gods cannot be dissimulated from humanity, self, money, power, territorial expansion or nationalism. In light of this, it does not make sense to pray for a generalized peace that is not established under the banner of the Lord, which is what would happen if it were achieved through an inter-governmental NGO like the UN or NATO. Such a peace would not be attributed to the Lord but to human ‘progress’, the secular agenda and liberalism, and I cannot see it occupy an obvious role in achieving progress for God’s Kingdom. Praying for a generalized peace does not show that we have God’s will at heart if all we aim to do is secure people ease and freedom from pain for a while, until they may go on to suffer eternal agony in hell for their lack of faith. Physical and practical care for the people of the world is important to enable their life and flourishing, but unless it is done through the gospel for the expansion of God’s Kingdom, it is foreseeably palliative.
I am in no position to dictate how others pray. But I know the following: “this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us” (1 John 5:14a). It figures that if we want God to hear our prayers, we must seek out what God’s will is and pray accordingly. Does God want conflict to end in Syria? Of course he does. Is it in accordance with God’s will to end conflict in Syria by next week? I’m not omniscient, so I daren’t pronounce anything too rashly. But I know that God has the interests of his glory and his Kingdom first at heart, that our institutional peace-keeping forces are not altogether friendly to the agenda of God’s Kingdom, and that God and has a long history of working through conflict rather than in spite of it. In light of this I think that there are ways in which God is working through his Kingdom – i.e. his church – in these conflicts, that can be prayed for more fruitfully than an end to the conflict by secular means. If God’s Word promises that fruitful and lasting peace is not going to happen until an appointed time, I suggest that we enquire into what God is doing in his Kingdom now and pray about that.
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“Are You Going to New Hope Revival?” – Young People, Elitism and Christian Conferences According to an Unchurched Convert.
Perhaps Christian conference names are meant to sound quirky or enigmatic. However, as a newly converted, teenage, unchurched Christian listening to my churchy classmates boast about how many they had been to, and watching them show off their snazzy wristbands and recite lists of their favourite Christian music artists, I just found them intimidatingly pretentious. I grieve for this culture and the source of discouragement it must be for other socially insecure, image-conscious teens who have newly converted from non-Christian backgrounds. I really do.
O Christ, O God, sacrificed for me,
Can words capture all that you’re worth?
You made yourself nothing so I could be free,
God-man come down, sentenced from birth.
God-man come down, how fragile this life
That raw human will could destroy you?
O sacrifice lamb, you complied with the knife
That the power of the worlds reserved for you.
Statute of old for a world full of vice,
God-crimes are paid in blood sacrifice.
Their blood-debts ran rife, their hearts turned to dross,
So God gave his life for their crimes on his Cross.
O grave, silent Power that drives the earth,
O Master of woes, wails and sins!
The clamour of pomp but a flower-span’s worth,
You drove as a lamb from within.
O Almighty Power, O still small voice,
Quiet as the cosmos and deeper.
Invisible breath in the sails of choice,
O Sacrifice Lamb, be my Keeper.
Declawed and toothless, where did you come from?
You prowled around our churchyards armed with nothing but your hot, smooth tongue.
Flitting through our doctrines, we’d left the door wide open – woe is us.
Little lie, how could we find you now
After all of the lives we’ve thrown away on you?
O Christ’s Body Broken, how many thorns must be thrust in your side
just to prove you’re alive?
So many poisoned members lost, and still you’ve afflictions to fill
before your Master arrives –
Will you have blood left to shed by then
When our hands have crucified you again and again?
You took us in the day we took in you.
Starving and left homeless, little stray, we built you castles in the sky.
And now as Christ’s afflictions fill
On cheap speculation’s thrill,
Can we claim the Body still?
(This is Christ’s Body, broken for us.
Who could have thought that times would turn thus?
Church for each doctrine, church for each whim,
Pouring out His blood or pouring out Him?)
Declawed and toothless, where did you come from?
Licking your wounds ’til the Lamb takes out your tongue,
Flitting through our doctrines, we’d left the door wide open – we were wont.
Body of Christ, don’t heed or pity:
A holier blood was shed to ransom you.
It’s a doctrine I struggle with. God is not one body consisting of three parts. God is one, and simultaneously, he is three. Every member of the Trinity is fully God. God is one essence in three persons, just as a hand outstretched and a hand clenched into a fist is the same hand, but in different forms.
Let’s get down to the text.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1 ESV
Jesus is both with God, and he is God. He is God, whilst having a selfhood distinct from God so that he can be “with” God.
And now for a more expanded version of the above, this time in Hebrews:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” Hebrews 1:1-3 ESV
Jesus is the exact imprint of the nature of God. He is the essence of God. Jesus does not just radiate God’s glory; he IS the radiance of it. Radiance is something people can visibly perceive. If God is light, and this light is without radiance, how can the human eye see it? Jesus makes God’s glory [+visible]. Jesus is the way we can humanly see God’s glory. See below:
“Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.” John 14:8-11 ESV
Does Jesus appear to be subject to the bidding of his Father and thus inferior to him?
“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you (…) glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” John 17:1, 5 ESV
The Father and the Son glorify each other, and Jesus is now glorified with the Father as he was before the beginning of the world. Jesus has existed since the beginning of the world and has always had the same glory as his Father. He only stepped down from that glory during his time on Earth, and in this prayer he is about to step back up to reclaim it.
The apostle Paul states as much in his letter to the Philippians:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:5-8 ESV
At least we know that Jesus was around before Abraham, through whom God instituted his people Israel, through whom all would be saved:
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” John 8:58 ESV
And here’s the killer:
“So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” [Thomas puts his hand into Jesus’ side]. Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:25, 28-29 ESV
What is Thomas saying here? Is “My Lord and my God” just an exclamation, a sort of 1st Century “OMG”? One could posit that. But then, that would mean that Thomas would be taking the Lord’s name in vain. Would Thomas dare do that in the presence of Jesus, whom he and the disciples collectively know as “the Lord”, and in whom his faith has just been radically renewed? Unlikely. Would Jesus’ rising from the dead and appearing to Thomas not give him an attribute of deity in Thomas’ eyes? Possibly. And if Thomas had either taken the Lord’s name in vain or been wrong about Jesus’ deity, would Jesus not have corrected him? Very probably.
Have you noticed that the vast majority of these quotations come from the Gospel of John, and that they seem to cumulatively ‘argue’ Jesus’ deity in a way that the other gospels don’t? Indeed. Can we then discredit John as having this ulterior motive? Not easily. If we are to say that the other gospels do not corroborate with John on the matter of Jesus’ deity, we have only to consider the fact that in John Jesus is reported as praying to the Father (and the Father is never reported as praying to Jesus). The interplay between Jesus’ humanity an his deity is a complex issue, and John doesn’t try to fudge anything to pretend that it isn’t. But we can expect John to know about the finer details of Jesus’ deity as he was one of the Twelve, “the disciple that Jesus loved”, and as we are told in Mark: “He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.” Should we distrust John anyway? Why then John, and not Luke? Why not Hebrews? Why not the whole lot? If we start to pick holes in the Scriptures, this opens more cans of worms than our salvation is worth. If John was lying, as an apostle of Christ, then the foundations of the gospel and of the Church are built on a lie. Could the Church be winning freely consenting people’s hearts and radically renewing their lives if it were based on a lie? The persecuted Church is perhaps the greatest witness today of the truth of the gospel. Nobody in countries like North Korea is forced or even encouraged to be a Christian by government authorities. Their culture has no Judeo-Christian roots to speak of; they have no heritage to fall back on, and they know that if a Bible is found in their room, they are liable for arrest. They follow Christ because they believe he is the truth, and they believe it so firmly that they put their lives on the line for it.
As for the Trinity? I’ll take the Word as my yardstick.
All quotations taken from the English Standard Version.
From John Piper’s The Passion of Jesus Christ: Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die, Chapter 50, page 118 (you can download the whole book from his website – how generous!)
But the most astonishing thing is that evil and suffering were Christ’s appointed way of victory over evil and suffering. Every act of treachery and brutality against Jesus was sinful and evil.
But God was in it. The Bible says, “Jesus [was] delivered up [to death] according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). The lash on his back, the thorns on his head, the spit on his cheek, the bruises on his face, the nails in his hands, the spear in his side, the scorn of rulers, the betrayal of his friend, the desertion by his disciples—these were all the result of sin, and all designed by God to destroy the power of sin. “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, [did] whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28). There is no greater sin than to hate and kill the Son of God. There was no greater suffering nor any greater innocence than the suffering and innocence of Christ. Yet God was in it all. “It was the will of the LORD to crush him” (Isaiah 53:10). His aim, through evil and suffering, was to destroy evil and suffering. “With his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
I thought to myself, “But John, in the Bible Jesus says that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. That Satan cannot cast out Satan, or else he will fall, and that to rob a strong man of his possessions, one must first tie him up (Matthew 12:22-29). How does that all work?” Well, I then thought, of course it works. If God uses evil and suffering to destroy evil and suffering, it is as Christ said, evil and suffering will cease. In order to make evil and suffering cease, it is necessary to divide Satan’s kingdom against itself. Satan would not fight against himself unless God were puppeteering him, or else he would orchestrate the doom of his own kingdom! Therefore God must use Satan to cast out Satan. God is the strong man who has tied Satan up.
How then do we apply this when people ask “Why does a loving God allow suffering in the world?”. Here is a theory based on my understanding of Scripture.
Firstly, God is the source of all good. God made the world in the beginning and saw that it was good. Suffering is a result of of sin (or “evil”), which is rebellion against God and his good way of running the world. Rebellion was born when one of the Intelligences in the heavens caused an uprising against God and preyed upon humanity and wooed it away from God, making it rebellious in turn. We call this Intelligence a lot of things; Satan is perhaps the most convenient; Beelzebub, or ‘the devil’, are others. To remove all rebellion from the world, God would have to remove all people who had ever rebelled against him, and God didn’t want to destroy them because he loved them. So God sent Jesus to die to expiate the rebellion of those who would come back to him, to satisfy his requirements for justice so that he could take them back. Now when God sent Jesus, that is, his spirit in human flesh, people accused him of being a partisan of Satan when they saw him liberating people from demons (Satan’s spiritual partisans). Essentially, Jesus was answering to the assertion that God is evil. Jesus said that if he was casting Satan’s partisans out of people he could not be working on behalf of Satan’s Kingdom, because a Kingdom divided against itself will fall. Furthermore, he said, to tie up a strong man and steal his possessions one must first tie up the strong man. God uses this tactic to destroy rebellion, and with it, suffering. He tied up Satan, then used sin, and with it, suffering, against itself to destroy it.
God tied up Satan by laying all sin (or evil, or rebelliousness, which causes suffering) on Jesus, that perfect representation of himself. In letting Satan destroy Jesus, God let sin destroy sin, so that those people who resolved not to sin anymore could claim the destruction of sin through Jesus as their own, and not be destroyed themselves. God sent his man to face the penalty for human rebellion by his own justice system, and this would satisfy its requirements so that he could save the people he loved from it and live with them forever. He raised Jesus back to life again and promised his faithful that they would be raised to life to enjoy this eternal life with him.
What God had left to do was to rid the world of the rest of its rebellion and suffering, and through Jesus he could do this by encouraging rebellious people to repent and reconciling them to him thereafter. My theory is that God now puppeteers sin and with it, suffering, although he hates these things. They are necessary for now because people, seeing that they are suffering, might regard the joy of God’s true partisans and want it for themselves. They might see that it came from God and decide to sin no more, accepting Jesus’ penalty as their own. So in this way, God is using suffering to bring people to himself, so that rebellion which causes suffering can be eradicated without him having to destroy all of mankind.
I stress that this is all based on my current understanding of Scripture. It is an answer that I can give, and though it seems to make sense to me, I acknowledge that God’s ways are nothing like our ways, and that his thoughts are not like our thoughts.