The Sovereignty of God – Part 3
(November 2001 – Volume 7, Issue 10)
Few words from Scripture both encourage and challenge us more than James 1:2, Count it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials. When God inspired James to pen these immortal words could He possibly have known that a crazed sect of Islamic fanatics would one day slam hijacked airliners into huge buildings crammed full of innocent people? And if He knew, why did He allow such wicked plans to succeed? Could He not have done something to stop the terrorists? At the very least, when God saw where those 767s were headed surely He could have stepped in and stopped this senseless act. Since He did not, we are left with only a few options. Maybe God did not know any more about the hijackings than we did; maybe He watched things unfold as they were happening and was totally caught off guard; or maybe God did know, but for some reason He could not prevent the incidents. Either He lacked the power or He lacked the inclination to interfere with the free-will choices of men. Another possibility is that He simply does not care. Yet, we are not at peace with any of these solutions.
We find ourselves restless, especially at times like these, when we try to understand God. As we attempt to fuse together the seemingly contradictory picture of God, as found in Scripture, we often end up with more questions than answers. It is the attempt to resolve this tension between the omnipotence, omniscience and love of God that has spawned several theological schools of thought and all sorts of confusion. And the issues almost always swirl around this subject of pain and evil. Before we take a stab at unraveling the bigger topic of the nature of God (something we will examine more carefully next time), let’s first identify why God allows pain, suffering and even evil. Scripture is not silent on this subject. To the surprise of many, especially Americans, God does not exist to rain material blessings and endless success on us. His plans are far broader and deeper than the mere comfort of His creatures. That is why He does not view pain and trials in the same way we tend to view them. So why does God allow these things? There are a number of reasons but we will just mention a few.
Why Does God Allow Pain and Suffering?
To Demonstrate the Depravity of Man
When the tragic events of September 11th unfolded, live and in color right in our living rooms, we were traumatized. Immediately we wondered how anyone could be so evil as to purposely ruin so many lives. In an age that idolizes the positive and works hard to hide, or at least explain away the ugly side of human nature, this was a great blow. Isn’t mankind supposedly becoming more civilized, not more barbaric? Yet, right on our television screens was evidence of one of the most heinous acts in human history. How are we to process something like this?
Happily our fleet-footed leaders, along with CNN, were able to calm our fears by assuring us that these crimes were perpetrated by a small, but radical, group of Islamic fundamentalists. Islam is a peace-loving religion – everyone knows that. Why, even its name, “Islam” means peace, we have been told (even though in reality it means submission). This fringe group of terrorists has simply misinterpreted the Koran, otherwise none of this would have happened. Of course there are a number of problems with this spin doctoring by our media and politicians. First, if the fundamentalists have misinterpreted the Koran (a matter of intense debate and by no means a certainty), they have also misinterpreted Muslim history, which reports a religion spread largely through military conquest. Their evangelistic program has been quite effective – confess Allah or die. There are few defectors from Islam for the same reason; to denounce Allah is often a death sentence. Next, while Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and the related network of terrorists are composed of relatively few members (if tens of thousands are few), those who are supportive run in the millions. America did not become the Great Satan (and Israel the Little Satan) in September; this has been the consistent attitude of many in Islamic nations for years. Death to infidels has always been a critical part of the Muslim faith. We can put blinders on if we want, but the fact is that the 911 tragedies, and those that most likely will follow, are not out of character with the teachings of Islam. Bin Laden and company has reminded us of the depravity of the human heart, even hearts dedicated to religion and “God.”
Meanwhile, in America there is a different story. No sooner had the dust began to settle, literally, than our thoughts seemed to turn to God. At moments of great disaster God always gets a lot of attention. In an unusual show of unity we sang with one voice, “God Bless America.” Virtually every establishment in our city of Springfield has positioned that prayer, or something like it, on their exterior signage. Even taverns and liquor “joints” flash the same message – “God bless America,” and why not? Surely He is on our side against the evil terrorists, isn’t He? But then again, the “evil terrorists” are quick to point out that it is the Great Satan that murders 4000+ unborn babies everyday and whose land is filled with immorality, broken homes and is riddled with every imaginable crime. They have a point. Why should God bless a people who do not honor Him? And it is not as if the church is any better. Every recent survey reveals that even conservative Christians, as a group, do not behave appreciably better than society at large.
Surely one of the reasons God allows such tragic events is to serve as wakeup calls – reminders that the world is out of sync with a holy God. All too easily even Christians forget that sin is interwoven throughout the very fabric of the human heart. Such events shock us into reality, and we begin crying for God to bless us, but a more appropriate call would be for our repentance.
To Serve Notice That Death Is Still Our Great Enemy
In the modern Western culture we have all but insulated ourselves from death. In other times and places death was a constant companion. Puritan Cotton Mather warned his seventeenth-century congregation in Boston that parents should brace themselves for the eventual need to bury at least half of their children. Mather would have considered himself fortunate to have done so, since he ultimately preached the funeral of 13 of his 15 children, and two wives as well. While he certainly grieved over these many losses, Mather continued to live an incredibly productive life for the Lord. Death was an accepted, even expected, part of life in times past, and is still so today in many parts of the world. But most of us react with something like surprise when someone passes away “before his or her time.” Those who died in the Towers had plans and dreams, families and careers. They were supposed to live for decades yet, not die in a fiery inferno in the bloom of life. But it was not to be.
This is what has unsettled many Americans. When so many die at once, in such a manner, we are reminded all too clearly that death is still our enemy and is unstoppable. It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, the writer of Hebrews tells us. Modern science may allow us to live longer, on average, but it cannot, and even with all the optimism to the contrary, will not, repeal God’s laws of death.
We are being told that many in New York City have a renewed tenderness toward the gospel message – we pray that this is genuine and lasting. It is not uncommon for God to use the fact of death as a tool to gain our attention. But “death must be seen, not as the supreme instance of a cosmic lack of fairness, but as God’s well-considered sentence against our sin.”1 When seen in this light some will hopefully understand their sin for what it is — an affront against God.
To Serve as a Reminder of Our Helplessness
Most people tend to keep God in the back bedroom until they really need Him, and then during a time of crisis they place Him front and center. We need God now. Neither our vaunted military might, unparalleled economic strength, nor our coveted learning can save us from terrorism. And so we turn to God, at least with our lips. We will keep looking to God until the recent events fade from our memory and we believe it safe to venture back into the waters of independence. But God has a way of getting our attention and reminding us of our utter need for Him. When God gets our attention, pain and suffering can be His megaphone. C. S. Lewis’ well-known statement, “God whispers in our pleasures, but shouts in our pain” has the ring of wisdom. Why does He “shout” in this manner? Because it is during such times that God accomplishes some of His best work in our lives. As Paul says, And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:3-5).
The Looks That Matter
Of course pain, suffering and the seemingly constant success of evil can, if reacted to improperly, have the opposite affect. We can become bitter, resentful, apathetic and cynical. What will allow us to respond in a godly manner to these tough things? The book of Zechariah offers something of great value on this subject. When the post-exilic Jews living in and around Jerusalem allowed the surrounding circumstances to keep them from spiritual vitality and obedience, God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah with a series of messages to draw the people back to Himself. Haggai’s approach was direct and strong – consider your ways and obey the voice of the Lord. Zechariah, on the other hand, drew the people to God by appealing to their hearts through the use of visions. In summing up the many visions and prophesies given by the prophet we recognize that the Jews were being told to look in four directions.
A Backward Look
Zechariah’s first recorded words to people were that the Lord was very angry with your fathers (1:2). He was angry with them because no matter what pressure He put on them; no matter what message He sent to them, they persisted in their sinful ways. As a result, they paid the full consequence for their rebelliousness. God warns them to learn from the past and repent of their evil deeds (1:4). It has been said that those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it, but there is no reason for the child of God to fall into that trap. The Scriptures are constantly calling us to remember; they are consistently reminding us of the fruit of sin in order that we might steer clear and grow in maturity (cf. I Corinthians 10:1-13; II Peter 1:12,13). To not do so is evidence of having forgotten [our] purification from [our] former sins (II Peter 1:9).
An Upward Look
About three months after Zechariah’s first prophecy he received a series of visions – eight in all. These visions detailed what God was doing NOW for His people. Some of these visions await future fulfillment, but they were meant to encourage the Jews in the present. But what intrigues me even more than the visions is the prophet’s constant use of the phrase “Lord of Hosts” (or Armies). The Greek translation of this, “God Almighty,” is used by Zechariah forty-six times in the first eight chapters of his book.
It is my firm belief that no one ever rises higher than his view of God. Our understanding of God basically sets the direction of our lives. To a people beleaguered by an uncertain future, surrounded by a hateful enemy, mired in the quicksand of their own sin, the message they needed to hear was that God was Almighty. We need to hear the same message today. If we could quote the hymn writer a bit out of context, we need to firmly grasp that “Our faith has found a resting place.” Until and unless these things are true in our lives we will constantly flounder – never knowing that there is one thing, and one thing only that can be counted on – our almighty, sovereign Lord. Charles Spurgeon said it well; “There is no attribute of God more comforting in His children than the doctrine of Divine Sovereignty. Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe trouble, they believe that Sovereignty hath ordained their afflictions, that Sovereignty overrules them, and that Sovereignty will sanctify them all.”
An Inward Look
The leadership during Zechariah’s day undoubtedly felt overwhelmed both by their difficult circumstances and God’s demands. Even if they wanted to obey, where would they find the strength? In 4:6 they were given the answer, “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,” says the Lord of Host. A paraphrase of this verse that I was taught during the days of my preparation for ministry has always stayed with me. It goes like this, “Not by might of excellent methods, nor by power of polished techniques, but by My Spirit,” says the Lord of Host. What an indispensable lesson to learn. While we are called to obedience it is obedience predicated upon the power of God. Paul would later write, For it is God at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
A Forward look
Zechariah is probably best known for his marvelous prophecy concerning the coming again of Jesus Christ (chapter 14). In a series of messages devoted to overcoming the spiritual apathy and rebelliousness of God’s people, why would a vision of the Lord’s return millenniums later be included? Could it not be because God knows our tendency to get lost in the mundane, the trivial, and the immediate? We can become so busy living, even living for God, that we forget why and we lose the big picture. So He sends His prophet with a vision of the future. It is a glorious future of Christ’s final victory over all His enemies and the setting up of His kingdom. It was a vision that not only revealed the future but served to encourage a disheartened people. When all is said and done, Christ will reign victorious. Don’t get lost in the details; be motivated by the blessed hope (Titus 2:13). When this is the case we can count it all joy when we encounter various trials because we, following the example of Christ, have our hope fixed on the joy set before us (Hebrews 12:2).