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Monday, September 11, 2006

Foxholes and Christians

(I wrote this in the days following Sep. 11, 2001. I wrote it for myself. Not too many others have seen it. But on this, the 5th anniversary, I thought I'd share it with others. It's longer than my normal post. I think it's worth it.)

The events of September 11 and following have been shocking, frightening, unnerving, devastating. They have stirred emotions and responses that one wouldn’t have found a week before the aircraft hit those buildings and killed thousands of Americans. In the aftermath, an interesting series of events has unfolded. A resounding “God bless America!” has been shouted around the country that has resoundingly evicted God from America. The masses have flocked to prayer services. Leadership has called on God for support. The President has declared that God is on our side. The old saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes”, has been demonstrated once again. My question, however, isn’t about these frightened people who are turning to God in time of trouble. My question is about Christians. In this new surge of spirituality, what is the Church offering? What are the Christians doing in the foxholes?

The public responses have been embarrassing at best. One Christian leader has stated that America got what it deserved. This is a running theme in many churches. We are a decadent country, and God is judging America. Others are backpedaling. “God didn’t have anything to do with this,” they assure us. “God is a gentleman.” Some religious leaders are on a similar bandwagon. “This isn’t God’s fault – it’s the fault of Man’s Free Will.” Private responses have been similar. Christians have responded with everything from “Kill ‘em all and let God sort it out” to “God loves everyone and would never allow this to occur.” So, with this gaping national wound bleeding from our televisions and a mad rush for support and answers to the best place to find support and answers – the Church – all we have to offer is either an angry God who smites His enemies or an uninvolved God who was just as appalled as we were and wishes He could have done something about it.

What ever happened to the God of the Bible? This God seems to be a different sort of God than the one of which we’re hearing from Christians. This is what God says about Himself in the words of Scripture:
Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is He who sits above the vault of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. Scarcely have they been planted, scarcely have they been sown, scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth, but He merely blows on them, and they wither, and the storm carries them away like stubble. "To whom then will you liken Me that I should be his equal?" says the Holy One (Isa. 40:21-25).

Have you not heard? Long ago I did it, from ancient times I planned it. Now I have brought it to pass, that you should turn fortified cities into ruinous heaps. Therefore their inhabitants were short of strength, they were dismayed and put to shame; they were as the vegetation of the field and as the green herb, as grass on the housetops is scorched before it is grown up (Isa. 37:26-27).

I am the LORD, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these (Isa. 45:6-7).

These are words from Isaiah, but they are God speaking about Himself. He says that from His viewpoint human beings are “like grasshoppers”. He says that He “reduces rulers to nothing”. He says that He destroys their crops. He says that He plans to destroy their fortified cities, and He brings it to pass. In Isaiah 45, God Himself declares that He creates calamity. This is the image God is presenting concerning Himself.

Does God cause bad things? It is important, in answering the question, that we understand that God does not cause sin. Very clearly, “God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” (James 1:13) But don’t be deceived into believing that God does not cause unpleasant events. He says He creates calamity. And even in the sin of Man, God is not out of control. He doesn’t cause evil, but He surely ordains it. Our clearest proof is our most blessed event, the death of Christ. No sin was more heinous than Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Christ. Of this event, Jesus said, “For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!" (Luke 22:22) In other words, God planned for Judas to do what Judas would do. It was foreordained. Judas still bore the responsibility of his choice (“Woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!"), but his sin did not mean a deviation from God’s plan.

Do not be deceived. God is sovereign. He plans the events that bring us happiness. He plans the events that bring us sorrow. It is all in His hand, and it is good.

Solomon writes on the same topic in Ecclesiastes.
Consider the work of God, for who is able to straighten what He has bent? In the day of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity consider -- God has made the one as well as the other so that man may not discover anything that will be after him (Eccl. 7:13-14).

Solomon claims that God has made both the day of prosperity and the day of adversity. He claims that God does it for a reason.

Interestingly, throughout Scripture we see people who understand this and accept it. Job says, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). We would look puzzled at Job. “The Lord took away? And you say He is to be blessed?” But God’s perspective on Job’s comment is “Through all this Job did not sin” (Job 1:22). We see the same concept from Sarah in Genesis. She tells her husband, “The Lord has made me barren” (Gen. 16:2). Clearly Sarah is not happy about it, but there are two features present that we lack today. First is the absolute certainty that God is in charge. It wasn’t “a fluke of nature” or “a string of bad luck”. The Lord did it. The second is that, while she may not have liked the condition, she accepted it and worked with it rather than complaining. She worked in the wrong direction, but to her it was not “unfair” of God to do what He had done. To her, God had the perfect right to do what He would do, and He did.

This God is a different God from is being offered to many within the Church today. This God is a God who is intimately involved in everyday existence. This God doesn’t retreat from saying “I am the One creating calamity.” Instead we read that God “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). David rejoiced in the knowledge that God had ordained all his days (Psa. 139:16).

Consider Daniel’s viewpoint of his God:
The Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the vessels of the house of God; and he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and he brought the vessels into the treasury of his god (Dan. 1:2).

This is a key example of God at work. Today’s Christian would say “God does not do bad things; these things are caused by Man’s sinful Free Will.” The events described in Daniel are as bad as they come. Judah was overrun and sent into captivity. The Temple was overrun and its holy vessels were put to profane use in a pagan temple. It doesn’t get any worse. But Daniel starts with the very clear statement as to who was in charge in all of this. “The Lord gave” them over. It wasn’t pleasant, and it wasn’t pretty, but this same Daniel who believed that God had actually given His people into captivity and His holy vessels into pagan use still stood firm in his faith, as evidenced by the rest of the book of Daniel. In Daniel’s view, God Himself brought all this to pass, and in Daniel’s view God was allowed to do so – it was “fair”.

Consider Jeremiah’s viewpoint of his God:
He has filled me with bitterness, He has made me drunk with wormwood. And He has broken my teeth with gravel; He has made me cower in the dust. And my soul has been rejected from peace; I have forgotten happiness. So I say, "My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the LORD."

Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness. "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "Therefore I have hope in Him." The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth (Lam. 3:15-27).

Here we have Jeremiah standing in the ruins of his homeland. There is no doubt that Jeremiah is unhappy. Faith in God’s sovereignty does not necessarily mean bliss. He says he has no peace. He says that he has even lost hope. Then something occurs to him that renews his hope. What is that? “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is Thy faithfulness.” We know these words. They’re in our songs. But Jeremiah lived them. He understood that nothing around him brought comfort; nothing around him gave reason for hope that circumstances would improve. His single source of hope was in the simple, sure confidence that God was God. While we clamor for joy or peace or blessing, Jeremiah said, “I’ve lost all that . . . but God is good enough.” Paul says the same thing. “I count all things as loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ.” (Phil. 3:8) Knowing God is enough.

Consider Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s viewpoint of their God:
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego answered and said to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up" (Dan. 3:16-18).

These three men stood on the brink of disaster. They were about to suffer a horrible death. So hot was the fire they were to face that it killed those who threw them into it. They spoke confidently, as we would have our heroes do. “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire.” “You tell them, guys,” we cheer. “God can deliver you. Trust in Him.” We’re behind them. But they aren’t lost in a false sense of “God only wants us to be comfortable”. They recognize that this may not be His plan. “Even if He does not . . . we are not going to serve your gods.” Here we would typically draw the line. If God, in our estimation, is going to be fair to these guys, He must reward their faithfulness to Him by saving them. To do otherwise would not be right. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego disagree. To them, God decides who lives and who dies, and God is just in doing so. His saving them from the fire is not the expected result of their faith. To them, this is right. Their God is the One who decides. Their God is right in what He decides.

This is not the vengeful God being portrayed on one end, the “hands off” God in the middle, or the “He loves us too much” God being offered on the other end. This is the God who is intimately involved in the everyday existence of human beings. This is the sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient God who brings both affliction and comfort, justice and mercy. This God answers our cries of “That’s not fair!” with the simple retort, “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” (Rom. 9:20) This God grants us suffering (Phil. 1:29). This is the God who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. There may be painful and frightening things in this valley, but “I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” This is the sovereign Lord who “comforts us in all our afflictions” (2 Cor. 1:4) and provides a peace that passes understanding (Phil. 4:7) by never leaving or forsaking us (Heb. 13:5). We don’t have confidence in God because He makes us comfortable. We have confidence in God because He is God, because He is sovereign, and because He will always do what is best.

We have attempted to “fill in the blanks” where God is concerned, and we have failed badly. When some in Jesus’ day tried to do that, Jesus responded accordingly:
Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And He answered and said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:1-5).

Jesus’ disciples made the same mistake with the man born blind.
His disciples asked Him, saying, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?" Jesus answered, "It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was in order that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2 3).

In both cases, people grossly misjudged the circumstances. As Job’s “friends” who gathered to inform him that his suffering was the result of his sin, these assumed that bad things do not happen to good people. The premise is “If something bad happens to you, it’s because you did something wrong.” Jesus disagrees. “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate?” Jesus makes two clear points. First, not all unhappy events are punishment from God. Second, we all deserve unhappy events. We have tricked ourselves into believing that we deserve pleasant circumstances, and God is unfair or angry if we don’t get them. What we have missed is that we deserve Hell, and any pleasant event in life is an act of sheer grace on God’s part.

In fact, Jesus holds that unpleasant events can actually be God’s plan, “in order that the works of God might be displayed.” From the perspective of our Lord Jesus, our dire circumstances are God’s opportunity to shine, to display His power, to show His strength. God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). We view our pain and suffering as things to escape. God views them as opportunities for Him to declare His glory.

Did God judge America? Perhaps. Or did He merely withdraw His hand of protection? Could be. But it is folly to try to explain God’s intent in the events of September 11 without a specific word from God. It is foolish to assume, for instance, that they are God’s judgments and chastening for specific sins. Instead, we need to recognize that every bad thing that happens is part of God’s curse upon humanity for our rebellion against Him in our father Adam. We dwell in a cursed world. So we should not jump to the conclusion that all bad things that happen are God’s acts of retribution for specific sinful actions. Jesus’ teaching in Luke 13:1-5 makes this clear. Every evil that befalls us beckons us to return to God Himself. We need to flee the anemic God offered by our therapeutic culture who loves everybody without discrimination. We need to flee the irate God of the other view that capriciously smites His enemies with wild abandon. The God we need is the God of Daniel, who sovereignly ordains calamity for good purposes. The God we need is the God of Jeremiah who removes tranquility while remaining faithful. The God we need is the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who may not meet our expectations of what we might like, but is certainly to be trusted to perform what is best. We need to see, with Joseph, that “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). This God is not a powerless god who cannot intervene, nor is He a “gentleman” who does not intervene. He is not subject to Man’s Free Will nor given to fits of temper. He is the LORD God Almighty (Rev. 4:8), the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 17:14), the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end (Rev. 22:13). He is God of all, over all, through all, and in all (Eph. 4:5), for Whom and through Whom are all things (Heb. 2:10).

It is only in that sovereign, good, faithful God that we can find a peace that passes understanding in times of harsh crisis, and it is only that God that we can offer to the hurting world around us. Any other God is not God at all, but a caricature of the True God – an idol carved by human hands.

1 comment:

Samantha said...

I needed to read that. Great post.