Thursday, August 28, 2008

We Can Trust in God’s Good and Sovereign Providence Despite Suffering

Anyone who is even slightly observant about the happenings in our world must draw the conclusion that there is indeed great suffering across God’s creation. From the abject poverty millions face each day, to the wars that continue to rage, to the depletion of the environment, we witness many problems in our world that call us to question God’s providence. Indeed, I have written in the past that the suffering we witness each day, whether locally in the lives of people we know, or globally to the strangers we never meet, should cause us to question God about God’s providence.

But such questioning does not necessarily prevent us from trusting in God’s good providence. Yes, many who have suffered or who have witnessed great suffering have abandoned a belief in God, arguing that if God exists, then why is there suffering? But the suffering of our world, no matter how devastating, does not automatically negate the existence of God, or the belief in God’s good providence.

But how shall we understand the idea of God’s providence? If we are to hold on to our faith in God’s goodness while we witness evil and suffering, how are we to comprehend God’s good providence?

First, God’s providence should not be confused with some sort of arbitrary manipulation of things that happen in this world. God is not a puppeteer and we are not God’s puppets. Nor should we see God’s providence as a fixed fate in which the world runs like a machine. Indeed, we are wrong to assume that God has predetermined all that happens. No, God’s providence is God’s will and work in this world to achieve God’s purposes for all of creation and particularly humanity.

The Psalms are a treasure chest of poems from the life of ancient Israel that express real human existence, good and bad, in relation to God. While the psalmists often cry out to God because of the evil and suffering they see and experience, they also offer praise to God, declaring the goodness of God’s providence over creation. These psalmists affirm God as the almighty God, who is both the Creator and Sustainer of all. And they avow God’s divine intervention over all of creation.

The biblical story informs us that God’s good providence flows from God’s sovereignty over creation. The psalmists proclaim God’s wonderful and unreachable being as that which is great and wondrous, expressing a faith and understanding of a God who is sovereign over creation.

To say that God is sovereign is to say God exists apart from anything else; God has no beginning and no ending. If this is true, then we must also affirm that God has created in freedom. God was not forced to create. No outside being or source was present to prompt God to create, and nothing forces God to act in creation. God creates and acts in freedom.

But if we believe that God is free to act, and that God acts with goodness, then we must also affirm that God’s sovereign providence over creation flows from God’s heart of goodness. God is the source of all that is good and from the very heart of God’s goodness, creation was crafted from nothing and finds its source of life and goodness, not in itself, but in what God created it to be.

God’s sovereignty over creation means that creation, and particularly humanity, finds its existence, its being, its meaning and purpose, and its life and end in the eternal and good will and work of God. That very purpose leads us to understand that to assert that God is sovereign is to say that all of creation is dependent on God and that God is moving and shaping creation toward God’s divine and righteous will.

Jesus reminds us about God’s sovereign providence in his teaching in Matthew 6 concerning anxiety. “Do not be anxious about your life,” Jesus says. God provides food for the birds, beauty for the flowers of the field, and life for humanity. The birds do not sow and reap. The flowers do not toil and spin. And no one can add to his or her life. The existence, being, purpose, and life of all of creation are found in the good and sovereign providence of God. Despite the evil and suffering we experience and witness in our world, we can affirm the biblical perspective of God’s love and goodness by trusting in the goodness of God’s providence.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Until God’s Redemption is Complete, We Must Be Discontent

In my last column, which appeared a fortnight ago, I wrote about how we can discover contentment through the experience of God’s continual presence, the present that God gives us to live today, and the relationships God brings into each of our lives. During the interlude between that piece and the one you are currently reading, I spent a week away from work with my family, relaxing, reading and reflecting. This was a great week of respite in which I found contentment once again.

However, during that time of reflection, as I thought more about discovering my own contentment through what God has given me, I could not help but be reminded that for followers of Christ there is a paradox inherent in our discovery of contentment. Yes, in opposition to the temporal and material things of life, we can find contentment in our relationship to God and to others, as Jesus modeled for us. Yet, through my reflection, I also discovered that my own contentment must never eclipse my discontent about the world’s predicament apart from God’s fully realized redemption.

There is a degree of discontent we must embrace that keeps us from becoming too complacent and comfortable about ourselves, the world, and the delay of God’s justice and redemption. I see three particularly important and interrelated areas in which we should discover and express our discontent as those who seek to follow Christ.

First, we ought to be discontent about our failure to be who Christ calls us to be. While we find contentment in the enabling grace of God that extends God’s forgiveness and restoration to us, we still struggle to be faithful in our discipleship. We are very much like the person Paul speaks of in Romans 7, doing what we are forbidden and failing to do what we know we are commanded. We live with the tension of God’s redemptive grace and our struggle to rebuff our sinful natures.

I am not speaking here of guilt. Guilt is only a trap that holds us prisoners to our sin nature. The gospel never calls us to bear feelings of guilt. Rather, our discontent is expressed in our mourning over our sin to the extent that we are led to repentance through which we find contentment in God’s forgiving grace. The continuous practice of confession and repentance verbalizes our discontent and opens us to the forgiveness of God.

Second, we must always be discontent with the evil and injustice that remains in our world. Often, we ignore the larger world in which we live and we disregard those who suffer under the weight of poverty, oppression and injustice. We follow the popular preachers of self-fulfillment, who treat the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as primarily the power that feeds our own insular spirituality. As long as our spiritual hunger is fed, and our needs are met, we find comfort. But in doing so, we fail to accept the fullness of the gospel of discipleship that calls us to embrace the pain of our world and identify with those who hurt.

Though Jesus found contentment in his relationship with God and the mission to which God had called him, he was discontent with the hurting people experienced in an unjust society. His mission and message brought healing to those under the weight of oppression, and judgment against those who oppressed. He was never content that evil and injustice were ravaging God’s good creation, and his miracles of healing and restoration were works that sought to release those captive to injustice and oppression.

The third area in which we ought to be discontent is directly connected to the first two mentioned above. We must remain discontent about the delay of Christ’s return and the full redemption of all of creation. Although Jesus’ message was that the rule of God had come, the fullness of that rule has yet to be realized.

We live in the “already, but not yet” interval in which we look in the past to God’s work on the cross and to the future to the emergence of God’s full redemption. We must long for and pray for the time of Christ’s return when the new creation of God will be made real. Indeed, as Paul states in Romans, the whole of creation groans with the pains of birth for the day of redemption. We join creation in that groaning, discontent with the delay of God and calling on God to bring the fullness of God’s rule and justice to bear on the world.

In this vein, we pray the words of Jesus, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and we work to create a more just and loving world in which signs of the coming kingdom become recognizable as the work of Christ.

In the second Beatitude of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared, “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus was not speaking of a general sadness or mourning. He was speaking of our mourning over the state of humanity and all of creation apart from God’s full redemption. He was speaking of our discontent over our struggle with sin, the prevalence of injustice, and the delay in the full realization of God’s redemption.