It’s not unusual for us to wonder about whether or not God really is at work in the world. When we experience trial and difficulty personally, and when we see terrible and tragic events unfold around us, it’s only natural for us do so.
But the good news is, whenever we ask this question, there is an answer. And that answer grounds us in an extraordinary hope. God is working miraculously to glorify Himself, and He is working providentially to glorify Himself. He is actively engaged at every single moment, using His flawed and sinful creations to “work all things work together for the good of those who love” Him (Rom. 8:28). He is moving history toward its intended conclusion: a new creation where we will enjoy His presence forevermore. He is giving new life to people like you and me through people like you and me as we share the gospel those God puts in our path. And because God is at work, we have all the reason in the world for hope. We know what is coming, and we know that nothing can stop it.
Note: this post is part of an informal, periodic series exploring different theological concepts for another project I’m working on. As such, application is going to be limited. Hopefully the knowledge will be helpful.
Esther is a strange book. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great book, but it’s one where you can really easily miss the point. I mean, after all, God doesn’t actually appear as a character in the book even once. He isn’t directly mentioned. But he’s all over its pages.
Esther, after all, is a book about the providential work of God. He is at work at all times for the good of those who love him, according to his purposes. So when you come to the key moment of its story—Mordecai’s challenge to Esther—it makes sense that we focus on the famous words of 4:14—”And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Relief from another place
We hear this text appropriated (and sometimes misappropriated) all the time, don’t we? “We’re here for a time such as this,” the message goes. This event or that cause is why God has given us life and breath. And that is certainly true. In Esther’s case, God indeed had placed her in the position she was in to do this exact thing—to help rescue the Jewish people. But there’s more going on here. Take a look at Esther 4:14 along with verse 13 for a little extra context:
Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)
Every time I read this book, I find myself drawn to the first half—to Mordecai’s statement: “For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place…”
Tunnel vision and misplaced confidence
This is what I need to remind myself of constantly, because it’s a fact I keep forgetting. When difficulties arise in my life—and it can really almost anything from family tension to problems at work or even disagreements at church—I easily and quickly start fixating. I get tunnel vision and can’t always see past the problem.
So, being the sort of person I am, I try to fix the problem myself. I figure if we just do X, Y or Z, we’ll get this thing licked and life will go on. But often, the result is more problems and a lot of wasted time. While I should put my mind and abilities to work, my confidence is in the wrong person: me.
I’ve never been in a position like Mordecai, facing certain doom. But the fact that he doesn’t shut down is amazing. He does what he needs to do, but he doesn’t tell Esther, “If you don’t speak to the king, we’re all going to die!”
He has too much confidence in God for that. Instead, he says, “Deliverance will come, whether you speak or not.”
God is not hindered
And that’s still true today, isn’t it? Regardless of how bad we think things are in the west right now, God isn’t going to be thwarted. The gospel won’t to be stopped by the rise of the nones, or morally bankrupt politicians. Not even schismatic calls to abandon orthodoxy can do that!
None of these can thwart God. They can’t stop him and what he is doing. His plans are not hindered by anything.
In Mordecai’s time, God had a definite plan that he was working out through the Jewish people. He promised the Messiah would come, the one of whom all the Law and the Prophets bore witness. God was going to redeem for himself a people from among all the nations and no one would stop him.
Not a proud government official. Nor a king. Not even the devil himself.
So if there’s one thing we should be able to have confidence in, it’s that. Nothing can stop God’s plans. If nothing could stop the coming of the Messiah, he won’t be stopped from bringing his plans to completion. We will face challenges and what appear to be setbacks, but take heart. Put your confidence in the providence of God. You will never go wrong when you do.
Whenever some sort of major event happens in the world—such as the devastation caused by an earthquake in Nepal or the destruction and social upheaval caused by rioting in Baltimore—Christians always want to offer an explanation. To say something to help people interpret these events, or offer something helpful as we seek to live life in the days that follow.
There’s a great deal of good that can come from articles of this nature, but—and I say this as someone who has written several of these in the past—but there are also great dangers from such things. Here are three:
1. We may appear to lack compassion. This is the easiest trap to fall into, particularly for theology nerds. But first, let me state the necessary positive: I believe it is absolutely essential to help people think biblically about what we see going on in the world and the trials we face. To help others develop even the most rudimentary theology of suffering. Honestly, had I not been compelled to do so in the months leading up to the miscarriage of our second child and my wife’s two subsequent brushes with death, I don’t know how I would have gotten out of bed each morning (and even then there were days when it was extraordinarily difficult).
But here’s the thing about a theology of suffering: even a basic understanding of how God uses trial and suffering leads to compassion for those who are suffering. It leads us to offer encouragement—not because these things caught God unawares, but because they are an opportunity for his people to demonstrate his love to those who most need it. In a counterintuitive way, trial and suffering can lead to increased trust and confidence in the Lord. And that’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it?
So that’s the positive. Here’s the danger: Although helping the suffering see their circumstances through the lens of God’s plan of redemption is a good thing, we must be careful to not to be so busy in our theologizing that we fail to communicate with compassion. When we look at the Baltimore riots, for example, we should readily acknowledge all the factors that lead to this situation, in so far as we are able. The actions of the rioters may be wrong, but the circumstances that made people feel as though this was their only option are equally so. Similarly, we should weep with and for the thousands upon thousands who’ve lost their lives and livelihoods because of the devastating earthquake in Nepal. Helping people see what God is doing—in our admittedly extremely limited understanding—should never be mistaken for some sort of mere intellectual exercise. And if that’s what it sounds like, we’re doing it wrong.
2. We risk being presumptuous. In the same way that we can be perceived as lacking compassion, we also risk being presumptuous in our understanding of what God is really doing. We should be extremely reticent to say this or that event was God’s judgment on any particular people group or nation, especially when this might be true only in the broadest sense—that is, the events we see taking place are the outworking of the curse, rather than a specific act of divinely directed wrath.
Likewise, although we know that God does indeed ordain all things and works all things together for good according to his purposes, we don’t know how he does that. So we should be absolutely willing to say, “I don’t understand these events, but I know that God has a purpose in them.” And we should readily admit that one of the chief things these events should do is awaken a longing in us for the end of suffering, an end that will only come in the new heavens and the new earth, when Christ returns to make all things new and wipe away every tear from every eye. That we can say with confidence.
3. We risk impugning the motives of fellow believers. This is the final danger, and it is one that I often see Christians doing. A Christian minister recently tweeted that, rather than seeing people return to their false gods, his desire was for people in Nepal to come to know Christ, inspiring ire from both Christians and non-Christians alike. To be fair, his tweet could have been better phrased, but, substantially, the heart behind it and what appears in Suraj Kasula’s post at Desiring God is the same:
Most of the people hit by this tragedy in Nepal are Hindu. They blame their gods whenever disaster hits, and they will do the same again. The Hindu gods are untouched by suffering. By contrast, Jesus draws near and sympathizes with those who weep, because he knows human suffering and human tears. And as difficult as it is to imagine right now, the suffering Jesus Christ endured on the cross to pay for God’s wrath on behalf of sinners exceeds the sorrow of the whole nation of Nepal right now.
Both want people to come to know Christ out of this tragedy. And isn’t this what we all want, really? It doesn’t diminish the realities of the trials people are facing, nor does it reduce the imperative to help those in their distress. Instead, it is a recognition of twin components of human life—our spiritual and physical needs. We should always help those in distress, but we should also be careful to consider the state of their souls. And likewise, we should be careful to avoid calling a fellow believer heartless and cruel when he or she does exactly that.
With it’s themes of sex, romance, culture and the unseen hand of God, the Old Testament book of Ruth is perhaps one of the most gripping short stories ever written—one with a great deal to teach us.
That’s why I was so glad to read A Sweet & Bitter Providence by John Piper as he illustrates how the story of Naomi, Ruth & Boaz teaches us to suffer well for the glory of God, recognizing that all things occur according to His sovereign rule.
God Reigns—But Do We See It?
Piper begins with the “bitter” providence of God in Naomi’s life. Seeking to find respite from the famine that has struck Israel, Her husband, Elimelech, moves Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon & Chilion, to Moab. There, instead of finding relief, the family finds only despair. Elimelech dies, her sons marry two Moabite women and die as well, childless. Naomi sees that “the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20). Of this, Piper writes,
I would take Naomi’s theology any day over the sentimental views of God that permeate so many churches today. Endless excuses are made for God’s sovereignty. Naomi is unshaken and sure about three things: God exists, God is sovereign, and God has afflicted her. (pp. 37-38)
Piper wants readers to catch a larger vision of God, one that the Bible itself displays. A God who is much bigger than He appears based on what we hear in many sermons and read in a lot of books. He is real. He is sovereign and, yes, He has afflicted her. But all of these things happen not because He is capricious and mean, but because He is using them to further His plans for the salvation of the world. Read More about Book Review: A Sweet and Bitter Providence by John Piper
The twin suppositions which liberal critics make—that, on the one hand, divine control of the writers would exclude the free exercise of their natural powers, while on the other hand, divine accommodation to the free exercise of their natural powers would exclude complete control of what they wrote—are really two forms of the same mistake.
They are two ways of denying that the Bible can be both a fully human and fully divine composition. And this denial rest (as all errors in theology ultimately do) on a false doctrine of God; here particularly, of His providence. For it assumes that God and man stand in such a relation to each other that they cannot both be free agents in the same action. If man acts freely (i.e., voluntarily and spontaneously), God does not, and vice versa. The two freedoms are mutually exclusive.
But the affinities of this idea are with Deism, not Christian Theism. It is Deism which depicts God as the passive onlooker rather than the active governor of His world, and which assures us that the guarantee of human freedom lies in the fact that men’s actions are not under God’s control. But the Bible teaches rather that the freedom of God, who works in and through His creatures, leading them to act according to their nature, is itself the foundation and guarantee of the freedom of their action.
It is therefore a great mistake to think that the freedom of the biblical writers can be vindicated only by denying full divine control over them; and the prevalence of this mistake should be ascribed to the insidious substitution of deistic for theistic ideas about God’s relation to the world which as been, perhaps the most damaging effect of modern science on theology.
When the critics of Evangelicalism take it for granted that Evangelicals, since they believe in complete control, must hold the ‘dictation’ theory, while they themselves, since they recognize accommodation, are bound to hold that in Scripture false and misleading words of men are mixed up with the pure word of God, they merely show how unbiblical their idea of providence ahs become.
The cure for such fallacious reasonings is to grasp the biblical idea of God’s concursive operation in, with and through the free working of man’s own mind.
Title: Trusting God Author: Jerry Bridges Publisher: NavPress
Can I trust God?
This question plagues many of us, particularly in times of great difficulty. When it seems like our world is falling apart, it often feels impossible to believe that an all-powerful and all-good God is in control. But just because we can’t see Him at work, doesn’t mean He’s not.
This is what motivated Jerry Bridges to write Trusting God. What Bridges reminds us of in this very dense text is that God is completely sovereign—over circumstances, nations, nature, and even people—infinitely wise, and supremely loving. And because these things are true, we can trust Him fully as He works out all things for our good through His providence. More than that, it’s only because He is sovereign that we can trust Him at all! Because none can frustrate His plans, they will surely come to pass. And were His plans able to be thwarted, He would not be trustworthy at all, and we would have no reason to hope.
This is very good news for all of us, as it greatly encourages us to cultivate a spirit of gratitude and a desire to look for where He is working, in all our circumstances—both good and bad.
One note for readers: Sometimes Bridges’ writing… drags. I’ve experienced this with every book of his I’ve read to date. The content is wonderful, but I find myself having to (usually) read in fits and starts. This is may actually be a blessing in disguise, as it gives me time to reflect on what I’ve read, so maybe it’s not a bad thing.
Trusting God is without question a book that is extremely beneficial for all looking to better understand how God’s providential rule over creation, and how that affects our lives. Read slowly and savor.
There are a few things that we can say unequivocally:
God is sovereign over all things—Nations, governments, circumstances, people and even the weather. Absolutely nothing happens on this earth without either His direct intervention or His permission, be it good or bad. This is the (admittedly oversimplified) doctrine of Providence. The books of Ruth and Esther are specifically about God’s providential (unseen) hand. Psalm 147:8, 16-18, Job 37:3, 6, 10-13, Jeremiah 10:13, and Amos 4:7 all speak to His sovereign rule over nature.
Because God is indeed sovereign over all things, there is no such thing as a “random event,”according to Scripture. “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and a create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things,” says the Lord in Isaiah 45:7 (see also Lamentations 3:38 and Ecclesiastes 7:14). There are only events we understand and events we do not. However, while we may not understand the purpose of an event, God most certainly does (see Deut. 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God…”) But we have to remember that God permits all things for the good of all who love Him (see Rom. 8:28).
All sin is unacceptable in the eyes of a holy God. Murder, lying, blasphemy, pride and sexual sin (including, but not limited to, fornication, adultery and homosexual practice) are all equally wrong in the eyes of God. And all who fail to repent will stand to give an account before God for their sins. This is what Jesus was warning of in Luke 13:1-5—Disastrous events in this world foreshadow the judgement that is to come, and unless we repent, we too will fall in that judgement. That’s a big deal, gang!
That’s what we can say.
Here is what we cannot:
We cannot offer a definitive interpretation of a providential act of God, like the recent tornado. To do so goes further than we are permitted by Scripture. We can offer what we think may have been the reason, and I believe that was Piper’s intention.
Further, there are some who would call it a random act. And with all due respect, there is no Scriptural support for such an idea whatsoever. To do so is nothing short of a denial of God’s sovereignty, which, if taken away, removes our reason for trusting Him. Because we know that He is in control of all things, for the good of His people, we can trust Him.
God knows why He, in His providence, sent the tornado to Minneapolis. And He knows why He also sent one to Vaughan, Ontario the next night.
But we do not know the specific reason with certainty, but we do know that this tornado was sent for “the good of those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).