Christianity 201

June 7, 2018

Is God a Cosmic Tyrant?

by Clarke Dixon

Is God a cosmic tyrant?
Is God in control of absolutely everything?
Are natural disasters a matter of his choice for the world?
Are your personal disasters a result of his decisions for your life?
Are our own decisions merely illusion, that in fact, God has foreordained even what we think we have decided, even when we choose actions that are sinful and cause incredible harm to ourselves and others?

Or perhaps God is not in control at all and just set everything going? All that happens is a matter of our free choice and what happens naturally.

The Bible pushes us toward belief in the sovereignty of God. Consider, for example Psalm 139 especially the latter part of verse 16:

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:16 NRSV)

So then God is a cosmic tyrant? Our favourite prayer might become that of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “yet not my will but yours” (Mark 14:36), prayed with a tone of resignation: “Whatever you come up with, Lord, I will put up with.”

There are problems with this line of thinking:

First; the Bible does not present the sovereignty of God as something to be resigned to, but something to be excited about and find encouragement in. If you were an actor tasked with portraying Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, how would you perform his prayer as he faces arrest and execution? Would it be with resignation, or with determination? Would you say the lines in a way that communicates “I think Your will is terrible, but I will if I must”, or “I know Your will is best, and yes, let’s do this”? Whatever the tone of Jesus as he prayed it, the hours that followed were not moments of resignation, but of determination and decisions that reflected his knowledge that good things were truly ahead. And good things did come! Jesus was raised from the dead and our sins were dealt with. Knowing that God’s will is good we can find encouragement that our future is not determined by chance, or even by our own poor choices, but by the good purposes of God:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 (NRSV)

“All things” includes things that happen naturally within Creation and human decision. We can be excited about how God is shaping things that would otherwise cause fear and panic.

Second; The sovereignty of God is not a cold philosophical proposition, but rather a comforting reality. Sometimes we take something written for our encouragement and imagine it is written for our theological curiosity. The Psalmist in Psalm 139 is not a professor trying to work out the details of life from the comfort of a Lazyboy in preparation for a lecture. The Psalmist is someone going through real life struggles. We might summarize the whole of Psalm 139 like this: “I can hide nothing from you, nor flee from your presence. See that I am innocent, and the person threatening my life is not. I need justice to prevail and for you to reward the innocent party (me), not the guilty (them).” Perhaps we can relate to this Psalm. Yes, we all sin, but sometimes there really is nothing we have done to deserve this cancer, or that Parkinson’s, or that ill treatment from someone we thought was a friend. We can relate to the Psalmist and say something very similar, “Lord, I am your child, yet I am under siege by people or circumstances”. In those moments, we don’t need a theology textbook. We need God and we need the outcome to be in His hands.

Third: The sovereignty of God is not something we can fully grasp. Sometimes we take something that is true and try to turn in into something that is understandable. No professor or Bible teacher, no matter how smart and knowledgeable, could ever really understand everything there is to know about God anyway.

While we often might long for the “patience of Job”, the Book of Job is really about humility in the face of deep questions. After so many words were spilled on trying to make sense of Job’s suffering, God finally speaks near the end of the book. But in speaking he does not give answers. He only asks questions. And what was Job supposed to learn from that? That he, Job himself, is not God, neither are his friends, and that God’s ways may be beyond understanding.

We are not always going to have the answers. We learn to live with the questions. We learn to trust God despite our lack of understanding. God has the future in His hands, even if we cannot understand how.

So what do we mean by saying that God is sovereign? Has he already decided what all our decisions will be? I am reminded of the expression, “when I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you”. Or, does God in his sovereignty allow things to unfold, naturally, and as consequences of our decisions, but only according to his purposes. Let us consider Psalm 139:16 again:

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:16 NRSV)

This verse does not tell us if what is written is prescriptive or descriptive, or somehow, both. Is God’s “book” a to do list as God unfolds history? Or, is it a book in which God writes down how history unfolds as he foresees it, as a historian might, but before the events rather than after?  Or does God in his omniscience and omnipotence see what unfolds, but makes the necessary adjustments to ensure the story turns out well?

We can think of a manager of a hockey team who might like the ability to see ahead of time which players will excel in the future, then being able to adjust the rosters based on that foreknowledge. The team could be massaged into a Stanley Cup win.

Perhaps sometimes we think of God as a thing to be studied and understood, rather than a Father, to be in relationship with and enjoyed. As parents, we sometimes allow our boys to experience the consequences of their own decisions. And sometimes we make the decisions that will help them flourish. None of this is done according to a formula, and our boys may never understand us. It is done in relationship, it is a matter of love.

So is God a tyrant? No, God is a loving Heavenly Father. But what if I cannot figure out how the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty squares with my experience of free-will? You can trust God in real life circumstances much sooner than you will be able to fully comprehend Him in a classroom. That is much better anyway!


Clarke Dixon is the Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada.

Listen to the audio of the full sermon on which this based (35 minutes).

clarkedixon.wordpress.com

 

August 11, 2011

Andy Stanley on God’s Grace

While we were away this week, we got to catch a few segments of Canada’s daily Christian television talk show, 100 Huntley Street.  For the month of August, they are featuring North Point Community Church (Atlanta, GA) pastor and author Andy Stanley in a series of mini-teachings that form part of an ongoing series they do called “Truth to Go.”

I loved this comment,

You can no more earn God’s grace than you can throw yourself a surprise party.

Here are some samples:



You can find more “Truth to Go” segments with Andy Stanley and others at this page at 100Huntley.com

June 23, 2011

Learning The Father’s Love

This is an excerpt from a recent Elisabeth Elliot newsletter, which was in turn taken from a chapter titled “Learning the Father’s Love” from the book A Lamp For My Feet:

When my brother Dave was very small, we spent a week at the seaside in Belmar, New Jersey. In vain my father tried to persuade the little boy to come into the waves with him and jump, promising to hold him safely and not allow the waves to sweep over his head. He took me (only a year older) into the ocean and showed Dave how much fun it would be. Nothing doing. The ocean was terrifying. Dave was sure it would mean certain disaster, and he could not trust his father. On the last day of our vacation he gave in. He was not swept away, his father held him as promised, and he had far more fun than he could have imagined, whereupon he burst into tears and wailed, “Why didn’t you make me go in?”

An early lesson in prayer often comes through an ordeal of fear. We face impending adversity and we doubt the love, wisdom and power of our Father in heaven. We’ve tried everything else and in our desperation we turn to prayer–of the primitive sort: here’s Somebody who’s reputed to be able to do anything. The great question is, can I get Him to do what I want? How do I twist His arm, how persuade a remote and reluctant deity to change His mind?

Poor Dave! His father could have forced him to come into the water, but he could not have forced him to relax and enjoy it. As long as the child insisted on protecting himself, saving the life he was sure he would lose, he could not trust the strong love of his father. He refused to surrender. In this simple story we hear echoes of the most ancient story, of the two who, mistrusting the word of their Father, fearing that obedience to Him would ultimately bar them from happiness, chose to repudiate their dependence on Him. Sin, death, destruction for the whole race were the result.

Learning to pray is learning to trust the wisdom, the power, and the love of our Heavenly Father, always so far beyond our dreams. He knows our need and knows ways to meet it that have never entered our heads. Things we feel sure we need for happiness may often lead to our ruin. Things we think will ruin us … if we believe what the Father tells us and surrender ourselves into His strong arms, bring us deliverance and joy.

The only escape from self-love is self-surrender. “Whoever loses his life for Me will find it” (Matthew 16:25, NIV). “Dwell in my love. If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in His love. I have spoken thus to you, so that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete” (John 15:9-11, NEB). My father knew far better than his small, fearful, stubborn son what would give him joy. So does our Heavenly Father. Whenever I have resisted Him, I have cheated myself, as my little brother did. Whenever I have yielded, I have found joy.

 

HT: Barbara at Stray Thoughts blog

June 11, 2011

Remixing Our Image of God

Today’s post is by James Rubart the author of two popular Christian fiction novels, Rooms and The Book of Days. This is the first of nine short vignettes — and one longer short story — that are yours for the reading at his website. To read the eight others, click here.  Both of these links open .pdf files; to learn more about James’ books, click the link at the end of this article.

If you can do it, think of God unedited by how you’re supposed to see Him. Not what religion or your mind tells you-oh, God is love—but your heart. What images come to mind?

Principal?

Dictator?

Judge?

The image I fight is of Him standing in front of me with folded arms saying, ―Well, you’ve sure screwed up a lot but I have to let you in anyway.

It’s probably why I cry every time I read Luke 15. You know the passage. Whole books have been written on it, music videos done, modernizations have tried to convey the message in a more compelling way. And there’s good reason for all the focus. It is the entire gospel in twenty-two verses. With it, Jesus encapsulates the core of the Father’s heart towards us.

The part that reduces me to tears? The first part of verse 20:

Luke 15:20 “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.  And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ (NASB)

My Bible has little notations down the middle of the page sometimes showing the literal translation of a word, and in this case it puts a whole new spin on the verse. Before I dug into the literal translation of ran, embraced and kissed I pictured the Father jogging up to the son, giving him a swift hug, a pat on the back and a quick kiss on the cheek. A kind of Jewish-Italian-Mafia/Marlon Brando thing. ―Welcome back to the family kid!‖

Wrong.

This is how I’d write the translation based on the literal meaning of the words:

Luke 15:20 “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and raced toward his son like an Olympic sprinter. When he reached him the father nearly knocked him to the ground with his passion and joy. Seizing him with all his strength, the father wrapped his son up in his arms, and squeezed him tighter and tighter into his chest as tears flowed down the Father’s cheeks onto his beard. The father kissed his son feverously over and over and over again.

That’s how God feels about you.

Notice two more things before you go. When did the Father do the things above? Before the son confessed or after? And what was the Father’s reaction after the son did confess?

He ignored the confession.

And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

Amazing.

He doesn’t even address the sin.

Don’t get me wrong. God abhors sin. Cannot abide it. But that’s why He sent Jesus; to abolish it forever.

But there are no folded arms, no cruel scolding, no tyrant or dictator to be found. Only unbridled passionate love.

Ask Him. Ask Him now to rewire your thinking about who He is.

And run into his violent embrace.

~James Rubart, JimRubart.com

May 9, 2011

From The Best of A. W. Tozer

Satan’s first attack on the human race was his sly effort to destroy Eve’s confidence in the kindness of God.  Unfortunately for her and for us, he succeeded too well.  From that day, men have had a false conception of God, and it is exactly this that has cut from under them the ground of righteousness and driven them to reckless and destructive living…

…The God of the Pharisee was not a God easy to live with, so his religion became grim and hard and loveless…

…The truth is that God is the most winsome of all beings and His service on of unspeakable pleausre…

…How good it would be if we could learn that God is easy to live with.  He remembers our frame and knows that we are dust.  He may sometimes chasten us, it is true, but even this He does with a smile, the proud tender smile of a Father who is bursting with pleasure over an imperfect but promising son who is coming every day to look more and more like the One whose child he is…

from the The Best of Tozer, Baker 1978 edition, pp. 120-122