Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What Does It Mean to Say that "God is in Control" in Light of the Election?

What does it mean to say that “God is in Control” in light of the election? I have already heard the phrase used by Christians as a consolation in the wake of election (get it? “wake?”). While I am sure that many have a good sense of what it really means for God to be in control, I want to speak to the one who uses the phrase without giving it much thought. Yes, indeed God is in control of all things. He raises up kings and nations and puts them down at his sovereign discretion. But we need to be careful that this does not become the wrong sort of consolation.

For instance, we should not console ourselves by thinking that just because God controls all things, everything will finally work out OK for  the United States. The reality is that this election could foreshadow the end of the republic (regardless of who was elected).  As far as I can tell from Scripture, God has not promised our nation anything in particular beyond general blessings for obedience. And as far as that goes, I am not sure that we have ever really been obedient enough to merit any real blessings. Sure we have been blessed, but given the righteous standards we see in Scripture, can we really claim that even from the beginning we have been all that righteous? I see us rather as having been blessed through God’s mercy, rather than from our merit. In any case, we cannot demonstrate from Scripture 1) that we have ever achieved the righteousness that merits blessing, or 2) that God has promised us anything special and particular as a nation. We have slapped ourselves on the backs for centuries now about our supposed national Christianness. And we now bemoan recent changes as if the good ol’ days are gone. But I fear, if we ever seriously thought that we were once a truly Christian Nation, that we have never understood what to be Christian really means. And as far as the blessing of God goes, 200 years of good times is not sufficient evidence to support the belief that “because we were like this, God blessed us like this."

God has ordained our choices.

What does it mean to say that God is in control? As far as this election goes, it means that God has ordained our choice for president. This is not an essay about free-will versus sovereignty, so I will not try to explain away the apparent contradiction in the phrase “ordained choices.” But I will affirm two things: 1) God holds us accountable for the choices that we make. 2) God superintends our choices to accomplish his purposes.

So if our next president is an evil person who leads this nation deeper into wickedness, then the fault is ours, because we chose him. It may be that the choice itself is our judgment. But the President will not be the cause of our moral decline. He is a reflection of who we are, and we will bear the consequences, whatever they may be. To quote Batman, he may not be what we need, but he is what we deserve. It is the nature of judgment.

So we chose him and will take the blame for that, but at the same time, he is the person that God wants to be our president whether for our nation’s good or ill. (Even as I write that I am struck by how important I often think the office of the president must be in God’s eyes. As if God has to make sure that just the right person is in place because everything important in this world depends on it. But then I remind myself that if the world lasts another 5,000 years, when the USA is remembered like we remember the Roman Empire, people will probably not even argue over the correct transliteration of his English name, much more recall anything significant that impacted all mankind forever. Many people have ruled longer and many nations have lasted longer, and we do not even bother to include them in our history books.)

So why does God want this president in particular? For what reason has God ordained our choice? We cannot say for certain. It could be that God is trying to work within this nation righteousness that we have been blind to for the last couple of centuries. We may have been straining at gnats while swallowing camels (or trying to be righteous in one way while letting more important types of righteousness slip through the cracks). Or it could be that God is orchestrating present events in order to achieve some far off outcome in the future. We cannot know for certain. But here is another truth:

God judges people and nations through political leadership.

It is a fact of Scripture that God raises up nations in order to throw down nations. God judged Israel by the hands of wicked kingdoms: The Canaanites, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. He raises fools to judge fools. He causes tyrants to bludgeon their neighbors, and destroys despotic regimes from the inside out. Nebuchadnezzar cast down the Assyrians, but Cyrus judged the Babylonians. Cyrus himself, a pagan, was proclaimed shepherd and messiah and was directed by God’s unseen hand to subdue nations, strip kings, and level mountains. All these are expressly declared in Scripture to be examples of the judgment of nations and peoples, by God, at the hands of godless kings and tyrants. We cannot know for certain God’s purposes in this election, but we cannot set aside the possibility that God’s judgment has been crescendoing for many generations. Trust me, if this is the climax, then we still have it pretty good. If it is not, then may Christ rule in the hearts of the generations to come, for it is the only way they will escape horrible judgment. And lest anyone be offended that I name the one who won a tyrant and tool, I would have said the same had the other candidate won. Our trust cannot be in men. When you are scraping the bottom of the barrel, what does it matter if one is a little more within reach than another.

All this sounds pretty depressing so far. So is there any consolation in believing that God is in control? Should we say this when expressing our disappointment? I would say “yes, definitely” to both questions. So I will make three points that I hope will encourage genuine consolation from the belief that God is in control.

First, God guarantees justice. A constant theme of Scripture. God is just. If we must reduce this to our way of thinking—we would say that God is always fair, although our notions of fairness are easily corrupted. To say that God guarantees justice is to say that, whether in this life or the next, God will destroy all that is not love and reward all that is. Thankfully, God often brings justice in this life. Prominent examples in Scripture are the justice he brought against Assyria and Babylon for their treatment of Israel. He also brought judgment against both Israel and Rome for their treatment of Jesus Christ. This justice was doled out in the course and place of time and space--in history.

But if we can get beyond the idea that we must always have justice right here and right now, we can at least rest confident that either outside our lifetime or inside eternity, God will reward the righteous and punish evildoers. However, the evils we have experienced are not guaranteed to be avenged during our lifetimes, which is probably a good thing. God asks us to leave vengeance to him, and to love our enemies. If we spend our lives looking for judgment like pouting Jonah overlooking Nineveh, then bitterness and anger will kill off any hope of consolation. What consolation is a joyless, angry, bitter Christianity? So we learn to leave vengeance to God, letting it go from us, and by the power of the Spirit replacing it with love, even for those who hate us, and those we are tempted to hate.

But if there is no justice in this life, then there is always justice in the life to come. God will set all right in due time. We are meant to take some encouragement from that. But that encouragement should not come from finally having our itch for vengeance scratched. If that is all we want, then we do not know God as we claim. Rather the encouragement comes from knowing that God is really and truly just. The encouragement comes from understanding better who the God who ordains our choices really is. He is a God infinitely worthy of our love and worship and trust. When he acts, though it may not always be obvious to us, it is always with an eye for justice. We take encouragement not from the prospects of vengeance, but from the knowledge that God is good, just, fair, loving and is working all things out for good, just, and loving purposes. Consistent with what John Piper encourages, if we have not learned to find our satisfaction in God alone, then we will find no consolation in knowing that God ordains our choices for just purposes. But if we know God, love God, and worship him instead of feeding our own desires for vengeance, then this knowledge can be a very real consolation when it feels like everything is falling apart around us.

Second, God always acts in the best interests of his Church. We read in Romans 8 that God works all things together for the good of those are called according to his purpose. His purpose in this age is to build a church. He has loved the church to the degree that Christ gave up his life for her, an event that was ordained before the foundation of the world. He has guarded her, matured and built her, and directed her steps from the beginning until now. There is nothing that will stand in the way of this divine activity and purpose. In fact, everything must move together in support of this activity and purpose. God works all things together for the good of his church.

We need to understand what this does not mean. It does not mean that God works all things together for the comfort and convenience of the Church. It has been said that postmillennialism faltered during the World Wars because the optimism that it required was no longer tenable. Things just got too bad for people to say that the kingdom was advancing successfully. I may not be a postmillennialist (at this moment at least), but no crisis of history should cause us to lose our optimism on behalf of the Church.   Just because things are no longer comfortable for the Church does not mean that God is not working all things for the Church's good.

What it does mean is this: even if God’s providence allows our suffering, this is still in the best interest of the church. In fact, it is in the better interest of the church than our comfort and convenience. Thankfully God allows times of peace in history. We gather from Paul (I Tim 2) that this is desirable because it allows for the spread of the Gospel. But this peace is not guaranteed. In fact, the opposite is guaranteed. Christ tells us that the servant is not above his master. If he suffered, it stands to reason that his followers will as well. In addition, Paul, James, and Peter explain that suffering matures us in Christ. In fact, suffering is an essential part of our maturation as Christians. We can assume that it is an essential part of our maturation as a church as well. So as both Paul and Peter say, “Rejoice in sufferings (Romans 5; I Peter 4).” They are ordained for our good. If we can grab hold of this, then we will more likely take consolation from the belief that God is on control of all things.

I would offer a caution though: If we fully understood how the Church has suffered throughout history, we would not be so concerned about the inconveniences we face in our “post-Christian” nation. There are Christians in the world at this moment who know what true suffering is like, and if they could get relief long enough to consider our plight, they would probably be embarrassed for us. In territories where Christians truly suffer, the Church is strong in ways that would shame us. Our comfort has atrophied certain spiritual muscles; the body is weak. I would go so far as to say that we have not and we do not in any immediate future face the possibility of suffering anything like what non-Christians throughout this world have suffered. In other words, Christians and non-Christians have suffered severely throughout history, at least as we count suffering. Please let’s not get up in arms about the inconveniences that we might face in coming generations. Suffering laughs at some of the things we get upset about. Our consolation is that if we must suffer for Christ, God has ordained it for the building up of the Body of Christ.

Third, God orders all things for his own glory. We cannot lose sight, in the midst of our temporal worries, that all is ordained for the ultimate purpose of glorifying God. The world thinks this is selfish, but they do not understand that God is love and has shared perfect and complete Trinitarian love for all eternity.  There is no selfishness in love. When he created this world, his love overflowed because it is in his nature to pour out love. When we love as God loves, and when we enjoy the love of God as Christ enjoys his love, then we glorify him. Everything serves this end, that his love might overflow, both to us and through us, and in its pouring out, we find our greatest pleasure and joy in him. Once again, we do not know exactly how all present things serve this end, but we know that it does. If we love him, we will find consolation in this, and love him all the more, and will celebrate that he has ordained blessing, and suffering, and justice because he is love.

As creatures, this is hard to grasp, and if we grasp it, it is hard to find consolation in it. But this inability is a reflection of our broken humanity, our sinfulness fighting against worshiping God for who he is. In order to find consolation in the ordering of all to his glory, we must first know this God-who-is-love, enjoy him, and seek to find our greatest pleasure in his glory. When all around us goes to hell in a handbasket, God has not left off glorifying himself. All will in due time ( and especially after time comes due) be seen as the perfect plan for God’s greatest glory.

No comments:

Post a Comment