In previous posts I’ve had a lot to say about the “omni” attributes of God: God is all knowing, God is all-powerful, and God is ever present. We have considered the biblical concept of time in light of these biblical beliefs about God: God knows all about us at all times and in all circumstances; God is sovereign and in control, with the power to intervene in our lives as He wills; God is always present, always with us, and we can never go where God is not. These conclusions and convictions can give us confidence, comfort, and courage, but they can also confound and confuse; they may not only provide answers; they can also raise questions.
For example, they raise theological questions. There are theologians who suggest that the God of the Bible is not really omnipotent, for an omnipotent God would be an “incomplete being,” a deity who cannot experience pain, suffering, helplessness, and powerlessness. I must ask if those who adopt this theology are not guilty of “dumbing-down” God, humanizing God, making God in our own image by limiting God, saying what God can and cannot do? And at the same time deifying man and exalting human reason? However, there is an even more important question that must be asked: What about the incarnation? If one who professes to be a Christian, believing in the Word of God “made flesh” in the person of the historical Jesus, believing He was both fully-God and fully-man, then in His humanity did He not share these human experiences, although He never stopped being fully God? As the Apostle Paul says, in taking human form the Eternal Christ, who was always equal with God the Father “…did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant (the Greek word used here is “doulos,” literally “a slave”) being born in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). As our resurrected and reigning Lord, and as our Great High Priest in heaven, He remembers His pain, suffering, helplessness, powerlessness (as God He had the power to save Himself, but as man He did not have the right to exercise that power; in fact, Jesus never used His power for Himself, only for others).
Jesus was tempted to use His power for Himself at the very beginning of His earthly ministry. Satan tempted Him to take an easier road, to detour around the cross, and even offered to give Him the kingdom of this world if He would only bow down and worship him. The temptations of Jesus were just as real as our temptations are. It was a real struggle of soul for Him, for He was a real man. He was not play-acting in the wilderness, for as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says, “He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect (yet without sin), so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people (as the “Lamb of God, to takes away the sins of the world”). Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested“ (Hebrews 2:17-18).
It is a thought that staggers the imagination, that the mighty Maker of the universe actually became a human being in the person of the historical Jesus, so He would be able to identify with us in our pilgrimage of faith, including the testing times of our lives. So, when we are going through grief, God understands. Jesus wept! When we are being tempted to conform to this world, God understands. Jesus was tempted! When we have been betrayed by someone we love, God understands. Jesus was betrayed by one He loved and trusted! When we are feeling lonely, not only abandoned by friends, but even abandoned by God, we remember Jesus did not want to be alone in His suffering, in His testing in Gethsemane, and on the cross when He prayed, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Yes, God understands! We cannot wrap our minds around it, but we know we pray to a suffering God, and it is comforting to know God in Christ is praying for us, praying our faith will not fail in the testing times of life, praying we will be aware of His abiding presence and His providential care.
With this understanding, listen to these words of the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans: “He (Jesus) is at the right hand of God (i.e. God the Father), and is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). The most important thing He is doing for us right now is praying for us! He is listening as we pray, and He is able to identify with us in our feelings, for He shared all of our human emotions. Therefore we can sing, “No one ever cared for me like Jesus” – “I come to the garden alone…and He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own…and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” The only people who know this incredible joy are those who know they are “His own” – those who can also sing, “Now I belong to Jesus, Jesus belongs to me, not for the years of time alone, but for eternity” – those who have an over-powering sense of their unity with the Eternal Christ as the Lord of their lives forever, but are also equally confident of His abiding presence, at all times, and in all of life’s circumstances, enabling them to “Rejoice in the Lord always….giving thanks in all circumstances” (Philippians 4:4; I Thessalonians 5:16-17).
Once again, this kind of faith does indeed raise theological questions. For example, in times like these: if God is all-powerful, why does He allow such terrible natural disasters that cause such horrific destruction and devastation? If God does understand and can identify with us in our afflictions, if He can and actually does interfere in human affairs, why does He not put an end to senseless violence, to racial and religious wars, to terrorist threats, and the slaughter of innocents? Our belief in the all-embracing control of a an all-powerful sovereign God, a God who is also good and gracious, can give us some measure of peace and hope in times like these, but we may also find ourselves double-minded and troubled in spirit. For if God is truly able to work in all things for good in the lives of those who trust Him (Romans 8:28), why haven’t we been able to see anything good out of so much that has been happening recently? WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND THAT IT IS NOT WRONG TO ASK “WHY?” Even Jesus, in His full humanity, asked, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Our Lord was never more human, but also never more divine, than at that very moment when this cry of dereliction was wrenched from His quivering lips for all to hear! Furthermore, if it was not wrong for Jesus to ask “Why?,” surely it is not wrong for us to ask the same question when we are faced with so many horrific things in this world that we cannot understand, things we are unable to reconcile with our trust in a loving, gracious, kind, and merciful God.
When everything seems to be going our way, it is not hard to believe that God is indeed working His purpose out in our lives, that God is really in control, that all the good things we have experienced prove God’s faithfulness. I am reminded of a familiar song from a favorite Broadway musical, Oklahoma: “Oh, what a beautiful morning, Oh, what a beautiful day, I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way.” On a day like that it is easy to believe all is right with the world (at least in our own small world), and that all of the wonderful things that have happened to us could not be merely “coincidences,” or just haphazard happenings, but were in reality GOD-INCIDENCES. Of course, this is only true for those who are truly believers. Unbelievers do not struggle with such theological issues. They do not ask these questions. They do not have doubts, for only believers have doubts. Doubts are not the absence of faith; doubts prove we have faith! Doubts are an attack on faith; they are the weapons of the enemy of our soul, the “fiery darts” of the evil one (Ephesians 6). Unbelievers have simply hardened their hearts against God and stubbornly refuse to believe in spite of the evidence, but unbelief is not the same as doubt. Let this truth grip your mind and heart right now, so you will not be burdened with a sense of guilt and shame when you find yourself doubting and questioning God. It might be helpful for you to read the “psalms of lament” (i.e. psalms of complaint, honest confessions of the psalmist’s doubts – one-third of the psalms – such as Psalm 77). Meditate on these psalms, verse by verse; and then pray these psalms).
The mixed feelings and questions for which we can find no satisfying answers simply bear witness to the fact that we are not able to see the big picture. From our present vantage point in time (i.e. the kind of time we can measure), we cannot see beyond the difficulties and disappointments, beyond the hardships and heartaches, beyond the suffering. We cannot see how God is at work in all things at all times. We cannot see how God will turn sorrow into joy. We cannot see how God will transform suffering to grace. We cannot fully comprehend that “No testing has overtaken us that is not common to everyone,” that “God is faithful (i.e. faithful to His word, and will keep all of His promises) and will not let us be tested beyond our strength, but with the testing will also provide the way out, so that we may be able to endure it” (I Corinthians 10:13). We cannot see how “The testing of our faith produces endurance,” and must therefore learn to “…let endurance have its full effect so that we may be mature and complete (i.e. spiritually mature) lacking in nothing” (i.e. nothing that would prevent us from becoming mature in Christ, who suffered far more than we will ever be called upon to suffer, who bore more pain than we will ever be called upon to bear) that we may be complete” (i.e. when our salvation is complete, when we have been “sanctified,” made holy as God is holy, clothed in the righteousness of Christ (James 1:3; I Peter 1:3-9; Romans 5:4).
There will always be times when it is not easy to remain focused on these great biblical truths, when believers are being tested, sometimes almost to the breaking point. This is certainly true when suffering is intense, such as many Christians have endured in times of terrible persecution. It is hard not to become discouraged when powerful forces are arrayed against Christ and His Church, when even Christians who are mature in their faith can ask, “How can we rejoice in times like these?” In this country, where we Christians are strangers to such religious persecution, where the doors of our churches are open and we are free to worship without fear of arrest and imprisonment, we can never the less at times be so distracted and disillusioned that we grow weary and lose heart. In those times, when our own world seems to be falling in around us, we can become so “problem centered” that we are unable to see how God is actually at work in such times. We cannot see things clearly when we are too “near sighted” to take a longer view of life. However, at all times in our lives we are never able to see fully what the future will bring, for we always only see “partially” (i.e. “only in part“, never the whole) – seeing “as in a mirror dimly,” “…but when the complete comes (when“the perfect” comes) the partial will come to an end” – “…then we will see face to face” – then “…we will know fully, even as we have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:9-12).
At this point I must issue another warning. This good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not mean that we can therefore leave everything up to God, adopting a simplistic theology that says, “Since God is sovereign, and we will never fully understand God’s ways, we can just rest secure in the knowledge that we are on the winning side.” No, God has made us responsible for doing all we can to fit into His plan and purpose for our lives (Romans 8:28), taking risks, stepping out in faith, going wherever God calls us to serve. For almost thirty years Norma and I were involved with a ministry in Eastern Europe, beginning ten years before the Berlin Wall came down. We had become friends of the founder of Eastern European Bible Mission, and his wife. We had felt called by God to share in their ministry to the so-called “suffering church” in those countries that had become a part of the Eastern European Bloc of the Soviet Union. This included teaching and smuggling Bibles and leadership training materials to pastors who had lost their pulpits, and who had become leaders in the underground “house church” movement. Christians there had already been living under oppressive communist regimes for almost thirty years when we first visited in 1979. The meetings we held in their apartments and homes were all illegal, unregistered, secret gatherings that put them at great risk. Nevertheless, they continued to meet together, worship together, and pray together in each other’s homes. In those testing times their faith grew stronger, and their commitment to Christ and each other became more intense. We learned another great lesson from them: NO MATTER HOW BAD THINGS SEEM TO BE, GOD HAS A PLAN THAT IS GREATER THAN WE CAN POSSIBLY IMAGINE, AND HE REMAINS IN CONTROL – ALWAYS!
This truth was brought home to us in a dramatic way one morning at a camp ground on the outskirts of Budapest, Hungary, where we had spent the night, emptying the cleverly designed compartments in our van which had been filled with Bibles and other books translated into the Hungarian language. Translation and printing was a major part of the ministry of EEBM during those dark days. It was an eye-opening and mind-boggling experience to see their operation first-hand at their equally concealed base in southern Holland. We had been warned that the military presence could be intimidating, but we had not expected to see a long line of vehicles lined up at the exit from the campground, with armed military personnel examining every vehicle. The Bibles and other books had been put in garbage bags to be delivered to pastors that day, and they were out in plain view. The only thing we could do was pray. Every vehicle in front of us was searched, so the long wait for our turn gave us plenty of time to do what we had learned to call “Heads-Up praying.” Then we were next, and to our amazement the soldiers just waved us on through the gates. You cannot even begin to imagine how surprised and relieved we were, especially when we looked in the rear-view mirror and saw the vehicle that had been behind us being searched. Needless to say, our cup of joy overflowed, and the peace of God steadied us for what was to come.
Was that simply a “coincidence,” a chance happening, a matter of “good luck,” or was that one more GOD-INCIDENT? What do you think? I know what we believe.