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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Theology Matters in Uncertain Times

“Turmoil in the Middle East” has been the norm for so long that until recently it almost ceased to be news.  Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies working to develop a nuclear weapon, yet threatens to wipe Israel off the map.  Car bombs kill dozens in Baghdad.  Palestinians continue to revolt while Israelis continue to build.  The war in Afghanistan goes on and yet goes nowhere.  All in a day’s work.
But with the uprising in Egypt and the resignation of its president, Hosni Mubarak, and now the possibility of a full-scale civil war in Libya, far more people are paying attention.  The 24-hour news cycle is running at full tilt with an endless number of commentators speculating about the possible outcomes and the worldwide ramifications.  The price of oil is skyrocketing, reflecting the potential economic reverberations of all this uncertainty.
At times like this, I’m reminded how much it matters what we believe about God.  Some would say that theology divides and is not really germane to the everyday life of the believer.  Much of the time, when people make this assertion, they are referring to God’s attributes of knowledge and control.  While I agree that this branch of theology divides (but in a good way), I disagree that our concept of God’s knowledge and sovereignty doesn’t make much difference in how we live.  In fact, I would say these attributes of God are of paramount importance, especially in times of turmoil, whether that be on the international stage or in your own home.
Consider the open theist.  Open theism teaches that God does not know the future because the future is unknowable.  It is “open.”  Anything is possible.  It follows then that God not only does not know the future, but He is not controlling history.  He is not sovereign in the reformed sense.  He is as eager to find out what happens in the end as anyone else might be. 
What does this mean for the turmoil in the Middle East?  God may be watching CNN like many of us, waiting with baited breath to see the outcome.  Certainly, He knows what He would like to happen, but He does not exercise control over these things.  This God is a great cosmic spectator.  Instead of Him moving history, it could be said that history is moving Him. 
The same goes for your individual life.  The God of open theism has no clue how you are going to pay your bills…but He wishes you the best!  He’s also looking forward to seeing how your kids are going to turn out and if anything good is going to come from the betrayal you suffered last year. 
There are practical ramifications in the life of a person who believes in this conception of God.  First, to arrive at this view requires a limited knowledge of the Bible.  The wisdom and comfort that could be found there will not be.  Second, a convinced open theist has every reason to be anxious…he is in a bus cruising down the highway with billions of people behind one steering wheel.  This bus has only one passenger, God.  That God may have a plan, but it really amounts to a pipe dream because He has no control over the direction of the bus.  The drivers – all mankind – each have their own sinful, self-centered plans, so the direction of the bus is determined by who is the strongest at any one time.  Consequently, history – past, present, and future – is total chaos.  The upheaval in the Middle East?  It is perfectly reasonable to expect it to lead to a nuclear war that will destroy all people everywhere. 
Third, prayer may be therapeutic, but it is completely ineffectual.  Of course, God is listening, but His hands are tied.  The open theist can pray if he wants to, but he should at least go to Sam’s and get a 5-gallon drum of Tums.  In the end, that’s really the only comfort to be had.
Fourth, there is no meaning in suffering.  Every tragedy, every pain, every hardship comes by random chance. 
The Arminian view of God is slightly different in a theological sense, but when it comes to practical living, it looks just like open theism.  Classical Arminianism teaches that God does know the future, but He does not exercise sovereign control over the affairs of men.  He values human libertarian free will too much to intervene.  So He knows exactly where the bus is going, but for the sake of His own conscience He does nothing to keep it on the road.  [This is fraught with inconsistencies and illogical conclusions, not the least of which is that in the end, God is perfectly glorified by this – all seemingly by chance!]
But if we have a Biblical view of God, there should be no handwringing, not for us or God.  Acts 17:26 tells us that “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.”  That means that God was controlling the destiny of Egypt long before and long after the events in the book of Exodus.  Libya, too, for that matter.  He exercises complete sovereignty over the nations, as Job 12:23-25 testifies: "He makes the nations great, then destroys them; He enlarges the nations, then leads them away.  "He deprives of intelligence the chiefs of the earth's people And makes them wander in a pathless waste.  They grope in darkness with no light, And He makes them stagger like a drunken man.” 
Even the decisions made by the leaders of these countries are not out of His control.  The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes (Prov 21:1).  This God has a plan and He is moving history toward its inevitable accomplishment (Isa 14:24-27; 46:9-10; 55:10-11; Psa 33:11; 115:3; 135:6; Eph 1:11).
But God’s plan doesn’t only include “big” events of history.  It extends to most minute.  It includes the natural world (Psa 65:9-11; 135:6-7), the seemingly random (Prov 16:33), the birth and death of every person (1 Sam 2:6-7), human decisions both good and evil (Lam 3:38; Isa 45:5-7), and even the mundane events of each day (Jas 4:13-15).  God’s plan includes all things (Eph 1:11). 
This is important, but if we stop there, we won’t find much comfort and rest.  (I want to be clear – we do not choose our conception of God based on what is the most comforting view.  We should choose our conception of God based on what the Bible teaches.  But because the Bible teaches that our God is loving and gracious and sovereign, the Biblical conception of Him is the most comforting and meaningful conception.)  Understanding God’s meticulous sovereignty without knowing His ultimate purpose for us would create anxiety just like that experienced by the open theist. 
But God has graciously told us in His Word that He is working for our good.  Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I am confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).  God has begun a good work in the believer and He will inevitably complete that good work. 
Romans 8:30 tells us that this good work will result in our glorification, that is, the completion of our redemption and sanctification in the presence of Christ on the last day.  But a couple of verses earlier, Paul gives us a way to understand all the events that happen in our lives prior to the last day.  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).  The following verse reveals that the good for which He causes all things to work is that we would become like Christ.
That gives meaning to what seems like chaos.  That gives purpose to what looks like turmoil.  Whether it be the overthrow of a dictator on the other side of the world or a bad report from your doctor, everything is happening according to plan.  God is not worried.  He is bringing all things about and He promises that those things are being used to make us more like His Son.
But we really shouldn’t stop there.  Our sanctification – our being conformed to the image of Christ – is not the ultimate purpose for everything God does.  It is a means to the ultimate end of glorifying Himself (Eph 1:3-14; 3:8-10, 20-21).  When our hearts are in tune with His, we will begin to see every event of our lives and every event on the world stage in those terms, that God is in control and He is working all things for His glory. 
So as you watch the news and see the turmoil, what are you thinking?  As gas prices approach $4.00 and it gets harder to make ends meet, what are you thinking?  Are you anxious?  What you believe about God matters.  It’s the difference between hope and despair.   
Posted by Greg Birdwell

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