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

Thursday, February 17, 2011

When we want something other than God...

In our months long look at the issue of idolatry both in the history of Israel and in our own hearts, we have repeatedly seen what results when our chief desire is for something other than the Lord.  Much of the depression, anger, frustration, fear, and anxiety we experience comes as a result of not getting what that idol promised.  It seems that there are times when God exposes our hearts by preventing us from having the things we want.

But there are also times when God exposes our hearts by doing the opposite, that is, by giving us exactly what we want.  1 Samuel 8 gives us an example in the life of Israel at the end of the Judges period.  Israel’s desire to be like the Canaanites had not subsided and came to manifest itself in their demand to have a king “like all the nations” (8:5).  Samuel took this as a personal slight since he was judging Israel at the time.  But Yahweh gave Samuel a more accurate interpretation, and told him how to proceed:

“Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.  According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you.  Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them." (1Sam 8:8-9)

The people wanted a king like the nations rather than having the Lord as their king.  So He gave them what they wanted.  Yet, this was not a gift, but a judgment.  We know this because of the warning that Samuel gave the people about how their new king would behave: 1) he would take their sons to serve in his army and farm his land; 2) he would take their daughters to be his personal servants; 3) he would take the best of their land and crops; 4) he would take the best of their servants and livestock; and 5) he would limit their personal freedoms (v10-17).  The result would be chilling: “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day” (v18). 

What is it that results from getting what we want when what we want is not the Lord?  It is never the happiness that we envisioned, but a situation far worse than that which we imagined would result from not getting what we wanted.  No matter what we want above God, it never turns out the way we hoped.  In fact, when we finally get what we wanted, we find that it doesn’t just disappoint, but it brings misery.

By giving us what we want, God shows us in living color the heartache that comes from trusting in other gods.  But our hearts are so deceiving that seldom do we learn the lesson.  We assume that the last false god was defective and we start looking for a better one. 

And it’s not like we haven’t been warned.  Scripture tells us clearly what results from the pursuit of false gods.  The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply (Psa 16:4).  Haven’t we seen this vividly in our studies in Joshua and Judges?  But like Israel, even though we have been warned, we plow ahead.

We want material things because they will make us happy.  We convince ourselves that we need them. We know what the Scriptures say (ex., He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income [Ecc 5:10 ESV]), but we are undeterred.  Many times we can’t afford what we want, so we buy it with money we don’t have.  And typically, the debt long outlasts the thrill of making the purchase, leaving us with nothing but regret.

We want the excitement of romance, maybe a sensation that has been gone from our marriage for many years.  An idol in the form of a co-worker, neighbor, family friend, or church member promises an answer to that “need”.  And although it is clear in God’s Word the destruction that lies at the end of that road (Pro 5-7), we proceed anyway.  The price paid in terms of the lives ruined by such a transgression is beyond steep compared to the happiness that was promised but never delivered.

There may be no greater chastisement than God allowing us to have what we want the most.  It is a haunting thought, when you consider the ramifications.  Though we in the church may not say it out loud, we tend to live as if getting what we want is the whole object of life.  We even invent a caricature of the One True God who is all about our happiness, ready to bend over backward to give us worldly success.  The irony is that anytime our greatest desire is something other than Him, to receive that thing could be the worst scenario possible.

It sounds like a strange question, but how can we avoid getting what we want?  How do we prevent the heartache that will result from God giving us our hearts’ desire?  The answer should be obvious: we need to change what we desire.  There are two components to this.  First, we need to determine what desires we have been pursuing.  It would benefit us all to take a few minutes to consider the things that have been occupying our attention and affection recently: What have I been wanting?  What has been dominating my thought life?  What has excited me lately?  Have any of these things supplanted God as the primary focus of my life?  If there are things that have become more important to us than the Lord, we must repent of those and ask forgiveness. 

Second, we need to agree with the psalmist, saying to the LORD, "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you… You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psa 16:2, 11).  We must delight ourselves in Christ, knowing that what will result is the sure fulfillment of a desire for Him above all (Psa 37:4).

The only true satisfaction and joy to be found in this life is in the constant pursuit of Jesus Christ.  When He is our chief desire, we can be certain that even in the midst of the greatest trials of life, we will be able to rejoice with joy inexpressible (1 Pet 1:3-9).

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What is God's Will For My Life?

When I was in high school, my dad took a church job that would require us to move to Ohio.  A few weeks prior to our departure from Texas, our pastor asked me to preach at the Sunday evening service of our last week there.  I was grateful for the opportunity and accepted the invitation.  When he asked what I might want to preach about, without thinking, I blurted out, “Discovering God’s Will For Your Life.”

At that moment I didn’t fully appreciate the ambition of such a topic, nor did I have any idea what my text might be.  I figured that on a topic so essential to the Christian life, there must be a plethora of relevant passages in Scripture.  I was confident that given a few weeks I could zero in on one of them and prepare a message.

But the perfect passage on discovering the will of God for an individual’s life proved to be elusive.  I searched and searched for a text, eventually willing to settle for even an obscure one, but I could find nothing.  As that Sunday approached, anticipation gave way to pure terror as I realized I may have committed myself to a topic that couldn’t be preached – at least not from Scripture.  But with two days left to prepare, Providence intervened when I was admitted to the cardiac ICU.  I immediately recognized that by God’s grace my predicament had vanished – there was no way I would be released in time to preach.  Never has anyone been so thankful for an episode of atrial fibrillation!

The youth minister was chosen to pinch hit for me, so he came to visit me in the hospital to get my thoughts on the topic.  When he asked what text I had intended to use, I was forced to admit, “I couldn’t find one.” 

“So what were you going to say?” 

“I have absolutely no clue.”

You would think that that experience might cause me to seriously examine the issue of discovering God’s will.  It didn’t.  I continued to be convinced that God had a plan for my life and that it was incumbent upon me to discern that plan in order to make the right choices in the decisions that confronted me.  After all, who wants to miss God’s best for their life?  Not me!  I wanted to be obedient and go wherever the Lord wanted me to go, do whatever He wanted me to do, study whatever He wanted me to study, and marry whoever He wanted me to marry. 

I spent the next couple of years begging God to give me direction, repeatedly expressing my desire to obey, if only He would show me what He wanted me to do.  But all my pleas were met with total silence.  As far as I could tell, the Lord was giving me no inkling about what He had for me.  No direction at all.  

So I gave up.

A few years later, I discovered a biblical truth that changed my life.  And suddenly, all my years of searching for God’s will made perfect sense. 

You may have wrestled with the same issue, asking the same questions.  Maybe you still are.  In our next Sanctification Saturday (Feb 12), we will be taking an in depth look at the question of God’s will and what the Bible teaches about decision-making.  What questions should we ask when faced with an important decision?  What questions shouldn’t we ask?  What exactly does God expect of us as we make the difficult choices in life? 

We’ll answer these questions and more next Saturday morning, February 12 from 8:30-12:00.  Look for the sign-up sheet on Sunday.  I hope to see you there.  
Posted by Greg Birdwell

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