When times are tough - what is your comfort? When comforting others, where do you point them?
In the circles in which I move the encouragements of choice involve variations on the theme of 'God's got a plan.' Many's the time when a well-meaning brother (usually a brother) has said 'I guess at moments like this, all you can do is cling onto God's sovereignty.' Often I've heard friends say that only sovereignty has enabled them to get through the hard times.
Something's gone wrong here. 1.5 billion Muslims navigate through life clinging onto 'insh'Allah' (God willing). 800 million Hindus believe that karma will work everything out. And how many westerners, even in the face of terrible suffering, will still believe 'everything happens for a reason.'
This was really brought home to me about 5 years ago. I was praying with a new convert from Islam. We were worried about his visa application, but I was amazed at how he was 'trusting God's sovereignty'. In fact he was using language that I usually associate with the most mature of reformed Christians. I told him I was very impressed, he shrugged his shoulders and said 'In Pakistan we have a saying: 'God willing' - it means that whatever God wills will happen.' Insh'Allah had simply been translated to a Christian environment. Yet surely a Christian account of sovereignty involves more than simply transfering deterministic agency from Allah to the Father! Surely there's got to be a gospel-shape, a Christ-focus, a trinitarian dynamic to Christian sovereignty. Yet what was so striking about my friend's translated insh'Allah was that it sounded so completely like the Christian pastoral wisdom sketched out above.
Two years ago I went to northern Nigeria and the difference between Muslim and Christian accounts of sovereignty struck me again. When I wanted something done by Tuesday, the Muslim would tell me 'It will be ready, insh'Allah'. The Christian would tell me, 'It will be ready, if Jesus tarries.' Hallelujah!! Isn't that brilliant?? (King James' English lives on in Nigeria!). But isn't there all the difference in the world between a future determined by an inscrutible divine will and a future opened up in the gospel-patience of Jesus? I've tried to get people using 'If Jesus tarries' over here, but it hasn't taken. Yet.
Now I'm not denying for a second the sovereign rule of the Father through the Son and by the Spirit. And perhaps in future posts I'll outline some thoughts on what a truly gospel-shaped, Christ-focused, dynamically-trinitarian account of sovereignty might look like. But for now I will simply question the pastoral wisdom of referring the suffering Christian to the sovereignty of God as though 'God's in charge' was the sum and substance of the Christian hope.
All too often this amounts to a 'light at the end of the tunnel' comfort. How much better to encourage a person that Christ joins them in the tunnel.
I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings. (Philippians 3:10)
Christ is with us in suffering. He is especially near to the broken-hearted. As Spurgeon used to say, He never throws His children in the fire without joining them in it (cf Dan. 3; Isaiah 43:2). In suffering we get to know the Suffering Servant with greater depth and intimacy than ever before. To simply point to the God over and above us in suffering is deficient. We must also point to the God beside and within us.
The gospel is not the truth that, while I may be buried in muck, God remains untouched in pristine glory and one day I'll be there with Him. The gospel is that God joins us in the muck. The gospel is that He stoops, sympathises and suffers alongside us. And that He raises us with Him to the throne. But if the gospel is not that God remains in heaven and we battle on till glory, why does so much of our pastoral exhortation betray exactly such a 'gospel.'
Why do we so often point people to God's sovereignty and so rarely point them to God's Son? Why is the focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and so little on the One who joins us in the darkness? The one kind of exhortation produces tight-lipped soldiers, the other produces broken-hearted lovers. Let's aim for the latter!
0 thoughts on “Trusting God’s Sovereignty – Trusting God’s Son”
Great post. Thank you. I'm a sovereigntist as well, and appreciate the call to trust God's plan, but you're right. Sovereignty is not the end-all, be all. Ultimately I found the call to trust sovereignty to be unsatisfying - true, but unsatisfying.
Insh’Allah seems to illustrate the reason quite well. I've never heard a Muslim talk about the meaning of Insh’Allah, but everything else I know about Islam would lead me to believe it calls for a fatalistic resignation to God's will. God may allow me to suffer and die, and if he does, he's still God. He's just in everything, and submitted people suffer and die, therefore if I suffer he is still just.
We trust love, not sovereignty. Sovereignty is a wonderful tool in God's hand, and He will use it for our best ends, but love is the attribute we trust. When we suffer, we are best served to remind ourselves of His constant attention and care over us, then to remember His ability to do something about His concerns.
Pointing to Jesus is pointing to love incarnate, tested and proven.
Hence Spurgeon's point about Jesus joining us in the furnace. He does not join us out of duty or character, but out of love. He would not see us alone during those times, and so He embraces the pain with us.
I agree. We do need a 'truly gospel-shaped, Christ-focused, dynamically-trinitarian account of sovereignty', and that too often we can drift towards a stoical 'what will be [.... according to God's will], will be' where God is almost absent, or a impersonal 'God willing' which you focus on more in your post.
Nevertheless, although you avoid presenting it as a choice between either God's sovereignty, or God with us, you do seem to downplay the importance of the former.
For 'God with us' to be of any comfort God's sovereignty has to be there. It is no comfort if Christ joins you in the tunnel just to hold your hand (as some liberal teachers seem to suggest he does). As well as reclaiming the radical personality of our God we also need to emphasise eschatology, and that in relation to that the work of Christ. It is a comfort that Christ is with me in my suffering, but only because with him God the sovereign father will raise me to newness of life.
As usual to me the doctrine of union with Christ is his death and resurection seems the most balanced, God-honouring, grounded, historically minded place to look to.
Yes indeed - trusting to the power of God is not gospel faith. That is a scholastic theology of glory. Trusting God's mercy in Christ, that is gospel faith. I do like Calvin's definition of faith: “A firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Instit. 3.2.7)
I see much cross-over between your comments here and your excellent post: 'Serving God.'
I recommend this to anyone else reading.
Thanks for your comments. Union with Christ is exactly what I'm trying to trumpet. Phil 3:10 - knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings. So of course there is eschatology and there is final triumph, of course there is power. But, dagnammit, my comfort is *Jesus*. Jesus *Himself*. I want Him for Him - not for where He can get me. I think that's my main concern.
So let me be provocative. I do want Jesus to hold my hand in the tunnel. And I want Him to do that whether He gets me out or not. And I don't think that Jesus simply holding my hand in the dark is 'no comfort' - I think it is exceptional comfort. EXCEPTIONAL comfort. I would go to the depths to have it - never mind if I ever returned. I'd say that the Christian who simply looks ahead to the light at the end and misses the Christ in the darkness has not navigated that suffering Christianly. Not at all. And yet, how much conservative evangelical spirituality (the most respected and mature kind!) consists of navigating suffering with little or no reference to 'fellowship in His sufferings'?
You're right, I'm not trying to set up an either-or. As far as I can see it though, addressing this issue is not a capitulation to any 'liberal' impetus. I just don't see that as a danger if we're clear on who this Christ is who joins us in the furnace. All I'm trying to do is take the gospel seriously as Christ's descent to us, not our ascent to Him. Therefore when suffering comes, my first thought is not 'One day I'll get up there.' My first thought is 'Thank you Jesus for coming down here.'
One of Mike Reeve's sermons (wish I could remember which one - it's one he did for UCCF) has a line that goes something like this:
"If, in the end, the Muslims are right, and Allah sends me to his hell along with Jesus, then that will be heaven for me."
Brilliant. And I heard it while undergoing the suffering that was a rather bad weekend on evangelism put on as training for us ordinands. Although we had some dire 'teaching' I left rejoicing in Jesus.
Glen - might I give a 'hmmm' though? While the presence of Christ is a great comfort - in fact, THE great comfort - it still remains that without the resurrection from the dead (the light at the end of the darkness) our faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:19).
To which the answer is - the light at the end of the tunnel is Jesus. Yes, but without future resurrection even the fellowship in his sufferings is in vain. (Is that last sentence too strong... I feel nervous submitting it!)
I think Luther first said a version of this - though he said he'd rather be in hell with the *bible* than in heaven without it. Whoah! Spurgeon said it with 'Christ' too.
And I think the point of that stuff (and what I was saying above) is that we desire Christ for Christ (and not for the happy ending He brings). That's the reason I want to push the line I pushed in my last response. And I think it deserves pushing - if the only role Jesus plays in comforting the suffering is to ensure happier times on the other side then we're just using Him!
But, you're right, there's a limit to this. To push only darkness/cross/suffering is to fall off the horse the other side. The Christ we embrace (or, rather, who embraces us) is the risen Victor. So, no, don't be nervous submitting Scripture! if only for this life we have hope in Christ we are to be pitied more than all men! Fellowship with Christ in suffering is still fellowship with the powerful (but no less sympathetic) risen Christ. (again Phil 3:10) We can't have cross without resurrection and vice versa. We always carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus might be revealed. Strength in weakness etc. It's always both.
But if it's resurrection/ strength/ happy-ending that's solely in view then it's not Christian comfort that's being given. My comfort in suffering becomes simply the throne to the exclusion of the crib and the cross. This is just a pastoral theology of glory. Funny how that last sentence doesn't sound so bad to our modern evangelical ears. It would have sounded appalling to Luther!
good points, I think II Cor. 1:3ff hits on this point as well . . . I think Jesus is with us in it, all the way to the "end" Phill. 1:6.
Thanks for your response. Sorry I have been unable to comment again until now.
I agree with your further comments, and appreciate your challenge to how I may 'use' Christ.
While I think our hope is Christ, not his gifts, you are right that "Fellowship with Christ in suffering is still fellowship with the powerful (but no less sympathetic) risen Christ. (again Phil 3:10) We can’t have cross without resurrection and vice versa." I was missing that in your post. If I am in hell with Christ, in some senses yes that would be heaven, but on the other hand if I am in hell with Christ then Christ is not Christ but a liar.
Thanks for the usual thought-provoking stuff.
Thanks Bobby - been spending some good time in 2 Cor recently. Strength in weakness - pure gospel!
Dave, thanks for provoking me too. You're right - the 'being in hell with Christ' thing is an impossible thought experiment. It is of limited value and should be qualified. (But you'll have realised by now I prefer bold black and whites before I retreat back into murky greys!)
Glen, great stuff as always. I especially like the conclusion you and Tim arrived at. “If in this life only…”
I think I would say I find strength and courage in His abiding presence and hope in His future glory.
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