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!