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children Christians faith injustice jesus love patience religion Saint Paul Satan spiritual life theology

God Is Not In Control

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Well, of course, God is in control. He’s the supreme being, the maker and ruler of the cosmos. How could he not be in control of what he has made? It depends somewhat on what you mean by “control.” Does God determine everything that happens? Is he responsible for earthquakes and tsunamis, witch hunts and revolutions, murders and rapes? Does he get some kind of twisted delight out of tragic accidents or childhood cancer or Covid-19 deaths? If he does not cause disaster and evil, then does he permit it? And if he permits it, isn’t that the moral equivalent of causing it?

These are deep questions, and I am ill-qualified to answer them, but like many others, I can’t help trying to come to terms with them. As a Christian who trusts God and believes he is all good all the time, it does not sit well with me to imagine he created terrible evils or permits them. Perhaps, then, he allows evil because he can’t put a stop to it. In other words, God is not in control.

I’ve written already about who rules the world. Here I would like to introduce another bit of evidence, this time from the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught his followers to pray, “Your name: be hallowed; your kingdom: come; your will: be done. As in heaven, so on earth.” Yet who prays for what they already have? If God’s name is already highly esteemed, if his kingdom is already manifest throughout the world, if his will is already being done, then why make a petition of it? Christians pray for God’s will to be done because it’s not being done. How is it that omnipotence cannot do whatever it pleases whenever it pleases?

One conclusion that many people come to is simply that there is no God. This view has several advantages—a simplified morality where nothing is Good or Evil in some universal, cosmic sense but merely good or bad to or for particular outcomes in particular situations; a sense of intellectual superiority to the vast majority of mankind who throughout history has believed in some kind of god; freedom from arbitrary rules about how to live and behave; and the seductive promise that the pain and despair of existence can’t last forever.

It has disadvantages, too. Without God, there is no ultimate justice. The uncaught murderer will forever go unpunished. Without God, the longing we all have to be fully comprehended and to be loved can never be satisfied. Without God, we each and also collectively face the daunting task of deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil. Without God, there is no lasting life, no meaning to everything. We can only look forward to the heat death of the universe and perhaps—if some models are correct—an endless cycle of new universes that come into being, grow old, and die over unimaginably vast stretches of time and space.

At this point, I think it is helpful to introduce a distinction between power and authority. Power is the ability to act in a situation or context. Authority is the right to act in a situation or context. To act in a way that is good and right requires both power and authority. For example, a police officer might respond to a call about a domestic dispute and discovers that one of the participants is an undocumented immigrant. However, her city is a sanctuary city, and the police are specifically prohibited from detaining undocumented immigrants unless they are in violation of a city ordinance. The police officer has the power to act but not the authority.

The opening chapters of Genesis reveal a God who, in the act of creating, made creatures enough like himself that he could commune with them and love them. He subjected the world he had made to their authority, and when they rebelled against his good governance, they ceded that authority to God’s enemy. Thus Satan became the ruler of this world, and by his schemes and deceptions he has brought much evil into the world.

If God were like us, his judgment would have been swift and severe. He would have overpowered and immediately crushed the serpent, slain Adam and Eve for their disobedience, and restarted the whole project afresh. But God is not like us. He responded with love like a parent with disobedient children. He gave them consequences for their actions and waited to see what they would do. Would they repent and seek to re-establish the communion they had had with him? Or would they continue in rebellion? Throughout history, some have chosen repentance and some have chosen rebellion1Of course, the Christian understanding is that everyone defaults to rebellion, but some choose repentance and life. In his efforts to persuade rebellious humanity, God even sent his own son as an emissary, not with violence and threats, but with gentleness and love, to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms and surrender. He commissioned his church to the same task, calling them out from their accustomed lives to live a new life in obedience to God by displaying his own loving character in their words and deeds.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

For this reason, those who claim to be Christians but act with judgment and condemnation toward others have not rightly understood the mission of the church. The church has not been tasked with making society righteous by advocating for laws that reflect Bronze Age values from the Law of Moses. Indeed, Paul taught that the Law no longer held sway over those who commit themselves to Christ2Read just about any of Paul’s letters but especially those to the Romans and the Galatians. Therefore, when Christians spew forth vituperation and anger toward those whose political views differ from their own, they are revealing how much their own hearts and minds are still in bondage to the sinful nature. They are still in rebellion against God, who is patient with everyone but especially with those who have never known his goodness and love. Just as parents are gentle with young children who have not yet learned how to behave but harsher with older children who certainly know better, so God has more patience with sinners who have not known him but has less patience with those who have tasted his mercy and forgiveness.

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

Brennan Manning, attributed
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Christians faith patience Satan spiritual life struggle suffering theology trust

God’s Faith

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This post originally appeared on my website www.orderingchaos.com, but it really belongs here. So I moved it.

Christians think a lot about faith and admire those who exhibit great faith. Yet we also often follow the rest of our culture in reducing faith to believing a set of unprovable propositions about the nature of reality. We think of faith as believing that there is a God, that God loves people, that he is offended by their sin but made a way for them to be forgiven, and so on. But faith is much more than believing propositions. It is personal trust. Rarely do we consider the trust that God has in human beings.

Consider the story of Job. It is usually read as a story of exceptional patience under exceptional hardship. There are some odd things in the narrative, however, that don’t really belong to a consideration of Job’s suffering. The first two chapters describe scenes in heaven about which Job knows nothing. In both scenes, Satan the Accuser presents himself before God, and in both scenes God invites Satan to consider Job. Pause for a moment and let that take your breath away. Imagine God boasting to Satan of your faithfulness and integrity. God had so much confidence, so much trust in Job that he told Satan, “He is the finest man in all the earth—a good man who fears God and will have nothing to do with evil.” (Job 1:8). Satan immediately rises to the challenge answering God’s boast by impugning Job’s motives. Job’s integrity is just quid pro quo. Satan declares that he can make Job curse God to his face. God’s response? Go ahead, Satan. Do your damnedest. Just don’t harm him physically.

The next thing we know, Job loses all his children and all his wealth in a series of catastrophes. But contrary to Satan’s prediction, he does not curse God or even badmouth him. He expresses grief at his losses, tearing his robe and shaving his head, but acknowledges that he was born with nothing and may die with nothing. And he blesses the name of the Lord instead of cursing him.

Then we get a variation on the previous scene. Again God broaches the subject of Job’s integrity. This time Satan replies, “Skin for skin. A man will give anything to save his life. Touch his body with sickness, and he will curse you to your face!” Once again God lets Satan probe Job’s integrity, this time with sickness and unremitting pain. Once again Job’s integrity remains unscathed. Job is dismayed, depressed, confused, and tormented by questions, but he never doubts God’s overarching goodness. He demands an explanation as one might demand an explanation from a trusted friend for behavior that appears decidedly unfriendly. God denies Job’s right to know, essentially overwhelming him with questions too deep for his understanding until Job cries “Uncle!” He never lets on about the bet he had with Satan that Job wouldn’t crack.

Again and again throughout the bible God chooses to entrust his work to people who seem unworthy of that trust. Think of Moses, who kept making excuses against God’s call until God finally told him he had no choice. Think of Gideon, so afraid of the Midianite invaders that he was threshing in a wine press. Think of Simon Peter, so bold in declaring his willingness to die for Jesus but so craven when officers showed up to arrest him. What extraordinary faith God has in people!

In demanding faith from his people, therefore, God is not some megalomaniac who expects others to believe his lunatic ramblings. No, he simply demands the same trust from us that he has repeatedly shown to us. Like a good father, he expects his children to emulate his character.

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jesus love patience theology

Love is Patient

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Love is patient…. (1 Corinthians 13:4)

When Paul embarks on a description of the characteristics that distinguish love from other virtues, he begins with patience. This seems at first counterintuitive. What has patience to do with love? Shouldn’t he begin with doing good and being generous? We commonly think of patience as waiting without getting upset. So if I spend an extra 15 minutes at the doctor’s office waiting to be called but don’t get angry, it’s because I’m patient. This is certainly an aspect of patience, but I don’t think it is what Paul has in mind when he says, “Love is patient.”

The King James version has “Charity suffereth long,” and I think the concept of long-suffering gives us a clue to why Paul chose patience as the first characteristic of love. Today the concept of suffering almost always has to do with experiencing pain, but it was not so when the King James version was translated. It meant “to let, to allow.” So when Jesus said in Mark’s gospel, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” (Mark 10:14 KJV), he meant let them come. Jesus instructed his disciples not to control access to his presence. He had a genuine open-door policy, and he meant to see it enforced.

Therefore, patience is not primarily about waiting. It is about letting events take their course. It is about not trying to control what happens. Since love is other-centered rather than self-centered, it means specifically that love does not try to control other people. It allows people their own agency. It does not seek to manipulate, coerce, or cajole others into behaving as you want. Rather, it lets people make their own decisions, take their own actions, and suffer their own consequences.

This exactly describes the way Jesus behaved toward the rich young man who came to him asking how he could have eternal life. Jesus begins by giving him the standard religious answer: follow the rules, and you will live. But the man is not satisfied. He tells Jesus that he has kept the Law since he was a boy. Then Mark tells us, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” It is this love that motivates Jesus to tell the man about the one thing he still lacked. And it is because of that same love that Jesus watches the man walk away sad. Jesus does not do any of the things we are tempted to do for those we love. He does not pursue the man and try to talk him into making a different decision. He doesn’t lower his standard for entrance into the kingdom so the young man could meet it. He doesn’t try to trick him into changing his mind. He lets the man be sad. He lets him walk away.

I am convinced that the single greatest mistake that parents make with their children is in ignoring their child’s agency. They seek to control their child for any number of reasons—because they find their child’s misbehavior embarrassing, because they fear what may happen if their child makes bad decisions, because their own parents used deceit and manipulation to control their behavior. Of course, parents are legally responsible for their children, and they need to exercise a certain level of control. The aim of parenting, however, is the freedom and independence of the child. How can the child learn the self-discipline necessary to become an independent adult if the parents are always stepping in to impose artificial consequences or averting the natural consequences of their child’s behavior? It is only natural, then, that the child eventually reaches an age where they resent their parents and rebel against them. Our culture tends to consider this progression a natural part of growing up, but it is actually the result of a faulty concept of parenting that does not begin with the patience of love.

Before Paul says “Love is kind,” which introduces our own agency in doing good for others, he insists that love recognizes and honors the agency of others and does not try to subvert it or diminish it. Love begins with letting other people be and allowing them to decide and act in ways they think best. This is the love God has for us, and it is the same love he requires of us toward others. Love is patient because God is patient.

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