Tag Archives: Sovereignty of God

Suffering According to Jesus

jesus icon sufferingJesus was no stranger to suffering.

Not only did Jesus experience all the typical pain of life (hunger, pain, sickness, death of friends and family), he also lived under an oppressive regime which commonly used violence to keep the masses under control. In 6 C.E. when Jesus was about 10 years old, the Roman army killed Judas of Galilee and lined the roads around Sepphoris (4 short miles from Nazareth) with the corpses of 2,000 crucified men. Growing up so close to Sepphoris, it’s a safe bet that Jesus would have heard about the deaths. He might of even had family members or, at the very least, known people whose family was directly involved in the rebellion.

Knowing that Jesus experienced the hardship of life (harder, I would say, than myself or many others here in the USA), it worth paying attention to what he says about suffering. As in, does he consider pain and suffering to be part of the divine plan of God? A method of purification or a teaching moment? Or does he offering some other reason as to why pain and suffering happens?

In what is now the fifth post in a series about the “Sovereignty of God” I would like to look how Jesus on this topic. (For those just now joining, you can find the first four posts here, here, here and here.) I know this is a HUGE topic so please forgive me if I seem to skim over things. My goal is to look at the overall message of Jesus to capture the jest of his viewpoint.

War Zone

In reading the four Gospels, one thing that stands out is Jesus’ battle with the forces of evil. He is constantly driving out demons and rebuking the forces of nature. Sadly a lot of modern folks in the West skip over these parts as they don’t believe in the supernatural. Rather they think that these verses are remnants of a lesser culture where people believe in all kinds of false things. To these folks, the main point of the Gospels is Jesus’ teachings about love, acceptance and ethics.

However if we are to take the Scriptures seriously, we must admit that this world in which we live has an invisible supernatural element to it (a view, BTW, that majority of the world throughout the ages has held). In his book God at War, Greg Boyd gives a convincing argument that the Scriptures were written with the believe that God is at war with evil, pain, and death. This means that Jesus’ actions of healing the sick and casting out demons were not philosophical actions, but rather battles against the forces of evil.

As such, we can then safely say that Jesus didn’t view sickness, pain, suffering or any other form of evil as being part of God’s divine plan. They were not teaching moments or ways of purifying the soul. Rather they are things that are contrary to the heart of God and should, therefore, be attacked and driving out. (This, by the way, is not to say that all forms of sickness and pain is caused by demons as some may say. Rather the point of this is that Jesus is at war with evil rather than using evil as a tool.)

The Red-Letters

Below are some verse in which Jesus talks about the problem of suffering:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he [Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” -Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

This passage shows that there were people in the 1st century (like today) that though that death, pain, and suffering was connect to how righteous one was. In other words, those who did not sin were spared pain/suffering while those who did sin experienced such items.

Jesus fights this mentally head on by informing the questioners that sin played no part in the suffering/pain/death experienced by these folks. Rather it was human freedom (Pilate’s massacre) and natural law (falling tower) that caused the death/pain/suffering. This is huge as Jesus could have said that the pain/suffering/death was all part of God’s divine plan and that folks just needed to trust God. Yet, Jesus – God himself, I might remind you – didn’t tell them that.

Now there is a passage that some will use to claim that Jesus did say that God causes sickness for his glory. However that passage (John 9:1-7) isn’t as clear cut as some would like. But first the passage in question:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. – John 9:1-7 (ESV)

At first glance it looks like the “God-is-using-sickness” crowd has won. However things are not always as they seem. As most of you know, the Gospel of John was originally written in 1st century Greek. Translators then translate the words into English so that we common people can read them. These translators, no matter how hard they try, are biased people (like all of us) who hold to certain theological views. Most of the time these views don’t really matter as the passages are fairly straight forward. However there are times when there are times when the there is no direct ancient Greek to modern English word. It is during those times that one’s personal theology and worldview effects how one translates the Scriptures.

John 9:3 is one of those passages. Translators who hold to a “God controls everything” viewpoint (which is the most dominant view of things) tend to translate the Greek with a view that God caused the man’s blindness for the express purpose of giving himself glory. However there is another way of translating this verse that fits better with the overall passage. Here’s two examples:

Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.” –The Message

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus answered, “but let the works of God be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day…” – truthortradition.com, relying on the works of Greg Boyd and others

Under this alternative translation, John 9:3 goes from Jesus telling folks that God caused the man’s blindness to Jesus fighting the blindness as something that does not fit within God’s plan. This view, in my option, fits better within the overall story of Jesus as a God at war with the pain and suffering of a fallen world.

Conclusion

In looking at the life and ministry of Jesus, I see a God who is fighting against pain, suffering, death and evil rather than one who is using it for his purpose. I know this view doesn’t fit within the typically “God-is-in-control-of-everything” view of the Sovereignty of God. However I do think it fits within the consent and participation view of God’s Sovereignty – a view, I might add that is as ancient, if not more so, than the “God-in-total-control” view.

I also know that some of you might look at the above and say “Josh may have a point with the Gospels, but I know that St. Paul says…” To those folks, I will say that I try to read the read the Scriptures through the lens of Jesus rather than Jesus through the lens of St. Paul or any other author. This means that when I’m in doubt, I will always go back to the words and action of Jesus as he is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). And when I do so, I find a God who is a war with evil not a God who is using evil as a pawn. Hence why I reject the “God-in- total-control” view of life and embrace the consent and participation view of God’s Sovereignty.

How Would Jesus Rule If He Was King?

41-jesus-blesses-the-children-detailAs noted before (most recently here and here) I have been thinking a lot about the Sovereignty of God/Free Will dilemma and the different worldviews that grow out of our understanding of this mystery. Today I want to explore what Sovereignty of God would look like if seen through Jesus.

Or to rephrase the topic, what kind of king is Jesus and how would he rule?

Before we start, I must admit to a strong presumption that colors everything I see. Namely I believe that Jesus is the most clear picture we have of the Creator King. To see Jesus is to see the Creator (John 14:9). Or has St. Paul wrote, Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).

Practically this means that when I seek to know what God the Creator is like, I will look to Jesus as revealed through the four Gospels rather than looking toward the Old Testament or the letters of the New Testament. I know that this method of theology is frown upon by some people…but at this point in my life, this is where I fall. 🙂

Returning to the topic at hand, let us chat a bit about how Jesus would rule. To do this, let us create two lists with words that we would associate with how we would think Jesus would rule and how we would think we humans would rule.

human vs jesus rule

While we could add more words to each list, I think the pattern has been established. Namely the way in which we humans try to rule is vastly different than the way in which Jesus would rule. Knowing this we can now shift our thinking to the way in which we see the Sovereignty of God as typically promoted by evangelical church in the USA. (Sovereignty, by the way, is just another way of saying Kingdom – as in, how one would rule?)

Sovereignty of God (i.e. the typical view of how God rules within the world)

  • Control – God is in control of everything; nothing happens within the universe that he doesn’t allow
  • Coercion – Coercion is the practice of persuading someone to do something by user force and/or threats. Under the typical view of the Sovereignty of God, we see a God who threatens humanity with eternal damnation if they don’t follow his rules. Furthermore, humanity and creation doesn’t really have a choice in the matter as God controls every detail of life, including whether or not someone choices to obey or not.
  • Intervention – Under this view, supernatural events (i.e. healings, miracles, etc.) are typically seen as interventions by God within the world to make sure things continue to go the way he wants it wants it to.

Sovereignty of Jesus (i.e. the rule of the Creator seen through the person of Jesus)

  • Consent – To consent to something means giving permission for something to happen. It is the opposite of having control, for rather than trying to micro-manage everything one gives away one’s power and authority to others. This attribute can be further broken down into two sub-groups:
    • Natural Law – Gravity, weather patterns, atoms, plant life, etc… The typical Sovereignty of God view states that since God has complete control over everything, then the weather patterns we are see are directed by God as is the movement of the smallest ant or bacteria. Under the Consent view, the Creator has granted power and authority to the forces of nature to act according to set parameters. For example, gravity always pulls smaller items of mass towards those of greater mass (i.e. things fall downward). Rain, as Jesus said, falls on the just and the injustice (Matthew 5:45) and towers will fall, sometimes killing people and sometimes not (Luke 13:1-5).
    • Human Freedom (Free Will) – To have love, one must be willing to face rejection. A view of God who has absolute control does not allows for true love, which is one of that view’s greatest weakness. The Sovereignty of Jesus is a rule that consents to give away the power of choices to humanity and creation. The ant can make a decision about where to go just like a human can choice to love Jesus or not. The four Gospels shows this consent beautifully when you see Jesus gave up control over his mission to 12 guys who, at times, truly screwed up. Yet rather jumping in and taking back control, Jesus work with them and taught them a better way to live.
  • Participation – This is one of the most powerful attribute of a kingdom ruled by Jesus. We know from multiple sources that Jesus was the Creator God who entered into this world as a human. This shows us a ruler who didn’t just set up the universe and then walk away. Rather, we have a Creator who enters into this crazy, screwed up world to show us the way forward. He didn’t give up on us and take back control over every detailed (a fear based action, btw). Rather he joined himself to us in an act of love.
  • Mediation – Mediation by definition is the act of stepping into a dispute in order to resolve it. Jesus is like this. There are times when he steps in mediate the actions of humanity and the laws of nature. This is what miracles are – mediations by the grace of God in which he in, through, and around the laws of nature and the consent of humanity to resolve the issue at hand.

If I’m completely honest with myself, I can see the draw of having a God who is in complete control over the good and bad things of this crazy world. I can also see the benefits of having a God who controls and coerce me into doing what I do – not to mention having a God who will step in and fix things when the details get a bit off. Under this view, I – Josh Hopping – really don’t have much to do outside of living. If something goes great, awesome! I’m glad God was there. If things go haywire, great! It’s not my fault so talk to God.

thornsI know that this may be a bit critical of the typical Sovereignty of God worldview…yet I believe it captures the essence of that view. Yes, the control and coercion bits can be dampened down a bit with Scripture verses talking about humanity’s choices and actions. This is what Arminianism tries to do in reaction to Calvinism. There is also a neo-Calvinism movement within the USA that tries to dampen things down a bit while staying true to the five-points. However, I would argue that all these sub-movements are nothing more than, to use a common phrase, lipstick on a pig. They try to make the best of a bad foundation rather than solving the underlining issue.

I fully recognize that embracing a consenting, participating and mediating Creator is scary. Living in a world in which bad things happen for no reason – where we have an enemy who is trying to destroy us (i.e. satan and the forces of evil) can be daunting. It can mess your mind and make you wonder how anything could ever happen….

This is why we have the Scriptures and why we have Jesus. The Scriptures give us a story into which we can join; a story that has a beginning, middle and an end. A story of the Creator participating in and among his creation where he does NOT leave his children alone. Rather he binds himself to humanity with promises that he will and has kept. We don’t have to be scared because we know the end of the story even though we may not know all the details.

Jesus. We can never forget or have enough focus on Jesus. He is the reason we can keep walking. He is the Creator God who enter into our world so that we would know that we serve a Creator King who understands the pain, heartache and troubles of this screwed up world. Jesus is our High Priest to whom we can go when times are hard – when our children is in pain, when our life is out of control, when evil seems to have won – and he will receive us with mercy, grace and love (Hebrew 4:14-16).

Jesus, a consenting, participating and mediating Creator who loves and understands each of us individually. Powerful stuff.

For those who are curious, a lot of the material in this post was pulled from my class notes with Dr. Brad Jersak at St Stephen’s University. His book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel, also explores this topic a bit. From what I can tell, the view of a consenting, participating and mediating Creator is the view of the Eastern Orthodox Church who did not embrace the view of St. Augustine like the Western church did. (St. Augustine laid the foundation for the controlling, coercing, and intervening view of God that has dominated Christianity within Europe.)

A More Christlike God: Thoughts on Brad Jersak’s book

a more christlike god brad jersakI read it twice. Within three months.

This, I might add, is a VERY rare thing for me as I typically only read a book once. And those books which I do re-read, I usually re-read them after a few years. So to say that I read Brad Jersak’s book “A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel” twice within three months is saying a lot.

Granted if I’m being completed honest, I must admit that it was the prospect of meeting Brad in person that prompted me to re-read the book. Brad was scheduled to be my one of my professors at St. Stephen’s University this past October and I wanted to be able to ask him some questions about his book. And yes, the books was required reading by Brad along with N.T. Wright’s “Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.” (You HAVE to love classes that require you to read the books you would read on your on! No more self-justifications of the cost – instead it is all wrapped up in the “education” bucket of the budget!!) 😀

Before talking about the book itself, it is helpful to know a bit more about Dr. Brad Jersak. As mentioned already, Brad is an adjunct faculty member at St. Stephen’s University in Canada. He also teaches New Testament and Patristics classes at Westminster Theological Centre in the United Kingdom in addition to serving as the senior editor of Plain Truth Ministries. His faith journey includes growing up within the Baptist General Conference before becoming a church planter/pastor within the Conference of Mennonites in BC, Canada. After years hanging out with the Mennonites, Brad shifted gears and joined the Eastern Orthodox Church where he has been chrismated and ordained as a Reader in the Orthodox Church (OCA) for the All Saints Monastery in Dewdney (Canada).

Brad’s Eastern Orthodox connections are very important as his book “A More Christlike God” is packed full of concepts gleaned from our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. The book was also, as I found out talking to him this past October, was reviewed and approved by several Eastern Orthodox theologians. The book also received endorsements from a surprising wide range of Protestant and Roman Catholic Church authors, ministers, and priests including Father Richard Rohr, Eugene Peterson, Brian McLaren, William Paul Young, Frank Schaeffer, and Brian Zahnd.

The primary focus of the book is fairly simple – mainly that the best picture we have of God is Jesus and, as such, we should allow Jesus to influence the way in which we see God and read the Bible. While this premise sounds simple, the sad reality is that a lot of us have based our view of God on things other than Jesus. Whereas St. Paul says that Jesus is the “the image of the invisible God” [Co 1:15], we tend to split the Triune God up into three parts with a different image for each part. We have the punishing judge Father God, the nice Son (Jesus) and the crazy unknown Spirit…or we have the deadbeat dad God or perhaps the genie in the bottle God who we can influence through doing or praying the right things.

Writing from an Eastern Orthodox viewpoint, Brad challenges these different misconceptions of God while offering a picture of a loving God based upon the person of Jesus. This focus on the cruciform God (i.e. God on the cross) effectually challenges the a lot of the common theological concepts we in the Protestant world take for granted. For example, whereas the Protestant world is focused on the Calvinism/Arminianism debate of sovereignty of God and human participation, Brad offers a uniquely Eastern Orthodox viewpoint in which God consents to freedom but also engages in participation within creation.

Reading – and later talking to Brad – about this alternative to the dualism of the Protestant world was a breath of fresh air for me. A few years ago I came to the conclusion that the Calvinism/Arminianism debate had outlived its usefulness and was no longer helpful. However I was having troubles coming up with a theological alternative that I could fully embrace. And why I’m fine with living in the mystery of not knowing, I knew that my position as a pastor/teacher would require a deeper understanding of the issue so that I could help others walk the path. While I was able to find an alternative in the writings of Greg Boyd (i.e. open theism), I was having a hard time finding anything on the topic from the Eastern Orthodox side of the family (a group with which I have had a longtime love affair). The book “A More Christlike God” filled that vacuum for me – and taught me that I had in fact already been exposed to the Eastern Orthodox view on the matter, I just didn’t recognize the argument as it was buried under implicit language typical of those from the East. 😕

celtic cross sunsetConnected with the sovereignty of God and human participation topic are the issues of the atonement (i.e. what happened on the cross?) and the wrath of God. While anyone of these topics could have been a book within itself, Brad seamlessly weaves all three issues into his book while keeping the focus on Jesus and the cruciform God. I especially liked his selection on the atonement as breaks down the weakness with the penal substitutionary atonement view of most Protestants while highlighting the value of the victory of God over satan, evil, sin and death. But then again I’ve been a proponent of the Christus Victor atonement view for quite some time. 🙂

The part of the book that I have the hardest time with is when Brad seeks to un-wrath God in the both the Old and New Testament. For those who have read the Scriptures know that there are some parts of the Bible (mostly in the Old Testament) that are extremely hard to understand. Why and how could a God who claims to be love (1 John 4:8) command the total genocide of various people groups? It doesn’t make sense… which is why one of the first heresies in the church was the view that the God of the OT is different than Jesus and the God of the NT. However the early church mothers and fathers were quite clear that the God of the OT is the same God of the NT – and this God is seen the most clear in the person of Jesus. Brad puts it this way in his book:

“[T]he Bible itself takes us on a progressive, cruciform pilgrimage from primitive literal understandings of wrath, where God appears to burn with anger and react violently, to a metaphorical reading of wrath, in which God consents – gives us over – to the self-destructive consequences of our own willful defiance. The cruciform God will not and cannot, by love’s nature, coerce us to obey. God grants us the dignity (and discomfort) of ‘finding our own bottom’ (to use 12-step recovery terminology), the end of which is willing surrender to the arms of grace. In the Bible, the shorthand for this process is ‘wrath.’” [page 185]

I must admit I’m still pondering about the full ramification of this definition of wrath as the concept has some very powerful consequences in how we read the Scriptures, see God and live life. Yet I think it is an issue we need to think about as we live in an age of war, fear and revenge. Regardless of the consequences, the one thing I do know is that if we are going to error in how we see God, let us let us error on the side of Jesus and love.

“I [Jesus] say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” –Luke 6:27-31

Calvinism and Arminianism

Calvin and Arminius One of the big debates among Protestants for the last four or five hundred years deals with the character of God. Is He a God who rescue individual humans by His will alone regardless of what the people do or think? Or is He an all-loving God who gives humans both the choice to follow Him and the grace to act upon such a choice?

In theological terms, those two views of God are called Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinism, named after John Calvin, follows the concept of the first question listed above why Arminianism, named after Jacobus Arminius, follows the concept of last question. Both views came into prominence in Europe during the 1500’s while the views themselves date back further. Calvinism draws off of the teaching of St. Augustine in the fifth century while a lot of Arminianism back to the first century and Church Fathers.

It should be stated that neither viewpoint fully answers all the theological questions in a satisfactory manner.  There are holes, weak-points, and unknowns in both theological systems as well as every other theological system ever developed. The fact is that God is so amazing and huge that we, as created creatures, can never fully understand His ways (Isaiah 55:8). We can think about He and talk about Him as He Himself told us to “come and reason” with Him (Isaiah 1:18), but in the end all we can do is throw ourselves at His feet and cry “Father, Father, here I am.”

Sadly enough there is a growing number of evangelicals in the USA who are pushing Calvinism as the ONLY correct theological viewpoint out there. They have bad mouthed Arminianism, Open Theism and anybody who does not agree with their viewpoint. I myself have personal come under the gun a few times from folks like this who tried to persuade bagger me into believing the things they did.

cartoonWhen this happened, I typically fell back on a viewpoint taught to me by an old college professor. This viewpoint, typically called “Calminanism”, confirmed both Calvinism and Arminianism without fully making a decision. However the more I study and learn about the issue, the more I realize that this professor, while trying to be helpful, really didn’t help his students.

The reason I say that is because the idea of blending Calvinism and Arminianism lends itself to a very shallow and stereotypically view on the concepts behind Calvinism and Arminianism.  For example, if I were to ask you all to define Calvinism and Arminianism, most if not all of you would say that Calvinism is about the sovereignty of God (i.e. God is in control and choose who goes to heaven) while Arminianism is about free will (i.e. humans can choose to follow God or not). A “Calminanism” view would then be the view that confirms both the sovereignty of God and the free will of humanity.

Interesting enough, as I have recently discovered, this “sovereignty-of-God-and-the-free-will-Calminanism” view of theological is actually the view thing that Arminianism teachings. Yes, you heard that correctly. Arminianism confirms the sovereignty of God, teaching that no one comes to the Father except those called by Him, while also confirming the fire will of humans to reject the call of Jesus to follow Him. It IS the middle path!!

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