Tag Archives: Sovereignty of God/Free Will dilemma

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.

When Sh*t Happens: Why Your View of the Sovereignty of God Matters

Theology for theology sake is worthless. The reason we ponder the mysteries of the cosmos is so that we can live life better. Nowhere is this concept more applicable that when dealing with the great Sovereignty of God/Free Will dilemma.

To some, this dilemma is so huge and so crazy that they will walk away from it with their fingers in their ears. However  I would say that we need to think about this issue for it affects how we act when sh*t happens in our lives. Pastors especially need to ponder this issue as they will be called upon by others in the middle of some sh*tty events and how they answer this question will color their interactions.

Over the last few weeks, I have talked about some alternatives to the typical Arminianism/Calvinism option given to folks. Namely I brief discussed Open Theism and the Eastern Orthodox’s consent and participation view of God’s rule. Today I’m going to try to think through how these views would color one’s interactions with folks who are in the middle of pain and suffering. In doing this, I fully note that I will most likely misrepresent one or more of these groups….and for that I will apologize in advance and ask for your help via the comment section below.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564)
John Calvin (1509 – 1564)
Calvinism

There are five major points within Calvinism that dictate how they view the world. These five points (also known as TULIP) are listed below:

 

  • Total Depravity
  • Unconditional Election
  • Limited Atonement
  • Irresistible Grace
  • Perseverance of the Saints

Because of Calvinism’s position of Total Depravity (i.e. original sin; everyone is born a sinner), Irresistible Grace and Unconditional Election, Calvinist have the hardest position to defend when it comes to the problem of evil. Since God is in charge of everything (either directly or allowing it), the sh*t that happens to people is all part of God’s plan.

Therefore when a two-year old child is murdered, a Calvinist has to hold on to the belief that God caused/allowed it to happen for some reason (typically to teach someone something or because of some unknown ‘good’ reason which we human can never know). As a pastor and a Jesus follower, I think this mentality is harmful and does not draw people to Jesus.  (yeah, I’m fairly biased against this viewpoint…) 😛

Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609)
Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609)
Arminianism

Arminianism, why held by a large portion of the Protestant church, isn’t always understood or acknowledged due to the vocal criticism of influential Calvinists. Roger Olson, a leading Arminian theologian, once described Arminianism has holding onto the following items (all words are his, I just split his sentence into bullet points):

  • Total depravity (in the sense of helplessness to save himself or contribute meritoriously to his salvation such that a sinner is totally dependent on prevenient grace for even the first movement of the will toward God)
  • Conditional election and predestination based on foreknowledge
  • Universal atonement
  • Grace is always resistible
  • Affirms that God is in no way and by no means the author of sin and evil but affirms that these are only permitted by God’s consequent will.

The outworking of this view holds that that humanity can resist God’s grace and choose their own actions, which will sometimes lead to negative consequences for themselves and others. Arminianism also holds that while God has foreknowledge of the future without actually dictating and controlling the future. (Granted there are some Arminianism who hold a stronger view of God control things similar to their Calvinist cousin.)

Typically an Arminianist would say that God has two wills:  antecedent and consequent. God’s antecedent will states that he wants everyone to be saved while his consequent will acknowledges that only those who believe will be saved (i.e. “God reluctantly permits sin and enables it” – to quote Olson).

This means that the sh*t that happens isn’t the divine will of God acting upon this world. Rather it is the consequences of sin, death, and evil being played out in a world with free agents (i.e. humanity). In the case of a two-year old being murdered, an Arminianism would comfort the parents with the knowledge that the death of their child was not in God’s plan. It was something contrary to the antecedent will of God that happened because of the sin, death, and evil in the world.

IMG_0890Open Theism

This view of Sovereignty of God is similar to Arminianism (in fact, Roger Olson considers it as a variation of Arminianism) in that highlights the free moral agents of humanity. As in, humans are free to make choices that may or may not be within line with God’s plan. The major difference between Open Theism and classic Arminianism is that Open Theism pushes the free will boundaries of humanity to the limits without going into Pelagianism (i.e. humanity still need God to rescue them from evil due to original sin).

In other words, an Open Theist would say that humanity has complete control over the future with God working within creation and with humanity to guide the overall direction of history towards his overarching conclusion. Because of this, the timeline of God’s plans can, and are, subject to change according to the actions of humanity. This is not to say that God’s plans and/or promises will fail to happen, rather it is the timing of those plans/promises that can be changed. Just like the people of Israel delayed God’s plan for them to go enter into the Promise Land by 40 years, so can we delay God’s plans/promises.

Accordingly, an Open Theist would respond to a young child’s murder similar to that of an Arminianism in that they would both hold that the death of the child was not something sanctioned by God. Rather it was the consequences of sin, death, and evil being played out in a world. Jesus, rather than saying away from this pain, is there in the middle of the pain, holding the family tight and walking with them through pain. At its root, Open Theism is a warfare worldview that sees the world through a lens of a spiritual battle between God and sin/death/evil/satan. This, I might add, doesn’t mean that Calvinism and Arminianism doesn’t contain a warfare mentality. Rather this is to say that Open Theism places this warfare view at the forefront of their worldview along with the free will of humanity.

jesus iconEastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox’s view of the Sovereignty of God is one of God’s consent and participation (as mentioned last time). This means that God consent (i.e. gives up his authority to rule) to natural law (gravity, weather patterns, etc.) and human freedom. However rather than walking away and letting things go, God also participates within creation to rescue us (i.e. Jesus).

In addition, Eastern Orthodox  rejects the total depravity of humanity embraced by the other views. This may sound like a heresy to some of you as total depravity is something that has been drilled into Western Christianity to the point that it is taken for granted. However if you study church history, you will find that the concept of total depravity didn’t come into the church until St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD).

The background of the concept being St. Augustine’s debate with Pelagius on whether or not humanity could save themselves without God’s help. St. Augustine held that all of humanity was sinful with each of us being condemned for Adam’s sin. This sin was passed down throughout the ages through the human seed – a view that helped get sex labeled as sinful rather than beautiful (i.e. sin was passed generationally through the father’s semen to their children). Because of the total depravity of humanity, we need God to rescue us. Pelagius, on the other hand, held that we were born good and could rescued ourselves. While the church at large (Western and Eastern) rejected Pelagius view of sin and salvation, the Western half (i.e. Roman Catholic and then Protestantism) adopt St. Augustine’s view of original sin and total depravity while the Eastern half of the church, now known as the Eastern Orthodox Churches, did not.

Instead the Eastern Orthodox Churches adopted the view that humanity is, and was, created in the image of God and is by nature pure and innocent. Sin, however, has entered into the world through Adam and Eve as a sickness that effects every generation. Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it this way in his book The Orthodox Way:

“Original sin is not to be interpreted in juridical or quasi-biological terms, as if it were some physical ‘taint’ of guilt, transmitted through sexual intercourse. This picture, which normally passes for the Augustinian view, is unacceptable to Orthodoxy. The doctrine of original sin means rather that we are born into an environment where it is easy to do evil and hard to do good; easy to hurt others, and hard to heal their wounds; easy to arouse men’s suspicions, and hard to win their trust. It means that we are each of us conditioned by the solidarity of the human race in its accumulated wrong-doing and wrong-thinking, and hence wrong-being. And to this accumulation of wrong we have ourselves added by our own deliberated acts of sin. The gulf grows wider and wider. No man is an island. We are ‘members one of another’ (Eph. 4:24), and so any action, performed by any member of the human race, inevitably affects all the other members of the human race. Even though we are not, in the strict sense, guilty of the sins of others, yet we are somehow always involved.”

I mention all this because when it comes dealing with the sh*t of this crazy, messed up world, it really helps to know that we, humanity, are made the image of God. This means that when God grants us the freedom to reject or accept him, we aren’t automatically going to reject him. Rather there is a part of us, no matter how buried or small, that desires to be close to our Creator King. Humanity was created to be in a loving relationship with God and being outside of that relationship is an unnatural state not a natural state.

Practically this means that a pastor or Jesus follower can comfort the parents of a murdered toddler with the understanding that not only is Jesus there within the pain, but that this child who died was loved and embraced by the Creator King. Yes, sh*t happened due to the war that ranges around us. Yet the pain wasn’t from the hand of God nor was it his will that allowed/created the pain. Rather Jesus loves the child and was/is with them/us – in pain and death.

Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis puts it this way:

“We should not try to explain suffering or construct theories about the reasons for suffering in the world and systematic explanations that seek to reconcile innocent suffering with belief in a good and all powerful God. The pervading presence of senseless suffering in the world falls outside the bounds of every rational system. Remember how Dostoyevsky in his book Brothers Karamazov was seized with horror in contemplating the picture of suffering throughout the world, especially the suffering of the innocent and of the little children. The only answer, which Aliosha (representing Dostoyevsky’s own faith and attitude) can give is the image of the Crucified: He can pardon all; He can reconcile all, for He has measured the depth of our afflictions, of our loneliness, and of our pain. In the Crucified Christ, God does not remain a distant spectator of the undeserving suffering of the innocent but He participates in their suffering through the Cross and plants hope in the life of all afflicted persons through the Resurrection.  When faced with the mystery of evil and suffering, the story of Jesus as the story of God is the only adequate response. The human quest for meaning and hope in tragic situations of affliction, draw from Christ’s death and Resurrection the power of life needed for sustenance. Thus, as Christians we do not argue against suffering, but tell a story…”

“God does not intervene to save Jesus, but neither does God abandon Jesus. Jesus’ life ends with an open question to God, “God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God answers to the crucified Jesus by raising Him from the dead and glorifying Him. The resurrection signifies that God is present in the suffering of Jesus and of every human person. If we speak of Jesus’ real abandonment by God at Calvary, this could lead to the mistaken impression that suffering human beings are also forsaken by God. Instead, we must speak of God as silently present to Jesus at this terrifying moment, just as God is silently present to all those who suffer. This silent presence of God to Jesus becomes manifest in the Resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus confirms and completes all that Jesus was about in His life. The bottom line of the Christian faith is that God will be victorious over evil and suffering, as exhibited and effected in the death and resurrection of Jesus.” (emphasis added)

Conclusion

Throughout this post, I have sought to highlight how one’s view on the Sovereignty of God affects how one interacts with pain and suffering. I know that I most likely left out bits and pieces of this view or that. Yet my goal wasn’t to detailed out everything; rather I was trying to give you all a taste of what each view looked like. At the end of the day there are great Jesus followers who hold to all these views and I would gladly worship the Living King with them!

However I must also admit that when it comes down to pastoring and dealing with people in the trenches, I would rather deal with someone who hold to an Eastern Orthodox, Open Theism or Arminianism view of the Sovereignty of God. Calvinism, as I understand it, just doesn’t lend itself very well to compassion and mercy… so yeah, sorry my 5-point friends. :/

I would also say that on a personal level, I am leaning more and more towards the Eastern Orthodox view of consent and participation (as if that was’t obvious!). There is just something there that I love. Something that fits well with the mystery of the here and not yet that I see throughout the Scripture. Good stuff worth pondering. 😀

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.)