01 November 2007
The Basics: Love, Grace and Sovereignty
In this second instalment in a new 11-part series looking at how the Alliance's Basis of Faith is Good News for our neighbours, Dr Justin Thacker discusses...
2. The love, grace and sovereignty of God in creating, sustaining, ruling, redeeming and judging the world.
Towards the climax of the book of Job, when God finally addresses his long-suffering servant, the words are not so much those of comfort, but rather a declaration of sovereignty:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!"
The second clause in our Basis of Faith is packed with attributes that similarly announce the sovereignty of God. God is loving and graceful, a creator, sustainer, ruler, redeemer and judge. He is, in short, King and Lord. Yet, the concept of sovereignty is one that our world continues to struggle with. Ever since the Greek philosophers encouraged us to "know ourselves", humanity has struggled with the idea that anyone else might be in charge of our lives. No doubt, part of this is simply pride. We do not want to bend the knee to anyone.
Yet at the same time we can't ignore the fact that people struggle with the concept of God's sovereignty mainly because of the inadequacy of our answers to the question of suffering. To put it bluntly: if God is in control, then why is the world such a mess? If God is in control, then why do we see rape, murder, war, death and disaster filling our news pages every day? To paraphrase the philosopher David Hume, either God is loving and impotent, or potent but evil. Which is it going to be?
Don't ask why
It is here that the book of Job becomes so relevant. Job, presented as an innocent man, has undergone serious hardship, not least from his so-called friends. Then when God does finally speak to him, the words, as we have seen, are less than comforting: "I will question you, and you shall answer me."
What can we learn from this? Well, many have developed ingenious theories about how God's answer is indeed an apologetic for the suffering in the world - an explanation for why dreadful things happen. However, I would suggest that the more honest answer is that God doesn't answer the "why?" question here; He merely asserts His sovereignty and authority in the face of it.
But if that is the case, then what do we say to our non-Christian friends? How is our declaration of God's sovereignty Good News for our neighbours?
When I was a children's doctor, I frequently came across young people who needed to go through painful and distressing procedures. They were understandably antagonistic towards me, the doctor who was doing these things. However, invariably they continued to love and trust their parents, even though the parents were at times literally holding their children down so that the procedure could be done.
Why was this the case? Clearly, it had nothing to do with whether the children understood the reasons behind the procedure. Some of them were too young to understand and even if they did, their response should have been the same towards me and their parents. Or should it? The fact was that their only experience of me was as the nasty guy in the white coat who did horrible things. But their experience of their parents was of numerous occasions of love and care, mixed in with relatively few painful experiences.
In other words, these children automatically interpreted their present painful circumstance in terms of the bigger picture of parents who genuinely love and care for them and who have shown that love and care on many occasions. The problem with me was that they had no bigger picture to draw on.
Seeing in context
Isn't it the same with people who have rejected God? They see the suffering and devastation, but they have no bigger picture of God's grace and love to draw upon. If all we focus on is the specific problem of the suffering in question, then there is no really satisfying answer to the problem of suffering.
However, in light of the grander vision of God's working with the world, it is not that the suffering diminishes or goes away, but we see it in context. And like the children, we can say, "Even though I don't understand why this is happening, I still recognise that you are a God who cares."
Perhaps this is what we see at work in God's answer to Job. In drawing Job's attention to the awesome nature of his power (Job 38.4-5), the universal reach of his knowledge (39.1-2) or the detailed expression of his care (38.41), God was encouraging Job to look beyond his own parochial concerns (however devastating they were) to the glorious vision of God's sovereignty over the world: a picture in which God is creating, ruling and judging, as well as loving and demonstrating grace.
An appreciation of this vision means that even though some aspects of our walk with Him are hard to understand, we can at least live with the tensions that remain. Given that, delight in God's sovereignty, rather than bringing fear, brings genuine joy. And so perhaps the Lord's words to Job were more of an answer than we first realise.
This series is not a commentary on the Basis of Faith, neither is it an explanation of how the Basis is interpreted by the Alliance. Rather, it focuses on the relevance of the Basis to spreading the Good News.