The Broken Stage in the Theater of God
Desiring God 2009 National Conference
With Calvin in the Theater of God
This message appears as a chapter in With Calvin in the Theater of God: The Glory of Christ and Everyday Life. The following excludes extensive footnotes and citations found in the chapter.
In the Institutes, “this most glorious theater” means our universe, and the works referred to are God’s work in creation and providence. Like an architect who manifests his greatness in every feature of an opera house from the grand sweep of its tiered balconies to his little touches with its light switches, so God reveals and “daily discloses [his glory] in the whole workmanship of the universe” from the splendor of the heavens to the shape and structure of the toenails on an infant’s feet (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster John Knox Press, 1960], Vol. 1, 52. Hereafter I shall cite the Institutes by volume, chapter, and section parenthetically in my text.).
And just as a human governor may reveal his kindness and mercy and justice in all that he does, so “in administering human society [God] so tempers his providence that, although kindly and beneficent toward all in numberless ways, he still by open and daily indications declares his clemency to the godly and his severity to the wicked and criminal” (1.5.7). And so not only the natural but also the human world is, according to Calvin, “a dazzling theater” of God’s glory (1.5.8).
In particular, “what are thought to be chance occurrences” in human life are, in fact, Calvin tells us, “just so many proofs of heavenly providence” and “especially of [God’s] fatherly kindness” to his children (1.5.8). Yet most people, “immersed in their own errors, are struck blind in such a dazzling theater,” and so, Calvin stressed, it in fact takes “rare and singular wisdom” to “weigh these works of God wisely” (1.5.8). But if we were to weigh them wisely, then we would see that “there is nothing” in the entire dispensation of human events that God “does not temper in the best way” and that God’s glory “shines forth” in all of it (1.5.8).
My task in this chapter is to suggest how we may weigh God’s works in ways that allow us to continue believing that God is indeed tempering everything in the best way, even when we become acutely aware of the various kinds and amounts of sin and suffering in our world. How can God’s glory be shining forth in all of this?
In the title he chose for this chapter, John Piper pictured all of this sin and suffering in terms of the theater having a broken stage — “The Broken Stage in the Theater of God: Sin and Suffering in Calvin’s World.” “The idea,” John wrote in his invitation to me, “is that even though Calvin saw the world and history as the theater of God, where his glory shone for all to see, he also had a profound view of sin and evil and suffering.”
Picturing our world as having a broken stage is illuminating. Because of Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience, human life until the eschaton is always being acted out on a broken stage, a stage strewn with the wreckage of sin and suffering. This makes our acting difficult and sometimes dangerous.
We not only find all sorts of obstacles — all sorts of adversities, calamities, and horrors — strewn across the stage’s surface, but we also can never be sure that its floorboards are sound and that our feet will not break through as we take our next step, or that the whole surface will not suddenly shift cataclysmically with all of the accompanying damage to us and the overall environment. (This is true for the righteous as well as for the unrighteous. See Ecclesiastes [9:1–3a]).
Yet here I want to enrich John’s metaphor. John wrote that he hoped that my chapter would deal with “some of Calvin’s own imperfections, notably the Servetus affair,” because he wanted the book’s treatment of Calvin to be realistic, and not a whitewash or cheap hagiography. And so let us also picture ourselves as broken. We are all, Calvin included, broken actors on this broken stage. Our first parents’ sin has infected us all, and so we are both infirm and untrustworthy, even if we are regenerate.
To put this into recent pop-psychology language, each of us carries our own baggage, our own personal and specific weight of damage and sin, and this makes us not only ill-equipped to react well to the difficulties and dangers we encounter on the broken stage, but it also means that our acting may be compromised at any moment by the spiritual, moral, cognitive, and aesthetic evils that tend to spring out of us. We are bad actors, not only in the sense that sometimes we act or react badly, but also in the sense that rather consistently we mean to act badly (see Ecclesiastes 9:3b and New Testament texts such as Romans 3:10–18).
Combined, all of this outer and inner brokenness means that, from our limited human perspectives, our way forward through the world is as uncertain and as prone to result in disaster of one sort or another as when a skier with a bum knee or a bad back is slamming through large moguls. The question is not whether he is going to fall; it is just when.
GOD’S PROVIDENCE OVER ALL
Calvin declares that “there is nothing” in the entire dispensation of human events that God “does not temper in the best way” and that God’s glory “shines forth” in all of it in spite of the fact that Scripture does not gloss over our world’s sins and sufferings. In addition to its record of the sin that plunged our world into woe (Genesis 3), Scripture is full of accounts like Rebekah’s and Jacob’s scheming to cheat Esau out of his blessing (Genesis 27), David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his subsequent treachery to Uriah (2 Samuel 11), Gomer’s unfaithfulness to Hosea, the Pharisees’ plots against our Lord (Matthew 12:14; 22:15–22), and Demas’s desertion of Paul (2 Timothy 4:10).
It also records events that caused great suffering: wars, famines (Genesis 41:54; 2 Kings 25:3), incest (2 Samuel 13), tornadoes (Job 1:19), and terrible illness. Indeed, it even records some of life’s greatest horrors, such as insanity (Mark 5:1–20), suicide (2 Samuel 17:23; Matthew 27:5), infant starvation (Lamentations 4:3–4), and even cannibalism (2 Kings 6:24–29; Lamentations 4:3–10).
Yet, in the face of all of this, Calvin claimed that God governs nature and “all [individual] natures” (1.5.6), including human nature and our individual human natures (this also includes inanimate objects, see 1.16.2). Because of what he read in Scripture, Calvin was sure that nothing that happens in the natural or human worlds falls out of God’s providential hands (1.16.4).
In his chapters in the Institutes on God’s providence, he emphasizes that absolutely nothing in this world comes about — not even a single drop of rain — without God’s having willed it (1.16.3). “[N]othing is more absurd,” Calvin declares, “than that anything should happen without God’s ordaining it” (1.16.8). “[E]very success,” he insists, “is God’s blessing, and [every] calamity and adversity his curse” (1.16.8, my emphasis). What “we call a ‘chance occurrence’” is simply “that of which the reason and cause are secret” (1.16.8). This does not mean that some events do not appear to us, from our limited perspectives, as fortuitous (1.16.9), yet “in our hearts it nonetheless [needs to remain] fixed that nothing will take place that the Lord has not previously foreseen” (1.16.9) and that is not “by his wonderful plan adapted to a definite and proper end” (1.16.7).
For many Christians and non-Christians, our world’s brokenness means that claims like these wear their falsity on their face. And even for those of us who find Calvin’s arguments from Scripture convincing, they may strike us as doubtful if we slam up against something that seems to us to be unacceptably evil. This could be something that has happened in the world — the Rwandan genocide or the babies that starve to death in various parts of the world every day.
Or it could be something that has happened to us — the failure of a marriage, a brutal rape, a family member’s suicide, or some hideous and yet besetting temptation that we must struggle against each and every day. It could be something biblical — such as God’s commanding the Israelites to wipe out whole peoples (Deuteronomy 2:34–35; 7:1–2; 20:16–18). Or it could be something more recently historical — such as the Holocaust. Perhaps it is something big — like the carnage wrought in the destruction of the World Trade Towers. Or perhaps it is something relatively small — like some Christian’s seeming inability to control her temper in ways that would allow her to be a much more effective Christian leader who did not leave a slew of hurt people in her wake.
We are bad actors on a broken stage filled with the wreckage of sin and suffering. Tweet
Thinking historically, we may find ourselves questioning Calvin’s claims because we hesitate to attribute to God’s providence the sorts of ailments and character defects that afflicted, say, Luther and Calvin. Does it seem right to say that God willed Luther’s persistent and debilitating rounds of spiritual depression? Ought we to believe that God planned from eternity past Luther’s extraordinary and unacceptable crassness — crassness so inappropriate that I dare not even repeat some of it?
Again, is it appropriate to lay at God’s feet the tragedies, embarrassments, and afflictions that dogged Calvin’s life — for instance, the deaths of his infant son and wife; the extreme humiliation of having both his sister-in-law and his step-daughter caught in acts of adultery in his own home; and his constant ill health including migraines, kidney stones (one so large that passing it lacerated his urinary canal), hemorrhoids that at times made it impossible for him to ride or walk and painful for him even to lie in bed, gout, and (particularly debilitating for a preacher and teacher) constant upper-respiratory weakness and distress?
None of this, it would seem, was likely to make Calvin a better leader of the Reformation. And, indeed, in his recent biography of Calvin, Herman Selderhuis writes that “it should come as no surprise that someone who suffered as much illness and pain as Calvin did also had less resistance and patience in other matters, and had a tendency to overreact” (Herman J. Selderhius, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life [InterVarsity, 2009], 196). And overreact Calvin often did, so much so that Bruce Gordon feels justified opening his new biography of Calvin with these words:
John Calvin was the greatest Protestant reformer of the sixteenth century, brilliant, visionary and iconic. The superior force of his mind was evident in all that he did. He was also ruthless, and an outstanding hater. (Bruce Gordon, Calvin [Yale University Press, 2009], vii, my emphasis)
Among those things he hated were the Roman church, Anabaptists and those people who, he believed, only faintheartedly embraced the Gospel and tainted themselves with idolatry. . . . Although not physically imposing, he dominated others and knew how to manipulate relationships. He intimidated, bullied and humiliated, saving some of his worst conduct for his friends. (Ibid.)
Some of Gordon’s statements are clearly too strong, since among other things, Calvin married a former Anabaptist. Yet, as Selderhuis notes, “Calvin seems to be aware that even his own character [was] often only another obstacle in his way” (Selderhuis, John Calvin, 7–8). I think that, in spite of his repeated efforts to be otherwise, Calvin always was a “difficult personality” — someone who by personality type tended to stand against others, admonishing them, and who was inclined to hew too doggedly to his own way.
When we are familiar with a fair amount of Calvin’s later life, it becomes dismayingly predictable that, while he was still a schoolboy, he “acquired the [Latin] nickname accusativus” — making wordplay on Latin grammar’s accusative case — because he was perceived as feeling that he had “a moral obligation to tell on others to the [school] administration” (Selderhuis, John Calvin, 14).
Yet, Calvin insisted, we learn from Scripture that “there is nothing” in the entire dispensation of human events that God “does not temper in the best way.” So why, we may be forgiven for wondering, did God will that Calvin’s life and temperament would be this way?.
PLACING THE BLAME WHERE IT BELONGS — ON HUMAN BEINGS
This much is certain: in attributing everything that happens ultimately to God’s will, Calvin had no interest in shifting the blame. In his Institutes, Calvin is very careful to place the blame for human faults where it should be placed — on the propensities and choices of sinful human beings and not on the God who has providentially ordained all things. So far as I know from his writings, Calvin was never tempted, for even a moment, to blame God for his own crankiness, defensiveness, and stubbornness. Calvin knew that insofar as his own character traits involved sin, they were inexcusable and should not persist. He knew that God condemned them and commanded their opposites in Scripture with statements like these:
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. (2 Timothy 2:24–25)
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12–14)
Calvin’s letters show that he took his faults very seriously. In fact, it was part of the Genevan pastors’ practice to take each other’s faults seriously. T. H. L. Parker highlights this in a passage describing Geneva’s Venerable Company of Pastors, which held a regular quarterly meeting “for mutual frank and loving self-criticism”:
In the church, as Calvin conceived it, every man helped every other man. If in Christ Jesus all believers are united, then a private believer is a contradiction in terms. Not only are the blessings and the virtues given for the common good, but the faults and the weaknesses concern the other members of the body. There was to be no hypocrisy of pretending to be other than a sinner, no dissembling or cloaking of sins; but, just as God is completely honest with men, and men must be honest with God, so also believer with believer must be courageously honest and open. The quarterly meeting was a little day of judgement when, flattery and convention laid aside, each man saw himself through the eyes of his fellows and, if he were wise, harboured no resentment but knew the uniquely joyful release of voluntary humiliation. (Parker, John Calvin, 115)
It is unsurprising, then, to find Calvin stating in his Institutes that we must not lay the blame for our own wickedness upon God, simply because his providence is the “determinative principle of all things” (1.17.2). And thus Calvin explicitly condemns the tendency, as it is sometimes found in the Greek and Roman poets and playwrights, for humans to shift the blame for their own wickedness to God because they take him to be the ultimate cause of what they do.
Calvin never doubted that we — and not God — are the instigators of the evil in our acts and thus that we are its cause and we are to blame. “These two statements,” Calvin says, “perfectly agree, although in divers ways, that man, while he is acted upon by God, yet at the same time himself acts!” (1.18.2).
So rather than shifting everything onto God, Calvin continues, “let [us] inquire and learn from Scripture what is pleasing to God so that [we] may strive toward this under the Spirit’s guidance” (1.17.3). We exercise our wills — indeed, we must exercise our wills — and in trying to determine what we are to will, “we must search out God’s will through what he declares in his Word,” knowing that “God requires of us only what he commands” in Scripture (1.17.5). That much is clear.
At the same time, what God providentially wills is part of a “deep abyss” that involves his “incomprehensible plans” that are “hidden from us” (1.17.2). Indeed, we cannot grasp “how God wills to take place [through human wills] what he forbids [in Scripture] to be done” (1.18.3). Yet here we must “recall our mental incapacity, and at the same time consider that the light in which God dwells is not without reason called unapproachable [1 Timothy 6:16]” (1.18.3).
“Nothing is more absurd than that anything should happen without God’s ordaining it.” –John Calvin Tweet
Calvin admits that understanding why the blame does not run through to God is difficult for “carnal sense,” since it “can hardly comprehend how in acting through [evildoers, God] does not contract some defilement from their transgression” (1.18.1). Yet he also asserts that “so great and boundless is his wisdom that he knows right well how to use evil instruments to do good” even though such carnal reasoners, in the fashion of Plautus’s Lyconides, “would have transgressors go unpunished, on the ground that their misdeeds are committed solely by God’s dispensation” (1.17.5). He then continues,
I grant more: thieves and murderers and other evildoers are the instruments of divine providence, and the Lord himself uses these to carry out the judgments that he has determined with himself. Yet I deny that they can derive from this any excuse for their evil deeds. (1.17.5)
To try to derive such an excuse would be, he maintains with a neat analogy, as absurd as blaming the sun for the stench of a corpse:
Whence, I ask you, comes the stench of a corpse, which is both putrefied and laid open by the heat of the sun? All men see that it is stirred up by the sun’s rays; yet no one for this reason says that the rays stink. Thus, since the matter and guilt of evil repose in a wicked man, what reason is there to think that God contracts any defilement, if he uses his service for his own purpose? (1.17.5)
Of course, as neat as that analogy is, if you pick at it long enough, it is going to break down, because all of our analogies are drawn from creature-to-creature relations that are different in kind than the Creator- to-creature relation. But Calvin suffers under no illusions here. He is vividly aware that no matter how many neat analogies he deploys, this view of divine providence will always lie open to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. For it is not merely “carnal sense” that cannot comprehend how God’s will can be “the truly just cause of all things” (1.16.1).
Comprehending how this can be is simply beyond human mental capacity because no matter how hard or long we try, “we do not” — indeed, I have argued elsewhere, we cannot — “grasp how in divers ways [God] wills and does not will something to take place” (1.18.3). Yet in spite of this ever-present danger of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, Calvin will not back away from this claim that God’s will is “the truly just cause of all things” because this is what a very close examination of the whole of the Scriptures showed him (see 1.17.14). In the final analysis, all he can do is to agree with Augustine that “[t]here is a great difference between what is fitting for man to will and what is fitting for God” (see 1.18.3).
WHAT GOOD IS THERE IN SIN AND SUFFERING?
Often, after we have suffered awhile (1 Peter 5:6–11), the issue of how God in his goodness can providentially will some piece of sin or suffering resolves itself because it becomes clear how he is working for our good through it. For instance, Luther came to recognize that God was being providentially good to him in his times of spiritual depression, as awful as they were. These depressions occurred throughout Luther’s lifetime, and it is hard to convey even a rough sense of how harrowing they must have been. “The content of the depressions,” Roland Bainton tells us, “was always the same, the loss of faith that God is good and that he is good to me” (Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther [Abingdon Press, 1950], 361).
Luther came to call this experience Anfechtung, meaning “all the doubt, turmoil, pang, tremor, panic, despair, desolation, and desperation” (Ibid., 42) that can invade the human spirit. In other words, Anfechtung was his word for utter hopelessness, for “swarming attacks of doubt” that he was “irredeemably evil” and consequently that God’s love was not for him, and for his recurrent “grinding sense of being utterly lost” (James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer [Augsburg Publishing House, 1986], 56). This would be a terrible experience for any Christian — and it was especially for Luther as the leader of the Reformation. How could he lead God’s people as his own faith flagged? (H.G. Haile,Luther: An Experiment in Biography [Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1980], 307–308).
Yet, as Bainton stresses, Luther became convinced that without these bouts neither he — nor any other human being, he thought — could come to “understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God . . . [or] the meaning of hope” (Bainton, Here I Stand, 361). David, he ventured, “must have been plagued by a very fearful devil. He could not have had such profound insights if he had not experienced great assaults.” As Bainton observes, this is very close to Luther’s saying that
an excessive emotional sensitivity is a mode of revelation. Those who are predisposed to fall into despondency as well as to rise into ecstasy may be able to view reality from an angle different from that of ordinary folk. (Ibid., 362)
Bainton continues, “Luther felt that his depressions were necessary. At the same time they were dreadful and by all means and in every way to be avoided and overcome.” Yet Luther was able to put his struggles into a context that made spiritual sense of them. And this, ultimately, made them bearable.
Again, while we must not claim to be certain about God’s unrevealed purposes in his specific ways of dealing with Calvin, it is not implausible to think that perhaps many of the tragedies and embarrassments and afflictions that dogged his life were intended to teach this immensely brilliant and driven man to rely on God’s mercy and providence rather than on his own talents and industry. Through such trials — and even through the sinfulness inherent in his own difficult personality — God may very well have been teaching Calvin that in himself — that is, in his flesh — there dwelt no good thing (see Romans 7:18).28
BUT WHAT IF GOD’S LOVE SEEMS ABSENT?
Yet sometimes, as Calvin puts it, God’s “fatherly favor and beneficence” do not “shine forth [for us] in the . . . course of providence,” and then “the thought creeps in that human affairs turn and whirl at the blind urge of fortune; or the flesh incites us to contradiction, as if God were making sport of men by throwing them about like balls” (1.17.1). It is then that we are likely to question whether God is indeed tempering everything in the best way.
In these situations, Calvin declares,
If we had quiet and composed minds ready to learn, [then] the final outcome [of even these situations] would show that God always has the best reason for his plan: either to instruct his own people in patience, or to correct their wicked affections and tame their lust or to subjugate them to self-denial, or to arouse them from sluggishness. (1.17.1)
If our minds were always composed like this so that we could always maintain faith that God as our heavenly Father is good and ceaselessly working for our good, then, no doubt, we would always know what Calvin calls “the immeasurable felicity of the godly mind” (1.17.9). But what happens when something seemingly so awful befalls us that our faith begins to fail? What happens when it seems like anything but God’s goodness and glory is what is being made manifest in some instance of sin or suffering — some instance that strikes us as so horrific that we cannot conceive of how it could be part of any “wonderful [divine] plan [that is] adapted to a definite and proper end”?
Here, while starting from insights that Calvin gives us, I want to go beyond anything that I am aware that he actually said in order to attempt to give those of us who are struggling, or who may someday struggle, with such situations a way to continue believing that our all-wise, sovereign God is indeed providentially tempering everything for our best.
Now in order to suggest how the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3) may be working for his children’s good even in the worst imaginable situations, I need to consider an instance of sin and suffering that is so horrific that it appears to make claims like God is tempering everything in the best way and God always has the best reason for his plan wear their falsity on their faces. So consider this tragedy. (I am drawing this tragedy together from several situations that I have been acquainted with while changing the details enough that it does not recount any one actual case.)
A loving father and husband who has been a conscientious follower of Christ for many years suddenly finds himself beset by a horrific temptation to abuse one of his young children sexually. He struggles mightily against the temptation, repeatedly begging God to take it away. He is, however, so ashamed of what he is struggling with that he cannot bring himself to tell anyone of the horrific desires he is facing.
His struggle continues for years. But then a day comes when he becomes deathly afraid that he is about to succumb. Rather than commit what he recognizes to be a horrific sin, he in his desperation kills himself in a violent and grisly way.
Afterward, his wife and children are left to cope with the enduring pain of having lost a husband and father by means of an act that they cannot forget and that they cannot explain. His wife had sensed that he was struggling fiercely with something, and she is left wondering why God did not answer her pleas that he would protect her husband and bring him through whatever was plaguing him. She has always had faith in her heavenly Father and in the efficacy of prayer, but her faith is now gutted, especially as she attempts to reconcile her husband’s gruesome death with her prayers that were prompted by our Lord’s words:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7–11)
Whenever she recalls these words, she finds herself thinking that no loving earthly father would have willed that one of his children die like this. This blocks her from considering God as a Father for years on end. If I can’t trust these words of Scripture, she remarks bitterly to just a few of her closest friends, then what can I trust? How can I believe that God is good in any way?
Now can anything be said to help someone in a situation like this? How can this woman be encouraged to weigh God’s providential work in a way that will allow her to continue believing that God is a loving heavenly Father who is indeed tempering everything in the best way? What hope can we offer her that someday she will see God’s goodness and glory shining through this horrible tragedy?
FAITH VERSUS EXPERIENCE
In more pleasant times, our grief-stricken widow would have readily agreed with Calvin that God has made his power, goodness, and wisdom so evident in the design and governance of our universe that even secular poets, “out of a common feeling and, as it were at the dictation of experience,” were prompted to call God “the Father of men” (Institutes 1.5.3). She and her husband saw God’s handiwork even in the shape and structure of the nails on their newborn baby’s feet. But now God’s good and gracious Fatherhood is no longer plain.
Her experience is challenging her faith. It does seem to her as if God has made sport of her family by not preventing this horrific turn of events. “But how can I take what has happened,” she asks, “in any other way?”
A Place to Start
Perhaps the place to start is with the recognition that our Lord’s words in Matthew 7:7–11 do not invite us to evaluate God’s Fatherhood according to our ideas of human fatherhood. In quite the opposite manner, our Lord is maintaining that even sinful and ignorant human parenthood gives us some sense of how generous our divine Father must be. For our Lord knew that it is God “from whom all [true] fatherhood descends (Ephesians 3:15)” (Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972], 1:230. All of the nonbiblical quotations in this and the next five paragraphs are from this and the next page.).
In other words, the comparison begun in Matthew 7:9 moves, as Calvin notes, “from lesser to greater.” And so when we are impressed with great acts of earthly parenthood where we see earthly fathers and mothers forgetting themselves and expending themselves with great generosity upon their sons and daughters, we must remember that they do so only because God “instills a fraction of His own goodness” into them. And thus, rather than allowing our ideas about the virtues of human fatherhood to challenge our faith in God’s perfect Fatherhood, we must learn to ask ourselves, “if these little drops have such effect, what may we hope to see from the inexhaustible ocean itself? Or would God be grudging, after thus enlarging the hearts of men?”
This is why our Lord concludes, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). In other words, the still point in our sometimes horrifying world should be our faith that our heavenly Father will never fail to give us good gifts. During life’s most disturbing and bewildering moments, we must resolutely remind ourselves that the God who has shown himself to be our heavenly Father in the past will never give us serpents for fish or stones for bread, no matter how snake-like or stone-like one of his gifts may seem.
Sometimes, given our necessarily limited perspectives, the good that God has providentially ordained to come to us through some instance of sin or suffering may be beyond our ken, and then in our prayers we will almost inevitably ask for a lesser gift than the one that God is about to give. Yet this is the very reason, Calvin comments, why our Lord draws this conclusion, for taking Matthew 7:11 to heart can prevent us from giving ourselves too much free rein to indulge in what may prove to be “foolish and unworthy fancies in prayer.” And thus, as Calvin rather daringly puts it, Christ subjects our prayers to God’s will in order to restrain our Father “from giving us more than He knows is for our good.”
There is “immeasurable felicity in the godly mind.” –John Calvin Tweet
We should not, then, “think that [God] has no concern for us when He does not [grant] our requests,” for he alone knows what really will temper everything for the best. In fact, we can be sure that our heavenly Father always listens to his children’s prayers and that he always responds in what we shall finally know to be a gloriously merciful way, even — and perhaps especially — when it seems that he is not listening or doesn’t care about what informs our most desperate pleas, for as the author of Lamentations reminds us, while our God may cause us grief, yet “he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:32–33, my emphasis).
Still, since our emotions often shape our prayers and “all our emotions are blind, we must seek [our] pattern of prayer” not primarily from what our hearts often desperately want but “from [God’s] Word.” And this means that anyone who “wishes to approach God with confidence in his prayer, should learn to curb his heart, and ask for nothing which is not in accordance with His will,” as several biblical passages suggest (James 4:3, 13–17; Matthew 6:10; Luke 22:42).
In the abstract, it should not be hard for any Christian to acknowledge truths like these. Indeed, it doesn’t take faith to recognize how sensible this general perspective is.
Virtually everyone will concede, for instance, that even earthly parents are justified in not granting their children’s pleas if they know that to grant them would mean that their children would thereby forgo some greater good. Indeed, they would not be good parents if they granted such pleas, for part of their parental role is to seek goods for their children that lie further out than their children can currently see. The little girl who pleads with her daddy to cancel the upcoming surgery that she is dreading so much must not prevail if she is to gain through that surgery a good beyond what she can presently conceive.
We know, as well, that children’s emotions tend to get away from them, sometimes making them want what they should not have and sometimes making what are very good gifts seem like mere stones or snakes. The boy who wants the same kind of shoes as “everybody else has” in order to feel as if he is cool is not likely to appreciate getting what is actually a better make.
Yet the horror of her tragedy eclipses these truths for our widow. In the throes of her suffering, she cannot conceive of any good that could be so great that it would justify God’s having ordained this tragedy.
Ordinarily, Calvin points out, we deliberately suspend making negative judgments about others “rather than be charged with rashness” for being more certain about their intentions and actions than we have any right to be (1.17.1). In other words, we readily moderate our judgments about what other human beings are intending or doing, often also acknowledging that they are not required to render an account of themselves to us. Yet, Calvin observes, we “haughtily revile the hidden judgments of God, which” — much more than with the unknown and often inappropriate intentions and actions of our fellow human beings — “we ought to hold in reverence” (1.17.1). And we do this, Calvin reminds us, even though Scripture explicitly states “that [God’s] judgments are a deep abyss” (1.17.2; see Ecclesiastes 3:10–11; 8:16–17).
SCRIPTURE PLUS EXPERIENCE
This means, Calvin concludes, that “no one will weigh God’s providence properly and profitably but him who considers that his business is with his Maker and the Framer of the universe, and with becoming humility submits himself to fear and reverence” (1.17.2). God has not promised that his children will be free of either sin or suffering. And, consequently, acknowledging that every aspect of our lives is subject to his providential sovereignty (Psalm 139:16) means that it is not inappropriate for God’s children to feel reverent fear at what he may have ordained for them (Luke 12:4–7). For although it will ultimately be undeniably clear to us that God never does anything that is wrong (Deuteronomy 32:4; Daniel 4:34–37; Romans 3:4–6; Revelation 15:2–4), we cannot know what he has in store for us (James 4:13–16), and Scripture reveals that he sometimes ordains fearsome things (Ruth 1, esp. vv. 13, 20–21; Job 1:20–22; 2:9–10; Psalm 88:6–8, 14–18).
So, we may ask, how can we remain assured that God “will not suffer anything to happen [to us] but what may turn out to [our] good and salvation” (1.17.6)? When bad things happen to us, are there ways to stop feeling that we have been given serpents for fish and stones for bread?
In these situations, we need to know, Calvin writes, the Bible’s promises that “God’s singular providence watches over the welfare of believers” as well as to become acquainted with Scripture’s examples of God’s “great diligence” in caring for his saints (for his enumeration of some of these promises see 1.17.6). We also need to trust the biblical testimonies that “teach that all men are under his power, whether their minds are to be conciliated, or their malice to be restrained,” so that either their malice does us no harm (1.17.7) or its harm is only such as is “permitted or sent by God’s just dispensation” (1.17.8). “Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future” all necessarily follow, Calvin declares, when we believe these biblical verities.
Yet it is through actual suffering that our knowledge of these verities goes from being merely abstract to become concrete:
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5)
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2–4)
Sensing God’s love when we are in the midst of situations where human affairs seem to turn and whirl at the blind urge of fortune assures us “that God’s singular providence is still keeping watch to preserve [us], and will not suffer anything to happen but what may turn out to [our] good and salvation,” and having the opportunity sometimes to recognize the final, providentially ordered outcome in situations where it seemed that God was making sport of us goes a long way toward assuring us that he “always has the best reason for his plan.” And thus it is primarily in and through our encounters with this world’s sin and suffering that we begin to enjoy “the immeasurable felicity of the godly mind.”
Whenever I have been in the throes of suffering, I have found it crucial to remind myself that Paul’s words in Romans 5 were forged in his own suffering. In 2 Corinthians 11:16–12:10, he chronicles part of what it meant for him to have been called to suffer for Christ’s name (Acts 9:16): he had endured three (indeed, later four) shipwrecks that included a night and a day adrift at sea; he had been repeatedly imprisoned and five times lashed and three times beaten with rods as well as once stoned; he had been in danger from rivers and robbers as well as from Jews and Gentiles and false Christians; he had known many cold and sleepless nights and hungry and thirsty days; and he was in constant anxiety for all of the churches.
Expanding just one of Paul’s claims disabuses us of any tendency to dismiss the depths of his sufferings by thinking that ours must be worse. “Five times,” he writes, “I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one” (2 Corinthians 11:24). This punishment, Paul Barnett comments,
arose from Deuteronomy 25:1–5. . . . In no case was the beating to exceed forty [lashes], administered to the man or woman bending down. . . . The minister of the synagogue was to stand on a raised stone inflicting the blows “with all his might,” using a redoubled calf strap, to which two other straps were attached. Thirteen blows were delivered to the chest and twenty-six to the back.
“The severity of this beating,” Barnett observes, “can be inferred from the provisions made in the event the offender defecated, urinated, or even died as a result of the blows” (Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians [William B. Eerdmans, 1997], 542.)
At the end of this partial chronicle of his sufferings — most of which had become such a “normal” part of the apostle’s life that they are not even mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament — Paul mentions the “thorn in his flesh” that God had given him, “a messenger of Satan” that God meant to torment him (2 Corinthians 12:7). The Greek word for this thorn is skolops, which means a thorn or a stake; and so the idea conveyed by this verse is that God had “gifted” Paul with this skolops, which was constantly pricking him or “staking him down” to keep him from becoming “over-lifted” or made conceited by the revelations he had heard and seen. “God,” Barnett says, “brought [Paul] down to earth by his skolops, and kept him there, buffeting him” day by day (Ibid., 568).
Three times, Paul tells us, he pleaded with the Lord to take this skolops away (12:8). But our Lord would not remove it, saying to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). And so, for Christ’s sake, Paul concludes, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10, my emphasis). “Meekness, gentleness, humility, patience, and endurance — the Christlike marks of an apostle, of which [Paul] has much to say in this letter — are,” Barnett observes, “connected with God’s ‘gift’ to him of the skolops” (Ibid.). Paul’s constant suffering staked him down to the reality of his own weakness in a way that meant he knew that he could not survive without constantly relying on God’s grace and mercy.
Suffering and Glory
Our grief-stricken widow feels herself staked down and buffeted day by day. As she ponders the horrific finality with which her husband’s life ended, she cannot imagine any future state that could be so good that it would reconcile her to this awful tragedy. For her, right now, there simply seems to be no way that this tragedy could possess a final outcome that could lead her to confess that God has had the best reason for his plan.
Yet if the faith that she has believed is true, then there really are goods to which she, as one of God’s children, shall someday be heir that are right now beyond even her wildest imaginings. And, Paul claims, these goods will be so glorious that her current sufferings will not be worth comparing with them (Romans 8:18).
Indeed, what in fact awaits her in the eschaton — in the final, blessed state after our Lord has returned, when God will be with us, having wiped every tear from our eyes, and when there shall be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:3–4) — is an “eternal weight of glory” that is literally incommensurable (i.e. not even comparable) with what Paul dares to call the “light momentary affliction” that she is now undergoing (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Right now, of course, it is virtually impossible for her to conceive of a future good that could be so great that it will make her suffering seem “light” and “momentary.” Yet this inconceivability is exactly what she should expect, because the incommensurably great eschatological good that awaits her is something that no human eye can naturally see nor any human ear can naturally hear nor any human heart can naturally imagine (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Indeed, its glories are “utterly beyond description.” And this is the good that God has prepared “from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34; compare with Ephesians 1:4; Revelation 13:8) for our widow and her family insofar as they are among those who love him (see 1 Corinthians 2:9 with Romans 8:28). In other words, it is what our Father has always had in mind for her and her family, even though it lies much further out than she, as his child, can currently see.
As we should expect with a God who is a perfect Father and who does not “willingly afflict or grieve the children of men,” the links between her suffering and her glorification are not accidental. In fact, the New Testament inextricably links the future eschatological goods that await us with our present temporal suffering (see, e.g., Mark 10:28–30; John 15:18–20; Acts 14:19–23; Romans 8:16–17; 2 Corinthains 1:7).
As Paul puts it, we suffer with Christ “in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). “The suffering,” Barnett notes, “‘prepares’ the glory ‘for us,’” (Ibid., 252–253) in the sense that “under [God’s] loving hand every evil thing works together for the good — that is, the end-time good — of those who love him. Only those who have no genuine vision of eternity,” he adds, “think otherwise.” But, of course, if this is so, then God must not cancel our sufferings, no matter how hard we plead.
Yet to say that our suffering prepares the glory for us is only part of Paul’s thought in 2 Corinthians 4:16–18, the whole of which reads,
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
The crucial clause here is found right at the beginning of verse 18 — namely, “as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.” Barnett notes that this participial construction “carries the idea ‘since we do not look at,’ or even ‘provided we do not look at,’” which means it needs to be read as qualifying the way in which “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” in verse 17 (Ibid., 254, my emphasis).
So, Barnett concludes, the “‘preparation for us’ of an ‘eternal weight of glory’ in the coming age does not occur by a merely mechanical process through our ‘suffering’ in this age” (Ibid.). Our suffering alone does not prepare for us the glory. “Rather,” Barnett says, the “‘suffering’ of this age ‘prepares . . . glory . . . for us,’ provided ‘we do not look to the things that are seen but to the things that are not seen’” (Ibid.). It is what we are thinking about as we are suffering that affects whether that suffering is preparing an eschatological weight of glory for us. More specifically, we must not be thinking about this-worldly, transient things but about eschatological, eternal things.
Likewise, Barnett notes, the same qualification needs to be applied to the day-by-day renewal of our inner selves that is mentioned in verse 16. Our inner self is renewed, even as our outer self is wasting away in grief or other kinds of suffering, as — and only as — “the believer looks to things as yet unseen” (Ibid., 253).
So our grief-stricken widow’s current suffering is preparing for her an incommensurably great eschatological glory, provided she does not focus on the horrors with which her husband’s earthly life ended but, rather, fixes her gaze on the glorious hope of what is still to come for him and for her and for their family. And it is as she does this that God will re-create her inner self even while, in her perfectly justified grief, her outer self wastes away.
WITH EAGER LONGING
“Yet what,” our widow may justifiably ask, “is this glorious hope that I am to fix my gaze upon? Are you forgetting that the worst thing about this whole tragedy is that it strikes me as so horrific that I cannot imagine how any future state could be good enough for me to confess that God has been acting as our perfect heavenly Father in ordaining it?”
Suffering often makes abstract truths concrete. Tweet
No, I haven’t forgotten this. But I am trying to help our widow to realize that God as a perfect heavenly Father is always more concerned with the great eternal eschatological glory that he has ordained for us than with the merely transient earthly goods and evils that prepare that glory for us. Once we have experienced that final glory, it will be perfectly clear that through all of life’s earthly joys and sorrows our Father has indeed always been tempering everything for our best.
The enormity of her tragedy is what makes keeping this glorious hope in mind so difficult for our widow to do. But here, as 2 Corinthians 4:16–18 emphasizes, she has a clear choice to make: Either she can let this tragedy falsify her long-held belief in God’s perfect Fatherhood, or she can deliberately suspend making that negative judgment because she realizes how limited her earthly perspective necessarily is and how blind her current emotions may be.
When we recall what virtually everyone concedes about human parents and children, it is clear, at the very least, that letting this tragedy falsify her long-held belief is certainly no more rational than deliberately suspending that negative judgment.
In fact, I think that we can go one more step toward helping her fix her gaze on the glorious hope by saying a bit more about what awaits those who believe.
One More Step
From eternity past, it has been God the Father’s plan to glorify his Son by gathering a bride for him from among all the earth’s nations (Ephesians 1:3–14; Revelation 21:2, 9; compare with John 3:29). Our Lord, God’s Lamb, has purchased this bride for himself with his own blood (Revelation 5:9) by becoming a curse for her (Galatians 3:13) and dying in her place (John 11:50–52; Ephesians 5:2, 25). And thus he has saved her (Romans 5:1–2, 6–11) and is sanctifying her (Ephesians 5:26) so that “he might present [her] to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:2).
In the eschaton, our Lord, as the Bridegroom, will lead us, his bride, “into the romance of eternal salvation.” And we, as his bride, shall then “forget our people and our father’s house” — think of our current joys and sufferings, which will not be worth comparing with the glory that shall then be — and “with joy and gladness be led along as we enter the palace of our God and King” (see Psalm 45). And he “will desire the beauty” that he has wrought in us, and we shall become one with him (Ephesians 5:29–32). The Old Testament’s bridal imagery, David Aune observes, “primarily emphasizes devotion (Jeremiah 2:2) and the joy of the bride (Isaiah 61:10; 62:5); the voice of the bridegroom and the bride were proverbial for mirth and gladness (compare with Jeremiah 7:34; 16:9; 25:10; 33:11).”
This imagery gives our Lord’s parables in Matthew 22:2–14 and Matthew 25:1–13 their punch, and it forms the basis of the great eschatological consummation as it is represented in Revelation 21:1–2, 9–11, and 22:17. And, as we find in the Old Testament’s greatest expression of romantic love (see the Song of Songs), the inexhaustible wonders of our life in Christ will thenceforth and forevermore be best expressed in song — in what both Testaments describe as a new song, a song of praise for our salvation (see Revelation 5:9–10; Psalm 33:1–3; 96:1–6; Isaiah 42:10–12) that will celebrate how our Lord has ransomed us from futile ways (1 Peter 1:18) and has shown us the path of life (Psalm 16:11). Apart from him, we shall sing, we have no good (Psalm 16:2); he alone is our chosen portion (Psalm 16:5), and in his presence is found the fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11).
Our Own Song to Sing
Now in this eschatological state, each of us will have his or her own song to sing — a song of how our God and Savior has wrought our individual salvation and has been particularly providentially merciful to us (See Psalm 13:6), planning all of the details of our lives from before our births (Psalm 139, especially vv. 13–16), and watching over us so carefully that even the very hairs of our heads are numbered (Matthew 10:30) so that even if we go through great suffering, not one of those hairs will perish (compare with Luke 21:10–18).
There, if indeed he is numbered among God’s children, our widow will find her husband singing of the wonders of his salvation and of the inexhaustibly merciful way that God has dealt with him in spite of and indeed even because of his sin. He will be singing of the redemptive love of his Savior who died for him while he was still weak and indeed dead in his trespasses and sins (Romans 5:6–11; Ephesians 2:1–7). And his song — in a particularly poignant and powerful way that will be inextricably linked with the suffering that his horrific temptation gave to him as well as his final, gruesome earthly sin (Psalm 40:2–3) — will celebrate the fact that it is all of God’s doing in Christ that he now has a song to sing of his complete deliverance (Galatians 1:3–4; Colossians 1:13; 1 Thessalonians 1:10).
Indeed, he will never want to stop singing of the immeasurable riches of the grace and kindness that God has shown to him in Christ (Ephesians 2:7–10). And if she is in fact also numbered among God’s children, our grief-stricken widow will someday find that God has wiped away her every tear because her Savior has borne all of her griefs and sorrows (Isaiah 53) — and, as inconceivable as it is to her right now, she will join her husband in harmonious songs of thankfulness.
The Melody of His Mercy
And so, as it was with the great apostle, as it was with Luther and Calvin, and as it will be with all of God’s children, each of us shall someday know that each of the sins that now prick us and all of the sorrows that now stake us down are indeed integral parts of God’s glorious plan by which he is tempering everything for our best. For all of this sin and suffering stakes us to the wonders of what God has done for us in Christ.
In a glorious and mysterious way that is currently past our finding out and that in no way excuses our sin, all of this sin and suffering will make it undeniably clear that God’s grace — and God’s grace alone — is sufficient for us, and thus we shall indeed see that his power is made perfect in our weakness. And therefore it will be our joy and glory in the eschaton to sing gladly of our former sin and suffering, so that Christ’s power and glory may be more apparent. For God the Father has ordained that the melody of each of our everlasting songs will be how his Son, our glorious Lord, has saved us from all sin and suffering. There the world’s broken stage will have been completely renovated, and all of our own badness and brokenness utterly removed.
More Messages from Desiring God 2009 National Conference
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