Over the centuries we’ve seen some amazing positive changes in our nation and around the world — plunging infant mortality rates, improved health, lengthening lifespans. We’ve seen the abolishment of some of the most inhumane practices. Of course, the world remains a fallen, hostile place, but what role does God play when we see these types of positive social changes? It’s a question to you, from a listener named Jim.
“Pastor John, hello! When something huge and good happens in a society — like a faulty government system is fixed, or slavery is abolished, or minorities are given more equal treatment, or anything of the like — is God secretly at work in that moment inspiring things to happen? What is God’s role in positive social changes?”
Well first, let’s be sure that we have a distinctively Christian view of the term “positive social change.” Whenever we’re talking about change among unbelievers, the term positive must always be qualified in our minds so that we don’t stop thinking like Christians and simply think like unbelievers.
Christians know that all so-called positive deeds done from a heart of unbelief, or disregard for the glory of God, or disregard for the eternal good of people, or disregard for reliance upon the mercies of God in Christ, those deeds — no matter how beneficial they are in the short run for our prosperity or health or freedom — still are acts of rebellion against God, so they are not positive in the ultimate sense.
I’m assuming that when Jim asks about God’s role in positive social change, he means change for the short-term benefits of people, like rising material standards of living and greater health and more safety and more freedom to act out our convictions, even if the short-term benefits for society are not accompanied by spiritual awakening or faith in Jesus. So, that’s the question I’m asking. What’s the role of God in those kinds of societal changes? That’s what I assume he’s asking.
Now, I’ve got a general answer, but before I give a general answer, let me point directly to some biblical signals that will I think let Jim answer the question for himself, which is really what I’d prefer. I want everyone to see it in the Bible instead of me saying it. These are all signals from Scripture, pointers from Scripture.
1. King Behind Kings
Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”
So the biblical picture is that the will of a secular king is in the hand of God, so if that king wills to treat his subject better and make their life more prosperous, God is behind that.
2. Saving Sarah
This is a specific example of Proverbs 21:1. “Then God said to him [Abimelech], ‘Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her’” (Genesis 20:6). The her is Abraham’s wife, Sarah.
I take it that whenever a secular ruler is restrained in some evil he might do that would hurt his people, God is ultimately behind that restraint. God has power to restrain Abimelech from committing adultery, and he can restrain any king from doing anything he doesn’t want them to do.
3. Persian Favor
Another example of Proverbs 21:1 is when God changes the hearts of the kings of Persia so that they treat the nation of Israel better after the Babylonian exile than they ever dreamed, or anybody dreamed.
“[God] has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins” (Ezra 9:9). Even the pagan Babylonian and then Persian kings were moved by God to treat his people in a better way than would have otherwise happened.
4. Born in Bethlehem
This one I love. It’s just so amazing that God uses his secret providence over the entire secular, global government in Jesus’s day to bring about the birth of Jesus in the appointed place in Bethlehem.
Isn’t it amazing that God prophesies in Micah that the child, the Messiah, is going to be born in Bethlehem — and then chooses a virgin girl who lives in Nazareth to bear his Son?
How does he get her to Bethlehem? “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). Just think of it. God chooses a virgin in Nazareth to bear a son in Bethlehem. Then to get him to Bethlehem, he makes sure that she’s engaged to a man whose birthright is in Bethlehem. Then he causes Caesar, way off in Rome, to change his policy so that in just the nick of time there’s this decree that goes out so that the prophecy is fulfilled in Bethlehem.
My goodness, if you ever needed any evidence that the secular rulers are in the hand of God to bring about God’s good purposes for his people, that would be it.
5. Earth’s Armies
Here’s another one, Psalm 47:9: “For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted!” I take that to mean that all the military might of the world is ultimately in the hands of God, so if any military is ever used to protect any people and keep them from having murders, invaders, etc., then that is also from God.
And the last pointer or signal I would mention is Ephesians 1:11: “[God] works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
Pray for Doors
Here’s my conclusion in answer to Jim’s question “What is God’s role in positive social change?”
God is always involved. He is always ultimate. He is always decisive. This of course means, as anyone would immediately infer, that he’s also ultimate and decisive over the so-called negative social changes as well.
God rules all things either by his positive agency, more or less directly causing things, or by permission, which is equally wise and equally purposeful, since God knows what everybody is going to do, and he permits them to do evil things.
Here’s one practical upshot of all this (among a thousand others).
Paul teaches us in 1 Timothy 2:1–4 to pray. He says, “[Pray] for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
I think the implication of that is that since God is sovereign, he is able to answer the prayers of his people that rulers would be led, sometimes even in spite of themselves, in the use of their authority to make decisions that would open doors for the gospel and advance godliness in the world.