Here is the question I posed last: is God involved, and if so, how, in creating, sending, & permitting evil?
I suppose THAT should be simple enough to answer? 😉
Mark Talbot’s chapter, “ALL THE GOOD THAT IS OURS IN CHRIST” brings to bear many troubling and – if seen in the correct light – comforting verses, many of which we tend to skim over in our Bible reading without thinking deeply about what they are really saying.
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,'” – Isaiah 46:9b-10a
Talbot clarifies this passage: “They (the Jewish readers) would know that the One who said (Isaiah 46) is the One who ensures this by bringing everything about, including, in the immediate context of Isaiah’s words, ‘calling a bird of prey from the east, …from a far country’ (Isa. 46:10f.) – that is, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia from 559-530 B.C., who would conquer Babylon in 539 B.C. and then allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem so that they could rebuild the temple… God here calls the pagan, unbelieving Cyrus ‘a man to fulfill my purpose.’“
God can use evil men – by creating them, sustaining them, and even by not deterring their actions (which He could easily do – look at the boundaries He set around Satan regarding what the devil could and could not do to Job) – to accomplish His own purposes, which He intended and foreknew from the beginning.
Matthew 10:20 says “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Sparrows – in man’s eyes, worth very little. Yet, God’s sovereign hold on things is so all-encompassing – far greater than the so-called ‘sovereignty’ of earthly kings – that even the seemingly insignificant events on earth, like the death of a single half-penny sparrow, only happen because of the Father – only happens because it is the Father’s will to allow it, and bring it to pass.
If not even a sparrow dies apart from the Father’s will, cannot God sovereignly move, direct, and restrain the hearts of evil men? As he adds in Isaiah 46:11b regarding his use of the pagan King Cyrus, “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.”
Some, when hearing this, will most assuredly run aground trying to understand how this understanding of God’s sovereignty squares with human ‘free will’ but we must always keep in mind that ‘free will’ as a word or phrase is found no where in the Scriptures, and though that is not proof that it does not true (the word “Trinity” is also nowhere found in the Scriptures, but the concept is centrally Biblical), it does seem that we should be incredibly careful to glean the concept of a ‘will’ from God’s Word, and not simply from the Western political ideas that have shaped our thinking far more greatly than we would often be comfortable admitting.
Again, I will revert to an excerpt from a later post, GOD IS IN CONTROL:
“The second foundation of Biblical Faith flows from the first; free will. I do not speak of the free will of man, but rather, the ultimately free and sovereign (all powerful – in control) will of God. It is frequently and clearly stated in Scripture that God does as he pleases. Psalm 135:6 states, “The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and in their depths.” Likewise, Isaiah 46:9-10; “Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: my purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” Lastly, whether or not this passage supports traditionally understood views of salvation (I question that it does), Romans 9:15 indeed makes is clear that God’s will in regard to whom he will be merciful to will not be thwarted; “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.””
That is all just to say, God’s is the only will that is truly free, in the sense that He can do whatever He wills – man’s will must be subject to God’s to some degree, otherwise it may be possible for man, or even angels – like the devil himself – to thwart the will of God (however hard that is to imagine under any circumstances). However, the Bible is clear – God is truly free – He does whatever He pleases, and his purposes will stand. Therefore, it must be true that our will can only be as free as it keeps us from hindering God’s.
Think about it: say there is a man who is riding his bike along a beautiful bike path, when suddenly he hears a car coming up quickly from behind him. Glancing behind him, he sees the car swerving erratically, and knows he has only a moment to act. He dives from his bike to the left of the road, rolling down the sidewalk, and avoiding the speeding, drunk driver, getting nothing worse that some bloody road-rash from the concrete, and some rough marks on his clothes. Now, he chose to dive to the left onto the sidewalk, but was his decision ‘free’ in the sense that a person who emphasizes ‘free will’ would understand it?
Let’s just say that the opposite side of the road from the sidewalk was a stream, which any other bike rider may have opted to dive into to avoid the swerving car – but our bike rider never learned to swim, because his mother lost one of her best friends to drowning and wouldn’t let her children near water except for the bathtub. Let’s say that there was a railroad crossing exactly at the location, so tracks crossed not only the sidewalk to the left, but also created a bridge over the water to his right, which he could have dove towards and clung to – but he lost his own younger brother when he was in his teens because he got his feet stuck between the ties and was hit by a train, causing such a deep seated fear of trains and railroad tracks that he intended on turning around at this point in his bike trip so he wouldn’t have to cross the tracks on his bike. Another option would be to simply stop the bike in the middle of the road and take on the car head on – essentially suicide, but he had a very happy marriage, a good job, great kids, and people he loved who loved him, and killing himself wasn’t really a live option – he simply had too much to live for. If he were me, what he would have most wanted to do upon hearing that speeding car coming from behind is simply fly off his bike (do I have ANY dreams where-in I cannot fly?) like an eagle, out of the impending danger – unfortunately, his basic biology was of a human, and not a bird, so that wasn’t a live option either.
So, our ‘friend’ made his choice – he dove to the left onto the sidewalk – and he was responsible for that decision: the scratches he took were truly his, as was his life which was just saved. But, if you rewinded those events a million times, and played through them over and over again, could he have even considered doing anything else? The events of that day were entirely pre-determined by his genetics, biology, psychology, sociology – everything about who he was, by his birth, upbringing, and the events from his past DROVE him to do the only thing he could: the only option he could will was the one he chose!
I argue that such is our lot, especially when we look at the picture of human freedom painted in the Scriptures – we are absolutely responsible and pay the consequences and/or receive the rewards from our own actions – but to call them ‘free’ in the sense which most of us understand ‘freedom’, especially here in the West – the USA particularly – that seems to be a serious stretch and far outside the Biblical portrait of human freedom. Ask yourselves, is a human ‘will’ which is – in the flesh, before Christ frees it – a ‘slave to sin’ (John 8:34, Romans 6:20) in any sense ‘free’? Can we consider our wills ‘free’ if it is true, as Jesus says, that “…no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65b) and on the flip-side that “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37a)?
Though I admit that Biblically we seem to be given some degree of autonomy regarding our decision making, to call our wills “free” seems to me to be a stretch.
This all goes full circle back to our original topic: though God doesn’t DO evil, his sovereign control over it is far beyond what we are often comfortable with, but also brings us our greatest hope – the gospel itself:
“…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” – Acts 2:23
“…for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” – Acts 4:27-28
The ‘lawless men’ – Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the Jews – who killed God the Son, Jesus Christ, were entirely responsible for the evil done on that great day, however God had carried them along in the strongest sense of the word – He had actually predestined it (i.e. – it could not have happened any differently!) – he called them ‘annointed’ for this purposed – he had not only allowed, but had somehow ‘planned’ according to ‘foreknowledge’ to use the greatest evil the world has ever known for the greatest good possible: the death of the God-man, was the salvation of all who would believe.
This is why I see God’s sovereignty over evil as a comfort, and not something to despair over – if neither the death of a sparrow, nor the death of God’s son were meaningless evil, then neither is the pain and suffering I undergo as I live this life being conformed more and more into the image of Jesus for God’s glory.
Stay tuned next week for my reflections on chapter 3, one of John Piper’s chapters, “THE SUFFERING OF CHRIST AND THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD”.