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How should we respond to a harsh providence like Katrina?
When we ponder my favorite verse in the Bible, Romans 8:28, we need to keep in mind that it does not teach that everything that happens is good.
1. Bad things really do happen.
This past week (September 3, 2005) was full of the sights and sounds of suffering . . . and the smells. After an earlier trip transporting elderly folk from Baton Rouge to Lafayette with our assistant pastor, Ritchey Cable, my wife and I went in a convoy to the Superdome to take people to the New Orleans airport temporary triage unit. One of our people was a woman who was completely out of her mind. A man on our van told us that she had entered the Superdome with five children, and now she had none. What happened? He had no idea. He only said that he had seen things he didn't want to talk about, didn't want to think about. Yes, there were gang rapes. Young men beat old people in wheelchairs to steal their meager belongings. There were rotting corpses. The stench . . .So much that happens to us is bad . . . really bad.
There is nothing good about death or the things that lead to death. I was with my father for the last twelve hours of his life. I listened to him gasp for breath for two hours, literally drowning in fluid, gurgling with the death rattle. That's not good. That's terrible. I'll never forget the sights, sounds and smells of his death, or that of my mother or mother-in-law -- of scores of other people.
I've sat with literally hundreds of people who've had their lives torn apart by some sexual sin, seen the response of dozens of folk as they discovered for the first time that their spouse had been unfaithful to them. Adultery is not good. It's vile and brings unbelievable pain to others. People have horrible reactions when they hear a spouse confess to infidelity. I've had to pull somebody off of a spouse, seen a man break his knuckles as he hit my wall, felt the dent in the paneling from where a wedding band bounced off. I've ministered to bleeding children, wounded by the sword-thrusts from two fools who couldn't keep their mouths shut in front of their children, especially in the wake of a divorce.
2. When we encounter these bad things, we must earnestly pray for divine intervention.
Our Lord teaches us this by his example in the Garden: '"Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:36.)
At least four things stand out in that verse:
2.1. Jesus rests in the love of God. God is his Father and his stance toward his child is one of affection and delight: "Abba, Father."
2.2. Jesus rests in the absolute sovereignty of God: "Everything is possible for you."
2.3. Jesus really prays: "Take this cup from me."
2.4. Having prayed, Jesus rests in submission to God's good purpose: "Yet not what I will, but what you will."
Over the years I've discovered that people tend to minimize either the third or the fourth actions of our Lord. I've encountered many people who are so ensnared by the false, materialistic "gospel" of "name it and claim it" that they can never come to rest in the sovereign goodness of God who ordains sometimes evil things to bless his own. I once had to ride in an automobile with a man who was obviously suffering from a viral infection, but he had become so superstitious about what he said that he wouldn't acknowledge the reality of his plight, and so he confessed, "I am catching a healing." He seemed to ignore the truth of Psalm 34:19, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous."
But there is a second half to that verse, the part that another group of Christians tends to minimize: "But the LORD delivers him out of them all." Fatalists, those who believe more in line with Islam than with biblical Christianity, so focus on the sovereignty of God that they rush to rest in the sovereignty of God without the struggle of persistent, prevailing prayer. They forget the biblical truth, summed up so well:
"God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established." *
I find the above paragraph thoroughly biblical; it asserts God's absolute sovereignty, while affirming that certain seemingly incongruous doctrines are also true: 1. God is not the author of sin; 2. God does not force his will on his creatures; 3. God's foreordination includes not only the end result, but also all of the means to that end. Biblical predestination is never fatalistic.
In the light of that truth, we must really pray. Indeed, our Sovereign God admonishes us to give him no rest: "You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth." (Isaiah 62:6, 7.)
Under the overarching, immutable decree of God, it is because Moses refused to accept God's admonition as final that we have the people of God, as we know them today:
'"Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation." But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. "O LORD," he said, "why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? . . ."Then the LORD relented (niphal, waw-consecutive, imperfect of NACHAM, "repented, changed his mind, came to regret," etc.) and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.' (Exodus 32:10-14.)
The truth of the matter is that our sovereign God makes use of second causes and sometimes sovereignly limits himself by people's lack of faith: 'Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor." He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.' (Mark 6:4-6.)
Saint James admonishes us: "You do not have, because you do not ask God," and goes on, "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." (James 4:2.)
God help the Christian who simply acquiesces to a severe providence without earnestly and persistently pleading the promises of God. If my child is caught in drug addiction or sexual sin, may God deliver me simply from praying, "Lord, give me grace to endure this trial. Your will be done." No, I need first to fight the circumstances, and I need to wrestle with the Lord, as did Jacob at Peniel. (Genesis 32.) That's what Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
3. We must come not simply to accept a severe providence fatalistically, but to embrace it, in time, with cheerfulness.
There comes a point in prayer where we are brought to surrender. It may be in a few moments, or it may be weeks or even months or years. But that is what our Lord does when finally he comes to pray, "Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:36.) Saint Paul's response to his "thorn in the flesh," his tormenting "angel of Satan," serves us well as another example:
'Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.' (2 Corinthians 12:8-10.)
3.1. We must remember that God has destined both the good and the bad things that happen to us for his glory and for our good.
The reason that we can come eventually, cheerfully to embrace a severe providence is because of what the Bible teaches us about our relationship with our sovereign God. Because God chose us out of a sinful and fallen humanity, chose us for no reason inherent in us, chose us not because he foresaw our faith or good works, but unconditionally, we stand under his grace and will never come under his condemnation. (Romans 9:6-18; Acts 13:48; Ephesians 1:3-2:10; John 6:37, 44; 10:28, 29; Romans 5:1ff.; 8:1, 31-39**.) Even when we experience suffering in this life, it is never as a condemning consequence for our sins, but part of God's benevolent plan for our lives, including his Fatherly discipline, whereby he causes whatever happens to us, even our own sins, failures and foolishness to work together, not only for our own individual good, but for the good of all God's people in all ages and places. (Romans 8:18-30***.)
Because our Lord was cursed and condemned, we never will be (Galatians 3:13.) -- "in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." (Galatians 3:14.) "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all -- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32.) When we read of those dreadful curses and condemnations, we know that they will never be visited on us. Rather, all we ever receive is the blessing of God. We are united with the one true Seed of Abraham, and we are therefore the inheritors of all the good things and none of the bad. (Romans 8:17.)
And all this is so because God did not "spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all." (Romans 8:32.) He did not spare him from one ounce of guilt that is yours or mine; he did not spare him one piece of the defilement and consequences of that guilt; he did not hold him back from experiencing the full brunt of his just wrath due for our sins, but abandoned him to hell on the cross. Who can bring any charge against us? (Romans 8:33.) Who can condemn us? (Romans 8:34.) There is no longer condemnation (Romans 8:1.) because there is no longer any guilt left.
"What is your only comfort in life and in death?" asks the Heidelberger and answers:
"That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him."
3.2 We never thank God for evil in abstraction, but for his goodness in every circumstance, because he has ordained whatsoever comes to pass for our good -- full conformity to the restored image of God in Jesus Christ. (Romans 8:29.)
"Thank you, God, for my spouse's adultery and for the financial destruction it is going to bring. Thank you for the psychological torment that it is going to bring on our little children as the hate daily grows between us."
Of course, we should never pray that way -- that is the prayer of a fool. Rather, we give thanks to God that we are not alone in these trials and that our faithful Savior was tempted in all the ways that we are and that he, too, suffered injustice in this world, that we have a Friend in heaven who is praying for us with a full awareness of what we are going through. We give thanks that God is still in absolute control and that his loving hand is orchestrating all these things for our ultimate welfare in Jesus Christ that we may be like Jesus. (Romans 8:29.)
Resting in the biblical truth of God's absolute sovereignty, we approach life differently than the rest of humankind.
"Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.)
There is tremendous power in our praising God in the middle of the Chaos of our lives "under the sun," but this is only possible as we focus on our Lord, his goodness and his good goal, not on ourselves and our sometimes miserable circumstances.How poignantly this was brought home to us last night. Our son and his wife came up from Baton Rouge with a fifteen year old, single, pregnant African American woman. Several days back, Benn had received a telephone call from one of his old Intervarsity Christian Fellowship friends from Tulane days. Benn's friend had received a phone call from this young woman, stranded in a shelter in Gonzales. Her family had been transported away, but she had been left. Benn went that night to the shelter and brought the young woman up to Baton Rouge to stay with them. Then they came on to Alexandria, and Benn took her to catch a flight early this morning. Benn's IVF friend's wife's family is going to take the young woman into their home to live. The young woman's mother is a crack cocaine addict from the poorest section of New Orleans, but this young woman and her baby will live with an obstetrician and his family. She and her soon to be born baby will live in a nurturing Christian environment with wonderful opportunities in the future. As Sandy and I interacted with Neal last night -- I once called her Katrina by accident -- we found her to be bright and an avid reader. Romans 8:28 is still true.
"Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:16-18.)
To the degree that we are full of Jesus rather than full of ourselves, colored and controlled, not by psychotropic drugs and other coping devices, but by the Holy Spirit, we can maintain this response of gratitude:
"Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be being filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ." (Ephesians 5:18-20.)
We don't do this with a Pollyanna-esque denial of reality, but with a "cynical" realism that chooses cheerfully to be optimistic by faith and chooses to express that cheerfulness in regular seasons of thanksgiving before God and man, and especially in the sanctuary of our own hearts.
*The Westminster Confession of Faith, III, i
** 'It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: "At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son." Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad -- in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls -- she was told, "The older will serve the younger." Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden." (Romans 9:6-18.)
"When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed." (Acts 13:48.)
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will --to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment -- to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession -- to the praise of his glory. For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions -- it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God --not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 1:3-2:10.)
"All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away." (John 6:37.)
"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:44.)
"I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand." (John 10:28.)
"My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand." (John 10:29.)
"Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." (Romans 5:1-5.)
"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," (Romans 8:1.)
"What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all -- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died -- more than that, who was raised to life -- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:31-39.)
*** "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." (Romans 8:18-30.)