Thursday, May 11, 2006

Providence, Faith, and the Apologetic Task

The mystery of God’s providence is much talked about. Whether it be theological elucidation or heated debate, Christians crave insight as to how “The almighty, everywhere-present power of God…upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them… not by chance, but by His fatherly hand.”[i] Biblical exposition is the crucial means by which we come to know this truth. We read how “The Lord works out everything for his own ends…” (Proverbs 16:4) and that “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19:21). To grasp hold of God’s providence and enjoy its blessings requires faith. Mercifully, God gives us faith (Philippians 1:29; Ephesians 2:8-9). Now you, faith-filled Christian, have no more questions or doubts about God’s providence, right? You rest every night, knowing all the hairs on your head are numbered, and every thing that happens to you works for your good. You wake up each day, undaunted, trusting in God’s love and providence. God is in control, and whatever may happen to you is yet one more opportunity to glorify God.

If you are at all like me though, the instant physical, emotional, or financial worries enter your life, you display an immediate lack of faith. This lack of faith may eventually lead to either wondering two equally miserable possibilities. The first is whether or not you really are a Christian. The Scripture says “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). One reasons, “If I’m not really a Christian, then it makes sense why things have gone so wrong in my life! God is not on my side working for my good!” The second miserable possibility is questioning the reality of God’s providence. Perhaps God just “set the ball rolling” and watches from afar. One may even come to doubt if the God of the Bible exists at all. One reasons, “I’ve tried to believe in God, but it simply doesn’t work. Things just aren’t going right for me.”

I am comforted by the fact that we are not alone in our fears. The Bible is replete with examples of those considered the strongest displaying deep signs of weakness. While sitting in prison, the bold John the Baptist (who had actually met Jesus) struggled with his doubts about whether Christ had really come (Matthew 11:1-4). In despondency King David cried out, “Has God forgotten to be merciful?” (Psalm 77:9). Peter, standing before our Lord sunk into the waves while walking towards him. Jesus said to him, “You of little faith…why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). Indeed, when I picture Peter sinking into the waves, I see my own face, perhaps you see your own image as well. Has God’s gift of faith failed? How is it that Christians “sink into the waves”? What is the answer to our Lord’s question, “why did you doubt?”

We all should know the reason for our faithlessness. God’s gift of salvation indeed turns our hearts of stone to flesh, but yet deep remnants of sin still remain. The root and source of all sin is unbelief in the inmost heart.[ii] Every time we sin, we express our unbelief in God. Hence, a person who never sinned would have a perfect trust in God and his promises. John Calvin once said, “unbelief is so deeply rooted in our hearts, and we are so inclined to it, that not without hard struggle is each one able to persuade himself of what all confess with the mouth: namely, that God is faithful.”[iii] He said also, “While we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety…we say that believers are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief.”[iv]

But yet God’s providence looms over us. Hasn’t God ordained all that comes to pass? Why, in His providential care, would he allow us to continually express our faithlessness? Why didn’t He take all the remnants of sin out of our lives? I offer one brief speculative possibility. God is able to continuingly turn our blatant rebellion against Him into something good. Martin Luther once commented on his own lack of faith and the severe depressions it caused in him: “…without [the depressions], no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God. He does not know the meaning of hope who was never subject to temptations.”[v] What Luther is getting at is only in our faithless depressions do we realize our continuing need for Christ. It is only in our weakness do we reach out and grasp toward the promises of Scripture. The pain caused by our disbelief finds its remedy in the promises of God. In other words, our faithlessness provokes us all the more to focus on the savior while we “walk on the water.” It is the gift of faith at work inside us, directing us to a closer walk with the Lord. The Holy Spirit exposes us to our deep roots of disbelief with the goal of our further sanctification.

The apologetic task is to “always be prepared to give an answer too everyone who asks…”(1 Peter 3:15). When we face difficult times, it is often the case we do not want to fulfill this command. Why would anyone want to hear about the joys of the Christian faith when our lives at times seem to be plagued with hardship? How could we possibly offer someone hope, when perhaps our current situation seems hopeless, and our attitudes reflect fear and doubt? Yet, this is indeed what the Bible shows us. We see the lives of men and women in dire life-threatening situations, proclaiming the Gospel and defending the faith. Paul says, “…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 Cor.12:10). This is a profound aspect of God’s providence. The very experiences that “providentially” seem to bring us hardship and doubt, actually bring us power and strength to proclaim the Gospel.

[i] The Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 10, answer 27.
[ii] My comment was inspired by Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1976),xv.
[iii] Calvin’s Institutes, III.ii.15.
[iv] Calvin’s Institutes, III.ii.17.
[v] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Mentor Books, 1950),283.

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