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Understanding Providence

By March 1, 2010 No Comments

One of my earliest sermon memories
goes back to the Reformed Church in
the Netherlands in 1942. The dominee
held forth on the German occupation and
how we ought to discern God’s will in all that
happened in our country and our families,
how suffering works patience, and how, along
with Job, we should be silent and repent. After
all, God, in his providence, would work
out all things for good. Three years later, during
the “hunger winter” in Amsterdam and
all the western Dutch provinces when people
consumed tulip bulbs and rats, that sermon
came back to me, but I was no longer so sure
about the minister’s explanation. And when
some time later we found out what had really
happened to our Jewish neighbors in the Nazi
concentration camps, nothing about the sermon
seemed to make any sense.
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The stories
about the Nazis murdering six million Jews,
making lampshades of human skin, and all
the other atrocities of the camps began my
obsession with trying to make sense of sin,
evil, suffering. Fifteen years later at Calvin
College, I learned the word theodicy and
wrote my first term paper on Voltaire’s Candide.
Since then I’ve been reading and reading
some more (the fattest folder in my files
is on evil and suffering). But I’m not sure if I
am much closer to making sense of it.

I usually appreciate (most) British evangelicals
more than I do (most) North American
ones and so was drawn to the recent title The
God I Don’t Understand
by Christopher J. H.
Wright, a British evangelical pastor and missionary
as well as an Old Testament scholar
and director of Langham’s Partnership (successor
to John Stott). I found his book one of
the most helpful I have read on theodicy and
related topics.

Too often the writers and preachers I
have encountered who deal with this topic
share a common fault: they tame and domesticate
evil. The preachers recognize the
suffering and agony that many families in
the church had experienced and so they
empathize and sympathize. In too many
cases, however, the preacher then tries to
mitigate the suffering either by depicting the
suffering person as a hero of faith or by noting
that the person with cancer was healed
or by claiming that time is a great healer
or by asserting that the family learned so
much from the experience.

But in too many sermons this way of
dealing with evil is not the only problem.
An additional difficulty arises when the
“evil” in question is limited to what is experienced
within the congregation. But what
of other suffering in the wider world? During
war times, whether in Poland, Sierra Leone,
Mozambique, Afghanistan, Bosnia, or
in hundreds of other countries, every evil,
every wound, every illness is magnified by
the complete destruction of homes and families
and communities, lack of medical help
and water, the immense numbers of people
killed and maimed, and the vanishing of all
civil restraint. We should not preach and
pray about suffering without taking into account
the horrendous anguish experienced
by people in war-torn countries or those
who live in appalling conditions such as one
finds in Haiti.1

In Part One of his book Wright deals
directly with “the problem of evil.” He certainly
does not domesticate suffering or
limit the scope of what counts as suffering.
He sums up: “We live in a world that seems
to lurch from one generation into another
with repeating cycles of violence, bloodshed,
and war…. Every year we endure the same
frustrating crescendo of arrogant aggression,
relentless hatreds, and unfathomable
suffering” (203). He echoes Job in asking, “Is there no justice?”. And again, when treating
“The End of the World,” he remembers, “For
me, to believe that Jesus is the redeemer
God means that’s when I think of the vast
numbers of the human race who live in slavery
and oppression of all kinds–bondages
created by poverty, hunger, and injustice; by
violence, murder, rape…. I look forward to
the day when all the ends of the earth will
see the salvation of our God” (179).

Of course, a crucial aspect of evil is the
Christian’s response to suffering. And here
preachers and theologians often begin with
Job 38-42–the voice of God out of the whirlwind,
cataloging his power and wisdom in
creation, followed by Job’s “confession.” The
sermon application usually is God’s saying:
“Job (and all the rest of you), I am strong
and mighty and wise, so why don’t you stop
complaining, be quiet, and submit
to my way of running the
world.” Even though Wright
deals at some length with Job,
he hardly mentions these chapters,
though I judge he should
have done so in order to be thorough
in his treatment of Job.

Wright does deal with Job’s
earlier speeches and he commends
them. Why? “It seems
that it is precisely those who have
the closest relationship with God
who feel most at liberty to pour
out their pain and protest to
God–without fear of reproach.
Lament is not only allowed in
the Bible, it is modeled for us in abundance.
God seems to want to give us as many words
with which to fill in our complaint forms as
to write our thank-you notes. Perhaps this
is because whatever amount of lament the
world causes us to express is a drop in the
ocean compared to the grief in the heart of
God himself at the totality of suffering that
only God can comprehend” (51).2 And then
Wright cites Job, many Psalms, Lamentations,
Jeremiah, and other prophets. Wright
also notes that the Psalmists sometimes cry
“Why?” but more often “How long?” as they
wait for God’s deliverance.

Another troublesome question in theodicy
is the relationship between suffering
and sin. Certainly we can cite biblical examples
where particular sins are followed
by God’s punishment: David after his sin with Bathsheba or Isaiah being told to pronounce
God’s wrath and judgment against
the Babylonians. But was the (in)famous
earthquake in Lisbon in 1775 God’s direct
judgment on the people of that city? Was
my mother’s lying in her bed for three years
as a shriveled fetus (the end of Alzheimer’s)
somehow related to her sinful life? Since we
do not receive prophetic oracles, many of us
would say “no” to such connections, others
are not quite sure, while still others would
say “of course.” One such “of course” person
was the ultra-Calvinist Gordon Clark who
wrote this in a 1961 volume: “The system
known as Calvinism and expressed in the
Westminster Confession of Faith offers a
satisfactory and completely logical answer
to the problem of evil.” Clark does not even
need the mealy-mouthed concept of a permissive
will. “The idea of permission makes
no sense when applied to God…. Rather,
God is the cause of sin. God is the ultimate
cause of everything. If a man gets drunk
and shoots his family, it was the will of God
that he should do so.”3

More recently this brand of Calvinism
has been reiterated in the Protestant
Reformed Churches. When an earthquake
killed scores of people and injured about
4,000 in San Francisco in 1989, David Engelsma,
writing in the journal The Standard
, claimed to know why it happened:
“God visited the San Francisco area of the
United States in his wrath…. San Francisco
is a ‘Sodom’ in the United States, with
the perversion of homosexuality rampant
among the citizens of that city…. By the
earthquake, the Sovereign God steps up the tempo of His judgments…. Believers, lift
up your hearts!”4 In a November issue of
this same publication sixteen years later,
Gise Van Baren comes to the same judgment:
Hurricane Katrina was sent to New
Orleans by God to wreak its destruction on
that city polluted by sexual sins.5

Wright’s response to what he calls such
“perverted logic” is two-fold. First, he cites
John 9:1-3 where Jesus answered that a
man’s blindness was not the result of his
or his parents’ sin as well as Luke 13:1-5
where Jesus asserts that the death of eighteen
people because of the collapse of a tower
was not a result of God’s wrath or judgment
(49). Then Wright continues: “I am not embarrassed
to shed tears after such terrible
tragedies have struck again. I tell the God
I know and love and trust, but don’t always
understand, that I just can’t get my head
around the pain of seeing such unspeakable
destruction and death. I will cry out
on behalf of the wretched of the earth, ‘Why
those people, Lord, yet again? Haven’t they
suffered enough of the world’s gross unfairness
already?'” (54).

In Part Two (Chapters 4 and 5) Wright
deals with the complex issue of pondering
the apparent cruelty exercised by the Israelites
when they wiped out all the Canaanites
in the conquest of the Promised Land. As
Wright notes, this is always mentioned by
those who attack the Bible or the Christian
faith. Wright’s complex answer is as good an
explanation as I have read, but I never have
and probably never will preach about this
repulsive history.

In Part Three (Chapters 6-8) Wright
discusses the significance of Christ’s crucifixion–the most theological section of
the book. He begins with listing a number
of biblical metaphors and “results” of the
cross: coming home after being far away
from God, mercy and kindness by God’s
own action through Christ, redemption
from slavery, forgiveness to bend a broken
relationship, reconciliation to remove our
enmity with God, reconciliation to remove
the “wall of hostility” between people, justification
to remove our guilt and punishment;
cleansing “from all unrighteousness”,
new life in Christ.

In Chapter 7 the argument enters the
current theological hot-button issue about
the “how” of the cross and its atoning work.
(See, for example, Perspectives of February
and April, 2009). Wright holds out for the
orthodox position of “penal substitute”, albeit
carefully defined. He first dismisses
various mistaken notions of atonement, including
“one of the worst caricatures of Jesus
bearing the punishment of God upon
our sin; viz., that this is nothing more than
a form of ‘cosmic child abuse.'” Wright sees
this as an appalling idea and a grotesque
distortion of how the Bible speaks of God,
the cross and us (129) For Wright, one way
out of this pseudo argument is to hold on to
the biblical truth that Father and Son are
one–also in the work of the atonement.

Wright (appropriately) keeps the best for
last in his Part Four: “What About the End
of the World?” In Chapter 9 he takes care
of “Cranks and Controversies.” He does not
say that many (most?) of those cranks are
found in North America, but his shaking
his head at the silly pronouncements about
the dating of Christ’s return suggests that
Wright has the Left Behind series and similar
scenarios in mind: “They are building
whole layers of fantasy and fiction on top of
their speculation” (162). He does not use the
designation “a millennial,” but after persuasively
critiquing dispensational pre-millennialism,
there is little doubt about Wright’s
position. The “last days” do not have to do
with pre- or post-tribulation but constitute
the time from Christ’s ascension to his return,
“the day of the Lord.” So also regarding
the state of Israel: “For some Christians,
the modern Israeli state is excused from
any moral or international accountability
because it is ‘fulfilling prophecy.’ Such an
attitude of blind ‘support for Israel’ stands
in jarring contrast to the words of most of
the actual biblical prophets themselves, and
even of Jesus” (170).

Chapter 10 is a glorious chapter about
Christ’s “glorious appearing” that will be visible
to all people at once. Wright does not try
to explain how this will be possible but does
not buy into the notion of some Christian
technocrats that all people on earth (outside
of Jerusalem) will be watching it on television!
This day will be a day of judgment.
Wright returns to earlier chapters in the book
and recalls the terrible suffering and injustice
that has often reigned in human history–often
with no recourse or justice for the poor
and no punishment for the oppressors. But now “all unrepentant, persistent wickedness
will be met with the verdict of God’s perfect
justice. And that divine justice will be public,
validated by evidence, indisputably vindicated,
beyond complaint of appeal, irreversible,
and inescapable. God will put all things
right! It will be an act of rectifying all wrongs,
putting right all relationships, and restoring
peace and harmony” (186).

For the eternal destiny of individuals
Wright leans very heavily on two biblical
concepts–we will be judged according to
the degree of light about the gospel that we
have received and according to how we have
lived. For example, Revelation 20:12-13 says
explicitly that “the dead were judged according
to what they had done as recorded in the
books.” Readers (especially Reformed folks)
will want to read these pages carefully and
test Wright’s biblical exegesis as he summarizes
rather cryptically, “We are justified by
faith. But we will be judged by our works”
(190). Wright spends little time on those
who are not going to the new heaven and
earth. The wicked who are consigned to hell
will undergo “punishment, destruction, and
separation from God” (citing 2 Thessalonians
1:8-10; 191). Wright does not use the
term annihilationism but, like his mentor
John Stott and a number of other evangelicals,
that seems to be his position.

Wright opens the final chapter (“The
New Beginning”) with an imaginary conversation
on a plane. An earnest evangelist
sitting next to him asks, “If you were to die
tonight, are you sure your would go to heaven?”
His answer would be, “Yes. But I don’t
expect to stay there!” (193). Building especially
on Isaiah 65:17-25 and Revelation 21
and 22, Wright then portrays a magnificent
picture of a restored heaven and earth, with
special emphasis on the renewed earth.
Central to the new earth will be the “garden-city”
that encapsulates the best, the finest,
the most excellent of what gardens contribute
to our lives and what cities (at their best)
can contribute. Here the wealth of cities and
nations (“the accumulated cultural richness
of human civilizations”) will be brought in,
perfected by God’s workmanship and grace.
And God’s people will be able to continue to
bring that new creation to full fruition. “We
were created in the image of God, and in the
new creation we will have unlimited scope
to exercise all the capacities and potential of
that image to the glory of God and our own
satisfaction, forever” (213).

Throughout the book Wright agonizes
about the suffering of neighborhoods, cities,
and countries, especially in Africa. He sees
the “problem of evil and suffering” especially
in wars and all its cruelties, famines, untreated
diseases, dying parents, and dying
children. He returns to that grim reality but
now with a rich promise: “When the kings of
the earth bring their wealth into the city of
God, they will not fall to fighting over it, as in
the old order of things. There will be no more
death or tears, so there can be no more war.
On the contrary, the tree of life, flourishing
by the river of life will provide abundant fruit
and leaves, and the leaves of the tree are for
the healing of the nations” (204).

Does Wright answer all his own or our
questions? No. He admits that “For the moment,
I grieve and lament. . . , and I do not
hesitate to tell God about it and to file my
questions before his throne.” Only after this
unflinching looking at evil and suffering, of
incomprehension and pain, can he come
back to God with trust and even with praise.
And this hope and praise are genuine, because
they come “within the framework of a
faith that has hope and future built into it”
(54). And as I read and will re-read Wright,
that’s good enough for me.


1 The wonderful Dr. Paul Brand (working in
leprosy ministry) does the same from a totally
different angle. In a Christianity Today
article (Jan. 10, 1994, pp. 18-23) he (or the
editor) titled his article “And God Created
Pain.” Of course, people with leprosy “need”
pain as a warning signal. But then Brand
continues to use this need as a “no pain, no
gain” principle for life, and tells stories of
English people who were more content during
the 1940 bombing than at any other time
in life, and of the poor Indian barber who
was so much happier than the rich American
barber. Brand ultimately determines pain to
be necessary and “good,” and thus ends up
minimizing the atrocious evil and pain suffered
by untold millions.

2 At this point Wright quotes from Nicholas
Wolterstorff’s “profound reflection on lament”
in the Calvin Theological Journal 36:42-52.

3 Religion, Reason, and Revelation (Philadelphia:
Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., 1961),
p. 221.

4 “The Beginning of Birth Pangs,” The Standard
(November 1, 1989), pp. 53-54.

5 “Southern Decadence Cancelled,” The Standard
(November 1, 2005), pp. 62-64.

Harry Boonstra is theological librarian, emeritus, at
Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.