THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 54
In the playpen – Part Two
In the last article I suggested that we should recognize that God is an intimate part of all of our daily life – in the good and the bad. The purpose behind life is that we exercise the ability we all possess to decide - to make moral and spiritual choices - to become a certain type of person; the Christian maintains that we are meant to become people who have faith in God and know the Lord Jesus Christ in our own experience. The purpose behind allowing us moral and spiritual choices is that we grow in faith and so become mature human beings who reflect, in some small way, the nature of our Creator.
It is implicit, in this reading of things, that God is in charge of his world. Despite appearances, the world is not out of control or haphazard. It may seem to us to be mindless and even blind at times – but its apparent haphazardness is an essential and necessary part of the picture – thus giving each of us a real choice – to decide whether or not to conduct our lives by faith in a loving God. The uncertainty creates the conditions for a real choice.
If the world is not mindless and haphazard, what sort of world do we live in? Does God order it? How far is it under his control? All of it? All the time? The Christian says that the world is under God’s control - in fact, he maintains that every bit of it is under his control. There is no part of any of it that escapes from his overruling will. And it is under his control all the time, from start to finish.
Christian Saints down the ages have told us that the only way to truly live is by understanding that everything that happens in one’s life comes to us from God. When you meet someone, they say, it is because God has sent them to you. When anything happens to you it is part of God’s will, so that you can grow in grace. Let’s explore this idea and see whether we can live with it.
I think that to accept that everything happens under God’s direction presents two main problems for most of us:
1 How do we reconcile that with human free will?
2 Can God be so deeply involved in everyone’s daily life?
Let us look at these two questions.
How do we reconcile the idea God directs everything with the concept that we have of our own free will – that we are able to choose as we wish? For an answer to this I suggest we have to revert to the human family as an illustration. It is perfectly possible for the mother who places the child in the playpen to so regulate and order things that there is no danger to the child. The worst he can do, let us say, is throw a few wooden bricks around – and the playpen has been sited so that he cannot hit anything valuable.
But as far as the child is concerned, he thinks he has full control over his life. He can move around and he can lie down, sit or pull himself onto his feet. He can suck his thumb or try to put a wooden brick in his mouth. He can make a noise. He does not feel frustrated, though he is, possibly, sometimes, aware that something gets in the way of getting to be with Mummy – the rail of the playpen seems to stop him going where he would like to go, but mostly he quickly forgets and is perfectly content in his playpen.
So with us. We are aware of limitations (space, time etc), but in so much of life we appear to have choices. In fact there is enough choice for us to become fully occupied for seventy years if we are not lazy – and even that is a choice. As far as we are concerned we each have a decent helping of free will, though we accept that there are limiting factors such as poverty, lack of education, genetics and training.
The second objection to the idea that God directs everything every moment concerns our bafflement as to how any power, no matter how great, can ever be involved in the minutiae of six and a half billion people, never mind all the rest of creation.
The best response to this objection may simply be that in view of the fact that God is so much greater than us – and obviously he must be greater to have created the universe – then how can we limit what he can or cannot do? We cannot even attempt to explain it! For me that argument is persuasive, but it might not be for some people.
A second way to approach the same question is to accept the concept that God, besides being transcendent, is present in all his creation – that there is no part of matter or space or time that does not also contain his presence. But present at the molecular level as well as the macro – the minute as well as the enormous. Not just some great power sitting up in the heavens, but rather to see him as being omnipresent. If God is omnipresent then he is truly in all things, everywhere. He moves everything as he wishes it to be moved. What he has created he permeates. There is therefore nothing that he is not continually influencing and affecting.
Even our brains – which give us the concept and feeling of having free will – are permeated by Him. He affects its every thought and feeling. God is in all things, present everywhere.
Now it is possible to find arguments against this concept. But suppose it were true. Would that not give God total control? Not a molecule would exist or move without his causing it. Would that not put him in charge of the playpen?
I have always felt that the ultimate lie about God is that he is distant. That he dwells in a far off place that we call heaven. Perhaps this belief stems from too great an emphasis on his transcendence.
Instead, surely, the reality is that God is immanent as well as transcendent. We cannot comprehend that. And some theologians will fear that we are getting too near to a pantheistic viewpoint - but that is simply a danger to be avoided.
Moving on, let us see where such a view leads us.
It means that a Christian accepts that God has the deepest possible involvement in his world – everything that happens is ‘God ordained’. There is no incident or happening in the world that God is not intimately involved in and totally in charge of. And none of that takes away any of the ability to choose that we believe we have.
Once you accept that, then you can say, with the Saints, that our attitude to what happens to us is radically altered. Instead of seeing problems and difficulties we can treat each happening in our life as from God. It radically alters our view of life. Instead of life being a hazardous affair, occasioning plenty of fear in us at times, it becomes a walk with Christ beside us every step of the way. Instead of being afraid of life, we can be open to all that happens as part of God’s purposes. This is God’s world and He is working His purposes out.
The hymn speaks very clearly of this:
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up his wise designs
And works His sovereign will.
No problem arrives in your life without purpose. It is allowed by God and enables you to grow in faith. No present difficulty comes by chance – it is ordained by God to arrive on your doorstep today. The God who controls all things has allowed even sickness and, therefore, we know that we can use it rather than be defeated by it. God’s ways may sometimes appear unfathomable, but ‘I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.’ (Philippians 4.13)
This is what the Saints down the ages have told us over and over again. Treat everything in your life as coming from God, they say. Look upon trouble and problems as sent by God to teach and train you and to grow in your faith, they say. Make them grow your faith. When you suffer pain and sickness, see it as joining with Christ in his suffering.
Is this view really feasible?
Far from merely being possible, I would suggest that this attitude is the only way for the victorious Christian to live! As with Peter when he stepped out of the boat (Matthew 14.30), when we take our eyes off Christ and look at the troubles and trials that affect us, we become preoccupied with the evil that surrounds us all. When we let worldly evil be in charge, we capitulate to the enemy. We must look beyond it to the God who is in charge. If we see sickness as capable of defeating God, then we have lost the fight.
When we decide to walk by faith in Christ we are able to face the problems and difficulties. We see them for what they are – merely tools by which God is enabling us to be strengthened in the inner man and guided more clearly still by his Spirit. He is treating us as adults, ready for greater challenges, tougher problems,
This idea permeates the Old Testament. For example, in Isaiah (chapter 45), Cyrus, King of Persia, who ravaged Israel and destroyed Jerusalem, is called ‘the anointed of the Lord’. The idea that God uses everything and everybody to accomplish his purposes – even a pagan king who was set on world domination.
There is one terrible trap that we must avoid falling in to. It is possible to swing to the other extreme. To say – well, if God is in charge of everything then we can sit back and just let him get on with it. We don’t see the need to be active and fighting – we can become passive and acquiescent, and let God work his purposes out, as He wants, in his good time.
This misses the point entirely. God has created the world and set us therein, made in his image, for a purpose. His intention is that we are to be co-creators of His Kingdom with him. This means that we need to make an input into every situation that He shows us – indeed, our very presence is one form of input. We are to fight evil with all the power we can muster. We are to seek to love creatively in all aspects of our lives. To sit passively back is the antithesis of what Christianity is about.
Lets finish with some verses from the bible, which help us understand.
Luke 12.28 If God so arrays the grass in the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith!
Luke12.30 ..the Father knows that you need these things.
Luke 15.10 ..I tell you that there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
Luke 16.15 ..but God knows your hearts…
Matthew 10.29 Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.