Collision: God’s Storyline vs. Our Expectations

It’s been said before that at least part of the underlying reason for the recent resurgence of speakers and authors doggedly advocating an atheistic worldview is a collective, horrified response to the death and destruction unleashed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. – as well as the decade-long “War on Terror” that has followed.

Of course, atheists have been around since the dawn of time; the Sept. 11 attacks merely galvanized many of them to push past the unpleasant idea that you and I are free to believe whatever we wish with regard to God. The newer form of atheism classifies religious belief as unacceptable for anyone with an “enlightened” mind, something to be expunged with extreme prejudice. Your religious freedom is now classified as a secondary concern.

While no one in their right mind would deny the immense tragedy and loss that accompany both terrorist attacks and the subsequent military response, allowing proper mourning to mutate into shaking an angry fist at God solves nothing; in fact, it only exacerbates the problem and divides us even further from one another.

No one typically comes right out and says this – though some do – but if you listen carefully and “read between the lines” a bit, you can almost hear the anti-God sirens singing as one unified chorus line: “Will you just look at what happens when people hold to these crazy beliefs in God?” The sad irony is that it is in our episodes of tragedy – both corporate and individual – that we find the strongest, most-obvious signposts that we do in fact need God. Underlying all of this demand that we thrust God into the dock of judgment is the arrogant notion that God has no right to determine the course of events in an individual’s life, let alone that of human history. (It is the peculiar province of the atheist to both deny God’s existence and simultaneously to be very angry with Him and feel compelled to judge His actions.)

Simply stated, not too many people immediately embrace the idea that our lives, and the events that take place in them, all belong to God.

Your next breath is on loan. The biblical view is pretty easy to understand, but immensely difficult to accept. The very beating of your heart as you read these words is an ongoing demonstration of God’s grace and mercy in your life, and He may be well pleased to allow your heart to continue to beat for another 10, 30, or perhaps even 70 years…or He may determine that it is in your best interest to call you home tomorrow. Framed in this manner, it becomes a bit simpler to develop a heart of gratitude, even in the face of tremendous loss and brokenness.

What’s the single biggest problem in your life…right now?

For me, these days, it’s various forms of “relational brokenness.” Funny, though, how my intense scrutiny of this particular problem would likely change somewhat were my house to catch fire (God forbid!) while my family was asleep inside. But even the total loss of everything we owned might start to look like “the good old days” if the geopolitical realities of our day shifted such that our cozy little university town were to begin experiencing carpet-bombing, roadside explosive devices and drone missile attacks, the daily norm in other parts of the globe. My point is not that “It can always get worse;” instead, I am simply saying that no matter where we find ourselves on the scale of suffering, human beings tend always to feel that God has failed to deliver on the promised “good life.” As a result, they may well lose the ability to see the manifold blessings of God in their lives.

Why do we think this way? Where in Scripture does one go for the “entitlement” promises of God? When does God have our “permission” to mess up our day? (An interesting follow-up to that question might be, “Would we ever give God our permission to bring about any form of suffering?”)

Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced “cha-vi-jin”) knows a little something about God’s ability to throw a monkey wrench into our lives…even as we are selflessly serving God! Unlike the new atheists, however, Tchividjian did not turn from God or accuse Him of wrongdoing in the face of unanticipated circumstances. Following a thoroughly biblical model, he allowed God to use his suffering to expose his own weaknesses, flaws, idolatry and (yes) sins. In simple terms, Tchividjian chose to believe that God allows suffering as a means of exposing those areas of our lives that need to be brought out into the light, examined and repented of. Even the most casual reading of his new book – “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” – allows readers to see for themselves how faithful God is and how truly merciful He is by allowing suffering in our lives as “a wake-up call.”

A grandson of Ruth and Billy Graham, Tchividjian has said nothing truly new in his book, but rather woven together some of the better teachings of folks such as John Piper and Tim Keller and applied their Christian principles to the serious mess of his own life. In my opinion, all of the Christian intellectualism in the world is not nearly as helpful as following along in someone else’s footsteps and seeing how their bedrock belief in a just, merciful and loving God guided them in their decisions and responses. This is not to say that I do not value the rigorous mind work that is required for a lasting relationship with God; not at all. In fact, I very much admire, respect and seek to understand the bright, talented scholars that God has placed in His church. But watching someone actually apply Christian ideals to the blood, sweat and tears of real life is something else altogether. It’s the difference between admiring a sleek new sports car on a perfectly-lit stage at an auto show, and driving that same car down a favorite stretch of highway at top speed.

The struggles of Tchividjian at his church in Florida hardly seem worth comparing to the epic tragedy of Sept. 11 and the worldwide conflict in which we currently find ourselves embroiled. I have every reason to believe that Tchividjian himself would say as much. However, both the rise of “New Atheism” and the submissive-to-God response of Tchividjian share some common ground. In both cases, the very existence and nature of God are called into question. The difference is in the result of that questioning.

  • “God allowed this to happen…I can’t allow myself to believe in Him anymore.” If we hold ourselves, our plans, and our “right” to continue drawing breath as the highest-possible good, then we are most likely to respond with anger, unbelief and/or outrage whenever God allows suffering to enter our lives. “Bereft of hope” when our dreams do not come to pass, and when reality stubbornly does not fit into the expectations we have developed, we may be strongly tempted to turn away from God at the precise moment that He is closest to us and loudly calling us to enter into relationship with Him.
  • “Your will be done.” In contrast to being angry and upset, the believer who will open his or her heart up during times of crisis to accept that God will be God, and to bring whatever is required into the process of conforming them more and more to the image of His Son, is placed squarely in The Learning Seat. God is gracious and loving, so prayerful questions such as, “What are you doing in my life, Lord? What am I supposed to be learning from this?” are perfectly OK. We are free to ask questions of God with a humble and confused heart, as Mary inquired of the angel of the Lord in Luke 1:30-38. Too often, though, we adopt a posture more like that of Zechariah (Luke 1:13-20) when we begin to question God’s ability to do some quick change-up work in our lives. Both Mary and Zechariah asked essentially the same question; the primary difference between them was an attitude of heart.

Does God have your permission to “mess with your life” in any way that serves His purposes…and your ultimate good (Romans 8:28)?

In recent months, I have had that question put to me more than once, and I’ve at least learned not to answer it too quickly. In my more honest moments, I can be heard to say ridiculous nonsense that basically boils down to, “Yes, but I’d really like it if He would check with me first.” Lacking the ability to see the glorious storyline of God across the centuries – and even within our own lives – the propensity to ask valid questions can all too quickly turn to unbelief, anger, disillusionment and (left unchecked) a complete denial of God altogether. Thankfully, though, He has provided us with several snapshots of what it looks like to live faithfully in times of great stress, sorrow and grief.

  • “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
  • “If I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)
  • “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:21)

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