According to Thomas Brooks, "as a Christian is never out of the reach of Gods hand, so he is never out of the view of Gods eye." It is a consoling truth which every wise Christian takes to heart. For life, the Christian life, can be hard. Losses and crosses are the lot of those who follow Jesus. As Peter warned, we may have "to suffer grief in all kinds of trials" (1 Pet. 1:6). The Bible negates the false optimism of health and wealth advocates. Its pernicious assurance of lives free from trouble fly in the face of biblical portraits of Gods children. Job is a case in point.
The testimony as to his godliness is unequivocal: from the author of the book of Job (Job 1:1) and from God himself (Job 1:8). But Job loses all his children, his economic livelihood, and ultimately his health. In a record of Satanic opposition, Job is left destitute of all support. His friends deride him with a theology offering instant reversal of his misfortune if he were only to repent of his sin. Specific sin there was not, of course. But like their modern counterparts who deal in guilt, Jobs comforters were insistent that trouble was always the sign of a reckless life. Their contribution only added to Jobs difficulties.
The greatest difficulty for Job, however, came from Gods silence. The silence of God can be deafening. Elizabeth Elliot puts it succinctly: "God knows the way that he takes; you dont know his." The demand for an explanation of Gods ways is understandable, but not forthcoming. Not until chapter 38 does God speak, and then, from the midst of a storm. It is all designed to teach Job a fundamental lesson: that God is other than we are. Gods first words are combatative: "Brace yourself like a man" (Job 38:2). Job is being summoned to wrestle with God! But what kind of match is it? Not a meeting of equals! The very first question is enough to bring Job to the floor in submission: "Where were you when I laid the earths foundation?" (Job 38:3).
The point of all this is to bring Job to acknowledge what theologians refer to as the Creator-creature distinction. God must be acknowledged as he is: sovereign! That is the issue at stake in the providence of Jobs trials. Will Job submit to Gods majesty or will he not? Gods providence is the unceasing activity of the sovereign Creator whereby, he upholds His creatures in orderly existence, guides and governs all events, circumstances and free acts of men and angels, no matter how great or trivial. All of this is done to accomplish one great design: to give glory to Himself.
That, at least, is the way it is, even when we cannot make it out to be so. When Job finally acknowledges Gods right to do as he pleases (though God never acts tyrannically), depicted so graphically in Job 40:4 when Job places his hand over his mouth, Job is expressing a truth about the sovereignty of God: that God is under no obligation to explain himself. "I know that you can do all things, no plan of yours can be thwarted," Job says (Job 42:2).
Gods ways are incomprehensible, not that he cannot be known at all, but that he cannot be known fully. What we know of God we know because he has disclosed himself. That was Calvins contribution in the opening section of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559). It was the way he understood the message of Job and the providence of God. We may not be able to understand what God is doing, and that, because we cannot comprehend God as he is in Himself. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts neither are your ways my ways," God says (Isa. 55:8). Providence is not an acknowledgement that we can make sense of what God is doing; it is an acknowledgement that he can make sense of it and that is all that matters. We are not called upon to explain providence, but to trust the God of providence.
Faith is the key that unlocks the door of dark providences. "Faith," wrote Calvin, "ought to penetrate more deeply, namely having found Him Creator of all,. . . to conclude He is also everlasting Governor and Preservernot only in that He drives the celestial frame . . . but also in that He sustains, nourishes, and cares for everything He has made, even to the least sparrow."
Reading Job from this perspective enables us to prepare for whatever may come in the certainty that nothing will overtake us that takes God by surprise. There is a divine plan at work in our lives. It is the plan of a sovereign, yet gracious Lord. William Cowper got it right:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
Over and over, the psalmist proclaims it: " God is great!" (Ps. 48:1; 86:10; 95:3; 145:3). What does he mean? Partly, it is a signal to Gods immensity (we tend to think in spacial terms, God is "big"; but then, so does, occasionally, the psalmist (cf. Ps. 103:11, "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him"). But something else is in view here. God is greater than we can grasp. There is more to God than we can ever know, or even imagine. Think of the incarnation, or the Trinity, or the cross of Christ and you will grasp a little of the infinities and immensities of the Christian faith. God truly is great!
Theology has expressed this notion by saying that God is incomprehensible, not that God cannot be known at all, but that God cannot be known fully. Finitum non capax infinitum wrote Calvin: "the finite cannot grasp the infinite." Two opposing pictures help us grasp this idea: God dwells in "unapproachable light" (1 Tim 6:16); and "Clouds and thick darkness surround him" (Ps. 97:2). It is a pictorial way of saying: God cannot be measured.
Christianity is a revealed religion. What we know of God, we know by revelation. And we only know that which God has been pleased to reveal. Several things need to be borne in mind:
Firstly, God is knowable. Every person knows God in a sense, even if they deny it! That is the position Paul adopts in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans: "since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them" (Rom. 1:19). As Calvin puts it: His essence, indeed, is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse." (Institutes I.v.i). This is so, partly, because God discloses himself (in creation and providence), and, partly, because man is made in the image of God (and still retains a semblance of that image even in his sinful, fallen condition). There is sufficient knowledge here, even in denial of it, that can condemn a man to hell! And furthermore, in the gospel, that is in the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures, there is knowledge that can redeem; knowledge that can restore into fellowship; knowledge that guarantees eternal communion with God. God is knowable! This may sound somewhat elementary, but one has to remember that the early church faced a heresy that denied this very thing. The Gnostics did not believe that God was knowable by ordinary rational means. Only those "in the know", through some mystical, intuitive way could know God. This may well be the background to many of the epistles of the new Testament.
Secondly, what we know, we truly know. This, too, is important. We may not know everything there is to know, but we do have real knowledge. What we know is not a pretence. God, said Calvin, has accommodated himself to us, speaking to us in "baby-talk" in order that our finite capacities might grasp it. Child-like it may be; but it is nonetheless real and genuine for all that. In heaven, we will discover God to be greater, but not different from that which we now know. Thus, God bends to our limited capacities and "prattles" (to use Calvins word), telling us that he has hands (1 Sam. 5:11), and feet (Nah. 1:3); eyes (Job 28:10 and ears (Neh. 1:6); and that he sits on a throne (1 Kings 22:19). But, this is God speaking to us in a form we can understand. This is not the way that he is in Himself. But they do tell us something that transcends these anthropomorphic pictures: that God is our Father and friend and rules all that is.
Thirdly, we will never know God fully. This is not always sufficiently realised. When providence frowns and dark clouds gather, comfort is sometimes sought in the advice: "But we will understand in heaven." Two New Testament references are usually cited. The first is John 13:7, when during the course of the foot-washing episode, Jesus says to the disciples: "You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand." It is doubtful if this refers to heaven; rather, it refers to what the disciples came to understand about his servant work after Jesus had died on the cross. The other is Pauls statement in 1 Corinthians 13: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (v. 12). Even if this does refer to an eschatological knowledge, rather than the knowledge gained by the completion of the canon of Scripture. Paul cannot possibly be understood to suggest that , in heaven, we shall know everything there is to know about God. Such a view would contradict other statements (e.g. 1 Tim. 6:16). Even in heaven, our knowledge will be limited. It will be perfect; but, it will not be comprehensive. Even there, we will need to bow before his inscrutable majesty, acknowledging the sovereignty of his ways and perfection of his plans. But here, too, we will not see all there is to see.
There will be something, and Someone, to wonder at, to fall down before in doxology, for all eternity.
A popular preacher here in the United States of America continues to tell his nation-wide television audience of several million, "Dont tell folk theyre sinners; it ruins their self-esteem!" However unbiblical that may appear to be, and it is, it is a measure of how far modern psychological doctrine has taken centre-stage in the battle for identity and meaning. The preacher has been replaced by counsellors who speak the language of affirmation and healing. By introspection and self-love, getting in touch with repressed feelings whose negative vibrations damage and destroy, the modern gurus offer a new discovery and re-birth to fullness of life. In every crisis counsellors descend urging a positivism regarding self-analysis that appeals to a lost and unstable society no longer committed to basic Christian values relating to sin and salvation.
But what is self-esteem? How can we ever feel good about ourselves given that biblical analysis renders us guilty and worthy of hell? "Worm theology," that brand of Calvinism ridiculed by modern sophists who cite Isaac Watts as chief culprit in self-degradation whenever he would have sing of Christ: "Would He devote that sacred head,/for such a worm as I?" Interestingly, Hymns for Todays Church renders the last line, "for such a one as I?" What the Lord called Jacob (Israel) is evidently now regarded unworthy, inappropriate in the face of human dignity (c.f. Isa. 41:14).
Self-esteem there ought to be, of course, had we not sinned, in Adam and in ourselves. Then, the image of God in which we were created would still be whole. Now the situation is different. That image has been defaced; we are no longer what Adam was in the Garden of Eden. The knowledge, righteousness and holiness which defined Gods image in us, is now, like a broken mirror, distorted and almost (but not quite) obliterated. Self-esteem by introspection and getting "in touch with ourselves" leads only to a negation of reality. It is, to use the modern jargon, to live in denial. Self-esteem that takes no cognisance of sins reality and destructive power is to live like children playing, "Lets pretend."
It is not an accident that the sixteenth century Reformation more or less began denying unreality regarding self, affirming the continual need to repent: for that is what Luther intended by making repentance the first of his ninety-five theses. Nor is it without significance that Jesus began his public ministry with the same word, "Repent" (Matt. 4:17). Such negative assessments of our present self is evidence of how far modern Christianity has fallen prey to what Geoff Thomas somewhere called, "the Disneyfication of the Church." Evidently, for Jesus, growing up is growing down!
Self-esteem there ought to be, of course, even for fallen man: he still retains the image of God sufficiently for God to legislate death as the punishment for murder on the very basis that man was created in Gods image (Gen. 9:6). At the other end of the scale, the command of both Testaments to love our neighbour as ourselves follows the same logic (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 5:43). There is affirmation of human dignity even for fallen man. We are not just evolved apes. Darwinianism negates this dignity, excusing sin as animal-like bahaviour.
True self-esteem comes, not by looking within us but by looking outside of ourselves to Christ our Redeemer, and to the Father, by whose love our redemption is made possible. It is to know that which Paul gave expression to whenever he uttered: "I no longer live" (Gal.2:20). Our new identity in Christ as the people of God means that egocentricity and independence from God no longer forms the prevailing mode of my existence. The old "self" (the Adamic "me") is gone. I can affirm myself as a child of God, but it is not me that I affirm, but "Christ (who) lives in me."
Im the child of the King, a child of the King!
We still feel as though this truth of human dignity in Christ should mean special treatment, so that experiences of pain and hurt baffle us and cause us doubt Gods love. But this way we betray our ignorance of the way Gods love works. We ask for strength and God makes things hard to make us strong. We ask for wisdom and God sends problems that we might learn to solve. We ask for special dealing and God sends us opportunities to serve Him. We ask for prosperity and God gives us avenues to work. Knowing our dignity brings with it a recognition of duty: we are made thus to serve Him at whatever cost..
Calvin wrote: "until God reveals himself to us, we do not think we are men, or rather, we think that we are gods; but when we have seen God, then we begin to feel and know what we are. hence springs true humility, which consists in this, that a man make no claim for himself, and depends wholly on God." (Commentary on Isaiah 6:5).
He was right!
When Pilate said, "What is Truth?" (John 18:38), he expressed a skepticism that has become a common-place of our own time. Postmodernity, to use the, now, popular term is roughly equated with a denial that there is any such thing as universal verifiable truth. According to the spirit of our times, there is only my truth and your truth, that which is true for me and that which is true for you; but there is no truth that is true for everybody. At least, that is the state of things on the popular level.
Of course, this is easily dismissed, for, as the saying goes: what is sauce for the goose is sauce for gander! Whenever someone says, "There is no such thing as a universal truth," all one needs to do by way of a response is to ask the question: "Is this assertion being put forward as a universal truth?" If the answer is affirmative, the premise stands refuted on its own terms. If the answer is negative, then at best he has only asserted a truth is true for him, but not for you.
But, postmodernity is a more slippery customer than that. It is a mindset that now pervades our schools and universities, carrying cynicism and disillusionment in its wake. We may not carry much truck for intellectuals, thinking W. H. Auden right when he opined with tongue in cheek:
To the man-in-the-street, who Im sorry to say,
Nevertheless their influence upon us is considerable. We hand over our children to them who, little by little, influence and shape their thinking, instilling doubts that grow to gigantic proportions.
All of this is, of course, a sea-change from the prevailing notions of the past two hundred years. For, ever since the Enlightenment, men like Rousseau and Kant, and the theorists of the French Revolution, have told us that mans mind is the measure of all things, that truth claims are verified by analysis and scientific observation and experiment. For two centuries, man has believed that truth was out there to be attained and affirmed by the processes of human reason. Knowing the truth, ¾ science to give it its true name, is a stepping stone in the journey that is evolution from chaos and barbarity to civilization and advancement. This was the gospel according to modernity. It still stubbornly holds on in some quarters; the gurus of biological evolutionism are amongst the last to capitulate. But over the past thirty years or so, waves of skepticism now pervade the halls of learning and establishment that question the very possibility of such certainty. Thus post-modernity is birthed.
One of the features of postmodernity is its annoyingly laissez-faire attitude to "doing-your-own-thing." Religion, once regarded by intellectuals as the demon, is now accepted as a perfectly valid option, so long as it fulfils some need in the private individual, or to some extent, a modestly defined collective. In this way, the plurality of religions in this world is a thing to welcomed, so long as none of them, Christianity especially, make any claims to being exclusive.
And that is precisely what Christian claims are: a call to embrace the crown rights of King Jesus¾ exclusively! There is no other Saviour but Jesus of Nazareth. He is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). It will not do, as some are currently suggesting, that what Jesus means when he goes on to say that no one comes to the Father but by him, that that is true as far as it goes. That we really do come to God as "Father" through Jesus Christ, but God can be known in many other ways, too.
This, of course, is so much sophistry that will not square with any rational analysis of what Bible truth-claims set themselves out to be. If, indeed, the claims that are made by Jesus of Nazareth are true, ¾ and we believe with all of our hearts and minds that they are, ¾ then a startling and liberating fact emerges: that his belief in the Bible (in his case, the Old Testament) was such that no claims to fallibility could be countenanced. The Scriptures, quite simply, "cannot be broken" (John 10:35). The verb which is used here, means, as Leon Morris so clearly states: "that Scripture cannot be emptied of its force by being shown to be erroneous." For Jesus, the Bible made truth claims that have universal relevance. His understanding of the use of human language in the Bible was such that he believed it to correspond to reality. What is said in the Bible is not a fantasy, or an illusion; nor is relative to the listener. The words of Scripture have objective validity and standing because Bible words are more than human words. They are Gods words. men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). That being so, it is absurd to claim Jesus (and the apostles too) as making valid truth claims that are appropriate for you, but not necessarily for everyone, when they themselves expected to be taken at face value. They intended Scripture to be received as Gods Word, as Gods cognitive instrument by which he governs his people. As Bacon wrote of Pilate:
What is Truth? Said jesting Pilate;
so postmodernity fails to stay and hear the answer they claim as valid. It is caught on the horns of a dilemma borne of its own refusal to hear the exclusive claim of Christ to be the Saviour of sinners.