Death By Living by N.D. Wilson (The Gospel Coalition Review)

death by livingN.D. Wilson. Death By Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013. 208 pp. $19.99.

The first thing I’ll note about Death By Living, N.D. Wilson’s follow-up to his celebrated Notes From the Tilt a Whirl, is that I couldn’t give you a book report if I tried. Much like Notes, Wilson’s direct, yet roundabout, tilt-a-whirling style puckishly mocks the straight-laced summary-reviewer for even thinking to attempt the mighty feat.

For return readers looking for quick comparison between Notes and Death, I’d say that if the last one changed the way I thought, this one might change the way I live. Notes invites you to embrace God as the sovereign, beyond imagining Author of the ridiculously unexpected universe in which we find ourselves. Death challenges you to live as a character, or rather, sub-writer of enfleshed, breathing words. Big ones. Interesting ones. Once again, you’ll find yourself in a well-shaken cocktail of poetic memoir, philosophy, theology, sharp wit, polemical fisticuffs, hilarity, and exhortation, in the form of a paean to the grace of a life well-lived in the shadow eternity. For the newcomer, you may want to strap in first.

“Death by Living, life is meant to be spent. ” That’s Wilson’s thesis and philosophy of family life (xi); scuffed knees are apparently as much an evidence of life as a pulse in the Wilson household. In many ways it’s a quirky entry into the venerable devotio moderna genre, along with A Kempis’ De Imitatione Christi; only in this one, we’re encouraged to follow our Covenant Head, take up our swords, fight the dragon, and live hard until it kills us like Jesus, the Image of humanity done right (62, 79). That might involve a little dirt. Don’t worry though, resurrection should take the stains right out.

As the book defies summary, being somewhat unruly and misbehaved, I’m simply going to highlight a couple of content points, and make one note on style for pastors.

You can read the rest of the review over at The Gospel Coalition.

7 Reasons God Might Not Heal Somebody

healingFor about two and half years now, I’ve had something wrong with my joints and muscles. It started with tendon pain in my knees, then later I had abdominal/hip issues, which then shifted to a shoulder condition, eventually leading to chest muscle pain, and recently to pelvic alignment problems. I’m not quite 27 yet, but the running joke among my college students is that I’m a broken old man. I’ve had five different physical therapists and chiropractors over the last two years and a number of other doctors treat me. Fun stuff.

Now, I’ve prayed, I’ve gone to doctors, changed up my practices, and for some reason it just seems like one thing after another keeps coming up. I know this isn’t the greatest tragedy in the world; we have members in our congregation and friend in our lives who have struggled through much worse. Still, there have been times when I’ve wondered, “God, what are you doing? Why haven’t you healed me yet? I know you can.” For some reason I have hope and confidence that this is not a permanent thing (even though for many it is), but there have been times that I’ve just struggled with the question of why God continues to leave me unhealed–or, for as long as he has, at least.*

That’s why I was particularly interested in reading Sam Storm’s chapter “Why Doesn’t God Always Heal the Sick?” in his new book Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions. I had my own range of responses to the issue, but I wanted to see what someone who had actually devoted some research to the question had to say.

7 (Possible) Reasons
Storms is quick to recognize that there is some level of mystery involved in the issue of healing, and certainly with respect to God’s will for individual lives. He makes a point of saying that not every case where you know who remains unhealed can be quickly chalked up to one of these reasons. That said, Storms gives 7 possible reasons someone might not be healed.

  1. Faith – As much as this reason has been abused, “we must be willing to acknowledge that occasionally healing does not occur because of the absence of that sort of faith God delights to honor.” (pg. 304) Faith as small as a mustard-seed can be sufficient, but there are a number of cases in the NT seem to suggest that lack of faith can be a factor. (Matthew 9:22, 28-29; 15:28; Mark 2:5, 11; Luke 17:19; Acts 3:16)
  2. Sin - Again, not everyone who isn’t healed is being punished for some specific sin. Jesus rebuts too simple a one-to-one relationship between particular sickness and particular sin (John 9). And yet, as Storms notes, “James 5:15-16 clearly instructs us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed.” (pg. 305) Sometimes it is the case that unconfessed sin might be holding back God’s hand of healing.
  3. Desire - This is an odd one, but Storms notes that sometimes people actually don’t want to be healed. They have lived with their illness and the lifestyle associated with it for so long, it’s terrifying to think of life without it. A person’s identity can be so wrapped up in it, fearful that the love and care they receive as someone who is ill will suddenly disappear, that healing actually sounds threatening. (pg. 305)
  4. Ask Not – James 4:2 says, “you do not have, because you do not ask.” Storms writes, “The simple fact is that some are not healed because they do not pray.” (pg. 306) Sometimes we really just don’t ask and so God doesn’t give.
  5. Oppression - Healing is often-times blocked because “the demonic cause of the affliction has not been addressed.” (pg. 306) Though not every sickness is attributable to demonic influence, according to the NT some is (Luke 13:16), and when that cause is not attended to, healing may be prevented.
  6. Providence – It would be a serious oversight not to consider the fact that God has plans for history, many of which we simply have no access to, nor could we understand if we did. Storms reminds us that we shouldn’t think healing and sickness is only area where God’s will for our lives must be utterly transparent. To claim that we know what God always does in a particular type of situation, like sickness, is arrogantly claiming knowledge we couldn’t possibly have.
  7. Something Better – “…healing the sick is a good thing (and we should never cease to pray for it), but often there is a better thing that can be attained only by means of physical weakness.” (pg. 307) In our health-obsessed culture, this might sound ridiculous, but God is often more concerned with healing our spiritual infirmities than our physical ones. Sometimes he does so through illnesses which humble us, force us to rely on him, and conform us to the image of Christ. (2 Cor. 4:16-18) For those who think it contrary to God’s goodness to let any of his children suffer in sickness, they ought to consider their response to the fact that God’s goodness allows his saints to suffer persecution, and indeed, ordained the suffering of his own Son for the salvation of the world. (1 Peter 4)

Summing Up
Again, all of these points can be expanded upon and nuanced–as they were in the book. It also might be noted that all of these reasons could only extend for a certain amount of time. Oppression need not last and spiritual lessons might eventually be learned. None of these reasons should be taken as an excuse for prayerlessness, or used to insensitively condemn those already suffering; they should be used (with wisdom) to encourage and comfort.

For myself, I have been challenged and comforted by a number of those reasons in my own walk–or lack of walking, at times–through illness. Few things have led me to embrace God’s Fatherly hand as the source of all things, working them for my good and his glory, than my illnesses. I have never had to rely on him, pray to him, and see him as my deepest strength as I did during those times when it hurt to stand, walk, or even sit for more than 5 minutes. I don’t know when this will “end”, if it ever will, how much it has to do with spiritual attack, spiritual formation, or just a providence beyond my ken. I know I’ll keep praying, asking him to grow me through this, increase my strength, cleanse my heart, protect me from attack, and (imperfectly) trusting that God has his good reasons. I pray that for those of you suffering with illnesses, these meditations would encourage you to the same.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Just to make it clear, there has been some improvement of late with certain treatments, but no radical healing. I’m not languishing here, immobilized for those who might be concerned. Prayers are appreciated, though!

Job, Providence, and Multiple Intentionality

JobIf anybody knows anything about Calvin it is that he believes God to be the ultimate author of history, good or bad, with all of its twists and turns. He devotes a significant section of Book I of the Institutes to the doctrine of providence, defends it in a number of special treatises, and addresses it all throughout the commentaries. One particular passage grabbed my attention when I first read through the Institutes, though, when I was yet early on in developing my Reformedish tendencies.

Theologians, especially those concerned that God not be considered the author of evil, tend to make the distinction between God causing a thing to come to pass directly, or merely “permitting” it to come to pass. While elsewhere Calvin seems affirm a proper place for this distinction, he’s not too keen on those who would try to rob God of his sovereign governorship over all things by using the doctrine of permission to get God off the hook for human wickedness. Although they are fully responsible for their choices (Institutes I.17.2-3), not being compelled by some Stoic fate (ibid, I.16.8), men and women make the choices they make according to the “secret plan of God.” Calvin’s beef is with a permission that teaches “that men are borne headlong by blind motion unbeknown to God or with his acquiescence.” God providence does not admit of a passive permission in which he simply lets things happen, but rather it is active permission according to his own secret plan, for his own good will.

Calvin backs this up with a battery of scriptural examples and texts, but he opens with the story of Job:

From the first chapter of Job we know that Satan, no less than the angels who willingly obey, presents himself before God [Job 1:6; 2:1] to receive his commands. He does so, indeed, in a different way and with a different end; but he still cannot undertake anything unless God so wills. However, even though a bare permission to afflict the holy man seems then to be added, yet we gather that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and his wicked thieves were the ministers, because this statement is true: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; as it has pleased God, so is it done” [Job 1:2 ]. Satan desperately tries to drive the holy man insane; the Sabaeans cruelly and impiously pillage and make off with another’s possessions. Job recognizes that he was divinely stripped of all his property, and made a poor man, because it so pleased God. Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself may instigate, God nevertheless holds the key, so that he turns their efforts to carry out his judgments.

-Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.18.1

The reason this passage was so fascinating to me was that it called my attention to a single instance where three wills were at work, each a key component in the action, and all for different purposes. At the human level we see the Sabaeans out of a simple human lust and wickedness pillaging and looting in order to satisfy their own desires. Satan was at work as well, goading the Sabaeans in order to afflict Job and cause him to curse God, thereby proving him wrong. God actively permitted Satan to goad the Sabaeans in order to, well, we don’t have the full reasons, but at the very least, prove Satan’s accusations wrong and vindicate the righteousness of his servant Job. The same event is the result of God’s good divine will and the two wicked wills, demonic and human. God is just in his determinations, and yet Satan and the Sabaeans are utterly wicked in theirs.

This is not the way we’re used to thinking about things. Regularly we’d try and figure out, “Well, who’s really responsible here? Who caused it? It’s either God, or the devil, or humans, so which is it?” Or we’d try and parse it out and say that this part was God, this part was Satan, and this part was humans. That’s not what we see in the text, though. Instead, it seems to point us to God working out his own will through wicked demonic and human wills at the very same time.

Calvin moves on to cite the stories of the lying spirit and King Ahab (1 Kings 22:20-22), Jesus’ death at the hands of Pilate and wicked men by the plan of God (Acts 2:23,  4:28), Jeremiah’s declaration that the Chaldean’s cruel invasion was God’s own work (Jeremiah 1:15; 7:14; 50:25), and a half-dozen other instances where human wickedness is also credited to God’s good purposes in history. As Calvin says, “Those who are moderately versed in the Scriptures see that for the sake of brevity I have put forward only a few of many testimonies.”

I’ve wrestled myself for a number of years as to just how God’s sovereignty and our real, human freedom play out. Of course, the Scriptures don’t resolve this tension for us, nor does Calvin; they just let the it hang there. The conclusion I’ve come to is that both are in the Bible and any solution that too heavily pits the one against the other–either minimizing or limiting God’s control, foreknowledge, & so forth, or those hyper-Calvinists who would call all human freedom a chimera–are reading against the grain of the text. None of this is an answer, of course. I still go back and forth between a more deterministic conception of compatibilism, Molinism, and something I don’t think I really have a name for.

What Calvin does is ensure that whatever our answer, it must be one that reckons with the fact that there are no runaway wills in God’s world; his “permission” is an active one, and he does not stand idly by, wringing his hands in distress, or waiting with baited breath to see what happens next. Again, this is the God of the Gospel who didn’t just stand by and let his Son be crucified by wicked men, but purposed according to his own plan and foreknowledge to save the world through these things.

Soli Deo Gloria

I Am Not Abraham’s Mistake (My Christ and Pop Culture Feature)

Illustration by the amazing Seth T. Hahn. Pretty stoked.

Illustration by the amazing Seth T. Hahne Pretty stoked.

9/11 was a weird day for me. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Oh God, I hope it wasn’t Arabs”, as soon as I heard that a plane had been crashed into the first tower. I’m 3/4 Palestinian and at times have a distinctly Arab cast to me. My last name is Rishmawy. Admittedly it was a selfish thought, but I just didn’t see that going well for me in high school. And I was right.

That afternoon in football practice, upon discovering that I was of Arab descent, a “Palestilian” according to one educated linguist on the team, a team-mate of mine took it upon himself to spear me in the back–twice. For those of you who’ve never played, that sort of thing hurts. Thankfully my coach caught on quickly and put an end to that. Still, for the next few years I was lovingly called “dune-coon”, “sand-nigger”, “Taliban”, “Osama”, etc. by a good chunk of my team-mates and friends. And yes, I do mean lovingly. It was wrong, and I don’t really get it, but for some reason racial slurs were a way of bonding in the locker-room. Still, it grated on me at times.

As frustrating and awkward as being an Arab high-schooler in post-9/11 America could be at times, given garden-variety prejudices, fears, and ignorance–none of those slurs frustrated me as much as what some of my well-meaning, Evangelical brothers and sisters ignorantly implied: that I and my entire ethnic heritage were an unfortunate mistake–Abraham’s mistake to be exact.

Please go read the rest of this piece at the Christ and Pop Culture blog at patheos.com.

 

“Good Luck! I’m Praying For You!”–Wait, What?

Fortuna“Good luck! I’m praying for you!” You ever heard that one? I noticed the peculiarity of that phrase a few years ago for the first time, and the incongruity has struck me every since.  To wish someone “good luck” is to invoke the notion of chance or fortune, the blind determination of fate. The view is an old one that’s been with us at least as far back as the Romans’ worship of the capricious goddess Fortuna. On luck, there is no dependable rhyme, rhythm, or order to the universe. It just works out for you, or it doesn’t. You have “good” luck or “bad” luck.

Prayer, on the other hand, presupposes the providence of God. For the Christian, to pray is to believe in a fatherly God like the one Jesus talks about, who hears and orders the world according to his own good plan, for the blessing and benefit of his children. Prayer and luck are incompatible ideas. Again, Calvin shines a light on things:

That this difference may better appear, we must know that God’s providence, as it is taught in Scripture, is opposed to fortune and fortuitous happenings. Now it has been commonly accepted in all ages, and almost all mortals hold the same opinion today, that all things come about through chance. What we ought to believe concerning providence is by this depraved opinion most certainly not only beclouded, but almost buried. Suppose a man falls among thieves, or wild beasts; is shipwrecked at sea by a sudden gale; is killed by a falling house or tree. Suppose another man wandering through the desert finds help in his straits; having been tossed by the waves, reaches harbor; miraculously escapes death by a finger’s breadth. Carnal reason ascribes all such happenings, whether prosperous or adverse, to fortune. But anyone who has been taught by Christ’s lips that all the hairs of his head are numbered [Matthew 10:30] will look farther afield for a cause, and will consider that all events are governed by God’s secret plan. And concerning inanimate objects we ought to hold that, although each one has by nature been endowed with its own property, yet it does not exercise its own power except in so far as it is directed by God’s ever-present hand. These are, thus, nothing but instruments to which God continually imparts as much effectiveness as he wills, and according to his own purpose bends and turns them to either one action or another.

–Calvin, Institutes 1.16.2

Or, to put it another way, the practice of Christian prayer assumes with answer 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism that:

The almighty and ever present power of God by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.

The point is you have to choose: either unpredictable Fortuna or the good hand of your Heavenly Father; either “good” luck, or a prayer to the God of Jesus Christ who upholds all things.

Soli Deo Gloria

God Didn’t Just Create the World to Spin on its Own

Last night I talked to my college group about the issue of miracles and the laws of nature. One point that came up was that too often Christians have a limited view of God’s creative activity. They think of him in an essentially deistic fashion–that God created the world and then just left it spinning to itself. On that view, miracles become somewhat random interventions of an absent God. No, instead the Bible presents us with a God who not only creates, but sustains the universe in existence, governing it in wisdom and with fatherly compassion.  On this picture, a miracle is not an “intervention” from a distant God, but a sovereign action of a God already intimately involved with maintaining his creation. It was a good discussion–I love my job.

As I thought back on it this morning, it called to mind Calvin’s excellent comments on God’s creation and governance:

Moreover, to make God a momentary Creator, who once for all finished his work, would be cold and barren, and we must differ from profane men especially in that we see the presence of divine power shining as much in the continuing state of the universe as in its inception, For even though the minds of the impious too are compelled by merely looking upon earth and heaven to rise up to the Creator, yet faith has its own peculiar way of assigning the whole credit for Creation to God. To this pertains that saying of the apostle’s to which we have referred before, that only “by faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God” [Hebrews 11:3]. For unless we pass on to his providence — however we may seem both to comprehend with the mind and to confess with the tongue — we do not yet properly grasp what it means to say: “God is Creator.” Carnal sense, once confronted with the power of God in the very Creation, stops there, and at most weighs and contemplates only the wisdom, power, and goodness of the author in accomplishing such handiwork. (These matters are self-evident, and even force themselves upon the unwilling.) It contemplates, moreover, some general preserving and governing activity, from which the force of motion derives. In short, carnal sense thinks there is an energy divinely bestowed from the beginning, sufficient to sustain all things. But faith ought to penetrate more deeply, namely, having found him Creator of all, forthwith to conclude he is also everlasting Governor and Preserver — not only in that he drives the celestial frame  as well as its several parts by a universal motion, but also in that he sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow [cf. Matthew 10:29]. Thus David, having briefly stated that the universe was created by God, immediately descends to the uninterrupted course of His providence, “By the word of Jehovah the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” [Psalm 33:6; cf. Psalm 32:6, Vg.]. Soon thereafter he adds, “Jehovah has looked down upon the sons of men” [Psalm 33:13; cf.Psalm 32:13-14, Vg.], and what follows is in the same vein. For although all men do not reason so clearly, yet, because it would not be believable that human affairs are cared for by God unless he were the Maker of the universe, and nobody seriously believes the universe was made by God without being persuaded that he takes care of his works, David not inappropriately leads us in the best order from the one to the other. In general, philosophers teach and human minds conceive that all parts of the universe are quickened by God’s secret inspiration. Yet they do not reach as far as David is carried, bearing with him all the godly, when he says: “These all look to thee, to give them their food in due season; when thou givest to them, they gather it up; when thou openest thy hand, they are filled with good things; when thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when thou takest away their breath, they die and return to the earth. If thou sendest forth thy spirit again, they are created, and thou re-newest the face of the earth” [Psalm 104:27- 30 p.]. Indeed, although they subscribe to Paul’s statement that we have our being and move and live in God [Acts 17:28], yet they are far from that earnest feeling of grace which he commends, because they do not at all taste God’s special care, by which alone his fatherly favor is known.

-John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.16.1

Calvin, and Scripture, remind us that we serve a God who didn’t just create the world and leave it spinning. No, instead we have a God who, with fatherly kindness and great concern, reigns over it with wisdom and power.

Soli Deo Gloria