A wrong conception of God’s sovereign kingship over creation goes hand in hand with poor ways of thinking about suffering and responding to catastrophe.
When we imagine that “God is in control,” we envision the trouble we face as having been orchestrated by God. This leads us to intellectualize the problem, trying to discern the reason(s) behind it. In the midst of this pandemic, we may wonder what God is trying to tell us. Perhaps he’s punishing us or trying to teach us something.
This vision of God’s relation to the world forces us to read against the grain of biblical texts. This is unfortunate because the New Testament does not lead us to ask why tragedies occur. Rather, it encourages us to respond wisely and faithfully to the inevitable trouble we will face in this world.
In this post I will consider one New Testament text and I hope to treat a few more in subsequent posts.
The Letter to the Hebrews addresses a community facing some kind of difficulty that is straining the ties that hold it together. Some church members are considering abandoning the community rather than enduring in the midst of suffering. After rehearsing a series of faithful people who endured suffering throughout Hebrews 11, the writer exhorts the community to persevere in faithfulness (12:1). He urges them to consider Jesus who endured faithfully with a focus on the joy of his future exaltation, the reward of faithfulness (12:2-3).
He then turns in vv. 5-11 to consider God’s training of his children (“discipline” in the sense of “training,” not “punishment”). Note carefully that this discussion is not intended to address the “why” question. The writer does not say that God has brought difficulty into their lives in order to train them. Rather, he focuses on how the community should respond to their situation in order to turn it into training.
In 12:5-6, he invites his audience to consider a passage from Proverbs 3 that speaks of God disciplining his children. In 12:7, he recalls his earlier exhortation to persevere from v. 1. Many translations turn the verb in v. 7 into a command, like the NIV does: “Endure hardship as discipline.”
But the verb in v. 7 is not an imperative, and it is better translated like this: “You persevere for (the sake of) training.” That is, the writer is not encouraging his audience to recognize that God is disciplining them and that they should endure it. Rather, he is explaining that their perseverance can transform trouble into training.
Their perseverance will take the form of specific steps that strengthen the bonds that hold them together as a community, resisting the pressure to come apart (12:12-17; 13:1-19). If they do this, their current troubles will become perseverance strength-training in their corporate Christian discipleship.
And if they take this course, they will identify themselves as God’s children, since God trains his children (vv. 7-10). Their perseverance in faithfulness will become their submission to God’s fathering care (v. 9). And in v. 11, he states that if they choose to envision their trouble as training, they will enjoy, like Jesus, the future reward of entrance into the new creation.
Hebrews, then, does not try to discern a divine logic at work behind their traumatic situation. He does not write that since God is their father, he has brought this trouble into their lives. He does not consider the “why” question, nor does he encourage his audience to do so, since that would be a course of speculation that has no hope of finding any answers.
Rather, the writer stresses their responsibility to seize this opportunity to own their Christian identity and persevere as a faithful community. Doing so turns trouble into training for further perseverance, which bears the ultimate fruit of bringing Christians to their eternal home in the world made new.
This focus on God’s future transformation of creation is why I wrote previously that Christian hope is not that God is in control, but that God will one day triumph over evil when he returns to make all things new. And this hope takes the concrete form of responding to catastrophe by owning our Christian identities and committing anew to our Christian communities.