“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, 2 (Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the Holy Scriptures)” (Rom. 1:1-2).
In Romans 1:2 Paul declared that the gospel was promised to the world by the prophets of God as the Old Testament Scriptures record. Despite the entrance of sin into the world, despite the fall of man from his original state of holiness to a state of corruption God did not abandon His creation. As a consequence of the fall there is now greater separation between man and God so that the Lord must be sought. But where shall men look? If the general question were asked, “Where shall the Most High be found?” the Scriptures give many answers to the question.
First, the Bible teaches that the Lord dwells in the heavens. “Thus saith the High and Lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy; I dwell in the high and holy place “(Isaiah 57:15). God fills the infinity of time and space. He fills heaven and earth; Heaven is His throne and the earth His footstool. None can flee and hide themselves from Him.
As grand as this concept is, it does not satisfy our hearts; He who is everywhere may still be nowhere near to us. Souls need God to be more definite and nearer; and He is, for the Bible teaches that God dwells “with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit” (Isaiah 57:15). In the heart of the man or woman or young person who loves and fears God, and who trembles at His Word, there is a manifestation of God’s presence. “If a man love me,” said Christ, “my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make Our abode with him” (John 14:23).
Once the Tabernacle was God’s dwelling place: “Let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Eden had been the first place to know a manifestation of God for the Son of God, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) had walked and talked with Adam and Eve. But they sinned and the Lord withdrew His presence while banishing our first parents from the Garden. In shame they fled from the face of God until they were invited to return. Blood atonement was made and fellowship was restored.
Time passed. Again, the Lord wanted to draw near to man in a more visible way, so the Tabernacle was built. Individuals found forgiveness and pardon in the substitutionary death of another after sacrificial blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. Men also found a continual symbol of the Messiah who was to come. And He did come. John the Baptist called Him, “The Word” and wrote, “The Word was made flesh, and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14).
Where else does the Most High dwell? He dwells in Christ. “In Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” And yet, though “God was in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19), the question of His abode is not at an end for the Scriptures declare that the Church is “builded together for an inhabitant of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22). The Church is now God’s dwelling place on earth.
By His Spirit, through Christ, “God is in us of a truth” (1 Cor. 14:25). In spiritual terms, the Church is an extension of the Incarnation; as God was in Christ, the Head, so is He now in the Church, the body. “Know ye not that ye are the Temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? The Temple of God is holy, which Temple ye are” (1 Cor. 3:16, 17). “Ye are the Temple of the Living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them and walk in them” (2 Cor. 6:16).
Here then are five different senses of the concept of God’s dwelling place. God dwells in the heavens: (1) God dwelt in the Tabernacle and (2) in the Temple; (3)God dwells in the Person of Christ; (4) God dwells in individual Christians; and (5) God dwells in the Church.
The challenge that arises is to know the reality and the power of being a fit dwelling place for the God who made us, loves us, and redeemed us for Himself! But this is not always easy for sin is ever crouching at the door of our hearts calling the heart to turn from the Lord.
Paul knew about this inward struggle with sin in his own life and in the life of a believer. Writing to the Church of Colosse he writes these words. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you . . . covetousness, which is idolatry.”
It would not be wrong to assume that many people associate idolatry with something that was once practiced but is not engaged in today. The apostle Paul reminds us that idolatry takes many forms.
One familiar form of idolatry is to believe that God inhabits pieces of wood and stone or statues which can be prayed to with the hope of finding help. Of course this is silly and must be discouraged.
Many years ago, in the seventh century AD, the Christian message went into Germany through the labors of men such as Winfred, better known as Boniface. He has been termed “the apostle of Germany.”
While preaching in various places, Boniface came to the city of Geismar where he found a great oak sacred to Thor, the German god of thunder. The people regarded this oak with feelings of awe and deep reverence. It was under its shadow that they met to worship.
In vain Boniface preached to the people on the vanity of idols; finally, he decided to teach them an object lesson. With some of his helpers he approached the tree with a large axe. The people stood around in great excitement and concern thinking that Thor would strike Boniface dead. But Boniface was not afraid and according to legend, not only did he chop the tree down, but also, he used the wood to build a Christian church.
But there is another form of idolatry that can be concealed in the heart. The Bible calls this form of idolatry “covetousness”. One of the great needs of our souls is to know if we treasure anything on earth more than we treasure Christ. Treasuring anyone or anything more than Christ is idolatry. Paul said so in Colossians 3:5.
If covetousness is idolatry, then desiring earthly things more than we desire God is idolatry. That means we must be more satisfied in Christ, and His wisdom, than we are in all our relationships, and accomplishments, and possessions on earth.
But how are we to discover this secret sin of covetousness? It is not easy to be honest with the sin of covetousness, because there is so much justification for it by the world, and within the religious community.
The world justifies covetousness with clever slogans. A product is advertised, and the caption says, “You deserve it!”
Many years ago, there was a popular commercial which gave this counsel: “You only go around once in life so get all the gusto you can get.”
In the religious community some teachers merely reflect the wisdom of the world. There is a type of teaching today which goes under the name of the Health and Wealth Gospel. Many ministers are actually telling God’s people that the Lord does not want them to suffer in any form, financially, or physically.
To make matters worse, these ministers go on to ascribe ultimate causality for life’s calamities and evils to Satan, or the autonomous will of man, and not finally to the all-disposing counsel and wisdom of God above and behind Satan. For example, Greg Boyd says:
“When an individual inflicts pain on another individual, I do not think we can go looking for “the purpose of God” in the event . . .. I know Christians frequently speak about ‘the purpose of God’ in the midst of a tragedy caused by someone else. . .. But this I regard to simply be a piously confused way of thinking” (Letters from a Skeptic [Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1994], p. 47).
Similarly, John Sanders writes:
“God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence of evil. . . . When a two-month-old child contracts a painful, incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. The rape and dismemberment of a young girl is pointless evil. The accident that caused the death of my brother was a tragedy. God does not have a specific purpose in mind for these occurrences” (The God Who Risks [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998], p. 262).
But perhaps Mr. Boyd and Mr. Sanders go too far in removing God from pain and suffering. If “the purpose of God,” is not the ultimate cause of all events in life then what is?
Is all of life to be left to man’s will which is so “self-determining” that can even surprise God? Is the will of an evil spirit so “self-determining” that the Creator is no longer in sovereign control of His creation? Some would have us to think just that.
For example, after admitting that “God can sometimes use the evil wills of personal beings, human or divine, to his own ends,” Greg Boyd then says, “This by no means entails that there is a divine will behind every activity of an evil spirit” (God at War [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997], p. 154, cf. 57, 141).
“A self-determining, supremely evil being rules the world” (p. 54).
“The ultimate reason behind all evil in the world is found in Satan, not God” (p. 54).
The problem with this worldview is that it robs God of His sovereignty while helping people to conceal the abiding idolatry in the soul. It works like this.
Open Theism, as this worldview is known, denies that God is the final disposer of all things and that He works according to a Divine purpose (Job 2:10; Amos 3:6; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11). Therefore, it asserts that God’s wisdom does not hold final sway (Rom. 11:33-36), and thus God is not fulfilling a plan for our good in all our miseries (Jeremiah 29:11; 32:40). Open Theism implies that Christians should not think about the wisdom of God’s purpose in causing or permitting our calamities. In other words, Open Theism discourages us from asking what sanctifying purpose God may have in ordaining that our misery come about.
But in reality, our pain and loss is always a test of how much we treasure the all-wise, all-governing God in comparison to what we have lost. We see this merciful testing of God throughout the Scriptures. For example, in Deuteronomy 8:3 Moses said, “And [God] humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
In other words, God ordains the hard times (“he . . . let you hunger”) to see if good times are our god. Do we love bread, or do we love God? Do we treasure God and trust his good purposes in pain, or do we love his gifts more, and get angry when he takes them away? We see this testing in Psalm 66:10-12, “For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water.”
And we see it in the life of Paul. When he prayed for his thorn in the flesh to be taken away, Christ told him what the purpose of the pain was. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). The test for Paul was: Will you value the magnifying of Christ’s power more than a pain-free life?
We see this testing in 1 Peter 1:6-7, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, as was necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” God ordains trials to refine our faith and prove that we really trust his wisdom and grace and power, when hard times come.
Similarly in James 1:2-3, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. . .. Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” Do we love God? That is the point of the test. Do we cherish Him and the merciful wisdom of His painful purposes, more than we cherish pain-free lives? That is the point of God’s testing.
Our trials reveal the measure of our affection for this earth – both its good things and bad things. Our troubles expose our latent idolatry. For those who believe that God rules according to a holy and wise purpose over all things, our response to loss is a signal of how much idolatry is in our souls. Do we really treasure what we have lost more than God and his wisdom? When Job lost the toys and treasures of time he was able to say, “Though He slay me yet will I trust Him!”
If we find ourselves excessively angry or resentful or bitter, it may well show that we love God less that what we lost. This is a very precious discovery, because it enables us to repent and seek to cherish Christ as we ought, rather than being deceived into thinking all is well.
The secret sins of the soul must be exposed so they can be forgiven. We must be careful to reject any teaching that denies God always has a wise purpose in our calamities and so obscures the test of our idolatrous hearts.
Open Theism does not encourage Christians to see or savor the merciful designs of God in our pain. It teaches that there is either no design or that the design of the evil done against us is ultimately owing to Satan or evil men. Therefore, we may be so angry with Satan and with evil people that we fail to ask whether our anger reflects an excessive attachment to what we just lost. But if we must reckon with the fact that God’s wisdom is the ultimate reason, we lost our treasure, then we will be forced to do the very valuable act of testing our hearts to see if we loved something on earth more than the wisdom of God.
All of life is meant by God to be lived to reflect the infinite value of Christ (Philippians 1:20). We show His infinite worth by treasuring Him above all things and all persons. Believing in His all-ruling, all-wise sovereignty helps reveal our idolatries in times of pain and loss. Not believing that God has a wise purpose for every event helps conceal our idolatries.
As we struggle with the place of pain and suffering in the plan of God let us not forget that it is allowed in part in order to teach us to “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you . . . covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Do not be angry with the Lord. Learn from pain and suffering and love God. And beyond that remember where the Most High dwells. Amen.