Monday, March 11, 2013

"God's Timing Is Always Perfect": On the Abuse of a Theological Truism

In recent years I have often heard evangelical Christians, whether in the aftermath of an answer to prayer or encouragement to a struggling brother or sister, recite the axiom, "God's timing is always perfect" (usually punctuated with an exclamation point). Having grown up in non-pietistic fundamentalism, I had never heard this particular bit of conventional wisdom spoken in so many words, so I have no clue as to the source of its present ubiquity. Nonetheless it is ubiquitous, its omnipresence merely demonstrating its status as a belief worthy of unquestioned allegiance. As always, however—and this applies especially to pieces of conventional wisdom—we must ask whether or not an axiom of this sort is deserving of such unquestioned assent and universal application. (Perhaps) not surprisingly—after all, I am an inveterate curmudgeonly contrarian—I have some concerns about its theological shallowness and pastoral usefulness.

To begin with, its usefulness is limited because it is nothing but a theological truism. That God is sovereign is a fundamental teaching of Holy Scripture. Indeed, those of us in the Calvinist and Presbyterian tradition even subscribe to a recondite doctrine known as the "decree of God." The 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith defines the decree of God as follows:
God from all eternity did by the most and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (III.1)
This teaching finds its most explicit support in St. Paul's letter to the church at Ephesus, in the opening doxology of which he writes:
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph 1:11).
Indeed, one of the ironies here is that most of the people I have heard utter the truism that "God's timing is always perfect" are those who, at best—I know, I taught them in college— accepted the Calvinistic doctrines of election and predestination with reluctance and who couldn't fathom the high Calvinist notion of God's decree. But, if it is true that God is supremely wise and that he is completely sovereign over everything that takes place in his world, then it is of course true that his "timing" is always "perfect." To deny such would be to deny either God's wisdom or his sovereignty, or both.

But of course the purveyors of such conventional Christian wisdom don't intend to be making an abstract statement of good theology. If I were a betting man, I would presume that the source of the axiom is a pietistic, atomistic reading of Paul's marvelous encouragement found in Romans 8:28:
And we know that, for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
The line of reasoning proceeds as follows: God desires what is "good" for his people; he knows better than we do when and how we should experience this "good;" he works through all circumstances to bring about this "good" at precisely the right time; therefore, don't worry, continue to pray, and expect God to bring about answers to our prayers at the perfect time. Yet, as N. T. Wright says, "[This verse] is not simply an extra devotional aside about the wonderful workings of providence" ("The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections," in The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. X [Nashville: Abingdon, 2002] 600).

Indeed, in context the "good" end to which God is sovereignly directing all things for his people is defined precisely in verse 29 as conformity to the image of Christ. Verses 29-30, among the most theologically profound in all of Scripture, read as follows:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those he called he also justified, and those he justified he also glorified.
In other words, "all things work together for good" because the sovereign God works in and through them to bring about the ultimate "glorification" of those upon whom he set his loving choice and predestined to conformity with Christ. The trials, disappointments, and vicissitudes of life are not evidences of God's displeasure—not always, at least—but precisely the means by which that conformity is produced.

And this invariably involves suffering after the pattern of the Lord who suffered for them. Paul explicitly states this in the present context in Romans 8:17:
And if children, then heirs—heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ—provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
For Paul, it is the presence of the indwelling Christ through the Spirit that guarantees the Christian's ultimate resurrection (8:10-11) and "glorification" with Christ. But union with Christ entails another, less sanguine, corollary: this inheritance which we will receive with Christ—the "hope of the glory of God," as the Apostle refers to it in Romans 5:2—is attained only through suffering (as Paul's use of eiper, translated above as "provided," clearly indicates). Suffering, as Jesus himself warned (Mark 8:34-38 et par.), is "the price you pay" for following Christ, and the unavoidable path to the ultimate glory to which we are destined, and to which present sufferings pale by comparison (Rom 8:18). And though, as Paul says, we (ironically) "rejoice in our sufferings" (Rom 5:3) because they produce perseverance, character, and hope, I have yet to hear any Christian console another with platitudes about God's perfect timing in bringing pain and suffering their way. Doing so, after all, would be the height of presumption and the nadir of insensitivity.

And this exposes yet another problem with the use of this truism: it is often pastorally insensitive. Indeed, many who speak in glowing terms of God's perfect timing do so on the assumption that trials and apparently unanswered prayers are just the necessary prelude to God's plan to "bless" his people in this life. Au contraire. God is not—despite an execrable gospel tract that had wide circulation in my youth—in the business of giving people a "happy and meaningful life." He is not a "great genie in the sky" whose business it is to bestow "blessings" on his people in his good time, after "teaching them a lesson" in patience or whatnot. Yes, sometimes God does answer prayers, and in retrospect we realize the sanguinity of the timing involved. Yet at other times he doesn't answer those prayers and, as Paul well knew, sometimes he answers with a resounding "No!" God's power, after all, is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9), and so it is in our weaknesses that we should boast (2 Cor 12:10). God never promises his people that he will "bless" them in ways we Westerners consider to be blessings. Christians suffer, and their death rate differs not one whit from that experienced by non-Christians. The children of Christians sometimes die, often in horrible ways. Christians lose their homes and possessions to fire. They lose their jobs, even jobs to which they have devoted their life's resources and energies in a godly way. And there is no guarantee that God will turn these terrible circumstances around for their benefit in this life. In such instances, therefore, for a Christian to console another suffering believer with platitudinous "comfort" that God's timing is perfect is both counterintuitive and heartless. Yes, God allows such things to happen with the ultimate aim of conforming us to Christ. But he is a daring (and foolish) theologian who rushes in to discern God's purposes for his people by reading the tea leaves of their experiences. The "secret things," as Martin Luther knew, belonged to the Lord and to him alone.

God is sovereign. In that fundamental theological axiom I take the greatest comfort in the knowledge that I, as a called and justified sinner, have already, in the counsels and plan of my Father in heaven, been glorified, as it were, before the time. Even so, I think it is high time that we Christians rethink our somewhat naive use of the truism that "God's timing is always perfect." After all, can't we do better than resort to Hallmark Card Christianity?


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