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by Daniel Meeter
In the second congregation I pastored, one in Ontario, there was a thermostat on the wall of the hallway that led to the sanctuary. That hallway was where the consistory lined up, Dutch style, before we marched in to start the service.
One day I figured out the thermostat did not work. The working thermostat was elsewhere, in a Sunday School room. I asked one of the deacons why that dead thermostat was there. He looked sideways, grinned, and told me it was the original one, which they left there on purpose when they installed a new one. It seems that my predecessor had been constantly adjusting the heat in the building. The deacons quietly put the new one in and left the old one there as a dummy for the Domine to keep changing to his heart’s content.
As I write this, His Rudeness the President of the United Stated is threatening war on North Korea. He just announced that the US military is “locked and loaded.” And of course Kim Jong-Un is asking for it. I’m hoping the National Security Council does like the deacons at the church in Ontario. I hope they give the President a dummy button. I hope they figure out some way to prevent his doing cataclysmic damage.
We’re living in trigger-hair tension, beyond what I can remember. I’m thinking it feels like Europe in 1914. To the high tension we can add the low, grinding awareness and gnawing fear of how badly we are altering the planet. The Canadian lake where we have our cottage is heating up: the pickerel (walleye) are leaving and the large-mouth bass are moving in. I remember the Kingston Trio’s darkly comic song, “They’re Rioting in Africa.” The last line goes: “What nature doesn’t do to us / Will be done by our fellow man.” Those are no longer different things. What nature does to us is being done by our fellow man.
Where does God come in to this?—contra to those who suggest God anointed His Rudeness in order to counter Kim Jong-Un. Can we count on God to prevent our self-destruction? Can we count on God to intervene somehow? What does it mean that God is faithful, and that God so loves the world? Does God have a secret thermostat elsewhere, knowing how foolishly we humans monkey with the world?
What we see in the Bible doesn’t bode well. The Lord God did not intervene in the case of Israel’s self-destruction. The Lord God did not intervene when Israel ignored the Torah and descended into idolatry, misery, and exile. Indeed, God approved the misery and exile.
Neither did God intervene in the case of the Lord Jesus. The Lord God allowed the mission of the Messiah to be, in a real sense, a failure, a disaster. The Lord Jesus was unable to accomplish his original mission of saving his own people (so impressively explained by Eugene F. Rogers Jr. in his magical book, After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources outside the Modern West). So why should the Lord God act differently with us and intervene to save us from mutually assured destruction?
The best we can hope for, maybe, is common grace. I mean that in Kuyper’s original sense of common grace, as God preventing the worst effects of evil. I know that the popular notion of common grace is more generous and positive, that God gives good gifts to non-believers. It’s the Calvinist version of Nature in Thomistic Catholic thought, which you can see illustrated in Dante’s figure of Virgil in the Divine Comedy.
The original meaning of common grace is hard and even negative. God curbs the power and effect of human sin in order to protect the salvation of the elect. God lets the reprobate have a dummy thermostat. Will God do that for us now?
But what if God’s will is actually more permissive and inclusive of what horrible mess we make of things? What if the suffering of the church, which we must expect, is part of the larger suffering of the planet because of our designs, and the just consequence of our devices and desires? What if we must expect the judgment of God, and that we have no right to consider our friends and families exempt?
Of course, many take the view, since we’re all going to heaven anyway (that is, all who are saved). If “this world is not my home, I’m just a-travelin’ through,” well, then to hell with the world, this vale of tears, let’s just get it over with right now. I’m assuming this is the foundation for much of the Christian support for the promises and posturing of His Rudeness. Apparently many Christian don’t feel my grinding, gnawing fear. The whole disaster just brings closer the Second Coming of Jesus. But this view I cannot square with what I know (or believe I know) about the Bible.
We might appeal to answer 54 of the Heidelberg Catechism: I believe that the Son of God, by his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith, and of this community I am, and always will be a living member. Can we infer from this “protecting and preserving” some prevention of global catastrophe? Actually, no, not if it’s “the end.” And many other Reformation documents (and hymns) acknowledge great suffering as part of the Christian story.
I know that many Christians understand Providence as the Lord God quietly and constantly manipulating things behind the scenes, pulling strings, changing the weather, or even rigging elections and sending terrorists. I certainly believe that God answers prayer and is able to intervene in our world, and still does miracles (every Sunday in our church at Communion).
But I also most certainly believe that the Lord Jesus prefers to rule the world by speech, by conversation, by invitation, and by motivation, not by intervention or manipulation. God both speaks into the world and gives the world room and freedom to say Yes or No. And that No can be an awful No, a rejection that carries its own condemnation.
Classic Calvinism makes a distinction between the public will of God and the secret will of God. The public will of God is openly revealed for all of us to see and hear and read and share (things like the plan of salvation and such), while the secret will is the details of our personal lives (things like your next job, your next disease, how long you will live, and where and how—the kind of things we mostly pray about). The secret will of God is secret on purpose, because it’s none of our business to pay attention to, thank you very much. The idea is to just keep to the public will of God and leave the secrets of our lives to God. But what if God’s secret will is permissive and accommodating of our foolishness and self-destruction?
I leave this meditation unfinished and unresolved. I know that the wisdom of God is foolishness to humankind, and I rejoice in this. Still, it’s the foolishness that has the nuclear bombs. I’m not so worried for myself as for my three grandchildren. It is a great worry to me. To leave it in God’s hands is quite a leap, a huge surrender, a sacrifice, a fearful sacrifice, like with Abraham sacrificing Isaac. How huge, then, is the cross that is laid across the world?
What is your judgment here, O God, and where is your grace, your special grace, your saving grace?
Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.