The question of God’s sovereignty has a different heft when what lies at stake is the health of one’s nears and dears as opposed to the navel gazing satisfaction of an academic exercise. Not to say that academic exercises have no point – being able to dispassionately assess a subject on its merits without the cloud of emotion and peril has its place – but when the stakes relate to matters of life and death, hope and desire sometimes trump cold hard facts. Implicit here is the assumption that God exists, that he is reasonably well depicted by the Bible and that some objective truth about his character can be deduced from that book. The orthodox Christian (Calvinist?) position is that God is Sovereign and in control, and that he “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass“, to quote the Westminster Confession of Faith. Tim Gombis, Professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, offers a rebuttal of that position in a four part series [Part 1, 2, 3 & 4] from last year, one that I read in the middle of my season of rethinking. L’s arrival and the ICU trips which followed have afforded me the opportunity to re-read the arguments from the perspective of someone with skin in the game. As I understand it, the core of Dr Gombis’ argument is that there is a distinction between God’s identity as sovereign and the manifestation of that in the world today. What guarantees there are, if any therefore, relate to a final transformation of this broken world not control over the minute details of our lives. Until then pain, sorrow, chaos and the likes are part and parcel of our experience this side of the divide.
It is not the concept of God being in control that Dr Gombis’ has a problem with per se, I don’t think, but rather the wrong responses, actions/ inaction and decisions it can engender in our lives. The second part of his essay identifies five such responses:
Inaction, in which we fail to consider ways in which we can positively affect outcomes, instead folding our hands waiting for God to act,
False hope, in which we conclude that if God is in control then the reality of the pain/ undesired outcome that stares us in the face is somehow not real and that things will work out
Discerning a divine logic, ie if God is in control and something manifestly wrong has occurred then there must be a meaning to it
A refusal to engage grief and lament, instead focusing on trying to learn the lessons in the pain ‘God’ has sent our way
Speculating on God’s purposes in the pain
The problems articulated in the article and summarised above are ones I recognise, several of them being core beliefs of the American brand of Charismatic Christianity exported to my native Nigeria many moons ago. In that worldview, if you sow seeds, name things and claim them, life will be all honky-dory with nary a cloud on the horizon. That this is a manifestly warped view of the world is not in doubt – even the most cursory of glances reveals the falsity of that. What we have to hold in tension with this on the other hand though is the question of prayer, and what we hope to achieve by prayer.
If God is not in control, then what does prayer seek to achieve? Is it merely preparing and changing us to accept whatever outcomes come our way or does it/ can it materially affect outcomes? Fortunately or unfortunately, I have more questions than answers, a consistent theme I see in these musings of mine.
Up until a few years ago, if you asked me if I considered myself a person of faith, I am fairly certain I would have answered in the affirmative. I would have had the receipts too, of faithful observance and community that came with the particular brand I subscribed to, Pentecostalism. Sometime between then and now – and I would say it has really been in the past two years – what I believe has slowly become more fluid, the near iron-clad certitude of those days now replaced by what I can best describe as ambivalence. To riff somewhat on a marital metaphor, it feels like a marriage that has slowly unravelled, ending up in the unwanted woodlands of a divorce of sorts. For what it is worth, it has not been the worst of breakups though; I still retain membership in the church I called home, and continue to contribute to all the good work they do in the community. The songs and thoughts from those days still resonate deeply with me. On the outside therefore, it is not particularly apparent that a deep ambivalence festers. Underneath is where it has been a sea of change, the main symptom being an absence of a desire to partake in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study and fasting.
In reflecting on the necessary and sufficient conditions which have resulted in this state, three things come to mind. First is the intellectual struggle to square Genesis with the science of origins, and the wider implications of that for original sin and biblical inerrancy. The very public de-conversions of the likes of Marty Simpson and Josh Harris, and the failings of the Ravis and Lentzs of this world have also contributed I think. The death knell though, I think, was the trifecta of lock-downs, remote church and moving cities (to one in which Christianity – or a Judaeo-Christian worldview – is not predominant), which finally severed the tenuous hold the memories of deeply emotional, spiritual experiences held on me. H and her passing also cast a long shadow on all of this, given her long and storied part in my life and her own strong faith journey.
The origins of my faith journey go back to 1992, in the year I was 11, although my levels of observance have waxed and waned over the years since then. Not being the particularly emotional type, the enduring memory of the day is me sobbing uncontrollable under the weight of the conviction of the message, and joining forty or so folk at the front of the building when the alter call wall made. Two periods, at least in my memory, come to mind as ones in which I was at full pelt, the undergrad years through to national service and then working in the deep Nigerian South (East), and then the 2012 to 2018 period. Across both spans, my spiritual influences were theologically conservative – read Piper, Mohler and the TGC/ Reformed Theology crowd.
Also of note, I must admit is the influence of the prosperity gospel and all its trappings on my conceptions of faith and belief. In my memories, the influences were first from cassette tapes, then reams of Word of Faith magazines from the Kenneth Hagin crowd. That trickle eventually became a firehose, spawning several homegrown versions of that prosperity meets charismatic meets mighty man of god model.
The irony that the majority of these folks hold to a high view of predestination is not lost on me. In that view of the world, and how God saves, those who are saved are saved solely at God’s discretion which suggests those walk away were perhaps never really saved in the first place. A lack of spiritual fervour in that worldview is a symptom of lost-ness not doubt. To quote John Piper:
The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie.It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world.
To those from my old tribe therefore, I am lost in a manner of speaking, and might never really have been saved at all, leaving my soul in peril of eternal conscious torment. There are moments when I tend to agree too, given what the parables of the sower and the wise and foolish builders suggest, that it is the seed which sprouts readily without deep roots – or the house built on sand – that is readily browned out or swept out to sea by adversity.
This then is the tension that I struggle with internally, what the head understands to be objective truth and what the heart wants to be true do not appear to be the same thing, or even reconcilable at first blush. The main external effect of this tension is in my relationship with S. Seeing as she remains deeply wedded to the Charismatic life with all its trappings – including an extreme willingness in my view to ascribe everything to the influence of God and/or Satan depending on the outcome – tensions seethe and bubble beneath the surface from time to time amidst the mundane bits of life. Implicit in her beliefs – and my ambivalence – is the unspoken accusation that by not pulling my spiritual weight I am a source of entry for Satan and his roving gang of minions. It is a tempting – if simplistic – lens through which to view the world, only it doesn’t add up for me, and adds to the sense of cognitive dissonance I battle daily. What does it matter if Adam was a historical person or not?, she sometimes asks, or if the earth is 6,000 years old or 6 billion? But those are the very things which have wrecked the scaffolding on which my faith experiences have been built, and in the absence of those experiences the whole thing has come crashing down.
It is only in the past year that some semblance of coherence and a path forward has come together in my head, and I have the guys at the Voxology Podcast to thank for helping me articulate this state, of spiritual homelessness. For all my grouses, I have never quite managed to chuck everything all out, baby and bath water, a point which registered very strongly with me recently whilst listening to the Nicene Creed being recited. The core beliefs of God as creator, Jesus as his son and all are ones I cannot repudiate and still want to hold to and grapple with in the light of everything else. What is however clear is that the extras from my old tribe are ones I cannot hold on to unequivocally. In thinking about what a stripped back, core version of faith is, I am grateful for the work of the likes of John Walton, the Bible Project and N.T. Wright, which at their core encourage a reading of the biblical texts in their original contexts (both in time and culture). Also of use is a framework described by Preston Sprinkle of the Theology in the Raw pod in which he talks about Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy and Orthopathy as being foundational elements of a real world faith (my emphasis); right beliefs allied to right practice AND right passions.
What is not in doubt though is that this will be a long and challenging journey, and is unlikely to end up in the place things once were.
I trace the beginnings of my faith journey to Easter of 1992, the enduring image of the day being standing alongside forty or so other people at the front of the bare, minimally decorated assembly hall of the College of Education Ekiadolor. I was there because I had been dragged there by my family; there being an Easter conference put on by the student Christian movement my parents spent a lot of their spare time supporting. Besides my irritation at being taken along — and thus losing the few days of freedom free from parental supervision — responding to the altar call along with the others whilst sobbing profusely is the only thing I remember from the events of the weekend. That would not be the last time I would respond to an altar call — or pray a similar prayer for that matter — but the sense of relief, joy and confidence about the future which followed that day is why I come back to that place as the definitive start of my spiritual journey, never mind the fact that it lasted for all of three weeks before the reality of life brought me down to earth. That personal connection was the final piece of the jigsaw that created a church bubble for me.
Growing up, church life was pervasive, bleeding into every other space I did life in. For all the distinctiveness of the other spaces — home and school — the burden of my recognisable surname meant that in the small town where I lived, certain assumptions were made about my character and behaviour. Life in the bubble had its own versions of things outside the bubble — its own popular music, TV shows, super star speakers and youth group events. Then there was the sense of certainty about what was right or wrong and what the expectations of behaviour were. That pervasiveness only increased after my father took the plunge and plopped for his collar. The ordination in 1993 strengthened the sense of insulation, focusing the involvement in a number of para church organisations into a single one, a properly pentecostal church. Where prior to that church was the University Chapel, stylistically aligned with the Anglican Communion complete with the use of the book of common prayer, church was now loud hand clapping, dancing, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands and all the other trappings of Pentecostalism.
In my experience, self reinforcing certitude is a notoriously difficult thing to preserve, especially once the barriers that protect it from outside scrutiny are removed. Going away to University did that for me, being the first time I would leave the cover of home for distant lands 80 miles away. Of the various things which chipped away at this bubble, the freedom of distance from home made the most difference, allowing me re-invent my associations with connections outside the bubble. That coupled with the multiplied numbers of people that I met on a daily basis created an overload of influences, ones which were decidedly more worldly wise and cosmopolitan than I had been exposed to previously. Wider questions about biblical hermeneutics — particularly Genesis in the light of the geological record — soon piled on the misery, blowing wide the door to drift and doubt. The only exposure to a non young-earth based theology I had up till then was in the margin notes of my father’s Dake Bible, notes which considered an alternative interpretation of the ‘days’ of Genesis as epochs or ages and hence less discordant with archaeology. Elsewhere a young earth, a historical Adam and Eve and the Fall were put forward as essential building blocks of the worldview I espoused. The seemingly significant disconnect between that and scientific reality left me questioning everything, further loosening what inhibitions remained. Since then five years in the South East of Nigeria — working in a town where a combination of oil money, single men, expats and a pool of attractive, educated single men fuelled a libertarian culture — and nine years in my corner of Scotland, as far removed from my bubble days as could be have done little to ease the sense of drift that I now carry. All of this notwithstanding, I have never fully managed to become untethered, church and faith somehow managing to remain embedded in my routines.
Most days I feel a deep kinship with the younger son in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, his hightailing it to a far country somewhat akin to how my faith journey evolved in the University years, once I was out of my church bubble. Whilst the emotional response that followed Easter of 1992 suggests a real change happened, my continuing struggle with the simple stuff — a regular practice of prayer and bible study, engaging a discipline of fasting and evangelism amongst others — often leaves me in a state of cognitive dissonance. Smarter theologians such as John Piper make a distinction between justification and sanctification; justification being a more or less instantaneous accounting of righteousness with sanctification being a more gradual growth. Implicit in that — in my layman’s view — is that a propensity for cognitive dissonance exists in all faith journeys, driven by the distance between what one knows to be right and what one does, between being justified and growing into a ‘sufficient’ degree of righteousness, as Paul’s example in Romans 7:13–24 suggests. The consensus, as I understand it, is that a measure of discipline, work and effort are required to bridge this gap, God both working in one and through one. That I largely accept, what is less certain is how much of the push to grow and improve is due to a real change as opposed to the remnants of the church bubble I grew up in, much in the same way a Muslim or Jew, by dint of culture abstains from non-Halal or non-kosher meat.