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What if Jesus wants you to die?

On my drives to and fro around town I listen to a fundamentalist Christian radio station broadcast from Pensacola, FL. Long-time readers know that I love Southern Gospel music and hymns. The news at the heads of the hours is pretty objective and, at most, tends to report more on religious liberty trends worldwide. And the extremely conservative talk show I occasionally run into is actually rather interesting, if occasionally weird. (Like there was the time when they spent an entire show explaining that the earth is not flat. Good to know, but...) It certainly doesn't fit the stereotype of conservative talk radio as crude and abusive.

The dramatizations vary. I confess to a liking for Adventures in Odyssey, made by Focus on the Family. Some of the other children's drama shows are more than a bit cloying and mostly serve as a source of (unintentional) entertainment. My imitation of faithful Frisky's water lapping noises when he recovered after nearly dying for the children had my entire family in stitches.

I was listening to one of these latter in the car yesterday. We had gotten to the point where an escaped convict was said (by an announcer on one boy's transistor radio) to be in the vicinity of the boys' campground, the sort of thing that seems to happen all the time in these shows. The protagonist, a boy named Alfie, had recently become a committed Christian. When the others asked him if he was afraid of the possibility that the convict would show up at their camp, he said, "A little." Asked why only a little, he took the opportunity to tell them about his recent decision to ask Jesus into his heart. (I really have no problem with this language of asking Jesus into your heart. I gather some theological sticklers of a Reformed persuasion deplore it because it isn't found in the Bible. But we'd never get anywhere in theology without metaphors and analogies, and we'd get nowhere even faster in describing the phenomenology of religious experience and conscious religious commitment without inexact metaphors, and this particular one has been serviceable to generations of truly good and pious evangelicals whose shoes the young sticklers are probably not worthy to unlatch. So I'm inclined not to knock it. End of digression.)

I was more or less in agreement with Alfie's theology concerning forgiveness of sins and accepting Jesus, but here's the odd part: It had very little to do with the question at issue, which was, "Why are you only a little bit afraid of the escaped convict?"

Alfie lost me completely when he got to the point where he said, "So I know Jesus will take care of me, because I accepted him." Whoa, stop right there, Alf. That just makes it sound way too much like a deal. You accept Jesus, and Jesus takes care of you.

I wouldn't have minded (theologically--artistic objections aside) if Alfie had said, "Even if the convict were to come and kill me, I know I would go to heaven, because my sins are forgiven." But that didn't sound like what he was saying at all. It sounded like he was saying that he knew Jesus would protect him physically from the convict because he had accepted Jesus as his Savior. To make it worse (theologically, still waiving the obvious artistic problems), one of the other boys replied at this point in an awed voice, "Wow, now I understand why you're not afraid!" So does this mean that the other boys think Alfie is now specially protected by Jesus? Is this a superpower? Do bullets bounce off of people who have accepted Jesus?

Now, not to be too harsh, but kids who listen to this show are growing up in a world where the next news at the top of the hour may easily feature Christians being crucified by Isis, gunned down by Fulani tribesmen, or sent to the Bamboo Gulag. Or some devout Christian in their own home town, a friend or relative, even, may be killed in a car-jacking or just a car accident. It's not really the best idea to give the impression that if we're Christians Jesus will protect us from physical harm. We know that's just not true.

And yet, and yet...On the other hand...Here is the Psalmist David:

Psalm 27

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

2 When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.

3 Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident.

4 One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.

5 For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion: in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me; he shall set me up upon a rock.

6 And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me: therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the Lord.

7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice: have mercy also upon me, and answer me.

8 When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek.

9 Hide not thy face far from me; put not thy servant away in anger: thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.

10 When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up.

11 Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies.

12 Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty.

13 I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

14 Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.

You'd better believe if I were hiding from an escaped convict I'd be quoting parts of that Psalm in my head. Or maybe this one:

Psalm 121

1 I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

2 My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.

3 He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.

4 Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

5 The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.

6 The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.

7 The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.

8 The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

Or this,

Psalm 91

1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

2 I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.

4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;

6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.

8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.

9 Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;

10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.

12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.

When we quote Psalm 23, we give it a spiritual spin, but I'm not at all sure David did. David, the man of war, who said, "Blessed be the Lord my strength which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight."

It's all very well to think of only spiritual arrows if nobody ever tries to shoot you with a real one, but when David talked about being delivered from the arrow that flies by day, I think he was thinking of a real one.

To be honest, I've never been at all sure what the take-home lesson is supposed to be from those Psalms if it has nothing to do with divine physical protection. At a minimum they seem to indicate that we believers in the one true God can have some hope of divine deliverance, even miraculous deliverance, from external danger. And the Bible does record instances where this has happened. Does God really want us to spiritualize all of those Psalms in the light of the undeniable fact that many genuine believers die violent and sometimes horrible deaths? I have no easy answers.

And yet (now I'm back on the other hand again), even in the Old Testament, the three young men think they might really be thrown into the fiery furnace. So they tell King Nebuchadnezzar that even if God does not deliver them, still they will not bow down to his idol.

So it's not as though everybody in Old Testament times thought that God brings success and physical deliverance to those who are his own, while everybody in the New Testament thinks always in terms of accepting suffering and the way of the cross. Peter was delivered from prison (Acts 12), by angels no less, but later crucified upside down, according to tradition. Some days Jesus gives his angels charge over you to keep you in all your ways, and some days he wants you to die on a cross. And the frustrating thing is that, on any given day, you don't know for sure which it's going to be.

I have no desire to make fun of or undermine anyone's childlike faith, not even the fictional Alfie's. And I would hardly characterize the faith of King David as naive and childish. George Mueller somehow knew one fine day that God would provide milk for the children at his orphanage, and (according to the story I heard) God did provide it by what looked very much like a special providence, if not an outright miracle. We don't know how George knew, but I'd be hesitant to say it was just a lucky guess. George and God seemed to have something going that most of us don't have.

It's possible that a young person or new convert who was taught his earliest theology according to Alfie would suffer no permanent damage to his faith, even if he or someone he dearly loved were to suffer some horrible tragedy, despite having accepted Jesus. But I'd rather not risk it. Instead, if we must write an excessively didactic speech for Alfie, I suggest something like this: "Sure, I'm afraid of the escaped convict. But whatever happens to me, whether I live or die, I belong to Jesus. He can protect us--not only me, but all of us. But if he doesn't, it's because he knows best. And it's a lot better to be here knowing him than not."

It may not be better art, but I'm pretty certain it's better theology. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some Psalms to read.

Comments (6)

Thanks for this, Lydia. It's something I've occasionally mulled over, but not so deeply as to come nearly as far as you do here. David had promises from God that he would become king of Israel; does he base his confidence in his physical safety on those promises, kind of like Abraham trusted that God would do _something_ about Isaac in order to keep His promise about Abraham's having descendants? I don't know . . . who else do we see who has prayed with the same confidence for physical safety besides David? I'm into a study of Job right now, so I'm pretty immersed in your "on the first hand" argument at the moment!

I struggle with how to pray so often. My daughter has had yet another possible blow today (I'll message you later on about it) and I want to pray that she would be delivered from it. Is my sense that she can't be so delivered a lack of faith, too much reliance on "the way the world works"? _Should_ I pray for her to be delivered? Or should I pray instead only that she will be able to endure with her faith intact? Both? I am more often paralyzed than not these past few years when I try to pray, though I have at least found that I can be confident when I ask that God be glorified in any given situation, in anyone's life. After that . . . well, I do struggle along and sometimes I find I can pray for specific results ("you have not because you ask not," I remind myself), but often feel it is perhaps hubris to think that I can possibly know God's will and thus pray with Him for it.

I'm looking forward to following any discussion on this thread.

Since Jesus tells us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," I definitely think that we are supposed to pray for specific, earthly needs and even in specific ways. The Apostle Paul is a good example here as well. He talks about praying to be delivered from his thorn in the flesh. (Which I do not believe was a temptation but rather a physical ailment of some kind.) The author of Hebrews calls upon those who read his letter to pray that he may be able to come back to them soon (Hebrews 13:19). There is some indication that he may be in prison or otherwise hindered. In the story about Peter that I mentioned (Acts 12), the Christians are all gathered together praying for his deliverance from prison.

So it's clear that there are numerous Scriptural teachings and examples in favor of praying for concrete things that, as far as we can tell, are good to pray for.

The trick then is not so much to try to guess whether this concrete result is ultimately going to be God's will for us to have--how could we possibly know that? Rather, the difficulty is just in submitting preemptively to whatever he ultimately chooses to do, not do, or allow or not allow.

C.S. Lewis is very good on this in Letters to Malcolm. He reminds his (fictional) recipient of a (possibly fictional) incident in which a mutual friend asked for a financial loan. He says that the friend added something like, "But never mind if it's too much trouble." Lewis points out that the fact that the friend added this caveat did not make the request anything other than sincere. Similarly, "Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done" does not negate the reality of the concrete request. In this way, a robust sense of the personal nature of God is very helpful.

I think where it becomes hard is when we practice this kind of prayer for many years and yet have many cases where we just can't tell whether God did anything or not. The sheer weight of years in which it "seems" like things happened randomly, like this world is all that there was, whether for good or for ill, makes it difficult to keep up the practice of faithful prayer for concrete realities.

On the other hand, in this feeling I think there is much illusion. Lewis, again, has Screwtape tell Wormwood to convince the "patient" that if something appears to be an answer to prayer, it would have happened anyway. And how many times is that the case in my own life? I pray for something and it *does happen*, but then I think that perhaps this had "nothing to do with God." And then I turn to focusing on the places where I pray and do not get what I asked for, even when it seemed like something *very* good, *very* much God's will. Human nature is sometimes rather impossible to please.

And I want to hasten to correct a possible wrong idea that might seem to follow from something in that last comment. I said that the difficulty is in submitting preemptively to whatever he ultimately chooses to do, not do, or allow or not allow.

But Lewis, again, warns very carefully against trying to submit mentally to a bunch of specific feared scenarios. Doing so, even if one means it to be a spiritual exercise in submission to God's will, is really just a form of fretting and terrifying oneself. And as Lewis points out, the feared scenarios are not even all mutually compatible! We aren't under any duty to harrow our own feelings by ticking off a whole list of possible horrible things that might happen and trying to gin up feelings of submission to all of them! (This is exactly the sort of thing that I might try mentally to do, by the way. It fits my personality.)

Rather, one submits *in general* to the possibility that God will not grant the specific request and will allow something undesired to happen.

Btw, I'm rather interested in reading J.P. Moreland's new book on coping with mental illness. It sounds quite useful, but I don't have a copy yet.

Thank you, Lydia; that is very helpful. I'm certainly of the worrying type with a very strong imagination, and as well what you say about many years of not really knowing what God is doing if anything strikes a chord. I struggle with His sovereignty constantly. This kind of discussion is encouraging.

At the risk of sounding preachy (this issue definitely lends itself to that), I will pre-empt (some) criticism by noting that I have to be reminded of these things as much as the next guy, and (rather obviously) I don't know all the answers either.

Lydia is right that the Bible, especially in the Wisdom books but pretty much everywhere, is full of seemingly offsetting passages: God has your welfare in mind, he is looking out for you, don't worry - he has you covered. "The lilies in the field..." and all that. At he same time: God chastises the ones he loves, and many of them suffer even unto death.

There can be no doubt of the validity of both of them, they are repeated throughout the Bible, you can't say one side of the coin is a mistake or a overblown concept that is barely present. So we have to accept both. One way out is to insist on taking the "God will protect you" all in spiritual terms, so you don't get emotionally beat-up when things are hard. Certainly it is TRUE that many of the passages have a strong spiritual aspect: When the psalms say God will protect us from our enemies, we should rightly call to mind Paul's admonition "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world," - THOSE are the "true" enemies. Yet we are really and truly flesh and blood, an enfleshed spirit, a spiritualized body, and we have to live in this world. Jesus taught us to ask for our "daily bread": it is true on a spiritual level in part BECAUSE it is also true on a bodily level.

For firming up the biblical passages that bear on God working to even the ordinary, natural goods on our behalf, I would also suggest that they also integrate with the spiritual purpose in an eschatological way: God wills our physical good because He wills our wholeness, which we WILL possess in a far more complete manner after all these things pass away. Thus the goods that God wills for us of having whole limbs, sound and working bodies, plenty to eat and drink, are true and valid in this life in an imperfect, incomplete way, and in a complete way later.

The trick is to integrate the two necessary perspectives so that we are not always torn asunder. Lydia, I think, is right to point to the aspect of prayer that includes as an explicit or at least implicit rider "but not my will, Thy will be done" to it. Another part, in my estimation, is that we should hope and even (to an extent) expect that we will gradually come to hold God's own perspective on those goods, the ones that we are concerned about at the level of concrete detail, so that (again, to some extent) merely to recognize that "God doesn't want this notional good for me because it will end up harming me" runs immediately into "I don't want it either". Not merely in the sense of "I know I shouldn't want it and I will force myself to accept God's will,", but in the sense of "I really don't desire it". Many of the saints, once they have grown quite a lot in spiritual robustness, delight in and seek out ways to mortify their desires, i.e. they WANT to give up goods or undergo sufferings so that they can become more like Christ, they yearn for the opportunities. Later still (when they are closer to perfection - so far as this world allows) they give up even wanting to suffer for Christ in any definite way, instead resting in an apparently more passive attitude of "what I really would prefer is ... whatever God would like to send me: if that be some delight or pleasure, that's fine, and if it should be some suffering or lack, that's fine too; for myself, I lean neither to the one nor the other." In that latter stage, the saint may gain more merit (really, participate more perfectly in Christ's merits, for all the glory is Christ's) precisely in delighting in the pleasurable thing sent specifically because God wills this thing for me than the person in the earlier stage gains by taking on a new suffering by choice but less purely and simply "because God wills it."

While God does not will evil for its own sake, He does will a universe in which evil will come, for the sake of good. Not a single one of us will get out of this world and into Eternal Life without dying, so in willing that we receive Eternal Life, He also wills that we should undergo the suffering attendant on death. And we cannot enter heaven without being purified (like gold purified in the fire). For those whom He designs will be saved, He wills also those sufferings that will help toward spiritual perfection, and thus He wills our sufferings on account of how they will perfect us. In order to be children of God and to be enough like Him that we can enjoy heaven, we too must acquire the attitude of wanting to be purified, even though it is at the cost of suffering. So we not only must learn to have a loose grip on the individual goods that make up daily living, taking them or not taking them as the moment provides, but also learn to loosen our grip on "what we will", replacing it with a yearning for "whatever God should desire on our behalf". When we have come closer to this, we will have a more integrated perspective on the goods and sufferings that come our way: the goods we will take a more even-tempered delight in because we mainly take delight in that God willed it, and the sufferings we will rejoice in because God has arranged it for our good.

Since God does not provide to us a blue-print detailed plan of our future lives, He obviously intends that we think about, desire, plan for, and work toward specific goods without knowing for sure and certain whether they are in HIS plan for us. Hence being a whole and integrated Christian means working willingly for these goods while being unsure of their status, and thus willing to give them up when we find that they are not in His plan. I submit that this means learning to want them primarily because (it seems reasonable) that God wills them, and thus it cannot be as much of a wrench to not have those plans work out because God does not will them.

I know, I know: I should practice what I preach. "Physician, heal thyself." I'm not there yet. I think I am within sight of rumors about where to locate the starting line.

The fiery furnace story is a good one for kids as it’s nuanced in an understandable way. “God is able to save me, but even if he doesn’t, I’m not going to bow.” That is a super jumping off point for conversations with kids (I.e. “what did he mean by that? Do you think that shows faith in God”), and the story relates to so much real-world persecution.

God didn’t rescue Jesus, so He may not rescue me. God resurrected Jesus, so I know he will resurrect me.

As an aside, I really try to steer away from the idea of personally redeemed evil. If unattached evil (‘poop happens’) is true in the world, then it must be true as well in the life of believers, otherwise there will have been some particular categories of evils in which (or, “in spite of which” but I’m not sure about that) Christ will not have been not glorified via his Bride. God still says “have you considered my Servant?” In my head he adds, “No? well you are fixin’ to. I’ve put together a little home movie we’ll be watching at the rim of the lake of fire.”

The Eschatological point of view is the only one which makes complete sense re. evil, faith and hope, it seems to me.

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