The other day in the Jonathan Edwards’ class I teach, we had a great discussion on the role of suffering in increasing assurance of salvation. The consensus was that, yes, suffering can increase assurance of salvation, but that we must be discerning about how our hearts respond to the pain.
One of the guys in the class (Tim) noted that suffering often involves the removal of something we treasure, and we run to God, not for his sake, but in order to get our idol back. One thinks of the people who make bargains with God in dire straits (“If you’ll just get me out of this, I will…”). The priority is the removal of pain, not the increase of holiness.
I’ve seen this reflected often in my own life, as God refines me by uprooting some of his treasured gifts to me in order that I would delight in him above all else. So then, here’s the progression:
1. We are walking in faith, delighting in God.
2. God blesses us with good and perfect gifts, which we enjoy for his sake.
3. We begin to treasure those gifts above God, but with no discernible negative consequences.
4. God uproots the gifts so as to remind us of our ultimate Good.
5. Persistent clinging to God’s gifts results in greater chastisement, and eventually we come to hate the very things we formerly treasured.
6. We will continue to spiral downward until either we utterly destroy ourselves, or we repent and God heals us.
So then, when we find ourselves steadily marching down the road to perdition, how do we respond? Do we simply want to return to Stage 3, idolizing God’s gifts with no consequences? “Remember the good ol’ days when we could sacrifice to Baal and enjoy a fruitful harvest?” Or will we repent and return to Stages 1 and 2, where God’s gifts are enjoyed for his sake?
This line of thinking applies not only to individuals, but also to societies. When a society has been penetrated with the gospel such that many of its members walk in trust and obedience to the living God, a thousand blessings are likely to flow. Sowing to the Spirit results in reaping from the Spirit.
However, God’s gifts are often greater threats to true worship than anything else. When God is gracious to us, failure to honor him as God and give thanks is a heinous offense. However, the consequences of this new idolatry do not come right away, just as the blessings of the former obedience did not appear immediately. First we sow, then we reap.
Therefore, for a time, we are both reaping the good fruit of former obedience and sowing the seeds for future judgment. In other words, as a society, we are at Stage 3 in the progression above. God is long-suffering with us, but he will judge in due time. And, as Romans 1 teaches us, his judgment will often take the form of a “giving over” to our idolatrous passions. He punishes us by giving us what we want, knowing that no creaturely image will ever replace the satisfaction supplied by the incorruptible glory of God.
What this means, then, is that, as individuals and as a society, we must be on the lookout for two types (or rather, stages) of idolatry. In the first, we will pay lip-service to God while treasuring his gifts above him. Idolatry is just gaining its foothold in our hearts.
In the second stage, we have jettisoned God all together, overtly worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator, and being judged by God accordingly. At this point, we have come to despise many of the good gifts that formerly delighted us, as they have fallen to husks and ashes apart from a vital connection to the God who gave them. No one wants to eat an orange that’s been sitting on the counter for 6 months.
In a subsequent post, I’ll try to make some contemporary application. But before then, any questions or comments? Any pushback or tweaking? Comment away.