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The God I Don’t Understand
Author: Christopher J. H. Wright
Hardback 221 pp.
Suffering is usually talked of as the most common objection to following God. Soon after I started reading this book, Australia’s bush fires tragedy struck. One man interviewed said, “Last Sunday I thanked God for my twelve year old, and now he’s gone!” The comment stopped me in my tracks. It was so gut-wrenching that I hardly dared to think about it. Not only was it poignant as a comment on its own, but it seemed like a slap in the face from God. Before I finished it, some missionary friends had their lad killed in a car accident. It seemed only fair that any book with this title should be able to say something to these people, and that I should judge it to some degree on how much sense it would have made to them in their loss.
Dr. Wright strives for a sense of proportion early on when he questions why our knee-jerk response is to blame God for allowing bad things to happen:
“When I hear people voicing such accusations ... I hear a voice from heaven saying, ‘Well, excuse me, but if we’re talking here about who allows what, let me point out that thousands of children are dying every minute in your world of preventable diseases that you have the means (but obviously not the will) to stop. How can you allow that?’
He then addresses the mystery of evil, making the point that the bible never accords Satan the description given to humans of being made in the image of God, and never describes him as a ‘person to be loved or redeemed.’ With typical honesty, Wright raises plenty of valid questions about the bible’s silence on the most basic questions of how evil came to be. His thought-provoking response is that our rationality is part of being made in God’s nature, whereas evil – as something outside of that order – intrinsically should not make sense.
His foundation is that there are three things that we must hold together; the evilness of evil (I know, it should be obvious...), the goodness of God and the sovereignty of God. He claims that life makes more sense when these three are held in tension, and he illustrates this in helpful ways.
Although the problems of evil and suffering begin the book, as these are what people find hardest to understand about God, this is only part one of four. He also has a section on his speciality, the Canaanites; one on the cross, which is God dealing with evil; and one on the end of the world.
The Canaanites are given 35 pages because many people find problems with ‘the God of the Old Testament’. After knocking down ‘three dead ends’ (including the approach I held previously) and replacing them with ‘three frameworks,’ Wright finishes the section asserting our need to hold in tension “humble submission to the biblical teaching of the sovereignty of God ... with robust reflection on the mystery of the cross of Christ.”
While the part about the cross will offer little new to many Christians, he deals with it systematically and clearly. What is particularly up-to-date is the way that he addresses the current penal substitution debate, covering it from the angle of whether sin has consequences: a question that involves issues of justice.
As one who tends to play down the return of Christ (it will happen when it happens, so let’s just get on with living the best we can...) I was surprised at how inspiring I found the end times section, particularly in the way that it dealt with God putting things right and dealing with evil in a way that displays justice for the hurt and oppressed.
The end of the book also addresses several popular misconceptions, particularly about the rapture and heaven. Wright explains that those who produce material like the ‘Left Behind’ series have their theology back to front, as we meet Christ in the air, not to escape Earth, but to welcome God to Earth (it is based on the way that advance parties welcomed Roman emperors to a city). Similarly, heaven is a holding place until judgment and we will live long term not in heaven, but on a re-created Earth.
As a successor to John Stott, who writes a foreword to the book, Dr Wright will plainly be a ‘safe pair of hands’ theologically. He writes in a completely accessible way, maybe sometimes repeating himself to make sure that we understand, but always making his points clearly, methodically and convincingly. He states plainly when there are things that we cannot know, rather than bluffing his way through. While older Christians will know much of what he writes, it is both a handy reference book and one that is likely to add some things to most people’s knowledge about an important subject.
Would it be any help to those who are suffering, like the Australian and my friends? While it would certainly not answer all their questions, it should vindicate God (who himself has suffered for us) and reassure them that eventually justice will prevail.