When the Good Guys Don’t Win

We like it when the good guys win in our entertainment. If they lose, like in Avengers 3, there’d better be an Avengers 4 where they reverse the defeat. Well, we all know real life doesn’t work that way. Sometimes it’s really depressing when the ones we’re rooting for don’t win. In those cases, we need to remember that God sovereignly planned that outcome and will work it for good. Here are some case studies.

I’m going to start with some real controversy here. I have no doubts the “good guys” lost the American Revolution. I mean, is there any other way to see it from a Christian perspective? Jesus and Paul unequivocally instructed their followers in the Roman Empire to pay some of the most corruptly levied taxes in history, on which they had no say whatsoever, to support government’s legitimate God-given task of maintaining law and order. I dread to think what they’ll say to Sons of Liberty who were essentially willing to kill people to evade a few dollars of tax to be spent on their own defense. Lord willing, I’ll explore this and other myths of the American Revolution in a later post.

But, anyone familiar with American history knows God worked marvelous good out of the lawlessness. Starting from a tradition of English liberties, the Framers of the Constitution set out to build a government that got right what every other government had gotten wrong. They succeeded in creating the best-designed government the world has ever seen. Though the U.S. was not always in the right during its expansionist phase, it built a mighty nation that toppled the greatest tyrannies the world has ever seen. And, even with its flaws, the Framers built in a system to correct the government system as the nation developed.

Or consider the even bloodier Punic Wars of the third century BC between Rome and Carthage. Now, no one would argue that the Carthaginians were a righteous nation, but they have my sympathies here. Rome displayed raw aggression towards them. The Second Punic War started when Hannibal wanted to get back at Rome for violating a peace treaty to seize Corsica and Sardinia from Carthage and demand an indemnity to boot. The Third Punic War ended with Rome wiping Carthage, now no more than a city-state, off the map because it was still a successful commercial rival. In fact, one of the reasons Hannibal lost the Second Punic War despite his genius was that he, in Carthaginian fashion, fought just to redress the balance of power and clip Rome’s wings while Rome played for keeps. That’s one reason I find Augustine’s just war theory hopelessly naïve. His position that the offended nation can only fight for status quo ante bellumseems selfless and righteous, but how many tyrants would that really stop? They’d catch their breath, cheat during the peace, and come back for round two. Besides, it’s not the way Old Testament Israel fought their wars. But I digress…

Anyway, there’s no question Rome wound up having a better impact on world history than Carthage would have. Rome had the tenacity and know-how to build an infrastructure to promote cities that God used to grow his Church. They established a peace around the Mediterranean in which the Church flourished.

1066 is known as a turning point in English history. Although most agree that the long-term effect was beneficial, many would posit that the good guys lost. I personally think that Harold violated his oath and gave William the Conqueror a casus belli, but it’s easy to sympathize with the Anglo-Saxons, particularly when one considers how brutal the Normans got in their attempt at subjugation. Assuming for the sake of argument that Harold and his men who were wiped out at Hastings were the good guys, did God use their disaster to further good purposes?

Absolutely! Without the Norman Conquest, it’s conceivable there’d be no such thing as democracy in the world today, or at least not of the kind we’re used to. Before the Conquest England was a backwards extension of Scandinavia subject to invasions and raids. The Normans built it up into a great power that could play with the big boys. Meanwhile, they developed the beginnings of the English constitutional government that inspired so many democracies around the world. Magna Carta can be interpreted as Anglo-Norman barons forcing the king to in writing commit to the mutual obligations of the feudal system they had brought over from Normandy.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to Christians, who worship a leader who was tortured and executed in the most loathsome way possible despite His perfect innocence. Indeed, if God hadn’t willed that, none of us would have hope. So, even when the Thanos’es win, we can be sure it’s because God ordained it as part of His will for good. Anything He permits, He will work out for the best possible end.

The Christian’s Checkbook, Part I: A Voluntary Duty

I heard a lecturer once who made an observation along the lines that God saves our checkbooks in addition to our souls. That’s sound because the Bible does tell us to put our money where our mouth is, so to speak. It’s doubly important in the Western Church, which has more resources than any church in history.

The big question in some circles is whether Christians are obligated to tithe. That question I can’t answer definitively. Tithing (paying a tenth of one’s money and goods) was required of Old Testament Israel, but that principle is nowhere repeated in the New Testament. In fact, when Peter is asked if Jesus pays the temple tax, Jesus has him pay it for Himself and Peter as a concession, not a command. He asks Peter if “kings of the earth take custom or tribute of their own children or of strangers.” Peter answers that they tax strangers, and Jesus concludes, “Then are the children free” (Matthew 17:25-26, KJV). He pays the tax not because He has to but simply so as not to offend. This might indicate that Christians are not bound by Old Testament rules of giving.

Yet give they must. Paul instructed the Corinthians before he visited, “Upon the first day of the week, let everyone of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him,” collections for the Jerusalem saints in need. True, Paul wants giving to be voluntary and cheerful, but he does expect it. In Galatians 6:6, he exhorts the Galatians to share all good things with their teachers, and while he himself did not take money from the Corinthians, he adamantly informed them that ministers have a right to be supported by their congregations. As he told Timothy, “The laborer is worthy of his reward” (I Timothy 5:18, KJV). Jesus told two parables where the king gives his servants ancient units of money (a mina in one story and talents in the other) and expects them to use them towards his profit when he returns. In fact, he is furious with the servant in both stories who refuses to do anything with the money entrusted to him. After another parable, Jesus says to, “Make to yourselves friends of the Mammon of unrighteousness” (Luke 16:9, KJV). In other words, we should give voluntarily, but it is still a duty. You could say that about any duty God gives us, like love, prayer, and forgiveness. He wants it done with our whole heart willingly, but that doesn’t excuse us from not doing it just because we don’t feel like it. As in any good habit or duty we need to cultivate but don’t feel like, we have to do it until we love it. We can’t just wait for an enthusiastic impulse, which may never come with that attitude.

Christians have more reason than anybody else to be generous. They believe an all-powerful, all-wise God has promised to provide for them and reward them eternally for anything they give in His name. They believe He has called them to love others as themselves. James famously describes how charity shows forth the faith we have. And consider that God required this giving of people with much less economic stability than us. They were paid daily because they needed those wages for the very next day and had the ever-present danger of crop failures, epidemics, and raids hanging over them.

Why God Does Things the Hard Way

For an omnipotent deity, God does seem to like to do things the hard way. There’s a lot of pain and suffering in this world, all of which we know He could prevent with just one word. There are plenty of unbelievers who reject His existence or His goodness on that basis. Even His plan of salvation called for the murder of His Son and His taking God’s own curse upon Himself. If God’s loving, why would He do things this way?

Well, I’m going to answer with an extremely unpopular response, but I’m confident I can explain the dilemma with it since the Apostle Paul uses it too. God ordains everything to happen in the way that will most glorify Himself. I know that’s not the majority report. The majority report is a more homocentric blend of God doing the most loving thing while still respecting the free will of His creations.

Well, when Paul dealt with what to him was the most agonizing part of God’s will, he didn’t use that explanation. He spends all of Romans 9-11 rationalizing what went wrong with Israel and why God would call a people and then reject them at the moment of the promised salvation. His grief at this was so great that he took an oath that he would be willing to go to Hell if it would save the Jews. He explains that there is still a believing remnant of Israel while the rejection of the Messiah means that the Gentiles from every race are being grafted into the Church until Israel will see what a blessing the Gentiles are getting that is theirs by right and want back in the Church.

Paul doesn’t go into an accolade of God’s love in this convoluted plan but rather of “the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (11:33, KJV). Having reasoned out what is giving himself much personal grief and then found an explanation, Paul summarizes with, “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (11:36, KJV). So that verse is my premise. We like the “of Him” part where He sends good things to us, we like the “through Him” part where He brings us through our trials, but most Christians today balk at the “to Him” part where everything redounds back to His glory.

That’s understandable because we’re not allowed to seek our own glory. In fact, we really dislike people who do. People will do the most despicable things to win or at least be seen to win in the world’s eyes. It just seems more palatable to us to have a God who does everything out of love for us.

But how hard would it have been for God to create a multitude of Christians today who all love Him as perfectly as we will in the New Jerusalem without the need for a Hell or a murdered Messiah? And there’s something else to consider. The late R.C. Sproul was very fond of preaching Isaiah 6. He said that in Hebrew, to give something the utmost emphasis, you say it three times. There’s only one attribute of God that the Bible does this for, and it doesn’t say, “God is love. God is love. God is love.” Instead, it repeats, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:3, KJV). So the attribute of God the angels most want us to be aware of is His holiness, and to that they link His glory. There’s nothing about love in Isaiah 6.

We like the “of Him” part where He sends good things to us, we like the “through Him” part where He brings us through our trials, but most Christians today balk at the “to Him” part where everything redounds back to His glory.

But how does God get this glory? He displays to His creation His love, wisdom, power, and perfections, and it responds to Him with praise. God gets glory by giving good things to us all. Who can object to that? That’s not an obnoxious General Custer getting himself and his men wiped out in his quest for glory. It’s entirely different from the self-seeking glory we’re used to other humans craving and debasing themselves over.

Of course God is the most loving being of all. He shows unfathomable love in saving us. But on one occasion of His delivering Israel, He says, “I do not this for your sakes, O house of Israel, but for Mine holy Name’s sake, which ye have profaned among the heathen, whither they went” (Ezekiel 36:22, KJV). As elsewhere in the Bible, I read the “not” here not as “not at all” but rather “not so much as.” God makes it quite plain in other passages that He loves Israel deeply, but here He says His most pressing concern on His heart when He saves them is His own glory.

I’m going to work in a lesson I learned from Teutonic mythology. It’s infamous for its darkness. There are very few happy endings. With a few exceptions, the pervading ethos is that the only honorable way for a great warrior to die is in battle with insurmountable odds. Beowulf dies in a fight with a dragon that he wages alone until Wiglaf comes to aid him. Volsung falls in a trap even when he’s warned because he balks at the idea of fleeing. The Nibelungs perish to a man after holding off the entire army of Attila the Hun. At Ragnarok, the gods and the Einherjar fight the giants to the death until the giants immolate the entire earth. What’s with all the hopelessness?

The Teutons craved for glory, especially after death. To paraphrase a famous line from the Poetic Edda, all things die, but glory lives on. Obviously they’ve got the wrong priorities, but they understood that their heroes deserved more glory for doing the right thing when circumstances are against them and the right thing is the hard thing to do.

If you start with that premise, God’s will in hard things makes sense. It takes more wisdom and love to win a people for Himself who start out hating Him than just making one that already complies with His decrees, so that wins more glory for Himself. God the Father gives Christ even more glory after He submits to earthly humiliation and even delivers Himself up to death. It’s a Teutonic myth with a happy ending: the hero remains resolute to the end with the whole world against Him. Only this time He rises from the dead.

In my first post, I made reference to my experience watching Planet Earth by the BBC. Yes, the tropical biomes with the beautiful birds displaying their plumage to impress females is awe-inspiring and glorifying to their designer, but I found myself glorifying God even when the action changed to places I wouldn’t want to go in a million years. They showed animals adapted to scorching deserts and frozen wildernesses, eking out a much more difficult living than the birds who have nothing better to do all day than collect and arrange flower petals to impress females visiting their bower or mimic any sound they hear. Yes, it glorifies God when a lyre bird perfectly imitates a camera lens or a chainsaw, but if He were truly all about love and fairness, the whole world would be a tropical paradise. Instead, He shows His wisdom by setting up rugged habitats and then populating them with creatures designed to survive there in the most striking ways.

Paul invokes God’s desire for glory to answer another incredibly difficult question for Christians: Hell. Clearly, if God only wanted to show love, He didn’t have to create the Devil, and there would have been no tempter to bring sin into the world. Then there would be no eternal punishment for nonbelievers. But what does Paul say about this decision? Does he invoke free will? He says, “What if God, willing to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had afore prepared unto glory?” (Romans 9:22-23, KJV). Why did God strike Pharaoh with 10 plagues? Paul cites God’s explanation as, “Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show My power in thee, and that My Name might be declared throughout all the earth” (Romans 9:17, KJV).

Paul’s not alone. When Peter discusses unbelief, does he say, “They stumble at the word, being disobedient, because God left them to their free will”? Not at all. His exact words are, “Even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient, whereunto also they were appointed” (I Peter 2:8, KJV). So God ordains even sin to come to pass since He therefore demonstrates His wisdom when He works good out of it, as He always does.

If you start with the premise that God does everything out of love, you might have a hard time explaining such difficult things as an untimely death or natural disaster. Doubtless you fall back on God being too loving to violate free will and then being too just to let sin go unpunished, but that’s not how Paul answered his struggles with God’s will. If you go with the premise that God is seeking His glory by how He will use His power and wisdom to turn all things to good, it’s much easier to explain (and Scripturally sound).

All Things for Good

God works all things for the good of His people. It’s a simple enough truth, but we frequently have trouble believing it. Often the situation, from our perspective, seems irredeemable. Some people even get angry with God. I’d like to do some case studies in Scripture to show how God can redeem any circumstance with three people who surely felt their world was collapsing around them.

First, though, I’d like to set the stage by giving you a quote that could sum up the feelings of the three saints I’m going to be talking about. Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary famously lamented, “Nothing has been spared me in this life.” It’s hard not to agree with his statement. His brother Maximilian had been executed by the forces of Benito Juarez in Mexico, his own beloved army had resoundingly lost two wars, his only son and heir had shot himself and his teenage mistress, and his wife, who had not particularly returned his affection, had been stabbed to death. That last event was the occasion of his plaintive exclamation.

First in chronological order, look at Job. Here’s someone particularly singled out by Satan for suffering. He clearly endured more than Franz Joseph. In an instant, he lost all his children and his wealth. His wife was taunting him to apostatize, and his friends said he already had. At times he accused God of injustice, but he never fully gave up hope that a redeemer/mediator would intercede for him. Prayers or statements of hope frequently interrupt his proclamations of innocence and God’s injustice. God humbled him by challenging him from a whirlwind, but when Job repented, God gave him double what he had had before. He lived to see 140 years and four generations of descendants, definitely more than he would have enjoyed if God had never tested him and found him (more or less) faithful.

Next, there’s the infamous case of David and Bathsheba. In a series of crimes so heinous the prophet Nathan likened it to a rich man stealing and eating a poor man’s only pet, David first committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband murdered so he could marry her. David soon had to deal with a whole mess of consequences. Besides the agonizing guilt, God promised He was going to chastise David for this. David eventually has to flee for his life when his son Absalom rebels against him and humiliates him by sleeping with his concubines in front of all Israel, and he almost sees his kingdom torn apart by another rebellion. When David declared that the rich man in Nathan’s parable would have to make fourfold restitution for the stolen lamb, God seems to have taken him at his word. First David’s son with Bathsheba dies, and then Absalom kills David’s firstborn, Amnon, for raping Amnon’s half-sister Tamar (she was Absalom’s full sister). Absalom himself dies when Joab defeats his rebel forces, much to David’s grief. Lastly, just before his death, David’s son Adonijah attempts to steal the throne and eventually winds up being executed for it- four lost sons in all.

So what possible good came of this sordid mess? Well, first and foremost, no one can say, “Look at what kind of sin God is willing to tolerate!” That’s mostly why God punished David so severely. For David, though, good came from even this. God explicitly declared his love for David’s next son with Bathsheba, Solomon. In Solomon, David had an heir he could take comfort would accomplish his great dream of building a temple for God. Countless worshipers would have a magnificent temple in which to delight in God because of David’s liaison with Bathsheba. In the grander scheme of things, how many Christians have taken comfort from the extent of the forgiveness God extended to David? If He can forgive adultery and murder, surely He can forgive you. Meanwhile, to help Christians experience that forgiveness, David wrote the definitive work on repentance because of this sin in Psalm 51.

For this last one, I hope you’ll bear with a little speculation and inference. I’m thinking of the Israelite slave girl in II Kings 5. We don’t know much about her as she plays a very small part in the story, but what we’re told about her background tells us she experienced unspeakable trauma as a child when the Arameans carried her off as a slave. From being a (presumably) free woman among the people of God, she has been reduced to the property of a pagan. She has to serve people who oppress her own people. We don’t know if the raiders raped her or killed her family in front of her eyes, but slave raids are never gentle matters. She probably spent the time following her capture among a strange people anxiously wondering what would become of her.

So how does she react to this horrifying turn of events? Well, the one thing we know she does is love her enemies. When Naaman, the commander of the forces who robbed her of her liberty, falls ill with leprosy, she doesn’t gloat secretly over the hardship of her foe. Instead she refers him to the prophet Elisha, who she claims can heal him. Well, to make a long story short, Elisha does heal him, and Naaman becomes a Christian.

So what came of the girl? We don’t know, but I expect it was rewarding enough. Naaman was overwhelmed with gratitude to Elisha and wanted to make him rich for his miracle. Surely some of that gratitude poured over to the slave girl when he returned home. One things seems likely: the little girl probably spent the rest of her life in a more devout household than she would have if she had stayed in depraved Israel.

More frequently, I expect, we don’t get to see how God is working good through things. There are case studies for this too. Heman the Ezrahite’s only Psalm, Number 88, is the only psalm that does not contain a note of hope and trust in God. He describes how miserable he’s been since he was born and believes he is close to death. Maybe God turned his fortunes around like Job, or maybe he had to wait until he got to Heaven to truly enjoy some happiness. The point is, we know Heman is happy now, and presumably God was as pleased with him as he was with Job for remaining faithful in great trial and that he’s being more blessed in Heaven because of it.

Or consider Jeremiah. Here’s someone who had one of the most difficult jobs of all time. Living among a people who outraged him with their iniquity but whom he loved nonetheless, he had the appointment to warn them of judgment when very few of them would listen. God did not allow him to marry or have a family in a culture that almost obsessively esteemed that, and frequently he was in peril for his life from his enraged hearers. He had to endure all the horrors of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, where food ran out and mothers were eating their children, and then he saw the city he loved burned to the ground, which prompted the Book of Lamentations. We last see him carried against his will to Egypt by people who still despise him. (Why they made him come with them I don’t know- maybe they were cynically trying to use him as a human shield in case God fulfilled His threats of judgment on those who went to Egypt against his orders).

It’s hard to see any good in this for Jeremiah. Certainly he had trouble seeing it since at one point he was calling down God’s curse on the person who didn’t abort him when he was born. You can still see some good in it, though. God gave a vivid picture through Jeremiah’s sermons of things He hates so we can avoid them, and He also gave prophecies about the Messiah that the Gospel writers use to prove He is Jesus. Like Heman, Jeremiah is blissfully happy now.

God has promised to wipe away all His people’s tears. Whatever you haven’t been spared in this life, He’ll repay double in the life to come.

My All-Time Favorite Moment of Providence

Few people today know how close the world came to disaster in May 1941. Adolf Hitler came within a whisker of winning World War II. He basically lost it because he took on too many enemies at once, but in that month, it was still just him and Britain at war. The German navy thought they had the perfect plan to bring the war to a conclusion right before Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Britain needed unceasing convoys of imports to sustain her people and her war effort, so the Kriegsmarine decided to strangle her with its most powerful weapon, the battleship Bismarck. The world’s most powerful warship would go up the North Sea, sail between Greenland and Iceland, and then sink as much of Britain’s precious cargo as it wanted.

Part of what made this so exciting was that it was a desperate enterprise on both sides. The British had more ships, so the Bismarck had to avoid being caught at all costs, but if she could take the Royal Navy on one ship at a time, victory was all but assured. The Bismarck had an inestimable advantage (gun-control advocates, take note): the British had abided by the naval limitation treaties when they had designed their ships while the Germans had flagrantly ignored them. The British ships could match the Bismarck’s firepower, but they had had to make cuts in tonnage somewhere, so their ships had smaller, slower engines. If the Bismarck could just reach the vastness of the North Atlantic, she could commerce-raid with all but impunity.

Once the British detected the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen with their radar in the Denmark Strait, which lies between Greenland and Iceland, the battlecruiser HMS Hood and battleship Prince of Wales steamed to intercept her. The breath-taking Hood had acquired an illustrious reputation before the war, but the British squadron had some serious disadvantages. The Prince of Wales was still under construction, with civilian contractors still working on her as she sailed to the battle, and the Hood, for the sake of speed, had very thin deck armor. The British planned to make up for this by rushing in close to minimize plunging fire, but they lost contact with the Germans in the night and had to grope their way in from the side. This meant that the Germans had the very advantageous position of “crossing the British T.” The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen could send plunging fire at the British from all their guns while the British could only reply with their forward-facing turrets.

The battle was a brief, vicious disaster. The Bismarck blew the Hood up, killing all but 3 of her crew of 1,400, and the Prince of Wales had to retreat with a jammed turret. The British public was shocked, and the way into the North Atlantic was open- or was it? In the brief exchange of gunfire, the British had scored one good hit in the Bismarck’s fuel tanks. Instead of turning her loose in the open ocean, the German admiral had to put in for repairs in France. Strategically, this was more of an inconvenience than anything else, since the Bismarck could leave France into the Atlantic as soon as she was repaired.

As the other British ships scrambled to catch the Bismarck, the British had to call in airpower. In this they were still badly handicapped. Their search planes were the modern American-built PBY Catalinas, but their torpedo bombers were Swordfish biplanes, little more advanced than a World War I fighter. They were slow and fired only one torpedo. The British launched an air strike, but it did nothing to stop the Bismarck, which soon eluded them. The only good news was that the Bismarck’s anti-aircraft guns had been designed to shoot at faster, more modern planes, so they couldn’t be adjusted slow enough to hit the Swordfish. That was, no doubt, small comfort when the Bismarck got away with minimal damage from one torpedo hit. After a tense search, an American pilot found the Bismarck in his Catalina, but the news wasn’t promising.

By the evening of May 26, it must have looked to the British like the war was lost. The Bismarck was too far ahead for any British ship to catch her, and in the morning, she would be in range of air cover from France. The Luftwaffe could chew up the antiquated Swordfish like sardines, so the British needed what Ludovic Kennedy called, “a miracle.” With enough daylight left for one final strike, the British sent the Swordfish out again.

And they got their miracle! The last torpedo fired- the last torpedo the British couldfire- hit the Bismarck in just about its only vulnerable spot. The Bismarck’s only real design flaw was that she couldn’t steer using her propellers rather than her rudder. By something too coincidental and earth-shaking to be called mere Chance, the British torpedo had hit the Bismarck’s rudder just as the ship was turning and stuck it in a course back to the British fleet. Other ships might have manipulated their propellers into changing course, but the Bismarck couldn’t. In an instant the war had gone from being hopelessly lost to being winnable!

The next morning, the British set upon the Bismarck with their battleships HMS King George V and Rodney, as well as several smaller vessels. The Bismarck didn’t stand a chance. The British shells shredded her until the Germans scuttled the ship to avoid capture. Germany would never again come so close to defeating Britain. In a month she had made the catastrophic blunder of attacking the Soviet Union, and by year’s end she had declared war on the US.

A godly Presbyterian once said, “He who doesn’t see the hand of God in this is blind,” and I think much the same can be said of that torpedo. The British had only the remotest chance of catching the Bismarck at that point, and they scored the one hit that could do it just under the wire. From a Presbyterian point of view, God does things the hard way like this so He can demonstrate His wisdom and power to redound to His glory. I’ll explore, Lord willing, this unpopular belief in a future post, so stay tuned. In the meantime, whenever you’re discouraged and feel like giving up from doing the right thing, think of that providential torpedo hit that saved the world at the last possible second.