Charles Dickens and God’s Foreknowledge

Sometimes I wish I could just turn off the “theological” part of my brain while watching movies, but I just can’t. It would be great if I could just enjoy a flick without thinking about its message or content or style for thoughts about who God is, who I am, and how I should be in light of the first two. (I think it is a curse related to blogging about seeing God in everyday life)
A movie I saw last night really got me thinking about God. Laura and I got out on a date last night and decided to go see Disney’s adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” with Jim Carrey.

If you’re a fan of the classic tale, like I am, then you will find aspects of this movie to be enjoyable and others to be frustrating. My favorite version of this story is the 1970 musical Scrooge, with the song my sister and I sing every Christmas. So as I approached this adaptation I had Albert Finney in mind as Ebenezer Scrooge. This was not a musical, so it played very differently.
The positives first: I really liked the animation; it was incredibly lifelike in parts. I thought that Jim Carrey played a fantastic Scrooge and his “humbug” was spot on. The representation of the ghost of Christmas past was imaginative and interesting and the other characters were well played. I enjoyed the movie and would recommend it for teens and up.
The negatives: leave the kids at home. Bob Jacob Marley (I keep wanting to call him Bob Marley…the Rastafarian ghost partner or something. “Hey, mon! Quit de money hoarding mon!”) is quite frightening in the movie and there are several other places where the fright builds. I know that my kids would have had a hard time watching this movie, so beware. I would not recommend it for children. The reminder here is that just because it is animated does NOT mean it’s for kids.
First the negative: From a theological perspective the movie does advance the argument that our works determine whether we spend eternity in torment or happiness. Scrooge is told that if he changes his stinginess he will avoid the fate of Marley; since he does, even though he never considers Christ the implication is that he will not have eternity in torment like Marley does.
One other nitpicky gripe I have is with the return of Marley to warn Scrooge. Marley comes to Scrooge to warn him to change his ways, but from a biblical perspective we read in Luke 16:19-31 that no opportunities like this are given to us. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham tells the rich man that if they will not listen to Moses and the Prophets they will not listen to someone who rises from the dead.
Now the positive: First and simply, the movie paints a positive image of Christianity. The church is positively portrayed, and Christmas carols are Christ-focused (“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is one of my favorites!).
Second and more importantly in my opinion is a picture of God’s knowledge of the future. Towards the end of the movie there is a discussion between Scrooge and the ghost of Christmas future regarding the certainty of what Scrooge is seeing. In Dickens’ words the interaction says,

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be, only?”
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”[1]

Scrooge asks a very important question here. Is the future set in stone? Are the things being shown what will be, or only what could be? (the question he didn’t ask but should have is “what will be if, but that is perhaps asking too much of the movie) In other words, is there any opportunity for him to change or has God decided what is to come without a doubt?
What happens in the movie is well known: in Scrooge’s time with the ghost of Christmas future he sees Tiny Tim die and cause Bob Cratchit and his family great pain. He sees his own death and the joy it brings others, as well as his own torment after death. However, when he awakes he changes his outlook and actions, Tiny Tim lives, Ebenezer patches things up with his nephew and everyone lives happily ever after.
From a biblical perspective this is what is known as middle knowledge. In this theological perspective God knows not only what actually will happen, but what could happen. He knows all of the possible outcomes for all history of all the choices of His creatures. He knows how the world would be in infinite detail if one creature had made one decision differently and all of the effects of that choice throughout all of history.
Wait, it gets more fun! Multiply all of those possible outcomes and decisions by all of the decisions of all creatures for all time and you get the number of possible worlds that God could have possibly created. (the number is probably somewhere north of eleventy kajillion)
We know that God indeed possesses knowledge of what could happen as well as what will. We can see it in passages like 1 Samuel 23:6-13:

Now it came about, when Abiathar the son of Ahimelech afled to David at Keilah, that he came down with an ephod in his hand. When it was told Saul that David had come to Keilah, Saul said, “God has 1delivered him into my hand, for he shut himself in by entering a city with double gates and bars.” So Saul summoned all the people for war, to go down to Keilah to besiege David and his men. Now David knew that Saul was plotting evil against him; so he said to aAbiathar the priest, “bBring the ephod here.” Then David said, “O Lord God of Israel, Your servant has heard for certain that Saul is seeking to come to Keilah to destroy the city on my account. “Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down just as Your servant has heard? O Lord God of Israel, I pray, tell Your servant.” And the Lord said, “He will come down.” Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the Lord said, “aThey will surrender you.” Then David and his men, aabout six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went bwherever they could go. When it was told Saul that David had escaped from Keilah, he 1gave up the pursuit.

When David asks God whether Saul will come and whether the men of Keilah will deliver him into Saul’s hand, God answers in the affirmative. However, what happens in reality is that David leaves Keilah, Saul does not come down, and therefore the men of Keilah don’t hand David over to Saul. God knew what they would do if David were there, but since he wasn’t there they didn’t do it! God knows the counterfactuals as well as the actuals of the future.
Why is this important? Well it makes a great deal of difference in the way that we see the intersection of God’s sovereignty and our free will in salvation. From a Reformed understanding God elects those who will believe and receive eternal life without any conditions. (this is known as unconditional election and is one of the five points of the Reformed acrostic TULIP) From an Arminian perspective it is our free decision to trust God that results in His electing us. (this is known as conditional election)
These two concepts are at odds with one another, but middle knowledge is at least an attempt to untie the Gordian knot between them. In middle knowledge God could have created any world He wanted to, and chose to create the world in which our truly free choices carry out His truly sovereign will. So by choosing to create the world He did, God chose those who will be saved personally and did so without violating their free faith in Him. Both God’s sovereign control and our responsibility to trust Christ are maintained.
So Scrooge got to see what the Scriptures seem to indicate about the intersection of God’s sovereign will and our human responsibility. Who would have ever thought that Jim Carrey was such a deep theologian?

[1] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. Abridged. Edited by Albert F. Blaisdell. New York; Maynard, Merrill, & Co. 1892. Page 54. Available at (accessed 11/10/09)

Rest and Recuperation

If there is one refrain I hear a lot it is that I am a busy guy. I hear it from friends, from coworkers, from my parents and from a few members of my church who love me enough to poke me when I need it. They are all correct; between pastoring a young and busy church, teaching on the side at a local college and a bit at seminary, kenpo (both taking class and helping teach) and training for a half marathon my schedule is a wee bit tight!

I don’t vacation much. Being a pastor is a busy life full of hospital visits, phone calls, prayer, sermon prep, Bible study prep, teaching, leading, counseling, conflict resolution, and on and on. My congregation expects and deserves a biblical and applicable message every Sunday in the pulpit, and it takes dedication to the task to get it done! That takes time and effort during the week, which makes vacationing difficult.

This week, though, I have had a very relaxing week. I took Tuesday off and went fishing with a couple of friends that I don’t get out much with. We went up to Bartlett Lake with a fishing boat, minnows and worms, and a need to chill out! It was great to turn the BlackBerry off for the day and just enjoy the scenery, the weather, and the camaraderie. We had a great day on the lake; we caught a bunch of fish (mostly catfish for me), shot the breeze, and joked around. We didn’t keep what we caught because we were there for the sport and for the relaxation.

Fishing would have made for a great week, but there’s still more! James’ adopted grandpa asked us to go squirrel hunting with him, so Thursday we packed up the truck and headed for the woods in northern Arizona. We spent the day hunting squirrels and enjoying an absolutely gorgeous day. This is the time to live in Arizona, as it was about 50 degrees in the morning and about 70 midday. (November 5th…just don’t ask about July weather)

When we got home I was totally wiped out. I got up at 4 to make sure we were ready to leave on time. We left the house at 5AM and drove 2 hours or so to get where we were hunting. We hunted all day and didn’t get home until after 8PM, so when we pulled into the driveway I was super tired.

Physically I was exhausted but mentally and emotionally I was refreshed. I really enjoyed spending time with my son out in the woods. We thanked God on several occasions for the beautiful scenery, the amazing weather, the great time and the good hunting. This was James’ first hunting trip too, so it was a rite of passage toward manhood for my “tiger man.”

In years past I would feel guilty about taking these days off. Not getting any work done would feel to me like “wasting” time. Now, though, I recognize the wisdom of Christ’s way of doing things. In Luke 5:15-16 I see Jesus taking time off to rest and spend time alone with God, even with more work to do than time to do it.

But the news about Him was spreading even farther, and large crowds were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.

Rest and recovery are part of God’s plan for our lives. Sure He wants us to work hard (in Genesis 3:17-19 we are told that we will work hard to feed our family), but He wants us to rest as well. He wants us to spend time with Him while we serve Him. I got a great reminder of that this week while I kicked my feet up with a pole in the water, and again while I looked out over a beautiful meadow at lunch time. And you know what? Because I knew I would be out a bunch I worked hard while I was in the office to make sure my sermon prep was still done and done well. I had to be more productive and focused, but God graciously still allowed me to get it all done.

Take the time amidst your busy schedule to spend some down time. Rest, recuperate, recover, and refocus. Get some time to refuel and enjoy life a little. That’s Jesus’ model of ministry and should be ours too.

Feeling Secure vs. Being Secure

The seminary where I teach part time is in a part of town that is a bit sketchy. It’s not in the ‘hood, but you can hit a pretty dicey neighborhood with a rock from the parking lot. Suffice it to say that I am glad for my martial arts skills when I head to my car at night!

For everyone’s safety, though, the building is secured by a professional guard. This guard is there from sundown until at least after 10PM (when I leave); he keeps an eye on the parking garage, makes sure that the building isn’t infiltrated by hooligans, and walks people from the building to their car at night if they would like I suppose.

That sounds great, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you feel safer knowing that your valuables have been watched and that you had a professional guard walking you to your car? Of course you would!

Tonight, though, I was really struck by the difference between feeling safer and actually being safer. The guard that the building employs is, I am sure, a good person. (I don’t know for sure because he won’t converse with me, despite repeated attempts) He is mildly pleasant but not outgoing. He is probably in his mid 50’s and perhaps 50 pounds overweight. He carries no weapons of any kind and limps a little.

So I started wondering this evening if I were really any safer with him there. What would he do if a deranged meth addict wanted to mug me as I was approaching my car? He might have a cell phone to call 911, but so do I. I can run faster than he can (gimpy hammy and all), and have a couple of years of martial arts training to defend myself. Every time I have seen him he is either sitting at his podium in the hallway or standing out front staring at traffic.

There is obviously a difference between feeling safer and actually being safer. While many people might feel safer with the idea of a guard being on duty, looking at the evidence makes me think that it is likely that the students and faculty are in fact not significantly safer than they would be without him.* The same could be said of many areas. For instance, my job is not safe because I feel like it is safe. I know several people whose job evaporated without notice.

As I thought through this truth, a conversation I had earlier today came to mind. A friend asked me if I believed in eternal security, which I do. She then said that I must believe she never had a true relationship with God because she has walked away from Christ. (pray for her…’nuff said) She certainly didn’t feel secure in her relationship with God and felt like there was no way He could love her.

However, her understanding of security is misguided. Our perseverance in good works and in godliness can certainly help us feel secure. These signs are external evidences of God at work within us, and therefore they can help us to have a subjective feeling of His pleasure and His approval in our lives. Seeing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) can be reassuring as we struggle with sin and our fallen state. However, they don’t actually make us secure at all. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:21-23 that all the good works in the world can’t help us if we don’t have what is truly necessary for security:

21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’

These guys have some good works! They prophecy IN JESUS’ NAME! They cast out demons and work miracles! They certainly felt secure, (note their indignation at being told to go to hell) but in the final judgment they were not secure in God’s grace. Why? In verse 23 Jesus says what brings true security: knowing Him. Within Reformed (i.e. Calvinist) theology it is God who guarantees our perseverance in holiness to bring about our security, but from the above verses it sure seems to me that our works and obedience are a horrible basis for our security and can lie to us.

It’s not our obedience or our godliness or following Christ with a particular degree of competence that brings security; rather, it is a relationship with Christ that brings true security. When we trust Christ for our eternal life, we are forever secure in His faithfulness regardless of ours. This is exactly what the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8:38-39:

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing can cause Him to abandon us, not even our own faithlessness! We, being “created things,” are even excluded from ability to separate ourselves from Him. So whether we feel secure or not, whether we like what we see or think that it is appropriate activity or behavior from a child of God has no bearing on our actual security.

Our actual security comes from trusting Christ, not from looking at our works. We may feel secure or insecure at any given time, but feeling secure and being secure are not at all the same thing. When we feel insecure is not the time to start hustling for God, but rather is the time to turn again to the true source of security: Christ!

To bring it back around to the original illustration, our works are akin to the security guard at the seminary. They may make us feel safe, but in reality they are ineffective. True security can’t come from our works, but only from the works of the faithful One, Jesus.

So the next time you are feeling a little insecure in your relationship with God, don’t try harder to be good, to do good, or to make God happy. Turn instead to the true source of security. Talk to Christ and listen to Him through His word and the Spirit. That sense of security can last, whereas the security of our works is fleeting at best.

*I am in no way disparaging this particular guard. He is who he is, and has been since he was hired. The company employing him knows who he is, and the powers that be at the seminary see him every night and could probably request a replacement if they felt it necessary. He is evidently performing his assigned duties competently.