Part 2: Speaking Biblically
“God had nothing to do with September 11th.”
Those words were reportedly spoken by a pastor in the days following the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. Whether they were actually spoken as reported or not, I do not know. I certainly disagree with them. But they raise a good question: If it is biblical to understand, as I tried to affirm in Part 1 of this article, that God in His providence is the “Author” (so to speak) of everything, even tragic events and the sinful actions of men, then what should we say to people after events like September 11th? Additionally, how should we speak of future plans? What sort of language should we use in describing things that are commonly attributed to luck or chance? Does it even matter how we speak about such things, as long as we think rightly about them?
In teaching that the root of sin is the human heart, Jesus told His disciples that one common outlet for that sin is the mouth. “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (Matthew 15:11 NASB). In another place He says, “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36). Jesus was not merely speaking of lies, curses, or filthy speech. The Greek word for “careless” literally means “not at work,” “idle,” “inactive,” or “unprofitable.” Jesus was warning us not to speak in ways that are useless, misleading, or foolish, even if not overtly vile or shocking to the conscience.
If we were to examine our speech by individual words or sentences, apart from the context of our overall message, much of it would undoubtedly seem ordinary and unprofitable. That is to be expected. It would be quite challenging to think of ways to glorify God or acknowledge His providence in the process of ordering coffee at a fast-food drive-through window. But when we engage in conversation, when we speak of our personal ups and downs or future plans, when we pray publicly, or when we teach, do our listeners hear us speaking of God as we ought to speak? Do we acknowledge His providence consistently and clearly? If we do not, we should.
Speaking of Luck or Chance
For generations we have been conditioned to use words and phrases such as “lucky,” “fortunate,” or “by chance,” in our everyday conversation. Those words, however, refer to non-existent entities. If God’s providence is all-encompassing, as the Bible says it is, there are no such things as luck, chance, or fortune. And let’s be honest. We could all speak more biblically in this area.
Notice the definitions of those three words from Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary:
luck: a force that brings good fortune or adversity
chance: the assumed impersonal purposeless determiner of unaccountable happenings
fortune: a hypothetical force or personified power that unpredictably determines events and issues favorably or unfavorably
Needless to say, none of those definitions promote a biblical understanding of God’s providence. Many Christians realize this, while continuing to use the words out of habit. But should we be more careful? Are these not some of those “careless” words, spoken of by Jesus? Undoubtedly they are, and undoubtedly we should be more biblical in our choice of words.
Using the word “blessed” for example, in place of “fortunate,” would imply that you have been blessed by Someone. “Thankfully (rather than “luckily”) we were not injured in the accident,” shows gratitude toward the One who protected you. And saying that something happened “providentially,” rather than “by chance,” gives due credit to God, who “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).
Sadly, there does not seem to be much awareness of the unbiblical meanings conveyed by these words. Two of them (“luck” and “fortune”) are even used in modern Bible translations.
For example, in the New American Standard Bible (a very solid translation, and my own personal favorite for study and preaching), in Psalm 10, the word “unfortunate” is used three times to refer to those who are “helpless” (as in the NKJV). In each case, marginal notes show “poor” as an alternate translation. One cannot help but wonder why such a questionable word (“unfortunate”) was chosen over “poor” or “helpless,” which are equally valid translations and much more compatible with a biblical understanding of providence. Thankfully, in the NASB this seems to be an isolated instance.
Another more troubling example is the use of the words “lucky” and “fortunate” in The Message, by Eugene Peterson. First consider Peterson’s rendition of Psalm 32:1-2:
Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—
you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean.
Count yourself lucky—God holds nothing against you
and you’re holding nothing back from him.
Next, examine Peterson’s version of Paul’s quotation of Psalm 32:1-2, in Romans 4:7-8:
Fortunate those whose crimes are carted off,
whose sins are wiped clean from the slate.
Fortunate the person against whom
the Lord does not keep score.
In both passages, the word “blessed” (as translated in NKJV, NASB, KJV, NIV, ESV, RSV), which calls to mind God’s gracious action toward a guilty sinner, is replaced by words which refer to the results of blind chance, the power of “a force,” or the workings of an “assumed impersonal purposeless determiner of unaccountable happenings.” Worst of all, these particular passages are key to rightly understanding God’s graciously imputed righteousness. If we place any value at all on the meaning of words, and if we simply insert the dictionary definitions of “lucky” and “fortunate,” we come away with the understanding that when a person is justified, it is neither by God’s grace nor even of their own choice, but rather a haphazard result of blind chance.
Speaking about Future Plans
James goes to great length to show that the tongue is commonly an instrument of sin.
See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. . . . no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison (James 3:5-6, 8).
Who among us has not sinned with his tongue? Who has not told a lie, burst out in anger against a loved one, or said something he later wished he could “take back?” These blatant errors of the tongue are common to us all, in varying degrees. And James certainly is speaking, at least in part, about these harsh and hostile sins of the tongue. But he does not leave off there. He goes on in the next chapter to instruct us how to speak about God, specifically regarding His providence:
Come now you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:13-15, emphasis added).
James is exhorting people to speak rightly about God as He orders and directs their daily lives. The phrase, “Come now you who say [i.e. wrongly],” is contrasted with the phrase, “Instead you ought to say [i.e. rightly].” The problem with the first way of speaking is that it does not reflect a humble understanding of the providence of God.
James goes on to say, “But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil” (v. 16). The common, seemingly benign, and ordinary way of speaking about the future, one that does not acknowledge God’s providential hand, is not merely an innocent human expression of future plans; it is arrogant boasting, a sign of pride, and therefore, evil.
Consider the ways Paul often spoke in his letters, and as recorded in the book of Acts (all italics added for emphasis):
I will return to you again, if God wills (Acts 18:21).
. . . always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you (Romans 1:10).
But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills . . . (1 Corinthians 4:19).
For I do not wish to see you now just in passing; for I hope to remain with you for some time, if the Lord permits (1 Corinthians 16:7).
The writer of Hebrews even acknowledged God’s providence in stating his goal to advance his readers’ understanding:
And this we will do, if God permits (Hebrews 6:3).
I do not believe there is any need to wear out the phrase, “Lord willing.” If we were to use it merely out of habit, it would become nothing more than a vain repetition, and therefore not pleasing to God at all. But if the spoken phrase is a true reflection of an understanding and humble heart, then it serves the purpose of bringing glory to God.
Speaking About Sin
Understanding as we do that God’s providence is all-encompassing, and that even sinful actions are, in a mysterious way, according to His decree and purpose, how should we speak of our own sins, or those committed by fellow Christians? Should we take comfort in the fact that when we do evil, God providentially intends it for good? Such resting in God’s providence is appropriate in a sense, even when it concerns our own sin, because it demonstrates our realization that everything we do, sinful or otherwise, plays its necessary role in God’s eternal purpose. But if such resting in our thoughts leads to relaxing in our words—if our language implies that sin has any acceptable place in the Christian life because of God’s providence—then we are not speaking biblically about it. And if our words betray the state of our mind, then we are probably not thinking biblically either.
When Joseph explained the providential necessity of his brothers’ sin, he was not comforting them as much as he was magnifying God. His intent was not that they should feel less guilty before God for their evil deeds, nor was he inferring that because God intended their sin for His good, He would be more tolerant of it in terms of judgment. Likewise, when a brother or sister in Christ sins, we should restore them gently (Galatians 6:1), while in no way minimizing the sinfulness of their sin. Nathan the prophet did not comfort David after he sinned by speaking of how God would use the sin for good. He rebuked him for his sin, asking, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing evil in His sight?” (2 Samuel 12:9). Paul did not instruct Timothy to engage in theological discussions regarding providence when an elder sinned. He told him to rebuke such a one “in the presence of all, so that the rest will also be fearful of sinning” (1 Timothy 5:17).
As Christians, we have an obligation to speak about sin the way God’s Word speaks about it. And in the Bible, sin is always spoken of as a horrific thing. It is that which alienated mankind from God and prompted Him to destroy the world (Genesis 3:22-24; 6:13). It was the reason for the ineffective, but highly symbolic slaughter of millions of bulls, goats, and lambs under the old covenant (Hebrews 10:1-4). Sin is “of the devil” (1 John 3:8), the fruit of lust (James 1:15), and “the sting of death” (1 Corinthians 15:56). The Bible refers to sin as “a disgrace” (Proverbs 14:34), “filthiness” (Proverbs 30:12), deceitful (Hebrews 3:13), and the abominable thing that God hates (Jeremiah 44:4). And if that were not enough, sin was that which necessitated Christ’s death on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21). Let us never allow biblical thinking about God’s providence, even over the sinful actions of men, to lead to unbiblical speaking about sin.
Speaking After Tragic Events
What should we say to people when they question us in the aftermath of a tragedy? How should we respond when evil men commit heinous acts of brutality? Certainly we should be compassionate toward those who have suffered loss, whether believers or unbelievers. Certainly, if the ones suffering are believers, we must offer them comfort in the Lord, knowing that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28; James 1:2-3; 1 Peter 1:6-9). Being Christians, these are obligatory, and to a certain degree, natural responses. But going beyond deeds of compassion toward all people, and words of spiritual comfort for our suffering brothers and sisters in the Lord, how do we respond verbally to unbelievers? Along with all of our compassionate actions, what should we say to those who are suffering, deceived, or confused?
Jesus was once approached by certain Jews who informed him of a shocking scene of brutality that had occurred in Jerusalem. Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, had given the order to execute certain Galilean Jews while they were in the temple offering their sacrifices to God (cf. Luke 1:1-5). Historically, we know very little about Pilate’s reasons for this atrocious act. But we don’t need to know any more than Luke relates, because it is not the historical details, but rather Jesus’ response that is important.
Those who came to Jesus apparently wanted Him to affirm that the ones murdered by Pilate were somehow more sinful than other Jews, and that God had therefore arranged for their death. But Jesus, rather than grieving openly at the news, condemning Pilate for his brutality, or speaking about the sins of the dead, replied:
Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:2-3).
Jesus then relates another tragedy—one that was publicly known in Jerusalem. A stone tower had somehow fallen, killing eighteen people. This tragic accident should just as rightly be understood as a calamity brought about providentially by the Lord (cf. Isaiah 45:7; Lamentations 3:38; Amos 3:6). Jesus responds to this tragedy by saying:
Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent you will all likewise perish (vv. 4-5).
Very simply, Jesus’ response to a brutal act of violence and a tragic accident was not to philosophize, speculate, or defend God’s existence and character through apologetic arguments, but rather to confront men with their own mortality, sinfulness, and guilt, and to call them to repentance.
There should be no question that when a tragedy occurs, or even when brutal mass-killings control the headlines, God is in total control, working “all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). Christians, even ones who question the extent of God’s involvement in such events, are usually very good at helping to pick up the pieces physically. They are more than willing to expend huge amounts of energy, time, and money to assist in recovery economically. But they often neglect the best opportunities to work spiritually. They often fail to make plain, as Jesus did, the fact that the event itself is God’s call to repent or perish. Considering Jesus’ response to the fatal collapse of the tower in Jerusalem, I wonder what would He would have said to someone who informed Him about the fall of the Twin Towers in New York City?
As I write, there are hundreds of thousands of unbelievers suffering from the effects of a devastating tsunami around the Indian Ocean. Many Christians are there at great personal sacrifice, distributing food, clearing debris, rebuilding homes, providing medical care, offering comfort and counsel, etc. These brothers and sisters are to be commended. But how many are faithfully informing these multitudes of unbelievers that in the earthquake and tsunami, God has spoken, and in the process, caused thousands of guilty sinners to perish?
How many of these compassionate Christians are secretly uncomfortable with the thought that a loving God could cause such calamity? How many are therefore denying, or at least minimizing God’s involvement in this catastrophe, and thus wasting an incredible opportunity for evangelism? How much better to unashamedly assign the event fully to God, and then ask, “Do you think that these tens of thousands of victims were worse sinners than you? I tell you, no, but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
What did God have to do with September 11th? God had everything to do with September 11th. “If a calamity occurs in a city, has not the Lord done it?” (Amos 3:6). Just as God has given His thundering call to repent to the multitudes living around the Indian Ocean—just as He gave it to the residents of Jerusalem through Pilate’s brutality and through the fall of the tower of Siloam—He gave it on that infamous day in New York City as two towers fell and thousands were killed.
Death is an ever-present reminder of God’s justice and the consequences of sin. It is therefore God’s providential call to repentance for those whose lives are spared for a time. God issues His sober warning to men through every death, at every funeral, especially those where the unconverted come to pay their respects. More time is often spent, however, preparing words to eulogize the dead than to evangelize the living. While it is right to pay respect, even to speak words of praise when the deceased has lived an exemplary life of faithful service to Jesus Christ, it is wrong to forget that the dead cannot hear and do not care that we praise them. And it is wrong to neglect the opportunity to remind the survivors that God has spoken, and that if they do not repent, they will all likewise perish.