January 23, 2013
In my through-the-Bible-in-a-year reading, this week I’ve been in the account of the life of Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, then raised by God to be second in command under Pharaoh.
I’ve been struck yet again by the repeated emphasis on God’s sovereignty and both His desire and His ability to use sinful, destructive human choices for His good purposes.
When Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (Genesis 45:4). It is clear that the brothers are responsible for their sin. Yet Joseph also declares that God has been at work through it all, saying five times that God acted through what they did:
• “God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5).
• “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant” (45:7).
• “So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:8).
• “He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (45:8).
• “God has made me lord of all Egypt” (45:9).
This affirmation of the twin truths of human responsibility and God’s sovereignty culminates when Joseph says to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” (50:20).
These two truths—we are responsible and God is sovereign over all—are found throughout the Scriptures.
In Isaiah 10, God says that He is using the pagan Assyrian nation to bring His judgment upon disobedient Israel, but then underscores that imposing such righteous judgment is not what the king of Assyria thinks he is doing. Verse 7: “But he does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy…” The king of Assyria is only seeking to conquer and lay waste, but God is using him for divine purposes.
Similarly, at the Last Supper, Jesus describes His coming betrayal by Judas as both the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan as written in the Scriptures and as an act of sin for which Judas is responsible. “For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21).
God is sovereign. Human beings are responsible for our actions.
Many of the central truths of the Christian faith are twin truths like this, pairs of essential points that might at first seem to be at odds with one another: God is one and God is three. Jesus is fully divine and Jesus is fully human.
The philosophical term for this sort of truth is “antinomy,” meaning two opposite and apparently incompatible laws or principles which must both be grasped in order to hold the truth.
The best illustration of this is to imagine a high school physical education class. They’re gathered in the gym and the P.E. teacher says, “Today you’re going to climb these two ropes that are hanging from the ceiling.” So the first athlete goes over, takes hold of one of the ropes and pulls, but the rope just slides down in his hands. So he takes hold the other rope, but the rope also slides down in his hands. What he does not realize is that the two ropes are in fact one rope which has been hung over a pulley he can’t see up above the ceiling tiles. The only way to climb the ropes is to hold them both together; then you can climb them.
The antinomies of the Christian faith are like that. Christians don’t hold that Jesus is fully divine and ignore His humanity. Nor do we say that Jesus is fully human and deny His divinity. But nor do we say that He’s somewhat divine and somewhat human.
And Christians do not say that God is sovereign and we are robots. Nor do we say that we are responsible and God is powerless. But nor do we say that God is only somewhat Lord and we are only somewhat responsible for our actions.
No, we hold onto both ropes, if you will. Jesus is fully divine and Jesus is fully human. God is sovereign and we are responsible.
Not one or the other, not some of each, but all of both.
And so, as we face sin of others done to us (like Joseph) or our own sin (like his brothers), we do not give in to anger or to despair. God is still at work. God desires to use all our brokenness and all our failures for His good purposes. And sometimes our deepest wounds and our greatest sins can, by the transforming grace of God through the Cross of Christ, become our most fruitful ministry.
More on that in the next Messenger!
Faithfully yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. John A. M. Guernsey
P.S. I was greatly blessed to participate in the recent gathering of the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America. Please read our Communique here.