How Open Theism Helps Us Conceal Our Hidden Idolat
HOW OPEN THEISM HELPS US CONCEAL OUR HIDDEN IDOLATRIES
Open Theism implies, therefore, that we should not think about the wisdom of God’s purpose in causing or permitting our calamities
by John Piper
Open theism may help conceal deep idolatry in the soul. One of the great needs of our souls is to know if we treasure anything on earth more than we treasure Christ. Treasuring anyone or anything more than Christ is idolatry. Paul said in Colossians 3:5, ‘Put to death therefore what is earthly in you . . . covetousness, which is idolatry.’ If covetousness is idolatry, then desiring earthly things more than we desire God is idolatry. That means we must be more satisfied in Christ and his wisdom than we are in all our relationships and accomplishments and possessions on earth.
Now how does Open Theism help us conceal from ourselves the idolatries in our souls. It ascribes ultimate causality for many calamities and evils to Satan or the autonomous will of man, not finally to the all-disposing counsel and wisdom of God above and behind Satan. For example, Greg Boyd says:
When an individual inflicts pain on another individual, I do not think we can go looking for ‘the purpose of God’ in the event. . . . I know Christians frequently speak about ‘the purpose of God’ in the midst of a tragedy caused by someone else. . . . But this I regard to simply be a piously confused way of thinking (Letters from a Skeptic [Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1994], p. 47).
Similarly, John Sanders writes:
God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence of evil. . . . When a two-month-old child contracts a painful, incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. The rape and dismemberment of a young girl is pointless evil. The accident that caused the death of my brother was a tragedy. God does not have a specific purpose in mind for these occurrences (The God Who Risks [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998], p. 262).
If not ‘the purpose of God,’ what then is ultimate? Either man’s will which is ultimately ‘self-determining’ and can even surprise God (as Open Theists believe), or the will of an evil spirit which is also ultimately ‘self-determining.’ For example, after admitting that ‘God can sometimes use the evil wills of personal beings, human or divine, to his own ends,’ Boyd then says, ‘This by no means entails that there is a divine will behind every activity of an evil spirit’ (God at War [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997], p. 154, cf. 57, 141). ‘A self-determining, supremely evil being rules the world’ (p. 54). ‘The ultimate reason behind all evil in the world is found in Satan, not God’ (p. 54, my italics).
How does this worldview help us conceal the idolatry of our soul? It works like this. Open Theism denies that God is the final, purposive disposer of all things (Job 2:10; Amos 3:6; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11). Therefore it asserts that God’s wisdom does not hold final sway (Rom. 11:33-36), and thus God is not fulfilling a plan for our good in all our miseries (Jeremiah 29:11; 32:40). Open Theism implies, therefore, that we should not think about the wisdom of God’s purpose in causing or permitting our calamities. In other words, Open Theism discourages us from asking what sanctifying purpose God may have in ordaining that our misery come about.
But in reality our pain and losses are always a test of how much we treasure the all-wise, all-governing God in comparison to what we have lost. We see this merciful testing of God throughout the Scriptures. For example, in Deuteronomy 8:3 Moses said, ‘And [God] humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’ In other words, God ordains the hard times (‘he . . . let you
hunger’) to see if good times are our god. Do we love bread, or do we love God? Do we treasure God and trust his good purposes in pain, or do we love his gifts more, and get angry when he takes them away?
We see this testing in Psalm 66:10-12, ‘For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water.’ And we see it in the life of Paul. When he prayed for his thorn in the flesh to be taken away,
Christ told him what the purpose of the pain was. ‘Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’’ (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). The test for Paul was: Will you value the magnifying of Christ’s power more than a pain-free life?
We see this testing in 1 Peter 1:6-7, ‘In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, as was necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith ‘ more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire ‘ may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.’ God ordains trials to refine our faith and prove that we really trust his wisdom and grace and power, when hard times come. Similarly in James 1:2-3, ‘Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. . . . Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.’ Do we love God? That is the point of the test. Do we cherish him and the merciful wisdom of his painful purposes, more than we cherish pain-free lives? That is the point of God’s testing.
Our trials reveal the measure of our affection for this earth, both its good things and bad things. Our troubles expose our latent idolatry.
For those who believe that God rules purposefully and wisely over all things, our response to loss is a signal of how much idolatry is in our souls. Do we really treasure what we have lost more than God and his wisdom? If we find ourselves excessively angry or resentful or bitter, it may well show that we love God less that what we lost. This is a very precious discovery, because it enables us to repent and seek to cherish Christ as we ought, rather than being deceived into thinking all is well.
But Open Theism denies that God always has a wise purpose in our calamities (‘God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence of evil’), and so it obscures the test of our idolatrous hearts. Open Theism does not encourage us to see or savor the merciful designs of God in our pain. It teaches that there is either no design or that the design of the evil done against us is ultimately owing to Satan or evil men (‘The ultimate reason behind all evil in the world is found in Satan, not God’).
Therefore, we may be so angry with Satan and with evil people (which is legitimate up to a point), that we fail to ask whether our anger reflects an excessive attachment to what we just lost. But if, contrary to Open Theism, we must reckon with the fact that God’s wisdom is the ultimate reason we lost our treasure, then we will be forced to do the very valuable act of testing our hearts to see if we loved something on earth more than the wisdom of God.
All of life is meant to be lived to reflect the infinite value of Christ (Philippians 1:20). We show his infinite worth by treasuring him above all things and all persons. Believing in his all-ruling, all-wise sovereignty helps reveal our idolatries in times of pain and loss. Not believing that God has a wise purpose for every event helps conceal our idolatries. Thus Open Theism, against all its conscious designs, tends to undermine a means of grace that our deceptive hearts need.
Pastor John Piper
Bethlehem Baptist Church; March 13, 2002
When coming to consider plagues throughout history and some Christian responses, it is appropriate to begin with this extract from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: O Almighty God, who in thy wrath did send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in […]
Gripping, Relevant, and Insightful – The Banner Magazine 24 September 2020
In the video below, Geoff Thomas explains how he was first introduced to the ministry of the Banner of Truth through a gift from a friend. That friend gave him a copy of the Banner Magazine, which in turn led to Geoff’s introduction to Banner books. Geoff eventually became a pastor in Wales and for a time he was an editor of […]