To say that United Methodist anxiety levels are heightened would be an understatement. As deeply entrenched sides await this week’s arguments before the Judicial Council (our ecclesial high court), worry and frustration abound. And there’s no promise that it will subside, regardless of the Council’s decision. It’s painful. And in the midst of these stormy times, I have become persuaded that what the Church needs most – right now! – is a good dose of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the doctrine of meticulous sovereignty that characterizes Calvinist theology propagated by the young, restless, and Reformed. I’m not talking about a God who irrevocably elects and condemns. I’m talking about what John Wesley meant when he said in his sermon “On Divine Providence” that God “is infinite in wisdom as well as power: And all his wisdom is continually employed in managing all the affairs of his creation for the good of all his creatures” (Sermon 67:14). About this teaching Wesley said, “There is scarce any doctrine in the whole compass of revelation, which is of deeper importance than this;” he also said there is no other doctrine so “little regarded, and perhaps so little understood (Sermon 67:7) In painful times, we need to focus on what’s important. We need to know that God has not given up on his children. He loves us. And he is at work for our good.
Providence and well-being
Wesley’s doctrine of God’s providence derives from his doctrine of creation. If God made everything that exists, then God knows every detail about everything that exists, because he is the author of that detail. And he did not create this complex world only to ignore the details. After all, the number of the hairs on our heads, be they many or few, are known by God (Luke 12:7). Scripture led Wesley to conclude that God is deeply concerned with what seem the most insignificant details in the lives of his children. There is no affair so small that it is beneath the regard of the triune God. “For we know that, to those who love God, he works all things together for good, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, emphasis added).
Brothers and sisters, the current troubles of the United Methodist Church have not taken God by surprise. He is not caught off-guard. He frets not. He is not wondering what to do with us. To the contrary, he is at rest. And from that posture he is working within our circumstances to bring good for those who love him and are committed to his purpose for the Church and the world. His countenance is marked by noble and kingly joviality. His care for his beloved is unhindered. And his ultimate purpose to fill his creation with the knowledge of his glory will not be undone. Rest assured.
This means that, despite what we want, we can and must be patient. We want all of our problems to be resolved, and we want them to be resolved now. Patience feels like doing nothing. And we don’t want to wait around for the next press release or the next conference or the next declaratory decision. We want to do something. We want it fixed. We want the pain to go away.
But patience is not idleness; it’s the fruit of the Spirit. It’s an expression of faith that we can trust God to work for our good no matter how long it takes. It is of the utmost importance to remember that God’s great priority is not our daily or temporal comfort. He is primarily concerned to fill the world with the unparalleled beauty of his glory by reproducing his holy love in creatures who bear his image and bear it well. And that takes time.
Wesley understood this and made the point in paragraph 15 of “On Divine Providence.” To summarize, it takes time because being made in the image of God comes with some degree of liberty, and far too often we’ve use that liberty to mess things up. God will not magically fix all of our problems today because that would counteract his work of making human beings in his image with the relative freedom that involves. I don’t know how long it will take to find resolution for our United Methodist mess. I do expect that it will get worse before it gets better. But we must not allow that expectation to rob us of joy. We must trust that God is at work to renew us in the image of Christ in the midst of this mess. That’s what we need. That’s what the Church needs. That’s what the world needs. That takes patience. So, pray for me. And I’ll pray for you.
There’s a condition
I cited Romans 8:28 above to make the point that God is attentive to every detail in the lives of his children, and that he is at work in every circumstance to bring good. It would be inattentive, however, to neglect the point that this promise comes with a condition. It is for “those who love God” and “are called according to his purpose.” Let us not forget that, for Jesus, love is expressed in obedience (John 14:15). God has revealed his purposes in scripture. He has called us to be his people. He requires our believing obedience. If we are committed to those things, we can rest assured that he is at work for our good. The operative word there is rest. Love Jesus. Obey scripture. Rest in the knowledge that God loves you and is at work for your good.
I don’t know what the Judicial Council will decide after all the arguments are made later this week. I do know that, whatever they decide, a lot of people will be unhappy. Now more than ever, the faithful need to remember that the God who loves us is at work in us to reproduce his character in us for the life of the world. That is what matters. And he will not be thwarted. The bride of the Lamb will one day be clothed with holiness and splendor. You can count on it. God will not give up. And neither must we.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.