The God of cause and effect?

Some people believe that God is some agent of divine cause and effect. In other words, if you do A+B+C, then God will respond with X, Y and Z.

There is some element of truth in this assumption. For example, if a person repents of their sins and trusts in the death and resurrection of Christ as the means of their salvation, then God responds - forgiveness.

However, even this sort of simple equation is messed up when you take Monergistic regeneration into account. This means that when we repent and believe, we only do so because we have been regenerated by the Spirit of God in the first place.

Taking into account God's sovereignty, as well as the explicit determinism found in Scripture, it becomes pretty obvious that God is the one who is ultimately working in us, rather than us trying to work God.

For example, Christians who believe in A+B+C => God doing X, Y and Z are essentially like people typing in the pin number on the divine ATM. God responds automatically when you hit the right buttons. This is totally unbiblical - in fact, it is the other eay around. It is God who hits the buttons, and we who respond in a predetermined way.

All this is important when we consider the Christian life. Far too many Christians expect God to bring them to self-actualization, that somehow, God is able to turn us into super-christians who have victory over every sin, have no health problems and are continually "on fire" for the Lord. This expectation is totally unbiblical. God does not promise us prosperity and self-actualization this side of the return of Christ.

But it is this expectation that cause Christians to act in certain ways. A few years ago I was teaching at a church school here in Newcastle. It is run by a fairly theologically liberal protestant denomination - so most of the teachers are essentially nice pagans. One teacher, however, was a born-again Christian who attended a Charismatic Bapist Church. One day in the staff room, some teachers were talking about cancer and discussing ways of prevention. The Christian teacher jumped on the conversation straight away by proclaiming that she will never get cancer because she and her husband pray three times a day that God would protect them from it.

Such faith? Yes, but such stupidity too. This woman and her husband had fallen into the trap of believing in the cause and effect God. They were somehow convinced that by praying three times a day, that God would automatically protect them from contracting cancer. I wasn't there in the staff room at the time, but I was there afterwards as all the unbelievers shook their heads in disbelief and anger at what this woman had told them.

God is not going to bless you or reward you in a tangible way if you do certain things. When I was a Christian teenager, I used to think that the reason why I would have a bad day at school was because God was punishing me for not having a Quiet time that morning. I even remember Christians at the time calling Quiet Times "Crunchies" - they change the colour of your day. (Note to non-Australians. Crunchies are a chocolate bar. In the 1980s, an advertising campaign told consumers that Crunchies "change the colour of your day")

But this is not the God who has revealed himself to us in the Bible. While it is true that the Psalms and Proverbs contain many "cause and effect" situations - such as God blessing the good and judging the wicked - there are also many instances where the writer laments at the apparent injustice of evil people prospering while good people suffer.

Under the Old Covenant, God's people (the nation of Israel) were subject to a "cause and effect" situation. If they feared God, then God would keep them and their land safe. If they turned away from God, then God's patience would eventually wear thin and he would no longer keep the nation safe. Of course, we all know that Israel didn't keep the covenant, and suffered as a result.

The New Covenant - the church - is not subject to these "particular" promises given under the Old Covenant. That's why we don't sacrifice animals and why we consume pork. In the same way, the promises of physical blessing are no longer applicable.

So how can this help our Christian lives? We need to remember that whenever we suffer, we are not necessarily suffering because we have somehow done something wrong. Let me give two examples:

  1. You sin by drinking too much alcohol and you become intoxicated. While driving home, you crash your car and spend the rest of your life as a quadraplegic.
  2. You sin by punching and knocking out an opposition player in a fight during a game of football. As you drive home, a design defect in your car allows the brakes to fail. You crash and break your elbow.
In the first case, there is a direct link between the sin and the suffering that has been caused. In the second example, there is no link whatsoever between the sin and the suffering.

But someone might argue that the car crash was a divine retribution for the sin that the driver committed when he knocked that man out - and if not divine retribution then some other form of natural "cause and effect" that exists in our universe. "What comes around, goes around" someone told me once.

It is this second example that many Christians have fallen for. They think that there is some form of cause and effect in place when it comes to sin. They also believe the same when it comes to obedience - that something positive will occur as a result of a person's godliness and love for God.

Too many Christian think that their life circumstances are linked to their sin, or at least to their inability to serve God more fully. To counteract this, Christians try to be more godly, in the belief that God will bless them as a result. When this does not occur, people assume that their suffering is a result of their own failure, and makes their situation worse.

The opposite problem is that when a person prospers, it must therefore be a result of their godliness and close walk with God. When this occurs, people become full of pride. Moreover, they also have less compassion for those who are suffering, since they will assume that it is the fault of the sufferer that they are suffering.

Ultimately, the greatest gift that we have is eternal life. We may suffer terribly from all sorts of physical or emotional ailments - but God has provided us with life eternal through Christ. And this is not the result of our godliness or enthusiasm, but the result of God's gracious act of salvation.

So when we suffer, we must remember that it is unlikely to be our fault, or that God has responded to our sins by making us suffer. We must remember that Christians and non-Christians suffer alike, and that God blesses both believer and unbeliever with the fruits of creation.

And when we prosper - we must remember that it is only because God has blessed us undeservedly. We do not deserve prosperity. It is not the result of our good works or godliness. We should thank God continually for our circumstance, and thank him that we do not suffer.

From the Theosalient Department

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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1 comment:

Paul W said...


This is an excellent post. One thing I do appreciate about Christians of the Reformed tribe is that their theology, at its best, is able to take account of suffering and struggle in the Christian life far more than many other versions of Evangelical theology. It's able at its best to express a confidence in God's sovereignty while plumbling the depths of suffering honestly.

I remember when I was at high school that this Christian girl got up before the whole class and said that she had a good complexion because she prayed that she wouldn't get acne! This person more or less reduced the worship of the Triune God to a form of magic.