As Britain appears to be heading towards war with Iraq, one would expect that the Government would acknowledge their need of God’s blessing. But no; if we are to judge ministers by their public pronouncements, we must conclude that “God is not in all their thoughts”. Indeed, this is a generation when, it often seems, God is ignored completely.
Over the past few months, the prospect of war has hung like a dark cloud over the economic prospects of this country. However, at the beginning of this year, The Scotsman newspaper rather glibly declared, as it considered the prospects for the next 12 months: “The world has got better for the most part with each succeeding year, no matter how black things looked at the time”. For the population as a whole, this has, in particular, been doubtless true over the past decade – if we confine our attention to economics. Spending power for the average Briton has grown by 35% over this period, leading the media to quote former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s election slogan: “You never had it so good”. But what about years of world war and of depression? What about the years in African countries, for instance, when drought and famine have made the situation look much more drastic in December than it was in January? What about the various countries of the world which, in one year or another, have seen their freedoms knocked back? In Britain itself, is our concern about substance abuse, for instance, less at the end of each year than at the beginning? And are people more confident to go out on their streets at night? Manifestly not.
Many of us assumed that the terrible slaughter of the First World War had put an end to the simple-minded expectation of continuous evolutionary progress in the human condition. Yet it is not really surprising to find such misplaced optimism continuing in a godless age. What other hope for the future can a generation have that attempts to live as if there is no God. In Scripture we find an analysis of the situation which is simple but devastatingly accurate: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God”. We need a higher wisdom than one which is content with what is seen and temporal; we need to look at this life – indeed, we need to look at the whole of our existence – in the light of the fact that we are God’s creatures and must at last render our account to Him for our foolishness.
If there was no need to look beyond human activity, we would have little reason to disagree with The Scotsman‘s further comment: “The outcome of 2003 is not carved in stone”. But to add, “It will be what we make it”, is to ignore the providence of God. When Government and media – among the most powerful opinion-formers of our time – combine to leave the Most High out of consideration in the affairs of the world, the spiritual outlook is poor. As year follows year, Islamic nations may be heading in a more severely religious direction, but nations with a Christian heritage have become increasingly secular. In British public life today God is scarcely acknowledged. One commentator has observed: “The progressive distancing of God in the public mind from the detail of historical events is a clear index of the inroads of secularisation”. (1) It is as if the Most High had never said, “Them that honour Me I will honour”, which applies to nations as well as to individuals.
When Babylon was the supreme world-power, with Nebuchadnezzar as its apparently all-powerful king, the true God was ignored in the public life of his vast empire. Yet he had to learn by bitter experience that “He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest Thou?” These words were recorded in Holy Scripture, not as a mere opinion, but as the heartfelt conviction of someone who was taught by God Himself in the course of a remarkable providence. And they were recorded so that individuals and nations in the future would take them to heart. We should always be mindful that God is not only ordering all our affairs as individuals, but even those events which are of global significance.
Yet the doctrine of God’s providence is totally removed from any idea of fatalism. Providence, as the outworking of God’s decrees, is a great mystery. Who can understand how the myriad of individual human decisions made in any one day could have been foreordained by God as part of His plan for the whole of the world’s history? Yet, as the Westminster Confession sums up the teaching of Scripture: “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures” (3:1).
When referring to the place of sin in the purposes of the holy God, the Puritan Stephen Charnock notes how “God has holy ends in permitting sin, while man has unworthy ends in committing it”, and points out that “Joseph’s brothers sold him to gratify their revenge, and God ordered it for their preservation in a time of famine”. (2) Clearly, our feeble minds cannot begin to plumb the depths of such doctrines. Let us content ourselves meantime with the further summary from the Westminster Confession: “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose and govern all creatures, actions and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness and mercy” (5:1).
What then will we as individuals make of the rest of this year? One thing is obvious: if we are left to our own wisdom, we will make endless blunders. But let us remember that, in spite of all the difficulty and confusion we may experience, God is in control. At the same time, let us act in the light of such Scripture directions as: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Ecc 9:10). Charnock expresses himself succinctly on this point: “To use means without respect to God is proudly to contemn Him; to depend upon God without the use of means is irreligiously to tempt Him; in both we abuse His providence”. (3) But what of our priorities in life? The Saviour gives clear direction: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things [what we shall eat, what we shall drink and what we shall put on] shall be added unto you” (Matt 6:33). Whatever needs we may or may not discern as we look into the future, we should be specially aware of the necessity of preparing for eternity.
Because God is in control of everything, we may come to Him in prayer asking for His care – for time and eternity. In His Word, God gives us every encouragement to pray – for instance: “Trust in Him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before Him: God is a refuge for us” (Ps 62:8). Unless we thus acknowledge God we cannot have His blessing, whatever outward success we may experience in the course of this year. Apart from His blessing, how can outward success be of real benefit to us?
And what will Britain as a whole make of this year? When, or if, there will be war with Iraq is not yet a foregone conclusion as this article is being written. But it would be thoroughly irresponsible for the Government to enter a war without seeking God’s blessing, and acknowledging that God “doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth”. We should be thankful that there is still a remnant according to the election of grace in this and other countries, who pour out their heart before God. Were it not for their prayers, the outlook would be bleak indeed.
1. Brian Stanley, in John Wolffe (ed), Evangelical Faith and Public Zeal, p 91.
2. Works, vol 1, p 18, from his “A Discourse of Divine Providence”.
3. Works, vol 1, p 56.