Let there be: love as the act of letting go

During his talk in Grand Rapids last night, N.T. Wright shared something I wish he’d had more time to unpack. (When you’ve got 45 minutes to cover the whole big story of the Bible, there’s only so much you can do. Even if you’re N.T. Wright.)

Going back to Genesis 1, Wright drew our attention to the language God used to speak the world into existence: “Let there be.” We often hear it as the language of divine power and control, language that sets God apart from us. God says something should exist, and boom! It does.

But maybe we think this way because we haven’t asked why God made the world in the first place. Ancient philosophers wrestled long and hard with this question. If God was perfect goodness, they reasoned, anything he created — anything that was “other” than himself — would by nature be something less than perfect goodness.

Why create that?

For N.T. Wright, the answer is fairly simple: love.

God creates because God loves. We exist because God’s love can’t be contained; it needs an object outside itself. We exist because God wanted someone to love.

Which, when you understand the nature of love, casts a rather different light on the language used in Genesis 1.

“Let there be” is releasing language.

“Let there be” is not so much the language of power and control. It’s the language God used to release, unleash and send his creative power into the world, where it would then take on a life of its own.

Which, after all, is what you do when you love someone. You don’t coerce. You don’t control. You don’t impose yourself. (For those who think I’m in danger of judging God by human standards, where do you think we got this ethic of love in the first place?)

When you love someone, you unleash them. You give them a good start, point them in the right direction, prepare them for the road ahead. But then you let them walk it. You let them discover and try and fail and become for themselves.

That’s what God does with his creation.

Let there be light.

Let dry ground appear.

Let the land produce.

Let the waters teem.

Let the humans rule.

It’s the language of love, and it carries enormous risk. To let creation do this and that was to allow it to move in directions God might not have wanted. In love, God gave his creation freedom to flourish, but that also meant giving it freedom to fail.

“Let there be,” even if it means creation goes very badly wrong.

Which of course, it did.


Not many years ago, this would have been completely foreign to me. I wanted a God who superintended the minute details of the universe. I wanted a God who knew everything that was going to happen because he had already determined everything that was going to happen. I preferred “God is in control” to “God is love.” I even wrote a master’s thesis defending the doctrine of meticulous sovereignty against the “open theism” of Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Greg Boyd.

If I’m honest, I wanted God to be in control because I wanted to be in control. Sounds paradoxical, I know. Yet in my limited experience, those who insist the loudest on God’s absolute power have a habit of clinging tightest to power themselves — of controlling others, or trying to anyway.

Which, in many ways, is the exact opposite of what God did when he created us.

When we seek to control others, when we seek to dominate or impose our will, we commit an act of uncreation. We move against the flow of God’s creative power, saying “let me have” instead of “let there be.”

In order to participate in God’s creative work, to be co-creators with him (which is, after all, part of what it means to bear God’s image), we have to let go of power and control.


As a parent, this does not come easily for me. I want my daughter to turn out “right.” Heck, she’s only three, and already I worry: Will she be OK when she’s older? Will she even like us? Will she care about those in need? Will she fall in with the “wrong” crowd? Will she want anything to do with God?

The thing is, I can’t control how she turns out. I can try my best to guide her, give her a good foundation, point her in what I hope is the right direction. But then I have to release her to discover and try and fail and become for herself.

My wife and I brought her into this world. In our own very small way, we said, “Let her be.” And we have to keep saying it every day.

I’ve seen parents hang on to the illusion of control, falling into a tailspin of grief when their kids don’t turn out the way they’d hoped. I’ve seen parents use their unfulfilled hopes as a weapon of guilt — still trying to control their kids, still trying to force them into a predetermined mold.

And I worry every day that I’ll do the same with my daughter someday. Because I really, really want her to turn out well. But I can’t control her. To try to is folly. It is uncreation. To insist on control is to refuse our invitation to participate with God in the act of saying “let there be,” in the act of releasing our own small piece of creation to become what it will.

Because that’s what love does.

The day the tulip died, part 8

So there were two things Rob Bell said that made me walk away from Calvinism. The first (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) was:

There are lots of things God can do [followed by a rapid-fire, Rob Bell-esque list], but the one thing he can’t do is make you love him.

OK, to be fair, this sounds a bit . . . problematic. Isn’t God all-powerful? How can you say there’s something he CAN’T do? Didn’t God once ask whether anything was “too hard for the Lord” — the obvious answer being NO — and then proceed to make parents out of a couple of infertile nonagenarians?

But there IS something — or more precisely, a category of things — which God cannot do.

God cannot do that which is incompatible with his character. According to the writer of Hebrews, God cannot break an oath. According to James (the brother of Jesus), God cannot tempt or be tempted by evil.

The apostle John wrote that “God is love.” That is, God is the very embodiment of love. It’s essential to his character.

Sure, God is lots of things. God is holy (Psalm 99:9). God is light (1 John 1:5). God is spirit — i.e. breath, the source of life (John 4:24).

And to the extent that God is any of these things, he cannot be their antithesis. He cannot be unholy. He cannot be darkness. He cannot be death (which explains why Genesis and Revelation connect death to separation from God).

Last, God cannot be whatever is antithetical to love. So what exactly is love’s antithesis? Is it hate? Strictly speaking, no. Sometimes love compels us to hate certain things. Love demands that we hate injustice, oppression, and discrimination, to name a few.

The antithesis of love is coercion. Love, as portrayed in the scriptures, requires a decision not to use what power you have to manipulate others. It means setting aside your priorities to focus on the interests of others (Philippians 2). God himself provides the model for this kind of love, which we are called to emulate.

Other gods coerce. The God of the Bible loves.

In response, the neo-Reformed argue that love and coercion are not necessarily incompatible. Some, including Mark Driscoll, have offered the following hypothetical scenario (or in Driscoll’s case, not so hypothetical) to make their point: “If your child ran into oncoming traffic, would you just stand there and watch because you don’t believe in coercive love?”

The answer is, of course, no. But the analogy doesn’t really work. According to the Bible, God is the father of all who live. So how could an all-powerful God run into the street after some of his children but not others? What kind of God is that?

Besides, God has already gone to the greatest lengths possible to save all who will have him — incarnating himself, managing to contain uncontainable deity in a human form, and then dying at the hands of those he could’ve easily crushed.

The bottom line: if you believe, as I now do, that love and coercion are fundamentally incompatible, then it becomes impossible to maintain a Calvinist view of predestination.

And not because free will is so important. The truth is, we’re not nearly as free as we like to think. All sorts of external factors — where we were born, what kind of environment we grew up in, etc. — limit our freedom in a thousand different ways.

Then again, this isn’t really about free will.

It’s about God. It’s about what kind of God we believe in.

If we agree with the apostle John that “God is love,” and if we believe the same rules of love apply to him (because God made them in the first place), then it’s impossible to conceive of God determining that a select few would be saved — willing or not — while the rest are predestined to eternal damnation.

God cannot make you love him, as Rob Bell once said, because love by its very nature doesn’t force itself on the unwilling.

Part 9 (the final part) of this series can be found here.

Dust bunnies and divine sovereignty: a response to John Piper

In the above vide, John Piper, a respected neo-Reformed pastor and author, fields the following question:

Has God predetermined every tiny detail in the universe, such as dust particles in the air?

In response, let’s be clear: the choice we have to make here is not between a God who’s sovereign and one who isn’t, even though some (not all) Calvinists try to frame it this way.

The real question is, “How does a sovereign God exercise his power?” Does he use it to determine in advance absolutely everything that will happen, down to the tiniest detail? Or does he superintend history without having to micromanage it — guiding all things to their eventual fulfillment but leaving room to for us contribute meaningfully?

Piper goes for option A.

Does God predetermine absolutely everything? Yes.

Including dust motes? Yup.

But there’s more. “There’s a great quote from Spurgeon about dust motes.”

Ah, yes. The neo-Calvinist reading list, roughly in order of importance:

  • Charles Spurgeon, collected works of
  • Westminster Confession of Faith, the
  • Romans 9

Back to the video. After a brief aside about the dust bunnies in his bedroom, Piper shares the relevant quote from Spurgeon: “Every one of those [dust motes] is keeping its position and moving through the air by God’s appointment.”

He then follows up with a loosely paraphrased Bible verse: “ ‘The dice are thrown in the lap, and every decision is from the Lord.”

That’s Proverbs 16:33, by the way, which Piper reads as an absolute statement.

The problem is, proverbs are short, pithy sayings that express general truths. Building exhaustive theology from them is dangerous at best. If you do so, be prepared to explain why some kids reject their Christian upbringing (despite Proverbs 22:6) and why not all monarchs are benevolent (despite Proverbs 16:10,12).

Proverbs 16:33 is one of a number of sayings that basically urge humility before God when making plans. It’s not a treatise on the nature of divine sovereignty. To make it one is, well, to misuse the Bible.

Moving on…

Yes, every horrible thing and every sinful thing is ultimately governed by God. And that’s a problem.

Indeed it is a problem. This is where the neo-Calvinist theology runs into trouble. Because this sounds a lot like saying God is the author of sin.

To be fair, this is something they vigorously deny. For example, R.C. Sproul insists, “This is not the Reformed view . . . but a gross and inexcusable caricature.”

Except that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that God “governs” every evil thing — when by govern you mean “with absolute, meticulous control over every detail” — and NOT end up making God the author of evil. This, by the way,  borders on blasphemy—attributing evil to God.

Which might explain why, to their credit, neo-Calvinist theologians are so eager to avoid calling God the author of sin. But I believe they’re pressing a semantic and ultimately artificial distinction.

Back to Piper. He presses his argument by citing a single case of divine intervention, concluding from it that God is meticulously sovereign over all of history:

When you go to Acts 4:27-28 and you read that Herod and Pontius Pilate and the Gentiles and the Jews were all gathered together [for] the killing of Jesus, you have God’s plan and God’s hand determining the most horrible sin ever committed.

I don’t know any professing Christian who would dispute that God ordained his own sacrifice for the rescue and restoration of the world. One of the relatively few things Piper and I would agree on is that God worked in and through history to bring about the death and resurrection of Jesus for our redemption. But there are two things worth noting.

First, Piper reads more into Acts 4 than what seems to be there. Here’s the passage in question:

Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.

In other words, yes: God predestined that Jesus would die. See that phrase “decided beforehand”? That’s the same Greek verb used in the hot-button “predestination” passages, Ephesians 1 and Romans 8.

But according to this text, God predestined the what. Acts 4 says nothing about predestining the who. “They did what [Greek, hosa] your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” It does not say, “They were the ones God decided beforehand should kill Jesus.”

Second (and more importantly), it’s quite a leap to go from saying God orchestrated the most important event in history to saying that he likewise orchestrates every mundane detail—for example, what I had for breakfast this morning.

The Bible frequently speaks of God as our Father, so a look at our own experience of parenting might be useful here. Naturally, I take an active role in any number of potentially life-altering decisions affecting my daughter. Where she’ll go to school, for example. But that doesn’t mean I intend to be equally interventionist about every little thing she does. That wouldn’t be good for her, and it would border on neurotic for me.

Continuing with Piper’s video…

“I pray that when you contemplate believing in a sovereign God who governs the dust motes, the waves — including tsunamis . . .”

Let’s stop there for a minute. Just to be absolutely clear, John Piper believes God orchestrated the South Asian tsunami to kill a quarter-million people in 2004.

God ordered the Haiti earthquake to orphan thousands of children.

(According to Piper, God also dispatched a tornado to Minneapolis in 2009 to indicate his disapproval of a bunch of liberal Lutherans.)

“These things have driven people mad.”

Indeed they have.

“But it won’t drive you mad, if you say, ‘He loves me..’ ”

Except that according to neo-Calvinist theology, God only loves you (loves you enough to save you, that is) if you’re one of a tiny number of preselected individuals, a.k.a. “the elect.”

However, I do agree with something Piper says near the end of the video:

“People get very arrogant with these kinds of doctrines. They can use them to club people. But if you stay with the cross, you won’t.”

I know this to be true, because I used to be a Calvinist, and I could be quite arrogant in my theology. I believe there’s something inherent to this theology that encourages a particular kind of arrogance, but it is by no means exclusive to any one theological perspective. Piper’s caution is one all of us should take to heart.

The cross was the most humiliating experience in human history. It’s one that we’re called to reenact in our own lives every day. Calvinist or not, if we heed Piper’s advice and “stay with the cross,” it ought to keep us humble.

And that would be a good thing, for everyone involved.

The day the tulip died, part 2

My adventures with Calvinism started in college. Which was a bit odd, considering my alma mater was founded by Methodists and attended by a large number of Wesleyans and Mennonites. Not exactly fertile ground for high Calvinism.

But one class in particular, Historic Christian Belief, stood out for at least two reasons: (1) the professor looked an awful lot like Gilbert Gottfried, and (2) it was my first serious foray into Reformed theology.

The professor in question was a moderate Calvinist — not someone who would probably identify with the neo-Reformed camp (see my last post). But he introduced us to the concept of predestination, and I was convinced.

At the end of the day, it’s just hard to get around passages like this . . .

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world. . . . In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will. . . . In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. (Ephesians 1:4-5,11)

. . . not to mention Paul’s extended treatise on predestination in Romans 9.

Around the same time, I read Desiring God, the book that put John Piper on the map. In it, he argues along the lines of Jonathan Edwards, that God’s chief passion is for his own glory. In other words, God does not love us for our sake or for love’s sake. He loves us for nothing more (or less) than his own glory’s sake.

Think about that for a minute. Piper’s logic has one particularly sobering implication. If there was something other than love that maximized God’s glory, he would embody that instead. Love is not intrinsic to God’s character; it is a means to an end.

That part bothered me, even back then. But one of Calvinism’s strengths is that it offers a comprehensive, self-contained system of belief. If you don’t like a lot of loose ends in your theology, then Calvinism has much to commend itself to you. My college friends will tell you I was not one for ambiguity in my beliefs, so Calvinism had a lot of appeal for me, despite any initial reservations.

Part 3 of this series can be found here.

The day the tulip died, part 1

Over on the Jesus Creed blog, Scot McKnight is running a series about his personal experience with Calvinism. I can relate to his story, and I’m willing to bet $10,000 of Mitt Romney’s money that I’m not the only one.

Calvinism is enjoying a resurgence, especially among younger (and predominantly white) evangelicals. But these are not your grandmother’s Calvinists. They’re part of a theological movement sometimes described as “neo-Reformed.”

They read books by John Piper and listen to sermons by Mark Driscoll. They belong to groups like The Gospel Coalition and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

  • The neo-Reformed often equate the gospel with the “doctrines of grace” (another name for the five points of Calvinism, a.k.a. TULIP).
  • They hold a relatively narrow view of evangelicalism, regarding non-Calvinists with a mixture of suspicion and pity (and sometimes outright disdain).
  • They relish any doctrine widely considered difficult to swallow. Limited atonement, double predestination . . . this is the red meat that, in their view, separates the men from the boys. (And yes, theirs is by and large a man’s world.)

I used to be one of the neo-Reformed. Until 2003 or so, I was a committed Calvinist. Each of the three statements above described me perfectly.

I studied at a Calvinist-leaning seminary. I wrote a 130-page thesis arguing that long before the foundations of the world, God in his absolute, meticulous sovereignty had determined every detail of human history. I attended a neo-Reformed church where predestination was the theme of almost every sermon, no matter what the text.

Eventually, I got out — because I grew to realize that Calvinism was killing my faith in a loving God.

Recently a good friend suggested I write about “why I am not a Calvinist (but used to be).” I’ve been putting it off for a while, but reading Scot’s story has encouraged me to tell my own. So… here we go.

Part 2 of this series can be found here.