Monday, December 26, 2005

False expectations

Over the years I’ve read five books by Christians who suffered a family tragedy: Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolsterstorff; Sometimes Mountains Move, by C. Everett Koop and his wife; In God’s Waiting Room, by Lehman Strauss; A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis, and Where is God? by John Feinberg.

Feinberg is a Christian philosopher and theologian. He’s the son of Charles Lee Feinberg, the Messianic Jewish Bible scholar.

Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher with a Dutch-Reformed background.

Koop is a Presbyterian layman who was converted under the ministry of James Montgomery Boice.

Lewis is, of course, the Oxford Don, Christian apologist, and Anglican layman.

Strauss is a Bible teacher and fundamentalist.

Both Koop and Wolterstorff lost sons to mountain climbing accidents. Lewis lost his wife to cancer. Feinberg’s wife was stricken with Huntington’s disease, a degenerative and terminal neurological disorder. Strauss’s wife suffered a massive stroke shortly after their golden anniversary.

Of the five men, four underwent a crisis of faith brought on by their bruising experience. Strauss was the only one whose faith was not shaken by the ordeal.

This, of itself, is interesting. After all, Feinberg, Lewis, and Wolsterstorff are men of considerable theological sophistication.

You can see how personal tragedy would trigger overwhelming sorrow—and even anger. But why would that cause them to doubt their faith?

Feinberg distinguishes between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. Having the right answers doesn’t make you feel any better.

This is a valid distinction up to a point, and it’s a vital distinction in pastoral theology, when ministering to the grief-stricken.

But it’s also a little too facile, for as you read their accounts, there is also an intellectual problem that aggravated the grieving process and precipitated a crisis of faith. They were not merely devastated by the experience—they were disillusioned.

In the case of Koop and Wolterstorff, they couldn’t understand why God would allow this to happen.

Now, in context, this doesn’t seem to require any special explanation. Mountain-climbing is a high-risk behavior. That, indeed, is part of the appeal. The element of danger. Tempting fate. Holding your life in your hands.

A better question to ask is, why wouldn’t God allow it? If you take an unnecessary, calculated risk, you may lose. It’s as simple as that. It’s not that simple emotionally, but it is that simple intellectually.

You may say I’m missing the point. When a person is in a state of in mourning, he isn’t going to think straight. He’s overcome by emotion.

Yes, I understand that. But these books are written in retrospect. Yet while they were able to work themselves back to a state of faith, they never seemed to work their way through the intellectual problem. Or, to put it another way, they never seemed to recognize that there was no intellectual problem which cried out for an answer. If you indulge in high-risk behavior, you put yourself at risk. What’s there to explain?

Likewise, Lewis knew that his fiancé had cancer when he married her. So why would Lewis act like he was caught off guard when she died? Sure, the separation would be emotionally wrenching. But why would that be a reason to question the providence of God? It’s hardly surprising that a cancer patient would die of cancer. Once again, what’s there to explain?

In the case of Feinberg, he felt for a long time that God had deceived him. God led him and his wife into believing that it was his will for them to get married.

After she was diagnosed, he felt that God has tricked him. He was angry and confused.

He finally came around to the view that God had willed them to marry so that he could care for her.

But the unspoken assumption is the assumption that you can know God’s will for your life on such topical matters as whether you chose to marry the right spouse.

What all these things have in common is a false expectation: an expectation that God would intervene to prevent some event which he never promised to prevent in his Word.

God never promised that if you or a loved one engages in a hazardous recreational activity, your faith will confer immunity from mortal injury.

God never promised that if you knowingly marry a person with a life-threatening illness, he or she won’t succumb.

And God never promised that if you pray about who you’re “supposed” to marry, you will receive a divine sign of his approval or disapproval. Why assume that there’s just one right person for you? If Scripture is silent on many detailed questions, why not conclude that there may be more than one morally licit option?

Some readers may feel that I’m being censorious or judgmental. But these are questions which the writers themselves are raising. They are questioning God out of a tacit assumption that what happened was somehow inconsistent with the providence of God.

And it’s that false expectation which is aggravating their grief as well as triggering a lapse of faith.

There is a link between thinking and feeling. The link is indirect. There is often a lag factor or delayed effect. And the two never coincide.

But thinking influences feeling, and feeling influences feeling. For example, both Wolterstorff and, to a lesser extent, Feinberg have readjusted their theology to their false expectation by moving away from classical Christian theism and closer to process theism. Feeling drove their thinking. Instead of questioning their expectations, they question their God, and bend their belief in God to conform to their prior expectations.

A sandy foundation is easier on the sole, but a rocky foundation is easier on the soul. A barefoot faith is tougher than a padded faith.

Contrast their reaction with the reverent resignation of Lehman Strauss. Now perhaps the difference is due to his spiritual maturity. He was a seasoned believer at the time his wife suffered a stroke.

Or perhaps it’s because we expect old folks to suffer a stroke or heart attack. And so, even though that is emotionally shocking, it isn’t intellectually or spiritually shocking. The emotional trauma isn’t magnified by a sense of divine betrayal.

It is important to get your theology on track before disaster strikes. It won’t spare you heartache. But it will spare you gratuitous heartache, and it will hasten the healing process.

Nothing can prepare you for the emotional kick in the groin that comes of losing someone close to you or watching a loved one disintegrate.

But it is much harder to take if, at the same time, your expectations are dashed--for when the props are knocked out from under you, you have nothing left to catch your fall Wishful-thinking is no match for the worst that life has to throw our way.

Indeed, a false expectation is a form of false assurance. It sets you up for the fall.

One problem many Western believers have is that we’re cage-fat. We have a sense of entitlement. Two-hundred years ago, death and suffering were to be expected. There were no painkillers or anesthetics. When you got sick, you stayed sick, or got worse. In your weakened condition, other opportunistic diseases moved in. There were no antibiotics or miracle drugs. Many mothers died in labor. Infant morality was astronomical. Most men and women, boys and girls were nursed at home and died at home. You were likely to die at any age—whether young or old.

Death was conspicuous and ubiquitous. Suffering was omnipresent. Sorrow was a way of life.

It’s not that I’d like to turn back the clock. But we need to guard against taking our blessings for granted. To remind ourselves that we are all living on borrowed time, drawn on the good credit of God’s mercy in Christ.


  1. That's a good post, Steve. I'm reminded of people like David Brainerd and Robert McCheyne, who died so young, but accomplished so much. We have a lot to be grateful for, and we should be careful not to waste time.

    The primary issue is to love God above every other love. Since you know that you always have Him, any loss in a lesser relationship, however significant, can only be secondary. We should so love Christ that we would never want to dishonor Him by accusing Him of error (Job 1:21, 2:10).

  2. Excellent post, and a point of view that needs to be preached more often and just as directly as you have written it here.

    Keep it up-- the fights with iMonk, etc. are a waste of your talents.

  3. Steve,

    you wrote,

    " For example, both Wolterstorff and, to a lesser extent, Feinberg have readjusted their theology to their false expectation by moving away from classical Christian theism and closer to process theism"

    Can you explain what you mean by process theism? Do you mean that Woltersotrff and Feinberg now do not view God's sovereignty as in the reformed sense?


  4. Although Wolterstorff was raised and educated in the Dutch-Reformed tradition, I don’t know if he was ever a Calvinist. But he used to hold to a traditional view of God.

    But due to the death of his son, he now believes that God is a suffering God. He has expressed this belief book in Lament for a Son as well as the following interview:

    "Does God Suffer? Interview with Nicholas P. Wolterstorff” in Modern Reformation (Sept/Oct 1999) Vol. 8 No. 5.

    This is becoming a very popular view. In his book on Where is God? Feinberg talks about how much we “hurt” God when he disobey him (p63).

    If you think about it, the idea of a God whose emotional life is at the mercy of his sinful creatures is a dangerous, unstable God. It would give us tremendous power over God.

    For a good discussion of this issue, cf.

    Feinberg also believes that God exists in time, and Feinberg draws certain conclusions from this which limit God’s knowledge.

    In his book, No One Like Him, Feinberg says the following:

    “It also poses a challenge to temporal eternity and omniscience, for if God is in time, there seems to be things he does not know, since at every moment he learns the truth of a new indexical proposition” (p269; cf. 273).

    “Given God’s intelligence, there is no reason to think the decision about which world to create took him very long…As already stated, divine omniscience means, among other things, that God only knows what can be known. Until God decided to create and choose to actualize a particular possible world, there was nothing to know about whether and what he would creation. Does this mean that once God made the decision, he came to know something he hadn’t known before? Yes…until he decided to create a world and which one to create, he could not know whether he would create, and if he would, which possible world he would create” (313-314).

    “Is God always consciously aware of everything he knows, or could God know something without it being immediately before his mind?…with temporal eternity, this notion that not everything is always consciously before God’s mind would help to explain why the present (which God experiences moment by moment) has greater immediacy before God than does the past or future” (317,319).

    This is all contrary to the traditional Reformed position, according to which God’s “knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain” (WCF 2:2).

    It is striking that a man who is chairman of the theology dept. of what is arguably the world’s premier evangelical seminary (TEDS) has such a compromised view of divine omniscience and aseity.

  5. Hi Steve,

    thanks for the detailed post. This has given me something to think about, the doctrine of impassibility.

    I picked up Feinberg's Deceived By God? book last night. In that book he certainly revealed it was his assumption that God would fuifill his expectation in his life, which he refers to flawed inferential assumption. (that God would give him a healthy wife to fulfill the calling of his Christian ministry). In the end, he came to realise his expectation was wrong, and God never promise all of that. Nothing in that book indicated that he has shifted his position in view of God's limited omnicience. What you quoted must be from his later writings then.

    In contrast, a number of saints who have gone through suffering, while being strongly affected by the experience, yet but their theological view remained the same, I can recall Benjamin Warfield (bedridden wife), John Calvin (lost of children and wife, and constantly suffered from all sorts of illness), John Owen, who lost about 10 of his children. Sproul Jnr. as well, have a similiar experience, and he has autistic children. In one of the tabletalk magazine articles, he wrote about how he look towards the day of Christ's coming and seeing the restoration and the healing of suffering that his family had experienced.

    Thanks for the interaction.

  6. "Deceived by God" was published in 1997, "No One Like Him" was published in 2001, while "Where is God," which appears to be an updated version of "Deceived by God" was published in 2004.

  7. In his contribution to "Predestination & Evil" (1986), Feinberg opposes Pinnock's denial of divine foreknowledge and omniscience.

    But in "No One Like Him," Feinberg denies that God foreknows his own choices before he makes them, and denies that God is consciously aware of everything he knows. Either this is inconsistent, or marks a shift in outlook. The earlier book was published a year before the diagnosis of his wife's condition.

  8. This is an excellent post. I will be linking it in a future post.

  9. Great post. We so often want (or demand or expect) the world on our own terms, due in no small part to our engulfment in the tide of oil-like sin in which we are internally and externally surrounded. I think throughout the bible God is showing us that suffering is part of the human existance. Through suffering we are offered the opportunity to learn and experience the true meaning of hope and faith in Christ.