Orlando Saer. Big God: How to Approach Suffering, Spread the Gospel, Make Decisions, and Pray in the Light of a God Who Really Is in the Driving Seat of the World. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2014. 141 pp. $10.50.
How big is your God? Is he big enough to handle epidemics of disease in Africa and cries of injustice in Missouri at the same time? Is he in full control of trials and tragedies, or does he merely permit them? If God governs every molecule in the universe, then why aren’t your prayers always answered?
Orlando Saer, pastor of Christ Church Southampton in England, fears that such questions cause God to “shrink” in our minds. The shift is often subconscious. Confronted with the painful realities of life in a fallen world and the mysteries of how free will intersects with divine power, we subtly adjust our understanding of God himself. Maybe God only intervenes in unusual situations, we think. Perhaps he’s renounced his control of the world and leaves most things up to human decision.
In Big God: How to Approach Suffering, Spread the Gospel, Make Decisions, and Pray in the Light of a God Who Really Is in the Driving Seat of the World, Saer tears off this “shrunken God” thinking and showcases the God of the Bible as the God who truly is in control—of everything. Saer aims in this brief volume not just to prove that God’s full authority over the universe is scriptural; he takes it one step further and demonstrates that God’s powerful leadership is good. When challenged by life’s thorniest questions, we shouldn’t reduce God but rather run to him for the comfort and hope we need.
Guide for the Perplexed
The doctrine of providence—God’s control over and interaction with the affairs of his world, including human decisions—can feel bewildering especially to those studying it for the first time. The most eager Christian student may find her head spinning as she shuffles through a crowded room of intimidating “-isms,” baffled by jargon with six syllables. What’s worse, the questions raised by this doctrine can be unsettling: Is cancer really God’s will for my life? Why does God command us to evangelize if he will certainly save his elect?
The first strength of Big God is that Saer manages to address these hard questions with fresh, accessible language without sacrificing depth of content. Take the topic of God’s will, for instance. Scripture often speaks about God’s will in terms of what he desires from his people: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess. 4:3), and so on. Saer terms this God’s “ideal-will.” It reflects his standards for us. Yet the Bible also indicates that the Lord has a more ultimate “will” for the way things will turn out, which Saer calls God’s “plan-will.” This will can’t be thwarted. It includes how God accomplishes ultimate good through evil human actions (Gen. 50:20) and wields wicked powers to accomplish his purposes, as in the exile of Israel (Isa. 10:5ff) and, most supremely, in the death of Christ (Acts 4:27–28). Any faithful doctrine of God must integrate these two biblical streams of understanding God’s will—and Saer does so masterfully, with engaging case studies and a plethora of scriptural examples.
Of course, Saer’s discussion of these matters is entry-level. He doesn’t put on his boxing gloves and engage in scholarly debate. This approach may be disappointing to some readers, but it’s precisely what makes Big God so helpful: he articulates the classic Reformed position on God’s sovereignty without using in-the-know terms like “Reformed.” His fresh language and insistence on letting Scripture do the talking render his contribution to discussions of God’s will and human freedom all the more valuable.1
Theology and Real Life
The second aspect that should commend this book to readers is the way Saer relates the doctrine of providence to life on the ground as a follower of Jesus. C. S. Lewis once observed that he found doctrinal books more devotionally rich than so-called devotional ones. Big God, though introductory-level, confirms this insight. Wrestling with the intersection of God’s will and human freedom may stretch the muscles, but it stretches them so they can lift the weights of real life in a fallen world while joyfully trusting a sovereign God.
Much of the second half of the book unpacks its central claim: “God works out his good and wise plans in and through normal human thought processes and behavior. The fact that God plans and works doesn’t mean we don’t have to. It means quite the opposite” (54–55). Saer applies this assertion to evangelism, prayer, and decision-making, with fruitful results. Our choices and actions are real, and they matter—so much so that God ordains to use them for his eternal purposes.
Perhaps the most useful—and challenging—application Saer identifies comes in the third chapter, “Unshrinking God in Suffering.” While it can seem convenient to think the existence of pain and sin must mean that God has in some way surrendered his control over the universe, Scripture does not let us do so. The sovereign Lord is ultimately responsible for both “well-being” and “calamity” (Isa. 45:7), though he “neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.”
How does this discussion comfort the hurting child of God? Saer wisely reminds us that Scripture tutors us not only in God’s power and control, but also in his revealed purposes for suffering. We may not know, this side of eternity, why the Lord ordains each particular trial. But we can rest assured that he uses suffering to purify his children, to wake up a world in danger of judgment, and ultimately to win honor for Christ. In suffering, we turn not to a feeble deity hiding behind the curtains, embarrassed of how his image-bearers have let him down. We turn to the Author of history, infinitely wise, who says: “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isa. 46:10). This God is powerful enough to console us in the valley of the shadow of death.
Saer is right. It may be challenging to fit the “big” God of Scripture into our preconceived human boxes. But he is the God who is there. He is the God whose Son tasted unfathomable pain in our place, so that our suffering will have a certain end.
This Big God is our only hope.
1 For what it’s worth, here are a couple of suggestions for those who want to learn the bigger theological words and grapple with some of the arguments that Saer only covers briefly: John Piper’s essay, “Are There Two Wills in God?” and John Frame’s chapter on “Human Responsibility and Freedom” in The Doctrine of God, pp. 119–159.