August 27, 2015

Did God “want” Jordy Nelson to get injured?

by Jesse Johnson

God wanted him to be a Lobo.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the NFL theological conundrum: if prayer works, and two opposing teams pray for victory, who will win?

Here is a variation of the question: In a game against the Steelers, Green Bay Packer’s receiver Jordy Nelson tore his ACL. After the game he made headlines when he told a reporter that in a regular season game he would have just rubbed dirt on it, but since it was pre-season he left the game, and now is likely out for much of the season.

Enter the theological dilemma: Green Bay’s division rivals, the Detroit Lions, have a safety who unsafely commented on Nelson’s injury. Glover Quin said that in any injury God is at work, and that all things that happen, happen for a reason.  

With that statement Quin basically captured a form of broad American sentiment about God. “All things happen for a reason” is practically Hallmark Card theology, in that it is pithy and widely believed. Quin even followed it with “What is meant to be will be, regardless.”

But then Quin left the palatable generalities of sympathy cards and ascribed personality to the will of God. He said, “God had meant for Jordy to be hurt.” What followed was a social media brouhaha of pre-season proportions. The gist of which was that Quin, along with any self-respecting NFL player, should never say God wanted anything bad to happen to anyone ever.

So here is the new NFL Theological Dilemma: does the Bible teach that if someone gets hurt, God wanted it to happen?

Well, certainly pain is providential, and some pain more providential than others. God created a world where there is such common grace as sports, and part of sports is the reality of injuries.  Sports provide the opportunity for people to test the limits of their physical abilities, and to do things with their bodies that others cannot do. Torn ACLs are inherent to that.

God does not need to have anything more specific in mind with a player’s injury other than the reality that sports often hurt people, and that is an element of what makes them fun to watch and challenging to play.

In other words, people have limits, sports push those limits, and thus people get hurt.

But let’s leave the grid-iron for a moment, and ask the question this way: if physical pain comes to someone in the world, is it right to say God “wanted” it to happen?

God (in a sense) didn’t want anyone to get hurt, ever.

The world was made perfect, and the garden was a place of paradise. God specifically forbid Adam and Eve from eating the fruit that would lead to death. Sin was forced to enter the world not through God’s invitation or God’s revealed will, but rather it had to force its way in through one man’s disobedience.

It is impossible to say God “wanted” something that he specifically forbid.

God (in a sense) allowed hurt to enter the world through sin

Nevertheless, God didn’t stop the devil in the garden. He didn’t intervene before Adam and Eve sinned. He let it play out. He could have stopped it, but he didn’t. In that sense, all pain and suffering come from Adam’s sin, but through God’s permission.

At this point it is helpful to distinguish between “want” and “permit.” This may sound like simply semantics, but they are important semantics. God forbid Adam from sinning, so you can’t say he “wanted” it to happen. But God allowed Adam to sin, so you have to say that at the very least he permitted it.

This tension is not only true for Satan and Adam, but for all pain at all times. Some pain is caused by sin, which God specifically forbids, but then allows anyway. God is never to blame, as he said “don’t do it,” but God is always sovereign, and it always happens on his watch.

God always wants something greater than pain

So how do these two truths mix? Why would God allow Satan into the garden after he had already told Adam and Eve not to sin?

Because God was going to use their sin for something greater. God was going to crush Satan through a child of the now sinful Adam. He was going to bring Jesus into the world to provide forgiveness for sinners, and this forgiveness glorifies God more than a world without pain.

In other words, God wants something greater than pain.

Sometimes he uses pain to point us to our own limitations, and to remind us of our own mortality. Sometimes it alerts us to danger. Sometimes it is the result of sin. Often it is simply the result of living in a fallen world, where sin reigns, but where Jesus saves.

Oh yeah, God is also sovereign over all things.

It is obvious from reading Quin’s full statement that he wasn’t even talking so much about theodicy but about sovereignty. God is sovereign over all things, and for a person going through pain this has to be more comforting than the alternative: God didn’t know you were going to suffer.

So would I ever tell someone, “God wanted you to get hurt”?

No, because the word “wanted” has connotations that don’t match how Scripture describes God’s attitude toward human suffering.

But would I ever tell someone who was suffering, “God didn’t want this to happen”?

Also no, because that undercuts the truth that God is doing something greater through pain than we understand. He is indeed sovereign over our suffering, and he is using to advance his glory and his good. And if given the choice between advancing the glory of the Packers or the glory of God, I choose God every time.

[Full Disclosure: Quin is a graduate of the University of New Mexico. This author is a likewise a former Lobo, and as they say, once a Lobo always a Lobo].

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Well stated. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    Great explanation. Very well done. Thank you!

  • Johnny

    “God always wants something greater than pain”… indeed, but in a sport like football, pain and injury seems to be par for the course, including concussions, chronic pain and even death. I’ve known too many guys who live with lingering pain and spend far too much time at the chiropractor due to their years of playing football. As a Christian I just can’t condone a sport in which the objective is to repeatedly crush an opponent into the ground, inducing whiplash with the strength of a car crash.

    Is “cripplegate” a veiled reference to your fascination with football?

    • Johnny–I think thou dost protest too much. One post does not a fascination make. As for the name, it comes from the gate in London where Spurgeon had his seminary students meet. And with the British connection in mind, soccer has to be the official sport of the Cripplegate. To that, I do admit a fascination.

      • Johnny

        Alright fair enough, I’m sorry. Football just bothers me because I’ve had too many friends that live with a lot of lingering pain as a result so it’s hard for me to see other believers condone this activity, so I get animated and sometimes trollish about it. My bad.

  • Mike K

    Great post, but I’ve got a question about your opening statement: if prayer works, and two opposing teams pray for victory, who will win? Just how much is God concerned or involved with day to day activities in the world, such as a football game? When one team wins, was it really God’s will for that outcome? Did they pray more, or maybe have more Christians on the team? Or did they win simply because they had better players, worked harder, or any of a hundred other reasons? Is it right for one team to thank Him for the victory or the other to blame Him for the loss? Or perhaps the losing team should be thanking Him for the loss, knowing that He was working some greater good through it, maybe a lesson in humility. Was God’s will even a factor?

    • God is at work in all things. And “all” includes sports. It also includes jobs, for which many people are employed by sports. To change your question to a high school teacher: does God really care about if he has a good year? If his classes learn? If he gets a promotion? If he passes his assesment from the principal? If he does, should he thank God? If he doesn’t, should he thank God anyway, knowing that God is working a greater good through it, perhaps his own humility? I think so.
      And yes, the winning team should thank God for making sports fun, for giving them the discipline to train well, and maintain proper perspective that for both sports and teachers, the gospel is more important. God has a will in vocation, and all vocations are noble (sans sin). And losing teams should always thank the Lord too, for fairly similar reasons as the winning team (I might add).

  • Rick
  • Bobby

    Hi Jesse,
    Your posts are always educational. Thank you.

    I know your time is precious so I’m sorry in advance for imposing upon it.
    My Wife and I would appreciate a little clarification.
    God is sovereign over all of creation. Everything that happens or that will never happen, is entirely by His authority.

    The conclusion that we draw from this is that everything happens in accordance with His purpose. From a stubbed toe to a crippling injury. Every natural event. Every happiness. Evey sadness. Everything.

    Is this correct understanding?

    Is all that will be preordained? His ends are a given, His Will is going to be accomplished absolutely. Is there any randomness though? Foreknown, under His authority and subject to His alteration but originally random? Such as “why die before your time” in Ecclesiastes?

    Thank you and I understand fully if that’s more than you want to go into here.

    • “randomness” is not a good word. When the Bible uses it, it does so in an almost funny way (1 Kings 22, for example). Better is the distinction between “providential” and “miraculous.” But either way, all things are ordained by him, and will be used for his glory. Does that help?

      • Bobby

        Yes sir, it does help. That is the confirmation I was looking for. I wanted the randomness idea laid to rest.

        Very much appreciated

  • Rick
    • Yeah, but how fun would this blog be if I just said, “all the answers are at Desiring God.com”?

  • rhutchin

    What does God want? For the unsaved, God commands “repent and believe the gospel.” For believers, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

    Why be joyful? – “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”

    Then, the believer prays continually with emphasis on continually. When bad things happen to you, recall what you asked of God. If you didn’t ask God for anything, you received everything you asked for. We live in a harsh environment where Satan prowls around looking for people to destroy, evil people are looking to do evil, and generally, sin has corrupted everything including our bodies. In that environment, we might follow the example of Paul, who asked his readers, “pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men,” “pray that you may be active in sharing your faith.” Jesus said, ““Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” This and other guidance is found throughout the Scriptures. Bottom line: Don’t take anything for granted; especially don’t take God for granted. If Adam had asked God for advice on eating the fruit, we would not be in distress now. Often our distresses reflect our failure to ask God for help.

    Still, bad things seem to happen. What then? “Praise…the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.”

    After this, one can give thanks in all things that God, in His providence, has heard and responded to our prayers.

  • “So would I ever tell someone, “God wanted you to get hurt”?

    No, because the word “wanted” has connotations that don’t match how Scripture describes God’s attitude toward human suffering.”

    Great explanation of a question that comes up so often when talking to unbelievers who use the existence of evil as an excuse for rejecting the gospel!

  • Scott Christensen

    Jesse, good post. The distinctions you are making are commonly referred to as God’s decretive will versus his preceptive will (which I am sure you are aware of). God’s decretive will is his sovereign will of decree. He determines all that happens, good and bad. However, his preceptive will refers to his will of command, his revealed precepts contained in Scripture. These are the things that he determines are good, right and true. Because God is God, he can decree by his sovereign will that which often goes against his preceptive will. This confuses people, because they assume that means God is culpable (I purposely avoid the word “responsible” because it has broader semantic implications) for the bad stuff–i.e., the sin, evil and suffering that occurs, including football injuries.

    Many of the conundrums here are resolved in one of the most amazing verses of the Bible – Genesis 50:20. Joseph’s brothers committed a great evil against their brother. They knew it, Joseph knew it, and God knew it. And yet even as they ‘determined’ this great evil so did God. The difference is–and this is a big difference–what they ‘meant’ for evil God ‘meant’ for good. In other words, culpability for evil lies in the intentions of the heart. Men always have some evil motive lurking for the evil they commit whereas God can never have evil motives for the evil he decrees. At this point I avoid using the term ‘permits.’ Arminian theology has a category called the ‘permissive’ will of God that allow for libertarian free will. Calvinists reject libertarian free will, but this does not mitigate the reality that people freely make choices–that is, they voluntarily choose in accordance with their most compelling desires/ motives and this also happens to coincide with God’s good and sovereign purpose. This view is known as compatibilism and was first carefully articulated by Jonathan Edwards in his magisterial “Freedom of the Will,”

    Okay, now time for some shameless self-promotion. I tease out many of the implications of this view in a book to be published by P&R Publications in February of 2016. It is entitled, “What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty.”

    • Yep. Thanks Scott. The two terms we use for God’s will are helpful at making this distinction as well. Thanks.

  • Rick
  • At this point it is helpful to distinguish between “want” and “permit.” This may sound like simply semantics, but they are important semantics. God forbid Adam from sinning, so you can’t say he “wanted” it to happen. But God allowed Adam to sin, so you have to say that at the very least he permitted it.

    I’m not sure if you and I ever talked about this (I think maybe once about 4 years ago :-)), but I actually don’t think “God’s permission” is a very helpful explanatory device on this kind of issue because of the connotations that Scott brings up above. The reality is that, ultimately, things happen because God has decreed that they happen. There is therefore always some sense in which God “wanted” something to happen. And since God’s decree was formulated in eternity past, before there was anything or anyone other than God to “ask permission,” I can’t quite see how it can be anything but imprecise to speak of His permitting something.

    The way I observe it, people use the language of divine permission as an imprecise designation for those things which happen as a part of God’s “decretive will” (i.e., what He actually decrees will happen, namely, whatsoever comes to pass) which are nevertheless at odds with His “preceptive will” (i.e., that which He expressly commands of His creatures). So for example, the fall of man was part of God’s decretive will in the sense that He decreed for it to happen. And yet God had explicitly delivered the precept to Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In one sense God “wanted” the fall (because He ordained it), but in other sense He didn’t (because He prescribed against it).

    People try to relieve that tension by saying He “permitted” the fall, and to signal that He doesn’t take delight in something like the fall (though it is His will) in the same way that He takes delight in obedience to His precepts (also His will). But again, that just winds up being less than precise and thus less than helpful, because who, in eternity past as God is determining His decree, is interrupting Him and asking for His permission?

    Better to say that God is working all things after the counsel of His own will, and thus speak of the different senses of God’s will. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/are-there-two-wills-in-god

    And since I don’t want to say “all the answers are at DesiringGod.com,” I’ll do a couple posts biblically arguing more for what I mean. 🙂

    • I’m with you Mike. Its true that when I use the word “permit” I mean things that would normally fall under his “secret will.” I’m totally comfortable with that language and embrace it fully.
      But what is often missed by that language is that for those who are not familiar with those terms, it sounds like we are really really really reaching if we insist on saying that God “wanted” something to happen that he in fact commanded not to happen.
      Again, inside of the paradigm of secret vs. revealed will, I get it. Or swap out the words for “perfect” vs. “permissive” will. Or his “sovereign will” vs. “revealed will.” I’m fine with all of those paradigms and think they are true and good. But at the end of the day, if you are not careful, you end up saying that God “wanted” something that he forbid.
      And yes, I do think the Piper article/sermon nails it on the head. Although he doesn’t use NFL illustrations.

      • Scott Christensen

        I have to agree with Mike and I think he stated things well. But your point is well taken because when you say God ‘wanted’ something to happen which goes against his preceptive/ revealed will of command people assume you are assigning culpability to God for evil or sin. This is why we must be patient and thorough when teaching on the subject.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    The greatest conundrum I know of, at least insofar as “God’s will vs man’s will” is this: the choice to take one’s own life. On one hand, God knows the end (of everything) from the beginning (even prior to creation). Yet He certainly doesn’t will that anyone intentionally cut short “the days that were ordained for me when as yet there were none of them”–unless we are saying that God’s will was for that person to die by his own hand. That’s a tough sell.

    There are millions of acts of man that are absolutely contrary to the expressed will of God, yet somehow He is always in control, sovereign, and works His will through it all.

    I’m sure the “Q&A” sessions during orientation week for new arrivals in heaven must be bedlam all the time. I can see a big sign that says, “If you’re just arriving, read the FAQ first; then take a number and have a seat if your question wasn’t covered. Coffee and donuts are by the picture window. You can sit in the waiting room, or wait in the sitting room. Free cable and WiFi.”

    • I don’t see the conundrum. I believe that each and every choice made of a man to take his own life succeeds nor fails apart from the fore-knowlege and allowance of God.

      We know that God alone is the author of our physical (and Spiritual) life and of our physical death, and we know that people who make the choice to end their own lives don’t necessarily succeed, no mattter the radical nature of the attempt..people have survived some pretty seemingly un-survivable situations. So we make our choices, but God directs the steps. (Pro 16:9)

      >reserves comment re: post title
      -vikings fan 🙂

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