Theology in 3D

Where Were You?

Layton Talbert | September 11, 2018

That has become a perennial question on September 11. But I also remember where I was the day after: standing in front of my brand new NT Theology class, with an unexpected opportunity to teach them that everything in life — everything — is ultimately theological.

Twenty years earlier, I’d stood in awe atop the World Trade Center. While I was there, I picked up a brochure with a picture very like the one above. The caption is wry and sadly accurate: “The closest some of us will ever get to heaven.” It was. ‘Think ye that those New Yorkers were sinners more than all others? No, but I say to you that unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’ — not in the same catastrophic circumstances, but just as certainly and just as finally.

Let’s try to think God’s thoughts after him. Obviously the Bible makes no direct statements about that specific event on that particular day. But it does make statements that are utterly irrelevant if we are not meant to apply them to similar kinds of actual events in our experience. (For an excellent book-length exploration of that thesis, see fellow-blogger Ken Casillas’s Beyond Chapter and Verse: The Theology and Practice of Biblical Application, Wipf & Stock, 2018.)

Did God “do” what happened in New York City seventeen years ago today? The Bible’s answer is unambiguous: yes (Amos 3:6). Granted, the Bible goes on to parse that a bit more carefully so that we don’t get the wrong idea about God. Was God the one who initiated or incited the terrorist acts that day? Never. He does not tempt or prod men to sin. He doesn’t need to. Humans need no help devising and deploying evil (James 1:13-15). Sometimes all God has to do is step out of the way and desist foiling the evil that would otherwise claw its way out of the human heart (Mark 7:21-23).

Yet because God is sovereign (Psa 115:3) and because he is providentially in control (Psa 135:5-6), he is ultimately responsible. He says so (Job 2:3). You need look no further than Calvary for proof that God reigns even when evil and chaos seem to rule (Acts 4:26-28). God was just as sovereignly in control on 9/11/01 as he was on 4/19/85. That was the morning two retired missionaries to Africa decided to pop down to the social security office on a routine errand. Location? First floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. They were my wife’s uncle and aunt.

Or on 01/08/56. That’s when five young dedicated missionaries stood with their wives and small children singing “We Rest on Thee” before the men climbed aboard a small plane, landed on a tiny sliver of beach along the Curaray River in Ecuador, and were attacked and murdered by the tribe they came to evangelize.

Because God is not only sovereign but also good (Psa 100:5Psa 119:68) and righteous (Jer 9:24), he is good and right in all that he does or allows. Even when it doesn’t look good or right to us. It is at that point that two roads diverge — not in a yellow wood, but in our hearts. One road is named “By Sight Not Faith” and the other “By Faith Not Sight.” One leads us to react to our circumstances based on the tiny sliver of infinite reality that we can see through the keyhole of our very finite experience. The other road leads to reactions that are grounded and governed by what God says is so, regardless of what it might look like. Life in a sin-full world filled with rebels against God is rife with hard and harsh realities (Job 2:10). Even without a Bible, Job got on the right road (at least initially).

God providentially employs the freely chosen acts of wicked men to accomplish more purposes than we can shake a stick at (to quote my parents), and more than we could discover even if we knew everywhere to look (Rom 11:33-36). And, yes, sometimes those purposes include judgment and warning to a nation of people who increasingly clamor to be allowed to do as they please without consequence or accountability (Psa 2:1-3).

Besides that brochure I mentioned, I have one other memento from that day-after in my NT Theology class. It’s a photocopy of a daily Scripture calendar from 2001. The Bible passage for September 11 was Zephaniah 1:15. Beneath is a quote from Philip Yancey which reads, in part,

God freely admits he is holding back his power, but he restrains himself for our benefit. For all scoffers who call for direct action from the heavens, the prophets have ominous advice: Just wait.

Like the tower that fell in Siloam (Luke 13:4-5), the towers that fell in New York — whatever else they may signify — are a gracious yearly reminder of our mortality and future reckoning, a devastatingly merciful divine jolt to get our attention.

Photo from Pixabay

4 responses to “Where Were You?”

  1. Colleen says:

    God’s sovereignty–our curious comfort. In faith we rejoice that His reign over all circumstances will prove good. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?”

  2. Jared Garcia says:

    I just had a conversation about God’s sovereignty recently. The discussion was on the difficulty of wrestling with God’s sovereignty and yet being careful not to make God the instigator of sin and evil. I mentioned that in the story of Joseph, what the sons of Jacob meant for evil, God meant for good. Then at Calvary, Jesus was killed by the hands of lawless men…according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). The passage you cited in Acts 4 makes it even clearer…the evil men did what God planned to take place. :O Even through the wicked acts of man, God is orchestrating something good.

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