What comes into your mind when you hear the phrase, ‘an act of God’? If you’re in the legal world or the insurance business, then you’ll know ‘an act of God’ is defined as an act of nature that could not have been avoided. Examples of such acts include floods, lightning storms, hail, tornadoes or earthquakes. Now, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility – certainly within the scope of stories of the Bible – that such natural occurrences sometimes are acts of God. After all, the very first flood to affect the earth took place at God’s behest; you can read about it in Genesis 6-9. But what strikes me about all those examples are that they are ultimately destructive: acts of God, as far as the legal and insurance industries are concerned, are events that damage lives and destroy property. There is nothing in the definition that is hopeful, positive, redemptive. And yet the Bible is full of ‘acts of God’ that are hopeful, positive and redemptive – the creation and the incarnation being perhaps the two best examples.
Back to the insurance world for a second. The damage that occurs after floods, storms and earthquakes is well documented in our digital age through camera lenses and social media posts and, so often, people who don’t believe in God are quick to blame Him for all this destruction and disaster. It’s one of the most common objections to the Christian faith communicated across tables at Alpha Courses around the world or in face-to-face conversations amongst intimate friends: if there is a God then why do so many bad things happen in our world? (Theologians have a special word for this: theodicy.) So how do we see God? And how do we see Him ‘acting’ in our world (which is really His world, seeing as He made it)? AW Tozer famously wrote that ‘what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.’ So when we think about God and what God is doing in our world, do we simply see Him as a destructive force? A judgmental and angry sovereign disappointed with everyone and everything he sees? That may well be some people’s mindset (whether realised or not). But it’s a far cry from the realities of the Bible.
Let me give you an example. While reading through the Book of Acts yet again as we go through our Adventures in Acts series at All Nations Church, I came across one of my favourite and I think one of the funniest stories in the Bible. It’s the story of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra and the first part of their adventures in that city are told in Acts 14:8-18. It’s an exciting story. While Paul is preaching he sees a man who has been crippled from birth; Paul calls out to the man to stand up and the man is healed. From there, to me at least, the story takes a humorous turn. The response of the crowd is not to turn to the Lord in repentance but to worship Paul and Barnabas as incarnations of the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes. Imagine how that would look on social media today. In their desperate attempts to stop this act of misplaced religious fervour, the apostles say to the crowd:
Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good - giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy. Acts 14:15-17
The focus of our Adventures in Acts series is how the Holy Spirit inspires us for mission. It all stems from the wonderful promises the Lord Jesus made after his resurrection and before his ascension recorded for us by Luke in Acts 1. Jesus tells the disciples:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Acts 1:8
Jesus here speaks of his disciples being witnesses. Paul and Barnabas spoke about God being a witness, too. What did they say?
He has not left himself without a witness in doing good - giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy. Acts 14:17
God has not left Himself without a witness in this world. And here the apostles are not referring to the lives and testimonies of God’s own people but to God’s own action in the world throughout history. So what is God doing to show mankind that He is there?
First, He is doing good. He has not left himself without a witness in doing good. If we were to truly and biblically define an act of God, we would have to begin here. God is good and He does good, to paraphrase Psalm 119:68. Peter had told Cornelius that Jesus went around ‘doing good and healing all who were oppressed of the devil’ (Acts 10:38). He went around doing good because, as the Son of God, He was the perfect representation of God the Father, who likewise does good. So how does God do good? Paul and Barnabas say God sends rain from heaven, allows fruitful seasons, provides us with food and fills our hearts with joy. And remember, Paul and Barnabas say this to a pagan crowd, not a Christian congregation. All over the world today, God is doing good to people by sending rain, providing food and allowing them happiness of heart. Too often mankind blames God for the bad things in our world (which are actually the result of Satan’s rebellion and Adam’s fall) instead of thanking Him for the good things.
Right now, as I write this, it’s a sunny day in Cardiff. Earlier on I got the opportunity to run around our local park and in a little while I will walk up the road and collect my children from school. Today we have had food on our table and there’s enough food for us to eat tonight and again tomorrow. The rain that will no doubt fall sometime soon (I live in Wales, after all) is equally a sign of God’s goodness, another act of His kindness and mercy towards mankind. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that we were to be perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect. Jesus said:
He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteousness. Matthew 5:45
God is good, all the time. And He is good to everyone. So next time we hear the phrase ‘an act of God’, let’s think of the joy in our hearts and food on our table before anything else.