March 26, 2016

Does God Give Preferential Treatment to Believers?

Earlier this week, I sat in a morning worship at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (the headquarters of a global faith community of about 18 million adherents) where the engaging and passionate speaker polled the audience of church leaders and administrators via their mobile devices with this question:


Intrigued by the results, I unscientifically polled some friends on Twitter. They were divided - 50/50. 

I’ve found myself unable to forget the question. One’s first thought could be a quick “No.” If we look at the Bible story of a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard and paid them all the same regardless of when they started working or how long they had worked (Matthew 20), we might conclude that God does not distinguish based on reactions to His love. Another passage cited by many is Matthew 5:45—“For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Scripture paints a picture of a God who is good to the whole world. But is there any preference for those who identify themselves as believers?

Scripture points in other directions as well. The 12 disciples, Jesus closest friends and companions during His ministry, will have their names engraved and enshrined on the 12 foundations of the heavenly city (Rev 21:12). Daniel, we are told, was able to pet the hungry lions (Dan 6:22), yet his enemies didn’t hit the ground before they were eaten alive (Dan 6:24). Other examples that seem to point to preference being given to believers include Enoch or Elijah, whom God chose to take straight to heaven without ever experiencing death. Moses, we are told by Jude (Jude 8:9), tasted death but was specially resurrected by Michael–“One who is like God”—and taken to heaven. Aren’t there “preferences” occurring in these stories?

And what of the famous plagues of Egypt? No one could argue any merit for the enslaved descendants of Jacob, and yet the plagues didn’t touch the Israelites living in the land of Goshen (Exodus 9:26; 8:22-24). Is preference being shown here for believers? Those Egyptians who demonstrated enough faith to join Israelite neighbors in their homes during Passover were spared the loss of their first-born that the rest of their countrymen experienced.

As though David in the Psalms was envisioning that very scene of the protection of God during Passover in Egypt – He says: The angel of the Lord encamps all around those who fear Him, and delivers them. -Psalm 34:7 (NKJV)

The entire history of the chosen people Israel, in fact, seems a spectacle of “preference” beyond dispute.

And how about this well-known promise from Malachi 3:10-12 (NLT):

Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test! Your crops will be abundant, for I will guard them from insects and disease. Your grapes will not fall from the vine before they are ripe,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. “Then all nations will call you blessed, for your land will be such a delight,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.

Perhaps, then, the issue reduces to the question “What is a believer?”

Is a believer someone who just claims the name of the Lord, or is a believer one who actually enters into a relationship with God?

When the speaker’s question—and the poll results—flashed on the auditorium screen, I found the answer of my heart immediate and inescapable: “Yes.” “Yes!” and “YES!” “God does show preference to believers!

I write this as someone who lost my grandparents to tragic diseases before their time. As someone who lost his father in a head-on car accident just four years ago. As someone who struggles to this day with the damage of a parasite I contracted on a mission trip to India nearly ten years ago.

How can I be so audacious to say that God gives preference to believers? Because God’s preference for believers doesn’t mean we won't experience any problems in life. The God of Scripture is always looking at the “big picture” of our lives and working in the lives of those who call themselves believers—and those who don’t—to give each one as many opportunities as possible to turn to Him and say—“I get it! Now I understand. You know what’s best. Lead me; save me!”

Note these thoughtful words from Ellen White’s classic, The Ministry of Healing:

Like Israel of old they question, "If God is leading us, why do all these things come upon us?"

It is because God is leading them that these things come upon them. Trials and obstacles are the Lord's chosen methods of discipline and His appointed conditions of success. He who reads the hearts of men knows their characters better than they themselves know them. He sees that some have powers and susceptibilities which, rightly directed, might be used in the advancement of His work. In His providence He brings these persons into different positions and varied circumstances that they may discover in their character the defects which have been concealed from their own knowledge. He gives them opportunity to correct these defects and to fit themselves for His service. Often He permits the fires of affliction to assail them that they may be purified.

The fact that we are called upon to endure trial shows that the Lord Jesus sees in us something precious which He desires to develop. If He saw in us nothing whereby He might glorify His name, He would not spend time in refining us. He does not cast worthless stones into His furnace. It is valuable ore that He refines. The blacksmith puts the iron and steel into the fire that he may know what manner of metal they are. The Lord allows His chosen ones to be placed in the furnace of affliction to prove what temper they are of and whether they can be fashioned for His work.[1]

Or how about Ellen White’s assertion that two dedicated Advent preachers—“Fitch and Stockman”—who were baptizing many in the dead of winter, and subsequently grew sick and died that “God had laid in the grave to save them.”[2]

Something is certainly going on behind the scenes of trials, disease and even death that signifies a greater plan not always discernible by us. These consequences, painful as they are, ought not be understood as indications that God isn’t showing preference to believers or that He loves us any less. Anyone in an intimate relationship knows that there are always “preferences” for one another, sealed by promises and trust, not tied to changing circumstances. God has one goal that supersedes all others: That we are saved, and live with Him forever. As strange as this may sound, I believe God gives some of us the preference of poverty and others the preference of profit. Each of our lives and the blessings or trials are under the watchful care of a loving Father.

God is no partial giver. He holds back nothing as He seeks to save each sinner on the planet. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Rom 8:32). As John 3:16 reminds us, God so loved this planet and this species and all who have ever been born that He gave us Jesus, who became one of us forever, so that no one would be lost and all who believe in Him won’t die but will live forever.

Scripture teaches us of many worlds and many beings (Hebrews 1:2; Job 1:6), and yet God showed preference for this planet—for you and me. More vital than an answer to the question, “Doe
s God provide preferential treatment to believers
?” is the highly personal response we each must give to these questions: “What am I doing with the evidences of His kindness and His favor? How ought I then to live as one surrounded and redeemed by grace?”

[1] Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, 471.

[2] White, Early Writings, 17.