Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Being offended at God



I've known so many people who are offended at God.

They've never said it like that before, but that's what they are. Offended. I know what it's like. I've been offended by Him too.

Remember the time John the Baptizer (not "the Baptist," John didn't commence the first denomination) was put in prison for denouncing Herod's marriage? John is stuck in prison, apart from his family and friends, with plenty of time to reflect on his life. Sitting there in silence, smelling the refuse around his feet, John probably began to ponder: "Is Jesus the Messiah or not? If he is, what in the world am I doing in here? Are we not cousins? Is he not talking about God's reign of deliverance? Didn't I baptize that guy? Why am I still in here? What's he waiting on?!"

Of course, I don't know exactly what John was thinking. Yet, I bet he thought something close to this because of what happened. In Matthew 11, we hear:

"Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, 'Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?' And Jesus answered them, 'Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.'"

We don't know what John's tone was when he asked if Jesus was the One or should they wait for another. We don't know. But from what Jesus said at the very end, one wonders if it wasn't in frustration. "Daggum it! (John was from Texas) Are you the Messiah or not?!"

"And blessed is he who takes no offense at me," Jesus said. In fact, the verb "to take offense" means "to be scandalized" (the same verb used when Jesus says that it'd be better for a person to be killed than to cause a little one to be "scandalized" (Lk 17:2). In that context, it means "to cause to sin." Here, it means "to take offense" or "to cause to turn away from God.")

If I were John, I think I would have thought: "The blind can see, the lame can walk, lepers are healed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told that they will inherit the Kingdom of God, but I'm still stuck in jail. Wonderful. Yeah for deaf people! Yeah for the lame! But I'm still stuck in jail. Is God against those in prison? Does he hate people in jail?"

"And blessed is he who takes no offense at me," Jesus said.

"Blessed" in the Aramaic (Jesus's native tongue) meant something like "congratulations to" or "fortunate" or "happy." Jesus is saying, "And congratulations to those who are not offended by the way I do things."

I wonder what your offense is?

"The blind can see, the lame can walk, lepers are healed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told that they will inherit the Kingdom of God, but I'm still single. Wonderful."

"The blind can see, the lame can walk, . . . but I'm still broke. Wonderful."

"The blind can see, the lame can walk, . . . but you never answered my prayer to cure the illness. Wonderful."

"The blind can see, the lame can walk, . . . but I'm still grieving like hell has decided to attack me alone. Wonderful."

"The blind can see, the lame can walk, . . . but I'm still wrestling with so many questions. Wonderful."

"The blind can see, the lame can walk, . . . but I was still fired/lost my job. Wonderful."

"The blind can see, the lame can walk, . . . but I was hurt so badly by "Christians." Wonderful."

What is yours?

"The blind can see, the lame can walk, . . . but                      .  Wonderful."

"And blessed is he who takes no offense at me," Jesus said.

It's amazing to me that Jesus mentions copious things that He is, in fact, doing that demonstrate the reign of God in His life (e.g., healing the lame, etc.). So, Jesus was, in fact, doing something. People were being delivered; prayers had been answered; people were being healed. But not for John. Deliverance was happening around John, but not for John.

For John, there was no deliverance. There was no quick fix. In fact, John stayed in that jail until he was beheaded (Matt 14:10). Some God. Some reign of God that is. God's prophet in the wilderness locked up and decapitated.

"And blessed is he who takes no offense at me," Jesus said.

You and I must make up our minds. Either Jesus can be trusted to know what He's doing--based on His entire ministry, death for you and me, and resurrection--or He can't be trusted. If we can trust Him, then we don't need to be offended by how He does things.

Of course, for many of us, the real problem is the deep, underlying belief that God is accountable to us. As C.S. Lewis said so perfectly in his essay, "God in the Dock" (a "dock" is the location of the accused in a British court):

"The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.” 

Do you have God "in the dock"? Are you offended at Him? 

Of course I have no idea what John was thinking before he was beheaded. Did he feel abandoned by God? Jesus himself might know what that feels like: remember what he said from the cross? Did John feel mad at God because his prayers of deliverance were never answered? Jesus himself might know what that feels like: remember the prayer Jesus prayed in the garden?

Be encouraged. Just because we don't understand exactly how the reign of God is working in each circumstance or why things "had to happen" the way they did doesn't mean God is not active in the world or in your life. It just means that we don't know everything. Is that hard to admit? Is it hard for you, like it is for me, to simply admit that we don't know why some prayers receive a "yes" and some receive a "no"? 

Sometimes, I want to put God "in the dock." I want to cut Him off because I don't like how things happened, and I don't mean because my car got a flat tire. I mean I don't like some of the very hellacious things I've been through. Sometimes, I'm just daggum offended.

But the response to being offended is twofold: (1) grieve your loss and (2) re-submit to the God who didn't ask your opinion on how to run the world. The ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus shows us that God is good and can be trusted and that He doesn't explain why everything happens the way it does.

If you're offended at God, tell Him. If you're so hurt that you've cut God off, please don't be so offended. 

My Dad heard a story on the radio the other day. I young man hitch-hiked a ride from a business man in Chicago. They talked the whole way and at one point, the young man shared the gospel with the business man. They pulled over and the man accepted Jesus. Once they got to the destination, the business man gave the young man his card. Seven years later, the young man was visiting Chicago. He decided to contact that business man. So, he went to the business and asked for the business man. The receptionist said that he wasn't available, but that he could speak with the business man's wife. He met with his wife and told her the whole story of what happened seven years earlier, including how her husband accepted Jesus. The woman began to weep.

"You see, all these years I've been so bitter toward God. He never answered my prayer. I've cut God off for seven years. I stopped going to church. I stopped praying. I stopped believing in Him."

"What did you pray?"

"I prayed for years that my husband would become a Christian and I never knew if he did or not. What day did you ride with him?"

He recalled the exact date. She stared at him in shock.

"That night my husband died in a car wreck."

Sister or brother in Christ, we just don't know how and in what way what we go through is serving the kingdom of God. God still loves you very much. Take Him out of the "dock." Stop the trial you have toward God. Just stop it. The trial is over. Stop the accusations. Give up trying to be more righteous than God. Giving up trying to be more wise than God. Give up trying to know more than God about what you think is "best." Grieve; cry out to Him. But stop your trial against Him.

Because "blessed is he who takes no offense at me," Jesus said.

I want to be blessed; I don't want to be a prosecuting attorney any more.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Some questions from an atheist to a former student of mine


Hey Cullen,

I thank you much for your questions. I was elated and surprised to learn that you’re reading other literature (e.g., On Guard). I think it’s great!

I’ll respond to each one below. Of course, speaking in person might be more fruitful, but I’ll still give some comments in case they help.

*(Atheist) How do we prove that in addition to being historically correct, the Bible also entails sound and "the right" doctrine? These issues go together. Since Jesus did exist, did teach the things He taught, was killed and resurrected, then we have every reason to assume that deity-in-flesh taught us “right” doctrine. If He was a liar, mistaken, or lunatic, then of course, it’s not “right” doctrine at all. Now, it’s crucial to remember that the Church has never, ever believed that every word in the Old Testament is to be applied in the Christian’s life. This was debated within the first few years of the church’s life (see Acts 11). As we spoke about this in Biblical ethics, they broke up the moral injunctions of the Old Testament into ritual rules, moral rules, and civic rules. Go back and see your notes on that if you don’t recall. So, Christians can still believe the entire Bible contains “right” doctrine, even though we don’t adhere to certain ethical norms because Christians are no longer under the moral authority of Levitical codes in the Torah. In other words, what other than historical facts can act as proof for the legitimacy of the Bible and Christianity altogether? This seems to be a different question altogether. In my mind, the only other kinds of things that can be shown to prove the legitimacy of the Bible and Christianity is the other two kinds of things I mention in my book: scientific and experiential proof. Remember how I’ve said this several times before? I’m a Christian because there are scientific facts that point to God (e.g., that the universe began to exist, fine-tuning to allow life, etc.), historical evidence that demonstrates the truth claims of Christianity, and religious experience that corroborates Christianity. So, together, one has scientifichistorical, and experiential evidence.

*(Pro-Gay) How then can we truly prove that anything is actually moral? The same way that one “proves” that logic and mathematics are actually true: intuition. These are brute facts of reality; they can’t be put in a test tube. One just “gets” it or doesn’t. So, ask the same question for math: “How then can we truly prove that anything is actually mathematical?” You appeal to a person’ rational intuition. So, we ask the person, “Don’t you perceive of morals? Wouldn’t you agree that racism is wrong? Murder is wrong? Rape is wrong? And not just something you dislike, like one might dislike turnip greens?”

Now, for the Christian, we’re aware that there are certain things that God wants from us that most people would agree is not part of our “natural” moral intuition. For example, Jesus said that we should be forgiving and humble, that these are virtues. Regular pagans wouldn’t see that as morally binding in a “dog eat dog world.” In the same way, Jesus made it clear that men and women should be married, and the only other option is to stay celibate (or a “eunuch”, see Matt 19).

So, most (all?) virtues and vices are intuited by anyone, though Christianity emphasizes (or introduces) certain virtues and vices as revealed by God.

*(Pro-Gay) How can we prove that gay marriage is not only immoral, but should also be made illegal in AmericaI don’t know. There are those who say that it should be illegal because it’s against the traditional definition of marriage as established by every civilization on the planet, or because if we don’t, what would prohibit us from marrying humans with animals, family members, or children (since they can all be based on some version of “love”)? This is called the “slippery slope” argument: if you allow it for one thing (e.g., “love” between two gay people), then why not allow it for every single relationship built on “love”? If you stop at gay people and say no to the others, why? It would just be capricious and not based on moral reasons. Those who support pedophilia and zoophilia would simply be outraged. “Why can gay people marry who they want and we can’t!! This is unjust! I love my dog or I love my son! Who are you to deny me my rights to marry whom I love?!”

*(Atheist) Why do atheists believe that the earth is billions of years old? Do they have proof? They believe it because there are numerous reasons to believe it’s that old, such as numerous methods of radiometric dating (certain elements decay at consistent rates), and by dating several other facts (see http://www.reasons.org/explore/type/todays-new-reasonwhere you can also search for stuff on Earth’s age).

*(Atheist) Why Jesus? Why not Allah or any other divine deity?
Why Jesus? Because He did exist, forgave sins, healed people, was killed for my sins, and was resurrected, and crazy liars don’t get resurrected. Allah is just the Arabic word for “God.” If you mean, why not be Muslim? It’s because Mohammed didn’t forgive people, didn’t heal people, wasn’t killed for my sins, and certainly wasn’t resurrected. Why not other deities? Because they don’t have the historical evidence that we have for Jesus.

If you ever get a chance, I'd really appreciate it if you could answer these questions for me. I'll never know when God will call me to back my faith with justification other than the spiritual satisfaction it gives me (as I'm sure Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and even Atheists feel--although falsely--to an extent as well). I thank you for your time and look forward to seeing you on Wednesday.
Keep asking the questions: drive them into the ground. I would just encourage you strongly: keep asking questions, but do it while having a devotional time. If not, evil will drive you away by getting you obsessive about questions. I’ve fallen into that trap before. God asks us to love HIM, not to love understanding everything. Jesus is a person, not an answer to a question. So, I’d encourage you to do whatever you can in your practice of faith to keep loving the person of Jesus. Of course, regular prayer, devotionals, communal worship, service, and other Christian practices will keep you plugged in. Dr. Craig teaches Sunday School at his church nearly every week. In fact, you can hear it yourself: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast.

P.S. I found an interesting article on Richard Dawkins and William Lane Craig (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/20/richard-dawkins-william-lane-craig). If you get a chance, let me know what you think of it as well.
Yeah, that was in response to several things. You might enjoy listening to this: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/speaking-and-debating-in-the-uk
Of course, overall, Dawkins says nothing about Craig’s arguments. Like usual, Dawkins just attacks Craig. Whatever it’s worth, Craig has not been begging or cajoling Dawkins to debate (as far as I know). Rather, the people who put on the debates have been asking Dawkins. It’s funny that even other atheists have given Dawkins a really hard time for not debating Craig. Concerning Craig’s scholarship, Craig, in fact, is a philosopher. Besides his PhD in that field, he has written widely in the field (e.g., http://www.reasonablefaith.org/scholarly-articles/the-existence-of-god) Concerning the killing of the Canaanites, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites and http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-slaughter-of-the-canaanites-re-visited

From another email:

*(Atheist) How can a Christian rely on the laws of nature to point towards the existence of God if Jesus was told to have defied them entirely in His miracles? This is a huge topic. I’ll only say a few things. What makes the laws of nature “laws” is that we expect them to be consistent in the future because they have been consistent in the past (this is called the Law of Uniformity). But, this, as all philosophers of science know, is simply an assumption. There is no empirical reason whatsoever to assume that gravity or whatever will continue acting like it has in the past. It’s assumed. In any case, the laws of nature as we experience them now do, in fact, demonstrate remarkable intelligibility and consistency. Why? There is no remote atheistic explanation. In Theism, we have an answer. An intelligent Causal Agent (God) designed it.

Now, this has nothing to do with the instances of Jesus’ miracles. As CS Lewis argued in Miracles, miracles are not violations of the “laws,” but rather, introducing something new into the natural course of events. Again, I won’t spell this out here because of the length required. Read Lewis’ book.

Bottomline: We need the laws to be laws or we couldn’t recognize miracles when they happen. Understand? We need both. Having rare miracles does nothing to take away from the fact that we can use the laws of nature to deduce an intelligent Creator.

*(Atheist) Are Jesus' miracles historically confirmed by anyone other than Christians (universally, that is)?
Yes and no. The Talmud (Jewish source) confirms that Jesus was a miracle worker (they call him a “sorcerer”), and Josephus (Jewish historian) called him a “doer of wondrous deeds.” There is no outside source that I know of that confirms a specific miracle that Jesus did. Of course, we shouldn’t dismiss the Gospels as historical documents because they are biased. Historians can still cull through them to discover what is the most historically-probable scenario. What’s interesting in the Gospels is that the opponents of Jesus admit that Jesus does the miraculous. They just deny the source of his power and authority (e.g., Mk 3:22). It’s also interesting that not everyone believes in Jesus. Plenty of people are skeptical of Jesus – even his own people (e.g., Matt 13:55-56).

*(Atheist) If God does exist, why assume that He cares about us (humans)? If Deism is all we get, then there is no reason to assume that God cares about us at all (except that might be deduced by the fact that the universe is fine-tuned to support life.) Since Christian theism is true, then we have every reason to know, not just assume, that God cares us about us humans or God would have never made covenants with people or sent Jesus. Why assume that all of creation was centered around man and how can this be proven? Again, if Deism is true, then there is no reason to assume it. That kind of God would not reveal itself to humans. Since Christian theism is true, we know that creation is not centered around man, but around God’s kingdom and loving relationship with humans. How to prove it? Now we’re back to arguing why Christianity is true. Since there is such an overwhelming amount of historical and experiential proof for Christianity, we know that humans are very important to God.

*(Atheist) Did God have material with which He created the universe or did He simply will it into existence? He willed it into existence. As Hebrews 11:3 says: “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear” (RSV). If He did simply will it into being, how can this be proven possible at all? The universe (or multiverse) began to exist. That’s a scientific fact. How did it begin to exist? Scientists will never have an answer because science cannot answer that question since it is beyond scientific apparatus to discover. Since it came into being, something must have brought it into existence that was not made of matter, energy, time, or space. The only two kinds of things we know of that are not made of matter, energy, time or space are (1) minds and (2) abstract objects such as numbers. Well, numbers can’t cause anything, so (2) can’t do it. It leaves us with (1), viz., a mind. Human minds cause thoughts and can cause physical effects in our brain. So, we do know that a mind can cause things that effect matter. Yet, human minds cannot create matter and energy. God, therefore, must be a mind that can create matter and energy. If God is not a mind that can create matter and energy than there is no explanation whatsoever for why the universe began to exist. Also, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/must-everything-that-begins-to-exist-have-a-material-cause

I hope this helps for now. I hope that your devotional life continues strong and that you’re filling your mind with lyrics that keep you grounded in the faith! J

For the Kingdom,
David

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The role of pastors and music leaders

I was listening to a well-respected preacher on the radio the other day. He sounded very "Baptist" -- long, slow vowels when saying "G-o-d," raising and lowering his voice frequently to sound dramatic, and other such tricks. He is dead now, but at the time, he was the leader of a large congregation. He would wear nice, expensive suits. His messages were based, in general, upon the Bible.

I must have seen a hundred similar preachers in my lifetime. I know that there are people who are very well-known for their preaching ability. When I was in my Masters, I remember several professors speaking of people like Tom Long as almost superhuman (Tom Long is a respected preacher and has written books on the subject).

I was raised hearing all my life that the reason we dress up on Sundays is because we are giving God our very best. I remember when a former Pastor of mine called for a "casual Sunday" once a year. I always wanted to ask him, "What gives you the authority to tell people they can't give God their best?"

I think preachers should be good. By "good," I mean that preachers should do two salient things: (1) be very well-prepared and (2) speak conversationally to me about the Kingdom of God. I got all dressed up and drove to church to hear a word from God. I want to be transformed a little bit more in to the citizen of the Kingdom of God that I will be after death. I want to be reminded that this is not my home (i.e., my value is not found in this world; I not being escapist). I don't care about keeping a "positive attitude." I don't care about the weather or a comedic quib. I don't care if you're clever or if you think you're clever; I care if God will speak through you.

I remember hearing about a huge event on my local Christian radio station about two years ago. It was an entire conference of -- get this -- worship leaders. And the advertisements would list some of the "big" names and speak of them as the "best worship leaders today in America." Absolutely amazing. Imagine bringing in 125 tour guides from Israel and promoting the event as "the biggest gathering of tour guides who are from Israel." Who would give a rip? I couldn't care less if they are the "best" (though they shouldn't be incompetent); I care if they CAN SHOW ME the Holy Land. I don't go all the way to Israel to interview the tour guide. Make no mistake about it. You are simply a means-to-an-end. You are not the goal. If you're job is done right, I'll forget you're there and time travel to the first century. I'll see an entirely different country. So it is with music ministers and pastors. I didn't come here to praise you. You're not the point. If you think you're the point, then you are the last person who needs to lead me in worship or in the Bible.

I've never heard of anyone running down the aisle to accept Jesus because the guitarist played like a rockstar, the preacher could make "God" a three syllable word, or because the powerpoint was so colorful.

I simply can't get away from the fact that if Jesus entered into nearly every single church, with their fine-talking, slick-dressed, confident preachers, he would be asked to leave. "Uh . . . sorry sir. You need to dress up for the Lord's house. You can't come in here dressed like this. Come back Monday morning and see a low-level minister and we'll see if we can get you some help."

Several Jews surrounding the Jerusalem landscape in the first century believed in the same type of thing: if we play dress up, call it "reverence," then it really must BE reverence. "A cave for bandits" is what Jesus called the Temple. They had the right talk, the right look, the nicest clothes (in order to give their "best" for God), and the most notable reputations as orators and biblical guides. And they were failures.

They were failures.

Their attempts at "reverence" simply turned into pompous pride.

I like preachers who are nice orators; sure. I like worship leaders who actually are trained in music theory; of course. I am most certainly not advocating that we should have a bunch of ignorant Johny-come-latelies trying to do a "grown-up's" job. 

Yet, I can't get over the haunting suspicion that thousands of churches have driven themselves into the exact same place the Jerusalem leadership found itself.

How do we know if we're failing at our role as a church, or as the Church? It's simple: ask this one question. "When a person leaves the sermon, song, or lesson, who do they talk about the most? Jesus? Or the tour guide?"

Lord, I sure hope that you'd be welcome in my church. And I hope that if you would be kicked out, I would have the guts to walk out with you.

The Truth of the Matter

There’s a Reba McEntire song called, “What Do You Say?” that has a line that is repeated several times:  “Just close your eyes and let your heart lead the way.” She’s talking about knowing what to say in difficult situations, but that line really stood out to me. It reminded of nearly every person I’ve met in my life.

Part of the major attractions of Post-modernism is that fact that deconstructionalism (i.e., the attempt to dismantle any sense of “absolutes” in reality, truth, etc.) attempts to make everything relative. Therefore, if truth is not the standard, but a preference, then I get to decide what I consider truth to be. Isn’t this great? We no longer have to say things like, “we all know that’s wrong or right,” or “that’s not fair.” We can only say, “that does not keep the societal preferences.” There is no “true religion,” there is only what you do and what I do, and that’s all about personal preference.  Truth is gone; now we have preferences. It’s like we’ve handed in Truth for a person’s personal taste for food. You might like vanilla; I like chocolate. Now, this blog is not about how illogical and inadequate this notion of Truth is; this blog is only about how this fundamentally-flawed philosophical position has been bought—wholesale—by most Christians. And it’s devastating. It reduces the truth of the gospel (and His promises) to my personal feelings.

This is not a novel observation. There have been plenty of pundits before me who have noticed it; even predicted it. Nearly every Christian I meet today (and in the last decade of my ministry) really do believe, or are highly tempted to believe, that Christianity is right for him or her. It’s what “floats my boat,” “makes me feel better,” “helps me know that granny is waiting on me in the afterlife,” and so forth. Rarely do I meet modern Christians who believe Christianity to be valid because it’s True; they believe in Christianity because it’s good for them.

Imagine someone saying, "Why do you believe 2+2=4?" . . . "Oh, because, yunno' . . . it's a personal choice. It works for me and my family. Uhh . . . my family has always believed in 2+2=4, so, yunno' . . . it just works for me."

That's how absurd we Christians sound when we talk about Christianity like it's just some personal preference to be Christian. We talk about it like we're describing why we root for our favorite sports team, not like it's Fact. No one would talk about math like that. And no one should talk about Christianity like that. "Why are you a Christian?" "Because Christianity is true. And I do my best to believe things that are true."

If there is one thing that Christianity cannot be, it cannot be merely a preference. People did not suffer crucifixion, get burned alive, get shunned by all family members, lose social and political positions, and live in fear lest authorities come drag them away during prayer meetings for centuries because they believed that Christianity simply “made them feel good.”

Believing in Santa Claus made me feel good when I was a child. It really did. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I would never—never in a million years—offer myself to be tortured because of Santa. Or put more simply, I would never claim that the myth of Santa Claus (even though it’s based on an historical figure) is true. Why? Because there is no compelling evidence to believe it is true.

The early Christians and early Church Fathers were so convinced that Jesus was raised from the dead that their entire lives were radically changed. They gave up everything that got in the way of living out that belief. Even when they did not feel like God was present (e.g., if they were killed, like Jesus felt while on the cross), they knew He was present because the gospel was True. Nothing could change the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead; nothing could change the fact that the New Age had begun as manifested in the several, small communities spread throughout the Empire.

What they felt about God while in despair had nothing to do with facts, with history. They were not ashamed of the gospel because they believed it to be true, not because they always felt God’s presence. It was the nature of it being True, and not merely a personal preference, that made them do what they did.

Sometimes I’m tempted, like those Reba McEntire lyrics, to “close my eyes” and simply let “my heart lead the way.” And sometimes, when I do that, I feel very happy and “close to Jesus.” But for most of the time, in the “real world,” those moments cannot be sustained. My feelings come and go. And they are supposed to do that; God designed my feelings that way.

Christianity is either true or false. Jesus and the Apostles never claimed to be spreading some new preference, but a fact. And they were either right or wrong, true or false. And if we Christians think that God has to feel close to us in order for Him to actually be close, then we are trying to manufacture a feeling. And this reduces Christianity and the promises of God’s presence and love to mere feelings. Moreover, like the perfect relativist, it makes Christianity all about me. It says, “For Christianity to be true, I must feel God at this moment.”

My wife is not always in the same room with me. I cannot always “feel” her presence. But, I never doubt her existence. She exists. This is a fact. It is either true or false, regardless of how I feel.

So it is with God. Praise God it is this way. I want a God who is not controlled by how I feel. I need to, and will only, devote my life to something that is actually True, and not merely a personal preference.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Struggling with suffering and pain: Paul's response

I have always been struck by Saul’s testimony of what he endured as a God-sent apostle of Jesus. In an effort to defend his apostleship in the face of certain persons at Corinth who claimed otherwise, Saul retorted that he was just as Jewish and Christian as any other leader.

“22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one- I am talking like a madman- with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11, ESV)

This text has always struck me because it keeps my theology of suffering and pain and God’s will in check. I know I struggle with understanding God through pain and suffering at times because I’m a Western, rich, white person. It is. Of course other races can struggle with this issue, but if I were born in so many other parts of the world, I wouldn’t ever assume that God owes me. Of course He doesn’t. He doesn’t owe me anything. The world doesn’t owe me anything.

Like the students I’ve taught for two years in high school, I have traces—yes, I hope just  traces—of “entitledism.”

And from my experience in dealing with Christians for twenty years, I know I’m not alone. Many, many other Christians also expect following Jesus to bring health, luxury, ease, and prosperity. One can easily think of several popular authors and speakers who advocate such nonsense.

Any Christian who knows the teachings of Jesus should already have expected profound struggling. He says it over and over: “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matt 7:14); Or, after having taught his disciples how they must eat His body and drink His blood to live, His disciples said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6:60). In fact, because of Jesus’ teaching, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (Jn 6:66). And we can’t forget that not one single disciple or Apostle went to the cross with Him. I don’t think I could have either. I’d much prefer to keep that whole “pick up your cross” thing metaphorical.

Nevertheless, though I should have expected it, I still reread Saul’s struggle in his ministry and shake my head. Go back and read it. See how many times Saul was in “danger”! Doesn’t God love him? Isn’t God good? Why would God let him, indeed, inspire him, to do things that would lead to constant, “daily pressure,” threats, and anxiety?

I’ve never been stoned. I’ve never been beaten. I’ve never been shipwrecked. Never. So what in the world do I have to complain about? Of course, some things are worth complaining about. Some things are not minor.

So, what do I do when struggling with pain and suffering? I read what Saul said in Romans.

“. . . Christ Jesus is the one who died- more than that, who was raised- who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:34-39, ESV)

It’s the last part that is so striking to me. Nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” From the “love of God.” I still, after having read this for years, expect Saul to say that nothing would separate us from God’s rewards or redemption or rescue or saving or payback. Nope. God’s love. I expected God’s material restoration or perhaps a vacation, but not God’s “love.”

Then it hits me. The greatest danger for us is to interpret our suffering and pain as a sign that God no longer loves us.

Your husband left you? It doesn’t separate you from the love of God. Your wife left you? It doesn’t separate you from the love of God. Your child died? It doesn’t separate you from the love of God. You lost your job? It doesn’t separate you from the love of God. You lost your house? It doesn’t separate you from the love of God. You lost that relationship you really enjoyed? It doesn’t separate you from the love of God. You lost your health? It doesn’t separate you from the love of God.

Losing His love would be the biggest loss we could experience. And we haven’t lost it. You haven’t lost it. I haven’t lost it.

I think Saul would stare us in the face and say to whatever it is we go through: “He still loves you. You and I are ‘still conquerors through Him who loved us.’ Don’t give up. Life can be extremely hard. But ‘this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.’ (2 Cor 4:17-18). Just don’t ever think that God stopped loving you because you’re experiencing pain and loss. That’s not how God operates.”

Nothing separates us from His love. How do we know that? Because that’s the very character of God. It’s seen in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And Saul avers that Jesus “is at the right hand of God, . . . interceding for us.”

Bottomline? God is still very active and purposive in the life of His disciples. We cannot allow our experience of pain to dictate our theology.

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