Archive for the ‘Suffering and weakness’ category

Is God present in tragedy?

August 8, 2007

So…had a few emails about my favorable reference to Piper’s take on the Minneapolis bridge tragedy. One of the most surprising things about getting them is that I had no idea that more than a handful of people were even reading this blog!

I know Piper has gotten some flack, from people I respect, about his position. This post, for example, stirred up a conversation in blogdom about how sovereign God is, how we should look at the world and its evils. I always find these discussions interesting; I don’t always find that people are usually interested in really learning, but rather they’re more like “manning the barricades” against ideas that don’t sit well. And I don’t really want this blog to be about that kind of thing. I don’t want to slam at others for “wrongful” views. I don’t want to expend all my energy trying to prove my viewpoint. I want to spend time awestruck at the wonder of the gospel, and considering ways to bring that news more gloriously into our churches and into our lives.

That said, I’ll give a few paragraphs to draw out the view, I think the correct view, that God certainly is sovereignly reigning in the midst of disaster. This is not a viewpoint that simply says, “He’s a God of judgment, and they were wicked people.” This view is not without Biblical support — Jesus’ own response when asked about the tragedy of the falling of the towers of Siloam was “unless you repent, you shall likewise perish.” But even that response was not so much drawing a line from “their evil–>judgment by tower; your evil–>judgment by ____”, so much as it was warning that death and wrath hover above us all apart from repentance, that we are granted the breath in our nostrils with no promise of more, and that after death comes judgment. I do not draw an equals sign between suffering and judgment. Judgment can take many forms, and some of them look to us like God giving us more of what we want (Romans 1). Think it through. God is after our hearts, and idolatry is bondage and destruction.

No, I’ll stand with Job, who was one of the first teachers the Bible gives us. When faced with incredible, unbelievable loss and tragedy, he said, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” It’s become popular to sing this as a peppy little tune in church today, but we hardly ever know, as we sing, the lament that intertwined around that blessing in the heart of Job. Job’s wife urged him to curse a God who would do this to an innocent man — but note that she, too, believed it was the doing of God. Job’s friends would urge him to repent, because surely God would not do such things to a man who really was innocent — and they too, believe it was God’s doing. Nor can we conclude that they were all primitives who didn’t really understand the way of things; the opening narrative to the book shows us that God instigated the whole thing, for his own purposes — purposes unrevealed to Job. We cannot say the evil events are from Satan alone; although we insist, along with our confessions, that God is not the author of evil, we also insist that he uses even evil in his purposes — hence the cross of Calvary.

The whole “origin of evil” question is for another time; right now I’m simply saying this, along with Thomas Watson: God is always present in the action where evil is; God is not present in the evil where the action is.”

It’s actually greatly comforting. In the worst of tragedies, I can know that I am not abandoned, I’m not on my own. God is here, too. There are no appendixes or exceptions to Psalm 139. There is nowhere I’ll find my life where God is not there.

For those who would insist that God has left certain things to themselves, that his sovereignty does not include mosquitoes and bridges, I’d like to ask: is that comforting to you? Are you comforted by knowing that you have to work through this tragedy on your own, or that God is as saddened as you are by how things turned out?

Asking the question doesn’t prove my position. And I don’t want to caricature the position of those who disagree — many of them are sweet, thoughtful, wonderful Christians whom I dearly love and respect. We all agree on these things: we live in a broken world, and pain is everywhere, and oft-times things simply don’t make sense. We cry out with Job, longing for explanations that often seem completely missing. It hurts, it challenges, it seems unbearable. Rivers of tears run down our faces.

If they don’t, they should.

I find hope in this truth: while I don’t understand, and while I feel if I bear one more sorrow I will break, with me is my Rescuer, who works wondrously in weakness, and writes glory in broken letters and words, who holds me and weeps and encourages and promises — and whose promises cannot fail. The pain is real, and strong, and almost overwhelming; but the Promise has proven stronger throughout all the history of redemption, and the Promiser is with me.

Not in knowledge, but in this Saviour who has died, conquered sin and death, and who lives for me, do I find comfort and peace.

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Even a little god would have been enough

August 7, 2007

Yesterday, Pastor John Piper listened to a radio interview with Rabbi Harold Kushner, talking about the Minneapolis bridge disaster (Piper pastors Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis). He then penned a response.

Those of us who have read Kushner’s famous book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” will not be surprised at his comments in the interview. Kushner’s usual tack is to lay out the relative impotence of God — seeking to defend God by pointing out that God does all he can, and that’s all we can ask; also that God is not involved, has no intention, in all things, so we should realize some things are simply random. It’s like Dr. Brand’s question regarding a person with malaria; do we really believe that God is arrowing the paths of each and every tiny mosquito, and that he sent this mosquito to infect this person? Of course, the problem with this viewpoint (that God isn’t involved with bridges or mosquitos) is that it is Biblically unsupportable (“all things” according to the counsel of his own will; “all things together for good”), and ultimately lacks comfort. If a disaster is simply a disaster, if there’s no ordering of the universe, no overseeing power to ensure that everything comes out right in the end — then where is comfort? Where can hope be found in the darkest hour?

But what I found interesting in Piper’s response was his pointing out that God didn’t need to be all-powerful to prevent the disaster. Piper’s not saying God isn’t omnipotent; he affirms it earlier. He’s pointing out to Kushner that even a tiny god could have intervened. Kushner’s defense that God is simply unable to do better thus loses yet another pillar; even a small god (should one exist; this is supposition for argument’s sake) could have kept this from happening.

Our comfort is that God is everywhere the pain is. The God who lifted up a cross against darkness and death, a cross holding his own beloved Son and dripping his own blood — this God is everywhere there is disaster, and this God is unfolding a glorious, loving wisdom powerfully, ensuring that all will come to good in the end. That every creature — in heaven, on the earth, under the earth…EVERY creature — will ultimately say, “He is worthy.”

He is.

Trusting God

August 4, 2007

Adoniram Judson has been a hero to generations. Such a challenge to my heart! His wife, Ann, is somewhat lesser known, but also a hero. The following is something that convicts, encourages, and challenges me every time I think of it.

On the day Adoniram went before the Congregationalists for missionary service, he met Ann Hasseltine and fell in love. One month later he wrote to her father asking for her hand in marriage; this is the letter:

I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean, to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left his heavenly home, and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with the crown of righteous, brightened with the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Savior from heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?

I have a beloved daughter, and I can imagine that if I ever got such a letter asking for her, my immediate response would be to stamp it with a giant red “Rejected!” and send the suitor packing. My daughter – my agenda, my plans, my precious things – can be an idol for me. Can I trust everything to God? Can we trust God that much? Ann’s father said “Yes”.

Ann wrote to a friend:

Yes, Lydia, I have about, come to the determination to give up all my comforts and enjoyments here, sacrifice my affection to relatives and friends, and go where God, in his Providence, shall see fit to place me.

Seven years later Ann was dead, broken from caring for her imprisoned husband. Can we trust a God who will carry his children into such places? Can we trust a God who will mark the pathway for us to follow into pain and death and heartbreak? Can the 21 Korean Christians who still breathe, waiting to follow their already murdered friends into death at the hands of the Taliban, trust the God who took them there?

We can only find the answer if we dare to follow Christ to Gethsemane and then to Calvary. Can we trust a God who will love us so much He’ll put Himself, His beloved on a cross for us? In the darkness of Gethsemane Jesus stares into the fiery furnace of God’s wrath, the heat bringing out bloody sweat on his brow, and determines to enter it in trust of a covenant, for the glory of the Father, for the love of putrid creatures. This is a Rescuer to trust, a Saviour to follow – even if his footsteps lead through the roughest places. At the other side is an empty tomb, a triumphant Captain, an eternal hope, and the blazing glory of a good and holy and loving God.

We sin because we do not trust. Eve ate because she did not believe God’s purpose and love was sure. We lie and cheat and steal and covet because we do not believe. Look on Jesus, wherever you are, and believe. Trust him!

Jesus of the scars

August 3, 2007

I was listening to the “Way of the Master Radio” podcast, the Aug. 2 Hour 1 cast where they discussed the Minneapolis bridge disaster with Mark Dever, of Capitol Hill Baptist. Mark quoted this poem; it blew me away…

Written by Edward Shillito as he contemplated the horrors of World War I trench warfare:

Jesus of the Scars


by Edward Shillito

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

The injustice of grace

June 28, 2007

One of the coolest things about the gospel is that through the life and death and life of Jesus, God creates a way to be simultaneously just and gracious (Romans 3:23-26). I don’t think this concept staggers us nearly so much as surely one day it will.

On one level, we seem to prefer justice to grace. Look at your children. Joey and Jordan take turns clearing and loading the dishwasher; one day Jordan clears and then Joey loads, the next day Joey clears and Jordan loads. Today Jordan is loading. He opens the dishwasher door and finds a single fork in the tray, left behind by Joey; what is his reaction? Justice demands that Joey leave, immediately, whatever he is doing, and march in here and remove the offending fork! Grace isn’t even in the picture.

So we begin to think that justice is ingrained, and only grace needs to be learned with gospel attention.

But the problem is actually worse than that. In the above example, if we’re Joey, we’re not too happy with “justice” either. In fact, its application to us seems a tad unjust. The justice we love is only the justice that serves our love of ourselves. We’re quick to point out that we’ve faithfully cleared much bigger loads than Jordan has had to clear, and that since we had KFC tonight he has hardly anything to do, and that he’s being waaaay unfair. Note that we’re not asking for grace — no, grace, which requires us to be unworthy, is still not our friend. We’re asking for Joey Justice, as opposed to Jordan Justice. Justice my way.

It’s self, really, that is the god we will serve. Both grace and justice are welcome, but only on the condition that they worship with us in this same temple.

Take the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). At the end of the day, all the workers were paid the same amount, the amount that had been agreed to for an entire day’s work. Those that worked all day received exactly what they had contracted for — a just wage. Those that had worked only an hour received the same amount — a gracious gift. Guess who complained, and complained loudly? In this context, grace served the 1-hour workers, but not the 1-day workers — so that’s not, for them, good grace. It would appear, then, that they wanted only justice — but there was nothing unjust in the employer’s treatment of them. They got what they had contractually earned. Still they were unhappy and bitter! It was neither grace nor justice that interested them. What was it? They weren’t harmed by the windfall the 1-hour workers received…were they? But it seemed to them that others were being more highly valued than they were. This is the crime. If you value them more, you thereby undervalue me — and that’s an assault on my religion (my idolatry). When “value me” and “applaud me” are the hymns of worship in our temple, this behavior introduced blasphemous lyrics, sung out of tune. Neither justice or grace is keeping time.

This all comes to one of its worst representations in the life Jonah. God sent him to preach to Ninevah, a wicked city, and Jonah tried not to go — because he was afraid God would be to them, not just, but gracious. Jonah was all about justice if it came to fiery judgment on these wicked people, but could also become very angry with God if God decided to give them grace — which Jonah expected was the whole point of sending him there. Jonah considered such grace unjust.

This brings me, finally, to two strands I want to tease out. The first is one that takes us back to Job, his friends, and the lessons about justice and grace that are being worked out in that book. The second strand is directly gospel centered: how does this work out in our own responses to Christ and the gospel preached?

So we’ll tackle them next…

Are you a man or a mouse?

June 27, 2007

I’m working on some thoughts in the book of Job. This is old and familiar territory, but I always find obstacles to feeling like I have a good grip on this book. I’m trying to get a handle on the different viewpoints the various characters have — including God and Satan, Job, his wife, his friends, and Elihu.

First, some quick thoughts on Job’s wife

So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.

His wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!

He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.

Job knows this trial is ultimately from God. We might think that Satan is responsible for all the bad in the world, and God for all the good, but Job knows enough of God to know He is sovereign over all of it. And it’s clear from the text: it is God who initiates the dealings with Job. The accuser is casting about, looking for trouble, and God says, “Look over here…”

Job’s wife knows, also, that God is ultimately responsible here. She knows this “shouldn’t be happening”, and, like Job, she knows it is ultimately from God. Since she knows Job has loved and served God, this seems monstrously unfair. In the brokenness of her heart, the bereft mother of ten children all suddenly dead, the keeper of a house suddenly gone empty, has no one but her husband. And she sees him now going away, covered in boils and twisted with pain, sitting outside as a broken man among the broken shards. His head is bowed, his manner meek, as he scrapes at his sores. God did this. God is a monster. Curse him, husband. Don’t take it sitting down. Go down like a man. Rage against the night.

There’s a similarity between her thinking and that of Job’s friends. She knows that Job is pious and “righteous”, and she knows this is “punishment” is undeserved. This isn’t fair. Fairness requires God to act differently. He is an unjust monster.

Job’s friends are also concerned with the fairness of God, and the fact that he cannot be unjust. So they suspect Job is not pious at all. We’ll come back to them tomorrow. But beneath the thoughts of both sets is this idea: we know how God works. He does — or should — treat people according to what they deserve.

Is this early book bringing to us this first, elementary lesson in grace? Treatment that is not merited? Something beyond justice, something greater than retribution?

Do we want God to treat the world fairly? Seriously, do we really?

Think of Job. Think also of Jonah, and the workers who worked all day in the vineyard…

More thoughts later.