Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"when bad things happen to good people"

Don't we all struggle with the question of why bad things happen to good people? Even if we believe that God is both good and omnipotent, even if we believe the Bible's exhortations to "consider it joy" when we suffer, we may sometimes question why God doesn't do more to help those in pain, or to prevent their suffering all together. We know better, but our theology is challenged by what we and others experience.

Now, the Bible has a lot to say on God's sovereignty -- that his ways are higher than our ways, and he does have a plan, even if we don't understand it. See, for example, Ephesians 1 -- how Paul repeatedly speaks of God's plan and purpose. Will we trust God that his plan is better than our plans?

Reading Ephesians 3 this evening, it struck me that the familiar praise ending this chapter: "Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us . . ." (v. 20), is more than just an acknowledgement that God can bless us beyond what we can imagine. It also speaks to my own frequent inability -- or unwillingness -- to trust that God is both good enough and powerful enough to handle suffering in the best possible way. I want him to do "all that I ask or think," such as healing this person of cancer or restoring that person's marriage; but he is able to do "far more abundantly" than that. What he can do is literally unimaginable. But Paul gives us some clues in this chapter about what God does with his power, and it is good.

It seems that God is most interested in using his power not to relieve of us suffering, but so that we will know him. First, Paul says that he was "made a minister [of the gospel] according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power" (v. 7). Paul's call is to make known Jesus Christ and him crucified -- in other words, to reveal God to us.

Second, Paul prays that "according to the riches of his glory [the Father] may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith . . . and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (16, 17, 19). Again, God uses his power so that we will know him.

If we know God well enough, we will trust him even in pain and suffering to use his power for our good. If I didn't know that my dentist both cared about my health and had the power to do what was best for my teeth, I would avoid him. Instead, I submit regularly to the pain he administers for my good. Think of how Paul both suffered greatly and trusted God deeply. Paul knows God, and therefore his suffering is endurable. "So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory" (Eph. 3:13).

This is consistent with part of Paul's prayer for the Colossians: "that you may be filled wiht the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding . . . . May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for" -- for productive ministries? prosperity? health? no, but for "all endurance and patience with joy" (1:9, 11), the very qualities we need to know God and to handle suffering. And we are assured that "this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison . . ." (2 Cor. 4:17).

It's hard, in the face of great suffering, to believe what the Bible says. But we walk by faith, not by sight.

armed with a mustard seed

Here is a really interesting article about a prominent moderate Muslim who has become a Christian. He challenges the idea that Islam can be moderate and also shows the power of Jesus Christ to transform Muslim hearts too. And read the March 23 entry on this blog about how Muslims are becoming Christian in record numbers. (This gives me an opportunity to try to make links in the text [thanks, Angie, for the primer!].)

These articles remind me to fight the war on terror through prayer.

I was once involved in a weekend evangelistic retreat for college students where two Muslim students from Iran (a brother and sister) came to the Lord. They had come to the retreat only because friends of theirs came. The brother in particular had been really resistant and argumentative during our meetings. Then, on Saturday evening, while he slept during a speaker's talk, he saw a bright light and heard Jesus say to him, "I'm so happy for you." There was time for prayer after that speaker, and he rushed up to me and another leader, asking us to pray for him to receive Jesus. He was scared at first to commit his life to Jesus, but then when he surrendered, he was filled with unspeakable joy. I don't think I've ever seen anyone as excited about Jesus as he was.

His sister was upset at first because she knew their family would disown him. Then she too saw the light, metaphorically this time, and believed. They knew that their friends in Iran as well as their family would reject them -- and they were willing to be rejected for Christ's sake.

Since then I have heard many, many stories of how Jesus has appeared in dreams or visions to Muslims. It is exciting to hear about their conversions. But the persecution Christians suffer in Muslim countries is severe -- I'm not sure that we can really imagine the cost they pay for their faith. So, I want to encourage you to support missionaries in Muslim countries . . . and ministries such as Open Doors that assist the persecuted church worldwide . . . and to pray that more mustard seeds will take root.

Monday, March 10, 2008

relational God, incarnational God

When God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush, he introduces himself by his relationships with Moses' family: "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob" (Exod. 3:6). Soon after, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites that his name is "I Am Who I Am," and that "The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent me to you" (3:15). He is not an unknown God -- nor even "El Shaddai," God Almighty, as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew him. This is the God who has acted in the lives of your relatives, the God whose hand shaped your family tree. True for Moses, the Israelites, you and me.

I find it hard to wrap my brain around the idea of God as Almighty, or Sovereign, or other of his true-yet-abstract characteristics. Don't just tell me to trust God because he is trustworthy or good. No -- tell me what he has done in your life, or remind me of what the God of Abraham did a few millenia ago, the God of David, the God of Paul. Concrete facts, evidence, help me to realize who God really is. I am God's child and have a direct relationship with him, but it's not unmediated through other people. I need to read God's Word (written by people), to worship and pray with people, to be encouraged by other people also walking with Jesus.

Most of all, of course, the Person I need to mediate my relationship with God is Jesus. As God's Son, he is the ultimate example of the Relational Principle. As "God in man made manifest," he is also the ultimate example of the Incarnational Principle. Relationship and incarnation are intertwined. Through Christ, God has made us his children, an intimate relationship. Through Christ, God gives us his power to work for his glory, but as unique human beings we express his power in unique ways. When we serve God, we do it not as automatons or slaves blindly following our Master's will, but instead as partners with God, as in a Father-son business.

I was recently reading (in the March Touchstone magazine) an editorial contrasting the Koran, which Islam teaches was dictated directly to Muhammed (i.e. no human involvement whatsoever) with the Bible, which was inspired by God yet filtered through human minds and hearts. So the revelation given to us by Isaiah is different than that we have from John, and so on. The diversity, yet consistency, of revelation is breathtaking. Our humanity enhances revelation -- as if that were possible! -- because it reveals God's creative ability to work through any vessel, no matter how broken. Imagine a composer who can create glorious works not only for symphonies but even for the kazoo or pots and pans. That's our God.

To me, this responds to a comment that I periodically hear: "God doesn't need me to do his work. He can accomplish anything he wants." To be fair, let me note that this is said with an emphasis on God's sovereignty and our ineptness, and I agree that this statement is probably true. But I don't see anything in the Bible that supports it, and much that tells me that what we do is extremely important to God. Apparently God rarely chooses to act without human involvement. In fact, God chooses to associate with some really flawed folks. (David, the man after God's own heart? Remember what he did? And Abraham, Isaac and Jacob's families could provide plenty of fodder for a daytime talk show.) For whatever reason, the Incarnational Principle is the way he does business.

Nor can I depend on God giving someone else a task that I decide not to do. Not only does God have other tasks for them, but if God wants me to do something, then he wants it done with the gifts, weaknesses, personality that I bring to it. I can trust that he matches person with mission for a reason, namely his glory. God gave Solomon, not Ezekiel, the commission to write Proverbs. What would have happened if Solomon hadn't done it?

Thinking about this has made me realize that I don't really take seriously enough the holy responsibility of living my life for Jesus, wherever that takes me. It's easier to downplay the importance of my bearing witness to Jesus through my life than to accept that my everyday life has eternal consequences. And surely that is exactly as Satan would have it: "they have conquered him [that is, Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death" (Rev. 12:11). It is awesome, to me, that testifying to God's work in and through us is given a place in this sentence alongside the shed blood of Jesus as defeating Satan. The God who humbled himself by taking on the form of man -- the God who humbled himself by being known by his relationships with highly imperfect people -- is the God who humbles himself by doing his magnificent work through average sinners like you and me.