Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Why Suffering ~ PART FIVE

Why Suffering?    PART ONE      PART TWO      PART THREE      PART FOUR       PART FIVE

Dear Friends,

There is a well-loved children’s book called, “Alexander & the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and some of us have had bad days that make Alexander’s look like a walk in the park.

We understand now that because God has given us free will, there is evil and suffering in our world. It all started with the sin of Adam and Eve but we can’t really blame them – you and I would have been fighting over who would take the first bite out of that “apple.” But thank God that He has a plan. We’ve said that as soon as the apple touched the lips of Eve, the cross appeared on the horizon. We see God’s entire plan for our salvation laid out between those two events. From that original sin in the garden which ushered in evil and suffering, to redemption, to eternal life in the world to come.

God’s plan also includes a promise of hope when life’s circumstances take a turn for the worse. Romans 8:28 tells us that God can turn the most terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day into something for His good. “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.”

That doesn’t say that everything that happens to us is good. It says that if we love God and we’re living our life according to His plans and purposes, then God will cause good to emerge out of even the worst of our circumstances. We may not see that right away. When we’re in the valley of despair, it can be impossible for us to believe that God can make something good out of our suffering, but we need to trust in the Good Shepherd. “That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)

As we draw this AMEN Corner study on evil and suffering to a close, the most important thing for us to remember is this: Not a word of what you have read so far is helpful for someone to hear when they are mired in “the dark night of the soul.” The columnist I mentioned in PART ONE, who was still grieving over his daughter’s death and blaming God, was not open to hearing a verse by verse examination of the theological underpinnings of man’s free will and how we have come to live in a fallen world.

When friends and loved ones are tearfully asking why God allowed something to happen, don’t hear that as a request for your scholarly explanation of doctrine. Hear that as a cry for help. When family and friends are suffering, they are looking for empathy, concern and a tangible expression of God’s love from you. When the bad things happen and people are crying out in pain, they don’t want to hear our theology, meaningless platitudes or insensitive scriptural quotes. When Lazarus died and Mary fell down at the feet of Jesus and wept, Jesus didn’t quote the scriptures to her. He didn’t tell her that God loves her and has a wonderful plan for her life. Jesus didn’t give her a mini- sermon on the doctrine of death. When Mary fell at His feet, Jesus groaned in His spirit and was troubled. And Jesus wept. John 11:32-35

When friends and loved ones are in pain and struggling in the darkness, the best thing we can do is to ask: “How can I help you get through this?” And sometimes the only thing to do is what Jesus would do. Put your arms around them and weep with them. You’ll have plenty of time later to talk theology. For now, just show them God’s love, and when you do, you become their image of the Good Shepherd. Then with Jesus walking on one side of them and you walking on the other, they will get through that valley of darkness. 
And for you and me.. When tragedy strikes, when suffering comes, when life is just downright painful.. We have the choice to run away from God or run into His arms. When you turn to Him, He will give you peace, strength, courage and the promise of hope for your future. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him” 1 Cor 2:9 (NLT) 

You will have good days and you will have terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days and no matter what happens in life, when you love the Lord with all your heart, all is well with your soul.  Amen?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why Suffering? PART FOUR

Why Suffering?    PART ONE      PART TWO      PART THREE      PART FOUR       PART FIVE

Dear Friends,

When we stumble over a pothole on the road of life or smack full-speed into a wall, do we cry, “Why ME Lord?” or is our response, “Well, why not me?” Some preachers promise God’s hand of favor, prosperity and victory over health problems. But Jesus promised us hardship and tribulation. “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 Another version says you will have “many trials and tribulations”. So a mature theology says that there will be hardship. In Jesus we will find peace, but there is still hardship. God does have a wonderful plan for your life but that plan includes an occasional walk through the valley of despair.

And not only does God allow you to walk through that valley of despair, He even permits extended stays and allows you to experience the full menu of trials and tribulations that Jesus promised would take place. You can rest assured that God’s not on the phone with the travel agent making reservations and planning your next trip in the valley, but... life happens. Sudden loss, hardship and suffering inject a joy-killing venom into our life and we find ourselves walking in that dark dismal place that Spanish poet and mystic Saint John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.” But always know that in your darkest moments, God will be right there in the valley with you. He says, “Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10

God does not create evil but He created mankind with free will and, in doing so, created the potential for us to do evil deeds. God didn't have to do that. He could have created us as robotic humanoids programmed to do only good and who would be incapable of doing the horrendous things that we humans do to each other. But God created us with free will and we therefore can choose to love God or reject God. We can love our neighbor or inflict great pain and suffering upon our neighbor. God is constantly warning us throughout the Old and New Testaments to not do bad things to other people and, whether you read ancient history or this morning’s newspaper, you can easily see to what extent it is that we have consistently ignored God's warnings.  

In fact, the cause of much suffering in the world is us humans. Wars, genocide, human trafficking, murders, torture, rape, racial atrocities and the abusive things we do to family members are the result of our having free will. The cause of evil in this fallen world is not God. The cause of evil is us humans working in partnership with the devil. 

It all started with a handshake deal between Adam and Eve and the serpent over the forbidden fruit. And that very moment changed the entire relationship between God and His creation. But as soon as that apple touched the lips of Eve, a cross appeared on the horizon. And from out of the cross, shines the hope for our future. The Apostle Paul said that “whatever we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory that He will reveal to us later.” Romans 8:18

But why would a loving God sometimes allow us to walk through that valley of despair? As I look back on every one of the hardships in my own life, I see each time where God gave me the opportunity to wallow in it or walk out of it. The German philosopher, Nietzsche, once said “That which does not kill you will make you stronger.” Every hardship has made me spiritually stronger. I hated it at the time but it brought me closer to God. Every tribulation has reformed or refined my theology and my understanding of Him. Even during those times when I was wallowing in the pit and angry at God, He lifted me out, set my feet back on solid ground and turned my bitterness into a deeper and more trusting love of Him than I’d ever had before. 

When we are wallowing in the pit of despair, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see that suffering can have redemptive purposes. It’s often not until we are on the other side of a bad situation that we can clearly see how God used our trials and tribulations to strengthen our Christian character. Romans 5:3-4 (NLT) As pastor Rick Warren has said, “God never wastes a hurt.
to be continued...       

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why Suffering? PART THREE

Why Suffering?    PART ONE      PART TWO      PART THREE      PART FOUR       PART FIVE

Dear Friends,

If God is so good, then why is there so much evil and suffering in the world? And this question is often the most troubling for believers. Because when bad things happen to good Christians, even the most steadfast and devout believer can suffer a crisis of faith and come into a season of temporary atheism.

There is something that I call “Entitlement Christianity” and many Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians fall into this trap. We do all we can to lead a righteous life. Go to church. Tithe. Pray. Worship. Then tragedy strikes and now we’re angry at God for letting it happen. We believe that God owes us something for being good Christians and that’s bad theology.

At one time, I was a pastor in a Pentecostal denomination that taught “positive confession theology.” Taking authority. Claiming victory over health and financial problems. God guarantees that what we claim in the name of Jesus will be ours. But life happens. We claim God’s protection and then the earthquake occurs. The drunk driver crosses over the center divider. Prayers go unanswered and a wife dies in surgery. We’ve lost a son to mental illness and homelessness. The tests come back positive for cancer. We named it and claimed it and stepped out in full expectation of victory and God did not meet our expectations. We are absolutely devastated. But any teaching that obligates God (based upon our diligent exercise of faith) to do our bidding and provide us with good health, wealth and protection, is the unbiblical religion of Entitlement Christianity. 

Out of our love for others, we can inadvertently foster that Entitlement Christianity with our prayers and encouragements. I remember a pastor’s wife who had been given several “prophecies” by those in her church assuring her that God loved her so much He was going to heal her breast cancer. As she later lay dying in a hospital bed, she told me through her tears that God didn’t love her enough to heal her cancer. Well-meaning “prophets” made promises for God, commanded healing in the name of Jesus and nearly destroyed this woman’s faith. 

God may heal in response to prayer. Or maybe not. God may give us a prophetic word. But too often the promises we make in His name come from our desire to be an encouragement to others.

Entitlement Christianity is when we believe that God owes us a good life that is free of misfortune and evil. And that’s when we ascribe to God the characteristics of a magic genie or talisman. As long as we have Him in our pocket, wherever we go and whatever we do, we will be safe and no harm will come to us. 

When I was a kid, I loved to skate. I managed to fall down a lot on my own, but the photographic evidence establishes that sometimes I was pushed by my little sister who had been watching a little too much women's roller derby on TV. Fortunately, I always had a lucky rabbit’s foot in my pocket to protect me from harm. One day I’m flying down the sidewalk on my skates and the metal clamp that attached the skate to my shoe became loose. I fell face first and left about three feet of my skin on the sidewalk. Apparently I’d been given a defective lucky rabbit’s foot because it didn’t work. And God doesn’t work that way either. God is not a charm to dangle from your rearview mirror or a talisman to wear around your neck for good luck. You can’t stuff God in your pocket like a “lucky rabbit’s foot” to guarantee protection from misfortune or from pesky little sisters.

A more mature theology sounds like this: God does love us. He does protect us. He does heal in response to our prayers. He does have a plan for your life. And sometimes our life is wonderful and sometimes it stinks. We can be flying down the sidewalk of life exalting in the pure excitement of it all and in the next moment we’re sliding on our face. That’s why a self-centered attitude of entitlement must be replaced with the biblical understanding that God treats all His children equally. The first century apostles experienced great hardship and suffering. None were wealthy, Paul had a physical disability and they all were persecuted for their faith. Why are we shocked when God treats us the same way? When bad things happen, instead of crying, “Why ME, Lord?” a more mature response would be, “Why not me..”  to be continued

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Why Suffering? PART TWO

Why Suffering?    PART ONE      PART TWO      PART THREE      PART FOUR       PART FIVE

Dear Friends,

Last week we began to explore the question that is equally perplexing to Christians and non-Christians alike. If God is so good, then why is there so much evil and suffering in the world? This week, we’ll unpack some of the ways that various individuals and religions have tried to answer this.
The first solution is to simply deny the existence of God. Personal hardships and tragic circumstances are the most common reasons for rejecting God. But skepticism is not the default condition in which we were created. We were created to fill the God-shaped void in our soul with the One who created us. No one is born a skeptic. Something happened. A family tragedy. Maybe the loss of a loved one. A child loses a cherished family pet. And now they have lost faith in the God they once believed in and prayed to. Atheists are often angry at God and whenever you hear that anger, you are hearing their hurt. Remember: it is impossible for us to be genuinely angry at someone that we don’t believe exists!! Listen to the story of an angry atheist and you'll always hear that something happened that caused them to blame God. Disbelief in God starts when He doesn't fit into our own personal definition of Him. God has failed to meet our expectations. He let us down. Through tears and anguish, our angry conclusion is that God then can not possibly exist.  

Another solution to the problem of suffering and evil is to say that God creates both good and evil. This is to deify evil and make it part of God's character. This dual nature of the “gods” is a core principle of Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and many New Age teachings. But this conclusion does not describe the God of the Bible. It paints the picture of an unstable, bipolar God and if I believed that God intentionally created cancer in a loved one, I'd be furious with God too.

In the late seventies, a book called WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE made the New York Times bestseller list. The book was written by a Jewish rabbi who had lost his fourteen year old son to a genetic disease. After wrestling with the question of how God could allow the rabbi’s son to die, this author concluded that God is doing His best to prevent suffering but He is just not powerful enough to do anything about it. The rabbi wrote, “God wants the righteous to live peaceful, happy lives but sometimes He can't bring that about. It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims.” People sought out the book to find answers but found heresy. The author’s conclusions about God are not consistent with either the orthodox Jewish or orthodox Christian belief. 

Today, some of the main-line church denominations have adopted a watered-down, unbiblical version of God and would agree with the rabbi that God is not all-powerful and all-knowing. Fundamental to liberal Christianity is something called “process theology” that denies that the Bible and historic Christianity are relevant to today's culture and problems. That's because God is growing and changing and trying to figure out this whole world for Himself. Process Theology says that God is wrestling over the same thorny cultural issues and problems that we do today and He has very limited power to do anything to help the world. Because of God’s inadequacies, we need to take social action and change the world since God can't. Process theology contorts God’s Word and conforms it to our modern culture, but it is a doctrine that has no biblical support. We can’t answer the question of “why is there so much evil and suffering in the world” by explaining that God is powerless to do anything about it. The truth is that God is powerful enough to end all suffering in the world.

That’s why this question is the one that brings the most heartache for believers. We love God and can become devastated when something happens and we feel that He's let us down. We know that God exists and we know that God does not create evil. We don't deny His power and His goodness. But when we pray faithfully and go to church every Sunday, and then encounter trials, tribulations and tragedy, we’re stunned. Our faith is shaken. Don’t I deserve better treatment than this?  
To Be Continued...