Friday, April 20, 2012

Redemption and Hope in a Broken World

         Scripture provides numerous examples of followers of God trying to reconcile their belief in a perfectly good, loving, and powerful God with their circumstances:
  •  Joseph, who was sold into slavery before languishing in Egyptian prisons for years in spite of God’s very personal interaction with him; 
  • David, “a man after God’s own heart,” who spent years of his life on the run from a homicidal king; 
  • Job, an extraordinarily godly man who lost everything; and the disciples of Christ, all of whom faced considerable persecution.
     While some religions view pain as an illusion, an obstacle to be overcome through the correction of the mind, Christianity believes that pain and suffering are very real.  As a result, followers of Christ have sought to develop a theology that provides a coherent framework for understanding this dilemma. Christians face the difficult task of embracing the reality of evil and making it compatible with the existence of God as portrayed in Scripture: all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. 
     Christians have developed different responses to explain why the goodness of God is not compromised in the face of evil, even evil that is apparently unredemptive in any fashion.  Perhaps good things such as free will more than compensate for the pain experienced during life; perhaps, as in John Hick’s appeal to mystery, there are unknown goods that make up for the suffering we see; perhaps there will be a system of rewards and punishments in place after this life that will adequately provide a framework in which one will see the justice and love of God vindicated.  

     Defenders of the Christian faith have developed these explanations, or theodicies, to better understand the ways of God.  A theodicy, rather than being a mere defense of the compatibility of God and evil, seeks to proactively show God’s reasons for allowing evil to occur.  And even though Scripture allows one to peer into and analyze the issue of pain, Scripture often seems less concerned with the defense of God’s character than with the development of individuals as they seek to handle the difficulties in life. 

     This is the religious or emotional aspect of pain, as opposed to the philosophical or apologetic: rather than question the existence of God because of the presence of pain, the religious aspect of the Scriptures helps the believer whose faith is tested by trials.

   The question moves from, “What kind of God could allow this to happen?” to “What is the proper way for me to view instances of suffering and pain?”  We often expect God to meet us on our terms; from a Scriptural perspective, we are required to meet God on his terms. 

Job, for example, experiences a horrific run of events in his life that certainly appear to be largely inexplicable and unfair.  Job’s initial response?  “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).  The next verse notes that in spite of his situation, Job did not charge God with wrong.  When Job eventually does seek to question God, God responds, “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2). Job’s response shows that he has returned to his initial position: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know...I repent in ashes and dust” (Job 42:3-6).

    In the book of Psalms, Kind David frankly and poignantly records his odyssey with God, from green pastures to the valley of the shadow of death.  However, throughout situations that threaten his life and shake his faith, David always makes the crucial turn as he remembers what he knows of God; He sees God’s hand in all.

 “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  how long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily?  How long will my enemy be exalted over me? ,,, But I have trusted in your mercy; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me.”  (Psalm 13)

      The New Testament records a similar situation with John the Baptist.  While in prison, John asks, “Are you really the Messiah we have been waiting for, or should we keep looking for someone else?”  (Matthew 11:3)  To paraphrase, John was asking: “If Jesus is the Messiah, why am I still in prison, under the world’s oppressive posers?” Jesus’ reply is similar to God’s response to Job: “Go back to John and tell him about what you have heard and seen - the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the gospel is being preached to the poor “ (Matthew 11:4-5).  

In other words, said Jesus, do you believe that I am who I say I am?  If so, trust me.
    While many authors and books throughout Scripture address the problem of pain, perhaps no one explicates it more than the apostle Paul. Paul’s teaching on pain and suffering is arguably the most broad and in depth of any of the teaching in Scripture, and well might it be:

 “Are they laborers of Christ? - I speak as a fool - I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes over measure, in prison more frequently, in deaths often.  From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and in toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness.”         
   (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)

“We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)“To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless.  And we labor, working with our own hands.  Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat.  We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now”                                          (1 Corinthians 4:11-13).

     Paul was certainly qualified to discuss the problem of pain, though Paul himself does not appear to see it as a problem in the sense that today’s philosophers do.  As a result, Paul’s discussion of pain and evil is far more of a theodicy than a defense.
   Paul begins with the assumption that an all-good, all-loving God has reasons that we either know or do not need to know. In fact, Scripture never assumes that God must explain to us why He does what He does.  In Romans 11:34-35, Paul says, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?  Who has given to God that God should repay him?” 

    In Romans 9:20-21, Paul asks, “Who are you to reply against God?  Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’  Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?”  
       Paul trusted God absolutely in the face of evil despite his lack of understanding.  God has proven himself in many ways.  Why would Paul abandon his beliefs in God in the face of difficulty?  Rather than make the character of God adjust to fit his preconceptions, Paul adjusted his views of the ways of God. 

      Though God does not need to explain Himself, Paul clearly did have knowledge of some ways in which God can use pain to bring about an often unexpected good in the lives of those involved.
     First,  Paul notes that pain can build our character. Paul said that, as a Christian, “I die every day” (1 Corinthians 15:31).  This is where “tribulations work patience, and patience experience, and experience hope” (Romans 5:3-4).  This “blessedness of waiting for our salvation” is important as it brings about a godly change of character.   God conforms us to his image through suffering.

    The pain that accompanies suffering can do a refining work in us. For example, when Paul struggled with his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12), God used this to stall the natural movement toward pride by allowing hardships and persecutions.  From this perspective, the presence of trials is something to be embraced because of the refining work it does within us.

      The presence of trials can also allow us to give proof of the sincerity of our faith, as well as purify it. The Apostle Peter talked about the “genuineness of faith” as it is “tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:7), and Paul provided a prime example of one whose faith had been tested.  2 Corinthians 11 documents that Paul’s suffering gave him the genuine mark of an apostle.  

    Even natural evil has the potential to remind us that “It’s not about me.” William Alston has argued that “it takes away a person’s satisfaction with himself.  It tends to humble him, show him his frailty, make him reflect on the transience of temporal goods, and turns his affection towards other-worldly things, away from things of this world.” In the end, the main reason suffering occurs is the main reason everything occurs in our Christian life:  to mold us more into the image of God.

     Second, pain and suffering develop in us a desire for relationships, both with God and others.  The presence of suffering gives us the opportunity to have compassion for others, to “weep with those who weep,” (Romans 12:15).  This can be seen in the life of Jesus, who “withdrew to a lonely place” to mourn a loss (John 11:34), was filled with anguish (Matthew 26:38), and was acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).  Perhaps that is why Psalm 34:18 says he is “near to the brokenhearted.”  He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7) because he has been there. Paul rejoiced in his sufferings because they were “for the sake of the body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).  They enabled him to “comfort those who are in trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). God gives us the opportunity to be wounded healers, as was Jesus.  Our suffering enables us to more fully “bear another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). 

     Pain and suffering also force us to look beyond ourselves and see our need for other believers.  Paul uses the analogy of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:26-27:  “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.  Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.”

     In Ephesians 4:16, Paul talks about “the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”  There is the good of helping others; there is also the good of being helped.  

     While pain does play a crucial role in our contact with others, it also reminds us that we live in a fallen world full of sin. To borrow some of C.S. Lewis’ terminology, this megaphone of pain continues to remind us of our fallen nature, but this is not a cause for alarm or disappointment.  This message will benefit us as we are forced to acknowledge the strength of God as He works through our weakness.

     Without this reminder, it would be far too easy to live an easy life autonomously, forgetting who we are in relation to Christ.   After all, we will not even begin to surrender self-will when everything is going well.  Paul noted:
 “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.  But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are might; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28).
    The greatest work of God is done through fallen, frail vessels - as seen by the world.  In the eyes of God, this brokenness, which allows the acceptance of His power, is an opportunity for the manifestation of His glory as He empowers the individual and displays His glory to a watching world. Through suffering, we learn clearly our need for God. As Paul said, “We also are weak with Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you” (2 Corinthians 13:4)

    There is a third benefit to this awareness of our world of sin and suffering: it can help us focus on the life to come.  “This world is not my home,” rings the old hymn, “I’m just passing through.”  What reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven if not pain?

     Paul said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  Considering the litany of painful experiences in his life, one can hardly blame him.  The idea of a life of reward after this is not frightening; it is meant to comfort those in trials (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).  We do not see life as  dust and shadows, here and gone, with no redemption possible after the harshness of life. “Do not lose heart,” said Paul, “for our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but the things which are not seen.  For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). 

    The promise of future compensation gives us not only hope for the life to come, but also motivation for living a life pleasing to God.  As Paul notes, “our present suffering are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). St. Augustine once wrote, “If there were no resurrection of the dead, people wouldn’t think it was a power and a glory to abandon all that can give pleasure and to bear the pains of death and dishonor; instead, they would think it was stupid.”  

     Finally, suffering and pain can allow God to “make known the riches of His glory on  the vessels of His mercy” (Romans 9:23; 2 Corinthians 4:7).  Psalm 119, for example, shows that in the midst of trials David was humbled and awed as he acknowledged God’s provision, prevention, purpose, providence, and protection.

     Sometimes the majesty of God only becomes obvious as we see Him work all things, especially evil, to his purpose.  Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  

     For example, after Joseph was sold into slavery, he told his brothers years later, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19-20).
    This presentation of Paul’s theodicy is by no means exhaustive; then again, neither are Paul’s reasons.  Paul himself acknowledged the “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).  Though God has revealed a tremendous amount of His character and wisdom, by no means can we expect to grasp the depth or immensity of the ways of God on this side of Heaven.  However, we have hope that one day they will be understood.  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, then I will know fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

     While theologians and philosophers will certainly continue Jacob’s tradition of wrestling with God for answers, Paul reminds of several important things:  While God is under no obligation to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, and while God’s sovereignty must be embraced, He does not mind our questions.  He is big enough to handle the depth and force of our doubts. He will always be holy, just, and good, no matter our circumstances.

One day, a groaning creation will find its ultimate redemption in Him.  Until then, we trust and persevere.  

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