In the two previous blogs we’ve looked at the idea that everything happens for a reason and everything that happens in our lives is a part of God’s plan. I wrote about some of my problems with both of those ideas. I wrote about Tevye and his idea that God is the cause of everything that happened. Indeed, many Rabbis teach that God is the cause of anything and everything that happens on planet earth, and yet, human beings are completely free moral agents who must face the consequences of their behavior. Talk about ambiguity. Honestly, both ideas are held in tension throughout the Holy Scriptures. Catholics, and other Christian groups have the same idea. St. Teresa of Avila once fell into the mud. She got up and indigently said to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so many enemies.”
Do you remember the story of Joseph, in the book of Genesis? Joseph’s brothers hated him, and at an opportune moment sold him into slavery. Joseph was taken to Egypt and sold to a wealthy man named Potiphar. Because the blessing of God was upon Joseph, it wasn’t long before Potiphar promoted him, putting Joseph in charge of all he owned. However, Joseph was set up, arrested and thrown into prison. The Scripture says that even in prison, “The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love,” by giving him favor with the warden of the Prison. In prison he was given an important position as the assistant to the Warden. While he was there, the Pharaoh had his chief butler and chief baker thrown into prison. Both of these men had disturbing dreams which Joseph gave correct interpretations of. The Chief Butler was restored to his position and the Chief Baker was executed. Two years later the Pharaoh had a dream which confounded the wise men of Egypt. The Chief Butler told Pharaoh about Joseph who was immediately taken out of prison and brought before Pharaoh. Joseph correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s prophetic dream which foretold of seven years of abundant crops followed by seven years of horrible drought, famine, and privation. Because of the correct interpretation, Joseph is put in charge of preparations for the coming famine. After 13 years of slavery and prison, Joseph is raised up to one of the highest offices in the land of Egypt. When the famine was in full swing, who should show up to get some grain but the very brothers who sold Joseph into slavery. Joseph meets their need and moves his father to Egypt. After the death of his father Jacob, his brothers were concerned and said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil which we did to him.” 16 So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died, 17 ‘Say to Joseph, Forgive, I pray you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, we pray you, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 His brothers also came and fell down before him, and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Fear not, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus, he reassured them and comforted them.” Genesis 50:15-21 RSVCE This is a foundational story for the idea that God orchestrates everything that happens on earth and brings good out of evil.
However, even though this was true for Joseph, is it true for all of God’s children? We all know people who could fall into a pile of manure and come up smelling like a rose. Sadly, we also know people who could fall into a pile of roses and come up smelling like manure. Everyone of us could tell stories of people who fell into bad times never to recover, or those who died, for no apparent reason, horribly painful deaths. Despite these stories we still have the promise from scripture that God, “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.” Romans 8:28. How can we reconcile the promises of Scripture with the experiences we’ve had when they seem to contradict each other?
Kate Bowler struggles with these ideas in her book, Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved. She asks the question, “What if everything is random? A woman who has left the faith for science writes: “I find it comforting to believe the universe is random, because then the God I believe in is no longer cruel.” This is the painful conclusion of many who comb through the details of their tragedies and find no evidence that God was ever there. The world, it seems, is also filled with fathers and mothers begging for their children’s lives and hearing nothing but silence. And, ever after, every church service that sings that God is good, rattles like tin in their ears. There can only be one reasonable conclusion, says a father, whose children have been cut down by disease: no one is listening.” Pg. 114 The book doesn’t really attempt to answer these questions, but rather asks us not to impose, or attempt to comfort others with our theological reasons and ideas. C.S. Lewis agrees and writes, ““Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”
The book of Job is the story of a man who was, blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” 1:1b. One disaster after another comes upon him including: the death of his seven sons and three daughters, the loss of all of his livestock and servants, the loss of most of his possessions, and finally the loss of his health as great sores broke out from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. The text says that, “despite all this Job did not sin with his mouth” but only said, “The Lord gives, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” The author goes on to say, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” The rest of the book is filled with discussions about how God would never allow something this terrible to come upon an innocent person. Job’s friends come to comfort, rebuke, and exhort him back to health. The problem is they don’t know what they are talking about. The Lord rebukes Job’s comforters and says, “My wrath is kindled against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” 42:7b. The point of Job is that you can do everything right and be an upright moral person but have everything in your life fall apart. The answer to the question, why do bad things happen to good people? seems to be, because we live in a dangerous world. We must never take God’s place and stand in judgement of someone who is going through a terrible time.
I feel like I’m going around in circles attempting to answer questions that are unanswerable this side of eternity. One thing I do know is that Jesus brings God, and God’s intentions, into sharp focus. All the sorrow, pain, agony and grief, drives me to Jesus not away from him. As St. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68. When I don’t know what to say, how to answer, or why things are the way they are; when I’m overwhelmed by sorrow, pain, and despair, I run to Jesus. I look at the one who died a horrible death, so that we could live. Jesus came to save us from the horrors of this wonderful, beautiful, and very dangerous planet.
I sit at Jesus’ feet and hear what he has to say about God and find he calls him daddy. Jesus teaches us to live for eternity, because life is short. If the promise is for heaven NOW, your best life NOW, your eternal reward NOW, Jesus’ teachings make no sense at all. In one place Jesus teaches us, “So have no fear of other people; for nothing is covered that will not be revealed or hidden that will not be known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops. 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.[e] 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:26-33. Don’t be afraid of people because all they can do is kill you??? Jesus always speaks from an eternal perspective, one that often escapes us. Our Lord Jesus, through his crucifixion and resurrection, has conquered death and wants to share resurrection life with everyone.
I’m reminded of a story that appeared in Guidepost Magazine a few years ago. A woman from Saline, Michigan, was in great fear and distress because her son had drowned in a lake. His body was recovered, and they were able to get his heart started again. He was rushed to University of Michigan, Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, where he remained in a coma. The doctors were not hopeful for a complete recovery. She was sleeping in His room and had a vivid dream of walking through the most beautiful field, filled with flowers of brilliant color. Suddenly her son ran up to her, all excited and happy. They walked hand in hand through the field towards a tree, under which Jesus stood. When they got to him, she began to plead for her son’s life. “He is too young to die,” she said to Jesus. Jesus looked at her with eyes full of love and compassion and answered, “No one is too young to die.” Unfortunately, I cannot remember how the story ends. But it sounds like the Jesus who tells us not to be afraid of people because they can only kill us. It also resembles a lot of near-death stories being told today.
Dr. Mary Neal, in the TEDxJacksonHole presentation entitled, Death Brings Context to Life, tells of her experience with her near, or after death experience. She died in 1999 by drowning in a kayaking accident where she was pinned under 8 to 10 feet of water, under a waterfall, for over thirty minutes. She says, “I was taken through a life review that had little to do with judgment, and everything to do with understanding and compassion and grace; and I was shown the beauty that came out of every heartbreak, every challenge and every disappointment, of my life…I’m here tonight to tell you that death is nothing more than a doorway to home, and it is the very existence of this home, that brings context, purpose, and meaning to our time here on earth…The reality and existence of our true and permanent spiritual home, the one I discovered on the other side of death, and the knowledge that I, and you, will be going back there one day, brings a context to my time on earth allows me to see and experience life as a great adventure, with great meaning and purpose in both good times and bad. ”
Former Harvard Professor, Roy H. Schoeman, tells of his experience in a meeting with God, which sounds a lot like a near death experience. He writes, “It was early one morning, in early June…I was walking on the dunes…with the singing birds before the world woke up, when I, for a lack of better words, “I fell into heaven.” That is, I found myself consciously and tangibly in the presence of God. I saw my life to date, laid out before me, seeing it as though I were reviewing it in the presence of God after death. I saw everything that I would be pleased about and everything I would regret. I also knew, from one instant to the next, that the meaning and purpose of my life was to love and serve my Lord and God; I saw how His love enveloped and sustained me, every moment of my existence; I saw how everything I did had a moral content for good or ill, and mattered more than I would ever know; I saw how everything that had ever happened in my life was the most perfect thing that could be arranged for my own good by an all good, all loving God, especially those things which caused me the most suffering at the time; I saw that my two greatest regrets at the moment of death would be all of the time and energy I had wasted worrying about not being loved, when every moment of my existence I was held in the sea of God’s unimaginably great love, and every hour I had wasted not doing anything of value in the eyes of God.” Salvation is From the Jews, The Role of Judaism in Salvation History from Abraham to the Second Coming, pg. 359, italics his.
Did you notice that Dr. Neil said she was shown, “the beauty that came out of every heartbreak, every challenge and every disappointment, of my life”? Roy Schoeman said almost the same exact words. “I saw how everything that had ever happened in my life was the most perfect thing that could be arranged for my own good by an all good, all loving God, especially those things which caused me the most suffering at the time.” This takes me back to the idea that when St. Paul writes, “God works all things together for good, for those who love God,” he means our Eternal good. St. John writes, “Beloved, we are God’s Children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see him as he is.” In other words, God will take every pain, every disappointment, every feeling of depression and despair, to make me more like Jesus. We are not cast from his presence by our struggle, failure, anger, or sin. When you feel hopeless remember that the one who never sinned, cried out from the cross,”My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?”
If we could regain the eternal, Kingdom Perspective, that Jesus, the Apostles, and most Christians, held on to, for the past 2,000 years, it would go a long way in bringing comfort and strength to those whose lives are filled with disease, death and destruction. Why is it that for centuries Christians longed for martyrdom, and opportunities to suffer for Christ? Whereas, today, in the west, we believe that God has abandoned us if we get a terminal disease? I’ve known of pastors who were fired because their wife, or child, died of cancer. To the congregation, the death of a loved one proves you are a fraud, with no real faith. Sounds a lot like Job’s comforters.
I had said that this would be the last post in this series. I was wrong. Next time I want to look at some ways in which Christians have dealt with suffering, loss, and death, in the ancient past. Please continue to pray for us and be assured we will continue to pray for you.