Suffering And God: The Refiner’s Fire


He is a refiner’s fire, and that makes all the difference. A refiner’s fire does not destroy indiscriminately like a forest fire. A refiner’s fire does not consume completely like the fire of an incinerator. A refiner’s fire refines. It purifies. It melts down the bar of silver or gold, separates out the impurities that ruin its value, burns them up, and leaves the silver and gold intact. He is like a refiner’s fire. (excerpt from Desiring God, “He Is Like a Refiner’s Fire” by John Piper)

One of the reasons I loved coaching so much was because I understand team sports as a microcosm of life. Teamwork, conflict, response to authority, hard work, patience—these are just some of the areas that confront athletes. Another is keeping the big picture in mind—winning isn’t everything; in fact, the game isn’t everything.

Then there is the key ingredient—a successful team suffers. Of course, we coaches don’t call it suffering—we call it training or conditioning. But the truth is, we put players through workouts we know will leave them weak and exhausted and hurting. Why? Because I hated my players? Hardly. The more potential I saw, the more I required of them. I pushed so they would be ready to face the opposition and overcome, but also so they would learn discipline and the necessity of preparation—in other words, things they could take with them long after they stopped playing team sports.

If I had hated my players, in fact, I would have pretty much ignored them. I saw a coach who treated his kids that way once. He would bring a lounge chair along to whatever game he was coaching, plop down, and pretty much let the kids do whatever they wanted to do. Like recess, some kids might think, How cool. But come game time, when that team was getting their clocks cleaned in a big way, none of those kids was having such a good time. I don’t know any of them, so can’t be sure, but I have to believe their experience in team sports at that level didn’t contribute in a positive way to their building traits they would need in life.

The point is clear. Just as coaches put their players through training, at times God takes His children through suffering. He wants to form us into the image of His Son. It’s one purpose of suffering, though certainly not the only one.

Someone with a different worldview that doesn’t account for eternal life may think God is cruel. Look at Joni Eareckson Tada—confined to a wheelchair since the age of 17 (she’s in her late 60’s now). How could she not become bitter and resentful toward God? I can only answer from what I’ve heard and read her saying, and one component is that she is looking forward to unending health once this life is over. Another is that her relationship with Jesus has become so sweet, she says she would never trade it for the use of her arms and legs.

My, what an impact that woman has had on thousands, maybe millions, not in spite of her disability but because of it. She is a living and breathing example of what the Apostle Paul said: “Power is perfected in weakness.”

He went on to add, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 10)

Easy for me to say, sitting comfortably in the land of the free and home of the brave, but what about that hypothetical girl in Sudan that I referenced in an earlier post? There are many people who have actually lived through the kind of abuse in the description. From Daughters of Hope by Kay Marshall Strom and Michele Rickett (InterVarsity Press)—a book composed of real life stories of women around the world:

The villagers said that government forces were capturing women and asking them whether they were Christian or Muslim. If the … response was “Christian,” the women were raped, mutilated, and left to die where others could see them as a warning.

“This woman was supposed to be an example to others who would dare to remain Christians,” Dr. Lidu said. “But I wish they could have heard her as she was recovering. She spent her time praising the name of Jesus!”

These women strengthen my faith. God doesn’t hate them. And while I might think the best is for Him to rescue those who are suffering out of the hands of evil men, God has a bigger, eternal, perspective. He knows that these women, though they may never leave that refugee camp or be free from the abuse, can impact thousands because of their faith. I, for one, can hardly wait to see the rewards stacking up for them in heaven.

This article is a revised version of one that first appeared here in November, 2008.

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Atheist Arguments: Suffering Proves God Doesn’t Exist


Since I first started having discussions with atheists, I’ve heard the claim that suffering proves God does not exist, so not surprisingly the topic came up today in my FB atheist group. This time the suffering had personal ramifications: the loved one of an atheist member of the group is going through a difficult time—a form of suffering. The twist is, the loved one is a devote Christian.

So the way atheists view suffering, God, if He exists, is either not powerful enough to do something about the suffering or He’s not good enough, not loving enough to change things. Which essentially means He is not God, or He does not exist at all.

Ten years ago I wrote on this subject in response to a commenter who asked the question about suffering by taking the discussion out of the hypothetical and general into the real and specific:

you should ask yourself sometime how is that an all powerful-all knowing god would allow a young girl in Sudan to be repeatedly raped, and then murdered? Do you think that she was begging a god to save her, but didn’t get his name right? Or perhaps this all knowing, full of love and mercy god has another plan, and we ought to all rejoice in this senseless death . . . it was the god’s will? Great, he heard the screams and prayers but was unmoved?

My edited response follows.

I want to turn the question around. How does an atheist explain such heinous behavior as the rape and murder of a child? If God does not exist, who is to blame for one person mistreating another?

The obvious answer is, Man himself is to blame. We humans hurt and misuse and abuse one another.

Why should belief in God change that obvious truth? Because God exists and is omnipotent, does Man stop doing terrible things to his fellow man?

My remarks from another discussion:

I believe that Man is sinful and that at some point God lets Man go the way he wishes to go.

Here’s an example. God was the authority of the fledgling nation of Israel, governing through prophets and judges. The people saw other nations ruled by kings and demanded a king of their own. God said, not a good plan, but OK. Actually this is the quote: And the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.” There’s more, but you get the gist. Thing is, God also gave them rules to follow—things the kings weren’t supposed to do . . . even though it was His desire to remain their King.

Here’s another example. Jesus was talking, telling the people that they were to have one wife, not to divorce. The people said, but Moses made provision for divorce, and Jesus answered, “Because of the hardness of your heart Moses permitted you to divorce . . .”

Later Paul spelled this out in one of his letters: “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts . . .”

The reality is, omnipotent, sovereign God lets Man have a say-so in what happens.

But here’s how I know what God’s true character is: Jesus was His perfect representative—God come to earth. And when He was asked, What’s the most important commandment, He answered by saying, Love God and the second is like it: love your neighbor. All the law and prophets are summed up by these two.

So, no, suffering doesn’t disprove God. In fact suffering confirms Mankind’s nature and the truth of the warnings God gave against sin.

To believe the contrary is like a little child cutting herself on the knife she is playing with after her dad told her not to touch it, then saying something like, “I don’t have a dad because if I did, he would have taken the knife away from me.”

Faulty reasoning.

Of course not all suffering comes from humans mistreating one another. But the reality is, when sin entered the world it began its corrupting influence on all of creation. Enter sickness and death and destruction.

The sad thing for atheists facing suffering is that they do not have a place of comfort or help or hope to which they can turn. They do not have God to fall before and ask for mercy. In truth He “is gracious and compassionate / Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness / And relenting of evil.” But how can atheists know this? Since they do not believe God exists, they won’t come to Him in the day of trouble. They’re essentially on their own.

A large portion of this post is revised from an article that appeared here in November, 2008.

Published in: on January 4, 2019 at 5:31 pm  Comments (20)  
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Accusations Against Christians — A Reprise


There’s quite a litany of accusations against Christians these days, from both non-Christians and others who call themselves Christians. Those charges include things such as Christians can’t do art or create good speculative fiction. More seriously, some say Christians are greedy and hypocritical and hateful.

Sadly a selection of very visible individuals or groups claiming the name of Christ have reinforced some of these ideas—pastors who end up having affairs, televangelists who preach health-and-wealth rather than sacrificial giving, sign-waving funeral crashers who condemn rather than present the good news.

But then there are individuals like the owner of Chick-fil-A who became the brunt of accusations because of his stand for monogamous, heterosexual marriage. He too was accused of being hateful.

Recently, as I was reading Scripture, I realized, we might as well get used to these sorts of recriminations. All the way back in the Old Testament, people proclaiming the truth about God and man’s sinful condition were tarnished with the brush of accusation.

Even Elijah. He prophesied during the reign of one of the most sinful kings Israel would know. Ahab married a pagan and proceeded to lead his people into idolatry like no king before him. He built temples and altars and assigned priests and made sacrifices to these false gods, all the while persecuting those who were faithful to the Lord God who lead them out of Egypt.

As judgment on the nation, God, through the prayer of Elijah, withheld rain from them for over three years. Needless to say, they suffered severe drought and famine. Ahab apparently conducted an extensive search for Elijah, thinking perhaps to force him to beseech God for rain. His search failed because God kept Elijah safe and supplied with food and drink.

When at last God told Elijah to return to Ahab, his first assignment before dealing with the drought was to confront the prophets of of the false god Baal. But before he could propose a showdown, Ahab accused him of troubling Israel.

Elijah didn’t let the accusation stand. Rather, he turned it back on Ahab:

He said, “I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, because you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and you have followed the Baals. (1 Kings 18:18)

Of course today such a statement would be seen as further evidence of a hateful, intolerant, unloving attitude.

I think this is why New Testament writers like Paul and Peter were instructing Christians about how to handle things like false accusations and suffering. Peter in his first letter makes a strong case for suffering for the sake of righteousness, not for wrong doing:

and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong. (1 Peter 3:16-17 — emphasis added)

In the end, it seems the only thing we as believers in Jesus Christ can do is live godly lives. Earlier Peter said

Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation . . . For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. (1 Peter 2:12, 15)

Apparently Jesus flipped the script, and Scripture says we are to follow His example:

And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:23).

“Hypocrites! Hateful! Greedy!” The accusations will come. The key is to silence our critics, not by taking a defensive stand, but by exhibiting good behavior with which the accusers cannot argue, then trusting God for the results.

With some minor revision, this article is a re-print of one that appeared here in November, 2012.

Published in: on November 26, 2018 at 4:43 pm  Comments (8)  
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A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing


From time to time in discussions I have with atheists they will claim some false idea as if it represents Christian thought. They usually back this up with a Bible verse, taken out of context.

This kind of thinking distresses me because ultimately it defames the name of Jesus Christ.

The other day I ran across someone in the FB atheist/theist group who took the atheist stand one step farther. He actually knows a lot about the Bible. His main point was not, the Bible is a myth. He still reached a position of disbelief, however, and he did it by twisting Scriptures.

What’s really sad is that he parroted the line of thinking typical of those I categorize as “health-and-wealthers.” Others call them word of faith and still others, proponents of the Prosperity Gospel. With the backing of Scripture the line goes something like this: God promises to defend, protect and heal. Jesus said, by His stripes we are healed. People who think God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, will depend on God to do for us today what He did for people in the Bible.

He concludes these beliefs lead them to choose God instead of medical science. As a result, bad things happen. Consequently, people should not fall for the idea that God actually can be trusted and depended upon.

What’s so off here is that this atheist, someone who identifies as a former pastor, is examining a false teaching, finding it in error, and concluding that Christianity is unreliable, that God is untrue.

I have to admit, this is a new one for me. But it fits with all other error. It comes from A LITTLE knowledge. This Atheist Pastor (or AP) has more Bible knowledge than do most atheists, but he is still far from the truth. He apparently has gone no deeper into Scripture than have the false teachers he echoes.

Otherwise he would know that Job’s friends who spent days with him, essentially accusing him of wrong doing because he was suffering, were the ones who were wrong. Surely, God would not allow suffering if you haven’t sinned, they said. Well, surprise. Not true. And when God showed up in person, He accepted Job because he repented. The friends needed Job to intercede for them. I’ve wondered if that didn’t come with a bit of instruction on his part, explaining what he’d learned about God: that He is sovereign, that He won’t be manipulated, that He isn’t dependent upon us in the tiniest way.

Of course the AP and the false teachers he was critiquing also ignore what Peter says about suffering:

Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. AND DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.(1 Peter 3:13-17; emphases here and in the following passages, mine)

But there’s more:

For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God (v 2:20).

Peter’s not done yet:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. (4:12-16)

Of course these are by no means the only passages that deal with suffering in a way that demonstrates the falsehood of the health-and-wealth position.

The point is, this AP and the false teachers he critiqued have some knowledge. Yes, the verses they quote are in Scripture. But instead of wrestling with how they can exist side by side with verses such as Peter wrote, or with what James said when he told believers to call suffering, joy, they ignore the parts of the Bible that don’t fit in with the paradigm they have created. The one ignores them as a way to manipulate God. The other ignores them as a way to accuse God. Both are wrong because they depend only on the little knowledge they have.

I’ve believed for a very long time that Christians need to read the Bible. But this encounter has left me more fully convinced than ever.

People can disbelieve the Bible completely and leave it alone. They can believe what someone has told them about the Bible and discount it, distort it, or accept it, based on who they actually are trusting. Lots of Christians do this latter. They listen to a pastor or a family member or a teacher who tells them what the Bible says. And they believe what they’ve been told. But what happens when those tenets are challenged? What happens when someone with compelling arguments against their beliefs comes along?

No, the way to handle the Bible is not second hand. We ought all to be reading it for ourselves, from cover to cover, taking the whole counsel of God and wrestling with what we find there.

God Gets All The Blame


I hear it all the time, even from those who say they don’t believe in God: people die and suffer; there are wars and sickness and way too much cruelty and pain. And it’s God’s fault. Even Christians are bent on reserving the right to be mad at God, because if something goes wrong, well, it has to be His fault.

Really?

Seems to me, God told Adam and Eve not to eat from that one specific tree. You could almost say, that one insignificant tree, because they could eat from all the others at their disposal. All the ones that would give life, that would provide nourishment, that would NOT lead to death.

In addition, God did not hide the consequences from them: Don’t do this, because it will result in that. Sort of like saying, Don’t touch this live wire because it will result in your death. Or, don’t smoke this because it will result in cancer. Or, don’t drink rat poison because it will kill you.

Like that.

Eve allows herself to be tricked. The method Satan-in-snake-guise used was to make her question if she got the facts right: did God really say you’d die? Oh, surely not!

Adam was the one God had given the command to, so he knew exactly what God said, and he just flat out went for the poison, touched the live wire, smoked the cancer stick.

And then he blamed God. Well, indirectly. First he blamed Eve. And remember, God, You gave her to me. Hint, hint: it was Your fault.

Except it was their fault. God had made them in His image, so they had free choice. They were not robots. God could have made robots, but then we would not have been in His image. He determined that creating choosing people was better than creating robots.

So is God responsible for the choices we humans make? Especially when He spells out what the consequences of those choices will be? I don’t see it.

One of the principals who was my boss during a stretch of my teaching career, required each teacher to reduce our classroom rules to five. We were to list them and post them in the room, along with the consequences for breaking them.

One of mine was to turn in homework on time. The consequence for not doing so was a negative mark against the student’s grade. So for the students who received the lower grade because they didn’t turn in their homework [barring some unforeseen circumstances], who was responsible? The principal for requiring the rules and consequences? Me, for determining that doing homework should affect grades?

Blaming God for the suffering we humans bring on ourselves is no different.

And we do bring on our own suffering because we have Adam’s sin nature. We endure the consequences he walked into because our nature is just like his nature. He was made in the image of God, and then he sinned. We are made with Adam’s nature, meaning that we have God’s imprint on us, but we have Adam’s same fatal flaw.

Adam didn’t come into the world with a fatal flaw. We do.

How can you have a perfect society when it is made up of people with fatal flaws? And how is a broken society, God’s fault?

God’s image which we still bear, allows us to do amazing things and dream great dreams. It means we can be kind and thoughtful and generous and patient. Adam’s fatal flaw means we can be rebellious and selfish and cruel and dishonest.

The suffering we experience doesn’t result from the things God gave us. Suffering is a result of the things Adam passed on.

And the consequence is just what God said it would be. That He told us what would come out of rebellion does not mean that God is at fault for our rebellion.

In some ways, when Christians blame God it’s even worse. We know that God loves us, that He rescued us from the dominion of darkness, that He wants us to be like His Son, that He has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us. And still so many play the blame game. God, why didn’t You . . . You should have done things my way.

I suspect part of the problem is that many Christians who know the Scripture that tells us God causes all things to work together for our good, become disappointed because we want to define good. Instead, God tells us what He means: “And those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…”

Sometimes, in the conforming process we don’t get what we want. If we always ate candy for breakfast, we wouldn’t be healthy. God wants us to be healthy, spiritually, and He will feed us accordingly.

It’s not appropriate for a child whose parent says, No candy for breakfast, to stamp her foot and scream, I hate you. The parent has the good of the child at heart,

This past fall I watched a parent take her daughter to get a flu shot. The child cried and said No over and over. But the parent insisted. Not because she hated her daughter. Just the opposite. She loved her daughter, and although the little girl would experience a brief sense of pain, the long term benefits were worth going through the suffering. The mom knew this. The daughter needed to trust that her mom was right.

That’s really where we all are. We need to put our hand in the hand of the only One who knows what’s best for us and walk with Him, even when we don’t see the good that will come from the pain.

Published in: on March 7, 2018 at 5:44 pm  Comments Off on God Gets All The Blame  
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Suffering And God’s Blessing Are Incompatible?


Uh, I don’t think so. Suffering is very much a part of the experience of a child of God who also experiences His blessings. I explored this myth in a June 2013 post which I’ve revised below.

– – – – –

Most people probably wouldn’t want to admit it, but if they’ve taken the time to read the book of Job, they’re inclined to think his friends make a lot of good points. I mean, can we really disagree with Eliphaz when he says,

According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity
And those who sow trouble harvest it.
(Job 4:8)

Of course, we have the prologue in the first chapter that tells us Satan is testing Job, but without that information, what would we honestly think about him?

He was rich beyond measure, well respected in the community, generous to the poor and needy, godly in every respect. And then one day, his world collapses. He loses practically everything he owns, his children die in a freakish storm, and then he himself gets sick. Horribly, painfully sick.

Would we conclude that God’s favor is on this man?

Again, I understand how the idea that suffering and God’s blessing are incompatible got a foothold in evangelical circles. After all, there is some Biblical foundation. Take Psalm 1, for example.

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish. (emphasis mine)

Clearly, in this contrast between the righteous and the wicked, God is saying there are advantages for the righteous. Those advantages could easily be interpreted as here and now.

However, there are also any number of passages that indicate suffering has nothing to do with wickedness. Christ Himself suffered, and we are to experience the “fellowship of His sufferings.” Peter and John suffered because they wouldn’t stop preaching about Jesus. Paul suffered a “thorn in his side” which God would not heal. Stephen suffered to the point of death.

In the end, the Christian who believes the Bible and doesn’t just give lip service to it, must take into consideration its entire counsel if we are to understand what God wants to teach us about suffering.

A brief summary shows that suffering

    * may come as a part of persecution
    * can be a blessing
    * may be a result of Satan’s opposition
    * sometimes exists solely to bring God glory
    * is something in which we can rejoice
    * is experienced by our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world
    * can be experienced by those who are doing wrong

One thing that seems absent is the idea that suffering is a sure sign of sin. Peter says it’s far better for us to suffer for doing right rather than for doing wrong, and he commands believers to make sure they don’t suffer as “a murder or thief or evil doer or a troublesome meddler.” But if we suffer as Christians, he says we’re not to be ashamed.

So Peter highlights the fact that suffering can be a consequence of sin or a result of persecution. In other words, there is no automatic, “this is what suffering means” answer.

Peter actually seems to look favorably on suffering. In his first letter, he starts chapter 4 by saying, “Therefore since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

I’m not sure exactly what he meant by that last line, but clearly, he was looking at suffering in a completely different way than do most western evangelical Christians.

I think about the newly converted Paul having to leave Damascus in a basket because his fellow Jews were trying to kill him for preaching Jesus. I suspect today if someone had a similar experience, they’d write a book about being disappointed with God for not smoothing the path for their preaching or they’d give an interview about how they lost their faith because God couldn’t be counted on.

The fact is, we put God on trial and judge Him based on whether He gets us, out or keeps us out, of uncomfortable, hard places. When we walk through the fire, we think God has messed up, but the prophet Isaiah said,

When you pass through the water, I will be with you
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you. (Isaiah 43:2)

There’s no promise there that the waters won’t be overwhelming or that the fire won’t come near. Instead, God does give the promise of His presence, His direction, and even His protection in the midst of suffering.

James says, “When you encounter various trials,” not if you encounter various trials.

The real question doesn’t seem to be “will we face suffering,” or even “why do we face suffering,” but “how will we face suffering.”

As long as western evangelical Christians buy the myth that suffering is incompatible with God’s blessing, I don’t see how we can respond with the kind of joy Peter and James both talk about.

Published in: on February 5, 2018 at 4:45 pm  Comments (3)  
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Pollen—A Reprise


I was a hay fever kid. Every spring, especially during recess or P.E. class, newly mowed grass gave me fits. I was also allergic to ragweed, but apart from those two plants, I managed.

Unlike others, I neither out-grew the condition nor became worse, though I discovered one more thing I’m allergic to—more than anything else I’ve ever encountered. And it so happens I am living right next to it.

Just beyond the fence is a beautiful tall, full tree that offers wonderful shade in the summer. In the fall, which is usually in December here in SoCal, the tree begins to lose its leaves. Sometime after the first winter rain, it starts growing little blossoms which eventually produce new leaves. In the process those tiny yellow flowers release a fine yellow pollen, visible on our car windshields, porch, stairs.

It is that pollen I am allergic to.

Mind you, I’m not complaining, though some times I fall into a bit of a grumble. Except, I don’t want that tree gone. How many people live in the Los Angeles basin and can look out a window without seeing another apartment building or house? Plus there’s that extra shade which makes a ten to fifteen degree difference in the summer temperatures. I like this tree. I just don’t like its pollen.

Except, of course, the tree would have no leaves if there were no pollen. And Science 101 says pollen is important for bees and such—the whole Eco-system. I’ll have to take the word of the experts on that one. I just know, I have to take the bad if I want the good. And I do want the good.

This whole pollen thing seems a bit like an illustration of all of life. Things happen—a broken wrist, a rejection notice from an agent, a promotion that goes to someone else, a fender bender on the way home from work, a minor stroke. All such things are much like the pollen—those are not things anyone wants. Except without them, we don’t have the growth needed that can get us through the days when the temperature rises. The tough things train us spiritually.

“Consider it all joy,” James says, “when you encounter various trials knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2-3).

Peter says positive things about hard times too:

In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7)

For a little while things might be hard, but rejoicing is still possible because there will be a reveal.

Writers like reveals. It’s something we need to put into our novels to create those A-ha moments for readers. And of course the biggest and the best reveal is saved for last. So too in real life.

Now the days of pollen will serve as more than a reminder that new leaves are coming on the wonderful shade tree that will cool my place in the summer. Now I have one more reminder that God makes joy and rejoicing out of the various trials He allows because the great A-ha is coming!

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in February 2012 and again in February 2015.

Which Comes First? – Thoughts On The Psalms


A few years back my pastor at the time discussed a study of the book of Psalms by Walter Bruegemann in which he categorized the various psalms in three groups: Orientation, Disorientation, or Reorientation.

The Orientation psalms view the world based on an orientation toward God. They praise Him all-out. They speak of His mercy, His wonders, His glory. There are no shadows in those psalms. Psalm 100 would be an example of an orientation psalm, I believe.

Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the Lord Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.

Enter His gates with thanksgiving
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations.

They “express a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” They “give expression . . . to the reality that God is trustworthy and reliable.” (Quotes from Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Bruegemann).

As you might guess, then, the Disorientation psalms view the world as broken. They are the psalms that Job might have written at his lowest point. They could be considered laments. They mourn for what is lost and plead for God to hear and answer. And then they end. Psalm 88 is an example of a Disorientation psalm, ending with these lines:

They have surrounded me like water all day long;
They have encompassed me altogether.
You have removed lover and friend far from me;
My acquaintances are in darkness.

Then come the Reorientation psalms. These are songs that begin with questions, with a focus on the broken world, and then reach a turning point in which the psalmist sees the world more completely because he’s now taking God into account. Psalm 73 is a good example of a Reorientation psalm:

When I pondered to understand this,
It was troublesome in my sight
Until I came into the sanctuary of God;
Then I perceived their end. (vv 16-17)

The Reorientation psalms seem clearly to begin with a problem—affliction by enemies or an observation of the prosperity of the wicked or an unanswered prayer. As the psalmist cries out to God, he finds the answer to his situation in God.

But what about the Orientation and Disorientation psalms—which comes first? The implication from what my pastor said was that Orientation came first, then “reality” set in—or at least hardship did. In other words, all is well, so people praise God unreservedly. Then all hell breaks loose and people lament. At some point there’s a realignment of perspective that takes into consideration both the greatness of God and the disappointments of life.

But must it be so? Why couldn’t the order be Disorientation, brought on by the Fall, Reorientation, when the truth of God sinks in, and Orientation, when all is seen as under His sovereign ordering, so praise is not dependent upon circumstances in the least.

I’m mindful of this because of something I read by the late literary agent Lee Hough who was battling cancer for a year or more. As he awaited learning the effect of his latest treatments, he wrote in part

So, again, the cancer is back. Now what?

Whether I’m healed of cancer in this life or not – God is good.

Whether I’m healed of cancer in this life or not – God is faithful.

Whether I’m healed of cancer in this life or not – God is merciful.

Whether I’m healed of cancer in this life or not – God is loving.

His life was disoriented, but his faith was firmly oriented. What private laments did he and his wife express? I couldn’t say. But God was the hero of Lee’s story since he first began writing about his experience with cancer.

It is in reading his praise of God, his unswerving trust in God, his undiminished confidence in God’s character that my faith grows. Obviously, Lee did not write out of a naive trust in God when all was bright and sunny, with his future here on earth looking rosy. He wrote from the unknown, from the valley of the shadow, caught between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea. He wrote as one “going, not knowing.”

And his words make me think of Paul’s:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)

It seems to me, the clearer we see God—when we no longer put our eyes on the enemies chasing us or the friends betraying us or the cancer, the famine, the lost income, or the prosperous cheats—when we see God without distractions because we know nothing can separate us from His love, I think our praise will be like Orientation psalms, like the praise of the angels around God’s throne. The more nearly we understand Him, the more clearly we’ll sing His praise—not because of ignorance of suffering or out of naiveté. Rather, because of an awareness of suffering and evil, knowing that God is greater than all of it. Therein lines the purest praise, I think.

This post is a revised edition of one that first appeared here in February 2013.

Published in: on January 10, 2018 at 5:37 pm  Comments (3)  
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Worry And Mrs. Job


I tend to be hard on Job’s wife. I mean, who takes a vow “for better or worse,” then when the worst happens, says, “Just give up. Deny God and end your life.” It’s a brutal response to someone who has lost everything. But I tend to forget: Mrs. Job had lost everything, too.

Scripture gives us the impression that, though many of the Jewish patriarchs practiced polygamy, she was Job’s only wife. Hence, the seven sons and three daughters who died where her seven sons and three daughters, too. We can postulate as well that when Job was stripped of his wealth, Mrs. Job was also plunged into poverty along with him.

It really ought not to be surprising, then, that Mrs. Job looked at the sudden destruction of all that had given her security and happiness, and fell into despair. What was she to do? Her husband was so sick he could do nothing but sit in the ashes and scrape his skin with a bit of a ceramic pot.

What did that mean for her future? Her children were gone, so there was no one she could count on to provide for her day after day or care for her into her old age. She was bereft of all that had given her stability.

In her mind, apparently, God had done this to her husband. Interesting, I think, that she didn’t curse Job, as if he was at fault. She had to have known that he was a man of integrity who revered God and turned away from evil. So the fault was God’s, she figured.

But what does all this have to do with worry? At its heart, worry is nothing more than fear of the future. What if X happens or Z doesn’t materialize? How will we make it if A turns into B? Mrs. Job was faced with the biggest questions of her life: how was she going to survive now that she was poor; how was she going to care for a sick husband; how was she going to live another day with a God who had turned against her?

But that was the critical issue. Had God turned against her? Some might argue that no, she just got caught up in the backwash of God’s dealing with Job and Satan. But that idea minimizes God’s omniscience, sovereignty, and lovingkindness for each person He created. Did He forget that what happened to Job would have repercussions on Mrs. Job? Unlikely.

So did God turn a blind eye to her? Not in the least. She and Job, I suspect, were much more of a package deal than we realize. Not until after Mrs. Job counseled her husband to curse God and die did he begin to rue the day of his birth (Job 3:1). True, his initial response to her was one of the great testimonies of faith:

But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 2:10)

But a week later he was questioning why he’d ever been born:

“Why did I not die at birth,
Come forth from the womb and expire?
Why did the knees receive me,
And why the breasts, that I should suck?” (Job 3:11-12)

Would he have reached that dark place of doubt without his wife’s suggestion? Impossible to know. But it seems clear they both came to a point where they were not looking at God and saying, in spite of their horrific circumstances, Blessed be the name of the Lord.

But that’s precisely where we all need to be, no matter what we have or what we’ve lost. God’s kingdom and righteousness are to be our focus, according to Matt. 6:33.

We aren’t to be seeking how to replace the 500 donkeys or to scrape up an army to go after the Chaldeans who stole the camels or campaign for storm-proof housing to spare our children—at least we aren’t to be seeking these things first. In reality, seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness might ultimately lead to a restoration of what we’ve lost. It did for Job. But first, he needed to see God as He is.

“I know that You can do all things,
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, now, and I will speak;
I will ask You, and You instruct me.’
I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear;
But now my eye sees You;
Therefore I retract,
And I repent in dust and ashes
.” (Job 42:2-6, emphasis mine)

I submit, the only worry-free zone is the space in which we are clinging to God rather than to our thousands of sheep, oxen, camels, and donkeys . . . or even to our children or our husband or our health. God calls us to make Him our focus, and one way or another, He’ll see us through, as He did Mrs. Job, to the other side of the dark valley in which we’re walking.

Apart from some slight editing, this article first appeared here in January 2014.

Published in: on December 28, 2017 at 5:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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Jesus And Suffering


I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering of late because, as I mention earlier this week, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Joni Eareckson Tada’s diving accident that left her paralyzed. And, “coincidentally” a friend lent me a book that Joni wrote twenty years ago on the subject of suffering.

I checked out the book on Amazon the other day when I wrote about it for this blog, and I was stunned to find a one-star review. Stunned, I tell you! I think of Joni as the quintessential expert on the subject of suffering. I mean, fifty years a quadriplegic, but on top of that a cancer survivor and now one ravaged by the pain of a body suffering from its own immobility.

So, yes, I think Joni knows what she’s talking about when she addresses the subject of suffering.

But even what she has endured pales in comparison to what Jesus experienced.

His whole life was a kind of suffering because He “emptied Himself” when He took the likeness of Man (see Phil. 2). Scholars debate the meaning of that phrase, but one thing we can be sure of—it ain’t positive. He wasn’t enriched by the experience, He wasn’t having a picnic, He wasn’t going on vacation. In some way, the incarnation cost Him. From the beginning.

People will sometimes reference Christ’s humble surroundings at birth—the feeding trough, the stable, with the presumed accompanying smells and sounds. But I think that’s kind of missing the point. God was now a baby boy. He did all the normal things that babies do. He likely spit up, maybe sucked His thumb, slept a lot.

This is God we’re talking about—the One who sustains the universe with a word. But now His words were baby sounds. Now those are humble beginnings. And a type of suffering we can’t know.

Things never got easier for Jesus. He went from insignificant to misunderstood, rejected, betrayed, and denied. Oh, and then He was crucified.

Jesus knew all about suffering. He’s the one who shows us how God can use suffering.

I think of the Christians in Syria who are persecuted for their faith, and to the surprise of many in the West, more and more people are coming to Christ. Would they have done so it their lives were easy?

Think about the start of Christianity. After that initial response to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, suffering set in. Persecution. Martyrdom. Exile. And things only got worse. Certain Roman Caesars set out to eliminate Christians from their empire. Their ways of killing them were horrific and painful.

Did all that suffering stop the movement of God in the hearts of people? Not at all. In truth, those who had nothing, whose very lives hung in a balance spoke out boldly and pressed themselves to the Father’s side. The only comfort and joy and peace came from Jesus, not their circumstances. And they simply couldn’t be silent.

Joni Eareckson Tada reminds me of that. Her joy and peace and contentment have little to do with her physical life. Oh, sure, things could be worse than they are. I mean she could be homeless and without the necessities of life.

Oh, wait, there are Christians like that, too, and they still exhibit the joy of the Lord. How can that be? It’s not an issue of mind over matter or us pulling ourselves up by our own positive thinking. It’s actually all about the reality of Jesus Christ—His supremacy and His sweetness.

John Piper explains in this 8-minute video entitled “What Is the Secret of Joy in Suffering?”