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.

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Published in: on February 5, 2018 at 4:45 pm  Comments (3)  
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Job’s Problem


I think sometimes we Christians idolize Job. After all, the Bible dedicates a whole book to his story, and later James, in the New Testament, commends him: “We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (5:11). Clearly he’s saying Job is one who is blessed since he’s one who endured.

Further, early in Job’s story, he’s such a great example of righteousness that the Bible states, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10b).

Why, then, at the end of the book does Job say, “Therefore I retract, / And I repent in dust and ashes” (42:6).

What’s he repenting of?

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he had any reason to repent. After all, he was the one who suffered all the loss. He was the one who his friends accused unjustly. He was innocent and yet he stood condemned in their eyes.

Reminds me of Jesus who was truly innocent, not just of the crimes His accusers leveled at Him, but of any crimes of any kind—ones with His mouth, with His actions, with His thoughts, with His will. And Peter (who was in a great position to know) tells us, “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).

Unfortunately, in the end, Job couldn’t say the same thing. He started out well, but a week into the mournful, silent visit from his friends, he was no longer praising God as he had initially when his kids died and his servants were captured or killed and when he lost his flocks. Back then he’d said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, / And naked I shall return there. / The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. / Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).

But now? He was depressed. He wished he hadn’t been born. Even more, he accused God of wronging him.

The thing that Job understood that his friends didn’t was that God is sovereign. The friends thought God was more like a programmed machine, obligated to respond to humankind’s behavior. So sin had to be punished. Since Job was obviously being punished (suffering), he must have sinned.

Job knew he hadn’t sinned. He knew his own heart. There weren’t any secret sins such as his friends were accusing him of:

“My foot has held fast to His path;
I have kept His way and not turned aside.
I have not departed from the command of His lips;
I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food. (23:11-12)

So in Job’s mind, God had to be treating him unjustly. He attacks the idea that the wicked are always punished. No they aren’t he says. They flourish right along side the righteous. And in the end, everybody dies.

But he also says God has wronged him. He’s silent and won’t tell him why He’s unjustly causing Job such pain.

In the end, God sets Job straight. He thought he knew God as sovereign, but God took his understanding one step further, from knowledge to trust.

And so Job repented.

Is he a hero of the faith? I think so. Is he a perfect model for believers to follow in times of suffering? Not really. Not until the end when he grasped that God is transcendent and all powerful and understands more than we can ever imagine, that He can be trusted.

The interesting thing to me is that Job, although serving as a type for Christ—a person symbolizing or exemplifying the suffering of the Messiah—had the opportunity to take it all the way home. He could have “entrusted himself to Him who judges righteously.”

I guess that makes him more like us so we relate to him. Thankfully he got there in the end: he learned to trust God because He is God.

Published in: on December 29, 2017 at 6:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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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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Thoughts About Job, His Friends, And God


job003Today I finished reading the book of Job, which means I’ve been thinking about Job and his sorry friends of late. For one thing, the real subject of the book of Job seems to be God’s character. I’ve read snatches of commentary about the book and heard sermons and even read fiction based on Job’s story and much of it seems to focus on the “wager” between God and Satan.

Oddly, I don’t see a wager. That would reduce the exchange to a “betcha he will/betcha he won’t” argument. There is no “betting” when it comes to omniscience, as if God might actually be wrong in His assessment of Job.

Instead, He pointed out Job to Satan as an example of righteousness, and Satan turned around and accused God of buying Job’s loyalty. Job only loved God because of all the good stuff God gave him—wealth, a loving family, protection, health.

God basically said, See for yourself if that’s true, which it wasn’t

Here’s the part that I’ve come to understand. Job’s friends, perhaps the first health-and-wealth theologians, in essence agreed with Satan, though they came at it from the opposite side. They said, Job, you’re suffering because you did something wrong. If you will just do right (or stop doing wrong), God will reward you for it. Which is another way of saying, God pays people to love Him.

In other words, they were putting God in a box and telling Job he had the capacity to manipulate God into blessing him and prospering him.

Job countered by saying, No, he hadn’t done anything to bring down God’s wrath. He still loved God, still believed in doing what was right, but God was punishing him anyway.

Here’s where Job sinned. He accused God too. Accused Him of wronging Job, to the point that he justified himself at God’s expense. (God even asked him, “Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?” – Job 40:8b)

But the critical point comes when God spells out for all of them the truth about Himself:

Who has given to Me that I should repay him?
Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine. (Job 41:11)

Satan was wrong in his accusation of God. God doesn’t need to pay off His creatures to love Him. Job’s friends were wrong in their description of God. He can’t be manipulated into giving us good things as payment for our obedience. Job was wrong because He said God had turned against Him for no reason. He was measure God’s goodness by how He treated Job.

Of course, God also called Job to account for his pride.

His description in verses 12 through 33 of chapter 41 sounds like that of a dragon, the very term used of Satan in the book of Revelation. Then God adds verse 34:

He [the creature He’s just described] looks on everything that is high;
He is king over all the sons of pride.

Did Job at that point see himself as a son of pride? as a son of Satan? Most definitely he saw God aright, and I think that must have also made him see himself aright. As a result he retracted his accusations and repented “in dust and ashes.”

One more cool thing. The message of Job seems clear: God doesn’t pay us for right behavior. He doesn’t owe us anything nor does He need anything from us. He is over all and owns all. But He juxtaposed this book with the book of Psalms, so full of promises like

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked …
He will be like a tree firmly planted by water
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.

So which is it? God doesn’t repay or God blesses the person who doesn’t hang with the wicked? Both.

It’s like the parable Jesus told about the landowner who hired workers at different times during the day. When those who worked all day received the same pay as those who worked only one hour, they were miffed and accused the owner of wrong doing. But he said, are you mad because I was generous?

God can be generous to whomever He wishes, to whatever degree He wishes.

The thing we too often miss is that His greatest gifts aren’t the external things that make this life more comfortable. The real gifts are the spiritual things that are eternal, and those we have no way of measuring here and now.

This post is a revised, updated version of one that first appeared here in January 2009.

Published in: on January 16, 2017 at 5:30 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Hedge Of God


Maasai_people_in_a_village_on_the_A109_road,_KenyaI’ve been reading in the book of Job recently, and again I noticed the word “hedge.” Satan uses it in chapter one in reference to God protecting Job. Later Job uses it in reference to God trapping him in his circumstances. I think it’s ironic—two different ways of looking at God’s work in our lives.

I wrote about the hedge of God back in January 2013. Here’s that post again, with some rewriting, revision, and editing.

– – – – –

When I was in Africa, we visited Serengeti National Park, known for its abundant wildlife. What surprised me was that people lived there too, particularly members of the Masai tribe. In order to protect themselves at night from lions, cheetah, or any other predatory animal, the people encircled their huts or villages with a bramble fence or hedge. From Wikipedia:

Villages are enclosed in a circular fence (an enkang) built by the men, usually of thorned acacia, a native tree. At night, all cows, goats, and sheep are placed in an enclosure in the centre, safe from wild animals.

Thoroughly practical if you’re going to live in a dangerous environment.

But, then, what environment in this sin-wracked world isn’t dangerous? Here in the US, rather than thorned acacia, those who wish to put a hedge around their homes turn to fences or walls or gated communities.

I find it interesting that Satan, in his first conversation with God about Job, pointed to God’s hedge around His righteous servant as the reason for Job’s faithfulness.

“Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.” (Job 1:10)

God didn’t deny it. Instead, He essentially lowered the hedge in order to let Satan put Job’s faith to the test:

Then the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” (Job 1:12a)

Flash forward a couple chapters. Job has suffered terrible loss, but refused to turn against God. Satan claims he’s holding to his faith because he still has his life. God gives Satan permission to touch his body but not to kill him. As a result, Job is afflicted with boils from head to foot—oozing, pus-filled, painful boils. Day after day after day. No antibiotics. They are not going away.

His friends come to sympathize with him, but they have nothing to say. Instead they take the posture of grief, tearing their clothes and putting dust on their heads. They sit with Job for a week, not saying anything.

Finally he cracks. “Why?” he cries. Not, “Why am I suffering?” but, “Why was I born?” He’s understandably depressed, but he’s slipped from trusting God into questioning Him.

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? . . .
Why is light given to him who suffers,
And life to the bitter of soul,
Who long for death, but there is none,
And dig for it more than for hidden treasures,
Who rejoice greatly,
And exult when they find the grave?
Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden,
And whom God has hedged in? (Job 3:11-12, 20-23—emphasis mine)

Maasai_Enkang_and_HutJob recognizes, as Satan had, that God hedges him in, but in his pain and suffering he gets things backwards. He doesn’t realize that the thing he accuses God of is actually the thing God uses to bless him, not curse him. He doesn’t realize that the problem is God’s removal of His hedge rather than His construction of it.

There is freedom with God:

For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; the following verses also address the contrast between freedom and slavery)

I imagine, in the same way, people today see God’s hedge as either a blessing or a curse.

I’ll never forget the late Christopher Hitchens saying that if there was such a God as Christians believe in, he would be an insufferable tyrant. Apparently Mr. Hitchens saw God’s hedge as a curse—as a thing that would close in around him and choke out the life he wanted to live.

On the other hand, I see God’s hedge and revel in His protection. I can’t imagine living without it.

In a way, God Himself is that hedge, standing between me and the “host encamped against me.”

The Lord is my light and salvation
Whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the defense of my life;
Whom shall I dread?
When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh,
My adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell.
Though a host encamp against me,
My heart will not fear;
Though war arise against me,
In spite of this I shall be confident.
One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD
And to meditate in His temple.
For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle;
In the secret place of His tent He will hide me;
He will lift me up on a rock. (Psalm 27:1-5; emphasis added)

The hedge of God, given for my protection, but viewed by some as restriction. The truth is, God’s hedge provides freedom within the circle. Should God remove that hedge, all hell could break loose. Literally.

The great news is, we Christians have the Holy Spirit in our lives. Part of God’s hedge, if you will. We’re not alone when trials come our way. And the book of James makes clear that trials will come. We can face them with God’s hedges firmly in place or with hedges down so that we’re exposed and vulnerable.

My prayer is that God will hedge me in all He wants!

Published in: on January 10, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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Scoffers


tangled-pathway-in-the-woodsWhen I hung out at that Facebook page intended to bring Christians and atheists into dialogue, it soon became apparent that some people were primarily there to scoff at anything related to God. I had a similar experience recently at an atheist blog.

For the most part, the host was respectful, but a few commenters were doing their best, it seemed, to set “the Christian” up to get off topic and say something stupid. Hence, Christians were lumped in with Muslims and God was likened to Donald Trump. Of course there was the usual accusation that God was genocidal, but the capper was the “ex-Christian,” who apparently had once been a pastor, making the generalization that Christians don’t know as much or study as much of the Bible as he, and if we only would, we’d come away with the same doubts and denials that he did.

All this makes me very sad.

First, I hate to read accusations against God that aren’t true. Of course, any accusation against God isn’t true because God is holy and blameless and righteous and just and good. There simply are no grounds for accusing God of anything.

In reality, Satan has to be behind accusations against God since he is a liar and the father of lies. Hard to believe that Job, in the midst of his suffering, joined in with the accuser to say that God was wronging him.

It’s a bit shocking to read Job saying things that remind me of some of those emerging church folk from a few years back—the ones who claimed they were nicer than God. Job was saying he was more righteous than God.

[God said to Job,] “Will you really annul My judgment?
Will you condemn Me that you may be justified? (Job 40:8)

Which brings me to the next thing that makes me sad. Thankfully, when Job came face to face with God, he repented. The three friends he’d been arguing with, didn’t. In God’s mercy, He told one of the men to make sacrifices for themselves and have Job pray for them. They did, and God accepted Job.

I guess their offering sacrifices indicates they repented in the end. But the sad and sorry truth is, many, many, many scoffers don’t.

Psalm 1 starts out by saying,

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! (v 1)

The point of this psalm seems to be that it’s better not to hang with people who can be categorized as wicked, sinners, scoffers.

Christian parents often embrace this concept for their children. It’s better to pick your friends wisely, to steer clear of troublemakers and kids who knowingly and purposefully do what is not right.

Yet the current church trend is to paint Jesus as the guy who hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors—the dregs of the first century Jewish society. Well, the truth was, Jesus didn’t hang with them. They hung with Jesus. But the point these church leaders are making is that Christians need to break out of isolation mode so we can actually relate to people who need Jesus Christ.

But the two positions—picking good friends and hanging with people who need Jesus—raises a good question: how do non-Christians in our society ever hear the gospel? Porn stars or gang bangers or drug dealers or prostitutes or murderers are not likely to go to church, and church isn’t designed to evangelize.

So how do they hear the gospel?

Are we to refrain from walking in the counsel of the wicked, standing in the path of sinners, and sitting in the seat of scoffers, or not? And if we do, how do we fulfill the great commission?

There has to be a balance, I think, and it may be present in some of the word choices of Psalm 1:1. The righteous man, as he is identified as in verse 6, is firmly planted, not driven by the wind. At the same time it’s the counsel of the wicked he avoids, the path of sinners he won’t stand in, the comfortable intimacy with scoffers he disdains.

In other words, it’s not the wicked, the sinners, and the scoffers he is to avoid, but their counsel, their path, their companionship.

The Internet is an interesting place. I’ve read some articles—or skimmed them—written by scoffers, even some well-known scoffers. Each time, I’m left with this same sadness. I see how horrendous their words are, but I also see how much at risk they’re putting their eternal destiny.

Honestly? I’d like to reach out and shake them: What are you saying? How blind are you? It’s hard to watch them spit on the One I love—for His sake and for theirs.

Published in: on January 13, 2016 at 7:09 pm  Comments (13)  
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Accusations Against God


English-barristerI finished the book of Job this week and much of what I read lingers. This book makes me dig for answers. Yet much of my understanding crystallized some years ago when I wrote a blog post entitled “Thoughts On Job.” It’s not a particularly scintillating title, but the ideas are ones I want to share, so I’m reprising the article under this new name.

– – – – –

I’ve been thinking about Job and his sorry friends a lot of late. For one thing, the real subject of the book of Job seems to be God’s character. I’ve read snatches of commentary about the book and heard sermons and even read fiction based on Job’s story and much of it seems to focus on the “wager” between God and Satan.

Oddly, I don’t see a wager. That would reduce the exchange to a “betcha he will/betcha he won’t” argument. There is no “betting” when it comes to omniscience, as if God might actually be wrong in His assessment of Job.

Instead, He pointed Job out to Satan as an example of righteousness, and Satan turned around and accused God of buying Job’s loyalty. God basically said, See for yourself if that’s true, which it wasn’t

Here’s the part that I understood for the first time though. Job’s friends, perhaps the first health-and-wealth theologians, in essence agreed with Satan. They said, Job, if you will just do right (or stop doing wrong), God will pay you for it.

In other words, they were putting God in a box and telling Job he had the capacity to manipulate God into blessing him and prospering him. Job countered by saying, No, he hadn’t done anything to bring down God’s wrath, but He was punishing him anyway.

Here’s where Job sinned. He accused God too. Accused Him of wronging Job, to the point that he justified himself at God’s expense. (God even asked him, “Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?” – Job 40:8b)

But the critical point comes when God spells out for all of them the truth about Himself:

Who has given to Me that I should repay him?
Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine.
– Job 41:11

Satan was wrong in his accusation of God. God doesn’t need to pay off His creatures to love Him. Job’s friends were wrong in their description of God. He can’t be manipulated into giving us good things as payment for our obedience.

Of course, God then called Job to account for his pride. His description in verses 12 through 33 of chapter 41 sounds like that of a dragon, the very term used of Satan in the book of Revelation. Then God adds verse 34:

He [the creature He’s just described] looks on everything that is high;
He is king over all the sons of pride.

Did Job at that point see himself as a son of pride? as a son of Satan? Most definitely he saw God aright, but I think that must have also made him see himself aright, too. As a result he retracted his accusations and repented “in dust and ashes.”

One more cool thing. The message of Job seems clear: God doesn’t pay us for right behavior. He doesn’t owe us anything nor does He need anything from us. He is over all and owns all. But He juxtaposed this book with the book of Psalms, so full of promises like

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked …
He will be like a tree firmly planted by water
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.

So which is it? God doesn’t repay or God does bless the person who won’t hang with the wicked? Both.

It’s like the parable Jesus told about the landowner who hired workers at different times during the day. When those who worked all day received the same pay as those who worked only one hour, they were miffed and accused the owner of wrong doing. But he said, are you mad because I was generous?

God can be generous to whomever He wishes, to whatever degree He wishes.

However, the thing we too often miss is that His greatest gifts aren’t the external things that make this life more comfortable. The real gifts are the spiritual things that are eternal, and those eternal blessings we have no way of measuring here and now.

Published in: on January 8, 2016 at 6:30 pm  Comments (4)  
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Job And Our Organic God


Job003I love the book of Job in the Old Testament, so today I want to share some thoughts I wrote four years ago (with a little add-on here and there and of course some general editing).

– – – – –

One of the things writers talk about is creating stories organically. The alternative is to force a story to become what you want it to become by reducing it to a formula. Organic stories are the ones that seem real, that last long after you’ve closed the book, that affect you rather than merely entertaining you.

There is no one key to writing organic stories, but they must have characters that seem like real people with believable motivations, realistic emotional patterns and true-to-life psychological mechanisms for handling problems.

The formulaic characters are little more than place holders. In a formulaic romance, for example, insert heroine on page 1, the opening paragraph; slot in romantic lead in chapter 2. Almost it doesn’t matter who these people are. They will have some problem that keeps them apart for a third of the book, then they will begin to draw close, only to run into a wedge that drives them further apart for another third. When all seems hopeless, after the heroine experiences the black night of the soul, the two resolve the conflict and come together. Or something like that. You get the gist. There’s a pattern, one that romance writers are taught in writing workshops to follow.

I’m not trying to pick on romances. I think westerns can be just as formulaic and so can mysteries. Character X discovers crime Y with suspects A, B, and C. With a little detecting, he uncovers clues 1, 2, and 3. A formula.

I don’t know enough about any of these genres to say whether there is a way to write them organically—to make them come alive and therefore to separate them from the pack. I do know that readers of formulaic books have a hard time remembering if they’ve already read Busted, Bashed, or Butchered. (I just made up those titles, but that kind of title connection in a series is another part of the formula). Even by reading the back cover, readers can draw a blank. Is this the book they read? It sounds vaguely familiar, but so do the other two.

What does all this have to do with God and the book of Job?

As I’ve been reading Job once more, and I’ve been struck with the fact that Job’s friends saw God as a formulaic figure. He was as good as programmed, in their minds, and had to act in manner y if person A did action B. In other words, they were not seeing God as organic—alive and relational. They were talking about Him as if He were an it, a force, a thing they could predict. Perhaps a thing they could manipulate.

While Job was wrong to complain against God and to accuse Him of wrong doing (which is why he repented in the end), he nevertheless got it right that God is a free and independent person, transcendent, able to act however He wants to act. He’s organic. He’s more than that, of course, because He’s sovereign.

In the past some professing Christians have accused traditional, Biblical Christianity of putting God in a box. Let him be organic, in other words, by which they mean, let him bend with the culture—change to fit the changing times.

Well, funny thing. The most organic thing a person can do is reveal who he is. “You want to know me? Let me tell you about myself so that you’re not reading your own thoughts or feelings or motives into my actions.”

This, God chose to do.

However, instead of embracing His story about Himself and His relationship with humankind, many people, even “religious” ones, decide they get to say who God is and what He is like. What these people are doing is “re-imaging” Him into the formula they’ve created.

That what Job’s friends did.

They determined that God dealt with people in a formulaic, foreseeable way. He punished sin by bringing suffering down on the sinner. He rewarded those who lived righteously by giving them prosperity and long life.

Consequently, they left no room for God to do anything else with an unrighteous man other than bring disaster down on his head. And since disaster hit Job five fold, he was clearly, according to their formula, an unrighteous man.

People today do essentially the same thing. God is loving and kind and forgiving and tolerant and an advocate for peace. Therefore he would never send people to hell, order the death of . . . well, anyone but most certainly not a whole nation, though He said they were people who lived in debauchery. Above all, the loving and kind and tolerant God would never punish the entire human race because one person ate a bite of forbidden fruit. That’s not God, they say. (I mean, it’s just fruit!)

Maybe punishing sin is not the formulaic God these progressive Christians have concocted, but the organic God who is sovereign, just, and good, can do and does do all the things He revealed in His word. And more.

He’s not bound by a formula. He can, and did, take the form of a mam. He can, and did, live a sin-free life. He can, and did, sacrifice Himself to pay for the sins of the world. Why? Not because we did a satisfactory quota of good deeds, certainly. He, being living and self-existent, chooses to do what He chooses to do.

Consequently, He treats people differently. Moses’s sister Miriam, for example, rebelled against Moses and God struck her with leprosy for a week. Aaron, their brother, also rebelled along with her, but God didn’t strike him with leprosy. Aaron’s sons, however, God struck down because they sacrificed “strange incense” as part of the worship ceremony. Aaron, years earlier, had fashioned a golden calf, and didn’t suffer any consequences until the end of his life when he also was not allowed to enter the Promised Land.

The point is, God isn’t limited by our expectations. He can forgive the repentant, even someone like King Manasseh who had instituted child sacrifice, though undoubtedly Job’s three friends would have demanded that He strike the man down in the midst of his wickedness.

But God, who is merciful and all-knowing and just, can be trusted to do what is right with the lives and souls of the people He created. He doesn’t have to fit the formula Job’s friends created—in fact, He doesn’t. Theirs was a works theology—do the right things and God has to bless. Stray from His demands, and He will rain suffering down.

They didn’t understand what it meant to believe God to be sovereign, to trust Him to do what is right, even when His action is surprising and unexpected and even sometimes painful. They didn’t know Him and love Him. They more nearly knew about Him and used Him—in Job’s case, to chastise a man suffering horrific loss. With friends like them . . .

Published in: on January 4, 2016 at 6:49 pm  Comments (2)  
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God And A Rose In The Desert


Rose in the desertOK, this rose is not actually IN the desert, but it has felt as if it could be. Here in SoCal we had an unseasonable heat wave—five days of temperatures reminiscent of August, not March. St. Patrick’s Day? Surely we’ve done a time warp thing and ended up in summer.

In fact, the last four were all 90° F or higher, and that in itself was a record. Three of the days set individual records as the hottest March 13, 14, 15 on record.

I’d suspect the Ides of March or Pi Day, but I’m not superstitious. Instead, I believe God is in control, even of our weather. I often want to say, No, Mr. Weatherman, there is no Mother Nature who is giving us heat or rain or wind or low pressure or snow or any of the rest. It is God who foreordains such thing.

I admit, though, as I sat here in my air-condition-less apartment, I was praying for God’s mercy. It’s hard to write or edit when it’s uncomfortably warm, but it’s impossible when the computer over-heats.

At last today we had a break in the heat. Mercifully (!! 😉 ) the temperature dropped nine degrees, and the prediction is that tomorrow will be even cooler.

In all this my poor plants outside on my porch in full sun soaked up the water which I dutifully gave them every morning. Still, when I saw the rosebud on my rather unhealthy potted rose bush, I didn’t think it would survive. I’ve seen what the sun can do to those poor things. They get all droopy and start wilting before they ever open.

But not this one. Somehow, despite the heat, this little rose looks like it’s going to survive and thrive.

That little flower reminded me of Jeremiah. In virtually any way that you can look at it, Jeremiah had a horrible life.

At God’s direction he prophesied to a people who did not listen to him—not once or a couple times or even a couple years! He did this his whole life. And as a result, he was mocked, ridiculed, beaten, thrown in the stocks, arrested and put in the dungeon, tossed into a mud-filled cistern, then watched as his prophecy came true.

All the leaders of Jerusalem were killed and the rest, all but the poorest of the poor, were led into captivity. Jerusalem itself was torched.

Here’s how Jeremiah characterized his life in Lamentations:

I am the man who has seen affliction
Because of the rod of His wrath.
He has driven me and made me walk
In darkness and not in light.
Surely against me He has turned His hand
Repeatedly all the day.
He has caused my flesh and my skin to waste away,
He has broken my bones.
He has besieged and encompassed me with bitterness and hardship.
In dark places He has made me dwell,
Like those who have long been dead.
He has walled me in so that I cannot go out;
He has made my chain heavy.
Even when I cry out and call for help,
He shuts out my prayer.
He has blocked my ways with hewn stone;
He has made my paths crooked.
He is to me like a bear lying in wait,
Like a lion in secret places.
He has turned aside my ways and torn me to pieces;
He has made me desolate.
He bent His bow
And set me as a target for the arrow.
He made the arrows of His quiver
To enter into my inward parts.
I have become a laughingstock to all my people,
Their mocking song all the day.
He has filled me with bitterness,
He has made me drunk with wormwood.
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
He has made me cower in the dust.
My soul has been rejected from peace;
I have forgotten happiness.
So I say, “My strength has perished,
And so has my hope from the LORD.” (3:1-19)

Those words remind me of Job. Jeremiah’s condition reminds me of a barren desert, of a dry wilderness.

But remarkably, he turns a corner. And there’s a rose. This is too beautiful, and some of these verses are well-known because of the praise they offer God. I think, though, that we forget the context.

Jeremiah had seen horrors. Famine killed the Jews before the Babylonians stepped foot into the city. And it wasn’t pretty. Parents were eating their dead children and bodies were lying unburied in the streets.

Then the enemy breached the wall. The king, the princes, and their advisers made a run for it, but they were captured. The princes were killed before their father’s eyes, then he was blinded. The last image he saw were his dead sons.

Next Jerusalem was looted, the temple was desecrated by the presence of these godless adversaries who stripped it of anything of value. Then they burned it along with the palaces, and torn down the walls of the city. Jerusalem was a ruins. The jewel of God, a desolate heap.

Jeremiah’s own personal difficulties were part of the greater picture of the destruction of the nation. But as he lamented, he did not lose sight of God, and that’s the part that is so beautiful. Here’s a godly response to suffering, one that is Job, times ten. Why we don’t look to Lamentations in times of suffering, I don’t know. I mean, these are not platitudes. This is from a man who knew suffering all his life:

This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I have hope in Him.”
The LORD is good to those who wait for Him,
To the person who seeks Him.
It is good that he waits silently
For the salvation of the LORD.
It is good for a man that he should bear
The yoke in his youth.
Let him sit alone and be silent
Since He has laid it on him.

Let him put his mouth in the dust,
Perhaps there is hope.
Let him give his cheek to the smiter,
Let him be filled with reproach.
For the Lord will not reject forever,
For if He causes grief,
Then He will have compassion
According to His abundant lovingkindness.

For He does not afflict willingly
Or grieve the sons of men.
To crush under His feet
All the prisoners of the land,
To deprive a man of justice
In the presence of the Most High,
To defraud a man in his lawsuit—
Of these things the Lord does not approve.
Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass,
Unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
That both good and ill go forth?
Why should any living mortal, or any man,
Offer complaint in view of his sins?

Let us examine and probe our ways,
And let us return to the LORD. (3:21-40)

We are so conscious today, in large part because of sermons on Job, of the fact that not all suffering is because of personal sin, and that is certainly true. But God still wants to use our suffering, if not for discipline and correction, then to strengthen our faith, to provide an example to others, to give us an opportunity to trust Him in a new way. To give us His comfort. Or to show His mercy. Sort of like a rose blooming though it hardly seems possible.

Published in: on March 17, 2015 at 6:59 pm  Comments (4)  
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It’s Not About Us


beach umbrella-1-1288990-mFalse teaching seems to be increasing. More people are buying into old lies and new lies are popping up at an alarming rate. There is an ever growing number of people who want to camp under the umbrella of Christianity but who don’t hold to some of the most basic tenets of the faith–such as, God exists.

I don’t mean to be snarky here, but I don’t see the rationale behind the idea that a person is an “agnostic Christian.” The Christian faith is centered on Jesus Christ and His work to reconcile us to God, so how can a person be a Christian if he’s uncertain about God’s existence?

But those who identify as agnostic Christians have lots of company when it comes to people who claim the name of Christ while ignoring what He said. My point here isn’t to start a list of false teachings. Rather, I want to focus on what those false teachings seem to have in common.

In a word, I think all false teaching is self centered. It’s more important to those believing a false teaching that they are comfortable or tolerant or intellectually satisfied or rich or right or inclusive or whatever else different people set ahead of God.

Some will even say, in essence, If God is like the Old Testament describes Him, then I don’t want anything to do with Him. God, in other words, has to conform to their wishes. He must be made in their likeness, as opposed to they made in His.

The truth is, Christianity is not about what we wish God were or what we’d like Him to do. We don’t get to tell Him how He should deal with suffering or sin. We don’t get to exclude Him from creation or salvation. Any attempts to change Him and what He’s said or done are actually forms of rejecting Him.

That’s not to say we can’t question. Those who embrace a false teaching often say people who cling to the God of the Bible are unwilling to search for answers. But that’s simply not true.

Job asked more questions than a good many people ever will, and God didn’t scold him for asking. He confronted him about his accusations against God, and Job agreed that he was wrong. God “in person” showed Job what sovereignty and omnipotence and wisdom really meant, and Job repented in dust and ashes.

Gideon questioned God, over and over. He wanted to be sure he’d understood that he was to be a part of the great victory God had planned. He wanted to be sure he got it right that he was supposed to decrease the size of his army. He wanted to be sure he was supposed to go forward in the face of his fear.

David asked questions, too. Why do the wicked prosper; how long, O LORD; why have You forsaken me; what is Man; why do You hide Yourself, and many others.

Abraham was another one who entertained doubts. He, and Sarah, weren’t sure they’d got it right. God was going to make a great nation from his descendants? God must have meant heir, or, if descendant, then birthed by a surrogate, not Abraham’s barren wife.

No, and no. God corrected him and repeated His promise.

Mary questioned. Me? A virgin? How could that possibly happen?

Moses doubted which lead to such despair he asked at one point for God to simply kill him then and there because he couldn’t continue leading an angry and rebellious people.

I could go on, but the point is this: asking questions is not wrong–it’s thinking that our answers are better than God’s that is wrong.

And that’s what all false teaching has in common. Man has secret knowledge of God, or can earn his own way into God’s good graces, or can come to God however he pleases, or can worship the god of his own choosing, or can manipulate God to do his bidding–all of those and a host of other false ideas put self ahead of God, as if it’s all about us.

But it’s not.