God’s Purpose In Man’s Suffering – Reprise


The recurring question from the time of Job until today seems to be, Where is God in the midst of suffering? The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be a single answer.

One purpose, and the one people often camp on, is that God uses suffering to punish the wicked. The best example of that is the flood that wiped out all the inhabitants of the earth except for Noah and his family. Another clear illustration, which I mentioned in “Have We Neutered God?” is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah — two cities whose inhabitants maintained depraved lifestyles.

A second purpose for suffering according to Scripture was to test a believer’s trust in God. Satan initiated such a test of Job, and God gave him permission to do so.

Abraham was tested similarly when God uprooted him from his home and told him to go to a land He would give him. Of course that test was followed by years of infertility though God had promised to make of his descendants a great and numerous nation.

When his son was finally born, Abraham then faced the test of giving him up in obedience to God. Some might not count that test as “suffering,” but I suspect the emotional and spiritual testing he endured were equal to any physical pain he could have gone through.

A third purpose of suffering is to discipline God’s people. When Israel, for example, arrived in the promised land, they lived with God as their king, but they continually disobeyed Him and followed after the gods of the nations around them. God would then bring the people of Moab or the Philistines or one of the other people groups against them. They would live under the dictates of these oppressive conquerors until they cried out to God for deliverance, then He would send a judge to liberate them.

This pattern continued, with some variation, even after God granted the people’s demand for a king. The ultimate discipline was when first Israel, then Judah, was carried into exile.

Israel serves as an example of another purpose of suffering. Having forsaken God from the beginning of its existence, the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians. Their suffering served the dual purpose of disciplining them but of warning Judah.

Luke records that Jesus used two local disasters as a means to warn his listeners of their need to repent (13:1-5).

Finally, Jesus also explained that some suffering was for the purpose of giving God an opportunity to be glorified. He said this specifically about the man born blind whom He then healed. He also seems to have allowed Lazarus to die for the same reason.

What does all this tell us about suffering today?

For one, that we don’t know what God is doing. He’s not limited to the five purposes I’ve identified in Scripture, but even if He was, I still wouldn’t know any better than Job’s friends did, what God is doing in someone else’s life.

Secondly, we should realize that He is using suffering to accomplish His purposes in the same way that He uses blessings. Though they may look un-caused or haphazard to us, they are neither, if God is indeed sovereign.

Sometimes the cause is evil. I have no doubt that Satan employed evil against Job. And Joseph said plainly that his brothers meant evil when they sold him into slavery. Certainly the people who stoned Stephen and the ones who crucified Christ had evil motives. None of that thwarted God’s purposes. Instead, He took the evil and made it good to advance His plans, or He took it and used it to convict of sin, in Job’s case, and advanced His plans.

Third, all suffering should remind us that we are not in charge. We can diagram and explain, analyze and hypothesize all we want, but in the final summation, we need to allow suffering to call us back to God. The message is never for someone else. It’s for those of us who hear. We should examine our own hearts, not point the finger at others.

And finally, suffering affords us an opportunity to reach out in the name of Christ to minister to those in need. We don’t have to be rich. We can always, always pray for those in need — for their spiritual needs as well as their physical needs. We can pray that God provides people to come alongside them. We can pray for His mercy to spare them from more tragedy. And we can pray for His mercy to save their souls.

What we shouldn’t do, is act as if He isn’t involved.

This post first appeared here in May 2011.

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Published in: on August 14, 2017 at 5:21 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Connection Between Humility And Obedience


sad_snot-nosed_kid“Fool! You fool!” the five-year-old shouted. As it turned out, he was talking to his mother. She didn’t reprimand him for the name calling or for the disrespect. Instead she asked him if his father gave him sugar that morning. He growled in reply. She asked again and he growled again. Finally she asked him why he was making those noises. He said, “I’m a monster,” and proceeded to growl a few more times. At last his mother told him to stop being a monster. He growled in reply.

Is there a connection between this five-year-old’s disobedience and his disrespect for someone in authority? I think absolutely. Philippians tells us that Jesus humbled Himself by becoming obedient (2:8), and Hebrews tells us He learned obedience through suffering.

Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. (5:8)

Jesus was not disobedient until he learned obedience. Rather He was sovereign, the One others obeyed. Being God, He was not in a position to obey anyone else. So when He came to earth, He needed to learn.

Suffering was the means by which He learned, and humility was the outgrowth of this obedience.

So here’s a thought. If suffering leads to obedience that leads to humility, then it makes sense that withheld punishment leads to increased disobedience that leads to pride. Consequently, when parents withhold punishment from their children who are disobedient, they are missing an opportunity to teach them humility. In short, they are enabling their child’s pride.

Ah, yes. Pride. Satan’s plaything. He loves to convince children they know as much or more than their parents, that they don’t have to listen or obey, that their way is as good or better than the way they’ve been instructed.

Those prideful little people, when left uncorrected, end up becoming prideful adults who may tell God they are nicer than He is, that they think He’s wrong to send people to hell, that His Word is outdated, irrelevant, intolerant. In other words, pride is at the heart of much of the apostasy in the western Church. Unlike Jesus, twenty-first century westerners have not learned humility through what we have suffered.

May God have mercy so that we learn humility at the hands of our parents rather than through the consequences a prideful people can accrue.

This post first appeared here in January 2013.

Published in: on September 21, 2016 at 7:11 pm  Comments (4)  
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Comfort


Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, an hour from the MK school where I taught


Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, an hour from the MK school where I taught

Of late I’ve railed against Christians in the West who seem more concerned about comfort and ease than about righteousness and godliness. It’s the I’d-rather-be-happy-than-holy syndrome. But the other day I read a response to 2 Corinthians 1—a chapter that talks a great deal about comfort—and realized that comfort, like so many words, has multiple meanings.

I’ve known about the Biblical kind of comfort that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, gives to believers way back when I was teaching at a missionary children’s boarding school in Guatemala. A few other teachers and I got together for a Bible study, and of all things we chose 2 Corinthians to study.

Right away we had to deal with the subject of comfort, and by extension, the reason we need comfort: suffering. Yep. Comfort that the Holy Spirit gives is the kind of arms-wrapped-around-a-grieving-person kind of empathy. An I’ve-got-you kind of presence. A lean-on-Me whisper to one about to collapse under the weight of anguish or despair or bereavement.

Here’s what Paul said after his intro:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (vv 3-4)

I admit, I was taken aback when I read the first lines of the response penned by a person in our church as part of our “Ears to Hear” read-through of the New Testament:

I guess that when I think of comfort, I first think of “ease and comfort.” This is like the easy life, or “the life of Riley” as people said a while back.

Somehow I’d divorced the word comfort from its dual meanings. It never crossed my mind that the Bible was talking about anything other than the empathetic care and concern God has for us when we are going through hardship. And as the next verses show, Paul was particularly thinking of the hardship Christians experienced because of their faith in Christ.

So, could the word refer to the ease and comfort notion, especially that which a group of professing Christians hold to be ours for the claiming? Was Paul saying that God greases the wheels for those dealing with affliction so that they’ll quickly move to a place of comfort and ease? That they’ll be relieved of their troubles and will soon embrace health, wealth, and happiness?

I think that’s a perverse interpretation. It cheapens what God actually promises. The original word which we translate as comfort is parakaleō, and it’s first meaning is “to call to one’s side, call for, summon.” Clearly, the promise God is giving to those suffering is His presence. It also means “to console, to encourage and strengthen by consolation, to comfort.” God’s promise, then, is that He will build up the suffering saint in the inner being.

This understanding fits particularly with Paul’s autobiographical illustration, when he and those with him were so hard pressed by the opposition that they “despaired even of life” (v 8b). They were either so overwhelmed they felt like giving up or they saw no way to escape those who were trying to kill them. Either way, Paul needed comfort.

The other thing that caught my attention in these verses about comfort is that God wants us to turn around and give to others what He gave to us. I’ve seen this principle at work often, and it is beautiful. Perhaps the first time I experienced it was when my dad died suddenly of a heart attack. He hadn’t been in the hospital a day in his life, and suddenly he was gone.

Needless to say, I was in need of comfort. One of my neighbors, who I knew only in passing, took the time to put his arm around me and say, I know what you’re going through. I lost my dad in the same way when I was young. Suddenly I was not alone. I could grieve with someone who understood, and it was . . . a great comfort.

Since then, I’ve been able to put my arm around others and say, I know what you’re going through. I lost my dad suddenly, too.

In God’s economy, He gives us comfort, not for us to hoard, but to share. We generously receive from His hand that we may in turn give to others in their time of need. This kind of comfort, by the way, is not the lie so many give: It’s OK.

It’s not OK that you lost a loved one. Death is the enemy, a result of sin, a foe that needed a Victorious Warrior to defeat it. It’s not OK that you’re suffering for your faith. That’s sin and Satan working to cover your light, to make your salt useless. It’s not OK that you lost your job or that your spouse cheated on you or that your son is on drugs. The sin of this world that affects us personally is not OK. It’s NOT! So why do people trying to bring comfort say that it is?

When we admit that the suffering we’re experiencing is wrong and that it hurts and that it changes all of life, then we can accept the comfort God offers for us. When we’re at a helpless state, God sends the Helper.

He won’t lie to us and tell us it’s OK. He will say, I’ll be with you when the waters overflow, I’ll never leave you or forsake you, I’ll walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death. And that’s the kind of comfort a sufferer needs.

Published in: on July 6, 2016 at 5:55 pm  Comments (2)  
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God’s Not The Problem


Peter008I read in Acts recently about Peter and John getting tossed into prison over night because they healed a man in Jesus’s name.

Their response?

Peter preached to those in authority. When they warned them to stop preaching and healing in Jesus’s name, they answered with a clear, bold statement:

But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)

True to their word, they continued to preach Christ and Him crucified. They continued to heal. In fact all the apostles did. Powerful things were happening, and the church was increasing in numbers, to the point that the Jewish leaders became jealous and decided to throw them into prison again.

After consulting, with one another, they decided they’d flog them into obedience.

Of course, they had to re-arrest the apostles because an angel had set them free! But they didn’t go into hiding or leave town. They went right back to the temple and started preaching again.

So once more the Jews hauled them in front of the authorities and confronted them:

“We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

Well, yeah! To be expected since Peter told them they had to obey God rather than men. He repeated it since they apparently hadn’t got it the first time:

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”

After more consultation, the Jewish leaders decided to beat them into obedience. And here’s the point of this post. Steadily the hostility toward the apostles was turning into persecution. And how did they respond?

So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (This and the previous two quotes from Acts 5)

Rejoicing.

Continuing to teach and to preach Jesus as the Christ.

I find their reaction to be in such stark contrast to Christianity in the West. When we face soft discrimination, we’ve started playing the persecution card, as if there aren’t actual martyrs in the world today, dying because they believe in Jesus as their Lord, their Savior. We’ve begun to take the mantle of victim, and as a result we’re pulling back from opportunities to boldly speak the truth in love—the truth that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost.

Look at the balance of what Peter said to those standing in judgment over the apostles:

The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

He could have left out the “whom you had put to death” part in order to be less confrontational, but the truth is, part of their job was to expose sin. That’s what Peter did when Ananias and Sapphira pretended to present the church with the entire amount of money from the sale of their land. In truth, they were lying—to the Holy Spirit, Peter said. He called them out, declared their sin publicly, and in that instance, these pretenders paid with their lives on the spot.

Things are different today. Christians, myself included, are very conscious that preaching Christ might offend someone. We don’t even like preaching in church very much any more.

And should we experience ill treatment because of our faith, we’re much more likely to sue than we are to rejoice because we’ve been found worthy to suffer for His name.

What’s more, we’re more likely to say, Why, God, when I’ve been serving you so faithfully? Why are you letting all this suffering happen to me? That’s the approach of the people of Israel when they were leaving Egypt. They didn’t rejoice in the power of God. They didn’t look forward to the promised land. They looked back to the familiar comforts of Egypt and treated God’s prophet and by extension, God Himself, as if He was the One harming them.

News flash! God is not the problem. Suffering is a result of sin. So why are we so quick to blame God, to suggest that we could do a better job running things—from our health and finances to the Presidential elections and dealing with terrorism. We have lost sight of God’s sovereignty and His power.

When we pray, James warns us about asking with wrong motives, more interested in our own pleasures. Jesus said we are to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. Is that what we’re praying for? Or are we praying for peace and comfort in our time, so that we will be safe and can do what we do in peace?

I don’t know about others. I only know my own heart, and I confess, I’m a long way from the response the apostles exhibited. I can say, my heart is willing, but there’s that problem with the flesh! Maybe by the time I have to face some actual persecution, God, by His grace, will have shored up that weakness!

Published in: on June 16, 2016 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Tested By Fire


Fire is a refining agent. Cheap stuff burns up–paper, straw, twigs, logs. Gold, on the other hand, purifies.

The Apostle Peter alludes to this process in his first letter to the Christians of the first century. They faced a lot of persecution because of their faith, and he noted that fact:

In this [your salvation] 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)

According to Peter, faith is of greater value than gold because even gold will eventually perish. But faith, even when tested by the fires of persecution ends up bringing praise and glory and honor when we see Jesus.

It’s an amazing thing. This trust in God, this dependence on Him even in the worst of circumstances actually is cause for joy. Peter again:

and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8)

How ironic, then, when contemporary Western Christians approach trials as opportunities to express anger and disappointment toward God.

I do believe we should be truthful and of course that includes truthfulness when we’re talking with God. But there’s a difference accusing God because that’s how I honestly feel and confessing to God because that’s how I honestly feel.

The first might sound something like this: God, why did you let this unfair thing happen to me? I am so mad at You right now. I thought you were on my side, looking out for me. You really let me down.

The other might be something like this: God, this bad thing happened and it makes me so angry. I know that’s not an attitude demonstrating trust in You. I’m worried and fearful and want revenge. I know none of that brings you glory. Please, God, forgive me and help me find a way out of those debilitating reactions to a place of trust. Help me to find in You exactly what I need.

One reaction makes God out to be the culprit and the other recognizes Him as the rescuer. The first pushes Him away, the second draws near to Him for help.

The bottom line is, accusing God of wrong doing, no matter how honest the person is being about their emotion, is still saying about God what is not true. James says, “For God cannot be tempted by evil and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” God does not do evil. How then is it honest to express anger toward God by accusing Him of something He is not?

I’ve heard Christians, time and time again, toss off their tantrums as something God is big enough to handle. The issue is not whether God can handle our sin. We know He canceled our sin debt at the cross. The issue, instead, is whether we should justify our sin and even applaud it as being real.

It’s much the same as the church in Corinth boasting about their tolerance of sin in their church. We today act as if we are doing some great good to hurl angry charges at God because … well, because we feel angry and we need to be real with Him.

What happened to trusting God in the midst of trial?

Here’s what the prophet Habakkuk had to say about the matter:

Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the LORD,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. (Hab. 3:17-18)

Where’s the exultation of the contemporary Western Christian? I fear it is reserved for our honest emotions we hurl at God rather than for He who is with us when the waters and the rivers overflow, who walks with us through the fire and flame.

How sad that we rob ourselves of His comfort and presence and even protection because we’re so busy venting our honest emotion.

When you pass through the waters, 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)

This post was first published here in June 2012.

Published in: on April 8, 2016 at 6:15 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Thing About Hard Things


rock climberI haven’t read it yet, but I suspect I’ll find much to cheer in fellow blogger InsanityBytes’s post “God Can Even Make The Bad Things Fun.” I saw that title as I was rushing from my email in-box to WordPress to write my own post, this after reading a client’s Tweet, in which she said the planning part of novel writing is “both exciting and a bit torturous.”

Then there is the friend whose family member has made some bad choices and is undoubtedly destined to reap difficult consequences.

Of course I’ve got my own set of difficult things—mostly still learning what it means to love my neighbor. I’ve been frustrated of late (some might call it angry) about some things that have been happening in a place I love. I’ve wanted to confront, to meet with those in positions to make changes, to send emails.

I’ve prayed, and that’s when the anger seems to well up inside me. But I’m also memorizing a passage of Scripture—I Corinthians 13, also known as the Love Chapter. So I start to recite, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love …” That’s when the Holy Spirit grabs me by the throat and says, Do you see yourself in My mirror? I can barely choke out the next part, “. . . I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Believe me, the rest of the chapter is no easier.

But it’s a hard thing for me to love in this circumstance. I want to love nice people who are doing the right things with the right motives. Is it really necessary to love the pompous, the intractable, the selfish?

So for me, loving my neighbor is hard.

It’s hard for me to get out of my comfort zone, walk across the street, and talk to my real-life neighbors who I don’t know and have only recently had any contact with. Loving my neighbors also takes time and money, and that’s hard when work eats up so much time and yet the need to earn a living requires work.

But the thing about hard things is this: they force me to acknowledge my weaknesses, my need for God and His strength. They force me to depend on Him and not on my own understanding, my own skill, my own power, ability, or control over my circumstances.

Sometimes hard things are consequences of the sinful things I’ve done. But the thing about those hard things is that God uses them to bring me back to Himself. The Bible says the same about the judgments God brought on the nations. Time and time He said He judged the nations so that “they will know that I am the LORD.”

Ezekiel was one who said this with some frequency. Here’s one example:

“Then they will know that I am the LORD; I have not said in vain that I would inflict this disaster on them.” (Ez. 6:10

I could quote a dozen verses that are similar, but Ezekiel also prophesied about nations other than Judah. Take what he said to Moab for instance:

Thus I will execute judgments on Moab, and they will know that I am the LORD (Ex. 25:11

God’s purpose and God’s care for the nations are clear.

The thing about the hard things is also equally clear: God uses them to accomplish what He wants.

One more thing that’s important about the hard things: they are never out of God’s control. They don’t catch Him by surprise, they don’t foil His previous plans, they don’t slip in without His notice.

You might even say God does His best work with the hard things. Think about the cross of Christ, the ultimate hard thing. And what did God accomplish through that one hard thing? Simply the redemption of all who believe.

There are examples in Scripture of people who experienced God’s best as a result of enduring hard things. Think, Joseph and Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel and his friends, Stephen and Lazarus. Think also of examples of believers who lived after Bible times—martyrs of the faith down through the centuries, and others living closer to home, like the Christians in South Carolina who forgave the racist shooter who killed their brothers and sisters in the faith.

Hard things.

Peter said in his first letter, “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” After you have suffered. After the hard things. Maybe because of the hard things.

Suffering isn’t the end. Consequences for sin aren’t the end. God’s purposes are greater, His plans bigger. He wants us to know that He is LORD, and to know Him is the highest, greatest good we could ever hope for.

Published in: on April 7, 2016 at 6:12 pm  Comments (2)  
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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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What I Wish I Were Thankful For


Amy_Carmichael_with_children2I wish I were thankful for trials. I know James says we are to count them as joy. I know that trials produce endurance and end up shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. And I’m thankful for the trials I’ve gone through that are over, not just because I survived them, but because I see God working in my life because of them.

But I’m not a fan of trials. I don’t eagerly long for or look forward to the next one or the one after that. I’d much rather hear good news and have things go my way.

I’d rather see the US experience a great revival. I’d rather see the health of the people I love improve. I’d rather get a big book contract. I’d rather my church had a perfect staff and perfect congregants and did ministry perfectly.

It would be so much easier to be thankful, wouldn’t it?

But the reality is, I’m not perfect, the US may not see a revival, my family and friends will struggle with health issues and one day die, my church doesn’t have perfect people at any position, and I may never see that big contract.

So what?

Is God greater if everything goes the way I want it to or is He the same, whether I suffer or not?

This is a critical question, because thanksgiving can’t depend on what we have. If I have plenty, I’m thankful and if I have less, I’m not? If that were true, what would be the line of demarcation indicating when we needed to be thankful and when we could start complaining?

So if thanksgiving isn’t about “counting our blessings, naming them one by one,” what is it?

I suggest it is above all a focus on who God is.

Recently I heard a poem entitled “Flame Of God” written by Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India who opened, then ran an orphanage for fifty-five years. The poem is such a rich, reverent piece, I think it gains strength by repetition. The point for this post is that Amy Carmichael clearly saw God in a way that made her want to give Him her all.

She wouldn’t have created a thanksgiving list that included stuff that made life easy or comfortable. She’d thank God for Himself, His word, prayer, His redemption. But she’s mostly thank Him for the privilege of serving Him, for the opportunity to give her life to care for the least and lost.

When asked once what missionary life was like, she wrote back saying simply, “Missionary life is simply a chance to die.” (Wikipedia)

The words of “Flame Of God” inspire me and convict me at the same time. Above all, they make me want to see God the way Amy Carmichael did.

Flame Of God

From prayer that asks that I may be
Sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fearing when I should aspire,
From faltering when I should climb higher
From silken self, O Captain, free
Thy soldier who would follow Thee.

From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
(Not thus are spirits fortified,
Not this way went the Crucified)
From all that dims Thy Calvary
O Lamb of God, deliver me.

Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay
The hope no disappointments tire,
The passion that will burn like fire;
Let me not sink to be a clod;
Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God

Suffering is a part of life. I don’t think it’s wrong for the sick to pray for healing or the unemployed, for a job. I think it’s good to pray for God’s comfort in the face of grief. But should I pray for “softening things” or for “easy choices”? I think too often that’s what I do.

What I want to do instead is learn to use suffering for an occasion to thank God—for His presence, His strength, and whatever else He shows me. I’m most often mindful of His omniscience—that the things which surprise me, are no surprise to Him. That He knew all along what would happen and what I’d need. And of course that reminds me how trustworthy He is.

I don’t know that I’ll ever have the spiritual maturity Amy Carmichael displayed when she wrote “Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.” But I’m convinced thanking God, no matter where He puts me or what He takes me through, draws me into a deeper relationship with Him.

Published in: on November 12, 2015 at 6:34 pm  Comments (4)  
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When God Answers Prayer


Elisabeth and jim ElliotRecently on an atheist’s site, I think, or in the comments of another blog I follow, critics of Christianity—well, really, of God—brought up the idea that it is silly for Christians here in America to believe that God answers our every little insignificant prayer, especially in light of the fact that other Christians are in jail and have been beheaded or have had to flee their homes.

I understand that thinking, but in fact, it paralyzes the Christian so that we think we ought not pray for things. Because, the truth is, my needs are not as great as those in Indochina or in the Middle East or in Western Africa who are suffering for their faith.

But whose needs are “big enough” or “important enough” for God to hear and answer? I mean, is it only the Christian like Jim Elliot who is facing death that gets to cry out to Him? Or is it OK to pray if a friend or relative is facing death? Maybe we shouldn’t even bother about those things because what really matters is a person’s spiritual condition and eternal destiny. Maybe those are the only prayers that are “big enough.”

I think this is rather silly. God hearing our cry for help has nothing to do with the size of our problem but everything to do with Him being a loving God. He hears us and gives to us in our need because He’s delighted to provide for His children.

Do human parents only listen to their children if they’re bleeding and need to be rushed to the hospital? Hardly! They hear their child when she says, “Daddy, watch me!” Or, “Mommy, look what I can do.” Why? Because the child is so advanced, so capable? Not at all. They listen and respond because they love their son or their daughter.

God’s the same way.

But of course the critics will come back and say, So, your God doesn’t love those who are running for their lives in the Middle East?

That’s a wicked charge. God loves them and walks with them through the floods and through the fire. He’s with us in the valley of the shadow of death. Because he doesn’t swoop us away from the trials and suffering of this life doesn’t mean He’s abandoned us.

Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsy may have seen God’s hand more clearly and felt His presence more unquestionably in the German concentration camp than they ever did in the comfort of their home in Holland.

Peter says those who suffer are blessed because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on them.

If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:14)

Here in the US we have believers who have faced cancer and died, even as they praised God because His presence gave them comfort and peace. We have other believers who have faced cancer and lived, even as they praise God for His healing and sustaining power in their lives.

Are these Christians merely deluded, thinking that God is good no matter what the outcome? Well, not deluded. Actually Christians who see and understand and know that God does in fact keep His promise to work all things for the good of conforming us to the image of His Son, are able to see His hand at work in the trials as well as the joys.

God and sufferingThis little quote has been making the rounds on Facebook, and I think it’s one of the truest expressions of faith in God. We who know Him recognize that He’s not Santa Claus or Grandpa. And yet, He loves us, so we can ask for things that might seem trivial to other people.

To God they aren’t too insignificant to pay attention to because He loves us. What concerns us is of importance to Him.

Unless, of course, what concerns us is something we want to use selfishly or for our own aggrandizement at the expense of others. He’s not going to hear and answer prayer that takes us further from Him or is bad for us spiritually or will harm others.

The point is, God is good and not too busy for even a child’s request or an adult’s plea for something that may seem minor to others. If we’re being selfish, He’ll show us that in His time. And if what we ask for is something He’s going to say no to, He’ll still walk with us through the hardship. Because He doesn’t remove obstacles but helps us over them does not diminish His greatness or His goodness one iota.

Published in: on August 3, 2015 at 6:20 pm  Comments (5)  
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Elisabeth Elliot: 1926 – 2015


Elisabeth ElliotElisabeth Elliot died on Sunday. From my perspective, she is one of the great heroes of the faith.

She influenced countless thousands in any number of ways, not the least in the area of foreign missions. After all, she not only lived sacrificially among the Ecuadorian nationals responsible for her husband’s death and preached the love of Christ to them, she also wrote about her husband and the four other missionary martyrs:

The story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and companions Peter Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully—most famously narrated in Elisabeth Elliot’s Through Gates of Splendor—is perhaps the most chronicled missionary account of the past 100 years, and remains an inspiration for many. (Christianity Today)

Yes, an inspiration to many.

Elisabeth Elliot had strong views and didn’t couch them in buttery, inoffensive terms. I heard her speak once. A friend was going on a short term mission trip and Elisabeth Elliot spoke at the commissioning service. I don’t remember precisely what she said—sort of, why are you young people doing this? Get your heads out of the clouds. Living on the mission field is not pleasant or easy. Specifically I remember her saying, contrary to popular opinion, she didn’t go to the jungle of Ecuador because she loved hot, humid weather and poisonous snakes. She said it was no easier for her to endure those discomforts and fears than it was for anyone else.

But ultimately, Ms. Elliot was not telling the prospective missionaries to “suck it up.” That’s not the way she thought. Rather, she had a passion for God’s word and for God Himself. She held to the fact that God can and should be obeyed and trusted.

Blunt—not ungracious, not impetuous, not snappy or gruff. But direct, unsentimental, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is, no whining allowed. Just pull your britches on and go die for Jesus—like Mary Slessor and Gladys Aylward and Amy Carmichael and Gertrude Ras Egede and Eleanor Macomber and Lottie Moon and Roslind Goforth and Malla Moe, to name a few whom she admired. (“Peaches in Paradise: Why I Loved Elisabeth Elliot” by John Piper, Desiring God)

She challenged believers to move out of our comfort zone and trust the God who knows the end from the beginning:

Because of her, I dared to leave my comfort zone.

I am not alone—many in my generation found similar courage and peace through her books, speaking, and radio program. There is little telling the breadth of her global heritage. I am grateful for her life, and for the profound influence she left on my own. (“This wife of a murdered missionary has died. Here’s why Elisabeth Elliot’s life mattered to so many” by Tsh Oxenreider, Washington Post)

I think Elisabeth Elliot’s influence was so profound because she spoke the truth, but it was a truth she lived. She knew romanticizing missions would give people a false view of service. She knew sentimentalizing discipleship was the opposite of what Christ required of us.

Finally, Elisabeth Elliot has had a strong influence on women in the Church and on our ideas of our place in God’s plan. Above all, she adhered to Scripture, even the growingly less popular parts that identify a wife’s role as that of being subject to her husband:

A Christian woman’s true freedom [and, of course, she would also say a Christian man’s true freedom] lies on the other side of a very small gate—humble obedience—but that gate leads out into a largeness of life undreamed of by the liberators of the world, to a place where the God-given differentiation between the sexes is not obfuscated but celebrated, where our inequalities are seen as essential to the image of God, for it is in male and female, in male as male and female as female, not as two identical and interchangeable halves, that the image is manifested. (399—Piper quoting from Elisabeth Elliot’s chapter “The Essence of Femininity: A Personal Perspective” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood)

I said “finally” but there’s really this overarching message of Elisabeth Elliot’s life, ministry, writing, speaking—she trusted God no matter what the circumstances. As it happened, she spent the last ten years of her life in the grip of dementia, a gradual death of who you are, at least in the here and now. Her third husband (her second husband died of cancer four years after their marriage) addressed her response in an interview at World Magazine:

Last year, as Elliot’s health declined, WORLD interviewed her third husband, Lars Gren. Elliot met him while he was a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and they were married for 36 years, until her death. The magazine reported:

    Gren says Elliot has handled dementia just as she did the deaths of her husbands. “She accepted those things, [knowing] they were no surprise to God,” Gren said. “It was something she would rather not have experienced, but she received it.

(“Missionary Pioneer Elisabeth Elliot Passes Through Gates of Splendor” by Kate Shellnutt, Christianity Today)

In receiving the suffering of life which a good God put into her hand, Elisabeth Elliot became one of the great saints of the Christian faith. She is an example of living out what the Bible tells us, right here, in our sophisticated twenty-first century culture.

elisabeth-elliot