1480) “God is Going to Have Some Explaining to Do”

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     Bob was 58 years old when learned that he had ALS.  Over the next five years the disease took his ability to walk, talk, and breathe on his own; and then it took his life.  After I heard that Bob died, I was thinking about that image of Jesus coming back to get us and take us to be with him in his heavenly home.  I have no idea how that will work or what that will look like, but the meeting Jesus part of it made me think about something.   If I were Bob meeting Jesus in person after all that time of suffering, I would want to ask, “Lord, why did I have to go through all that?”

     I thought of that because I was Bob’s pastor, and in my one of my last visits with Bob, I told him a story about Mother Teresa.  Suffering anywhere raises questions about the existence of a loving God, and few people saw as much of suffering humanity as Mother Teresa did in her long life.  A reporter once asked her about that, thinking he might put her on the spot; perhaps expecting some naive and simplistic answer that he could sneer at.  The reporter said, “Mother Teresa, with such illness, misery, suffering, and death all around you, how can you still believe in a God of love?”  Mother Teresa replied in her kind and calm way, “Yes, yes,” she said, “that is a very good question, and when I get to heaven, God is going to have some explaining to do.”

     That is a profound and wonderful answer.  Mother Teresa does three things in that brief and simple reply.  First of all, she affirms her belief in God, and secondly, she affirms her belief in heaven, that place where there will be no suffering.  And then, at the same time, she affirms the question.  She admits to wondering about the same thing, and then says she will be expecting an explanation from God.  Those few words bear witness to a solid faith; a faith that does not shrink from all the difficult questions, but a faith that is willing to bring those questions to God.  Mother Teresa would not turn away from God in unbelief or despair.

      But is it appropriate to speak to God like that, demanding an explanation?  It seems a bit arrogant and presumptuous for a sweet little old lady like Mother Teresa to be taking on the Almighty God of the universe.  But her challenge puts her in good company.  In the Old Testament, Job was a man well acquainted with suffering and grief, and he too challenged God for an explanation, saying things like “God, you have wronged me, why will you not respond to me?  Why have you made me your target, God?  Am I a burden to you?  Why don’t you leave me alone, even for an instant?”  But Job kept talking to God.  He wanted to die, but he did not turn away from God.  For 38 chapters he kept talking to God, and in the end, he was blessed for his faithfulness (although Job did receive a rather sharp reply from the Lord who had a few questions and comments of His own).

     Parents want their children to speak to them with love and respect, but most of all they want them to feel free to keep the lines of communication open.  Questions and challenges to a parent’s authority may receive direct answers and perhaps even discipline.  But even the angry challenges are preferable to a child’s withdrawl into an angry, sullen silence.       

     God wants to keep hearing from you, no matter what you have to say.  Keep the lines of communication open.

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Job 7:20  —  (Job said to God), “Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant?  If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who see everything we do?  Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you?”

Job 38:1-4a  —  Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.  He said: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.  Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you know so much.”

Job 42:12a  —  The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part.

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“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

–Psalm 22:1 and Mark 15:34

1453) God’s Justice (part two of two)

A Jewish legend, translated from a small volume published in 1929, Judische Legenden, as told by Else Schubert-Christaller; printed in The Plough Reader, Summer 2001 (adapted).

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     (…continued)  At this, the rabbi could no longer keep his thoughts to himself any longer.  He turned and shouted at Elijah, “I tremble before you, but is this God’s justice, that the devout suffer pain, while the evil receive love?  If so, woe is me, for my heart has lost God.”  

     Elijah towered over him.  There was power in his voice as he rebuked the rabbi:  “You fool!  Who do you think you are to babble about God’s justice because of what you see in just a few hours with your little eyes?  Did I not tell you that you would not be able to bear what I do?”

     But Rabbi Joshua flung himself down on his knees and beat his head against the earth and cried out, “Tell me why you have done all this, or I shall die without faith!”

     Elijah replied, “You, who just three days ago believed yourself to be a godly man, full of understanding, and now you talk like this!  Do you have no trust in God?  Do you know more than God?  Do you think you are kinder and more just than God?  Must you see and understand everything in order to trust God?”

     Despairing, Rabbi Joshua kissed the dust at Elijah’s feet.  Then Elijah said, “I will explain everything to you.  The poor man whose cow I killed was guilty of a great sin and deserved worse.  But because of his godliness, God did not want to afflict him or his wife for it.  Instead, God took the cow as atonement.  As for the man whose wall I straightened; beneath its stones a treasure lay hidden.  Had he made the repairs himself, he would have discovered it.  This treasure would only have served to harden his heart more and increase his evil.  Then, I wished the arrogant men at the synagogue to become city officials, because a city with many officials will be a place of great quarreling, and they will go to ruin in conflict.  Their own arrogance will punish them.  And as for the good man who died here last night– God rewarded him by giving him just what he wanted.  He had lived a long and abundant and godly life.  And now, he desired no more than to have a quiet and peaceful death.  That is what God, in his mercy, granted him last night.”  

     Then Elijah spoke to the rabbi for the last time.  He said, “Stand up, oh man!  Our journey together is ended.  What you have seen with me you will see wherever you may wander on the earth.  But now, when you see wicked people living in lust and happiness while godly ones live in poverty and pain, let your trust in God be great and humble.  The poor farmer had no idea why his cow died, but it was God’s mercy.  The rude farmer had no idea why his wall was repaired, but it was God’s punishment.  The synagogue leaders thought they were getting rewarded by getting the high position they wanted, but they were being punished.  And you thought the old man who died was getting punished, but he was getting his reward.  Things are seldom how they seem.  Who are you, who sees so little, to judge God, who sees all.  Who are you, that you should have the impudence to know the ways of the All-wise One, or search the paths of the Incomprehensible?  It is enough that you believe in God and trust and obey Him.  Leave God’s business to God.  Be silent now before God’s righteousness, which is far beyond your grasp.”

     Elijah turned away from him and disappeared.  But Rabbi Joshua sat still, praying to God.  This time, he prayed not in despair and confusion and anger, but in faith and trust.

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Job 10:1-3; 13:1…3 —  (Job said),  “I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.  I say to God: Do not declare me guilty, but tell me what charges you have against me.  Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the plans of the wicked?…  My eyes have seen all this, my ears have heard and understood it...  I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God.”

Job 38:1-4  —  Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.  “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand.”

Job 40:1-5; 42:6   —  The Lord said to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?  Let him who accuses God answer him!”  Then Job answered the Lord:  “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?  I put my hand over my mouth.  I spoke once, but I have no answer— twice, but I will say no more…  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

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Psalm 46:10a  —  He says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Psalm 37:1-2…5-9  —  Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away…  Commit your way to the Lordtrust in him and he will do this:  He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.  Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.  Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.  For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

II Corinthians 4:18  —  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

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O God in heaven, I thank you that you do not require me to comprehend you and your ways; for if that were required, I would be most miserable.  The more I seek to comprehend you, the more incomprehensible you are.  Therefore, I thank you that you require only faith, and I pray that you increase my faith in you.  Amen.

— adapted from a prayer by Soren Kierkegaard  (1813-1855)

1452) God’s Justice (part one of two)

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A Jewish legend, translated from a small volume published in 1929, Judische Legenden, as told by Else Schubert-Christaller; printed in The Plough Reader, Summer 2001 (adapted).

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     Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi was a good and just man, always diligent in his prayers and obedient to God.  So when he prayed that he might see the prophet Elijah, God granted his request.  Seeing the prophet appear before him, the rabbi spoke thus:  “Allow me to accompany you on your wanderings, to see what it is you do for God’s cause.  For my heart longs to see God’s justice and to rejoice in it.”

     “Rid yourself of your longing, for you will neither understand what I do nor will you be able to bear it,” Elijah answered him.

     But Rabbi Joshua replied, “I read and meditate on God’s Word every day.  Do I not know God and understand his justice?  I will certainly be able to rejoice in his work.”

     And he begged until the prophet permitted him to follow, but Elijah warned, “Take care not to question why I do as I do, for the moment you ask, your wandering with me will end.”

     So they went and wandered the bright, green earth, back and forth the whole day.  At evening, they approached a small hut, from which a poor farmer emerged.  He hurried to meet the two wanderers and invited them into his dwelling.  Once inside, he bid them sit down while he fetched water so they could wash.  His wife wasted no time in setting before the wanderers fresh milk, bread, and fruit; and with her husband, honored their guests.

     When the prophet and the rabbi wished to sleep, the poor man spread out his own blankets for them; and then he lay down beside his wife on the cold, bare dirt floor of the hut.  Rabbi Joshua’s heart was glad at the hospitality of the poor man, and he thought, “Elijah will surely reward him through God’s justice, so that he will no longer have to spend his life in poverty.”

     But when morning came, Elijah got up and killed the cow, the poor man’s sole possession.  Rabbi Joshua stared in shock at the prophet, who only looked past him with stern eyes, so that the rabbi dared not say a word in question.  The two went on, leaving the poor couple to lament their great loss.

     The prophet and the rabbi passed another day wandering the length and breadth of the bright, green earth.  As the sun dipped low, they entered the gates of a large, beautiful house.  They approached the well-dressed owner to ask if they might rest under his roof.  “Why should I bother with you beggars?” he scoffed.  “You can sleep in the stable.”

     They settled down beside the animals, their hunger unsatisfied, their dusty feet unwashed.  Anger stirred in Rabbi Joshua’s heart and he thought, “Elijah will not let this hardhearted man go unpunished by God’s justice.”

     But Elijah awoke at dawn and went into the stable yard, where an old, dilapidated wall looked ready to collapse.  The prophet straightened the stones so that the wall stood firm again.  Watching, Rabbi Joshua thought, “God sends Elijah to bring trouble to the good people and show favor to those whose deeds are evil.  How am I to understand this?  Is this justice?”  But seeing the prophet’s dark look, he suppressed his bitter questions, and the two went away from the grand house and passed another day wandering here and there over the bright, green earth.

     At day’s end, they entered a bustling city and made their way to its synagogue.  There, the wealthy men of the city sat, dressed in their finest clothes and seated for prayer in order of rank.  When the time of prayer had ended, the men turned to one another and asked, “Who should take in the two wanderers?”  None wanted to invite them into his house of give them a meal.  “Let them stay the night in the synagogue,” they all agreed, and the matter was settled.

     So the prophet and the rabbi, unfed and unwashed, spent the night in the synagogue.  When the men returned to pray the next morning, Elijah took leave of them, saying, “I know that in your hearts you all want to become city officials.  May your wishes come true.”  At this Rabbi Joshua could feel his heart fail within him, and he covered his face with his cloak, despairing over God’s justice.  Yet he still did not question the prophet.

     Again they wandered the whole day over the bright, green earth.  When it was evening, they came to a home where a kindly old man welcomed them in.  He brought water for them to wash themselves, and served them food until both the prophet and the rabbi had eaten their fill.  Then the kind host prepared beds for the two travelers, and wished them a good night.

     But Rabbi Joshua did not sleep.  Fear and sadness kept him awake the whole night, and he did not know how to still the clamor of his conscience.  What kind of God had he worshiped and obeyed all his life?  And the good rabbi feared what would happen in the morning.  Who knew what to expect on such a journey?

     At daybreak, Elijah rose and told Rabbi Joshua they must be on their way.  The rabbi said, “But shall we not thank our wonderful host?”      

     “That will not be necessary,” said Elijah.  “Our host is dead.”

     At this, the rabbi could no longer keep his thoughts to himself any longer.  He turned and shouted at Elijah, “I tremble before you, but is this God’s justice, that the devout suffer pain, while the evil receive love?  If so, woe is me, for my heart has lost God.”  (continued…)

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Jeremiah 12:1  —  You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you.  Yet I would speak with you about your justice:  Why does the way of the wicked prosper?  Why do all the faithless live at ease?

Psalm 73:3  —  I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

Habakkuk 1:3  —  Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?  Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.

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How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?

–Habakkuk 1:2

1274) How Should God Use His Power?

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From Salute to a Sufferer, by Leslie Weatherhead, Abingdon Press, 1962, pages 48-51.  In this reading, Weatherhead discusses the age-old question of the goodness of God: IF God is All-powerful AND All-good, why is there suffering in the world he created?  Weatherhead does not give a complete answer here.  There is no complete answer.  But with two creative illustrations, he does give some insight into the problem by describing some of the different ways power can be exerted.

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     We must consider the whole question of the nature of power.  I think the concept of power is misunderstood because we imagine it to mean the ability to do anything.  Let me use an illustration from the soccer field.  Let’s suppose that you are on the sidelines watching two teams playing.  A huge giant of a man, who is completely ignorant of the game, comes along and asks what all the struggle is about.  Someone tells him that the goal of the game is to get the ball into the net.  Supposing that, seeking to please, the giant stalks onto the field, knocks men right and left, picks up the ball, brushes off the goalkeeper, and puts the ball into the net.  What a riot there would be!  And what an ‘interfering so-and-so’ that giant would be called!   And what would happen to that game of soccer if the giant continued to interfere in that way?

     I want to offer the definition that power is the ability to achieve a purpose.  Many things look like power, feel like power, and are called power, but if they defeat the intended purpose they are really weakness.  The giant at the soccer match looked like the incarnation of power, but he defeated the whole purpose of the game.  And part of the purpose of the ‘game of life’ is for people to struggle and grow and learn and work together.  To end that struggle by a show of what is usually thought of as ‘omnipotent power’ would make life, as we know it, quite meaningless.

     The ways in which we often imagine and wish that God would act and “show forth his might power” would, because they would defeat his holy and righteous purposes, really be weakness and show the same kind of futility as the giant at the soccer match.  Paul saw the point clearly.  “Why,” said the bystanders at the crucifixion, “doesn’t Christ call on God?  Surely a God of power could save his own Son!  Let God come and save him.”  The Cross looked like defeat, felt like defeat, and was called defeat.  Paul, however, called it “the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18).  What would a divine rescue of the Crucified have done compared with the power of the Cross to change men’s lives through twenty centuries of its preaching in every nation under heaven?

     Consider another illustration.  The playroom floor is covered with toy wooden building blocks.  Several little brothers are playing with them, and they resolve to build a beautiful tower which their father, a very good, very strong, and very wise man has described to them.  But they quarrel as to who shall do this and who shall do that, and as to what the pattern shall be.  When one has got the tower partly built, another knocks it down again.  Accidents happen, too.  Boys do not watch where they put their feet.  They do not know when a tower will stand and what conditions will make it likely to fall.

     Then the father enters the nursery.  He knows exactly how it should be done, and what it should look like, and how happy everyone would be if it were finished.  So now, what are the possibilities open to him?  I can think of four:

1. He could send all the little boys out of the nursery and build the tower by himself.  (God did not ask man to help him build the Himalayas.)

2. He could  intervene to prevent accidents and the results of ignorance and folly, stopping the careless foot and the angry, hostile hand.

3. He could beat into subjection the unruly boys who quarrel, making them spineless, terrified slaves; or, he could even throw them out of the nursery.

4. He could watch the boys build the tower, seeing it built slowly, and often carelessly.  He could see it fall, or be knocked down, or its building ruined by ignorance and folly, or by angry impatience, or jealousy and hate– and yet, with infinite patience, without violence, he could try to teach the little brothers how to build again, how alone the tower can be made both beautiful and safe, how to get along with one another, one doing this and one doing that; until at last the tower arises erect, firmly founded, beautiful to see, and fulfilling the father’s dreams both as to the final beauty and stability of the tower, and, the effect on the builders of building it together.

      The first three methods sound like power, but they would not fulfill nearly such a glorious purpose as the fourth method, even though at the end, the boys say that they built the tower by themselves and had no help from anyone!  The fourth method alone makes them brothers and enables them to fulfill their possibilities.  That is the way of God with humankind.  And we really must realize that God’s choice of his own restraint is an expression of power, not weakness.  Again and again, as civilizations rise and pass away, God sees his plans in ruins and his dreams trodden under foot.  And in those disasters individual people suffer much pain, but they do grow and learn.  This is the noblest way, and the way God has chosen.

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Matthew 27:41-43  —   In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked Jesus.  “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself!  He’s the king of Israel!  Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.  He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

I Corinthians 1:18  —  The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

II Corinthians 12:9  —  (The Lord) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

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Great, O Lord, is your kingdom, your power, and your glory; great also is your wisdom, your goodness, your justice, and your mercy; and for all these we bless you, and will magnify your name for ever and ever.  Amen.

–George Wither, English poet  (1588-1667)

1267) God Disregards Buddhist Principles

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“To free yourself from suffering, free yourself from attachments.”  –Buddha

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By Elizabeth Sunshine, posted September 19, 2016 at:  http://www.breakpoint.org.  Sunshine is an MTS student at the University of Notre Dame with a focus in Biblical Studies.

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     Have you ever wondered if you’d be happier if only you didn’t care about things so much?  I have.

     Last year I led discussion groups as a teaching assistant.  I felt horribly anxious before class and often felt disappointed in my performance afterward.  I also had a hard time giving constructive criticism.  The source of all these problems was my desperate desire to be liked.  I wanted the students to think I was a great teacher, which, ironically, probably made me a worse teacher than I would have been otherwise.

     My experience would seem to demonstrate the Buddhist claim that non-attachment is the way to avoid suffering.  If I were less attached to my students’ opinions, I would not have suffered that anxiety.

     Buddhism is a remarkably consistent, well-thought-out worldview designed to tackle one of the hardest problems human beings face:  the problem of suffering.  For that very reason, it sheds light on the Christian faith, from which it differs not only in its explanation of how the world works, but also in its even more fundamental conviction that suffering is always to be avoided.

     The problem of evil is usually posed as an objection to belief in God, but actually, it’s a problem that every belief system needs to address.  Terrible things happen in the world, so any account of how the world works needs to explain evil and suffering.  Buddhists see suffering as the central feature of the world.  Everything, they say, is unsatisfactory, if for no other reason than that it is impermanent.  Nothing gives permanent happiness because nothing lasts permanently.

     Our problem, says Buddhism, is that we have desires for unsatisfactory things, desires that are doomed to be frustrated.  It is these desires that keep us trapped in the cycle of reincarnation, being born again and again in different bodies, all of which are doomed to suffer and die.  The only way to escape from suffering, then, is to let go of desires through practices such as meditation.  Buddhists are told to pursue non-attachment, a state without desire, which leads to enlightenment and an end to suffering.

     My teaching experience was an example of attachment leading to suffering.  Here is another.  I lived in Taiwan for three years, making many close friends.  Now that I’ve moved back to the U.S., I miss those friends horribly.  But I also love the people I’ve met here and would hate to leave my new community.  I’ve realized that I need to choose a career where I won’t have to move frequently because every time I do, it breaks my heart.

     Now, a Buddhist might claim that my problem is attachment to these people.  If I didn’t have such a strong emotional connection to them, leaving wouldn’t hurt so much.  That’s not to say I shouldn’t be kind; Buddhism instructs its practitioners to have compassion for all living things.  But Buddhist compassion is a sense of general benevolence, wishing well to all beings, rather than love for particular individuals.  This compassion may flow out into acts of kindness to individuals, but the concern should be spread among all beings equally.

     This is where Christianity and Buddhism diverge.  Christianity is particular.  We believe that God revealed Himself first to a specific nation (Israel) descended from a specific person (Abraham), in specific places (Mt. Sinai, among others).  He then took the next step and became human, a specific man named Jesus raised in Nazareth during the first century A.D.  He healed specific individuals who asked him for help, entrusted His most detailed teaching to 12 people, and died as atonement for sin— which means the specific morally wrong actions of individuals.

     You could say that all this attachment to particular individuals was God’s big mistake.  From all eternity, God existed in a state much like enlightenment, free from suffering and without attachments.  The members of the Trinity were bound only to each other through love, a love which could never disappoint because those involved are eternal, unchangeable, and perfectly good.

     But then God created a finite, temporal world and put finite, temporal humans in charge of it.  Not only that, but He became emotionally attached to the world, calling it good and telling the humans to fill and care for it.  He loved these humans deeply, but they chose not to love God back.  Human actions have been in Buddhist terminology “unsatisfactory,” to say the least.  Before long humanity became so evil that “God was sorry that he made man, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen 6:6).

     To make a long story short, God eventually decided to solve the problem of human sin through . . . more attachments.  These attachments were called covenants, solemn promises confirming relationships between God and humans.  Again and again God committed Himself to bless individuals and, eventually a whole nation, Israel.

     But Israel repeatedly failed to follow God.  Many prophets describe God’s relationship to Israel as frustrating and even painful for Him.  Hosea compares God to a husband betrayed by his wife.  Jeremiah describes God as lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, brought on by Israel’s sin.  Theologians tend to balk at the idea that God can experience pain, and certainly comparisons between God and humans work only by analogy.  But the deeply emotional language used of God is getting at something real.  Metaphors only work when there is an actual similarity, and if humans are made in the image of God, our emotions must parallel something in God’s being.

     So God experiences suffering because of His attachment to Israel.  Whereas in Buddhism attachment leads to reincarnation, in Christianity, that attachment leads to a unique form of incarnation.  God goes through a human life with all its weaknesses and frustrations and ultimately ends up suffering horribly and dying.  If only he’d listened to the Buddha and avoided attachment all that pain could have been avoided!

     But God knew exactly what He was doing.  From the moment of creation, God knew that humanity would sin, that Israel would frustrate him, and that He would become human and die for us.  None of this was a surprise.  God could have avoided it all, but chose not to.  And this gives us another way to think about suffering as well.  If God didn’t do everything in His power to avoid suffering, maybe we shouldn’t either.  Maybe pain can be redemptive.

     That’s not to say suffering is good.  Evil is still evil.  It just means that sometimes, evil backfires on itself, and God brings good about anyway.

     We shouldn’t seek out suffering.  But most of us don’t need to.  Buddhists are right that suffering is inevitable, and it is perfectly reasonable for them to hope for an end to suffering.  Christianity also promises an end to suffering when Christ returns and wipes every tear from our eyes.  But unlike Buddhism, Christianity also promises an end of suffering in the sense of a purpose or a goal.  Suffering is a tool in God’s hands that He uses to make us more like Christ and to undo the effects of sin.  Love can lead to suffering, but it also leads through suffering to a greater purpose.  It brings good out of evil.

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Genesis 6:6  —  The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.

Hosea 11:8  —  (God said), “How can I give you up…  How can I hand you over, Israel?…  My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.

John 3:16  —   For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 11:35  —  Jesus wept.

Romans 5:8  —  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

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PSALM 118:1:

O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; His steadfast love endures forever.  Amen.

1109) Lamb of God (b)

The Lamb of God, by Francisco de Zurbaran, 1635

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      (…continued)  Sin is a powerful force in the world, and a lamb is not the first image that would come to mind if you were to do something about it.  What can a lamb do to even defend itself, let alone take on anyone or anything else?  Lambs have no claws.  They have no sharp teeth.  They can’t even run fast.  When attacked, there is not much for a lamb to do but to receive the blows and just take whatever is coming at it.  We might have expected that John the Baptist would have said of Jesus, “Behold, the LION of God, here to come and track down and devour the sinners of the world.”  But no, Jesus is a lamb, John said.  And that is a very good thing, because we are all sinners who would be devoured if a lion was sent to get rid of all the sin in the world.  But God comes to us as a lamb.

     Throughout the Bible, lambs are associated with gentleness, with innocence, and with dependence.  In Isaiah 40, God is the shepherd who gathers the lambs because they are helpless.  In Nathan’s parable to illustrate David’s great sinfulness, the lamb stands for helpless innocents, killed by the wicked who are in power.  The prophet Jeremiah, speaks of the helplessness of a lamb being led to the slaughter, and when Isaiah spoke of the suffering servant of God, he spoke of him being killed without making a sound– just like a little lamb.  In the New Testament, Jesus picks up on the same image when he said that the disciples were being sent out like lambs among wolves.

     And when describing how Jesus came to take away the sin of the world, the New Testament says that Jesus will be like a lamb.  So when God’s Word speaks of Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God,’ it describes the surprisingly gentle way God deals with our sin.  Our sin deserves fierce rebuke, judgment, condemnation, and punishment.  Yet, in the face of our horrible sin, we get an innocent lamb.  There is in the Bible the wrath and terrible judgment of God, and that will one day come.  But that is not where God starts, or how God wants to be primarily known by us.  God comes with gentleness.

     What happened when Jesus, this gentle lamb of God, came into this dangerous world?  You know what happened– he got slaughtered.  That is what happens to lambs.  And all those Old Testament verses about a lamb being led to the slaughter are then applied to Jesus.  The words about the lamb which is silent before its killers become a fulfilled prophecy, as Jesus is, for the most part, silent before his accusers.  Just as the Passover lambs in the Old Testament were killed as a sacrifice for sin, Jesus was himself killed on the Passover weekend, becoming the ultimate sacrifice for every sin ever committed.

    What does this mean and how does that work?  A full understanding of that is beyond our comprehension, and the New Testament itself uses several different images to describe it.  But the heart of the message is unmistakably clear– Jesus, on the cross ‘took away the sin of the world,’ just like John the Baptist said he would.  Jesus did not yet end all sin.  Sin is still all around us and within us.  But Jesus took away sin as a barrier between us and God, allowing us to return to the Father, and now able to look forward to that time when all sin would be completely taken away and gone forever.

     This lamb of God also left for the world an example of how to deal with the sin all around us.  Jesus said we are not to deal with the sin in others by revenge, and not by an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and not by angry retribution; but by forgiveness and by gentleness.  It was with that sort of example that Jesus inspired his disciples, and that example has been inspiring and changing people ever since.

     Now there is a difference between how an individual responds to sin, and, how the government and its representatives respond to sin.  The words of Jesus on forgiveness is to individuals in their relationships with each other, but it is the government’s job to restrict sin, to apprehend the dangerous sinner, and to punish sin.  This is something different.  We do not tell the Christian judge to forgive everyone who comes before him.  On the bench he does not represent himself but the government, and it is the government’s job to restrain sin, not forgive it.  Romans 13 says God has given the government that job so that the citizens may be protected, by police officers and courts and armies; and governments are under the command of God to be just and fair. 

     But to individuals, Jesus, the lamb of God, shows us how to live in the midst of sin, and we also are to model such forgiveness and love.  One of the most powerful examples of this was Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 60’s.  Even though his followers were being beaten and jailed and sometimes even killed, King would allow only one weapon to be used in retaliation.  That was what he called the ‘weapon of love.’  He said to his oppressors, “We will counter your violent physical force with soul force and we will match your ability to hate with our ability to love.’  The movement did not always follow that advice, but it was the peaceful and non-violent and forgiving spirit of the civil rights movement that began to change the hearts of an entire nation.

     It was that spirit in the ministry of Jesus that inspired his disciples to leave everything and follow him.  It is in that same spirit of gentleness and forgiveness that we have the assurance of God’s grace, given to us not because of what we have done, but because of the love and sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

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Isaiah 53:6-7  —  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

Acts 16:31  —  Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…

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Psalm 25:16-18:

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
    for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart
    and free me from my anguish.
Look on my affliction and my distress
    and take away all my sins.

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Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; grant us your peace.  Amen.

The Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), used in Christian worship since the 7th century

1108) The Lamb of God (a)

Indonesia after 2004 tsunami

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     On a Sunday morning, the day after Christmas in 2004, the earth’s crust shifted under the Indian Ocean, just west of Indonesia.  That earthquake sent outwards, in every direction, some of the largest tsunamis ever recorded.  When those massive waves hit shore they brought horrific, unimaginable devastation.  You probably remember the images of the destruction.  Trains tipped over like toys, cars washed down the streets like leaves after a rain, whole cities with thousands of people deluged, and then swept out to sea.  The loss of human life was staggering.  An exact count could not be determined, but the death toll of that day and its aftermath was over 280,000.  It was the worst natural disaster in recent memory, and one of the deadliest in human history.

     Such disasters do make one think about God, each in his or her own way.  Some will turn to God in prayer, certainly for help for themselves and others, some perhaps in repentance.  Others will wonder about God’s love or even his existence.  Some will respond by a raising fist upwards in anger and scorn to a God they may not even believe in.  At those times, we see much of this spiritual questioning in the media.  Some news people are very matter-of-fact in their reporting, while others display their mocking unbelief.  One magazine had an editorial on ‘religious faith after the tsunami,’ and the concluding line stated that the greatest miracle after something like this is that anyone can believe in anything anymore.

     But if sadness and tragedy in the world are reasons enough to give up on trusting God, one need not wait for a tsunami to lose their faith.  Every day provides reason enough for that, either on a large scale, or, in each individual life.  But those who do believe in God believe not only in spite of the tragedies, but for the very reason that in times of suffering and grief, there is no place else to turn but to God.  Why, in times of tragic loss, would one want to turn away from the only source of hope that is left?  

     Why God allows such things to happen is a valid question for a person of faith.  But that person will not just ask the question and then turn away.  Rather, they will want to look into God’s Word to see if they can find some responses to their questions.  Even then, complete understanding is not to be had in this life.  What is offered is hope even in the midst of the deepest darkness.

     A response by one Christian at the time was, “After a tragedy like this people wonder why a loving God could not provide an escape from the grave.  Well, he has.”  That is the simple, but true answer.  God, in Christ Jesus, provides a hope even greater than death.  Life remains a struggle, and it is our Christian calling to respond by helping those who desperately need that help– just as Christians and Christian relief organizations all over the world do after every disaster.  But our deepest hope is that eternal hope for which Christ was born, and what he brought into this dangerous world.

     The dangers do not come only from natural disasters.  All the very worst tragedies in human history have been man-made, and are the result of sin.  In Syria alone, an ongoing civil war has already resulted in almost twice as many deaths as in the 2004 tsunami.  In the early 1990’s, 800,000 Rwandans were killed by fellow Rwandans in just a few weeks.  Hitler had 6 million Jews killed, not the mention the many more millions of people from all over Europe and America that died in the war he started.  In a series of purges, Joseph Stalin killed 20 million of his fellow Russians.  That is 70 times the number that died in the tsunami.  This is to mention only a few from just the past century.  There was also Albania, Cambodia, the trenches of the first World War, and so many more.  Recent news has been full of the deadly violence in Iraq, Iran, Israel, Palestine and terrorist attacks around the world.  A natural disaster raises questions about the goodness of God.  But these man-made holocausts raise questions about the human heart.

     A priest in Rwanda survived an attack in which many of his parishioners were killed.  He was asked if the massacre had shaken his faith in God.  “Absolutely not,” he said, “but what has happened in this country has destroyed my faith in humanity forever.”

     And one does not need to watch the news to see the sadness of life and the troubles caused by human sin.  Every community and every family contains its own sad stories, as every individual is the cause of and the recipient of such troubles on a much smaller scale.  All of our daily mean or selfish acts, large or small, our failures to show compassion or to get along, and our misunderstandings and irritations, all contribute to this sorrowful life in this troubled world.  

     Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said that the only difference between Joseph Stalin and an ordinary person is that Stalin had an army.  The more power one has, the more damage one can do, and many ordinary folks do plenty of damage in their own little sphere of influence.  We all make our own contributions to this trouble, or, as the Bible says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  That sin is the source of most of our misery.

     In John 1:29 John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, there is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The world is full of sin, and so is our own heart. What does it mean that this Lamb of God is able to take away the sin of the world?  What can a lamb do?  (continued…)

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John 1:29  —  The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

I John 1:8  —  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

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Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.

–Peter, John 6:68

1015) The Test (2/3)

Job Rebuked by His Friends, watercolor by William Blake (1757-1827)

     (…continued)  Job, however, has a very different view of the situation.  While agreeing that it is indeed God’s business to punish evil and reward goodness, Job is quite convinced that God is making a big mistake in his case.  Job certainly admits to not being perfect, but he argues that has he not done anything to deserve this degree of suffering.  He has no hidden faults, no secret sins, nothing at all out of the ordinary to deserve such extra-ordinary punishment.  Yes, God rewards good and punishes evil, but in Job’s case it is God who is in the wrong.  Job is so convinced of this that he demands a hearing with God to plead his case.

     The friends are appalled at Job’s arrogance for thinking that he can call God himself to account.  But Job knows what they do not know, that is that he has done nothing so terrible as to deserve this.  Therefore, Job’s severe pain and agony drive him to challenge even God.  But still, he does not curse God.  Job continues speaking to God, he makes his appeal to God’s goodness and justice, and at times, he even rests back into trust in God’s care.  Job remains a man of faith.  It is his faith in the presence of God and in the goodness of God that drives even his angriest words at God.  Jobs hangs to faith, but it is a faith that has many questions of God and insists that God explain himself.

     Job is one of the most popular books in the Old Testament because it asks the questions we all ask.  In times of particular suffering we have all asked in one way or another, “Why God is this happening to me?”  This is the second most important question in religion.  The most important question is, “Is there a God?”  If we do believe in God, the next logical question is, what is God up to in the world and in my life?  Is God on my side or not?  And if God is on my side and does love me, why does he allow such terrible things to happen.  On and on, for almost the entire book, Job asks these questions from every angle with great power and eloquence.

     And then, God speaks.

     God speaks, but Job does not receive the kind of response he was looking for.  God’s reply goes on for four chapters, beginning in the second verse of chapter 38 with a challenge of his own.  God thunders from the heavens, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge.  Brace yourself like a man Job, now I have some questions for you and you shall answer me.  Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me if you understand.  Who marked off it’s dimensions?  Surely you must know!  Who stretched the measuring line across it?  On what were the footings set and who laid its cornerstone?… Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?  Tell me if you know all this?”

     Job is given not an answer, but a glimpse into the greatness and majesty of God, and he is humbled.  Job repents of his arrogant words, admitting he spoke of things he did not understand.  In the last chapter, God commends Job for his faith and restores his health and fortunes.

     The Bible tells us not only what to believe and what to do, it also tells us what to see, and how to see God, the world, our life, our death, and our actions.  The Bible teaches us a new way of seeing everything.  One of the important things the Bible teaches us to see is that there is a limit to what we CAN see. Job never finds out what we found out at the very beginning of the story.  He never learned of the conversation between God and Satan.  He was not told that all of his suffering was not a punishment for wrongs committed, but instead was a test of his faith, by God who had great confidence in Job.  (continued…)

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Job 3:11…13…26  —  (Job said), “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?…  For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest…  I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

Job 4:7-8  —  (Eliphaz said), “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?  Where were the upright ever destroyed?  As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.”

Job 7:17-21  —  (Job said to God), “What is man that you make so much of them, that you give him so much attention, that you examine him every morning and test him every moment?  Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant?  If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who see everything we do?  Why have you made me your target?  Have I become a burden to you?  Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins?  For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.”

Job 13:3  —  (Job said), “I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God.”

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Merciful God, grant us feeble people endurance in adversity.  May the wicked roots of envy and malice not grow in us.  Save us from being brought into temptation by Satan.  Grant us love towards friends and enemies that we may follow in your ways, by the example of your Son, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

–Miles Coverdale, English Bible translator and Bishop  (1488-1568)

1014) The Test (1/3)

Job, 1880, by Leon Bonnat  (1833-1922)

     Job was a good man, and as the story told in the Old Testament book of Job begins, it would seem that his goodness was well rewarded. He was not only a good man, but he was a wealthy man; ‘the greatest man in the East,’ says chapter one.  He had huge flocks, dozens of servants, good health, and a large and happy family.  That is how the story begins.

     Then the scene shifts from earth and into heaven, into the very presence of the Almighty God himself, where Satan stops in for a little visit.  God asks Satan, “What have you been doing?”  Satan says he has been out and about, roaming to and fro on the earth.  God asks Satan if he has seen Job, that good and righteous man with whom God is obviously very pleased.  “Yes,” says Satan, “I have seen him.”  But Satan was not as impressed with Job’s goodness, and said to God sarcastically, “Why shouldn’t Job be good and worship God?  You have given him everything and blessed him in every way.  Take it all away,” challenges Satan, “and Job will curse you to your face.”

     “All right,” says God, accepting the challenge to put Job to the test, “Go ahead and do what you want to his fortunes, but do not harm Job.”  Immediately, the scene shifts back to earth, where Job is hit with one catastrophe after another.  His flocks are stolen or destroyed, his servants are killed and scattered, and all ten of his children are killed.  Yet, incredibly, Job remains faithful and says, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

     Then the scene shifts back to heaven again.  The conversation between God and Satan is repeated, with God pointing out Job’s goodness and continued faithfulness.  Not yet ready to concede defeat, Satan points out the fact that Job himself was spared any physical suffering.  So God agrees to continue the test.  This time God allows Satan to harm Job physically, with the only condition being that he must stop short of killing him.

      Once more, the story moves back to earth where Job is afflicted with a most painful skin disease, putting him in such pain and misery that before long he is soon wishing he was dead.  But he remains faithful.  His wife has had enough and encourages Job to give up.  “Curse God and die,” she says.  But Job will not hear of it, saying, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”  He then goes outside of the city to bear his troubles alone, and there he sits in silent misery.  All of this takes place in the first two chapters of Job.  There are forty more chapters to go.

     Thirty-five of these remaining forty chapters are made up of a conversation between Job and some friends who come to be with him.  The friends first sit in silence with Job.  When the conversation begins, it centers on the question of why Job must endure so much suffering.

     Even though all the participants have the same theology and the same understanding of God, they disagree with great emotion and powerful words.  They agree that God is just, and that the way God deals with us is to reward goodness and to punish wickedness; always, and with mathematical precision.  Therefore, if things are going well for someone, they must be living a good and obedient life.  And, by the same rule, if things are going badly for you, that means you have been a bad boy or girl.  That is how the world works.

     With that belief firmly in place, the friends view of Job’s situation is that Job must have really done something terrible because he is really getting clobbered.  Therefore, they do all they can to get Job to admit to his sins and repent, so that God can forgive him and heal him.  (continued…)

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Job 1:8-12  —  The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?  There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”   Satan replied. “Does Job fear God for nothing?  Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?  You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.  But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”  The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

Job 1:20-22  —  (After all the disasters came upon his household and property…)  At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head.  Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:  “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”  In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

Job 2:9-10  —  (After Job himself is stricken…)  His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity?  Curse God and die!”  He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman.  Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”  In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.

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My dear Lord, I pray for the grace to meet suffering well when it comes upon me.  Let me bear pain, reproach, disappointment, slander, anxiety, and suspense as you would want me to, O Jesus, and as you have taught me by your own suffering.  Amen.

–J. H. Newman  (1801-1890)

842) Thought-Provoking

     

     I was browsing around in a Barnes and Noble bookstore one day and saw a table featuring “Thought-Provoking Books.”  Items on the table included entertaining books of mathematical brain-teasers, mind-boggling books on astronomy and physics, and off-the-wall books on politics.  There were also several books on the topic of religion and philosophy.  I looked at each one of those books and was frustrated to find that every thought-provoking book in the section was negative on faith and religion.  Books like The God Delusion, Atheist America, The Quotable Atheist, and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything were all there.  All were bestsellers at that time, and the bookstore wanted to cash in on that popularity.  That’s their business, so no problem there.  But I wondered about the selection process of those books that were considered ‘thought provoking.’  There are all kinds of ‘thought-provoking’ books written in response to these atheistic books, and many books written by Christians over the centuries that speak to the questions raised in these books.  Barnes and Nobles does have a great section on religion, and many of those good books are there.  But why not even one single positive book on faith in the ‘thought provoking books’ section?  Some of them were also selling very well at that time.  Was that store manager of the opinion that religious people do not think and just blindly believe what they are told?  I had been looking for one book in particular that was also published at about that same time.  It was by Anthony Flew, a world famous philosopher and out-spoken atheist for 60 years.  Anthony Flew then changed his mind, and his last book was entitled There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.  I bet that would be thought-provoking.  Another good book would be I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek.  That also sounds thought-provoking, but that book wasn’t there either.

     I know what all of those anti-religion books say.  They make the usual challenges with questions like, ‘If there was an all-powerful and all-loving God, then why is there so much suffering in the world?’  And that is indeed a huge question.  But you don’t need a $29.00 book to raise that question in your mind, do you?  Anyone who has ever suffered, any one who has watched a loved die, anyone who reads the newspaper will ask time and again, ‘Why Lord?’  The Bible itself asks that question time and again, as God’s people over the centuries struggled with what looked to them like God’s lack of power, lack of concern, or both.  The Bible has many responses to this question, and believers over the years have struggled with this challenge within the context of their faith, and, they have come to many profound insights and answers.  The problem of suffering leads some away from the faith, and leads many to deeper faith, but everyone thinks about it.  It is too bad that the Barnes and Noble manager considered only one type of response thought-provoking.

     I would be quick to agree that there is no full and completely satisfying answer to this question of suffering.  And even the best answers will seem most inadequate to anyone who is in the midst of suffering.  But God’s ways are not our ways, the Bible tells us, and we should not be surprised if we do not understand everything about God.  

     And perhaps the whole answer is in the Bible, and it is just that we, in our sinful minds, do not find it satisfying.  Perhaps God’s attempts to reason with us are like a parent’s attempt to reason with a child…

     “Mom, why can’t we have candy for supper,” says five-year old Teddy.  “I like candy, but I don’t like that goulash you are making again.”
     “Well,” says mother, “eating candy all the time would not be good for you.  It is not very nutritious, and you will never grow big and strong by just eating candy; and not only that, but too much sugar can make you sick, and even cause diseases, and its not very good for your teeth either.”
     “Yes, mom,” replies Teddy, “I know all that, but why can’t we have candy for supper every night?”

     Good reasons are given, but the small child’s little mind doesn’t get it.  Perhaps it is that our small, sinful human minds just cannot or will not comprehend or accept the knowledge and insights given in the Bible about why God allows suffering in this world.

     Most importantly of all, despite our lack of understanding, God’s most important response to the problem of suffering the wonderful hope and promise of the time and place when there will be no more suffering and no more pain.  That much in the Bible is very clear.

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Psalm 10:1  —  Why, Lord, do you stand far off?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

Psalm 13:1-2a  —  How long, Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

Isaiah 55:8-9  —  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Revelation 21:4-5a  —  God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

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How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?  Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?  Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds…

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.  The Sovereign Lord is my strength.

–Habakkuk 1:2-3…3:17-19a