Archive for Evil
The writer of Hebrews uses these verses to make a couple of very important points. The first is that God’s discipline is an act of love. That’s hard for us to grasp. Maybe you’ve heard a child respond to their parent’s discipline with the words, “you don’t love me!” As a parent, nothing is further from the truth. Parents discipline their children because they do love them. God’s discipline is to be considered as a sign of his affection for our lives. Love motivates God’s discipline, and love governs God’s discipline. Every expression of discipline passes through the Father’s loving heart.
The second point the writer makes in this section is that discipline is based on our existing relationship with God. A father who doesn’t discipline is being negligent. A child who escapes discipline loses out of the benefits of being related to the father. But here’s the surprise: The absence of discipline informs the relational status of the person. Discipline is so much a part of God’s way with his children that if it’s absent their status as children of God should be called into question. (On the flip side we could say that discipline is a mark of assurance of salvation.) God’s discipline proves our legitimacy as children of God. Discipline is the Lord’s acknowledgement that he claims us.
“This salvation was something even the prophets wanted to know more about when they prophesied about this gracious salvation prepared for you. They wondered what time or situation the Spirit of Christ within them was talking about when he told them in advance about Christ’s suffering and his great glory afterward. They were told that their messages were not for themselves but for you. And now this Good News has been announced to you by those who preached in the power of the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen.” — 1 Peter 1:10-12 (NLT)
Paul deliberately requested that his thorn in the flesh be removed. With each request, Christ’s response was “no.” But with the denial came an explanation. The explanation was that his weakness magnified the power of Christ in his life. The NLT misses an important turn of a phrase in verse 9. For example, the NIV renders, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” The word rest literally means “made its home” or “tabernacled,” which helps us to understand the lasting nature of Christ’s power upon Paul’s life. Paul was given a thorn, but with the thorn came the grace of God which filled every broken part of his life.
Here’s the takeaway:“When I am weak, then I am strong.”
Weakness is like an Interstate superhighway that ushers the grace of God and the power of God into our lives. One of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes is, “Our problem is not that we are too weak. Our problem is that we are too strong.” God uses our weakness so that he receives the glory for our lives. He makes us a sort of living paradox so that his power is magnified over our talents and abilities. Think about the paradox of Paul’s life. He is a sick miracle worker that cannot heal himself. He’s a visionary with bad eyes. He’s the spokesperson for the gospel in Asia with a speech impediment. God receives glory when he’s able to accomplish through us what no one else expects, even ourselves.
One of the important lessons of this wonderful text is that it reminds us to be open to the fact that the worst thing that happens to us produces the best things that happen in us and through us. That may mean that we have to quit looking at ourselves as victims, and instead anticipate the victories that God brings to us and through us that he could accomplish no other way.
When suffering strikes our lives our first response is usually to try to eliminate it. It’s quite natural. After all, who among us hasn’t dropped everything when we have obtained a splinter to find the tweezers and pull it out? Paul’s thorn in the flesh was certainly more substantial than a splinter in the finger. His response, though, was the same. He asked the Lord to remove it, not once, but three times.
Reading this verse reminds me of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus asked the Father to remove the imminent suffering of the cross. He passionately asked the Father for the “cup to pass.”
Sometimes a person will ask me how they should pray when suffering invades their lives. I think it’s ok to ask God to remove it. Paul and Jesus certainly weren’t afraid to pray that direction. At the same time, we need to remember that ultimately it’s about God’s will, not ours. Nevertheless, it’s ok to ask.
“This boasting will do no good, but I must go on. I will reluctantly tell about visions and revelations from the Lord. I was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know—only God knows. Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.” (NLT)
No one can say with confidence what experience Paul is referencing. The dating would have put it in the vicinity of 43 A.D. It seems that one logical possibility would have been his stoning in Lystra (cf. Acts 14:19-20). His testimony attested to being caught up into the third heaven. In Jewish cosmology, the first heaven was the abode of the birds; the second heaven was the abode of the stars; and the third heaven was the abode of God and his angels. His point is that he had greater reason to be prideful than his arrogant readers in Corinth. His visions and revelations were superior to theirs. Yet he was not going to boast in these things. He gave preference to boasting in his weakness instead (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:30). Why? In 12:6, he shares “I won’t do it, because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life and hear in my message.”
So, to reduce or even eliminate pride in his life he received a thorn in the flesh. The word thorn is literally “stake,” similar to a stake that would be used to impale someone. This thorn (or stake) was described as a messenger from Satan that served two purposes. The first purpose was “to torment him.” The word torment means to “harass;” “fisticuff;” or “strike blows.” Every day the presence of the thorn created discomfort, as though someone repeatedly struck him in the face with their fist. The second purpose was to develop humility in his life.
So what was the thorn? Several suggestions have been offered by biblical writers. Among those suggestions are:
1. Paul had a physical ailment such as epilepsy.
2. Paul was physically short, or perhaps suffered from a speech impediment (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 10:10).
3. Paul was prone to a particular temptation to sin.
4. Paul struggled under the heavy load of his work and the difficulty of the ministry (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
5. Paul had poor eyesight stemming from his experience in Acts 9 on the road to Damascus (Galatians 4:13-15; 6:11).
6. Paul’s thorn was not a physical challenge at all but rather an enemy that purposed to create pain in his life (2 Timothy 4:14-15).
The bottom line is that we don’t know what the thorn was. It’s a fun conversation. But it brings an important question: What is your nagging reminder to renounce pride and depend upon God? Could it be that the clearest indicator that something is wrong is that everything is right?
First, focus on what you affirm to be true about God. Those who know me are aware that I have a deep distaste for cliché Christianity and “pat answers.” I think those things should be categorically rejected. Neither can we praise mystery without restraint. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Job struggled deeply, but his struggle was the struggle of a believer who clung tightly to his convictions about what he knew to be true of God.
Second, it is possible to serve God with a pure heart in the midst of suffering. It’s important to remember that suffering does not give you a hall pass on faith and the practice(s) of faith. You can and should live your faith to the best of your ability in spite of your circumstances.
Third, be aware that there are always bigger purposes at work in your life, whether you know it or not. Job endured his entire battery of suffering not knowing about God’s conversation with the accuser at the throne. We must realize that when suffering strikes home God is not being capricious or arbitrary. He’s not playing cosmic games with his creatures to alleviate his own boredom. At the same time, what you experience is not always about you. There are larger forces and purposes at work even though we may not see them as such.
Finally, any suffering helps us to identify more closely with Christ. If you lay the life of Job atop the life of Jesus you’ll quickly identify several interesting parallels. Both suffered greatly, both suffered innocently, and both understood the fickle nature of friends and followers. Ultimately, both Job and Jesus found help on this earth in the end. For Job, it was restoration, and for Jesus, it was resurrection. Never forget that suffering is the primary tool that God invests in your life to make you more like Jesus. In Paul’s quest for knowledge of Christ, he wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10, NIV). The former does not come without the latter. That was true of Paul, and its true of us as well.
Observation One: Job insisted that his suffering was within the framework of the sovereignty of God. In chapter 2:10 he asks, “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” Job is not certain as to what was happening to him, and even less certain as to why those things were happening. But he realized just the same that nothing could touch his life without God’s sanction. Behind the suffering stood Satan, and behind Satan stood God.
Observation Two: Job highlights the fact that there is such a thing as innocent suffering. Sometimes our suffering is the direct result of a particular sin or sins. But some suffering occurs that is not directly related to any sin. Suffering can be the result of human malice, negligent behavior, irresponsible governing, human selfishness, or natural disaster. All suffering is a consequence of the fall. But not all suffering is the direct retribution of particular sin. The whole point of the story is that Job was innocent. We insist on an economy where good people have good things happen to them and bad people have bad things happen to them. If bad things happen to you, you have done something wrong. Job is a blanket protest against this analysis of how things are in the world.
Observation Three: No matter how we prepare ourselves for the possibility of suffering, nothing can adequately prepare us for the actual shock of reality. It’s not unlike diving into an ice cold pool or stepping into a cold shower. In Job 3:25 Job said, “What I always feared has happened to me. What I dreaded has come true.” Job had already thought about these things. He knew it was not beyond possibility, and to that extent he was prepared. But awareness of the possibility or even the probability doesn’t decrease the pain.
Observation Four: Job doesn’t know at the beginning or the end the root of it all…God’s conversation with Satan. God’s intent was to prove that humans can love him, fear him, and pursue righteousness without any prompt material reward. Satan’s contention was that human’s pursuit of God was grounded in self interest, that humans are merely mercenaries, offering their devotion to the highest bidder.
Observation Five: Though his lament was loud and strong, at no point did Job abandon his faith. Why? He knew God was there and he believed God to be loving and just. Job struggled deeply, but his struggles were the struggles of a believer. God does not blame us if in our suffering we honestly vent our despair and confess our loss of hope, our sense of futility and our lamentations about life itself. But in the midst of his complaint lie deep confession. Job affirmed the right things about God’s character and nature.
Any time we discuss the problem of evil and suffering, we are going to face challenges. Those challenges are never more poignant than those times in which the particular suffering strikes us as irrational and unfair. How do we reconcile the lack of proportion between the depth of the suffering and the seeming innocence of those who are afflicted?
One of the benefits of studying the book of Job is that it affirms the innocence of Job. Please notice I didn’t say he was perfect. But on three occasions in the first 25 verses he is called “blameless and upright.” And that was God’s evaluation of his life! Whatever he endured in his suffering was not divine retribution.
Assuming you’re familiar with the story, I’ll skip re-telling the detail of the plot. Suffice it to say, Job had ten children and massive wealth. He was pious and devout to God. It was not pretense. He had his act together in every area that counts: his family, his finances, and his faith.
Unbeknownst to Job, there is a conversation at the throne of God. Satan’s accusation was that God’s followers follow him merely motivated by God’s blessings and protection. He argued that if the blessings and protection of God were removed, the followers would no longer follow.
Which leads to a strong question: Why do you follow God? Is it for the blessings and benefits? Or do you follow God because he is God?
This verse is the first mention of the gospel in the Bible. This prophetic word anticipates the coming Christ who will turn right side up all that was undone by the fall through his death, burial and resurrection. The good news of the gospel is that God has offered hope to us in the midst of chaos. We are not without hope or help. God has intervened in our broken world and our broken lives.
The work of Christ on the cross enables and empowers us to find hope in our broken world. But that’s not all. Christ provides the assurance that one day we will be completely delivered from the presence of sin, evil and suffering. Revelation 21:3-4 states,“I heard a loud shout from the throne saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’”
The world has not always been this way, and thankfully will not always be this way. In the meantime, our suffering is an invitation for us to look up, seek God, find help, and receive hope.
The story of creation begins with God who spoke, created, named, blessed, finished, and rested. The account is accented with the steady refrain “and it was good…” God created and placed the man and the woman in his creation. Humankind was created with a profound capacity for knowing God intimately. Created in the image of God, they were distinguished from the rest of the creation. There in the garden the man and the woman lived perfectly in the presence of God. But living in the presence of God comes with strings attached. God demanded obedience to his will and his commands. Under those conditions, the man and the woman lived in innocence, perfection, joy, and purpose. What does that have to do with suffering? A lot.
First, we discover that suffering was not created by God. God is good and did not create suffering and evil. He created a good world for the good of his creatures. Humans were good and blessed beyond measure, made in the image of God, with an unhindered relationship with God.
Second, there was a time when suffering did not exist in our world. It is not original and has not always existed. When we look at life and our world today, somehow we are reminded that this is not the way it is supposed to be. What happened?
While not a part of creation, evil and suffering do exist. The world is not the way it was and it is not the way it is supposed to be. Humans were created with wonderful privileges and significant responsibilities. But in Genesis 3 we read that they did not follow God’s will or obey His commands. The account begins with a tempter who calls into question God’s truthfulness, purpose, sovereignty, and goodness. It is interesting to read that from Genesis 2:4-3:24 he is “The LORD God,” the covenant making God who not only creates but enters into relationship with his creation. When the tempter addresses Eve, he simply refers to “God.” Adam and Eve got into trouble when they forgot their covenant relationship with God and focused on themselves. But before we become too hard on Adam and Eve, we need to remember that every day we face the same choice: God or Self?
The results of their fall are devastating:
They experienced shame as they discovered their nakedness;
They became estranged from God and tried to hide from him;
They experienced alienation from one another as they attempted to fix blame;
Pain and sorrow entered the picture: for her, pain in labor and delivery, and for him, toil in working the land;
The pair was banned from the garden;
Ultimately, there was physical and spiritual death.
The creation account of chapters 1-2 is accented with the resounding “it was good, it was good, it was good.” From chapter 4 forward, the story is punctuated with a new refrain “and he died, and he died, and he died.”
We have been born in a fallen world. We have never known Eden. Still somehow we know this is not the way it is supposed to be. The fall disrupted the relationship with God, with one another, and with creation. Sin originated in the garden. But it didn’t stay there. Its effects spread to all people of all time.