Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Suffering and the Older Testament

"The Old Testament isn't written in order simply to "tell us about God" in the abstract. It isn't designed primarily to provide information, to satisfy the inquiring mind. It's written to tell the story of what God has done, is doing and will do about evil."

This is from a small but insightful book about suffering and evil by N.T. Wright called Evil and the Justice of God. What we see true in Job is true for all of the Bible, evil is not explained.

Even if evil was explained, it would still be part of our world so it wouldn't help us out too much in the midst of it.

The exodus of the Hebrew people out of slavery from Egypt is a formative narrative for Judaism about what God is going to do about evil. It all starts with God hearing the cry of his people. Here are God's initial words to Moses:
"I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey...and now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt."
Exodus 3:7-10

God doesn't explain why the Hebrews went into slavery, he just says he has seen their misery, heard them crying out and that He's concerned about their suffering. Then He wants to do something about it. But He needs help. Moses is the answer.

God uses people to relieve suffering. How does God want to use you?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Suffering: The story of Job

Job was "blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil." That's how he is introduced. We are also told that he is richly blessed with possessions, family and has a genuine love for his children (as shown by his willingness to do the equivalent of praying for them every morning: vs. 5).

To Job's surprise, everything (except his own life and his wife) are taken away: his children, his possessions, his servants and even his good health. What happened?

Unknown to Job, God and Satan have a bet going on between them (interestingly enough, it was egged on by God, not by Satan). God brags about Job's faithfulness and righteousness to Satan and Satan says Job's faith is only based on how God has blessed him. He bets that if everything is taken away he would curse God to His face. So God lets Satan take everything away from him and Job still worships God. Then Satan approaches God a second time and bets God that if he strikes Job physically that Job will curse him to his face. So again, Satan makes his move and puts Job's body through hell (so much so that job scrapes off painful sores with broken pottery). Job still doesn't curse God. At this point the narrator focuses in on a series of conversations between Job and his friends. The story concludes with God speaking to Job, Job being humbled and God once again blessing Job.

One interesting part that I have to highlight is after the second bet, Job's wife has had enough and her advice to him is to "curse God and die." Job's response? "You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" Not exactly a Proverbs 31 wife. Then the narrator says that "in all this, Job did not sin in what he said."

How does Job respond to all of this? Well, even though he doesn't curse God, he does go through deep depression, questions God about why its happening and persistently communicates his innocence.

I want to correct something. "The patience of Job" is a terrible cliche' because Job isn't patient! He doesn't curse God, but at times he does have some demanding requests of God that aren't exactly descriptions of waiting in patience. Also, Job never asks for his family and possessions back, what He asks for is actually fair, he asks to hear from God.

So, what does all this have to do with the question of theodicy (see previous post for definition)?

First, I think one of the major points God intended for us to get out of Job is that it is too simple and limiting to conclude that sin causes suffering. Job is an example of an innocent man who still experiences terrible suffering. I believe God wants us all to know that there is more to suffering than just a cause and effect relationship with sin.

Second, I believe Job is a pre-Jesus example of how to suffer well. He grieves. He suffers deep situational depression. He's honest with God about his frustration, anger and sadness. He boldly questions God about why it happened. He asks to hear from God. He shows integrity by maintaining his innocence before his friends that are incessantly unwavering in their assessment that he has an unconfessed sin that brought this suffering upon him. Once he hears from God, he is humble and repentant about his attitude. Job shows us how someone mature in their faith can and should handle suffering.

Third, we see that Satan has limited power on earth. The only way Satan can touch Job is with God's permission. I'm still not exactly sure what that means, but its interesting to think about. I understand it by thinking of it this way: God lets Satan borrow power for a specific purpose. The question then becomes, does that make God out to be manipulative? If so, then it doesn't fit a perfectly loving God, because manipulation would not behaviorally fit a God who loves perfectly. (See the comments section at the bottom of the post for more on this).

Fourth, God teaches us both how to be with someone who is suffering and how not to be with someone who is suffering. Job's friends show up at the end of chapter 2 and do a great job of comforting him just by their presence. They weep, tear their robes and sprinkle dust on their heads; all three are Hebrew ways to show someone you are with them in their suffering. Then, they just sit with him for seven days. That's how to be with someone in suffering. As soon as they open their mouth and try to teach Job pop theology, they become an unhelpful nuisance to Job. They're common cliche's and bland platitudes do no favors for Job during his suffering. That's how not to be with someone in suffering.

Fifth and last, God uses Job to remind us that He is God, which means he does not have to answer our questions, but we have to answer His. When God does speak, He puts Job in his place (chapters 38-41)and Job is humble enough to declare his lack of knowledge before the almighty. God uses several examples of creation to remind Job that He is much bigger than one persons suffering. I think it is also intended to remind Job that there are things going on that he can't understand, that only God can understand.

I would encourage you to read Job for yourself, its just before Psalms. Its probably my favorite book in the Bible. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments either about the post or about the book of Job in general.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


I've had a lot of questions lately about suffering. Throughout the year, the question about suffering comes and goes, but it just seems like lately the question is on a lot of people's minds. Just to make it theological and show that I did graduate from seminary, I want to give you a big theological word that has to do with suffering: theodicy.

Theodicy asks this question: if God is is perfectly loving and all-powerful, then why is there still suffering in the world? Logically, either God is perfectly loving but not all-powerful or he's all-powerful but not perfectly loving. Because a loving and all-powerful God would have both the desire and the ability to get rid of suffering.

The answer isn't an easy one, but its one I want to explore over the next few posts. Actually, I don't hope to come to an answer, because I don't know that there is an adequate one, however, I do hope to write about it maturely and deeply in hopes that it will help some of you in your thinking.

So here's my first comment about it. C.S. Lewis said (and probably also wrote it somewhere) that "pain is God's megaphone to arouse a deaf world." In other words, God uses pain to get our attention. Now, there's definitely problems with this, I mean, can't God get our attention in other ways. If God wants my attention, he could just drop a million dollars out of the sky and into my lap (neatly folded in a large briefcase please). Or He could audibly speak to me. Or he could've turned the non-alcoholic beverages at our wedding reception almost ten years ago into alcoholic beverages (he's done that before). Okay, I know I'm being silly, but there has to be more to it, case in point: Jesus felt pain and God already had his full attention.

Shouldn't the life, death and resurrection of Jesus be enough to draw our attention to God? Even though I agree that C.S. Lewis's quote (and to be fair C.S. Lewis says a lot more about pain, evil and suffering in his book The Problem of Pain) is limited, I also agree that its part of the answer.

Its a part of the answer because pain can take us to terrible places. Pain can empty us of the desire to seek anything other than relief. And when we've exhausted all of the unhealthy resources to find relief, we often turn to God. Because once we've exhausted those resources, he's often the only resource left to turn to that offers any hope.

So, I definitely think God can use pain to get our attention, but I also think there is a lot more to the discussion than that.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


In a recent class, as an introduction to a book study on Messy Spirituality (written by Mike Yaconelli) we talked about the Biblical call to holiness, the reality of sin (and its power) and what freedom means in light of the delicate balance between the two.

In Matthew chapter five, in verse 48, Jesus says "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

If your like me, at first glance you might think "well, that's impossible, so I guess I should just give up now." Teachers have answered that sentiment with statements like "Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, which means we don't have to take his statement literally." Another, more extreme teaching is "yes, Jesus demands perfection, we should take it literally and seek to be perfect." Neither are at the heart of what Jesus was saying. We need to look at two very important aspects of the context to understand Jesus' words.

First, we have to look at the word translated as "perfect." The word in greek is teleos which does not mean moral flawlessness. It means fully grown, mature or complete. Elsewhere, teleos is used to speak of fruit maturing (Luke 8:14) and a fully realized unity of believers (John 17:23). Think in terms of complete or full grown as opposed to partial. Jesus is talking about being mature, complete and fully grown in our love for people. To "be perfect as God is perfect" means to love as God loves: impartially, completely, fully and without necessity of that love being reciprocated.

Second, this statement is made in the context of what mature love should look like in relationships with those that it is typically difficult to love. Jesus has just said to love your enemies. He has also asked rhetorical questions about how easy it is to love those that love you pointing to the truth that Godly love is more than just typical easy love.

Jesus was talking to mostly Jewish people each with a different status in their culture. The type of love he's talking about was not being shown either from those in power or those who were at the mercy of those in power. However, if both parties loved the way Jesus is telling them to love, then the great chasm that existed because of a broken system could've been closed and God's love would've been the new system.

What does this mean for us?

Jesus does not expect us to be morally flawless, but he does expect us to love him and love others in a way that is reminiscent of how he loves us. So, be free from thinking you have to live a perfect life, but know that you're calling to perfection (or should I say to impartial, counter-conditional Godly love)is a much higher and often a much more demanding request than that of moral perfection.

The good news: we aren't expected to love people perfectly on our own. The Holy Spirit lives in those of us that are new creations in Christ and that's why Jesus can call us to love the same way he does.