Saturday, March 28, 2015

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering

It has been awhile since my previous post but I have finished my notes for your review.  I pray you find Dr. Keller's wisdom as illuminating and helpful as I have while experiencing my own "furnace".

Chapter Fourteen: Praying


In order to understand what the Bible says about suffering, one must come to grips with the book of Job.  Rabbi Abraham Heschel famously stated, “God is not nice.  God is not an uncle.  God is an earthquake.”  Philosopher Peter Kreeft says “Job is a mystery.  A mystery satisfies something in us, but not our reason.  The rationalist is repelled by Job…[but] something deeper in us is satisfied by Job, and is nourished…It puts iron in your blood.”  Job conveys that the problem of suffering is both a philosophical and emotional problem.  The traditional religious answer is that the sufferer must have done something wrong.  Yet Job’s suffering is because of his goodness.  The secular answer is that there is no good reason.  A good God wouldn’t allow this, so either he doesn’t exist or is cruel.  But Job tells us that both of these are wrong.

The book opens with Satan in heaven accusing Job before God.  This raises a question, what is Satan doing in heaven?  Wasn’t he cast out?  We must remember that the Bible is quite selective about what we are told.  We must also keep in mind the author’s purpose in the details we are given.  The Bible gives us few details about the supernatural and it can be noted that Satan does not show any deference to God – he does not address him as Lord, does not bow to him, nor show him any respect.  What we are told is that Satan, which means “accuser”, is before God accusing Job of only being in relationship with God because of the benefits he receives from God.  Just think of any love relationship.  How would you feel if someone you loved left you because of a financial reversal?  Wouldn’t you feel used?  They’ve loved you for the benefits, instead of for who you essentially are.  It’s the same with God, we should love him for who he is, not for the benefits he gives us.  But how do we get there?  One of the primary ways is hardship.  Suffering affords the opportunity to focus on God in ways we haven’t before.

As the story unfolds, the book does not depict a dualistic view of the world with equal and opposite forces of good and evil.  God is completely in charge.  Satan can only go so far.  And we see also that God is not the one inflicting the pain.  Evil is not God’s will, but Satan’s.  The first calamities to come to Job are the loss of his wealth and his children.  He is not stoic.  He grieves, yet shows proper gratitude and appropriate deference.  Next, Job loses his health and his composure.  He blames God and struggles with what feels like a grave injustice, yet he does not turn away.

Job’s friends, with typical conventional piety, say many things that are true propositions in the abstract.  There is moral order, bad behavior has consequences, we should humble ourselves, examine ourselves and trust God.  But true words and moralistic theology “can be thin medicine for a man in the depths.”  God could never be so unjust to let all this happen unless Job had done something wrong.  All Job needs to do is confess his sin, get his life straight and everything will be good again, guaranteed.

Then we see that God appears, and Job lives.  He answers Job out of the storm and invites Job to answer him in dialogue.  We see Job “put in his place – not by a rebuke, nor by a warning against questioning God, but by the gracious advent of God who allows himself to be seen inasmuch as that is humanly possible.  As a result, the [appearance of God] can only be understood as an act of grace.”  The paradox should not be missed.  God appears as both a gracious, personal God and an overwhelming force – at the same time.  On the cross we see that God is so holy and just that Jesus had to die, but also so loving that he laid down his own life willingly.  The God explained by the gospel as both loving and furious meets Job on a dark and stormy day.

We also see that God answers, but does not.  Job expects explanation.  His friends expect condemnation.  Instead, God gives a discourse about the wonders of the natural world.  He could have said, “Job, I know it has been painful.  But you must realize that because of all this, you will become great and someday be an inspiration to hundreds of millions of sufferers until the very end of time.  No one except my own Son will be better known for patience under affliction.”  But God says nothing, why?  Francis Anderson explains, “It is one of the many excellences of the book that Job is brought to contentment without ever knowing all the facts…To withhold the full story from Job, even after the test was over, keeps him walking by faith, not by sight.  He does not say in the end, ‘Now I see it all.’  He never sees it all.  He sees God.  Perhaps it is better if God never tells any of us the whole of our life story.”

When we become truly free lovers of God and leave our mercenary, conditional religion behind, we will understand that obeying God will bring us no benefits.  And that is when we reach the point where seeking, praying and obeying God will begin to change us.  Job never sees the big picture, he only sees God, and that is all we really need.  Gods plan includes evil and that confuses and angers us.  But Job helps us see that God allows evil just enough space so that it will defeat itself and bring about the opposite of what it intends.

Next we see that God is God, and we are not.  God’s catalogue of natural wonders makes this simple point.  A seven-year-old cannot question the calculations of a world class mathematician, yet we think we can question how God is running the universe.  Job does not have the power to be judge, and neither do we.  This is the way of wisdom, that we willingly admit that God alone is God.  Anderson notes, “There is a rebuke in it for any person who, by complaining about particular events in his life, implies that he could propose to God better ways of running the universe than those God currently uses.  Men are eager to use force to combat evil and in their impatience they wish God would do the same more often.  But by such destructive acts men do and become evil…Only God can destroy creatively.  Only God can transmute evil into good.”

Dr. Keller quotes Elisabeth Elliot, “God is God.  If He is God, He is worthy of my worship and my service.  I will find rest nowhere but in His will, and that will is infinitely, immeasurable, unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what He is up to.”

When we get to the end of the book of Job, we find God affirming Job who earlier cursed the day he was born, challenged God’s wisdom, complained bitterly and expressed deep doubts.  Why did God vindicate him?  Because Job never stopped praying.  He complained to God, he screamed and yelled at God, but he did it all to God.  His suffering did not drive him away from God, but toward him, and that makes all the difference.  Even if we cannot feel God, he is still there.  We must seek him, go to him, read, study, fellowship, serve, pray and obey.

To pour out your heart to God means to look honestly at your doubts, desires, fears and hopes.  While you examine and listen to your heart, you must also remember to talk to it as well.  Much of what we experience as unhappiness is due to the fact that we are listening to ourselves too much.  If you are suffering or depressed, you should spend regular time reading the Bible.  But this must be done as study for content and truth.  To attempt to read devotionally seeking inspiration and uplift can become quite unhelpful.  “Remind yourself of who God is, and who you are in Christ, and what he has done for you.”  Ponder the truth, pray to God and wait.  And, like Job, you can gain assurance in the midst of suffering, you can be sure that you are loved and accepted and that you can trust God’s grace.  And how can we know this?  Because of Jesus Christ.  He was homeless, naked, penniless and innocent.  He took the condemnation we deserve. And ultimately, he was willing to give his life for us and experienced the abandonment of God so we won’t have to.  “[When] you suffer without relief, when you feel absolutely alone you can know that, because he bore your sin, he will be with you.  You can know you are walking the same path Jesus walked, so you are not alone – and that path is only taking you to him.”

Next week (yes) Chapter Fifteen: Thinking, Thanking, Loving

Until then, don’t take my word for it, read the book – don’t wait for the movie,
and have a little hope on me,
Roger

To learn more about Timothy Keller and his work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, you can check out his 
personal website, his Facebook page or the church homepage.

Keller, Timothy (2013), Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-525-95245-9

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