Christianity 201

August 31, 2012

A Frowning Providence

Is it just me or is the body of Christ wrestling more deeply these days with the issues of hard times, suffering, disappointment, unanswered prayer, adverse circumstances? Here’s another perspective on the subject from Kevin White at the blog Mere Orthodoxy, where it appeared under the title,  A Loving Father and Difficult Gifts.  As always you’re encouraged to click the link and read at source; C201 readers will enjoy this particular blog.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” — Matthew 7:7-11

The power of this passage is the very perversity of the image it draws. How strangely cruel would a man have to be to give a destructive non sequitur instead of life-giving food? “Ha! That isn’t a rock-hard crust on that bread; it’s a ROCK!”

But I think Jesus means to press us into a corner here. He is encouraging us to pray, to seek from God what we need and to trust his provision. Trusting in the Father’s provision is one of Jesus’ great themes. It is why he has just called our attention to the birds and the lilies, and commands us not to worry about how our needs will be met. But this passage comes in the same discourse in which Jesus promises his followers great suffering and grief. Far from being an overlooked reality that undermines Jesus’ point in the passage, I suspect Jesus intends to push us into the tension between the promise of God’s goodness and the rocky and snakish things he sends our way.

God can seem alien to us at times, even cruel. His understanding exceeds our own far more than a human father’s exceeds that of the youngest child. His ways are infinitely more unsearchable than that of a dad who holds his kid down to receive a shot. Indeed, we would know hardly a thing about God unless he revealed it to us.

So sometimes, it is hard to see the goodness in what Cowper described as “a frowning Providence.” And yet, a key part of God’s self-revelation is that he watches his people, neither slumbering nor sleeping. Like a nesting hen, sheltering the hatchlings. He is a loving Father who gives good gifts. And yet the world is full of snakes.

This difficulty is made worse when we just don’t understand what is happening. When friends and family suffer. When natural goods, rightly desired, are placed out of reach. When we see that one of the greatest impediments to our flourishing is staring at us in the mirror. It is hard to see how a loving Father can be watching over all of that.

Instead, it is easy to covet, easy to resent. It is easy to say that it is all wrong, and should not be happening. Not in the sense of, “it is a fallen world and I long for paradise,” but in the sense of “what kind of God could allow this?” Or to wonder if our concerns are too small for God to notice. For the Christian, that attitude is doubly false, since Jesus Christ himself, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” says that God pays mind even to the fall of a sparrow.

And yet, there is an odd thing about invoking God’s providence in difficult times. It is a classic piece of bad comforting to simply tell someone, “God is in control.” Even so, recognizing, resting in, and/or wrestling with God’s control over circumstances can be a powerful form of reassurance. Why the disconnect?

I think it is because the trite statement is a shortcut. In some ways, it merely restates part of the presenting problem. How is this bread and not a stone? Too easily, it skips all the messy business of “rejoice with those who are rejoicing, mourn with those who are mourning.” It skips straight to the pithy takeaway and moves on.

Part of the answer is that we live in a sinful and fallen world. The restoration of all things is not here yet. All accounts will be settled, but we have at best a foretaste of that reality. Some of our suffering comes from our own bad decisions, or from our own weakness and limitation. And much more comes with living in a world that is systemically corrupted and distorted by sin and the curse that it brought.

But short of blind, questionably pious, fideistic leaps, how can we trust that God does work all things for good, for those who love him? In part, because of that very apostolic word I have just paraphrased.

In larger part, because in the whole sweep of Scripture we see, again and again, God’s way of using bewildering events, evil deeds, and questionable human motives to advance his good and graceful plan for history. It is easier to name the major, storied heroes of the Bible who weren’t born to grieving, childless parents. God used wicked nations to chastise and purify his people. In short, we see the beginning and middle of God’s story of the world, with hints and previews of the story’s end and the glorious sequel to come.

But more fundamentally, we can trust the Father because the Father sent the Son. God is no longer simply a distant, alien presence, unsearchable and unknowable. God became one of us. The Son of God suffered scorn and loss and frustration. He even, at the critical moment, wrestled with the Father’s will. And submitted to death, a death he had the power to prevent and the love to endure. He stared down an unjust and horrible death, foreseeing it as God and quivering before it as a man, and said, “not my will, but Yours be done.” For his ultimate glorification, and to ransom us as his prize. To give us the gift of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus called an even greater comforter than himself! And on the last day, to raise us back to glorious life in a renewed world.

And so we can trust, because God claimed the worst portion. We can cry desperately like the Psalmists, we can wrestle like Jacob, we can weep like Jeremiah, but trust as Jesus did. Trust in a good Father, even if we cannot understand what gifts we are being given, or why.

Because God is a loving Father, and even his difficult gifts are perfect.

March 15, 2012

Philip Yancey on Pain and Suffering

I really wish Philip Yancey blogged more often. His reflections are always fresh, insightful and pastoral. But between books, the blog and articles in Christian periodicals he does provide us with a large body of literature sharing his unique perspective.  Instead of reading what follows, I hope you’ll link to the fuller context and even explore more of the blog. Yancey is, without doubt, my favorite Christian author.

This is taken from two posts. The first section is from a fairly recent blog post, Following a Trail of Tears

On March 5 Janet and I leave for Japan, where I will speak at several events commemorating the earthquake and tsunami.  We’ve all seen videos that seem taken from a special-effects horror movie: of ships, houses, and trucks tossed down the streets like toys, of a modern airport suddenly submerged under water, of a nuclear reactor tower exploding in a thick black cloud.

While preparing for this trip I’ve been reminded again of the magnitude of the 2011 disaster in which 20,000 people died.  The wall of water reached a maximum height of 132 feet—as tall as a twelve-story building!—destroying 270,000 buildings in its path and forcing hundreds of thousands of people into temporary housing.  A year later, many still live in those temporary structures, and it will cost at least $200 billion to replace the damaged buildings.  When I think of the enormous effort involved in addressing the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, I can hardly fathom the challenges facing Japan…

…I have spoken in some tough places, such as Virginia Tech after the shootings and Mumbai the night after the terrorist attacks.  Never have I faced a tragedy so massive in scale.  I’ve learned, though, that for the people involved, scale doesn’t matter so much.  Pain zooms in very personally: a child swept away from a kindergarten playground, pets and livestock abandoned as their owners had to flee, a family business destroyed in an instant, a teenager terrified by the aftershocks that hit weekly, everyone frightened by the invisible threat of radiation.  For a theme my hosts chose the title of my last book, What Good Is God?—an appropriate question for people who have endured such an event…

And then he shares this:

The Apostle Paul gave us a clear formula for how we should respond to those in suffering and need:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” 

May we channel that comfort to the people of Japan, whose suffering has not ended.

The theme is quite similar at the end of a description of a tour that he did in Australia and New Zealand in September, titled Notes from the Great Southland:

…One of the sketches performed by the actors comes from the play Shadowlands.  “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” proclaims the confident professor C. S. Lewis from a lectern.  Yet later in the sketch, as he comes to terms with Joy Davidman’s imminent death, and then tries to comfort her son Douglas, his confidence has melted into confusion and doubt.  The book he wrote about Joy’s illness and death, A Grief Observed, has a very different tone than his earlier treatise The Problem of Pain.

Rather than megaphone, I prefer the image of pain as a hearing aid: while the Bible generally ignores the messy question of causation, it encourages us to “tune in” to the redemptive power of suffering.  Some respond by switching off the hearing aid and turning away from God.  Others follow the Apostle Paul’s example in allowing God to wrest goodness and growth from the bad things of this world.  Even wintry times offer reasons for hope.  We saw this most clearly at the site of our last event, held in New Zealand’s second largest city, Christchurch, site of a devastating earthquake last February…

…Often after a natural disaster, communities look to churches for help.  For example, six years after Hurricane Katrina, long after the federal government has moved on, churches in Houston and Dallas still send weekend teams to repair and rebuild houses in New Orleans.  In New Zealand, denominations banded together, assigned response teams to the neediest areas, and organized a food bank and tool bank.  More than 700 aftershocks have hit the area, creating an oppressive mood of fear and anxiety.  In a city whose very name expresses their identity, the churches hope to convey

“the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3).

As I told the group gathered in Christchurch, on the surface winter looks like death.  Trees once resplendent with leaves now appear as dead sticks.  Yet botanists tell us that most plant growth occurs during winter, below the surface, as roots spread out and absorb the moisture and nutrients they will need for the vitality of spring and summer.  May it be so, not just in Christchurch, New Zealand, but all across that nation and its larger cousin Australia, once known as “the great Southland of the Holy Spirit.”

…to which I would add, ‘and in Canada, the United States, the UK and everywhere else!’

If you’ve never read any of Philip’s books, may I recommend The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace as two good titles to begin with.

If you particularly resonate with Philip’s response to his world travels (as described above) you might enjoy the new title What Good is God? The title is rather provocative, and each of the 20 chapters consists of a description of the details which brought him to a particular place and time, paired with the transcript of the address he gave to that particular group of people, for a total of ten different locations and events.