Christianity 201

June 26, 2019

Heart Cries of Perplexity, Not Rebellion

This is our sixth time with Colin Sedgwick at the site, Welcome to Sedgonline. I hope you find this article challenging as I did. It originally appeared under the title and link below.

Talking back to God

The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. In the citadel of Susa, the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men. Esther 9:6

The Jewish festival of Purim (Esther 9:26) celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people in Persia, some 500 years before Christ, from the evil plans of Haman. I’ve never experienced it myself, but I read that in synagogues even today “every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the Purim liturgy congregations respond with loud banging, shouting and stamping of feet, and ‘Haman’s hats’ (triangular cakes) are eaten…”.

Great fun, I’m sure. And nothing wrong with that.

But the reality at the time was pretty grim. Esther 9:6 tells us of the deaths of five hundred men in Susa. And a few verses further on (9:16) we read that, outside Susa, some seventy-five thousand people were killed. Hmm… this was a big-scale massacre, and it’s hard to read about it without something of the gloss coming off the story.

Two questions come to my mind…

First, how is this kind of whole-scale vengeance compatible with the spirit of Jesus?

The simple answer is: it isn’t. Jesus, the “prince of peace”, told his followers to “love your enemies”, and prayed “Father, forgive them” for the people who crucified him. So from a Christian perspective, the aftermath of the Haman plot leaves a slightly nasty taste in one’s mouth.

It’s true, of course, that if this hadn’t happened, the bulk of God’s Old Testament people would have been wiped out: it was a dog-eat-dog world, and even God’s chosen people couldn’t help but be a part of it. The coming of Jesus was still a long way off. But still…

It’s not for us to judge or condemn the Jews of Esther’s day – we must bow to the justice of God, trusting that he knows what he is doing throughout history, and be thankful that we live in the days since the earthly life of Jesus.

Thanks be to God, though, for the clear-cut command, Do not take revenge… but leave room for God’s wrath… (Romans 12:19).

(Is that text a direct word to someone reading this?)

How radically and wonderfully Jesus changes everything!

The second question puts a rather different slant on the Esther story: if God could raise up an Esther to influence King Xerxes, why not another “Esther” to influence Hitler and his people?

That question rattles around in my mind because I have recently been reading various books about the Nazi horror – and there’s no doubt that the more you learn the worse it gets.

There are those who would say that we shouldn’t even ask the question. You may be one of them – and, indeed, there’s a large part of me that feels the same way. Paul’s challenge haunts me: “Who are you, a human being, to talk back to God…?” (Romans 9:20). Who indeed?

And yet there is an honorable Bible record of people who did “talk back to God”. The “Why?” question crops up repeatedly in the psalms – for example, 10:1, 22:1 and 88:14. The remarkable book of Job is full of it. So is the little book of Habakkuk: “Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?” (1:3); “Why do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (1:13).

Supremely, of course, we have Jesus himself, who cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

It seems that God respects and honors those who, out of genuine anguish of heart, cry out to him in this way – always assuming, of course, that our hearts are humble and that our questioning reflects honest perplexity rather than rebellion.

We need to accept, too, that we’re not likely to receive an answer in any theoretical, intellectual sense. No, God does not offer to satisfy our curiosity, however genuine.

But the great thing is this: the honest questioner may very well get something far, far better than that – a whole new experience of the glory of God. Just contrast the endings of Job and Habakkuk with their beginnings! – in both cases a journey is made from confusion, frustration – even anger? – to radiant faith. Above all, contrast the glory of resurrection morning with the darkness of the crucifixion!

No, I don’t know why God acts in one way at one time, and in another way at another. I don’t know why he seems, from our perspective, to stand by while terrible things happen. But I do know this: that his ultimate purpose is to banish all evil from this beautiful world that he has made.

And when that day comes I suspect we will all want to say with Job: “I am unworthy. How can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth” (40:4).

Not a bad place for it, I think.

Lord God, your ways are shrouded in mystery, and the question “Why?” is often on our lips. Help me to be humble even if indignant, and submissive even if angry. And so bring me to that day when all my questionings will fade on my lips. Amen.

June 4, 2015

Job and God Hash Things Out

Filed under: Uncategorized — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:36 pm
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So admittedly, my header for today’s post and its original title at Clarke Dixon’s blog seem to be at odds, but trust me, it’s the same article!

Woe is Me (or What Do Stephen Fry and the Prophet Isaiah Have in Common?)

A presenter on a television show asked celebrity Stephen Fry the following question: “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?” Here is his response:

I will basically…that is the odyssey…I think I’d say, ‘bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. Its utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ That’s what I’d say.”

The presenter then asks “And you think you’re going to get in?” To that came the following:

No! But I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms. They’re wrong. Now, If I died and it was – it was Pluto, Hades, and it was the twelve Greek gods, then I would have more truck with it, because the Greek’s were… they didn’t pretend not to be human in their appetites, and in their capriciousness and in unreasonableness. They didn’t present themselves as being all-seeing, all-wise, all-kind, all-beneficent. Because the god who created this universe, if indeed it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac. Utter maniac. Totally selfish. Totally…. We have to spend our life on our knees, thanking him? What kind of god would do that? Yes, the world is splendid, but it also has in it insects, whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. That eat outwards from the eyes. How — why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.

So, you know, atheism is not just about them not believing there is – not believing there is a god, but on the assumption that there is one, what kind of god is he? It’s perfectly apparent that he’s monstrous, utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, and more worth living in my opinion. [Source: LYBIO.net]

What would you say? Some would say “thank you.” It seems that some would say “God, why didn’t you do it the way I would have done it?” Isaiah is a prophet who in a vision found himself before the throne of God. Check out what he ends up saying:

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings:with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said:“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
(Isaiah 6:1-5 NRSV)

Isaiah’s first response to being confronted with the full-on holiness and majesty of God is humility: “Woe is me. I am lost.” Humility is also the response of Job when he finds himself confronted and challenged by God. He has had a deep and divided theological discussion with his friends, but then God confounds him with two chapters of questions which could summed up with “Job, are you God?”

3 Then Job answered the Lord:
4 “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
5 I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but will proceed no further”
(Job 40:3-5 NRSV)

After more questions from God in chapters 40-41 Job again responds with humility:

1 Then Job answered the Lord:
2 “I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? ’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4 ‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me. ’
5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
6 therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes”
(Job 42:1-6 NRSV)

When confronted with the presence of God, Job quietens down. So too, does Isaiah. Note that Isaiah does not simply say “woe is me, I am an unclean man” but rather “woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips.” He knows it is better to keep quiet. There is something about the full-on presence of God in all His glory that causes us to go silent. While we might think about what we might like to say to God when we stand before His throne, what we will be able to say is another matter altogether. When our Lord returns and we stand before His throne there will be what we might call, a great “shutting up.”

We must note, however, that there is a place for questioning and complaint before God. Lament is an important expression of our faith and the book of Psalms especially can help us with that. I have many of the same questions as Stephen Fry. But when it comes to the great jigsaw puzzle of faith, it has become far too wonderful a picture to let the pieces I cannot yet place keep me from working at it. I cannot help but enjoy the beauty of what is completed thus far. Some people start with those tricky-to-place pieces and never get going on the rest. There is a place for lament, for wrestling with God over the tricky bits, but there is no place for telling God “I know more about being God than you do.” The experience of His presence and glory will strip us of that deception.

And how we love to comfort ourselves with deception. Like the activity tracker on my watch that tells me I get moderate exercise while riding my motorcycle. That comes as great and comforting news to me. People like to deceive themselves with the notion there is no God. As Stephen Fry pointed out “The moment you banish him, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner.” After all, without God there is no “woe is me” moment. Or you can also delete the “woe is me” moment by creating your own spirituality. In fact you can make yourself the centre of the universe. Adam and Eve tried that out. But when God showed up, they hid. Deceptions will always let us down. If I carry on the deception that riding my motorcycle is great exercise, I will soon need to trade in my 125 for a Harley Davidson Fat Boy. Seeking comfort through deception will lead us to a very uncomfortable place. But when we get out into the presence of God and have our “woe is me” moment, we find a strange, and very comforting thing happens. Let us return to Isaiah’s vision:

6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said:“Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me.
(Isaiah 6:6-8 NRSV)

The greatest comfort comes from a true vision of the glory of God, for His glory consists of His compassion and grace as well as his holiness and justice. God’s glory leads us to say “woe is me” when we apprehend His holiness and our lack, but also to say “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15 NRSV) when we are apprehended by His grace and love. God’s glory is made up of every true thing that can be said about Him, and not one thing less. It includes the deep, deep love of Jesus.

The apostle Paul must have had an excruciating “woe is me” moment when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, while travelling a path of persecution against Christianity. He must have rejoiced with incredible joy when he realized he was forgiven and sent on to serve the One he tried to destroy.

Have you had a “woe is me” moment? I must admit that it has made my life simpler, purer, cleaner, and more worth living.