About A.D. 360, Athanasius wrote an account of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert – one of the most influential monks of early Christianity. Though Anthony grew up in a “Christian home” as we would say today, it was an event that took place when he was a young man really woke him up:
He was left alone, after his parent’s death, with one quite young sister. He was about eighteen or even twenty years old, and he was responsible both for the home and his sister. Six months had not passed since the death of his parents when, going to the Lord’s house as usual and gathering his thoughts, he considered while he walked how the apostles, forsaking everything, followed the Savior, and how in Acts some sold what they possessed and took the proceeds and placed them at the feet of the apostles for distribution among those in need, and what great hope is stored up for such people in heaven.
He went into the church pondering these things, and just then it happened that the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” It was as if by God’s design he held the saints in his recollection, and as if the passage were read on his account. Immediately Antony went out from the Lord’s house and gave to the townspeople the possessions he had from his forebears (three hundred fertile and very beautiful arourae [~200 acres]), so that they would not disturb him or his sister in the least. And selling all the rest that was portable, when he collected sufficient money, he donated it to the poor, keeping a few things for his sister.
-Athanasius, The Life of Antony, Translated by Robert C. Gregg
I think contemporary evangelicals would be shocked to find an account like this in such a “Catholic” source – from the fourth century no less. Antony just happened to walk into church when a certain bible passage was being read, and the words jumped off the page, “as if by God’s design… the passage were read on his account.” This sounds exactly like how evangelicals (myself included) are taught to read scripture – always ready for the moment when the words become immediately and intensely personal by the power of the holy spirit working directly in the individual.
Of course, we are not talking about Anthony’s conversion here, but still, this is not at all the kind of language one would find today in the writings of very catholic (small ‘c’ but likely Roman or Orthodox) minded or covenental (again, small ‘c’ but likely Reformed) minded theologians and pastors. The 2oth century of modern Evangelicism greatly OVER emphasized the individual by all wise accounts. A corrective to this is welcome and healthy. And yet let us not forget that here we find the seeds of this immediate individualization of scripture – plain as day – in the writings of one of the early church fathers. That the Word of God cuts one (and sometimes JUST one – you) to the heart is not something we should ever downplay.
This is the indication given for the psalm – number 67 in this case. “On stringed instruments”. The Lord gave us voices, and those are the most natural instruments of all. The Lord gave us arms and hands and that is why every nation and every tongue has always had drums of some sort, even if they just beat two rocks together, it was man’s glory to do so. But stringed instruments take time and care to build. They take special wood and resonators. Even a primitive one is more complicated that a piece of furniture. The strings themselves are now made of steel or nylon, but then it would have been the guts of animals – killed and carefully extracted, cut to length and precariously tuned. If there is anything the ancient stringed musician would have done differently than those of today, it is that he would have played carefully so as not to put his instrument drastically out of tune every two minutes. We can wail on our cryogenic poly-coated nickel wires. He could not. How would one achieve volume then? The same way an orchestra does – with many players. Witness the Ethiopian Christians marching here during Timkat (epiphany).
A stringed instrument is a cultivated thing, an artifact requiring a lot of time to make and much skill to play well. If anyone has a high view of scripture and it’s inspired writing and preservation, he should marvel that this indication has been well-kept. You are supposed to sing this praise song to God WHILE playing a harp or lute. Seriously. That wasn’t added later by someone trying to spice things up. It was there at it’s conception and the first time it was sung in the temple of Mt. Zion while David still reigned as king.
When the Lion of Judah returns to earth, will he find a people who have been taught to despise guitars? I think he will find more than a few. Their love of the voice will likely more than make up for things I suppose, but what a shame. “Oh, but those darn stringed instruments have been used and abused for more twisted and terrible ends than you could imagine as of late! Did you watch the last music video awards show?” True, true. Now quit making excuses and get back to work. Find a way to redeem them! Is the Spirit of Life not up for the job? Figure it out! All you who are keen to reform worship, I give you a challenging but worthwhile task: find a place for the stringed instruments. Locking them out and keeping just the keyboard is punting. The Lord is worthy of praise with these things as well.
Why do I sometimes write things about Jesus that make me sound like I might be a universalist? (One who, in evangelical lingo, thinks everyone on earth is going to be “saved” without doing anything at all, not even asking for it.)
Yesterday, I wrote a post about the wonder and outrage of Jesus not condemning the women obviously caught in adultery in John 8. It would have been nice if, in the text, this forgiveness were coupled with a contrite heart before and reformed living afterward, but we are given none of those tidy things – only the unilateral excuse the creator.
This sort of reading of the gospels always makes more than a few folks squirm. Am I denying the existence (or at least MEANINGFUL existence) of sin? Am saying there is no hell? At least I must be very nearly implying that it’s OK for us to ignore the law that grace may abound. (Romans 6). And because of the theological danger of this position or at least this emphasis, I must be genuinely foolish to speak this way. Now, my writing is not very public – only a few people read this blog. My preaching is not particularly public either – it is infrequent and at a relatively small church. But whenever I talk like I did in the previous post, I get some push-back. Someone is always a bit upset.
So why DO I speak like this? Even yesterday, only an hour after I wrote that reflection, I read this excellent comment by Alastair Roberts in an unrelated thread:
The Christ who weeps over Jerusalem is also the Christ who brings dreadful destruction upon Jerusalem in AD70. The Christ who stands silent before his accusers is also the Christ who stops every mouth as the judge of the world. The Christ who performs a symbolic test of jealousy upon the woman caught in adultery and does not condemn her is also the Christ who performs the most dreadful judgment upon the adulterous Babylon. The Christ who hangs powerless on the cross is also the powerful Christ of the resurrection and ascension who rules with a rod of iron until all enemies are put under his feet and who treads out their blood in the winepress of God’s wrath. We need to hold these two parts of the picture together.
So when I write something like I did yesterday, it seems that I’m not holding the two parts of the picture together. Whenever I or anyone else quotes Robert Capon, it seems the same thing is going on. The same could be true for writings of Brennan Manning, Tullian Tchividjian, Richard Rohr, and some other suspicious characters. We should know better (and we DO know better!) than to talk so “one-sided” about the nature of the holy God.
Well, here is my answer to this query:
The reason for talking this way, for OVER-stating the grace of Christ, is because you have already heard the flip side a hundred times more frequently, both in explicit teaching and cultural cues. Having grown up in church, I estimate I have easily heard in excess of 2000 sermons in my life – the bulk of them closely and carefully tied to specific passages of scripture. And I reckon that fewer than 5% of them have successfully articulated the boundless love of Christ. The rest, 95%+, though often shooting to strike some kind of balance, have been heavily lopsided in the other direction.
Jesus loves you BUT “true repentance”. Jesus loves you BUT “victorious Christianity”. Jesus loves you BUT “know a tree by it’s fruit”. Jesus loves you BUT “parenting well is REALLY important”. Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for you to get your act together, etc. We have plenty, PLENTY of this sort of thing, even in Christian communities who, on paper, have a wonderfully complete and holistic confession filled with a high-proof elixir of grace. It doesn’t seem to matter. They are all awash in this kind of crushing news. It creeps in everywhere.
And so, speaking like this, with the grace “turned up to eleven”, is a remedy for a very real and destructive problem. Properly informed Christians get all upset when they read something from (for example) Robert Capon that sounds “universalist” and dangerous, but they forget that he is not there to write a systematic theology. The language is calculated. It’s provocative on purpose, not by accident. It’s not just for anyone, but for people in a certain context – one soaked in too much conditional love. And even though it sometimes causes confusion, I think that at the end of the day, it works. It effectively serves as a corrective. So look for more of it here on occasion and don’t be so quick to freak out when you see it elsewhere. For some, it may be brand spankin’ new GOOD news that wakes them up.
Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.
So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”
She said, “No one, Lord.”
And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
– John 8:1-11
OK, so look what happens at the end. That the woman is a sinner – that she has screwed up badly is completely obvious to everyone. Jesus knows this too. He knows her sin. And though the words aren’t recorded here exactly, he forgives her. He says, effectively, “It’s all good. Go on your way. By the way, don’t sin anymore.”
Notice what doesn’t happen in the story. Well, maybe it happened in some fashion, but it’s not important enough for Saint John the Divine to mention it. What doesn’t happen? She doesn’t ask for forgiveness.
She doesn’t throw herself at Jesus’s feet and beg for forgiveness. She doesn’t say she’s sorry. She’s on the ground because the crowd is ready to execute her, but that’s all. For all we know, she might have snuck away and been meeting up with her wayward lover only later that very day. Is she all fixed up now? Was she a righteous person when she came to Jesus? No, definitely not. Was she a righteous person when she left? Not really. Maybe she went on to make some better decisions, but who cares? She’s the same person. Her life is a mess. It’s been a mess, it was a mess, and it was still kind of a mess. And what does Jesus, the creator of all things say to her? “I don’t condemn you”. Was she righteous? No, HE was righteous. End of story.
1500 years earlier, God made a covenant with Abraham. But when it came time for Abraham to walk through the blood of all the sacrificed animals, God caused him to fall into a sleep (Genesis 15). He remains faithful whether we do or not (and we don’t). But his love for us is not dependent on anything in our domain. It does not have qualifications. It is unilateral. He asks for our input, but then he just loves us regardless of what our input is.
By any measurement, the woman caught in adultery was condemned, but the God of the universe did, by his own singular will, not condemn her. And by this act, she was set free. Today, the modern secular world attempts to deliver an evangelion. It tries to be the good news for people trapped in darkness. It tries to say to the woman caught in adultery, “Hey, what you were doing is not wrong. You are free to express yourself however you feel you need to. Your body is yours to do absolutely anything with. It’s beautiful. Your choices, every last one of them, are fabulous. Just listen to your heart and know you are total awesome sauce!” It knows that what the world needs is a gospel, and so it gives them one – a gospel of antinomianism – no rules, “imagine no religion”, etc. “This is what will set you free” it boldly proclaims.
But it doesn’t work. Our heart is attuned to the subatomic rhythms of the universe even when we explain them away with our minds. There is light and there is darkness. There is beauty and there is real ugliness. There is right and there is wrong. And we are wallowing in the wrong, each in our own way. Painting the darkness with a layer of white paint and celebrating looks wonderful, for a grand total of five whole minutes. But our heart knows otherwise.
Our Lord and Savior on the other hand, doesn’t bother with the can of paint. He calls a spade a spade. He NAMES thing as they truly are. He knows that we are broken, busted, fallen, depraved, and wicked. But then he says: “I don’t condemn you. I put you to sleep when it’s your turn to walk through the blood. I walk through it for you. You don’t vocalize your desire for forgiveness in a nice clean-cut way? Well, I’m going to forgive you anyway. Here you go. I don’t condemn you. I love you. Go and sin no more. See you ’round!”
So what else is there to say about all this? Rejoice! You have a savior.
(Disclosure: Reading Brennan Manning’s treatment of John 8 is what caused me to write this reflection.)
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
We are often told that we need to “become like little children” to enter the kingdom of heaven. The phrase most often used to describe this change is “faith like a child”. The faith we possess now is the reasoned, complex, and doubt-tainted faith of a scarred and skeptical adult. Our maturity has backfired on us and made our love or belief complex and fragile. If only we could be like little trusting children and put away our big books of theology and express a very simple trust, then we would be following Jesus in the way he really desires.
That is how this passage is often explained anyway. To overstate the case – we think too much for our own good. We need to be more stupid and and simple and love God like someone who’s reasoning capacities are immature. In this sense, to become like a little child, when “done right” is something that happens in your head. Through an “emptying” of your higher abstractions, you become like the young child in the Gospel account who just intuitively loved his Lord and sat on his lap.
I recently discovered, in the writings of Brennan Manning, a different take on this scripture. He points out that the primary characteristic of children, when it comes to adult work, is that they are incompetent. They aren’t stupid, but they are clumsy, forgetful, and small. It’s not that there is something wrong (or superior) with their heads. In addition, they may also have very good intentions, but they just can’t do the job. They can’t move that 100-pound bale of hay. They can’t cut the careful dovetail joint in that wood. They can’t prepare six dishes in the kitchen and start them all at different times so they finish simultaneously. They can write a short letter, but not a 50-page court legal brief. They can handle a small dog but not a team of horses. They are (currently) incompetent. Give them hard adult work to do and they just can’t do it.
We are like these very children, though we may not realize it. Our father God gives us adult work to do – loving our husbands and wives, tending a huge planetary garden, and ruling nations. And we can’t do it. We are clumsy, forgetful, and small (though our tools are increasingly sharp). We miss the mark. We fall short. We sin, not just in our obvious misdeeds, but in failing to do the good that we have not even begun to consider due to our youth and incompetence.
So when we come to Jesus “like little children”, we come as a people that can’t get the job done. We have no works we can boast in. We can’t do the work. We see that work needs to be done, but we can’t do it – even those of us who appear the highest achieving.
But His love for us has absolutely nothing to do with our effort or accomplishment. It is unilateral and independent of our poor track record and ongoing failure. He will lead us, passing through death, to one day grow up.
The chief lie in the universe is this – that no one loves you.
The enemy reenforces this lie in two ways.
1. In doubt and cynicism as to the existence of love. If it doesn’t really exist, then it’s not yours. What you perceive to be love is really something else: sex, desire, reciprocation, chance, lunacy, etc.
2. To assume/acknowledge/grant that love may exist, but that it is most certainly not yours. The enemy does this through accusing – the trademark task of Satan. In accusing us, he shows (with true proof even) that we are not lovable, not worthy of love, and therefore not loved.
Our creator demolishes the lie in two ways.
1. In making the existence of love shockingly obvious and even when our heads are down, by acting “like a splinter in your mind” that won’t go away. No amount of rationalism can paint over it. No amount of despair erase it’s possibility. Anyone who contemplates it without sufficient distraction will conclude that this love exists. It’s presence is rational, empirically palpable, and spiritually intuitive.
2. In wiping away the accusations by declaring love unilaterally. By explicitly and declaratively loving the unlovable, the attribute of unworthiness becomes irrelevant and accusations of guilt meaningless.
Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain,
And washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been plagued,
And chastened every morning.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
Behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children.
When I thought how to understand this,
It was too painful for me
In Psalm 73, the writer voices his complaint of envy about the rich to God. He goes on to say that IF he would have said these things out loud to his friends and family, he would have been betraying God’s children. It would have been treason. It would have been the sort of terrible thing a real enemy would have done to hurt is loved ones, only it would have been coming from himself, not some outsider.
Moaning and groaning like this is betrayal – it’s sin. It’s probably not sin to voice these concerns to someone strong in the faith – a pastor or mentor or father or mother. For someone strong and over you to some degree, words like this will likely not drag them down into the void. Maybe it’s OK to vent sometimes, but just voicing them haphazardly among your friends? Your words have power. You can drag them down into the pit. They were probably thinking the same thing just earlier that day, but trying to push past it. Now you’ve drug them back. Griping about these things to your wife or husband? Sure they love you and they’ll listen, but they are going to have to put a lot of psychological energy into recognizing this kind of despair and selectively tuning it out. So be careful talking like this. Parents who lean on their kids to hear their woes definitely need to knock it off. They can’t handle that load.
Be careful to discern between this (keeping your mouth shut for the health of others), with stuffing your emotions and pretending like everything is fine when it’s not. The other isn’t healthy either and can be terrible consequences if done long-term. Wisdom is needed.
I’m preaching to myself here, having drug down my wife, children, and friends with what in retrospect were little more than pity parties and bitch fests. At the same time, sometimes, you really NEED someone who will listen to you, even if it’s just to take out the trash. The very fact that someone cares enough to just shut up for 10 minutes can be a good first step to pulling you back up. It seems that it could help if they had a bit of distance from you. Your spouse or best friend might not be the best person as they are more likely to take your dark thoughts a little TOO seriously. Some discernment is required on all sides to prevent this.
The psalmist supplied some key commentary to keep his faith in God front and center. We can do the same. We could also take a break and worship God, even if it seems like we have to grit our teeth at first. It helps to replace the anguish with something else and He is worthy, regardless of how we feel.
(This is part 3. For the introduction see part 1 or for a more abstract approach, part 2.)
What about right now? What about the psalm we just read? What about the rich/wicked prospering around us – what are we supposed to do about them? How can we help getting all depressed and grouchy about it? Here are some points to consider.
First of all, who are the “the wicked” that the psalmist is talking about? Who were these rich fat cats that seemed to get away with everything? Foreigners? Kings and rich nobles is far off Egypt of Babylon? Doubtful. His knowledge of them would have been only a rumor. And even if he did know something of them, they are too distant, both physically and psychologically, to envy potently. He would have never met any of these actual folks. Their rich lives in far off lands might as well have been on another planet. He was in no danger of despairing over the lack of something he didn’t know first-hand or likely even second-hand. The wicked he was fretting about must have been much closer to home. We may think celebrities or politicians are close enough to envy, but they still live thousands of miles away and you’ve never met them. You folks here living in Moscow, Idaho – who do you struggle with envy over?
Who were these “wicked” men whose eyes “bulged with abundance” and who were “not in trouble as other men”? They must have been the guy’s own proper Jewish neighbors – men with families close by to him – people he actually ran into on the street all the time. And what were these wicked men doing? Well, probably not anything particularly illegal. This psalm was written during the reign of King David. The government was strong and largely just. Local law enforcement would have been functional. The priests in the temple were in full operation. This wasn’t the lawless wild west or some place like modern Somalia or central Iraq where local thug warlords control each town. No, the “wicked” things these people were doing was stuff unlikely to get them thrown in jail. Maybe some of what they did was shielded by bribes, but for the most part these evil men were seemingly law-abiding citizens minding their own business. These people may not be “wicked” the way we use the word today – drug dealers or international terrorists. They could be your own neighbor or boss or coworker – anyone you know well who seems to have life better than you and who doesn’t seem to fear God as much as you think YOU do.
That real danger is in envy over people close by to you – even people sitting just a couple rows over from you in church. These are the folks you are most in peril of getting grouchy and discouraged about if you try to compare your life to theirs.
Let’s go back and look at the psalmist’s complaint again. Look at some of these thoughts. “They are not in trouble as other men.” “They have more than their heart could wish.” “They are always at ease, they increase in riches.” “They have nothing to worry about.” The first big problem with these statements is that they really aren’t true! Yes, the folks may SEEM happy, but behind the scenes, the story is always much more complicated.
Let’s take a look at this picture here of a nice family in front of a nice new house. This could be someone you know – the father could be the guy at the desk next to you in the office and the mother could be someone you run into at the park. Look at their beautiful kids – painful since you’ve had a lot of difficulty getting pregnant. They’ve got this beautiful big yard. You’re husband keeps forgetting to mow the lawn. You live in a tiny mobile home trailer and they’ve got this huge 3000 square-foot home in the hills. And heck, they don’t go to church nearly as much as you do. It seems like they are always going camping and posting great pics on Facebook – the same weekend you were sick in bed. How come these people have it so much better than you? It’s not fair! This economic inequality is evil!
If you look at this picture, and this family as you know via Facebook and tiny 2-minute interactions in the grocery store, you might think there is some kind of injustice that they have it good and you don’t. But let’s take a look behind the scenes. The mom is grateful for her kids because she had three painful miscarriages earlier. The daughter spent a month in the hospital in Seattle with a scary intestinal rupture. The son is struggling academically and they’re homeschooling this year because he got kicked out of the local Christian school a few months ago. Meanwhile, the dad took out a huge loan to buy this house. He’s literally up to his eyeballs in debt and it gnaws away at him. He’s stressed out and has been trying to work overtime to pay off medical bills – that’s why he hasn’t volunteered for anything lately. Those pics they posted online of their fun camping trip? The kids were cranky and it rained nearly the whole time. The few images that made it online were carefully selected from a long string of duds.
This guy’s life isn’t really better than yours. He’s got all kinds of problems, some of them he brought on himself and others seem completely out of his control. If you could BE this guy, you would quickly wish you were back to being yourself, even though he has a really nice kitchen with granite countertops and a double oven. Oooooo.
It’s really important to remember that we don’t know all of people’s stories. We may in fact know very little. Social media tools on the internet like Facebook and Twitter have given us powerful ways to communicate and keep up with each other. But they are frequently powerful ways to MIS-communicate both unintentionally or intentionally. Carefully curated status updates and photoshopped pictures can make someone look like a queen at first glance. Career self-promotion on sites like LinkedIn can make one look like a genius with an impressive resume when really what their job is is talking to annoying people on the phone all day and typing up reports.
But we fall for these illusions all the time. Here’s the deal, with movies, we know what we are watching is fake. We have a pretty easy time stepping back and saying, “That can’t really happen, or that relationship is completely unrealistic but it’s just a show.” The young people in sitcoms just hang out in cafes all day but somehow are able to afford a nice apartment in New York City. We can brush that off. We have a harder time with reality TV. It LOOKS like a documentary, so we can be fooled into thinking it’s real, although anyone who has studied the craft of reality TV just a bit can tell you it’s ALL about the editing. You can make someone into a hero or a villain just by cutting and pasting selected shots and interviews into the right order. We are wary of it, but probably not enough. But the appearance kept up by our own friends and neighbors? We fall for them. We see the mask and accept it. We forget that those photos our sister posted on Pinterest last night are not really what her latest baking effort looked like. When our coworker goes on about how great his new Corvette sports car is, we don’t see his bank statement or the unbearable tension it’s brought on his marriage. A well-known hip hop artist once quipped “Mo Money, Mo Problems” and he’s right (about that at least). We kid ourselves if we think the rich really have things better than us. A lot of psychological studies have been done on this topic. The conclusion of many of them is that money DOES make your life better, but only to a certain point not very far above the poverty line. If you are literally starving or freezing to death, then yes, money for reliable food and shelter WILL make you happier, but the pointer diminishing returns is not much further past that point.
So guard yourself against envy. In the west where we live, so much wealth is on parade that doing this takes some concerted effort. If you let your eyes wander, they will quickly find things to desire and be disconcerted about. I’m not telling you Jesus wants you to get rid of your TV or your computer. But ask yourself, do those things frequently sow discontent in your life? Be careful. That kind of envy and despair is poisonous.
So what is the antidote to all this? What if you can already feel that poison in your veins right now? What if you’ve spent all last week angry at the “1%” or whomever seems to fairing well and forgetting God?
The psalmist tells us what fixed it for him. He “went into the sanctuary of God”. He went to the temple to worship God. He spent time in the presence of God. This isn’t just reading the Bible or going to church, though it might have looked kind of like that to someone observing from the outside. He remembered God’s promise to him, and God’s promise regarding His future justice and redemption of the all the world. When the man thought about these things, his envy of others melted away. “Whom have I in heaven by you?” he asks, “There is none upon earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the strength of my heart.” I was so foolish and ignorant… Nevertheless I am continually with you. You hold me by my right hand. It is good for me to draw near to God.”
This kind of big-picture spiritual perspective is the only thing that can snap iu out of our immediate consternation and troubled minds. The good news, is that this stepping back see through God’s eyes is not something we work up. It isn’t some kind of spiritual state of content that we achieve through mental gymnastics or through proper meditation or saying the right words. It is a grace. It is a gift, from him, to us, to draw us close to Him. We can ask him for this “Peace that passed understanding.” This peace that passes envy, this peace that passed injustice, this peace that passes theodicy. We understand that something is broken, but his peace passes over that understanding. So ask for that. We believe that he desires to give that peace to us.
Philippians 4:6-7 (KNJV)
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; 7 and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
So what can we do in the mean time, even if we are still very upset, just like the psalmist was? Instead of grouching about it to your husband or friends, lift your voice and sing a song of praise to your creator. “Oh, but I don’t feel like worshiping God. I don’t know if I trust him, since stuff in this world is so screwed up.” Well, you can start by ACTING AS IF you trust him. “Fake it ’till you make it” is not disingenuous and it’s not dishonest. It’s expressing a desire and believing He is listening. Come in to the sanctuary of God. Lift up your voice and praise him whether you exactly feel like it or not! It is good to draw near to the Lord and declare all his works.
(All stand and sing “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”)
Ending Prayer: Thank you Jesus, for coming to be our savior. We look forward to the day you complete this salvation and set all the world right. It is because of your love for us that you do this and we love you for it. Amen.
(This is part 2. For the introduction, see part 1.)
First, let’s talk about the larger, big-picture issue. Theologians of course are people that think about God and try to understand and explain who he is and what he does. They have a special word for this particular topic – Theodicy. Theodicies are ideas that have to do with what is often called, “the problem of evil”. (Note, for a very handy overview of approaches, see here.) Why is there suffering in the world? If God is good and also in total control, why is everything obviously a mess? This question (or some variation of it) is probably the #1 reason people don’t believe in God or lose their faith in him.
Now, the secular world has a very simple answer to the problem of evil. It doesn’t exist and God doesn’t exist. The most popular idea in the modern world – the one you are most likely to hear on TV or in textbooks, is that our ideas of good and evil are a “social construct”. Someone told you certain things were bad when you were a kid and that’s what “evil” is for you. It could be something different for somebody else. So whatever you think is right or wrong is really just some made-up ideas in your head that you picked up from somewhere else – not something that reflects the natural world. And God doesn’t do anything about it because he’s just NOT THERE to do anything about anything! You’re on your own. Oh, and while you’re at it, it would behoove you to adopt the most current politically correct values of right and wrong. This will help you go with the flow and have fewer problems getting along with people during your short and meaningless life.
Christianity, on the other hand, has always wrestled with the problem of evil head on. To fear God is also to love good and hate evil and to discern what is right and wrong in the natural world – the day-to-day world all around us. It is to be offended when things are unjust and unfair, and to be happy and relieved when they are just and fair and good. Beauty and mercy are to be praised. Ugliness and cruelty are to be condemned. And our creator God is sovereign over all of creation – over all the heaven and the earth. And He is very, very good. But wait? Why is creation full of injustice? Why so much slavery and murder and hate and to make matters worse, apparently nothing bad happens to many of the pimps, killers, and jerks. In fact, they often seem really successful. What gives?
Christians have tried to answer the problem of evil in various ways over the centuries. Saint Augustine (who lived in the 4th century) said that if God is the light, then evil is the shadow cast as the light shines on creation. Evil has no creative substance in itself, but is really just some kind of necessary side-effect of existence – an absence of total good since God is separate from His creation. OK, maybe there is some truth in that classic image, but it’s just a metaphor. It’s not a very satisfying answer for most folks.
Other people have conjectured that for man to have free will, there had to be a “bad” for us to choose. The fall of man into sin was brought about when Adam and Eve, the prince and princess of creation, chose evil. Instead of treating us like babies or machines, God gave us the dignity to choose to love him or not. God is in control of everything, but he himself chose to limit his power in this way so as to make man special and unique. There are a lot of variations of this explanation out there and depending on what church denomination you are part of, they might have these officially written down somewhere, (or not).
Still, it is a great mystery and there is only so much we can say about why evil and injustice exists in the world. It’s not one of those things that you can just figure out if you think hard enough about it or read enough books. For now, it MUST be something that doesn’t have a complete answer. But I believe it DOES have an answer and that Christianity gives us the best one.
I think our best bet is to look to the future and to the promises of a God that has conquered death. What do you need to make amends for war and put the world to rights? Not someone who is watchful and prevents tragedies, but rather a God who can raise the dead. I would like to suggest that our hope lies in the promised resurrection of the dead, and in Jesus Christ’s return to earth to rule forever. Example: Yes, it was terrible that your 5-year-old daughter died in that car accident, but after the resurrection, when she’s lived a thousand years in the light of King Jesus, that tragedy will be only the most distant memory, as if it just didn’t matter any more.
It says in Hebrews chapter 11 of Abraham and Moses and all the great prophets: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” These were some of the most faithful and holiest of people that lived in history and yet they were swallowed up in death. But they knew that death would one day be swallowed up in life. Jesus Christ did that work when he rose from the dead on Easter morning. His work just needs to fullness of time to be completed. We’re waiting on that.
I’ve been reading the Lord of the Rings to the kids at home and we got to the part where Frodo and Sam lay down to die on side of the volcano after their quest is complete. But in the next chapter, Sam wakes up in a fragrant place, surrounded by friends. He’s been rescued and the great evil permanently vanquished. He sees Gandalf (whom he thought died about 500 pages earlier) and he exclaims, “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” Tolkien, the author, was a Christian of course. I don’t think he thought winning a war with a powerful enemy would make everything sad come untrue. Only a loving and merciful God could do that. That was HIS hope in life, and I believe it’s our hope too. I don’t know WHY injustice is allowed to persist for now, but I believe it WILL be completely made right in the future. That is a big part of God’s promise to us and why he is worthy of our worship and devotion.
Introductory Prayer: Father, thank you for giving us your Word, to teach us. Thank you for giving us your Son, to save us. And thank you for giving us your Holy Spirit, to help us and to advocate for us. God, teach us not to despair, but rather give us the grace needed to trust in you though dark thoughts. Amen.
Today we are going to be taking a look at one of my favorite psalms, #73. This psalm is in two parts really and the first part is pretty depressing, and unfortunately, familiar. Let’s just take a look at the middle part right now right now.
Psalm 73:4-14 (NKJV):
[The wicked], there are no pangs in their death,
But their strength is firm.
They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like other men.
Therefore pride serves as their necklace;
Violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes bulge with abundance;
They have more than heart could wish.
They scoff and speak wickedly concerning oppression;
They speak loftily.
They set their mouth against the heavens,
And their tongue walks through the earth.
Therefore his people return here,
And waters of a full cup are drained by them.
And they say, “How does God know?
And is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Behold, these are the ungodly,
Who are always at ease;
They increase in riches.
Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain,
And washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been plagued,
And chastened every morning.
And to maybe get a better picture oh what the writer is complaining about here, lets look at that again in the very colloquial translation, The Message.
Psalm 73:4-14 (Message)
[The rich and wicked] have nothing to worry about,
not a care in the whole wide world.
Pretentious with arrogance,
they wear the latest fashions in violence,
Pampered and overfed,
decked out in silk bows of silliness.
They jeer, using words to kill;
they bully their way with words.
They’re full of hot air,
loudmouths disturbing the peace.
People actually listen to them—can you believe it?
Like thirsty puppies, they lap up their words.
What’s going on here? Is God out to lunch?
Nobody’s tending the store.
The wicked get by with everything;
they have it made, piling up riches.
I’ve been stupid to play by the rules;
what has it gotten me?
A long run of bad luck, that’s what—
a slap in the face every time I walk out the door.
What a giant downer – so much complaining! Is this God’s Word here? Is this the sort of thing God wants us to write down or to say? Let’s step back a bit.This is just the middle part. The writer gives us some meta commentary before and after. Let’s get some background on what he just said.
Psalm 73:1-4, 15-28
Truly God is good to Israel,
To such as are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
My steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
Behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children.
When I thought how to understand this,
It was too painful for me—
Until I went into the sanctuary of God;
Then I understood their end.
Surely You set them in slippery places;
You cast them down to destruction.
Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment!
They are utterly consumed with terrors.
As a dream when one awakes,
So, Lord, when You awake,
You shall despise their image.
Thus my heart was grieved,
And I was vexed in my mind.
I was so foolish and ignorant;
I was like a beast before You.
Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You hold me by my right hand.
You will guide me with Your counsel,
And afterward receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.
My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
For indeed, those who are far from You shall perish;
You have destroyed all those who desert You for harlotry.
But it is good for me to draw near to God;
I have put my trust in the Lord GOD,
That I may declare all Your works.
Psalm 73:15-18 (Message)
If I’d have given in and talked like this,
I would have betrayed your dear children.
Still, when I tried to figure it out,
all I got was a splitting headache . . .
Until I entered the sanctuary of God.
Then I saw the whole picture.
I’m going to deal with two questions today. The first is a large abstract one. Why is there injustice in the world today? Why isn’t the world fair? Why is it full of evil and why doesn’t God do something about it?
The second question is more personal and practical. How can I avoid ending up like the guy in the psalm? Are there some practical ways to guard myself against envying the rich or the wicked so much? It seems like I find myself doing it all the time.