Questions in the Wake of Suffering

October 4th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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When tragedy strikes, as it did in Las Vegas this week, people begin to ask questions. It is part of human nature: we reason, consider, speculate, and ultimately seek to find answers that will provide meaning or comfort.

 

Why did this happen?

 

Where was God?

 

Couldn’t we have prevented this?

 

These are important questions, but they are not necessarily the questions to which Scripture gives answers. That is, if we look to the Bible for guidance, we will find our questions reframed, and answers to the questions we first ask more elusive than we would prefer.

 

In the face of great suffering—great evil, even—here are five questions we might ask, and five reframed questions that might take us in a different, and ultimately more fruitful, direction.

 

  1. Why did this happen? This is always the first question. We instinctively seek meaning, and when suffering seems meaningless, we despair. We understand why we suffer under a surgeon’s scalpel, because that act has meaning: to cure us from the disease; however, we do not understand why a loved one received the cancer diagnosis in the first place: we can see no meaning, no purpose to their suffering. (As we have become increasingly individualistic in our pursuit of happiness, attaching meaning to suffering has become proportionately more difficult, I should add. But that will take us too far afield today.) Of course, this is precisely the question Job asks of God after he suffers almost unfathomable loss. If God would only explain the why, he would accept it. Interestingly—especially considering we the readers are privy to the explanation—God never answers Job’s question. Instead, in his great theophany at the story’s close, he subtly reframes the question: not Why did this happen? but Do you know who I am? God takes Job through a series of rhetorical questions meant to draw out the answers Job already has (which is what rhetorical questions do). God says, in effect, “Job, you know who I am—you know my wisdom, power, justice, and goodness. You do not need to know why so long as you know the One who does know why.” It is a lesson we all struggle to accept.
  2. How could a good God allow such evil? Surely this is the most prominent objection to faith in the God of the Bible. It almost flows out of the last question: “Yes, yes, we know who you are, God—and that’s precisely the problem! If you’re truly good and truly powerful, why didn’t you stop this?” We will return to that question in a moment, but for now, let’s unpack some of the assumptions in the question. The questioner assumes a good God should have prevented the tragedy because it is wrong. President Trump, for example, referred to the massacre in Las Vegas as “an act of pure evil,” and few of us would disagree. But now a second question emerges, and one with which God’s detractors have to wrestle honestly. If we’re going to ask God How could you allow such evil? we need to ask ourselves Does our worldview allow for the category of evil? In rejecting God because of the evil in this world, many implicitly reject the very standard by which they reject him. They saw off the very branch they are perched on. C.S. Lewis sums it up nicely, “If we reject him, we ought also to reject all his works. But one of his works is this very moral standard by which we reject him. If we accept this standard then we are really implying that he is not a Brute and Blackguard. If we reject it, then we have thrown away the only instrument by which we can condemn him.” When we feel repulsion at evil, we implicitly acknowledge that humans are moral beings created in the image of a moral God. If we reject that notion, however, we can no longer meaningfully speak of evil. The great atheist philosopher Nietzsche embraced this logical consistency in a way that few today are intellectually honest enough to do. When hearing of a tsunami in the Java Sea that left hundreds of thousands dead, he responded, “200,000 wiped out at a stroke—how magnificent!” We rightly recoil at this sentiment—but do we have the intellectual grounds to do so? If we accept a merely naturalistic, “Darwinian” account of humanity, for example, oughtn’t we rejoice at the “thinning of the herd,” at the decreased competition for survival and reproduction? A disgusting thought that surely suggests we reconsider the God question.
  3. Where was God? These first three questions all have a common thread to them, in that they assume we know what God should have been doing. This questions charges, “Had God been paying attention—were he really involved in this world—did he even exist—he surely would have stopped this tragedy from happening.” As we’ve seen already, however, the Bible nowhere affirms that we will understand what God is doing in permitting any tragedy. What the Bible does affirm, though, is that God knows what he is doing. And occasionally he will pull back the curtains and show us, that we might learn to trust him. Joseph, who suffered more than his fair share—attempted fratricide, slavery, unjust incarceration—is able to say to his brothers in spite of his grievances, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Had Joseph not suffered as he did, he could not have been used by God to save an entire region from starvation. Do we think God is any less capable of using tragedy today? Or, to take an even more obvious example, we might look to Calvary. Only one truly innocent person has ever suffered in the history of the world–and see what God did through his suffering! The question we should ask then, is not Where was God? but Do we trust God? As Tim Keller tweeted yesterday, “In the end, God will use evil to do the opposite of what was intended.” Do we believe this is the case? Can we trust him to bring good from evil? Has he not proven himself more than capable of this? Joni Eareckson Tada states the principle eloquently: “God ordains what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” This is nowhere more evident than in the death of his Son. And if God is loving enough to embrace suffering himself for our sakes, can we not trust him no matter what we might suffer?
  4. Could we have prevented this? Now, hear me clearly: this is a fair question, one we should ask and seek to answer as honestly as possible. Those who believe in the sanctity of human life should be the first to join the conversation. We do not take a laissez-faire approach to God’s image-bearers. But having said that clearly, let me say this too: sometimes our pursuit of prevention is an idolatrous desire for control, for autonomy. We should like to think, in the words of that famous poem “Invictus,” that we can be the masters of our fates, the captains of our souls—and we think so in defiance of the God who made us, and to whom we belong. Beyond the theological trouble attending this desire is the more practical one: we are manifestly not the masters of our fates, and we have no power to stave off death. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27). Ann Patchett, in an article entitled “Beltway Sniper” published in The New York Times Magazine during that horrifying tragedy, captures the folly of this desire: “The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it’s exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality. Find out what the profile is, and identify the ways in which you do not fit it. But a sniper taking a single clean shot. . . reminds us horribly of death itself. Despite our best intentions, it is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.” So while we continue to ask if we could have prevented any single tragedy, we must acknowledge that in the end we still cannot prevent death itself from coming. The question the Bible suggests to us here is simply Are you willing to face your mortality? Psalm 90:10 puts it bluntly: “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” What is the answer to this bare reality? “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v 12). In humble acceptance of our mortality, we embrace an eternal perspective to live rightly.
  5. What did they do to deserve this? I hope no one reading this actually asks this question, but inevitably someone raises the question, especially when tragedy strikes in a place like “Sin City.” This legalistic self-righteousness is not new—for there is nothing new under the sun. Jesus’ own disciples once queried him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1). Of course, this line of questioning circles back to the preceding questions; it seeks to provide comfort to the questioner, knowing they don’t fit the profile of “sinner”; it seeks to provide meaning to suffering—they deserved it—and so to offer pat answers to dishonest questions. But in another instance, Jesus himself reframed the question into a far more fitting one: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish’” (Luke 13:1-5). There is the question we should be asking: Do you think those who suffer are worse than you? The Bible answers a resounding No. We are all dead in our transgressions and sins, by nature deserving of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). The plain fact of the matter is that no one of us suffers more than we deserve, and in fact we all suffer far less than we deserve because of God’s common grace. We deserve eternal condemnation, but God, in his mercy, offers us grace and eternal approbation. The key, as Jesus reminds us, is repentance. We turn from our sins and trust in his finished work on the cross, where he took the punishment for our sins in our place that we might receive welcome as God’s beloved children.

 

And that is another question we must all ask and answer—ultimately the one question that matters most: Will you repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?



Fighting Idolatry

January 10th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Now that I’ve started to identify my idols, what next? How do I fight idolatry in my life? How do I learn to treasure Christ more, to value supremely only that which is supremely valuable?

 

On a handful of occasions I’ve tried to learn some form of artwork or other—drawing, painting—usually with 5229725173_493ea39a9f_zspectacular ineptitude. The most enjoyable part of the process, though, is reading the manuals that purport to teach you in four easy steps. Steps one to three usually involve drawing some very basic shapes, starting to get a sense of proportion, etc. Then step four shows the completed picture, colored and shaded, with detail and nuance throughout. I always feel like they’re missing a few steps in there.

 

So, in sketching out these four steps, I’m well aware that I’m missing a few steps in here too. The broad outlines are easy, but the nuances of working them out in your own heart are difficult and time-consuming. They will take a lifetime of gospel contemplation. Nevertheless, here they are, just to get us started.

 

  1. Confess and repent. This seems like a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at how often we skip this part. If you’ve done the hard work of identifying idols, make sure you then recognize the idolatry as sin, and repent of it. For example, if you’re in a dating relationship with a non-Christian because you’re worshiping the idol of human love, confess your idolatry—which will mean getting out of a sinful relationship. If your life of luxury and self-indulgence betrays an idol of comfort, repent of it—which will mean sacrificial giving and a simpler lifestyle. Listen to how Paul puts it in Colossians 3:5-8: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” These sins, he says, are expressions of idolatry—and the wrath of God is coming because of them. That means we need to act; we need to rid ourselves of all the sinful manifestations of our idolatry. Confess and repent.
  2. Work out the end game. Really, where will your idolatry lead? Will anything in this world ever be enough to satisfy the deep longing within you? If you get everything your idolatrous heart desires—which is unlikely anyway—will that be enough? One way to think this through is to look at people who have what you want: are they satisfied? From what I can tell by looking at the wealthy, money doesn’t bring any real satisfaction, so why would I devote my life to it? I’ve watched many climb the career ladder without ever achieving the feeling of significance they’d hoped for. Addicts are addicts precisely because their “drug”—sex, shopping, heroin—is never enough. C.S. Lewis hits the nail on the head: “Most people, if they really learn how to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning can really satisfy. I am not speaking of what would ordinarily be called unsuccessful marriages or trips and so on; I am speaking of the best possible ones. There is always something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, that just fades away in the reality. The spouse may be a good spouse, the scenery has been excellent, it has turned out to be a good job, but ‘It’ has evaded us.” I suspect this is why people move so quickly from one fascination to the next: first a job, then marriage, then a new home, then a child; when the excitement wears off, we have to begin again—a new job, another child, a bigger house, a better spouse—only to find “It” still evading us. This is very much the point of Ecclesiastes, and its truth is felt intuitively by the great mass of humanity. Work out the end game. Your idolatry will leave you unsatisfied at the last.
  3. Treasure Christ. If your idolatry will lead you unsatisfied in the end, turn to that which alone can satisfy—God himself. To quote C.S. Lewis again, “Creature are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.” Some of our longings are met in this world—hunger and thirst, for example—but the deepest longings are not, so we must look beyond this world, to the invisible yet more substantial spiritual world. Asaph expresses it nicely: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). St. Augustine taught that what shapes us most fundamentally is not our beliefs or thoughts, but out loves. We are what we love—and we are most what we love I may say I love truth, but if I tell lies to protect my reputation, I prove I love my status more than I love honesty. Our deepest longings will be met only when we love most what is most deserving of our love, Jesus. As Augustine famously said in the opening lines of his Confessions, “You stimulate [us] to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.” In other words, this is the positive side of working out the end game: look at what will actually satisfy in the end, and then order your loves so that you can experience the fullness of joy found in him.
  4. Apply the gospel. You’ve begun to treasure Christ, you understand your need to seek ultimate joy in him alone, but how do you go about it? Turn to the gospel again and again. God does not love us in the abstract, but in the true story of Christ’s coming to earth as a human to live the life we should have lived, then to die the death we deserved to die, before being raised to the newness of life which we can experience through faith in him. Paul describes it thus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the beautiful exchange wrought at Calvary: he takes my sin, which God punishes in him at the cross, so that I may take his perfection as my own—welcomed, then, as a dearly loved child of the Almighty Father. What will contemplation of a love like that do to me? First, it will soften my heart. It will humble me, because I recognize in this story the price of my rebellion against my good and gracious Creator. I am more sinful, more wretched, than I would ever have dared admit. But second, it will enflame my heart. It will captivate and enthrall me, because I apprehend, at last, the overwhelming, relentless, costly love of my Father. I am more loved, more cherished, than I would ever have dared dream. To the extent that I can grasp this truth, allow this love to seize and transform me, I will be freed of my idolatry, freed to order my loves rightly. Money is good because with it I can purchase what I need to survive, but it is as nothing before a love like this. Human love is excellent and often praiseworthy because we were made for fellowship and intimacy, but a finite being cannot offer me the infinite love for which I thirst. Achievement is fine because I am using my gifts to glorify God and serve my neighbors, but my significance is already given in God’s acceptance of me. Apply the wonder of the greatest, truest story ever told to your heart, and your idols will soon dim in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

 

What other strategies have you found effective in overcoming idolatry through the gospel?



When God Doesn’t Answer

April 11th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I was recently having an important phone conversation with my wife, sharing my heart with her in a way that I’m not always wont to do. After a lengthy spell of pouring out my thoughts and emotions, I paused to give her a chance to answer—to laud me for my transparency and vulnerability—but got nothing. It’s not that my wife doesn’t speak words of affirmation though, or that she saw through my ploy to win some admiration points. No, her cell phone had cut out at the start of my soliloquy, so she’d missed all of it. There I was, unveiling my soul, and no one was listening.

 

That’s how prayer feels sometimes, isn’t it?

 

No matter how pious we may be, no matter how resolute our faith, it will sometime seem to us that God is deaf to our prayers. I keep talking, but no one is listening.

 

Now, it is highly unlikely that this is because God is sleeping on the job. As Isaiah had to remind Israel when they made this very complaint,

Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel,

“My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”?

Do you not know? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. (40:27-28)

In contrast to humans—even youths—God never grows weary, never faints, never sleeps on the job. Which means he is always there and always listening to us. So if it seems God is deaf, the cause must lie elsewhere.

 

Of course, sometimes God delays in giving his answer. Jesus shared his parable of the persistent widow “to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). God wants us to learn persistence in praying—and the best way for us to learn is by having to persist. Or sometimes there may be something happening in the spiritual realms that we cannot see causing the delay (cf. Daniel 10:12-14).

 

But at other times, God is actually turning a deaf ear to us. That is, it just might be possible that we are the reason God has stopped up his ears to our cries. Before we lay the blame at the feet of an unloving, uncaring God (which flies in the face of everything he has revealed himself to be), let us examine our own hearts. The scriptures identify many different reasons why God might choose not to listen to us for a time. Here are just a few. If God has seemed silent in the face of your requests, ask yourself these questions as you engage in self-examination.

 

  1. Rebellion and Arrogance. This may be the most common reason why God ignores someone’s prayers. Those who are in open rebellion against him—who are actively pursuing Eve’s original sin, seeking to usurp God’s place—will seldom find a receptive Sovereign when they cry out. For example, after the Israelites refused to trust God at Kadesh Barnea and so were condemned to die in the wilderness, a few sinfully took matters into their own hands and tried unsuccessfully to take the land in their own power. Moses says to them, “You rebelled against the Lord’s command and in your arrogance you marched up into the hill country” (Deuteronomy 1:43, emphasis added). As a result, “You came back and wept before the Lord, but he paid no attention to your weeping and turned a deaf ear to you” (v 45). The Psalms are filled with similar examples (cf. Psalm 80:4-6). If God seems to be ignoring your prayers, are you harboring arrogance and rebellion in your heart? Do you think you know better than God how your life should go, and are you approaching him with that attitude?
  2. Cherishing Sin. This is a related issue: God will often turn a deaf ear to the cries of those who cherish sin in their hearts. As the psalmist says, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). We all sin, of course (cf. 1 John 1:8-10); but are we clinging to our sin? Do we count our sin as more precious to us than the righteousness Christ offers? James makes the connection between public confession of sin and efficacious prayer explicit (5:16-18). If God doesn’t seem to be listening, do you need to confess cherished sin to a trusted brother or sister in Christ now?
  3. Refusing God’s Instruction. Proverbs says, “If anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable” (28:9). God does not look with favor on those who reject his teaching, and he regards their prayers as detestable. I imagine this is especially true when the teaching relates to the prayer request. Are you asking for a happier marriage but refusing God’s teaching on the subject (e.g., Ephesians 5:22-33)? Are you asking for financial blessing without considering the wisdom of Agur (Proverbs 30:7-9)? I can’t see why God would answer those prayers. If it seems yours prayer are detestable to God, do you need to consult his Word and accept his instruction?
  4. Interpersonal Conflict. God places a high value on love, and he expects his followers to love others as he loved them (1 John 4:10-11)! We are not even to perform our acts of ritual worship (e.g., taking communion, corporate singing) until we have taken care of any interpersonal conflict in our lives (cf. Matthew 5:23-24; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Peter affirms that this will hinder our prayers, specifically in the context of marriage: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Peter 3:7, emphasis added). If your prayers have been hindered, do you need to reconcile with someone? Do you need to treat someone differently—loving them as Christ loved you—before you persist in prayer?
  5. Doubt. God expects faith on the part of those who make requests of him. Referring to prayers for wisdom specifically, James reminds us, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:6-8). In other words, we should not expect to receive what we do not expect to receive! “Everything is possible for one who believes,” Jesus says, so we may have to cry out with one father, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24). If you are not receiving anything from the Lord, do you need to overcome your doubt and express a renewed faith in God’s goodness and power?
  6. Stinginess. This might not be what you expected for the last item on the list, but Scripture declares it to be so: “Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13). Some people stop up their ears to the cries of the needy because if they listened their lives would have to change. So they shut themselves off from the suffering of the poor around the world. But deaf ears always reflect a hard heart, and the Lord responds harshly to those who harden their hearts. Stop listening to the poor, and God will stop listening to you. If it seems God has stopped listening to you, have you stopped listening to the cries of the poor? Do you need to pursue a new practice of sacrificial generosity in place of selfish indulgence?

 

This is a representative, not an exhaustive list. God is not asleep on the job. While there are many reasons why we may not see swift answers to prayers, what we must remember is that the cause may lie within our own hearts. Let us examine ourselves, therefore, so that we do not approach God in an unworthy manner.



I Am My Own War Horse

April 4th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Israel had trust issues.

 

Despite God’s unfailing love, unrelenting faithfulness, they so rarely managed to trust him for salvation. Had he rescued them from captivity in Egypt? Of course—dramatically. Had he delivered them into the Promised Land despite the size and strength of the inhabitants? Yup. Had he saved them from foreign yokes? Time and time again, whether Moabite, Edomite, Philistine.

 

And yet, whenever trouble threatened, they couldn’t seem to remember how faithful he had been. Rather than trust him, they put their trust in the flesh—treaties with Egypt or Assyria, size of the standing army, diplomatic bribes.

 

The unnamed author of Psalm 33 points out the folly of this approach:

               

The king is not saved by his great army;

                                a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

                  The war horse is a false hope for salvation,

                                and by its great might it cannot rescue. (33:16-17, ESV)

 

Now I’m not much for trusting in standing armies or looking to foreign powers for deliverance, but I still see this Israelite tendency in my own heart.

 

You see, I am my own war horse.

 

I trust in myself. I trust that I can handle what comes my way in the strength of my flesh. I trust I can carry out my God-given responsibilities—husbanding my wife, parenting my children, shepherding my church—on my own. I trust in the earthen vessel, not the treasure within.

 

I can prepare an adequate sermon because of my theological training. I can structure a discipleship ministry through my past experience. I can instruct and discipline my children based on any number of books I have read.

 

I am my own war horse. God help me! What hope do I have if I depend on myself?

 

If I trusted in God and not myself, I would pray more. I would dwell in his Word more. I would humble myself more. I would seek his face before I sought an answer or action step or vision or strategy.

 

The battle is the Lord’s, the victory is his, and the fame will rightly be his too.

 

“But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love” (Psalm 33:18, NIV).



Devotional: Mark 9:14-29

July 30th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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When Jesus, Peter, James and John return to the rest of the group, they find the other disciples arguing with a large crowd. Seeing Jesus, the crowd hurries to him, and he questions them about the argument.

 

It seems the disciples had attempted an exorcism in Jesus’ absence, and it hadn’t gone too well. While this probably should have driven everyone present to prayer, instead it leads to pettiness, factionalism, and childish bickering. What causes the argument? Most likely, in the eyes of the crowd—and especially the religious leaders—the failure of the disciples reflects poorly on the Master. He must not be much of a man or a teacher if his disciples can’t manage something as basic as an exorcism. Reeling with shame and indignation, the disciples push back, and the argument erupts.

 

In all this, the victim has been forgotten. So the father reminds them.

 

His heartbreaking account of his son’s affliction reminds us of the enemy’s ultimate aims: to destroy humanity. He knows he cannot defeat the Father, so he attacks God’s children, the apple of his eye, simply to wound and offend.

 

Jesus recognizes that the issue is a lack of faith (verse 19). He has the boy brought to him, and asks the boy’s father a few questions. The father replies, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (verse 22).

 

Jesus is unimpressed by the conditional language. If? This is the Son of God! And those of who have gone with Mark to the Mount of Transfiguration have heard it directly from God the Father! But the boy’s father has only seen the failure of Jesus’ disciples, and he is left with very human doubt.

 

His reply to Jesus’ gentle rebuke captures the heart of discipleship as well as any one sentence can: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (verse 24). The trouble with our faith so often is that we worry about the subject when we should focus on the object. It is not our faith that matters, but our faith in Christ that matters. And he is sufficient for every circumstance, trial, and temptation. He is more than enough.

 

That was the problem the disciples had, why they couldn’t cast the demon out. They were trying it in their own power—testing to see if they had enough faith—rather than humbly depending on the object of their faith, remembering that he has enough power.

 

When the disciples timidly seek an explanation for their failure, Jesus reminds them of this point exactly: “This kind can come out only by prayer” (verse 29). Prayer is the surest expression of faith, dependence even; it is the complete absence of self-reliance. “I know I cannot do this on my own, so I must seek the help of another. If this is going to happen, it will happen only in humble submission to the Father.”

 

In other words, “I do believe; only help me overcome my unbelief.”

 

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. What doubts do you have? Do they center on God’s existence, goodness, presence, or love? Will you pray in humble submission, like the boy’s father, that God will help you overcome your unbelief?
  2. Do you tend towards self-reliance or humble dependence? How do you know? What action steps will you take to overcome self-reliance in the areas of your life where you know you are “going it alone” as the disciples tried? How will you cultivate an attitude of humble dependence?
  3. Evaluate your prayer life. If people were to listen to all of your prayers, would they think you believe in God and trust that only he can bring about change? Or would they think—probably because of an absence of prayers about different subjects—that you are depending on yourself? What changes do you need to make in your prayer life? Will you make them?


Light and Momentary Troubles

November 1st, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Some of the most difficult verses in all of Scripture come in Paul’s second letter to Corinth: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (4:16-17, NIV).

 

One wonders how Paul can so cavalierly dismiss the very real suffering he experienced. As he details later in his letter, Paul was no stranger to suffering: “Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:25-28). How can he consider these light and momentary troubles?

 

How could we consider the death of a loved one, chronic illness, abject poverty, abuse, as anything but the severest trial, gross injustice, unendurable? How could we not lose heart when faced with these?

 

The answer is Jesus. We may endure any physical or emotional agony because Jesus endured spiritual agony for our sakes.

 

Our troubles in this life are momentary because Christ has won eternity for us through his sacrificial death on the cross. They are light because they are as nothing in comparison to the weight of suffering he endured in being forsaken by the Father. In Gethsemane, Christ felt the full weight of our sin. In a bit of bitter irony, the word Gethsemane means “olive press.” And here, on the Mount of Olives, Christ is certainly pressed, crushed—and the blood oozes from his pores like oil from olives. He seeks the comfort in heaven in prayer, only to find the hell of God’s wrath ready to be poured upon him.

 

That is real trouble—a sheer weight of agony the likes of which we will never know. Having been spared this, can we not endure a touch of persecution for his sake? Can we not yield ourselves to his plans, even when they involve light and momentary pains we had rather not know?

 

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen” (4:18). We walk by faith—a more perfect sight than our corrupted eyes could provide. We live the truth—that Jesus endured the eternal weight of damnation, winning for us the eternal weight of glory. We take heart—no matter the circumstances, knowing joy and peace, always giving thanks—that, in bearing the “mild yoke” of physical and emotional pain, we might glorify him who endured spiritual agony in our stead.