The book of Job

“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). The Lord pointed out Job to Satan, noting these qualities of Job, and Satan replied that Job was faithful only because God had blessed him with wealth and worldly comforts. God permitted Satan to afflict Job, while placing limits upon the harm Satan could do. Job lost all his wealth in one catastrophic day, and his ten adult children died the same day. Afterward, Job was afflicted with a painful rash, something like chicken pox or shingles, that covered him from head to toe. Despite all these problems, Job remained faithful to God.

Three friends came to comfort Job. While they sat silently with him, they did well. When Job started to speak out of his pain and depression, they fell short. Job wished aloud for a hearing with the Lord so Job could protest his innocence and learn why God was causing such problems in his life. The friends responded, essentially, that God does not make mistakes. The losses of wealth and family and health were, they said, a wake-up call for Job, a warning to fix his life so God would be pleased with him again.

At the end of the book, God says that Job’s friends are wrong. God did not afflict Job to correct Job’s behavior. Before God speaks, though, the four men are addressed by a younger man named Elihu. Elihu is disappointed in Job’s friends because they failed to set Job straight. Although Elihu does not join them in saying Job deserves to suffer, Elihu suggests that Job is in the wrong for demanding an explanation from God. His language, becoming increasingly vivid as he speaks of stormy weather approaching, anticipates God addressing Job from a whirlwind.

God does not say that Elihu was wrong. Instead, he reminds Job of their relative positions, asking Job where Job was when God created the world. Mockers and critics have said that they do not approve of God’s word to Job. They think that God should have confessed his part in what they call a “cosmic bet.” Their sympathy is with Job, and they do not accept this book’s solution to the problem of why good people suffer while the wicked seem to flourish.

Whenever Christians read any portion of the Bible, we should look for portrayals of Jesus. Job has a particularly memorable confession of faith in Christ: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27). Job himself is a Christ-like figure, an Old Testament picture of Jesus, suffering though he does not deserve to suffer. Recognizing Job as a picture of Christ helps us to see more clearly the full message of the book of Job.

God does not want his people to sin. He guides us by his commandments, not through our problems as his response to our sins. His Holy Spirit, using the Bible, teaches us why we were created and what we are on earth to do. We sin every day, failing to live up to our Creator’s standards, but every day we confess our sins and every day we are forgiven. God does not treat us as our sins deserve. We live under a new covenant, one in which God takes away our sins and remembers them no more.

Because we live in an evil and sin-polluted world, we suffer. Evil is not fair; it is random and unjust, striking the good and bad alike. When we see a random act of evil, we remember how desperately we need a Savior. When we suffer, God permits the pain and the loss to remind us of the cross, the pain and the loss Jesus endured for us. As Job was a picture of Jesus before Jesus was born, so we are pictures of Jesus today, not only by our efforts to obey God’s commandments, but also by our endurance and patience when we suffer, looking to God in faith and not failing to trust in him.

Like Job, we are blameless and upright in the sight of God. Like Job, we have no right to question God’s decisions or second-guess the burdens he allows us to bear. Like Job, when we do question the Lord, we are forgiven. We may not receive the answers we demand during this lifetime. Then again, perhaps we do.

God leads Job through a lesson in biology, pointing to the variety of living creatures God has made, and asking if Job could do anything remotely comparable. The list concludes with two monsters. The first is Behemoth, which some people think is an elephant, others a hippopotamus, and others a dinosaur. The second is Leviathan, which some people think is a crocodile, others a legendary sea monster. Could, however, Leviathan be Satan? Consider these descriptions: “Will he make many pleas to you? Will he speak to you with soft words?… Lay your hands on him: remember the battle—you will not do it again! Behold, the hope of a man is false; he is laid low even at the sight of him. … His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. Out of his mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke, as from a flaming pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame comes forth from his mouth…. He sees everything that is high; he is king over all the sons of pride” (Job 41: 3, 8-9, 18-21, 34). What other created being so resembles the dragon of Revelation 12?

If Leviathan is a picture of Satan, then Job is told (in a round-about way) the source of all his problems and the reason for his suffering. He is warned that on his own he cannot defeat Satan; but, like us, Job is not alone. Jesus has battled Satan, and Jesus has won. When our sufferings remind us of the cross, we can look beyond the cross to the victory—and to the eternal victory celebration that awaits us in the new creation.

At the end of the book, Job has twice as much money and twice as many animals as he had at the beginning of the book. At the beginning Job lost ten children; by the end of the book he again has ten children. Why was the number of children not doubled? Because on the Last Day, when Job sees his Redeemer with his own eyes, he will be reunited again with all twenty of his children. The first ten were not lost as the animals and other worldly wealth were lost. They died, but they were in Paradise awaiting the resurrection. Because Job feared God and turned away from evil, his faith was able to sustain him during his suffering, and his hope in the resurrection for himself and for his children was not crushed. J.

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Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part three

How do Christians apply Hebrews 12:5-11 to our lives? “Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us, and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed good to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

If God sees no sin in us, how can he discipline us for our sins? If he sees our sins and responds to them, how can we be sure that we are forgiven? To answer these questions, it is necessary to do three things. First, we must look at the word translated “discipline” and be sure we understand what it means generally and especially in these verses. Second, we must see this passage in its context within the letter to the Hebrews. Third, we must view this verse in context of the entire Bible and its message to God’s people.

Both the NIV and the ESV translate the Greek word used in Hebrews 12 as “discipline.” Working only from the English, it is tempting to make a connection here to discipleship, but the actual Greek word does not suit that connection. In fact, the Greek work is derived from the noun for a young child and refers to teaching or training that child. Depending upon its context, it sometimes describes violent training, such as a spanking. We might compare the word to an English sentence—“I’m going to teach you a lesson”—which could mean anything from an offer to tutor someone to a threat to beat someone.

Other books in the New Testament use this word with the full range of possible meanings. On the one hand, when Pontius Pilate wanted to have Christ beaten and then released, he chose that word to describe the beating (Luke 23:16). On the other hand, when Stephen described Moses being raised in the household of Pharaoh, he used the same word to describe Moses’ lessons (Acts 7:22). Paul used the same word to describe his lessons as he studied under the Pharisees (Acts 22:3). Other instances of the word fall between these two extremes of tutoring and beating. In I Corinthians 11:32, Paul speaks of God’s discipline upon Christians who receive the Lord’s Supper without discerning the body of the Lord, “which is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” In II Corinthians 6:9 Paul declares that the apostles are “punished, and yet not killed.” In I Timothy 1:20, Paul mentions two Christians who are handed over to Satan to train them not to blaspheme. But in II Timothy 2:25, Paul counsels Timothy to train his opponents with gentleness, leading to repentance and a knowledge of the truth. In Titus 2:11-12, Paul speaks of the grace of God and his salvation “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.” Finally, in Revelation 3:19 Jesus echoes the thought of Hebrews 12 as he says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.” In each of these verses, the same word is used.

How then can we know whether the letter to the Hebrews speaks of training/discipline in the sense of gentle teaching or in the sense of violent treatment? Verse 11 describes the experience as painful rather than pleasant. But to fully understand the repeated use of this word in Hebrews 12:5-11, we need to study the entire flow of Hebrews 11 and 12.

To be continued…. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part two

From Job’s sufferings to Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the Bible pictures godly people suffering, not as punishment for their sins or a consequence of their sins, but simply because we live in a world polluted by sin. Jesus spoke a blessing upon those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. He said that those who died in catastrophic events were not worse than other sinners, but that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). Indeed, Paul viewed suffering in this world as a positive thing: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4) and “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17), among others.

What of the covenant that promises blessings for those who obey God’s commands and threatens curses on those who break his commands? Deuteronomy 28 is one of many passages that describe this covenant. First, though, this is God’s covenant with a chosen people, not with individuals. It was fulfilled in the history of Israel, from Judges through Esther, as both good and bad people prospered in Israel when the nation was largely faithful to God, and both good and bad people suffered in Israel when the nation was largely unfaithful. Second, this passage describes the Old Covenant, the Law of God, from which Christ has set us free. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write in on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). “For our sake he made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).  “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

In the New Covenant Christians are completely and unconditionally forgiven. God sees no sin or fault in any Christian. Daily we confess our sins and throw ourselves on God’s mercy, seeking his forgiveness. Daily he sees us through the righteousness of Christ and treats us as Christ deserves. Our sins were killed on the cross with Christ and buried with Christ. He rose, but our sins remained dead and buried. God sees no sin in us, which is why he has no condemnation for us.

To be continued…. J.

James, John, and two cups

Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going to Jerusalem. (You can read about it in Mark 10:32-45.) Jesus was leading the way, setting the pace, even though he knew what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Not only did he know; he even told his twelve apostles what would happen: “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

James and John didn’t get the message. They came to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” No parent would fall into that trap, and Jesus was not about to be tricked. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they responded.

Their eyes were on the glory. They knew that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised Rescuer who would establish the kingdom of God and defeat all his enemies. They wanted to be close to the action. They wanted a share of his kingdom and power and glory. They wanted to freeze out Peter and the other apostles by getting the chief places of honor beside the King himself.

Jesus first asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” When they affirmed that they could, Jesus told them that they would, but then he added, “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

I used to wonder about the people who would claim those places of glory, at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus. In the history of the Church, who has earned such awesome authority? Would Paul the apostle be given such a place? What about Augustine of Hippo, or Martin Luther, or Billy Graham? Who deserves to be at the right hand of Jesus or his left hand when he claims his kingdom?

Then I learned when it was that Jesus claimed his kingdom. He is not waiting to claim it when he appears in glory; all authority in heaven and on earth has already been given to him. He did not claim the kingdom when he ascended into heaven, or even when he rose from the dead. The kingdom was his when he suffered and died on the cross in the place of sinners. The glory was his when he announced, “It is finished.” Easter and the Ascension and the Glorious Appearing are all results of the cross. Without the cross, we would have no joy in any of these things. Without the cross, we would be excluded from his kingdom, and Jesus does not want us to miss the party.

Who was at his right and his left when Jesus claimed his kingdom and his glory? Two thieves were there, each of them on a cross. At first they both mocked Jesus, but then one came to faith and confessed his faith. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom, Lord,” he prayed. Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” From these words, we know when Jesus received his kingdom and his glory.

James and John thought they wanted to be there with Jesus, but Jesus did not want them there. He went to the cross to spare them punishment. He went to the cross to rescue us all from punishment and guilt. He who knew no sin became sin for us so we could be the righteousness of God. The innocent one who should not have been punished accepted our punishment so we can be free. The Author of life gave himself into death so we can live forever.

Why did Jesus tell James and John that they would drink from his cup? Some scholars apply those words to the persecutions they faced as apostles. But the cup Jesus had in mind was the suffering of the cross. It was the cup he pictured as he prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, let this cup pass from me… but not my will; your will be done.”

Imagine a cup before the throne of God with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of God’s wrath falls into that cup—a drop of poison you deserve for your sin. Every time you say something you know is untrue, another drop falls. Every time your mind wanders where it does not belong, into lust or envy or hatred, another drop falls. Every time you neglect an opportunity to help a person in need, another drop falls. How many drops have fallen into that cup? Is it overflowing yet with the wrath of God, wrath you have earned by all your sins?

Yet Jesus comes. He takes that cup that bears your name and is filled with your poison, and he drinks it dry. He did not want to drink it, but he accepted the poison to spare your life. He faced justice for you, because he knew you could not bear to face the justice you deserve.

But Jesus did not leave you without a cup. As in a comic movie (The Princess Bride, or The Court Jester), there are two cups, and only one is poisoned. Jesus exchanges cups with you, not to poison you but to preserve you. He has a second cup, a cup that belongs to him. It is the cup of salvation. It is the cup of the New Testament. It is the cup that is overflowing, not with wrath and poison, but with grace and forgiveness and new life.

James and John were rescued from their own pride. They asked for something that was not theirs. Jesus gave them something that was not theirs. He gave them his righteousness, along with his redemption through his own blood. He continues to distribute those blessings today. We will be with him forever in his kingdom, celebrating his victory, because of the cross where Jesus rescued and redeemed us. J.

On thanking God

In the Bible, Christians are told to be thankful. Sometimes Christians blame themselves or one another for not being thankful enough. More startling, however, are the times when nonChristians complain that Christians are too thankful.

A friend of mine at church has mentioned this situation more than once. When she expresses her gratitude to God for some small blessing, a coworker accuses her of being arrogant. If she has prayed for something—such as good weather for an outdoor event, for example—and what she requested happens, her coworker says it was just coincidence. This coworker insists that thinking that God manages the weather according to our requests shows extreme arrogance and a self-centered nature.

This week a WordPress friend of mine had a similar experience. Authentically Aurora describes in this post how a parking spot appeared to her benefit at the end of a trying day. She regards that event as an answer to prayer, and she expresses her thankfulness to God. That post leads to an interesting conversation in the comment section in which another poster suggests that in a world filled with suffering and misery, thanking God for a parking spot is petty and strange.

I added my two cents worth to the comments there, but I wanted to expand my words to a nickel’s worth of pondering. A nonChristian may struggle with this thought, but God is real, and he has a genuine interest in every human being. God knows everything, he can do anything, and he is eternal, without beginning or end. Unlimited by time, he can pay intimate attention to every human being. Jesus assures his followers that God knows even the number of hairs on each of our heads. If God remembers that number and keeps track of that number—especially for those of us with diminishing numbers that change each day—surely a parking spot or a sunny afternoon is not too small for God to handle.

But sometimes it rains, even upon church picnics. Isn’t a sunny afternoon merely a coincidence unrelated to any Christian’s prayers? Whether or not that is the case, I see nothing wrong with praying about what we want, even about the weather. More to the point, I see nothing wrong with thanking God when good things come our way. Lack of gratitude would be highly inappropriate in a Christian who believes that every good gift comes from God and that we all were created to thank, praise, serve, and obey God.

Why, then, do Christians not solve all the world’s problems through prayer? Why not ask for enough food for every person so that no one would starve? Why not ask for an end to all wars? Why not ask that all people be protected from floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters? Christians do, in fact, pray such prayers. God does provide enough food on this planet to feed everyone living here—if some people do not have enough, that is the fault of people who have more than enough but who refuse to share what they have. Only God knows how many wars God has prevented or shortened, how many disasters God has withheld or reduced in power, or how many ways God provided other kinds of help when he chose to permit poverty and war and other calamities.

I’ve addressed the complex problem of why God allows any problems at all to happen here. In summary, God allows suffering so we see the true face of evil and prefer to turn to the good. Moreover, God has entered the world and endured suffering himself, taking on himself the consequences of evil so he can share with us the consequences of his perfect goodness. As I commented to Aurora, it saddens me when people will blame the-God-in-whom-they-do-not-believe for the world’s problems, and then they criticize believers when we thank God for good things.

I don’t expect ever to win the lottery. Chances of winning are slim for those who buy lottery tickets; they are slimmer yet for people like me who do not buy lottery tickets. I have imagined, though, what I would do should I happen to win the lottery—perhaps one day I will pick up a scrap of paper in the grocery parking lot that turns out to be a multi-million dollar winner, or perhaps a lottery ticket as a gag gift at a workplace Christmas party will turn out to be the winner. I’ve considered writing a novel based on my fantasies of winning the lottery, and in that novel my character would thank God publicly for the blessing. He would do so very carefully, trying not to offend anyone. He would make it clear that he does not believe that he was given a winning ticket because he deserves it more than all the other people who bought lottery tickets. He would regard the blessing of much money as an opportunity and obligation to do good things with that money and to use it to help people in need. But still he would be thankful. He would say, “I thank God when the weather is good. I thank him for green lights on the way home from work. I thank him every day for my wife and for my children. This does not mean I think that I am better than people who endure bad weather, people who are stopped by a string of red lights, or people who are unmarried or childless. I thank God for my health and for the blessing to live in a land of relative peace and safety, but this does not mean that I think I am better than people who are ill or people who live in war-torn lands. I would be an ungrateful wretch if I did not thank God for the good things that I have. In that spirit I thank him for this gift, and I ask him for the wisdom to spend it properly.”

As a Christian, I look to my Father in heaven for all good things. I ask for good things for myself, and I ask for good things for other people. When good things happen, I am grateful. I don’t thank God as much as he deserves for the good things I have received and for the many ways I have been protected from evil. And I confess that I do grumble at times about the problems that I have, small as they are compared to other people in this world. Among the many gracious qualities of God is his loving willingness to overlook my flaws and to accept my tiny expressions of thanks and praise. I await the ability to thank and praise him in a better way when I meet him face-to-face. J.

Theodicy

A fascinating conversation took place yesterday on the blog “See, there’s this thing called biology…” by InsanityBytes. (You can read it here.) In summary, IB wrote a splendid essay about the perspective of God, knowing all things, allowing his people to make bad choices and to suffer the consequences of those choices. She described God’s steadfast love, his patience with sinners in a sinful world, and his willingness to remain with us even when we are doing wrong over and over again. In response, a commenter raised the image of two horrific sins and, essentially, asked how a good and all-powerful God can watch such things happen and not intervene to prevent them.

This conversation is a version of a classic theological debate: If God is almighty, good, and loving, then why does he permit evil? Some people conclude that God is not almighty and cannot stop evil from happening, while others conclude that God is not good or loving. Still others use the existence of evil as proof that God does not even exist. One reasonable answer offered by believers is that the existence of evil is actually proof of the existence of God. If some things are right and other things are wrong, then there must be a source of ethics and morality. That source cannot be individual opinion or an agreement by the majority of people, because individual opinions and majority opinions can still be wrong. The Source of ethics and morality must be intelligent and personal, because ethics and morality do not exist apart from intelligence and personality.

Of course some believers pay no attention to reason when they speak about God, and also some unbelievers pay no attention to reason when they speak about God. Each side sometimes uses rhetoric and emotion to defend its position while refusing to consider the evidence for the opposite position. When one side attempts to use reason, the other side often ignores those reasonable statements, determined only to win the argument. Perhaps a Socratic conversation would do more to illustrate what I am describing. In the following dialogue, J is a reasonable Christian defending the propositions that God exists and that he is almighty, good and loving. K is a reasonable unbeliever who doubts the existence of God because of the existence of evil.

J: So you do not believe in God? Tell me about this God you reject, this God in whom you do not believe.

K: I cannot believe in a God who watches as terrible things happen and who does nothing to stop them from happening. I reject a God who has the power to do anything he wants, because that God permits suffering and tragedy and offers no hope to the victims. I refuse to honor a God who watches evil happen every day and never lifts a finger to stop it.

J: I see. I respect you for rejecting such a God. In fact, I don’t believe in that God either.

K: I thought you were a Christian.

J: I am a Christian. I worship and trust in a God who is holy, a God who hates evil, a God who provides for his people…

K: But your God still allows bad things to happen. Either he is not as powerful as you believe, or he is not as good as you believe.

J: How can you know whether or not God limits the power of evil? Who can count the number of times that God has restrained evil, saying, “This far you can go, and no farther”? Not only has God given his Law to the world, he has also threatened judgment on all who do evil.

K: You cannot prove to me that God has limited or prevented evil even once.

J: And you cannot prove to me that God is not constantly limiting evil and preventing greater wickedness than he has allowed. Therefore, we have to set aside the statement that God is doing nothing about evil, since it can be neither proven nor disproven.

K: Still, the fact that evil happens at all casts doubt on the existence of God.

J: Tell me what you would do about evil if you were an almighty God.

K: I would keep it from happening. It’s as simple as that.

J: Would you prevent every sin? Would you stop not only horrific crimes but also petty lies, dishonesty, and general rudeness as well?

K: If I were almighty, I would stop every kind of evil. If I could make a perfect world, then I would make sure it remains perfect.

J: And how would you stop people from doing bad things? When a person first tried to do something that was bad, would you snatch that person out of the world? Or would you impose your will on that person so that he or she was unable to do the bad thing that he or she had planned?

K: Well, snatching the bad people before they do bad things is tempting…

J: In that case, the world would be empty of people, because all of us do bad things every day. You and I would no longer be here to have this conversation.

K: And now you are going to say that making people unable to do bad things is unloving, right?

J: Yes, imposing your will on another intelligent being is unloving. How could anyone be good if no one had any knowledge of evil? When God gives rules, he also gives the ability to break those rules. Otherwise, the rules would have no purpose.

K: I believe it was Leibnitz who said that this is the best of all possible worlds, because if God took away our freedom to do wrong, the world would be less good than it is now. But I can conceive of many ways the world could be better than it is. That must make me wiser than your God.

J: Not necessarily. But we assumed a God who is not only almighty and good, but also loving. If you have ever loved anyone, you know that love makes you vulnerable. When you love, you do not try to control the one you love. Because you love, you give freedom to the one you love. That one can love you back, and can show his or her love in many different ways, or that one can choose not to show you love.

K: So love makes me weak? Perhaps we should become Buddhists and not allow ourselves to love anything or anyone.

J: Love does not make you, or God, weak. But it does make you, and God, vulnerable. Whenever you grant freedom to the one you love, you risk disappointment. But the disappointment of loving and not being loved in return is less than the sorrow of having no one able to love you at all.

K: So in love God permits people to do any bad thing they choose to do?

J: We have already discussed the possibility that God limits evil in the world.

K: Well, if I were an almighty God, I would at least limit evil far more often than your God limits evil.

J: Again, what would you do to the evildoer? Would you just pluck him or her out of the world?

K: If the evil was bad enough, yes I would. At the very least, I would take away all the murderers, those who torture others, the rapists…

J: How will you decide, then, which rules you will enforce and which bad deeds you will allow?

K: Any action that harms another living being will not be tolerated. The bad deeds that have no victims could be allowed.

J: Does that include careless mistakes that harm another living being, or only premeditated evil? And what of the neglect to do good? If one person starves and thousands are guilty of not giving that person food, will you remove all the thousands?

K: Once again you are painting me into the corner where the world is empty because every person has done something that harmed another living being in some way.

J: If we include careless mistakes and neglect to do good, everyone in the world is indeed guilty. But even seemingly petty bad deeds, such as shoplifting a piece of candy or telling a small lie, could be considered harmful to other living beings.

K: Maybe the best thing, then, would be to change the world so that no person can harm another living being. Whenever one person does something that is wrong, that person suffers, but no one else suffers for that bad deed.

J: That is an interesting thought. Consider a world where no one can hurt anyone else. Consider the perfect justice of everyone suffering exactly as he or she deserves, receiving the penalty for his or her bad deeds.

K: That world sounds better than this world.

J: Of course if one person could never hurt another person, then no one could ever help another person.

K: I don’t see how that follows.

J: If my deliberate cruelty, or my carelessness, or my failure to do good things could hurt no one but me, and no one else could be the victim of what I did, then no one would have any problems that he or she did not deserve.

K: Of course.

J: So no one would starve unless he or she deserved to starve, and no one would suffer unless he or she deserved to suffer.

K: Still true.

J: Then how can I do anything to help the hungry if they deserve to be hungry? How can I act to reduce suffering if all those who suffer deserve their suffering?

K: But we would still be able to help the people who deserve our help.

J: But that would be no one. Every single person would be getting exactly what he or she deserves—no more and no less.

K: Justice does tend to work that way.

J: Instead of creating a world of perfect justice, the almighty God created a world where people can hurt each other, but where people can also help each other and do good things for each other. People can be evil, but people also can be good.

K:  But God is not good if he allows people to hurt each other and does nothing to stop them. I know you said maybe he sometimes stops evil, but far too often he does not stop it from happening. Bad people get away with bad deeds all the time.

J: God has promised a Judgment Day when everyone will receive what he or she deserves. God has an eternal prison for those who break his rules and do not care about the harm they have done.

K: That Day has not happened yet, and believing that it will happen has not stopped people from doing bad things today. And your God just sits on his hands and watches, waiting for that Day while people suffer every single day without deserving to suffer.

J: You do agree, though, that it is better to live in a world where people can do good things even if that does make it possible for people to suffer?

K: I suppose so. I don’t see how that gets your God off the hook, though.

J: Suppose that, instead of sitting on his hands, God decides to come down and get involved in this world of suffering. Suppose that he even decides to find out how it feels to suffer.

K: I don’t see how that would make any difference.

J: That’s because you are not thinking about the way that people can help each other in this world. Because God became a victim of evil, he is able to rescue the victims of evil. Because he suffered, he is able to help those who are suffering.

K: I don’t see any evidence that such a thing has happened.

J: Surely at some point you have heard about Jesus giving his life on the cross.

K: I thought that was done to forgive sins. I don’t see any rescue happening on that cross. It helps the criminals but not the victims of the crimes.

J: Jesus suffered and died to take the penalty for every sin, every bad deed, even every careless deed and every sinful inaction. Being God, he was able to pay once for all the bad deeds of history. Now, because Jesus took that penalty, no one deserves to suffer. Every person has been rescued from receiving what he or she deserves, and instead every person can receive the rewards that Jesus earned by obeying all the rules.

K: If that is supposed to bring an end to suffering, why are people still suffering?

J: We have not yet reached the Day when the final results of what Jesus accomplished are revealed. From that Day on, this world will be perfect, and no one will suffer. But now God is patiently waiting for that Day.

K: And why is he waiting?

J: He is waiting for more people to find out what Jesus did for them and take the benefits of his sacrifice. He is waiting for more believers to enter his kingdom and be set free from all suffering. In a sense, he is waiting for you.

K: Waiting for me to do what?

J: Waiting for you to acknowledge his victory over evil and to trust his promises. Waiting for you to stop resisting his kindness and to start celebrating your place in his victory.

K: And God lets other people suffer while he waits for me?

J: It’s a bit more complicated than that. He calls on his people in this world to resist evil, to stop doing bad things and to oppose those who do bad deeds. The actions of his people to make the world better are part of God’s victory over evil. Sharing the good news of his promises is also part of his victory.

K: Well, God is going to have to wait a little longer. I still cannot accept the evil he allows to happen in this world.

J: I hope you are right that it will be only “a little longer.” God has not only tolerated the bad deeds of other people. He has tolerated every bad deed you have ever done as well. Jesus paid to redeem you, and God wants to include you in his victory. He knows that you hate evil, and he hates evil too. But he is willing to tolerate the existence of evil, defeated as it is, for a little longer so he can increase the joy of his eternal victory celebration with more redeemed sinners gathered into the fold.

 

Seven goals, inspired by The Cloud of Unknowing

Now that I have begun learning about mindfulness, I have decided to read some of the classic Christian texts on meditation, starting with The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth century European work. As I read, I am trying not to read from a historical perspective or as literature, but really to take to heart what is written. At the same time, the question keeps appearing in my mind: Why is American Christianity lacking this perspective?

Part of the answer to that question, I think, is that American Christianity is largely shaped by the Protestant movement. Even Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox churches in North America bear a Protestant flavor. From the beginning, the Protestant Reformation concerned itself with individual salvation—answering the question, “What must I do to be saved?”—rather than concerning itself with the relationships stressed in medieval mysticism. Although the Pietist movement had potential to return Protestant Christians to a mystical or mindful relationship with God, it gradually evolved into Methodism which again seeks to answer the question, “What must I do?”

American Christianity has several stands of tradition that are entwined with the various denominational and nondenominational labels. One is the Charismatic or Pentecostal movement, which emphasizes exercising various gifts received from the Holy Spirit. Another is the Social Gospel, which emphasizes Christian activism in the community and in politics, seeking to make the world better for all people, especially the poor and needy. A third is Evangelicalism, which continues to focus on individual salvation and on mission work to bring the Gospel to all people. A fourth is the Success Gospel, which promises health and wealth and comfort in the present world. None of these is open to the kind of quiet mystical meditation described in The Cloud of Unknowing. Perhaps this is why so many active Christians seek additional help for their lives from yoga, from mindfulness, and from other somewhat mystical practices inspired by religions of southern and eastern Asia.

I have no desire or intention to start a new Christian movement in the United States. (The Church of Salvageable? Ugh.) For my own personal practice of Christianity for the rest of the year, I have set seven goals.

1. Worship services will be attended, not for me to be uplifted or entertained or educated, but for me to spend time in the house of my God and among the people of my God.

2. Personal devotional time, consisting of reading the Bible and of prayer, will be conducted, not as an intellectual exercise and not for self-improvement, but for bonding. The purpose of prayer and of Bible reading will be to spend time with the Lord, improving our relationship.

3. I will seek to be mindful of the presence of Jesus in every part of my life, not just at church and in personal devotions. I will strive to remember that, when I drive, Jesus is with me; whether I am at work or at home, Jesus is with me; whether I am alone or among other people, Jesus is with me. My goal is not to improve my behavior out of fear of his disapproval and judgment; my goal is to assure myself that I am not alone, no matter how alone I often feel.

4. I will seek to be mindful that whatever I do for another person is also service to Jesus. Customer service is not something I do for a paycheck, but it is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God. Courtesy on the streets or in the store is not merely good manners, but it also is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God. Kindness and honor to the members of my family is not just an obligation, but it is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God.

5. Whenever I am anxious, troubled, or discouraged, I will breathe slowly and deeply while meditating on Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God.”). I will do this, not just to control or escape my feelings, but to use that unsettled time to draw closer to God.

6. Whenever I experience pain, whether it is physical pain or emotional pain, I will let that remind me of the pain Christ experienced on my behalf. When enduring physical pain, I will remember the physical tortures of the cross. When thinking of emotional pain (such as the memory of a broken relationship), I will remember Christ’s pain at the broken relationships that have separated the people he loves from him. Any temptation to dwell on my own problems, or to feel abandoned in my suffering, will be resisted by turning the suffering into an opportunity to share, if only in some small way, in Christ’s suffering.

7. Because this is my personal experiment in Christian mindfulness, I will make regular reports by means of this blog to let you know how things are going. If any of you care to join in this experiment, please also make comments on this blog to let me know how things are going for you.
God bless us, every one.

J.