Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

Some Thoughts on Job

I recently made a promise to a class at one of our church’s training schools to spend a little bit of time talking about the book of Job, <sarcasm> because if any book of the Bible can be discussed in a short amount of time, its Job </sarcasm>.  Of course, we ran out of time anyway, so I was unable to offer some thoughts on this ever-perplexing book.  In the interest of mitigating my risk of being known as a big liar, some thoughts  (i.e., my notes for the class) on the book of Job follow.

  • Job is largely a book of what Douglas Stuart calls, “speculative dialogical wisdom.”  This is evident in the long exchanges between Job and his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu.  It is largely poetry, save the prologue, epilogue, and a brief sections that introduce the next speaker.
  • High-level structure of the book:
    • Prologue (Chs.1-2)
    • Job’s opening lament (Ch. 3)
    • Dialogue and dispute (3 cycles: Chs. 4-14, 15-21, 22-27)
    • Wisdom interlude (Ch. 28; unidentified speaker, perhaps the author)
    • Monologues (Job: 29-31; Eluhu: 32-37; God: 38-42)
    • Job’s contrition (40:3-5; 42:1-6)
    • Epilogue (42:7-17)
  • How has Job offended God?  Why does God speak to Him so harshly?
    • Job is calling God to account, most explicitly in 31:35: “Oh, that I had someone to hear me! / I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me; / let my accuser put his indictment in writing” (emphasis mine).
    • This might remind us of Romans 9, esp. v.20: “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (c.f., Is. 29:16; 45:9).  All of these texts speak negatively of the one who questions God in this way.
    • Bottom line:  It is completely backwards for us to question God – as if we’re His judge.
    • Note a distinction: questioning God can be demanding an answer from Him (implying that you think He’s wrong), or questioning God can be expressing a lack of understanding, and asking for clarity or peace.  I would content that only the former (Job’s response) is sinful.
  • How do the others (Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar) sin?  (Aside: It’s interesting that Elihu isn’t mentioned in the epilogue; some contend that because of this, his speech was a later addition).
    • Some of what they say seems right on, no?
    • Ultimately, the book teaches that nobody knows the mind of God.  All these characters offer answers as to why Job suffers, but they’re all wrong, supposing to know the answer Job seeks, but only God does.  P.S.: He doesn’t tell them, either.
    • N.b., An important life lesson here:  Don’t dare try to explain God’s actions unless its explained clearly in Scripture:  Talking about God’s plans in redeeming humankind is one thing, saying that hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on the sinfulness of New Orleans is egregious folly!
    • A funny paraphrase of something Stuart said, “We don’t even know what chipmunks are thinking, why should we think we know what God is thinking?”
  • More thoughts on suffering (tons more could be said):
    • Remember two “levels” to suffering:  The pastoral/emotional level, and the philosophical/intellectual level.
      • This should affect how we respond to people engaging with the problem of suffering.
      • If they just lost a loved one, we oughtn’t make the mistake of Job’s friends and theologize about it; this is rarely helpful at all.
    • By trusting God – not cursing or questioning Him – through suffering, we are glorifying Him.
    • Job makes as clear as any other book in Scripture that we won’t always know why or whence suffering; this doesn’t need to affect our response to suffering, which is the same whether we know why or not: Run to God.
    • We must never (ever!) forget the Christ when we suffer:
      • We cannot look at the cross and say that God doesn’t care, or love us with unfathomable love.
      • We cannot look at the cross and say that God is not just, and one who deals with evil, and will ultimately eradicate the suffering of those who love Him.
      • We must remember that God became man and suffered for us, so we wouldn’t have to.
      • I’ve always found comfort in an adaptation of an illustration by Alvin Plantinga:
        • The classic viewpoint of the problem:
          • A good God would not allow pointless suffering.*
          • There is pointless suffering.
          • There is no good God.
        • The viewpoint from the cross:
          • A good God would not allow pointless suffering.*
          • There is a good God.
          • There is no pointless suffering.
        • (*The statement “A good God would not allow suffering,”  is itself a highly questionable statement; one many accept without question, yet it is highly suspect.  E.g., as a good father, there are times when I allow my son to suffer.  There are actually some very compelling arguments for a good God precisely because evil and suffering exist; but that’s out of scope here).

I am officially no longer a liar :)  Of course, so much more could be (has been!) written about Job, evil and suffering.  I make no claim that this is a well-nuanced or complete treatment here.  Hopefully, however, it is helpful as food for thought, if nothing else.

Read Full Post »

Knowing God: God Only Wise

Wisdom can be a slippery word to define these days.  I suspect that most Americans would equate wisdom with intelligence or sagacity.  More practically, wisdom might be defined as the ability to make “good” choices.  Most of the time when I say that I made a “wise” choice, this is all I really mean:  It was a good one, viz., it brought about the results I sought.

Along this line of thinking, wisdom is more or less morally neutral.  What constitutes “wise” or “unwise” is largely subjective.  I could say that I was wise in lying to the police officer about my expired registration, because it spared me the displeasure of a ticket.  Biblically speaking, however, I’d be wrong.  Packer corrects this perception of wisdom in the 9th chapter of Knowing God, defining wisdom as “the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means for attaining it.”  It is “the practical side of moral goodness” (p.90).  Biblical wisdom, Packer notes, is not morally neutral.

God’s wisdom, unlike ours, is perfect, and not limited by a lack of foresight, intelligence, or moral goodness.  His choices are always the best means of realizing his perfect will.  Packer is quick to point out what the ultimate aim of this perfect will is.  This is a crucial point, given our tendency to think that any act of God which brings about personal unhappiness or discomfort is not good (i.e., unwise).  God’s ultimate aim is his glory (p.92):

[God’s] ultimate objective is to bring [humankind] to a state in which he is all in all to them, and he and they rejoice continually in the knowledge of each other’s love – people rejoicing in the saving love God, set upon them from all eternity, and God rejoicing the responsive love of people, drawn out of them by grace through the gospel.  This will be God’s glory, and our glory to, in every sense which that weighty word can bear.

Packer lets the Bible illustrate God’s wisdom in action, through a few brief surveys of the lives of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph.  This is Packer’s springboard to the important point that our own lives can take odd twists and turns, including hardships, that God is working towards his very good ends.  Writes Packer, “We may be frankly bewildered at things that happen to us, but God knows exactly what he is doing, and what he is after, in his handling of our affairs” (p.98).

I once heard Tim Keller remark that our own “books” have not been written yet.  In the case of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, we can look back at the story of their lives and see how God worked his great plans through them.  But when Joseph was locked up in Egypt, he didn’t have that perspective.  Nor do we, as we face trials and odd turns of circumstance.  What we do have, is the blessed assurance of God’s perfect wisdom.  Our grief, confusion, or pain, then, can always be framed with trust.  We may not know what the reasons are, but we do know what they are not:  Our suffering is not because God doesn’t care, because he’s made a mistake, because he’s forgotten, overlooked, or miscalculated.  God is perfectly wise, and therefore perfectly trustworthy through any circumstance.

As much as I’d love to close this post on the note above, I can never escape the fact that great theological propositions are often cold-comfort when we’re smack in the middle of a trial.  Most of us have had the experience of a well-meaning friend reciting Rom.8:28 to us when we’re in such a place, and most of us have had to nod politely (at best).  Belief in God’s wisdom doesn’t necessarily ease the pain, nor (I would argue) is it meant to.  What it does do is give us hope.  It is the light at the end of the tunnel.  Without it, all suffering and confusion is ultimately unbearable.  We may hurt and weep, but we needn’t despair.  A bright future awaits all of God’s children, and we can count on it.

Read Full Post »

In his book, Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil, James Crenshaw seeks to search the Bible for an adequate response to the problems of evil and “God’s perceived injustice” (p.18).  Here I wish to address the common thread which Crenshaw himself notes as unifying his work: “the abiding tension between justice and mercy” (p.18).  We shall argue that justice and mercy are harmoniously intertwined within God’s character; two parts of a whole which are not in conflict.

Before proceeding, one introductory comment is in order:  Crenshaw’s Biblical search, when subjected to the Biblical canon espoused by orthodox Protestantism, is simultaneously deficient and inflated.  Crenshaw’s search takes place almost entirely within the Old Testament Scriptures; a paucity of references are made to the New Testament (deficiency).  In addition, Crenshaw includes many extracanonical writings (e.g., 4 Ezra, Sirach, 1 & 2 Macabees) under the umbrella of the Bible (inflation).  For the purposes of this post I shall largely ignore this disagreement, save to note here that it cannot be without effect on Crenshaw’s conclusions.  A much more serious aspect of Crenshaw’s view of Scripture, and its consequences, shall be addressed later.

Crenshaw makes his view of justice and mercy clear: the two oppose each other.  The two are “in tension;” they manifest “conflicting demands,” and are even “irreconcilable” (pp.18;91).  Crenshaw opens his book with the dilemma:

Strict justice requires that I get what I deserve, no more and no less.  Mercy allows my just deserts to be set aside, my transgression overlooked or forgiven.  How can the deity perfectly embody both? (p.3).

Crenshaw sees this conflict evident in YHWH’s great self-disclosure:

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation (Ex.34:6-7).

The problem, according to Crenshaw is that we have compassion “in astonishing juxtaposition” with God’s judgment (p.92).  Even more, how does one square the notion of transgenerational punishment with texts like Ezekiel 18, which seems to invalidate said punishment?

We might first ask where the “conflict” is in this text.  God is one who forgives; God is one who judges.  Are these qualities indeed mutually exclusive in a personality?  Must God be all one or the other?  A straightforward reading would simply indicate that God is revealing balance or fullness to His character: He is a God of forgiveness, but He’s no pushover.  The apparent conflict with Ezekiel 18 is resolved when one considers the different purposes of the two texts.  Where Exodus is a general and explicit revelation of God’s character; Ezekiel is a text written to a specific audience in a very specific situation purposed at stressing individual accountability.

In his fifth chapter, Crenshaw maintains that the Biblical writers struggle to depict a God of an apparent “split personality.”  He draws upon the book of Jonah and Joel in particular to stress his point.  Where Jonah grows angry with God for His compassion, Joel wrestles with the doctrine of God’s compassion while faced with circumstances that instead indicate a wrathful God.  In the end is a God characterized by “Who knows?”  Perhaps God will be merciful; perhaps He will be just.  Implicit here is that He cannot be both.

We must, or course, reject the notion that God maintains a split personality.  Crenshaw does not state so explicitly, but we can only assume that he would not adhere to such doctrine.  The Bible will not allow for such a diagnosis (c.f., Dt. 6:4; Mt. 12:25f), nor will logic: how could a perfect God withstand inner conflict?  So then, how do we answer Crenshaw’s implication that justice and mercy are conflicting aspects of God?  We might consider first his definition of justice, namely that it constitutes getting what one deserves.  We ask, then, what does one deserve?  Taking God to be the supremely holy, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfect source of all that is, what is the just desert for any rebellion against Him?  Be it any sin of any magnitude, we cannot but conclude that offending an infinitely good God warrants infinite punishment.

As such, we note great mercy inherent in God’s justice: God’s justice is intrinsically merciful; in fact, He routinely underpunishes.  The two do not oppose each other, but are made manifest in concert with each other.  Even if we take an egregious villain who is bound for eternal punishment in Hell, their existence on earth will be seasoned with God’s mercy.

We could draw upon numerous Biblical examples that show these two characteristics working together in God’s personality, but space permits us to consider only the account of David and Bathsheba as a start (2 Sam. 11:1-12:24).  Crenshaw takes this account to be one of YHWH’s injustice:  David escapes (deserved) punishment while the innocent child of his affair dies, a punishment Crenshaw posits as “the ultimate penalty” (p.137).

In Crenshaw’s view, then, we have of YHWH’s mercy (thus injustice) for David and straight injustice upon his child.  Crenshaw seems to forget Nathan’s prophecy to David, however; YHWH’s punishment for his sin: “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you” (2 Sam. 12:11a).  The following chapters in David’s life depict in vivid detail how much he did indeed suffer in the conflicts with his son, Absalom.  However, couched in YHWH’s justice is also mercy:  David is not stricken from the throne as an unjust king (as perhaps he ought to be), but further union with Bathsheba results in the birth of Solomon, who continues the Davidic line.

Furthermore, we might disagree that David’s child has paid the ultimate price by death.  Even if we were to ignore any notion of an afterlife and assume annihilationism, is being taken from a life that will no doubt entail much suffering not an act of mercy?  The point weighs in even heavier if an afterlife is considered (i.e., read the New Testament).  Herein is an additional example of YHWH’s mercy made manifest in justice.

As for the book of Jonah, indeed, God’s mercy is the focal point; but His wrath is not out of view.  With Joel, God’s wrath seems more clearly in view; but His mercy is present as well (Joel 2:13-14).  We have no theological dilemma here, but simply different texts of different purposes emphasizing two threads that intertwine to form God’s dealings with humankind.

Crenshaw’s journey through theodicy in the Bible is a provocative one.  Each of his chapters considers an approach to theodicy, and in the end, each is found unconvincing.  This result is inevitable, given the other common thread running through his book.  Namely, that Crenshaw holds a low view of Scripture.  Rather than taking the texts he searches to be the infallible Word of God, they are “mythical” (p.15) and “imaginative” (p.10); Moreover, Scriptural authors tend towards manipulation of God and reader (p.10).  Crenshaw views Scripture as human authors struggling to depict God; not God revealing Himself through human writers.

To take the Bible on terms other than what it claims for itself is to place oneself above Scripture and thus submit it to one’s own categories, rather than submitting to Scripture’s categories .  Crenshaw’s low view of Scripture is what allows him to posit what he calls a “fundamental tenet of theism, that God cannot be known” (p.181).  Indeed, in his view God was not known by the authors of Scripture, hence inherent in them is much struggle to reconcile the irreconcilable.  Since Scripture is suspect to Crenshaw, his task is juxtaposed:  rather than understanding his view of justice and mercy in light of Scripture, he understands Scripture in light of his view of justice and mercy (where have I heard this before?)

In his conclusions about the book of Job, Crenshaw suggests that “God plays by different rules from those projected on the deity by human rationality” (p.189).  Here we fundamentally agree, and wonder why this statement cannot be applied to his views of justice and mercy.  Perhaps in our economy, one cannot simultaneously exhibit both qualities, but in God’s this is clearly the case.

While I stand in radical disagreement with Crenshaw’s position on Scripture, I agree with his closing remarks: the issue of theodicy cannot be resolved, given an infinite God and finite humanity.  We equally agree that this does not relieve us from the task of eagerly seeking out understanding and knowledge; or engaging with such difficult issues.  It is not a ticket to complacency.

As a final comment, our lack of understanding ought not to be construed as a deficiency in Biblical theology.  It is rather something stated positively:  We cannot fully understand God’s ways (c.f., Is. 55:8-9; Job 42:3).  This is not “dodging the bullet,” as is suggested by some (e.g., C.S.Cowles in Show Them No Mercy, p.146).  Appealing to the mysteries of God which we cannot yet comprehend enjoys a long history.  Better yet, it is indicative of a humble posture before God against which I find no good argument.

Read Full Post »

After hearing an excellent sermon today partly based on Job, I was inspired to look at Francis I Andersen’s excellent commentary on Job in the Tyndale Old Testament series.  Although I think he downplays the rebuking aspect of God’s speeches in chapters 38-41 too much, I found this quote helpful (though relegated to a footnote on page 270):

It is one of the many excellencies of the book that Job is brought to contentment without ever knowing all the facts of his case.  In view of the way in which the Satan brought up the matter, something had to be done to rescue Job from his slander.  And the test would work only if Job did not know what it was for.  God thrusts Job into an experience of dereliction to make it possible for Job to enter into a life of naked faith, to learn to love God for Himself alone.  God does not seem to give this privilege to many people, for they pay a terrible price of suffering from their discoveries.  But part of the discovery is to see the suffering itself as one of God’s most precious gifts.  To withhold the full story from Job, even after the test was over, keeps him walking by faith, not by sight.  He does not say in the end, ‘Now I see it all.’  He never sees it all.  He sees God (42:5).  Perhaps it is better if God never tells any of us the whole of our life-story.

Read Full Post »

Most of us understand that the book of Revelation predicts and expects persecution for its readers.  The assumption is that John’s readers were under the constant threat of death for their testimony of Jesus Christ.  Basically, this viewpoint goes something like this: if you don’t worship the emperor, you will be killed.

Ian Boxall, in his commentary on Revelation, takes a slightly different route.  He doesn’t deny that there is some persecution going on, but he sees it strictly as local and not really involving Roman authorities.  “The internal evidence of the messages to the seven congregations (Revelation 2-3) suggests a rather mixed picture.  …actual or impending hostility is referred to for some (e.g. 2:9, 13; 3:9)… there is no clear indication that suffering is at the hands of Roman authorities, or involves formal legal precedings” (p12).

Instead, Boxall, and many others, note that the call not to compromise is just as strong in Revelation.  Within the messages to the seven churches, we see condemnations of “Balaam” and “Jezebel”- OT figures who caused God’s people to stray.  In other words, John’s message is for them not to fall into the trap that these false teachers are laying.

This, of course, has implications for persecution:  “If Revelation is not primarily written to comfort the persecuted, it nevertheless represents a rallying cry to Christians to place themselves in a position in which they might find themselves being persecuted” (p13, Boxall).  If John’s readers are able not to stray, they should expect persecution.

I appreciate Boxall’s attempt to balance, though I have to wonder if he’s overstated his case.  I’m not sure what the Beast of chapter 13 represents if not the powerful oppressor standing against God’s people- making war and conquering them, according to 13:7.  Even the harlot of chapter 17, the seductive power of the comfort the Roman Empire provides, drinks the blood of the saints (17:6). And when Rome is judged, she is judged “with the judgment she imposed on you [the saints]” (18:20).

But the connection with bearing testimony for God and the threat of death is undeniable in Revelation.  Jesus himself is the faithful witness who was put to death (1:5).  Keeping in mind that “testimony” and “witness” are from the same root in Greek, we see how Jesus sets the stage for God’s people in this way.  Read 2:13, 6:9, 11:7, 12:11, 12:17, 17:6 and 20:4- all of them combine the notions of faithful and enduring testimony and the reality of death for that testimony.

John’s original readers dealt with the reality that they were called to compromise their testimony (side note: I’ve noticed that we always word it “compromise our faith,” which indicates to me that we’ve internalized something that was intended to be a public evidence, but that’s another post for another day).  For many, if they did not denounce their exclusive devotion to Jesus Christ, they could lose work, be imprisoned or end up in a colosseum face-to-face with a lion.

But they were also tempted to compromise by enjoying the pleasures that Rome offered- this is especially strong in chapters 17-18.  Why “rock the boat” and cause problems?  Why not keep your mouth shut and enjoy a peaceful and prosperous life like everyone else in the Roman Empire?  When she is destroyed, “the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury… will weep and mourn over her” (18:9).  Would John’s readers be among those who mourn her destruction and the comfort that came with her, or would they rejoice in God’s judgment of her wickedness (18:20)?

So both of these realities- persecution and compromise- are undeniably present in Revelation; Boxall states their connection well.  If one chooses not to compromise, they may face brutal persecution.  John is calling his readers to remain faithful in their witness, even if it means death, in the face of these twin realities.

Does this have anything to do with us?  I think it does.  I mentioned this in teaching the other night, and I keep coming back to it.  I have to wonder if we (by “we” I mean American Christians, since that’s where the vast majority of my experience comes in) focus on the persecution apparent in Revelation because it enables us not to face the compromising aspect of Revelation.  The fact is that we are inundated with temptations to compromise in our culture.  We live in an affluent society where you can pretty much have what you want when you want it. We tend not to notice these temptations (do we not have ears to hear and eyes to see?).

There’s a certain wicked wisdom in using pleasurable temptation rather than persecution to make God’s people ineffective.  It is a powerful tool.  The truth is that you can put a gun to my head and threaten to take my life if I don’t deny Jesus, and I will stand firm, I’m sure of it.  But if you parade by me, day after day after day, the siren call of comfort- power, acceptance, money, home, sex, cars, etc- I am much more likely to compromise my witness.

Perhaps the American church isn’t facing the beast, but we are facing the harlot.  The question remains, will we be a faithful witness?  May we hear the message of Revelation and overcome.

Read Full Post »

Jobes on 1 Peter & Suffering

Even those Christians who do not suffer persecution for the faith are called to the suffering of self-denial.  Sin is often thought of as being motivated by the temptation for pleasure.  But perhaps the real power of sin lies in the avoidance of pain and suffering.  It is better to suffer unfulfilled needs and desires than to sin.  Is this not what self-denial means?  Jesus linked self-denial with following in his footsteps when he said, “Those who would be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34 TNIV).  For instance, isn’t the temptation to lie often an attempt to save face rather than face the consequences of the truth?  Isn’t the temptation to cheat on an exam an unwillingness to suffer the loss of reputation or other consequences that failure might bring?  Isn’t sexual sin often the alternative to suffering by living with deep emotional and physical needs unmet?  According to Peter, the pain and suffering that self-denial brings is a godly suffering that is better than yielding to sin (1 Pet. 4:1-2).

Karen H Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p5.

Read Full Post »

Special thanks to Caitlin from Baker/Brazos for a review copy of this book.

I’ve already reviewed one book by Stephen J Nichols, Jesus Made in America, which made my top 5 new reads of 2008.  I was so impressed, in fact, that I was genuinely excited when I heard he had a new book coming out, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation.  This was not only due to the fact that Nichols is an interesting and excellent writer, but it’s a genuinely unique book.  I know more about blues music than most 20-something white guys from New England, but I’ll still admit most of what I know has to do with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, which isn’t exactly old-school blues.  Nichols’ book deals with “Delta Blues,” the blues music that sprang up from the Mississippi Delta in the early 20th century.

I was also intrigued by the irony of a book written by an educated, relatively affluent white man living in Lancaster PA dealing with the Delta Blues, a form of music developed and mastered by the black community living in a time when gross injustice and suffering was a daily reality in that region.  This, of course, isn’t a knock on Nichols or any kind of statement that he somehow ought not to write such a book.  I simply found it interesting.  In fact, he notes in his book that he is on the outside looking in, an approach that may lead to thoughtful insights for the rest of us in the same position.

Nichols sets out to attempt “a theology in a minor key… I am not a musician, but a theologian, and so I offer a theological interpretation of the blues” (14).  Noting that evangelicals tend to avoid dealing with the difficult aspects of life and the Bible, the blues can offer us something we desperately need: an honest look at the difficulties of life. 

To be sure, Nichols shows us that the difficulties we encounter in blues music fall into different categories: women, racism, floods, insects, alcohol, etc.  Sometimes those difficulties are to be expected- you run around with loose women, they’ll probably leave you for another man.  Sometimes those difficulties are an unfortunate reality- natural disasters, for example.  Other times those difficulties are injustices that ought to be righted- racism and the refusal to allow a better life for the sharecroppers living in the Delta region.

So the greatest strength of Nichols book is that he exposes us to more than just the blues music, he reveals the reason the blues existed, and even the theology (though I doubt any of the old blues singers would have used that word) behind it all.  We are living in a painful and cursed world, awaiting the day when God sets all things right but striving to change our world for the better in the meantime.  God’s ways are difficult to understand, but He is still merciful and present.

The tour of the world of the Delta Blues is fun in its own right.  Some of the singers are well know: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey.  Others are folks I hadn’t heard of: Son House, Charley Patton and Thomas Dorsey (well, I should note that I never knew Dorsey had any connection to the blues).  I even find myself inspired to start nicknaming some of my friends, though I noticed that they tend to be slightly repetitive in the Delta Blues world (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson and The Reverend Blind Gary Davis).

Admittedly, there are times Nichols lapses into repetition, though its fewer than 200 pages.  I suppose he can’t help that, after all, the subjects of blues songs don’t stray too far from the short list given above.  And, this being my second Nichols book, I find myself contemplating the contrast between Nichols’ treatment of the blues singers and his treatment of contemporary Christian music in Jesus Made in America.  He blasts (sometimes rightly so) contemporary Christian songwriters for their often shallow and trite lyrics, whereas he praises the blues songwriters for the depth of their insight into the human condition.  I guess I can’t help but wonder if part of this is due to the fact that Nichols simply likes the blues more than CCM pop-candy.  Mind you, I can’t blame him.  If I had to choose between listening to Muddy Waters or Rebecca St James, it’s a no brainer.

But, in the end, the “theological” key is that the bluesmen (and women) are writing out of their pain and the pain of those around them.  They recognize injustice and call it out when they see it.  True, there may not be a strong variety in their lyrics (it doesn’t take long to notice some of the phrasings get recycled), but there probably wasn’t a strong variety of experience for them either.  They weren’t allowed the luxury of variety.  Thus, they lamented the pain and sought relief, sometimes from the bottle, sometimes from God, often from both.

Nichols is to be commended for writing another outstanding and incredibly fascinating book.  It’s worth reading just for the insight into blues music.  But more importantly, it’s worth reading because it helps us remember that there is a “minor key” to theology.  There are times to lament and times to cry out for justice.  Admitting that we live in a fallen and cursed world is not a lack of faith, it’s reality.  The Delta Blues, perhaps more than any music form in recent times, helps us connect to this reality.

Read Full Post »

As promised in part I, here are some further reflections on suffering, with a specific eye to some categories.  After having a weekend to think this post over, the word “categories” might overstate my true intentions.  I really have a distinction in mind, since categorically speaking, all suffering is the result of sin, be it mine, yours, or Adam and Eve’s.  One may pigeon-hole the various kinds of suffering that fall under this umbrella any number of ways, but I’m mostly interested in distinctions among them.

The main distinction I wanted to point out in this post was what I might call ordinary suffering and faith-suffering.  Put differently, we could say that all people suffer to some degree; it is the way of our fallen world.  There is also suffering that is a direct result of one’s choice to followed Jesus.  The promised persecution and self-denial that Christianity entails is a special kind of suffering, and it seems to me that is what is most often in view when the NT epistles interact with suffering.   The best known examples are found in James 1 and Hebrews 12.

Here, the suffering is specific to the cost of being a Christian, and the purpose is framed in terms of strengthening one’s faith.  Here again we have an important consideration when praying amidst suffering, which I made in part I: our first priority is for God’s glory.  We oughtn’t be so hasty, then, praying that the persecution of Christians in China should stop.  Rather, like Paul in 2 Thessalonians, our prayer is that those persecuted stand firm, and God is glorified.

This is not meant to even hint that our hearts shouldn’t break for those who suffer for the name or Jesus, or that we have no desire be for their peace and well-being.  My point is that there is a greater good, nay, the greatest good, and that is for God to be glorified, and His Word faithfully proclaimed.  Should we pray for religious persecution to end in China?  Absolutely!  It’s evil and we therefore resist it and wish for its demise.  But, said demise shouldn’t be the only thing for which we pray.

One other very important aspect of suffering worth bringing to the fore is that  properly understood, it can point us to God.  I believe that instinctively, all humankind recognizes that suffering is not the way it’s supposed to be.  Pain is painful because the body is telling us that something is wrong.  Your head shouldn’t hurt like this, your arm oughtn’t be broken.  Something is not the way it’s supposed to be, and demands attention.  The same can be said for emotional suffering.  It hurts to be lied to, to lose somebody special, to be the object of fun, because things aren’t meant to be that way.  Humankind naturally expects good.  Even the liar feels betrayed when s/he is the victim of a lie.  The “bad” news that occupies the bulk of reporting is news because evil and suffering are intrinsically curious; they are out of the ordinary.  “Father Loves His Son” is not a headline; that’s normal.  “Father Abuses His Son” is a headline, because it’s abnormal.

The fact that there is so much suffering in the world points to the fact that something is fundamentally wrong, and humankind’s best efforts have yet to fix it.  For as much as our technical prowess has relieved countless millions from pain, it has equally inflicted pain upon countless more.  Enter the omnipotent, omni-loving God who since the introduction of suffering has stopped at nothing, (sending His Son to be tortured to death inclusive), to restore things to the way they should be.

Read Full Post »

This week, the Marchionni household has experienced a number of light and momentary afflictions, each of which have conspired to keep us from getting a good night of sleep for nearly a week.  “A good night” here means “more than 4 hours.”  One source of this sleep deprivation, which will come as no surprise to the seasoned parents among my readers, is my 15-month old son, who has taken ill this week with some flavor of virus.

Whenever my son is suffering, even from a simple cold (and praise God that it’s naught more serious than that!), the cerebral circuits devoted to Christian suffering always turn on in my head, giving rise to a panoply of reflections and questions.  Last night, I was especially struck by the words of the excellent Craig Blomberg in a post he wrote some time ago dealing with the particularly American response to suffering.  Says Blomberg,

At an international evangelical consultation on contextualizing the gospel this summer in Oxford, the Asian representatives agreed that one of the biggest theological differences between Asian and American Christianity was that Asians assumed suffering was a normal part of life, especially if you were a believer, whereas Americans were always trying to avoid it or end it. One Chinese theologian explained, “The typical Chinese Christian, when suffering, asks, “How may I acquit myself in a God-pleasing way as I suffer?” The typical American Christian asks, “How may I get rid of the suffering?”

When was the last time you heard a public list of Christian prayer requests that included prayers for people to be good witnesses in the midst of their suffering rather than for God to take away everything from terminal cancer to the common cold?

Clearly, in the case of my son, there isn’t much he can do yet to be a faithful witness to God in the midst of his suffering.  But what about me?  How do I respond to my own suffering, or the suffering of others?  Like a “typical American Christian,” I usually ask God to take it away.  As I reflect on this, however, I am increasingly convinced that I am due for a rearrangement of priorities.

I cannot address all of the dynamics of suffering here, nor will I attempt to introduce a theodicy.  However, I do believe that the question of the Chinese Christian above ought to be ours as well.  Specifically, our first priority in prayer concerning suffering ought to be bringing God glory, as opposed to bringing ourselves relief.

Consider Jesus’ miracles:  Many of Jesus’ healings are explicitly explained as being performed to bring glory to God (e.g., Jn. 9:3; 11:4).  Other miracles have a clear pedagogical purpose in revealing Christ’s identity (e.g., Mk 2:10; 3:35-41; Jn.15:24), which is another way of bringing glory to God.

Also consider that in the first instance, Jesus’ healings are about the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God; they are an eschatological annoucement (c.f., Mt. 11:2-5).  Part of that eschatology is the restoration of all things back to the way they were meant to be, viz. people aren’t going to be blind, or lame, or subject to acute bleeding  when the Kingdom of God is fully manifest on earth.  Note the subtle distinction between healing somebody to relieve their suffering, versus healing somebody in order to reveal the coming Kingdom, which includes the relief of suffering.

Scanning deeper into the New Testament, I have trouble finding many prayers aimed only at taking away suffering.  When Paul prays for the suffering Thessolonians, his prayer is that they are good witnesses in the midst of it; that their faith is strengthened (2 Ths.1:11-12).  A plea for relief is nowhere to be found, but a promise for it is included in the eschatological encouragement preceding his prayers (vv.5-10).

So then, what is our proper response to suffering?  Ought we pray for relief or healing?  Of course!  But, the effort must be framed in terms of a bigger priority: God’s glory.  Consider Christ’s example as he predicted his torturous death on the cross (Jn. 12:27-30), or his agony in Gesthemane (Mt. 26:39-43).  His first focus is God’s glory and submission to His will.  Our prayers for healing or relief should therefore start with the same focus:  “God, be glorified; thy will be done.  If it pleases you to bring relief, please do so quickly, only be glorified by it.”

Suffering, as C.S.Lewis notes, is often God’s megaphone.  Within hard times, opportunies upon opportunies avail themselves to be redeemed to bring glory to our Creator.  May this be our priority at all times, because God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:8-10).

Coming in Part II:  The broader categories of suffering.

Read Full Post »