The world doesn’t seem to be what it ought to be. It is broken as well as beautiful, and that hurts. Has your life ever been affected by crime, poverty, violence, joblessness, or homelessness? What about disease, disabilities, deformities, or discrimination? How about a weather event, such as an earthquake, tornado, flood, or hurricane? Has your family ever been jolted by a fire, a fatal accident, a destructive riot, or a school shooting?
The question is always the same. After the initial shock and horror subsides, after the news crews go home, after others have gotten on with their lives, we’re always left with the same question: “Where was God in the midst of my suffering? And why did he let it happen in the first place?”
Christian professor Peter Kreeft has said, “More people have abandoned their faith because of the problem of evil than for any other reason. It is certainly the greatest test of faith, the greatest temptation to unbelief.” It is for this reason Christian author Philip Yancey calls the problem of evil “theological kryptonite.”
Can the ancient Hebrew book of Job provide any insight into the universal problem of pain? It is often said that the theme of Job is the age-old question, “Why does a loving God permit the righteous to suffer?” But if that is the theme of the book, the question is never fully answered. Perhaps the theme of the book is better stated, “How do the righteous suffer?” The book of Job can show us how to endure until the world is finally what it ought to be—beautiful and not broken—when God in Christ makes all things new.
At issue in this first message of the series is the question, “Shall a person love God because he’s God, and enjoy the blessings received from his hand?” Or “Shall a person love God only because of the blessings he or she might receive from his hand?” Satan’s implied accusation is, “God, you’ve stooped to bribery. You give good gifts to your people to make them love you. Take away the gifts, there will be no more love.” But in Round 1 of his suffering, Job proves the accuser wrong, so the score right off the bat is God—1, Satan—0. Moreover, we come discover that suffering is not meaningless if we come to know God better in the end. Job certainly did, and so can we.
Even the apostles came across passages of Scripture once in a while that confounded them. Peter wrote of Paul’s writings, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). That’s a comfort to those of us who have ever been perplexed by something we’ve read in the Bible!
Peter also wrote, “The prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11). In other words, the Old Testament prophets also had difficulty understanding some aspects of Scripture—including their own prophecies! The good news is, they kept pursuing greater understanding despite their own confusion. They faithfully wrote down what God had led them to write, even when they couldn’t piece it all together.
To take a case in point, the prophets spoke of a glorious messiah to come. They also spoke of a suffering messiah to come. Consequently, they had trouble reconciling these two concepts, which seemed to stand in an irresolvable tension. “What kind of messiah will he be,” they wondered, “a glorious messiah or a suffering messiah? Or will he somehow be both?”
Looking at all the biblical evidence, some rabbis said there was not one messiah coming but two! They even gave them names. The first was called, “Messiah, son of David,” the one who would rule and reign in righteousness in the spirit of King David, the one who brought Israel to its zenith of power and glory in his day. The second was called, “Messiah, son of [Old Testament] Joseph,” the one who would be mistreated by his own people and suffer greatly at their hands, just like Joseph, the patriarch, who was betrayed by his brothers.
The two-messiah theory was a good theory. It sought to be comprehensive and make sense of the sum total of biblical data. It tried to leave no stone unturned and be faithful to what God had revealed in his Word. The only problem with the theory is that it was wrong! There were not two messiahs coming, but one messiah in two appearances. The first time he would come as “Messiah son of Joseph,” the suffering servant who would die for the sins of the world. The second time he would appear as “Messiah son of David,” the everlasting king whose throne would never end.
The lesson for us today is both practical and helpful: When Scripture is hard to understand, keep studying it as best you can, letting God unravel the mysteries in his own time. And, in the end, know that Jesus is the center of all of it. As the prophets learned, God’s unfolding plan requires patience and faith. Paul himself wrote, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We ought to be very careful, then, about how tightly we hold onto our pet theories—even when we can attach a bunch of Bible verses to them.
A Few GoodMen is ranked as one of top 100 movies of all time. It’s a military courtroom drama starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, and Kevin Bacon. One of the memorable lines of the movie comes from Lieutenant Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. He’s the lead defense attorney, and his case against the colonel isn’t going well. After a series of deep frustrations with his co-counsel, Lieutenant Galloway, played by Demi Moore, Kaffee blurts out, “And the hits just keep on coming!” It’s an expression that basically means, “Here we go again!” or “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
By the time we meet up with Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24, it’s hard not to think of this line, “And the hist just keep on coming!” He’s already had a hard and adventuresome life as a prophet, but we’re just getting started. After several miracles and death-defying adventures, the son of the widow he just rescued becomes deathly ill. Elijah watches his little friend go through the dying process. A few months ago, he saw the brook dry up, and now he sees a young boy’s life dry up, too. Now what? Surprisingly, the widow blames the prophet for her son’s death. For Elijah, the hits just keep on coming.
How do we respond when we get a tongue lashing we don’t deserve? Step into lawyer mode? Defense mode? Return the verbal garbage with garbage of our own? Hurt people tend to hurt people, and Elijah gets wounded here. But he doesn’t seek to wound back. He offers no argument, no rebuke, and no explanation. He does speak, but not to the woman’s tortured logic and agonized questions. Rather, he offers her gentle service and simple burden sharing. Then he gets alone with God and cries out to him for help (1 Kings 17:20), offering up an impossible prayer: “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” (1 Kings 17:21b).
It’s one thing to pray for the weather, as Elijah has recently done. It’s another thing to pray for the restoration of life to a dead body. That’s something new. But not only does Elijah pray the impossible prayer, he’s willing to be ceremonially “unclean” in the process by stretching himself out on the boy three times (1 Kings 17:21a). It was a form of sacrificial intercession in the face of a desperate situation. Happily, the Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him (1 Kings 17:22). It’s the first resurrection of Scripture. Thankfully, it’s not the last.
How do we face an impossible situation today? Like Elijah, we can get alone with God. We can pour out our problems to the Lord. We can strive for patient endurance and calm assurance amid the hits. And we can wait for God to act, receiving his deliverance in due course. Like Elijah, we can be fully persuaded that hope never dies because the God of the impossible lives. Patient endurance, then, is well founded. Teresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun who lived in the 1500s. She wrote a verse that John Michael Talbot made into a song in our day:
Let nothing trouble you. Let nothing frighten you. For everything passes but God will never change. Patient endurance will obtain everything Whoever has God, wants for nothing at all. God alone is enough. God alone is enough. Whoever has God, wants for nothing at all.
One day the hits will stop coming. Jesus made sure of that. On the cross, he was willing to become truly “unclean” for us, dying for our sin. But on the third day, he rose again from the dead, having told his followers, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). Today he puts his infinite resources at the disposal of those who, like Elijah, pray in righteousness and faith. That’s how we hit back at the hits.
Last night I sinned. Multiple times. My son and son-in-law were with me at the time. They sinned, too, and we all had a great time doing it. Let me explain. We were celebrating my son-in-law’s birthday, so we went to a shooting range before dinner, cake, and gift giving. It’s something Micah enjoys, though he doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to do it, so we surprised him with a round at Enck’s Gun Barn. My son Drew also has more experience than I do in this area, making me the rookie of the bunch.
I’ve shot pistols before, but only a few times in the distant past and only at Coke cans set up in the woods near my brother-in-law’s house in North Carolina. Last night we used a rifle—a Ruger AR-556, which is considerably louder than a pistol, though the kickback isn’t bad at all. Given my lack of experience, I was hoping to just get my shots on the paper target!
I didn’t get a bullseye this time, but all my shots were inside the 8 and 9 rings, and one even nicked the center circle. Not bad for a beginner. But all three of us kept missing the mark, which is one of the biblical metaphors for sin. There are many other images, too, but this one is prominent.
Judges 20:15-16 says, “At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].”
The word ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ is a general word for sin, usually having the sense of missing the mark, going astray, offending, or ignoring something required by God’s law (e.g., Gen 40:1; Jdgs 20:16; Neh 13:26; etc.). It can also mean “sin offering” (e.g., Exod 29:4).
King David prays in Psalm 51:2, “Cleanse me [ṭāhēr] from my sin [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].” The word ṭāhēr means to “be clean,” “cleanse,” “purify,” or “pronounce clean,” as from a defiling condition. It can have a ritual context (e.g., Lev 11:32), or it can refer to the actual cleansing of impurities (e.g., Naaman’s leprosy in 2 Kgs 5:10).
It can also refer to the removal of impurities from metal (e.g., refined gold and silver in Mal 3:3). Therefore, the word does not necessarily have a sacramental connotation (contra Goldingay, etc.) or even a ceremonial connotation (contra Wilson, the ESV Study Bible, etc.). Indeed, David’s hope of forgiveness rests on nothing ceremonial (cf. vv. 16-17). The sense of his prayer in v. 2 is, “Purify me from my defiling sin.”
Because of his mercy, grace, and compassion (Ps 51:1), God can certainly do that. And because David came to him humbly, he did. “The Lord has taken away your sin,” said Nathan the prophet. You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12:13-14). David later wrote, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven” (Ps 32:1).
Interestingly enough, all three of us last night were landing our initial shots low and to the right of the bullseye. That would seem to suggest a sighting issue on the gun. Our Range Safety Officer (RSO) helped us make the necessary adjustments to shoot more accurately. He also helped me with my stance and positioning vis-à-vis the target. He was patient, kind, and supportive, not condescending at all toward this novice.
Probably my biggest challenge as a shooter is the fact that I’m left-eye dominant trying to shoot from a right hander’s position. My impulse, then, is to use my left eye to align the sights, but that doesn’t work when you’re pressing your right cheek to the gun stock. Here again, the RSO was perceptive and gave me some suggestions to help me “not sin.”
Our night at the range caused me to think about the fact that we’re in this spiritual journey together. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), which is why judging and condescension are out of place in the Christian life. Smug self-righteousness is just a way to justify our anger at other people because they sin differently than we do.
Our natural misalignments and daily temptations to “miss the mark” don’t go away when others scold us, humiliate us, or impose their asceticisms on us (Col 2:21-23). They tend to dissipate when those with a little more experience help us learn how to aim higher.
We are pilgrims on a journey We are brothers on the road We are here to help each other Walk the mile and bear the load
The RSO actually showed me last night how to be a better pastor. Lord knows, I need ongoing training.
“Oh. My. Word.” That was my unsophisticated reaction to reading Ike Lasater’s Words That Work in Business: A Practical Guide to Effective Communication in the Workplace. (Yes, bad pun intended.) I always like to be pleasantly surprised by titles I thought would be underwhelming to read, and this little gem sparked something in me that will long endure. It gave me a new perspective on several key areas of my personal and professional life, so I needto spend more time with it. I wasn’t expecting much from this book, but I was riveted by it—and then jolted.
The author assumes prior knowledge of Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. But even without that knowledge, the reader can still infer the basics of NVC from Lasater’s book, consulting Rosenberg’s seminal work later. (NVC is about connecting with ourselves and others from the heart. It’s about seeing the humanity in everyone and recognizing our commonalities. It offers a simple yet effective framework to bring awareness to what we’re thinking, saying, and doing, and how we’re listening to other people so we can communicate with better clarity and compassion. Rather than judging, blaming, or criticizing, we start on neutral common ground to share what’s important to us in order to connect with others on a more empathetic level by tuning in to what they’re needing, hoping, or desiring.)
I’ve already acknowledged in this series that sometimes my words are not vehicles of love—toward God or others. Too often they’re self-centered or dispiriting. Too often they’re unhelpful or unkind. I admitted my need to be less of a “negaholic” and “complainiac” at times, but I wasn’t always sure how to go about doing that. In the previous post, I also noted that I need to “stay in conversation” and improve my skills in that area, too, but I wasn’t always sure how to do that, either. After reading Lasater, I had a much better track to run on for charting a new course.
The Past Is Present in Our Speech
In many ways, Words That Work in Business is something of a psychology of personal interaction. In it Lasater describes my upbringing perfectly:
I was implicitly taught how to analyze who was at fault, and thus who was to be blamed and punished. I learned how to protect myself from criticism, avoid punishment, and redirect blame. The results of this not-very-conscious process of blame and shame determined how I felt. My learning was how to avoid being blamed and punished; thus, I learned how to avoid what I did not want. This process did not help me learn what would enable me to flourish and throve or how to create the life I wanted.
Can I just go back in time and teach this book to my 17-year-old self? Better yet, can someone teach it to my parents so they can teach it to me? Or is it too late? If so, maybe I can just learn the principles in this book and model them for my grandkids (if I ever get any). Until then, maybe I can just start practicing with my colleagues until I get it right. Lasater’s “training wheels sentence” for NVC newbies is this:
“When I hear __________ , I feel __________, because I need __________. Would you be willing to __________?”
The concept is simple, but the implications for personal interaction are profound. In my world, for example, I’ve heard dozens of sermons on not judging others, but most of them were just negative approaches. “Thou shalt not!” But what is the positive practice to replace our incessant judging and criticizing? Lasater shows us. In fact, never before have I been so “lit up” by the appendices of a book. There Lasater gives us lists of helpful words and strategies for each of the blanks in the above “training wheels sentence.”
Preaching without Being Preachy
Does evangelicalism need a pioneer to explore these issues when it comes to homiletics? Which theological traditions might be open to such principles? Which would probably dismiss them out of hand? I have a few hunches, but that’s beside the point. I just placed another Rosenberg title on my Amazon wish list to help me pursue these stirrings: Practical Spirituality: The Spiritual Basis of Nonviolent Communication. All preachers want their words to “work” in the pulpit. Maybe there’s something here that can be helpful to us.
Quite honestly, I need to sit with this for a while. I think God is inviting me to something, though I’m not entirely sure what it is yet. In part, I’m wondering how NVC could apply to weekly preaching—where much damage is often done by our “violent” words to the congregation, unintentionally so but definitively, nonetheless. Alas, we preachers give ourselves a pass, ardently claiming “faithfulness to the sacred text” (and therefore faithfulness to God), even though we’re likely doing a lot of damage in the name of God. How can this be? I’m thinking more here about our homiletical posture than our sermonic content. How we say something can be just as important as what we say (cf. John 12:49).
Patience When We Blow It
Part of the joy in this approach is Lasater’s encouragement for us is to stop judging ourselves so harshly when we stumble in this area. This verbal life takes practice, he insists. Lots of it. “Make requests of yourself and others, not demands. Learn the difference. Feel the difference. Learn to learn.”
But therein lies the problem. There’s too much I want to learn. And read. And study. But if I try to do it all, I suspect I’ll never get around to writing this dang dissertation that’s hanging over my head. So, I need divine grace at any moment to know which areas of study God wants me to pursue. On my own, I have too many. Maybe there’s a book out there that can help me with the Faustian curse that still haunts me from time to time. That, too, is likely connected to my own history of “growing up messed up.”
Thank God, then, for grace. When the Lord spoke his ultimate “Word” to us, it was Jesus, his divine Son, full of “grace and truth” (John 1:14). Consequently, there’s always hope.