Monthly Archives: January 2014
I’ve been told that the Law is binding upon those of us who have come after the death and resurrection of Jesus, after the Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit within the heart of every believer. I’ve been told the letter of the Law still matters, and that love for God can only be understood and pursued within the context of adherence to the commandments of God as laid out in the Bible from beginning to end.
Whoever told me that is wrong.
We are not slaves to the Law. We are not bound by it, we are not required to obey its every letter to walk in obedience to God.
Don’t believe me? Have a look.
“So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” ~ Galatians 5:16-18
“So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you could be joined to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, to bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law, were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code.” ~ Romans 7:4-6
“For ignoring the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking instead to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes.” ~ Romans 10:3-4
“According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness.” ~ Philippians 3:6b-9
“Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions, until the arrival of the descendant to whom the promise had been made. It was administered through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary is not for one party alone, but God is one. Is the law therefore opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the scripture imprisoned everything under sin so that the promise could be given—because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ—to those who believe. Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” ~ Galatians 3:19-25
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. ” ~ Romans 13:8-10
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all! And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight—the only thing that matters is faith working through love.” ~ Galatians 5:1-6
“For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed.” ~ Ephesians 2:14-16
I just had a fantastic revelation! Like, a mind-blowing revelation and I gotta share it! And it is this: context matters when you’re reading scripture!!!
Haha. Okay. Done being snarky. But seriously…read this:
“For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (although it is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed—namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Do you see? Do you get it? We Christians have always been fond of quoting Romans 3:23 in isolation. But when you read it in context, this verse is not meant to be a condemnation of humanity bur rather a way of leveling the playing field between the Jews and the Gentiles. Paul is saying to his fellow Jews, “Hey, guess what you guys? The Law doesn’t make you righteous. You are no more righteous than the Gentiles even though you have adhered to the Law so dutifully.
This may seem blatantly obvious to you. But after a lifetime of being told that that verse is a reminder that all of humanity hopelessly depraved…after a lifetime of hearing that verse in an accusatory light, it is more liberating than I can express to understand that this verse was written as a message of solidarity, a message to say that the law-abiders and the law-breakers are all on level a level playing field under the New Covenant.
Isn’t that just so freaking cool?!?!
P.S. I hope you appreciate the informal tone of this blog post. I only wrote it this way because I’m just ecstatic to be reading this verse in a totally new light. And when I’m ecstatic, my serious and profound way of writing out my thoughts kinda goes out the window!
Every now and then, I wonder plaintively if I truly am a Christian in the most authentic parts of me. If it were all stripped away—my upbringing, my prejudices, my culture, all the things this world has given to me that have led me to the belief that Jesus is real and He is the Son of God and the key to fulfillment and eternal life. I wonder if Jesus is nothing more than a safety blanket, a construct of humanity designed to drive us and give us purpose in an otherwise purposeless existence (whoa…that totally sounds like I pulled it straight from The Matrix Trilogy!).
So I think…what if? What if I abandon it all and live my life as a non-Christian? What if I just drop all these beliefs I’ve been lugging around my whole life and run free? If I’m better off without religion, wouldn’t that prove none of it matters anyway?
I try that sometimes, in my head. And guess what? I can’t do it.
The thing that draws me back to the Gospel like a prodigal child is the realization that life apart from Christ is just entirely inconceivable to me. A framework for viewing my world and my life and my spirituality that doesn’t revolve around the cross of Jesus is entirely unfathomable—nothing would make sense without it. Of course then I think, That’s just your upbringing speaking, Tiff. You just feel that way because you were raised in a predominantly Christian nation by firm Bible-believing parents.
But I believe I have come to know the recesses of my heart well enough to know beyond a shadow of doubt now that this isn’t true. That there is something deep inside of me with which the Gospel rings clear as Truth. Clear as Love. Clear as Light. There is a part of my heart that lines up with Jesus’ life, death, and teachings in a way that is both exhilarating and sobering to me—kind of in the same way that holiness is supposed to feel, I think. I can’t explain it at all but it is there.
And I wonder if that piece of me that resonates so deeply with the Gospel is the reality of faith. That mystical, illusive feeling that Jesus holds the key to life like nothing else does. I think trusting in that—letting that sensation of Jesus’ sovereignty completely saturate the way I think about Christianity—maybe that is what faith is. Maybe that is why the label “Christian” truly is the only religious label that will ever fit me.
Someone told me off today for reading blogs too much and not reading my Bible enough. “You ought to be reading your Bible one hour for every hour that you spend reading blogs,” she said. “The only way you’ll know to identify counterfeit messages on the web is if you study the real deal,” she said.
What she doesn’t know is that reading Scripture terrifies me. Back in August, I resolved to read through the entire Bible. I’d never done it before, and I thought it was about time I knew this religious text that is treasured so highly by my Christian tradition. So I started in Genesis, and started rolling through. No surprises in that book. I grew up in the church; I know all about Adam and Eve, Cain, the Tower of Babel, Noah and the ark, Abraham and his descendents down through Joseph.
I knew the beginning of Exodus pretty well too. I know about Moses, and the Ten Plagues, and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. I know about the parting of the Red Sea, and Moses’ acquiring of the Ten Commandments in the midst of the Israelites’ rebellious worship of the golden calf.
After that, though, things started spiraling out of control. Much of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are chock-full of stories and laws that are absolutely senseless. There are pages and pages—almost the entire book of Leviticus!—devoted to the specific requirements for how the tabernacle should be built. There are stories like this one, which I wrote about in a whirlwind of fury and betrayal. There are stories in which Israelites rebel, again and again, and God decimates them again and again. We see a petty, vengeful God in these early books of the Old Testament.
Reading those stories—reading about the rebellion of Korah, the mass murders at Sodom and Gomorrah, random lashings of violence in Numbers 11 as well as other bouts of plagues and even being bitten to death by fiery serpents (What?!?!! You say? Look it up – Numbers 21:6!) freaked me out so much. I don’t understand how people like the one I mentioned at the beginning of this post can read through the Bible cover-to-cover multiple times and not be absolutely terrified of the Old Testament God. I mean, I read it once, and that was all it took for me to fling my Bible away like it had scorched me and then dissolve into a puddle of tears!
So, that is that. That is why I just can’t read the Bible. Maybe that make me weak in spirit and unable to handle the truth of who God is, but I’d rather live in denial of the murderous, vengeful, sporadically violent God of the OT than embrace that God as one I am meant to worship and give my whole life to.
Here is another point I’d like to make that perhaps might be better reserved for a separate blog post, but I’m going to write it here anyway because it’s my blog and why not?
I think that even the staunchest fundamentalist cannot come to grips with the kind of god I described above. That is why, in the Answers in Genesis curriculum (and, I might add, every single Sunday school class I’ve ever been a part of), they skip from Moses to Joshua and ignore all the terrible stuff that goes on in between. And why is that? I think it’s because we human beings are created in the image of God, and our hearts reflect a dim, warped, but real expression of the nature of God. I think stories of God sending fiery serpents to bite Israelites to death makes us more uncomfortable that we’re willing to admit, and we don’t talk about verses like that because we intrinsically know that the violent God of the Old Testament is just irreconcilable with the merciful, violence-condemning Jesus that we see in the New Testament.
So yeah. I am done trying to jump through hoops and talking about how God is just, so He mass-murders sinners. I’m done talking about how Israelite rebellion deserves death, and I’m done talking about how the firstborn of Egypt are all just collateral damage in God’s divine plan to deliver the Israelites.
That God is not my God. And I’m not going to pretend He is, and neither should you.
A few weeks ago, I listened to a Tony Campolo sermon about teens and dating. Most of it was relevant for adults though, and I found his perspective and criticisms of the way Americans date to be very interesting and thought-provoking.
During the sermon he told a story about his own high school years and a girl that he liked. He’d asked her out, and she’d said yes, and they’d gone out on three dates. Like a good gentleman, he paid for everything. But he also kept track of the costs carefully, and by the end of the third date had spent $24.40 on her. The following day at school, he noticed the girl sitting and chatting with another boy. Indignant, he marched over, told the boy off, and asked her what she was doing talking to another boy, since she was already going steady with him.
He’d felt entitled. He’d paid for her, and he wanted what he paid for.
This got me thinking. I’ve always accepted and even glorified traditional perspectives on dating, such as the one that considers it chivalrous when a man pays for the date. I’ve always thought it was pretty considerate and gentlemanly when a man does so for me, and in fact I’ve pretty much come to expect it. Like if we split the bill on a date, or if I pay the bill, somehow it’s a black mark on his record and a reason for me to turn my nose down at him. And the same goes for a guy who opens the door for me, buys me flowers and gifts, and takes the initiative when he feels we’re ready for a first kiss.
Dr. Campolo’s sermon makes me wonder if such a traditional approach to dating creates a subtle imbalance in a relationship. When a guy pays for the meal every time, I always feel obligated to let him choose where we eat, even if he never makes me feel that way. And I feel more obligated to let him choose the activity when we go on a different kind of date because he’s paying for it, and the last thing I’d want is for him to pay for an activity he won’t enjoy. And if Dr. Campolo’s story is any indication, the guy probably feels more entitled to make those choices too. He might feel like I owe him something in return for the cash he is willingly forking over in his pursuit of me.
This is all very hard for me to think through, because I have always been such a traditional thinker when it comes to dating. Masculinity as our culture defines it is something I’ve always desired in a man—strong, ambitious, willing to lead, and dedicated to providing financially. All of which is just another way of saying…I’ve always desired a man who pays for dates. But after thinking about Tony’s story, I’ve got to wonder if such a desire is healthy, and if I’ve been guilty of putting masculinity and my ideas about modern-day chivalry in a box as much as I’ve often put other things in boxes.
Maybe, after all, the sort of man who strives for equality and balance in a relationship is really the strong one.
Maybe the sort of man who is willing to sacrifice his desire to have control in a relationship is actually the best sort of leader.
And maybe being dedicated to providing financially means making the best decisions together with the woman he is with (just as this man did) — even if it means sacrificing his own dreams and his own reputation as a financial provider to allow room for me to dream.
Maybe my expectations are all wrong. I’m willing to admit that, and work on redefining what sorts of qualities I ought to be looking for in a man.
It was a slow day at work today, so I found myself digging through the Rachel Held Evans blog archives and ran across this little gem. If you’re not up for clicking the link and reading the blog (though I highly suggest you do!), let me summarize it for you here. The post is essentially a review of Mark Noll’s work The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. The book, as Rachel describes it, walks you through mainstream Christian beliefs about abolition and the Bible during the mid-nineteenth century. During this time in our history, Christians viewed the right to own slaves much in the same way that Christians today view the sinfulness of homosexuality and other hot-button theological issues: to interpret x, y, and z verses differently than the Church has done traditionally is to undermine the entire Word of God and to stand in direct contradiction to God’s divine will.
I find it to be incredibly disturbing to realize that there was a time in our history when Christians debated abolition so fiercely. We drew lines in the sand and stood for “truth” and defended the clear interpretation of Scripture against those crazy abolitionists whose interpretations were biblically unsound and downright dangerous to the Christian witness.
I get really sad when I think about how little we as the body of Christ have learned over the last century and a half. As I read Rachel’s words, I realized that our attitude today is very much the same as it was then—it’s just that our society has evolved morally, and conservative Christians of that day had no choice but to allow their interpretations of Scripture to evolve with it or regress into irrelevancy. But again, the attitude is still there: God’s law (a.k.a. sound doctrine as established by religious tradition) trumps human conscience and the moral sensibilities of the heart.
Now, does that mean I believe the Word of God is subject to the whims of culture and history? No. It’s just that I think that we human beings are notoriously capable of being wrong and holding to terrible beliefs. But I also think that God built us with resilient moral compasses, and that time has a way of exposing those moral compasses and lining them up with the universal principles of love and grace (even when we fight tooth and nail against such progress). I truly do believe that as we increase in knowledge we also increase in compassion and advocation for the oppressed. And that, I think, is why in the end abolition won out—at least in the United States.
Anyway, I’m digressing. I do that a lot. The main point that I wanted to make as I think through the implications of Rachel’s post is this. The Christians of the mid-nineteenth century were defending the clear interpretation of Scripture (yes, it was clear!! See Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2). Their treatment of this issue ought to really humble us, and make us think twice before declaring that a certain principle is indisputably in line with scripture. Because as Rachel points out, when looking at scripture through a purely exegetical lens, the anti-abolitionist argument was stronger.
But it was still wrong.
The abolitionists had it right when they appealed to the broader scope of scriptural themes, and to the way Jesus validated the inherent worth of human beings, and to the way Paul said that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And I understand that the hot-button issues we face today, such as homosexuality and gender equality, are entirely distinct from slavery. But I really believe that we can still learn from the slavery debates of the nineteenth century and apply them thoughtfully to these debates today. In my opinion, these are the three most important things we must learn from our Christian anti-abolitionist for-bearers if we want to avoid the dogmatism that trapped them:
- Sometimes the most straightforward commandments in the Bible aren’t always the ones that are in line with the life and teachings of Jesus, but instead are distorted by an incomplete understanding of culture and history.
- Just because the Church has traditionally upheld a belief for centuries doesn’t mean that it is a right belief.
- We must learn to ask questions, think critically, engage those on the other side of a debate and ask ourselves if we could be wrong.
Christianity’s history with abolition should serve as a very grave reminder that dogmatic devotion to specific principles should never take precedence over the Bible’s over-arching themes of love and grace. For love and grace, the sacredness of human beings made in the image of God, the ability to empathize and celebrate who humans are and who God is…these things always, always trump the letter of the law and the even the clearest commandments of Scripture.
About a week ago I shared a pretty vulnerable yet also self-absorbed post about my insecurities and my need for validation. Well, this is going to be another one of those sorts of posts. I’m frustrated, and I need to know I’m not the only one. I need to know there are others out there who are like me who are shamelessly committed to Jesus and this Christian faith, yet who also find some stories in the Bible to be terribly unsettling.
This morning in Sunday school we talked about the story of Joshua and the wall of Jericho. You know, the one in which the Israelites are finally on the brink of claiming their promised land, and the Canaanites are all terribly vile sinners who all deserve death. So God kills two birds with one stone, sends the Israelites on a hike around the walls of Jericho seven times, and there you have it. The walls fall, and the Israelites swarm in and slaughter every man, woman, and child within the walls of Jericho—all in the name of God. Such a fanstastic story.
I kept my lips pursed, fighting to stay quiet during the discussion because I knew the minute I opened my mouth I’d voice my dissent and my conscience’s rebellion against the image of God that we see in the story of Jericho. I feel as though I’ve become so hostile and argumentative in church every week, and this week I just wanted to stay quiet and not stir up the pot.
Eh. Who am I kidding. I’ve never been one to stay quiet and not stir up the pot.
So I blurted out my question: “What does our lesson’s curriculum have to say about God? Why would He ordain mass murder—isn’t that inconsistent with the character of God that we see in the New Testament?”
And of course everyone patiently and courteously explained to me in very rational terms that God is a God of love, yes, but He is also holy, and He must judge the sinful. And the Canaanites were terrible, dreadful, awful evildoers just like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. And so God, being the omniscient deity that He is, knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that every single man, woman, and child within the walls of Jericho was a hell-bound fiend, so it was no big deal to fulfill His promise to the Israelites at the expense of their lives.
This was all explained to me so calmly, so rationally, as if it made perfect sense. And of course they didn’t stop there…people used this same argument to explain the decimation of Sodom and Gomorrah. And deaths of the firstborn of Egypt. And hell, why not throw in the entire population of the world drowning in the sea of God’s wrath, save one man and his family?
After all…during the time period of the flood, it’s downright indisputable that EVERY SINGLE HUMAN BEING ON THE EARTH WAS WRATHFUL AND DEPRAVED AND COMPLETELY HARDENED AGAINST SALVATION!
And in my head I wanted to scream. Because really, let’s think about this. It doesn’t make sense—at all. This world is a world full of shades of gray, full of people with good hearts and bad hearts, those who behave selflessly some days and selfishly another. Hearts that are full of compassion and depravity, good and evil. You’ll never be able to convince me that the human heart is black and white—that some human beings are damned from birth and some are predestined for salvation. To claim that is to deny our free will, and to deny the very nature of humanity. You will never be able to convince me that there was ever a time in our history when ALL of humanity was utterly depraved and irredeemable. A time when ALL the Canaanites were utterly depraved and irredeemable.
And what’s more, I don’t care how justified it is theologically; I don’t think I will ever be able reconcile a God who would ordain and even commit mass murder with the God of the Gospels who commanded us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies. A God who would say that all who live by the sword die by the sword. A God who healed and restored and convicted the hearts of men. A God who came down blazing in all His glory to a man on the side of the road, a man who was a mass murderer, who was surely depraved beyond redemption and as deserving of death as any Canaanite.
And God redeemed that man, and that man became Paul, one of the most influential early Christians and the writer of over half of the New Testament.
I brought up Paul this morning, and of course everyone chimed in with the obvious: God knew Saul’s heart. God knew Saul would repent and become Paul and change the world. And God knew the Canaanites…and every firstborn son in Egypt…and every single living human being except seven at one time…were utterly vile and wicked and depraved beyond redemption. They were beyond God’s grasp, and had rejected Him outright.
And apparently, mass murder is the only way God can deal with hearts that are so far gone.
Well, I choose not to believe in that God. I can’t explain Jericho or the Flood or the tenth plague in Egypt. When it gets right down to it, I don’t think I have to, because I’m no longer convinced that these are accurate historical accounts any more than I am convinced that Genesis 1-3 is a historical account.
But I can listen to Jesus, the incarnation of the living God, the most tangible glimpse we will ever have of our Creator. And I can’t explain how or why or any of it, but I can say…that God is irreconcilable with the murderous, cruel, vile god that Christians try so hard to justify.
‘Kay. Stepping down off my soapbox now. Is there anyone out there who understands? Who reads these stories and feels as though they could never accept that God would ordain mass murder? (Marlia, if you read this, I know you get it…and thank you!)
Thank you for showing me what it means to have a heart of compassion and to give sacrificially to others, even when they don’t deserve kindness. Thank you for modeling what it means to pursue a relationship with God that is wholly authentic and never fake. Thank you for being real about the shortcomings of the Church, and not ever letting your children blindly think it’s all okay. You listen so well, and you hear with an ear that seeks empathy before judgment, understanding before condemnation. You have a beautiful way of smoothing rough edges when feelings are hurt, and pointing me back to what it really means to be a follower of Christ.
You don’t tell me what I want to hear, but rather exactly what I need to hear. Sometimes I’m pretty annoyed at you for doing that, but I almost always learn and grow because of what you say. You know exactly how to calm me when I’m feeling flustered and agitated and even angry, and that’s a such a marvelous blessing.
And you taught me to wrestle with my faith and be honest about the condition of my heart. You’re real about your feelings of distance from God, and if frustration is what you feel, it’s also what you express. But you’re equally real about the fact that you have, beyond a shadow of doubt, known His presence. And that gives me hope, if for no other reason than because I can live vicariously through you and know that God is here and real and walking in the midst of our daily lives, even when He feels a thousand miles away. Your testimony gives me courage.
So, for all of it, thank you. I love you.
Thank you standing firmly by your convictions. Even though it has led to heartache and misunderstandings, I know that I can always depend on you to be faithful to your belief in Jesus and the infallibility of the Bible. You are like a rock in the stream of life, and often I feel like a fish, floundering in the current and desperate to find my way. You taught me what it looks like to have a high esteem for Scripture, and treat it with the reverence it deserves. Your devotion to Scripture has a large role to play in the reasons why I always “return to the fold”, so to speak, every time I doubt God’s Word and wonder if it’s just a collection of fairy tales.
And the way you live your life and show love to others has kept me in check, and reminded me that even though we rarely see eye-to-eye theologically anymore, our theological beliefs should never get in the way of our ability to love. Yours never have, not once—at least not around me. Even when I’ve felt hurt by the times we talk about God, you always remind me at the end of our discussions that you love me. So thank you, for never letting your theology get in the way of demonstrating love for the people around you.
Thank you, too, for your wisdom and your courage. You never settle for the easy way out, but live out your life with a heart that is in pursuit of truth. You inspire me to search it out too, and not settle with doctrines just because they are held by church leaders. My path has been turning out to be different from yours, but I think it is the same truth-hungering spirit that guides us.
And more than anyone else I know, it is from you that I have learned that God is to be revered. That’s a pretty important lesson to learn, I’d say.
I love you, Dad.
Suffering. It’s one of the most difficult aspects of life to reconcile with a loving God. It’s often the reason some people toss religion out the window, because they can’t explain why it exists in a world created by God and they can’t understand why it happens to people who don’t deserve it. It’s a hard question, one that is raw and deep and personal, and absolutely not easily answered. I had a discussion about suffering with someone the other day, and since then I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and what I believe about why it exists and how it exists alongside God.
So here are my three answers to the age-old question. I’m not sure any one of them is entirely adequate, but I also don’t think I have to have an adequate answer to the question to believe in the goodness of my God. That, after all, is where faith comes in—trusting in the loving nature of my Father even when things don’t make any sense. And of course, I get that it’s easy to say things like that because I’ve never yet endured major tragedy in my life, so I’m going to hold to the simplicity of that belief until the boat of my life does get rocked, and I do have a reason to blame God for a terrible situation. And then, I guess I’ll just deal with that when it comes.
* * * * *
1. Suffering exists because God loves us enough to grant us free will, and having a free will means that sometimes we will choose to hurt people.
This is the simplest answer, and it’s the one I think most Christians turn to when confronted with the enigma of suffering. After all, it dovetails so neatly with the doctrine of human depravity and our innate tendency to sin. It’s the explanation that makes most sense when the agent of tragedy is another human being who has chosen bad rather than good, and sin rather than God. This explanation can account for murder, rape, war, and a multitude of other evils that generate suffering in this world. But what it cannot account for is suffering that exists for a reason other than because a human being acted in a way that is evil. It can’t account for cancer, for example. And it can’t account for natural disasters, or accidents, or suicide, or a thousand other terrible occurrences that have nothing to with the sinfulness of man (at least not directly. I know what you’re thinking).
2. Suffering exists because without it, peace and love and joy and all that is good in this world would lose its meaning.
Of the three, I think this answer is the one that gives me most comfort. It turns that terrible word—suffering—on its head and draws you back to the beauty. You don’t know you’re standing in light unless you know what darkness looks like. You don’t appreciate times of joy nearly so much if you haven’t also been through times of sorrow. You don’t know quite as desperately how much love is needed in this world unless you’ve been subjected to hate or you’ve lost someone you love. And the times of peace and love and joy don’t make the hard times any less hard, but they do remind you that the good things in this life are worth fighting and living for. This world isn’t fair. It never has been. But even through the unfairness of it all, there is always, always a light that drives away the dark.
3. Suffering exists to reveal how deeply Jesus loves us.
Some people go through absolute shit in this world. I’m talking like, the worst kind of shit imaginable, the kind that leaves you hopelessly miserable and huddled in the bottom of a pit, unable to lift your eyes, let alone drag yourself out of it. I’m talking like, starvation and unimaginably painful disease and the kind of betrayal that slices into your heart. The kind that seems downright impossible to come back from. For those people, the only kind of answer that I can give for suffering is the cross. The cross doesn’t explain suffering, but it does offer something far, far more profound. When Jesus stepped down to this world and came to life in abject circumstances and taught us to love then died to show us what love looks like, he crossed the boundary between man and God. He came down into the stink and sweat and messy pain of this world and suffered a death worse than it is possible to imagine. He endured the abandonment of the men he had spent his entire ministry teaching. He endured terrible physical pain and torture—whipping, having thorns thrust into his scalp, and being nailed on a cross. And even as he hung dying, crying out for his Father, that same Father turned his back on His Son. Jesus endured not just physical pain, but the spiritual trauma of being separated from holiness.
Jesus went through all of that. He knows. He’s experienced heartache and betrayal and physical pain too great to bear. So when we suffer, we know that Jesus is there, that He has gone through worse for the sake of love. Yahweh, the God of the Bible, the God of the Christian faith and the God I serve is not a distant and sadistic deity who metes out arbitrary punishment on the innocent, as we tend to believe when confronted with tragedy. Instead He is a God who suffered for our sake. He knows how real our pain is because He has gone through it Himself.
* * * * *
This was the best shot I’ve got at tackling the terribly difficult question of suffering. I know my answers may fall short when confronted with such suffering. But that doesn’t make Jesus’ ability to identify with our pain any less real. God is here. He is here in the tears of a mother whose child has died. He is here cradling the heart of the one betrayed by her best friend. He is here, even when He feels a thousand miles away. He is here.
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
I’ve always known this about myself, but today it seems to be weighing especially heavy on my heart and seriously affecting my mood.
I care too much what others think of me. My family might deny this, but I am a serious people-pleaser. It really matters to me that everyone around me approves of me and affirms my lifestyle, choices, beliefs, etc. Even though it may not always seem that way based on how I interact with others, I try really really really hard to see issues from their point of view, and understand why they think the way they do, before I dismiss their opinions. And it bothers me when we can’t see eye-to-eye, when I can’t make them understand that we have far more in common than we have differences about.
And when someone (especially someone close to me) expresses their disapproval of my lifestyle, choices, beliefs, etc., it hits me hard. Always. I internalize it, and I react in two ways. First, I start viewing that person in terms of all the things they said about me. I minimize their virtues and exaggerate their vices, and sometimes I ramble to someone else about how wrong they are to say such things about me. I feel the constant need to prove myself, to make sure everyone knows that this is what I believe, not that. That this is the choice I made, not that, etc.
In short, validation means the world to me. And when someone criticizes me instead of validating me, I have this awful tendency to blow it out of proportion.
The second way I react to disapproval and/or criticism is to take it to heart—in a bad way. Even though I’ll never admit it to the offender’s face, I often internalize their words so much that I start to second-guess my own convictions. I start considering angles other than my own, no matter how unnatural they seem. And then I get furious because these other angles just don’t make sense. But then I’m just furious at myself for being such a wobbly bowl of jello when it comes to standing by what I believe in. It’s a nasty, vicious cycle. And when I get sucked into it, it always takes me a long time to dig myself out.
Anyway, I’m not really sure why I’m sharing all this. Maybe it’s to let you into a little snippet of how my mind and emotions work, and how tumultuous they are most of the time. Maybe it’s to ask you for a little grace when you disapprove of me, because if you know how I take it and how much I struggle with insecurity, you’ll be less likely to be harsh when you criticize me.
As for myself, I’m going to start changing my focus. I’m going to start cherishing all the beautiful things God says about me. I’m going to start measuring my worth not by what the people around me think about me, but by how God measures my worth and the place He has given me in His kingdom. Because seriously. God’s opinion should be the only one that matters to me.