Thursday, July 17, 2014

God's Role in Tragedies

There are tragedies in the news every day. All around the world there are children who suffer and die. A little boy drowns in his family’s swimming pool. An elderly lady is raped and robbed. A wife murders her husband. A drunk driver or a texting driver causes a wreck that kills a family. A doctor has to tell a patient that he has terminal cancer and there is no medical treatment that will help. A middle-aged man dies of a sudden massive heart attack or he lives on in disability.

I struggle with it myself. Maybe it’s how we have been taught. Maybe it’s our own natural preservation. Maybe it’s just human nature. I don’t know what it is but it seems to be prevalent in the Christian culture of America. Why is it that Christians think God is more unnaturally concerned about our health and heartaches than He is an unbeliever? Why do we get mad at God when bad things happen to our loved ones or us? Why do we blame God when our loved ones or we suffer? Why is it that when tragedy strikes it is always God’s fault? There seems to be this idea in America that as a Christ follower God owes us good health. I know it is prevalent in what is called the health, wealth, and prosperity preaching but it appears as an undercurrent in most every Christian group I’ve ever been around or heard of in America. Also, there seems to be a belief that in being a Christ follower God is suppose to build a force field around us that will protect us from tragedies and heartaches.

Understand, I’m not questioning a belief in God or about God. What I’m questioning is our belief system in a God who is supposed to protect us from tragedies. Or maybe it is our expectation of God in this belief system. In this belief system we portray God as master of the universe and, especially, master of our universe, which is totally true. Yet in this belief system He is either the cause of our problems or He is the passive spectator over our problems. So, we question why God would do this thing that has brought sorrow or we are confused as to how He could allow this thing to happen. Either way, how can we reconcile a God who would cause tragedy or passively allow it to happen with a God who loves us and wants what’s best for us?

I don’t think it is intrinsically wrong or bad to question God with why or how. The Bible is full of great people of faith who ask God why and how. The issue is, it seems to me, to be the preconceived ideas behind the whys and hows that predetermine our response unless God does what we ask Him to do i.e. heals or reverses tragedy.

For example, someone has been in a horrible automobile accident and was not killed. In fact they make a full recovery and you may hear something like, “It was only by God’s grace.” A little girl wanders from her home onto a busy highway and is hit by a car and killed. No one ever says, “It was only by God’s grace.” Is not all of life somehow an extension of God’s grace? When Paul said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain” (1 Co 15:10) was he only speaking of the good things in his life? Wasn’t he also the guy who would later say that he suffered “a thorn in the flesh” and rather than removing it, healing it, or doing something miraculous that took the suffering away, God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Co 12:9)?

Is God’s grace only something that we measure when something good happens (at least something we judge as good)? When something good happens it is by God’s grace. When something bad happens it is God’s fault. I’m just struggling with those two paradigms. Someone may say that God uses bad things happening to get our attention, wake us up, discipline us, or even punish us. Does our God cause the pain, suffering, and death of our loved ones as a means to get our attention? If He does, wouldn’t that make Him some kind of sadistic masochist?

When Paul spoke of his “thorn in the flesh” he did not say it was God’s fault. He said “there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!” (2 Co 12:7). Here are some mixed concepts that are hard to reconcile. First, the idea of something “given” carries with it the idea of being for ones benefit, something received through favor, and implies a giver. It is the same word as is used in what is commonly called The Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matt 6:11) Second, he describes the thorn as “a messenger of Satan.” A “messenger” is an angel sent with a message. Third, he tells us the mission of this “messenger” is to “torment” him. The word used is one that describes to be beat up. It literally means to “strike with the fist.” Figuratively it means “to cause injury or weakness or possibly a circumstantial difficulty.”[1] Lastly, he gives us a known purpose of this thorn: “to keep me from exalting myself!” Whatever the thorn is its purpose is to produce humility.

So, there are several different interpretations as to what the thorn is that Paul was writing about. Yet, even if figurative language was used with metaphorical meanings the concepts of 2 Co 12:7 are just not easy to reconcile with our American Christian culture. Literal or metaphorical, how do we reconcile a God of love and goodness with a God who reveals something magnificently great to Paul, and then in order to keep him from getting the big head God sends an angel of Satan to beat him up.

When we struggle with the idea of health, tragedies, and heartaches and God’s role in these we need to have as our foundational understanding the fact that God is never at fault. He is not faulty. We are. So, if we don’t get the answer we want, God is not at fault. When tragedies happen (and they will) they are not God’s fault. We live in a fallen universe where sin has corrupted every degree of its existence. God is no more to blame when tragedy strikes than He was when the first sin infected the entire universe. Jesus taught in the New Covenant that the reason we should not despise or curse our enemies is because “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:45) That is, there is a sense of equality in this life where God is not prejudice in His provision or protection. Also, there are things in this life that are experienced by Christ followers and those who are in opposition to Christ alike. His sun rising can be a good thing but in a land that is parched it can be another day of devastation. Rain can be a good thing, too, but in a land that is flooding it is a thing of more destruction. Beneficial or bad it comes to the evil and good, to the righteous and unrighteous.

It seems to me that with just a cursory reading of the Bible, even the New Testament, we find all kinds of people experiencing tragedies and heartaches. John the Baptist was beheaded. I wonder how that affected his loved ones? Jesus suffered more than we can imagine. He died with the question “why” on His lips but I wonder if in the cry were there blame, anger, and disappointment toward the Father? Stephen was stoned to death, Paul was beaten, John was exiled to an island, and these are only some of the ones we know. What about the countless other followers of Christ who remain nameless with a few simple sentences in Acts 8:1-3 that describe a mega attack on Christ followers in Jerusalem with massive destruction of lives? Men and women being thrown in prison separated from their families, children who lost their parents, parents who had to watch their children murdered, siblings who saw their brothers and sisters being tortured, families being scattered throughout the world losing everything they owned and being cutoff from their loved ones. How many stories of tragedies and heartache are written between the lines of Scriptures? Fox’s Book of Martyrs is a history of tragedies and heartaches of those who were followers of Christ. There were husbands having to watch their wives raped, children being sold into prostitution, wives and mothers watching their husbands and sons burned at the stake.

My struggle listing these who suffered tragedies and heartaches is that they did so because they were followers of Christ. Then it hit me. EXACTLY!!! If these suffered because they were believers then why would we who are believers think that we would be exempt from sufferings of any kind? They suffered and/or died for their faith. Their faith didn’t exempt them and our faith doesn’t exempt us. In the American culture when we experience tragedies and heartaches it is probably not because of our faith. (At least not yet are we being martyred for being a follower of Christ.) It is most likely in-spite of our faith. That is, these tragedies and heartaches are just a part of life. They are like the sun that rises on the evil and good or the rain that falls on the just and unjust.

If this were our understanding and built into our belief system as followers of Christ, when tragedies and heartaches come upon us our faith would not falter because we wouldn’t have an expectation of God to protect us from such things. Would we still ask God why and how? I assume so. After all, He is the all knowing and our faith would have us turn to Him for understanding, comfort, hope, peace, etc. We may even express anger but it probably wouldn’t be toward God as the cause or the passive spectator. Maybe this was the scenario of Paul’s account in 2 Co 12. Maybe he suffered some kind of physical ailment and in the midst of the third time of asking God to remove it God let him in on the mystery of the ailment. Maybe it was because he wasn’t blaming God or so angry with God for doing this or allowing this that he was prone to hear God’s mystery.

In our American Christian culture we don’t really grasp the mystery of God nor God’s mysteries. We spend our energy crying out to God because life isn’t fair. For instance, one-person cries to God that it’s unfair because his father dies at 70 years of age just when he was starting to really enjoy retirement. Another person says, “Well, at least you had your dad until he was 70. Mine died when he was 52.” Still someone else says, “My dad died when he was 36. I was 13.” Yet another says, “I was conceived just before my dad went off to war. He was killed in battle before I was born. I never met my dad.” Then a mother chimes in saying, “My son was murdered in a high school shooting. He never was able to have children.” In sadness a dad says, “At least you had your son until high school. My daughter died of cancer at the age of 2.” Then a woman says, “My first child was a girl, carried full term, but still born.” Expressing deep grief another couple expresses, “At least you had children. We were never even able to conceive.”

As we focus on how unfair life is with our blame and anger toward God we miss the mystery of God in His sovereignty working in and through the frailties of life. I don’t mean to imply fatalism at all. God is in control. He is sovereign. He even sometimes miraculously delivers some from the heartache of tragedy. He sometimes heals the body and extends the life. In fact, maybe life itself is the miracle. Do we still ask for healing, deliverance, and to escape tragedies? Absolutely. The Scriptures implore us to. Yet, in all of this there is still a mystery that remains known only to God Himself. Even after revealing all that He did to the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness and preparing to go into the promise land Moses declared, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever.” (Dt 29:29).

Someone once said, “prayer is not man trying to bend the will of God to our wishes but to align our wishes to His will.” That is where the mystery is. In crying out to God we find the mystery of God and the mystery of faith. So, in sickness, if healing happens we rejoice in and praise God for what He has done. If death happens, in grief we praise God that the life He graced us with is now in heaven. When we approach tragedies and heartaches with this mindset we are released to grieve in a healthy way. Grief is not a place we are to live but a process we are to go through. Sadness is a necessary part of life, for without it we would never realize the joys. Rather than life being unfair, maybe it is more inline with scripture to say, life is unpredictable. Without life’s unpredictability we would never find the mystery of God. Without the tragedies and heartaches we would never find the faith, understanding, strength, courage, hope, peace, ect. that we so desperately seek when we are in the midst of those tragedies and heartaches.

Life happens! Every experience of life is an expression of God’s grace. The experience may be wrapped in mystery but we can trust that He will give us His grace and He will be with us in the midst of the experience. Birth, death, and everything in-between is just life. Live it to its fullest. Experience the highest highs and the lowest lows. Experience the joy and the grief to the fullness. Worship Christ in all of life. When death comes it has no sting and it has no victory. When tragedies and heartaches happen, cry out to God with all the emotions and questions deserved. Grieve in the depth of your being. Shed tears of misery.  Yet, reserve your anger toward the true culprit: sin. When I say sin I’m not talking about particular sins that someone may have done to bring about the tragedies and heartaches, although, those sins may have been directly a cause of sorrow i.e. someone takes an overdose of drugs and dies. I’m talking about the being of sin that is set loose on all humanity and the universe and is actively reaping havoc and destruction. Pray with all your might for God to preform a miracle to stop or, at least, reduce suffering. If the miracle doesn’t come then we must trust God and His mystery. Draw close to Him in humility and know that God cares for you. He inspired Peter when he wrote,
God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
6               Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time,
7               casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.
8               Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
9               But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.
10            After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. (1 Pe 5:5–10)

This is not to be construed as an answer to those suffering. Nor is it a ‘should’ that implies I’m right and if you disagree you are wrong. I have written this over several weeks and months as I have been working through some of my own tragedies and heartaches over the past few months. I have had dear friends, a husband and wife, killed in a car accident. I have had friends, who are followers of Christ; see their marriages crumble in divorce after up to 49 years of marriage. I have watched dear friends, a young couple and their families, rejoice in cancer being in remission and chose to get pregnant, only to be devastated to have the cancer return 2 days before the birth of their first child and the families first grandchild. I myself have suffered severe declination of health. Working through this writing has helped me deal with my emotions and grief. I hope it helps you, as well.

My faith will not falter.
My hope will not be diminished.
I will trust in my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, until my last breath.
My Love for Him and people will not shrink.

[1] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (230). New York: United Bible Societies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Chuck. Very thought provoking. It really is important to CHOOSE to trust God. As I get older, I see more and more that breaks my heart. Sometimes I just have to cry out to God so that I can keep my sanity and "keep on keeping on." When I have friends or relatives who are grieving, I encourage them to give God every one of their emotions and not to hold back or "be brave." I always find that He helps me get to the next minute, hour, day. He is so FAITHFUL! Love you and Stella so much!