In the last Nugget I shared some provocative stories with you, which got some reaction from some of you. Others of you it seems are harder to motivate to respond. To refresh your minds the stories were:
- The removal of the Swan Quarter Church in North Carolina.
- The destruction of the church in Dallas by tornado.
- The eleven year old boy’s problem with his eyes.
- Two different mothers’ deaths in Florida.
- Marolyn’s blindness healed; Jennifer’s blindness not healed.
- The tragic loss of Jimmie Wallet’s family.
It is one thing to talk about situations across the other side of the world and quite another when we encounter these anomalies or paradoxes in our own backyard. We can read of another’s pain more dispassionately than when it is our own pain or the pain of a friend or family member. The closer it comes to home the more relevant and painful such situations become.
I don’t know how you reacted to each of the stories above when you first read them in the previous Nugget. I deliberately chose them and made no explanatory comment about them so it would spark your thinking. Some responded strongly with comments like:
- “how is that an act of God?”,
- “that has nothing to do with God”,
- “that is just pure chance”.
I agree. As I wrote in the earlier Nugget, It’s God’s Fault, we have a skewed perspective on what “acts of God” are. Oh granted, God created the earth and set certain “laws of nature” – wind distribution, ocean currents, heating and cooling dynamics in place but He is hardly responsible for the end result when we humans have “cared for it” as we have.
We have a tendency to blame God for the happenstance of life. I have no sense whatsoever that it was God’s intention that the Swan Quarter church was moved to land of the person who refused to sell the church the land in the first place. Why on earth would God destroy a church building in Dallas with a tornado, to get back at the people in the church for some reason. Seriously? You think that God is as petty and vindictive as we human beings can be! Not the God I worship; my God is not like that. Harold Kushner’s two amusing tales of the boy mistaking God’s intervention for the coincidental result of him looking at a Playboy magazine and the split between the two mothers’ experience of going and not going to Florida is laughable but indicative of the mistaken conclusions we come to when we try to test God’s involvement in our lives. We are all too prone to assign the label of God’s judgement or God’s blessing to the happenstance of life. When in reality I believe God intervenes far less frequently than we think. Personally I am grateful that most things are due to the results of life processes rather than the judgement of God. God has told us already by His Word:
The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger, and great in mercy. The Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works.Psalm 145:8-9
God forgives us our sins even though we don’t deserve forgiveness. He gives us mercy instead of punishment; he offers us life rather than death. God does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.Psalm 103:10
Much like the 11 year-old boy, our feelings of guilt are what makes us conclude that God is punishing us for something we have done. Over the last days I have received countless examples of peoples’ queries related to why God allowed something to happen or why He didn’t stop something happening. In each case there is a prior underlying, unstated question – either God could have intervened and changed the situation but didn’t. Therefore, was He unloving or didn’t care? Or I know God is loving and caring of me but maybe He couldn’t intervene. In which case was He powerless or impotent to do anything about it? It is in those moments that God is silent that we ask such questions. It is God’s silence at each crucial, most painful time in our lives which is the hardest to take.
Yes, it may well be that all the miracles seem to take place on distant shores while we observe precious few such miracles close to home. It is also true that we have a skewed view of suffering and difficult times. I was present in an international meeting of church and mission leaders just before the turn of the millenium where I heard a Chinese pastor talking of the difficulties and suffering experienced by the church in China. Whereupon an American Church leader, commenting on the fact the Church in China was suffering persecution, said, “Brother, we in the West, are praying for you as you go through persecution.” To which the Chinese church leader responded with, “Yes and we in China pray for you in America because you are not [going through persecution].”
Philip Yancey makes an interesting statement at the beginning of his book Where is God When It Hurts. He says in his research for his books he noticed books on the subject divide into two groups. The older books written by the ancients: Aquinas, Bunyan, Donne, Luther, Augustine accept pain and suffering as God’s useful agents. While modern books put God in the defendant’s box on trial and asked, “How can you possibly defend yourself God?” Yet those ancient writers lived in a world without penicillin and with a projected life expectancy of around 30 years. Bunyan wrote from prison and Donne from a quarantine room in the midst of the bubonic plague. Yet the ancients were more accepting of the world of God’s design and less accusatory towards the sufferers. We modern advisors on behalf of God tend make the sufferers feel worse after our input. We fit into the category of Job’s three friends, offering advice that reportedly comes from the Maker of heaven and earth. “We modern [agents of God], from our comfort controlled environments, have a tendency to blame our unhappiness on pain, which we identify as the great enemy. If we could somehow excise pain from life, then we would be happy.” (Philip Yancey p 54)
Brand and Yancey’s work on understanding pain shows conclusively that God’s design of our body with the ability to feel pain is a major gift to us. Yet we in our ignorance curse it. Philip Yancey, who co-authored the second edition of Paul Brand’s book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, has researched the science of pain in conjunction with Paul Brand’s work among leprosy patients. I may well add more on their findings in a later Nugget in this series if it seems necessary. Suffice to say at this point, the intricate system of nerves in the human body carries both pain and pleasure messages to the brain. The same nerve sensors send identical messages to the brain. One set, our brains interpret as pleasant and pleasurable; the other as unpleasant and painful. God has packed both alternate and opposing messages in the one system. Pain and pleasure are integrally linked together. Paul Brand’s work among the leper colonies demonstrates clearly the results to the bodies of lepers from the fact that their bodily pain system was no longer functioning. It is incontrovertible evidence that the lepers’ problem is a malfunctioning pain system in the body. Both Brand and Yancey go on to show how marvellous is God’s design for giving us warning through pain messages to our brain when things are not right in our body.
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it. . . . We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.Rom 8:19–20, 22.
God himself is not pleased with the condition of the world. Don’t judge the world according to its present condition. To blame God for the current state of what He created would be a travesty. “God has already hung a “Condemned” sign above the earth, and has promised judgment and restoration. That this world spoiled by evil and suffering still exists at all is an example of God’s mercy, not his cruelty.” (Philip Yancey p. 68)
Those of us who are followers of Christ need to become more adept at rightly interpreting what we observe by that which we see God do in the lives of those around us, especially as it relates to pain and suffering. Then to hone our ability to extrapolate from our observations a correct interpretation of the way in which God works, His principles and ways of operating or working things out. So often we who pass on advice to those undergoing pain and suffering do so from a “safe distance” and all we do when we speak for God is make the sufferers feel worse after our input. When we go beyond advice and move into casting judgements we enter dangerous waters. Perhaps we need to be more hesitant before we offer advice such as:
- “You must lack faith if you still have this sickness.”
- “You can’t have prayed enough. Perhaps you need to fast and pray.”
- “You have to ignore the lying symptoms and hold fast to your healing.”
- “Healing is ours by right in the atonement; so if you have not yet been healed there must be sin in your life you haven’t dealt with.”
- “Where two or three are gathered together in prayer ask whatever you will and it will done for you.”
Perhaps it would be better to frame our advice in terms of “this I say not the LORD . . . “. Let’s stop giving out flakey advice in the name of God and be a lot more circumspect before we open our mouths claiming we speak on His behalf.
In the next Nugget I will move on to address the issue of God’s silence at our darkest moments and the panacea for all ills – the prayers of the saints.