(A belated Christmas post)
When men are strangled to death, innocent officers are executed, children are murdered in school, disease ransacks entire societies, what are we to do? What is there to say?
It seems that there is no peace on earth. No peace.
Who is there to blame? I mean, really? Sure, in the eyes of the law there is culpability. There are murderers to bring to justice, ambiguous cases to be adjudicated, and legal systems that need reformed (in some eyes, at least). But in the grand scheme of things, sin and evil are both much more nefarious than the free exercise of individual wills. Circumstances are no excuse, but circumstances do matter, don’t they? People without opportunity are more likely to commit crimes, emotions run high and people respond irrationally and violently to both real and perceived injustices, etc. Questions of social circumstances notwithstanding we were all, of course, born with a sin nature deeply imbedded within us from our birth. Who of us really stand a chance to be free of sin? We are people of unclean lips born among people of unclean lips. We were doomed from the start.
Many have therefore concluded by blaming God.
And at my most honest moments I’m not sure I know how to disagree. What meaning is there in the chaos of evil and destruction but the seemingly disaffected will of a God who, at the end of it all, is truly responsible?
God certainly seems to blame.
But a good Christian boy like myself should not entertain such notions. Should I?
From a young age I possessed the idea that God must not really be questioned. I was not in a fundamentalist background, but questioning God was just generally assumed to be crossing a line.
After all, we are saved by grace through faith. Faith and doubt contradict one another, don’t they? God is glorified and looks upon me kindly in my unwavering faith. I must always be content in God or else I am failing to have faith and God will be upset with me. The center of my salvation is faith.
After all, I am a horrid sinner that deserves punishment. I can never save myself. Only my faith can save me.
So I’d better keep the faith, it’s all I have, it’s my only hope before a God otherwise quite ready to smash me.
At the same time, I was growing up when there was a new and general panic over young Christians defecting and becoming agnostics or atheists in college. Older generations regularly huddled in corners to, understandably, mourn the loss of another child to the world.
We had to help our kids develop better faith and prepare them for the doubts of college. They needed more books about the existence of God and more creation science museums.
There was fear of questioning. Questioning is, after all, the first step on the path that so many were taking.
And really, who am I to question God? Especially when it comes to my own circumstances. Maybe I have suffered, but who am I to complain about my suffering? As a depraved sinner, I deserve it, don’t I? Every prayer of confession in church is a reminder of how invalid are my complaints. I have not loved you with my whole heart. I deserve to be squashed, damned, how dare I get upset about my suffering?
I extend the same lack of grace to others, sometimes. They deserve what they got. Or, Their pain is no worse than mine, why do they get the spotlight?
God doesn’t care about my suffering. How could He? We got ourselves into this mess. He holds me culpable. God’s justice really requires that I – or at least someone – be punished for the wrongs I’ve committed. I should just be glad He chose to take it out on Jesus rather than me, and shut up.
God is just, good, and showed me grace I didn’t deserve. I should be grateful that the angry God found it within Himself to take it out on someone other than me.
But there is always that fear. If I stop believing, if I don’t have enough faith, I might still get what I deserve at the end of it all.
God deserves my faith, my unwavering support and praise. He is good, just, perfect, and merciful although He didn’t have to be.
God is glorified by my faith. He is glorified by my satisfaction in Him. If I get too angsty, too dissatisfied, I am dishonoring the glorious God who saved me.
But at some point I discovered that man Job. He was not very satisfied with God. Not in the least. His friends tried to remind him that he is a sinner and therefore probably got what he deserved, like all the rest of us, but Job would not waver from feeling wronged and belting out long, forceful, eloquent laments about the despair of humanity before a God who really seems out to get him.
“Mortals, born of woman,
are of few days and full of trouble.
They spring up like flowers and wither away;
like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
“All ancient and modern skeptics, pessimists, scoffers and atheists are innocuous and well-meaning folk compared to this man Job.”
Similarly, Abraham tried to negotiate with God to turn back His wrath on Sodom. Moses told God, to God’s face, that it was wrong and out of character to wipe out Israel when God was threatening to do so.
Jesus wept in the garden, and cried out on the cross: “Why have you forsaken me?”
These men questioned, challenged, doubted.
Sometimes we forget that God dwelt fully in Jesus. Yes, Jesus was the Son incarnate. But the fullness of deity was pleased to dwell in Him. All of God is represented in Christ.
Therefore, this picture we sometimes have of a wrathful, judge of a Father and the compassionate Son who gets the brunt of the wrath, is a false one.
God, all of God, decided our pain was legitimate. God came close to us in our suffering. God heard our cries. He did not sit up high, uncaring. He came near. In fact, Christ endured our suffering and our pain. He did not write them off as unwarranted or illegitimate. He voiced them! He sanctified our cries, our doubts, our pains, our suffering, our questions.
This is not a surprising action, is it? God has always been near to those who suffer and writhe.
“Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry;”
One of my professors has pointed out that one of the neglected dimensions of salvation is the act of adoption. In salvation we become children of God, such that Christ is even called our ‘brother,’ (Hebrews 2). We are now able to join Christ and Spirit in crying ‘Abba, Father’ as adopted children.
We join in the relational life of the Trinity. We do not become part of God. But we are invited to join in the communal life of the Trinity.
God in Christ came close to the sufferings of our world and cried them back to God. Perhaps then, our prayers of doubt and pain are also part of the life of the Trinity. They are the Spirit’s groaning in compassion amidst the evil of this world. After all, many Psalms are prayers of lament and struggle, like the one Jesus quoted on the cross: “why have you forsaken me?” When we pray in lament and struggle, we join Jesus, by the Spirit, in crying out in pain to God.
I believe that Job, Abraham, Moses, David, and many others were (perhaps in a limited way until the fullness of the Spirit came after Christ) joining in that life of the Trinity, crying out in compassion and love and anguish on behalf of suffering.
This is so even in doubts. The dereliction of Christ, shouting “why have you forsaken me?” is in some way, part of the cries of the Trinity on behalf of a sick and dying and suffering world.
Karl Barth has truly put it best. His whole theology constantly returns to the appearance of God in Christ as the ultimate declaration that God is for us.
God, all of God, is on the side of humanity against sin, death, and judgment. God comes alongside us against wrong, evil, and suffering. Coming close to Christ draws us near to the cries of God on behalf of humanity.
When we doubt, mourn, cry, shout, writhe, we are coming near to the God who is for us.
I recently wrote this in an assignment in which I expound my theological beliefs: All suffer in this world – rich and poor, good and evil, Christian and non-Christian. While God has and does enact judgment, God in Christ, the whole of the Trinity, has declared ‘No’ to judgment and the chaos of suffering, the schemes of Satan against God’s creation, in God’s ‘Yes,’ to humanity. In the eschaton we have hope that all the suffering will be healed fully. Yet, true relationship with God calls for mourning, questioning, the expression of anger toward God. Indeed, with Job, Abraham, Moses and even Christ in their expressions of discontent with God, we are joining the groaning of the Spirit to the Father, against the suffering and injustice of this world. We are joining God’s ‘Yes,’ to humanity even in our questioning of Godself. While it is wrong to say that God causes suffering for our sanctification, our honest mourning and discontent with suffering, expressed in relationship to God, is part of our life in the Trinity.
God has joined Godself to us in the midst of the pain and lack of peace that reigns in our world. God appeared in the midst of the messiness. He was born in a stable, to a poor and socially-ostracized-shotgun-wedding couple, in the backwater suburbs of the city that should have held His throne. He was surrounded by dirty animals, shepherds, and even uncircumcised Gentiles of the East who venerated the stars.
God is near to our painful reality and looks upon us in compassion. Yes, God is a judge. But in the appearance of Christ we know God’s action towards us is solidarity and compassion. Love. God decided that we were worth it to Him. God that we are legitimate to Him. He bore our sorrows and carried our iniquities, willingly. By showing up as a babe in Bethlehem He said ‘Yes,’ to you and me in all our sorrow and suffering.
And God invites us to do the same. God invites us to join in the Spirit’s loving cries on behalf of those upon whom God looks at with compassion. In this, is the peace of God. In this, we remind the world:
Immanuel. God is with us.
“Look! This is the point now! ‘The world was lost, but Christ was born, rejoice! … Tis God’s own Child that binds Himself to thine own blood.’” -Karl Barth
(image credit: Montecruz Foto on Flickr)