Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What the hell happened?

How the cross makes sense of our suffering

My Friend,

Many young Christians, particularly those growing up in nice Christian homes, avoid or are “protected” from asking uncomfortable but absolutely vital questions about God, the world, and themselves. You landed on one of the most important and one of the most thorny of those questions yesterday.

“What do you say to someone who knows there is a God, but doesn’t feel that he or she can trust that God because of the pain they have experienced?”

When I set all of the potential answers to this problem aside one another, however, I really do think that unless we center our answer around the cross of Christ it won’t matter how “right” the answer is, the truth will taste like ash in our mouths. The cross is the climax of human history, it changed the world, it was indeed the solution to the problem of sin, and it is the answer to our suffering and the suffering of those around us. The cross is the only answer that can satisfy our deepest needs, including the need to make sense of our pain.

In this regard I want to take a moment to reiterate what I said in answer to your question on Monday in hopes that it will give you something more clear to chew on and consider.

Let me start with a story that I hope will provide an analogy that may begin to provide some clarity.

I think we can all agree that there are certain kinds of pain that are actually good. For instance, I met a guy at church a couple weeks ago and we decided to get together for coffee the following week. Keep in mind we only had a 5 minute conversation. I really didn’t know the guy at the time. So anyway, I arrived the next week at his place and as we were about to leave he said … “Actually, I could use your help.” He had gotten the rubber part of his phone’s ear bud stuck deep down in his ear. He couldn’t get it out. Yes … that was weird. But he was in pain and so when he asked if I’d try to get it out with some tweezers I agreed. (Keep in mind that by this time I’d only known him for about 10 minutes). He told me that it was going to hurt but that he’d try to hold still. Long story short, I tried a couple times (while he was pushing his head against a wooden post and groaning in pain) but after the 3rd attempt I told him he needed to see a doctor. The rubber was subsequently removed but not by me (nor by a doctor for that matter).

I tell you this story because this gentlemen didn’t hate me because of the pain that I caused him when I was trying to remove that foreign object from his hairy ear. He knew that there was a good reason why the pain needed to take place.

I think that much of the reason we struggle with this problem of pain and suffering is simply that we have a hard time understanding why God would allow it to take place. We simply cannot understand the purpose of our suffering or the suffering of those around us. But here is an important question: should we expect to understand everything that God does? We are creatures. God is God. If God and his ways were so small that we could understand everything about him and why He does the things He does then He would cease to be God and there would be no reason for us to trust and worship him. As he says through the Prophet Isaiah, “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8) As a pastor once said it, “God is God … and we are not.” I for one am glad that God is not completely comprehensible. That would be a very uninteresting God hardly worth the time of worshipping.

So when we reach the point at which God’s ways begin to baffle us what is the solution? When God takes a loved one unexpectedly, when we are abused by someone who should have loved us, when we see thousands of children swept away into an ocean, or genocide at the hands of a tyrant, or a once beautiful young woman waste away under the slavery of meth … and we just can’t fathom how God could ever make this beautiful … How are we to respond without despair and doubt?

The simple but difficult answer that God gives is “Trust Me.” God promises that he will make “beauty from ashes” (Isaiah 61:3) and that He will “restore the years that locusts have eaten.” (Joel 2:25) He promises that there is a good reason for the suffering that He allows. He promises that when we look back at the whole story we will see and acknowledge that it wouldn’t have been as beautiful any other way.

Ok. So God promises that He’s got a good reason for all of this darkness. But the next logical question is, can this God be trusted? What proof do we have that He keeps His promises? This is especially important for those who have been hurt by their fathers. Father’s often make promises and don’t keep them. How do we know that God is any better than these earthly fathers down here?  And here we are drawn right back to where we should be drawn … back to the cross.

It is in the cross that we have a physical, historical, real world example of the extent to which the God of the Bible will go to keep His promises. God promises back in Genesis 3 that he would provide the answer to the problem of sin. He promised in Genesis 15 that even if we were unfaithful that He would be faithful to keep His promise to us. In fact, you could say that the whole story of the Bible is a story about God keeping His promise; a promise to bring healing and to repair the effects of sin “as far as the curse is found.” He was so serious about healing the brokenness in this world that He gave His only son to bring about the redemption of the world. (John  3:16) Where is this promise heading? The culmination of this promise is that He will wipe away every tear from our eyes. (Isaiah 25:8, Revelation 7:17 and 21:4) One day every one of his enemies will be conquered (Psalm 110). Not even death will escape. Death will in fact be put to death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)

As I mentioned on Monday, the disciples who loved Jesus must have felt exactly what we often feel in the face of injustice, suffering, wickedness, and pain. They must have looked up at their king, messiah, and friend and wondered what the hell happened. How could The Father have allowed his only son to be treated in such a terrible manner? How could he have allowed the only just man to walk this earth to suffer the humiliation and pain of the cross? I can understand why every single disciple fled in despair with only two women left at the foot of the cross to stand there wondering.

We look at the disciples and cry out “that wasn’t the end of the story! Don’t give up! Don’t lose heart! The end of the story makes all of this worth it!” But we say this because from our vantage point we have been granted the ability to see. God indeed had a good plan. Beauty did indeed rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the cross.

God has given us ample evidence for why we should trust Him. We need only reflect on the cross and see that. What this should produce in us is hearts of faith. Hearts that hear his promise and that choose to trust in spite of our limited perspective and inability to see the beauty that he promises. We cannot always connect the dots. Duh.

Faith is the answer but not an irrational faith that causes us to leap foolishly from buildings with no reason to trust that we’ll reach the bottom safely. No, the faith that God calls us to is based upon the manifold number of times He has kept his promise to us. The pinnacle of this promise keeping nature is the empty tomb we will be celebrating in only a few short weeks.

I have experienced my own share of pain and suffering. But by the grace of God I see all of that in light of the promises of God. I belong to him. He is my father. He knows what is best for me and He knows what will bring Him the most glory. And so I stand like a stubborn little boy unwilling to be moved by the ‘facts” around me because there are facts that I know far more surely … my Heavenly Father loves me and keeps His promises.

As you wrestle through this important issue I encourage you not to stray too far from the cross. There are a lot of other answers to the problem of our suffering and many of them are true. But none of them will be as satisfying or as ironic, or as beautiful as Jesus.

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