Where was God?

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. (Acts 12:1-4)

Last Sunday as New Life Church (newlifecma.com) was gathered for worship here in Clarkfield, Minnesota, an intruder infiltrated a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and gunned down 26 unsuspecting people, more than half the congrega­tion. Many of them were children. In the aftermath of horror, this has been a week of shock and mourning for Christians around the country.

On Tuesday morning someone from our church asked me the inevitable question, “Where was God?” Those three short words unleash a gusher of highly charged queries. How could God allow something like this to happen? Why didn’t he protect his people, especially the innocent children? Is it unjust for a good God to allow such suffering?

Ironically, the very moment the tragedy was unfolding 1,200 miles away in Texas, we were studying a similar horror in Acts 12:1-4 in which early Christians were persecuted and James the Apostle was beheaded by King Herod. The Bible reports this terrible event and several other such evils without commentary. There isn’t even a record about how the survivors mourned their devastating loss.

Both Scripture and experience teach us that we live in a broken world. From the time the curse entered God’s creation in Genesis 3 until the time the curse is lifted in Revelation 22, we live in a society frustrated by futility. Things go wrong—very wrong—and we simply don’t have very satisfying answers. The bereaved pastor in Sutherland Springs put it this way, “I don’t understand, but I know my God does.”

Moreover, we can’t fix the problem of evil. We can’t bring back the victims. We can’t recall the bullets. The fact that this mass shooting took place in a church rather than a gay nightclub means nothing. Followers of Jesus, even the most obedient of Christians, aren’t exempt from the pain and loss of our fallen planet. Some­times the good die young. Sometimes the wicked live into old age. Life under the sun isn’t fair, at least by our standards.

Actually, people ask “Where was God?” all the time. We asked it after the Twin Towers fell on 9-11. We asked it after an F5 tornado flattened Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013. Someone even made a documentary movie about that tornado with the title, “Where was God?” We’ve asked this hard question several times in recent weeks – after hurri­canes, wildfires, earthquakes and shootings. Where was God? Why didn’t he intervene? Does he care? Is he even there? For followers of Jesus, a church shooting may seem like the worst evil of all. But it’s really no worse than the other catastrophes. A nightclub shooting might even be the worst catastrophe, especially if we consider that many victims there weren’t prepared for eternity.

The friend who asked me “Where was God?” during the shooting also tested an answer with me. He said God was on his throne – and he is right. God still rules the world. Therein lies our hope. We can see God on his throne in the story about the rescue of Peter from prison, which is recorded immediately after the beheading of James. We can even laugh at the humor in it. (I’ll write about that in another post.) God doesn’t always deliver us from evil, but if we suffer in his sovereign will, he will deliver us through it.

The broken world is not out of control. Evil is not all-powerful or unrestrained, even though it may seem like to us. We are not victims of unbridled evil. If the events of last Sunday have you doubting God’s goodness or power, consider the rescue of Peter (Acts 12:5-19) or glance ahead to the following story in Acts 12:19-25. There we can see how God punished wicked King Herod after he killed James.

God is still on his throne. We can respond with joy and hope.

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When will it all end?

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. 1 Peter 4:17-19

The east coast is breathing a collective sigh of relief as Hurricane Maria has followed the projected course out to sea. It’s just grazing the North Carolina coast today. This is a moment for emergency planners and weather watchers to pause and reflect on the national trauma of the past month.

First there was Hurricane Harvey which devastated the Texas coast. Then Irma marched through the Caribbean islands and Florida. Now it’s Maria, which destroyed Dominica and Puerto Rico last week. Lost in the news, Mexico was hit by two major earthquakes with hund­reds dead. In the past month we have witnessed genuine suffering by real people. It’s not a video game. The suffering is real. When will it all end?

The pictures tell an unbelievable story. Those on the scene in the Caribbean have described the hurricanes’ impact as comparable to a nuclear bomb. Puerto Rico is still in major distress as airports have been slow to reopen and necessities are barely trickling in. People are dying.

Some religious commentators have attributed the hurricanes to God’s judgment for national sins. When they say that, they often name two or three behaviors which they believe have provoked God’s wrath. It’s interesting that those who say such things never name sins in which they are personally indulging. For some reason we seem to believe God’s wrath is drawn to other people’s sin, but not our own. Others get God’s judgment, but we receive God’s grace. How is that good news?

In contrast, the Apostle Peter wrote that God’s judgment will begin with the church rather than the world. I don’t think God is hurling hurricanes at us in judgment of national sins. But he does want everyone to recognize the gravity of our situation. We are broken people with broken hearts who live in a broken world. We need a Savior who will deliver us, not only from hurricanes and earthquakes, but also from ourselves and our sin.

God wants us to cast ourselves upon his mercy and grace. We won’t do that until we face our brokenness. Somehow hurricanes and earthquakes help us see our true spiritual condition. I believe God wants to redeem our nation, not judge us. When will it all begin?

Crossing the Bar

“All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:8

My brother Darrell passed peacefully from this world into eternity at 12:25 p.m., a little more than an hour ago. God was right on time. His wife Anne was by his side. The rest of us were on our way, a few minutes away. It is proper that God arranged for Anne to be alone with Darrell at the end. The rest of us would have crowded her.

No formal funeral arrangements are planned. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.

Crossing the Bar
Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1809 – 1892

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have cross’d the bar.

Tarrying

For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay.” Hebrews 10:37

Many people have declared that the Lord’s timing is always perfect. God is never late. Nor is he early.

It’s a challenge to embrace God’s timing when you’re watching your brother die a slow and agonizing death. I don’t know if the process is agonizing for Darrell. He is non-communicative, non-responsive, and heavily medicated. We don’t see signs of conscious suffering, for which we are grateful. But his uneven, shallow gasping for breath is agonizing to watch. Apparently the fluid retained in Darrell’s swollen legs and feet are hydrating his body and prolonging his life.

How does this delay of death fit into God’s timing? Is God ever late to a funeral? Do bodily fluids take life and death out of God’s hands. In reality, is this merely a matter of nature?

The short answer is that providence, sovereignty and omnipotence imply God’s presence and perfect divine timing. Life and death are matters of nature from a human perspective only. God is above nature. He is supernatural.

But what about the natural, human side of prolonged suffering? What we are experiencing with my brother is not even an exceptional case. Prolonged suffering abounds throughout this fallen world. Much of it is far greater than we are enduring here in South Carolina.

What is God’s timing about such things? Hebrews 10:37 indicates that God’s timing is reliable. It is preceded by verses which issue a call for confident living and perseverance in the face of suffering. It is followed by a call for the righteous to live by faith. This is not a new idea. The writer of Hebrews is citing Habakkuk, who wrestled with the same problem around 600 B.c.

Habakkuk saw evil everywhere and pondered God’s apparent absence and indifference. God’s response shocked him. God told him things were going to get even worse before they got better. Judah would be carried into captivity by the Babylonians.

That’s like bodily fluid delaying the inevitable. Habakkuk explained how the suffering of God’s people would be prolonged. But “revelation” would come (Habakkuk 2:3). God would win in the end.

The writer to the Hebrews took that concept of approaching revelation and applied it personally. The Lord would come to remedy evil and suffering. God himself is the ultimate revelation.

What does all that mean to the reader of Scripture? It means that although the world appears to be falling apart, God is still in control. His timing is still perfect. It means we are to live by faith, not by what we painfully observe in slow motion on a hospice bed.

Based only on our sight, the Lord appears to be delayed, subject to bodily fluid in a dying man’s body. God appears to be absent or even indifferent. Life and death seem arbitrary and mechanical.

Habakkuk says, “Not so. God’s timing is impeccable.” The writer of Hebrews agrees. What appears to be apathetic tarrying to us is divine timing to God. We walk by faith, not by sight. Therefore we will not shrink back in the face of an agonizing loss. Not only will God be on time, he’s already present with  mercy and grace. Life and death are still in God’s tender hands, Darrell’s bodily fluids not withstanding.

Three weeks ago a friend in Minnesota was retelling a story about a horrific motorcycle accident he had barely survived 45 years ago. I asked, “Where was God in all this?”

He answered, “God was late, but he eventually showed up.”

No, not really. God was there all the time. And God is present with Darrell here. To borrow a line from another pastor: In the meantime, God is not absent, apathetic or angry. (cf. www.meantimeseries.org)

 

 

Sacrifice and Persecution

Last night I finished The Insanity of God, by Nik Ripken. It’s a gut-wrenching story about a man who searched for persecuted people living with Jesus, not just living for Jesus. His quest came at a moment in his life when his own faith was failing after the death of his teenage son on the mission field in Nairobi, Kenya. Ripken found such spiritual strength in the world’s darkest hell-holes where poverty and oppression restricted political and social freedoms. But the worst persecution couldn’t touch these believers’ spiritual freedom in Christ.

Ripken identifies the ultimate enemy of faith as lostness, not any religious, political or economic system. God wants lost people to be found, so the purpose of life is to share Jesus everywhere.

The Insanity of God joins Radical (by David Platt) and Kisses from Katie (by Katie Davis) to form a trilogy of books with a fresh focus on sacrifice and commitment to a global gospel. In a different way, each book presents an alternative to passive, consumer-Christianity. 

Jesus said it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Luke 18:23). Ripken shows us why. He reverses Wall Street economics and puts true riches on the other side of the equation where they belong. True wealth is living with Jesus and sharing him with the world despite poverty and political persecution. His conclusion: “Jesus is worth it.”

It’s hard for me to say “Jesus is worth it” when I consider how little I’ve suffered. Most of my personal suffering has been self induced: guilt, anxiety and fear. How can we who have the most freedom be afraid? How can we who have the most material wealth be anxious? Perhaps it’s because we’ve trusted in ourselves.

Ripken introduces us to followers of Jesus in persecuted places who don’t have the option of trusting in themselves. They had to trust in God. And God came through for them. 

I highly recommend this book. But be warned: It may change the way you see the world.