March 7th, 2016 · Comments Off on The Book of Romans  The Bad News – 1:18-28
Paul, in verses 16-17, has begun to declare the Gospel which defines and motivates his mission. It is the very “power of God”; it is universal, for Jew or Greek (i.e., non-Jewish pagans), and it manifests the righteousness and power of God given as a gift to man, who live by faith.
But there can be no need for the Good News until we come to terms with the Bad News: That man has rejected God, and as a consequence, has turned from righteousness to unrighteousness, with the moral depravity and divine judgement which are the inevitable and certain consequences:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,fn in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Paul begins here with a statement of natural law: that man, by his reason, is capable of knowing God through the evidence of creation. The failure to know God is not one of insufficient knowledge or proof; it is rather a moral choice. Man refuses to acknowledge and submit to God because he, in spiritual darkness because of sin, has corrupted his reason, and now creates gods in his own image or in the image of the lesser creatures of creation.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Paul begins his depiction of man’s descent into moral depravity by his description of the impact on the most fundamental of human behaviors, reproduction and the relationship between men and women. But lest we think that sexual deviancy is the prime manifestation of the unrighteous man, he promptly lists virtually every vice of man. Furthermore, somewhat surprisingly, Paul points to the natural law knowledge of fallen man: they understand that such behavior merits God’s punishment, yet act in evil ways and encourage others to do so.
Wrath (Greek:orge): anger, the natural disposition, temper, character; movement or agitation of the soul, impulse, desire, any violent emotion, but esp. anger; wrath, indignation; anger exhibited in punishment, hence used for punishment itself; punishments inflicted by magistrates
Suppress (Greek: katecho): to hold back, detain, retain from going away; to restrain, hinder (the course or progress of)that which hinders, e.g., of Antichrist from making his appearance; to check a ship’s headway i.e. to hold or head the ship; to hold fast, keep secure, keep firm possession of; to get possession of, take, to possess
Futile (Greek: mataioo): to render (passively, become) foolish, i.e. (morally) wicked or idolatrous, to become vain
Darkened (Greek: skotizo): to obscure; to cover with darkness, to darken; to be covered with darkness, be darkened; of heavenly bodies as deprived of light; metaphorically, of the eyes, of the understanding, of the mind
lust (Greek: epithymia): desire, craving, longing, desire for what is forbidden, lust
Gave them up (Greek: paradidomi):
to give into the hands (of another)
to give over into one’s power or use: to deliver to one something to keep, use, to take care of, or manage; to deliver up one to custody; to be judged, condemned, punished, scourged, tormented, put to death; to deliver up treacherously, by betrayal; to cause one to be taken, to deliver one to be taught, moulded
to commit, to commend
to deliver verbally: commands, rites, to deliver by narrating, to report
to permit, allow: when the fruit will allow, that is when its ripeness permits; gives itself up, presents itself
God has made known to man His nature, apart from divine revelation, through the evidence of creation
Man has made a moral decision to reject God and worship himself and the things of creation
The consequence of this choice is all manner of moral depravity, and ultimately the judgement and condemnation of God
That man in his nature understands the evil nature and consequences of his behavior, yet persists in it and encourages others to do so as well
February 15th, 2016 · Comments Off on The Book of Romans:  1:8-17 – Paul’s prayers & desire to see the Romans
Having established his calling and authority to share the Gospel with the Romans, he now proclaims his heartfelt love for them, supporting them in prayer and expressing his deep desire to see them in person.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.
I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong–that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.
I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Faith: (Greek: pistis) – “firm persuasion,” a conviction based upon hearing (akin to peitho, “to persuade”), is used in the NT always of “faith in God or Christ, or things spiritual.” It is defined in Scripture as:
a firm conviction, producing a full acknowledgement of God’s revelation or truth;
a personal surrender to Christ;
conduct inspired by this surrender.
World (Greek: cosmos): implies not only the earth, but the unseen world of the spirit; all of creation, seen and unseen,
Obligated (Greek: opheiletes): lierally, a debtor, one held by some obligation, bound by some duty; one who has not yet made amends to whom he has injured.
Greeks (Greek: hellen): Those of Greek nationality, but more generally, the name embraces all nations not Jews that made the language, customs, and learning of the Greeks their own.
Barbarians (Greek: barbaros): often used by the Greeks of any foreigner ignorant of the Greek language, culture, uneducated. The contrast here is between the cultured, educated, intellectual Greeks and the uneducated, “unwashed masses”, crude, and often brutal.
Wise (Greek: sophos): skilled, expert: of artificers; skilled in letters, cultivated, learned; used in NT of Greek philosophers and orators, Jewish theologians, and Christian teachers. Also carries the sense of those morally astute, as in the contrast between the wise man and the fool throughout Proverbs.
Power (Greek: dynamis): strength power, ability; inherent power, power residing in a thing by virtue of its nature, or which a person or thing exerts and puts forth; power for performing miracles; moral power and excellence of soul.
Salvation (Greek: soteria): deliverance, preservation, safety; deliverance from the molestation of enemies; in an ethical sense, that which concludes to the soul’s safety or salvation; Messianic salvation; salvation as the present possession of all true Christians; future salvation, the sum of benefits and blessings which the Christians, redeemed from all earthly ills, will enjoy after the visible return of Christ from heaven in the consummated and eternal kingdom of God.
Believe (Greek: pisteuo): to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, to place confidence in the thing believed; used in the NT of the conviction and trust to which a man is impelled by a certain inner and higher prerogative and law of soul; to trust in Jesus or God as able to aid either in obtaining or in doing something: saving faith; can also be used for mere acknowledgment of some fact or event, i.e. intellectual faith.
Building on Paul’s spiritual relationship with the Romans as fellow Christans: Having stated his authority and calling to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the introduction, Paul now emphasizes his brotherhhod with Christians at Rome, proclaiming his constant remembrance of them in prayer, and his passionate desire to visit them, for the purpose of building their faith and deepening his own through their ministry to him.
Introduction to his in-depth proclamation and teaching on the Gospel: the “power of God”, available to all who believe, regardless of their status — intellectually or morally, or their lineage, whether of the Jews or the non-Jewish world. The exclusivity of the Jewish nation as God’s chosen people is now dramatically expanded to include all, in or out of the Jewish nation or religion.
February 2nd, 2016 · Comments Off on The Book of Romans:  Paul’s Introduction, 1:1-7
The first seven verses of Romans serve as an introduction to his readers. In most of Paul’s letters, his readers knew him personally, as they were written to churches he had established. The church at Rome did not know him personally, however, and though some of his readers knew of Paul, his conversion and ministry among the Gentiles, many doubtless had little such knowledge.
Because Romans is addressed to a church he does not know personally, and is intended as a deep exposition of the faith, his introduction here is more detailed, and is rich in key concepts which will be much expanded in later chapters.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in powerfn by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes fromfn faith for his name’s sake. And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Key Focus Words
Servant (Greek: doulos): “bond servant”, one obligated through debt or other obligation to serve a master.
Apostle (Greek: apostolos): “one who is sent”, an ambassabor, one who speaks with the full authority of him who sent him. Generally refers to Christ’s 12 disciples (except Judas) who witnessed Him after his resurection, and to Paul, to whom the resurrected Christ appeared on the Damascus road.
Set apart (Greek: (aphorizo) – separated, made holy, or called out for the purposes of God.
Gospel: (Greek euangelion): The Good News of Christ, and His establishment of the Kingdom of God, salvation through faith in Him, detailed in this letter.
Saints (Greek: hagios): Christians who are declared holy, not by their efforts, but by their standing in Christ.
Paul’s claim to authority: To establish his bona fides to teach the doctrines of the Christian faith, he makes two assertions: 1) To be an apostle of Jesus Christ, set apart and sent by Him; 2) To address them as one who speaks for God: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Proclaiming the nature of Christ: Paul wastes no time proclaiming the true nature of Jesus Christ. He is the Messiah (Savior King) of God, spoken of throughout the old Testament by the prophets; He is truly man – “descended from David according to the flesh” — and truly God — “declared to the the Son of God in power … by His resurection from the dead”. The lineage of David is a matter of the historical record. Note, however, that Paul does not use disputable doctrinal claims about His deity, such as “born of a virgin”, miracles, verbal claims Jesus made about Himself, etc. He rests his claim to the divine nature of Christ on the fact of the resurrection from the dead.
He declares the triune nature of God:It is the “Gospel of God” (the Father), Christ the “Son of God”, according to the “Spirit of holiness”.
January 29th, 2016 · Comments Off on The Book of Romans:  Intro, Background, & Author
The book of Romans introduces the epistles (letters) of the apostle Paul in the New Testament. It is the longest of Paul’s letters, and the most in-depth in addressing the central beliefs of the Christian church: the nature of sin, salvation, the relationship between grace and law, and Christ’s central role in restoring man to right relationship with God.
Paul wrote this letter in Corinth, Greece (a church he had founded) during his third missionary journey (Acts 15:25–26; 16:23; 1 Corinthians 1:14). There being no public postal service, the commendation of Phoebe, a woman who lived in Cenchrea right next door to Corinth, probably indicates that she carried the letter to Christians in Rome (16:1–2). Paul had never visited the church at Rome at the time of its writing.
The Roman church was predominantly Gentile (1:5–6; 13, 11:13, 22–31; 15:15–16). The origins and founder of the church at Rome are not known; the Roman Catholic Church claims it was established by the apostle Peter, but there is little evidence other than some early tradition to support this), but he planned to visit the Christians there and gain their support for a mission to Spain farther west (15:24,28). So the letter takes the form of a self-introduction in terms of the gospel he proclaims.
There is no serious dispute among scholars that the author of this letter is the apostle Paul. Date of writing is 56-57 AD, from Corinth.
Paul’s description of his conversion to the Galations:Gal 1:11-24
Paul’s description of his strict adherence as a Pharisee to every aspect of the Law:Phil 3:2-11
Strong, athletic, handsome, and personable, he seemed at life’s outset to be unfairly advantaged. His friends were many; a ladies man, by reputation, the life of every party, the love of every woman who gazed on him.
He was, by nature, a generous and gentle soul, a gift he received from his parents, humble and devout. He himself found religion attractive, and attended synagogue regularly with them. He had little use for the priests and the lawyers––he found them legalistic, arrogant, and judgmental––but embodied in his faith he discovered a formula for living: obey the law of God, and your life will be healthy and prosperous. Did not the Proverbs promise, “By humility and fear of the Lord are riches, and honor, and length of days”? He would do his part, and God His, and all would be well in life.
The climb had been arduous. Stronger and more agile than his friends, he had reached the top of the cliffs before them. His best friend, struggling behind him, lost his footing, and he reached back to save him from falling. His friend was saved — and his own life changed forever.
When he came to, he felt no pain — in fact, no sensation whatsoever. He heard the shouts and the dislodged rocks of his friends scrambling down the cliff; he tried to get up, but could not. He had survived the fall — and lived to wish he had not.
Weeks and months passed, with no improvement; his paralyzed body remained lifeless, though his mind, now a tortured prisoner, remained fully alive. Most of his friends drifted away, their discomfort in his presence so palpable that their absence was more relief than regret. The Four remained, though he saw no reason for them to do so, other than guilt, or some pathetic sense of charity to the crippled. His limbs withered and shriveled, twisted like the branches of those ancient trees on the cliffs. Racked by fevers, festering pressure sores, and wallowing in the excrement he could no longer control, he no longer had a life, but only a slow, agonizing, and hopeless descent toward death.
The Four visited him daily, alone, in pairs, and on occasion collectively. They cleaned him, tended his wounds, and tried to encourage him in his deepening depression, to no avail. As shriveled and twisted as his body had become, his soul became far more foul and fetid in its unquenched and raging bitterness. Self-pity, self-loathing, and a hopeless despondency descended upon him, crushing and torturing his spirit in a personal living hell. His friends prayed, read Scripture, and feigned faith in some deliverance of spirit, if not body; this only increased his cynicism and the sputtering rage he spewed toward God. How could a good God allow such an evil fate? Had he not kept his part of the bargain, only to be betrayed by a deity he had once trusted? Why did his friends torment him with this utter nonsense?
Then there was the humiliation he suffered at the hands of healers, who prayed and pranced and called down Heaven’s power to heal him; he had too little faith, they accused, when their futile foolishness failed. In this, they were most surely correct. Then, the day his friends dragged him to the Temple, to the priests, as Moses had prescribed. His bondage arose from hidden sin, they said: his own, or his parents. What sin was this, he challenged? The sin of saving a friend’s life? His parents had more righteousness in their little fingers than these prattling and pretentious fools — where was their repentance? The self-righteous religious cast him out of the Temple, and the long journey home was silent, and awkward, and hopeless.
The crowds were immense, if the stories be true — this charlatan must have some slick magic up his sleeve, and there was no shortage of gullible fools in the world to follow along. His angry protests were to no avail — must he go through this humiliation once again? — as the Four lifted him onto the cart and began the dusty and agonizing ride to ridicule. See the Master? Not even close — they could barely see the house for the mob. The Four muscled their way through the grumbling crowd, and ignoring the shouting owner, climbing a fig tree by the house. Before he could protest yet again, they lifted him onto the roof, nearly dropping him in the process — what a fitting and ironic end to his pathetic life that would be! Now what? They began to claw at the straw and tiles; curses arose from below as mud and straw and shards of clay tumbled onto upturned faces. Then they lowered him into the darkness.
He saw their eyes first: seated above the crowd, dressed in fine linen robes, their phylacteries glittering with fiery jewels, their eyes blazing with hatred and contempt seemingly from the very depths of Sheol. Then, turning, he saw at last the healer’s eyes: strong, kind, penetrating to the depths of his spirit. To see them was to gaze into eternity, and see its joy. He felt utterly naked — but not ashamed.
He smiled: “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
There was no challenge this time — he knew the sins of which the healer spoke: bitterness, unforgiveness, cynicism, ingratitude, the hatred of God, of life, the despair over lost promise and shattered hopes. There befell then a lightness, an extraordinary peace, the lifting of a burden far heavier than that his friends had borne in bringing him here. A smile crossed his face, for the first time in many years: could this be joy?
Amazed at his inner awakening, he failed to hear the gasps, to notice the stunned silence of the once-noisy crowd. There was only the angry, strident whispers, hushed at first, then ever more intense, like the growl of a ravenous predator: Blasphemy. Blasphemy! BLASPHEMY!
He looked back at the healer: there was no fear, no anger; naught but an enormous strength, his eyes afire with the conviction of truth. “That you may know that the Son of Man has the power on earth to forgive sins…” He looked directly into his eyes: “Arise, pick up your mat, and walk.” It was far more invitation than command.
It lasted but an instant, but seemed an eternity. Great warmth seared through his withered flesh. Tendons tight as iron loosened and stretched; his shriveled muscles softened and fleshed out; his papyrus-thin skin pinked and plumped into a vibrant glow. He sat up — before realizing he could not do so. Swinging his legs free, he stood — he stood!! — bent over, and rolled up his mat.
The crowd gasped, and cried, and praised God; he heard none of it, not even the joyful shouts of his friends on the roof. As he bounded out the door, every hand reached out to touch him, as if he, the healed, had the power of the healer. As the sounds of the crowds faded into the distance, he touched his newborn limbs, still stunned in disbelief about what had just happened.
There was much work to do; relationships to repair, amends to make, and the endless telling of his story to the amazement of all who would listen. He followed the Master throughout Galilee wherever he preached. Sitting among the thousands, he nevertheless saw Jesus look directly at him each time, and smile. It seemed as though the Master had even more joy at the healing of his crippled heart than he himself did — and his own was indescribable.
Many months after his healing, he wandered again into the desert, alone. The storm clouds were gathering: the hatred he had seen in the eyes of the religious leaders was ever more intense, and he sensed something dark and foreboding ahead in his Master’s mission. His own journey led him back to the cliffs, where his life had changed forever. His eyes gazed upward at their great height, then slowly descended to the rocks of brokenness below. He recalled his Master’s words, spoken so prophetically: “Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”
A repost of an essay from several years ago on suffering and faith.
A reader named Katherine recently e-mailed me. She had lost her husband, a man some years older than she, to multiple myeloma and Alzheimer’s disease. She is a Christian, and is struggling to make sense of his death, and the difficult questions of why God allows suffering. She writes, after giving me some details of his life, death, and fine character, and asks:
Why does God allow such terrible illnesses to such a kind person? I know there is really no answer as I know all about Job. The thing I am really afraid is that I prayed for his healing, and it did not happen. When I became a Christian back in the 80’s, the health and prosperity gospel was big at the time, and I guess it really influenced me more than I care to admit as I now know it is false. Even though I know it is false, I have become obsessed that God did not answer my prayer because of not being able to get rid of all the sin in my life (as if this were possible to do). One of the teachings of that movement was that if your prayer for healing went unanswered it was either because of lack of faith or sin in your life. I kept thinking that I don’t always put God first in my life, and that I spent more time reading secular magazines than reading my Bible and listening to more secular music than Christian music. These were my “main” sins, at least in my mind and thinking. Can you shed some light on this for me? I would be very appreciative.
The problem of suffering and evil is an ageless one. It poses a particular challenge for Judaism and Christianity, because of the seemingly insoluble tension between a world filled with suffering and evil, and the belief in a God who is good and all-powerful. Solutions to this dilemma, both adequate and inadequate, abound. It is the desperate hope of the atheist that this logical incompatibility proves beyond question the nonexistence of God. Others, less willing to ditch a Divine order, have concluded that God is good, but impotent; or that God is detached and uncaring, or capricious, or moody, or sadistic — and therefore not good.
It must be said plainly that answers to this paradox are neither simple nor entirely satisfactory. The dilemma as it stands may be solved in a global and satisfactory way — as has been done by both Judaism and Christianity — but invariably the lofty principles seem to break down at the moment when a solution is most needed: in the time of crisis when we ourselves experienced the depths, hopelessness, and irrationality of suffering in our own lives. CS Lewis, whose tightly reasoned treatise The Problem of Pain provides an extraordinarily deep and thorough discussion of this dilemna–later in life nearly repudiates his faith and sound theology after the death of his wife, a process painfully detailed in his diaries, A Grief Observed. It is indeed unsettling to watch Lewis discard all of his carefully reasoned and theological understandings of pain and suffering in the brutal crucible of unbearable pain and loss. Nonetheless, he ultimately comes to terms with the paradox, and undergoes an embracing of this profound dilemma far deeper than the intellectual by means of his own trial of fire.
At the heart of this difficult issue lies the human heart. God undertook a vast and dangerous experiment when creating man: He wanted, not merely another animal — of which there were countless — but an animal capable of something He alone understood: love. He gave this exalted animal vast intellect — but this was not sufficient to engender love. He gave His creation powerful emotions, the capacity for both creation and destruction, which He alone had possessed — but this also was not sufficient. For love — the utter, uninhibited emptying of self for another — required that most dangerous license of all: free will. Having created us thus, designed with the capacity to love, we must of necessity be utterly free to choose — for choice is the very heart, the very essence of love.
It was, by all visible measures, an experiment gone wildly awry. Having given this creature the extraordinary capabilities required to love fully — intellect, emotion, passion, empathy, the ability to feel intense pleasure and pain both physically and spiritually — he set this creature free to love — first of all Himself, and then others of like kind. And the first choice of this masterpiece of creation was the decision to turn away: to replace the intended objects of love with the sterile altar of self. Thus was unleashed the monstrous liability of a truly free creature: the ability to hate, to cause pain, to kill, to destroy.
A world in which God eliminated evil would by necessity be emptied of all mankind.
If we are to be honest, much of the pain and suffering which comprise the evil of the world is due to nothing more than this: that man, having been given the ability to choose, chooses wrongly, and uses the gifts and abilities given for the purpose of love to instead elevate himself at the expense of others, often in ways stunningly malicious and utterly wicked. Look around you, at the world both near and far: pride, selfishness, greed, lust, rage, jealousy — all these things manifest themselves in our lives and those of others, causing great pain and endless suffering. The child abused; the wife abandoned; the drive-by shooting; the greedy CEO who bankrupts the company and rapes the stockholders; the serial killer and the rapist; genocide; wars of conquest; torture; senseless massacres: these are the actions of men and women putting self above others — and each of us does it, to a greater or lesser degree, though we minimize our own roles to justify our own actions. We all wish for a world where God would eliminate evil — but all assume that we ourselves would be the only ones left standing when His judgment is delivered. A world in which God eliminated evil would by necessity be emptied of all mankind.
Yet there also exists those evils which have been called, in days past, somewhat ironically, “acts of God” — those circumstances or events which cause pain and suffering, not directly engendered by human evil. Thus the child is born with a severe birth defect; hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes cause death and destruction; chronic and devastating diseases fall upon those who seemingly deserve a far better fate. It is with this, this seemingly capricious evil, with which we struggle most earnestly, straining to understand, yet to no avail.
Judaism and Christianity both imply that some such evil may be consequential, the result of punishment or predictable consequences for the malfeasance of man. A more robust theology is less accusatory and thereby more coarsely granular — maintaining that such evil has entered the world because of the fall of man. Under such design our divine divorce has corrupted not only behavior, but our very natures, and all of creation. Yet such theology is of little comfort to those who are the objects of such seemingly random evil; we demand to know of God, “Why?” — and in particular, “Why me?” Yet there is no answer forthcoming, and we are left assuming a God either powerless to stop such evil or unwilling to do so.
Yet the problem of a good God, an omnipotent God, and an evil world of His creation is not entirely insoluble. Much lies in our projection of human frailty onto the nature of the Divine, and the impreciseness of our definitions of good and omnipotent. When we say God is good, we tend to mean that God is “nice” — that he would never do anything to cause us pain or suffering. Yet even in our limited experience, we must acknowledge that pain and suffering, while not inherently good, may be a means to goodness. We choose to have surgery or chemotherapy, though painful and debilitating, that our cancer may be cured. The halls of Alcoholics Anonymous are filled with men and women who, having faced both personal and relational destruction, have used their former liabilities as a gateway to a new, more fulfilling life — one which could not have taken place apart from their harrowing journey through alcoholism. To a misbehaving child, the discipline of a loving father is not perceived as good, but such correction is essential for the development of personal integrity, social integration, and responsibility.
Our inability to discern the potential for good in pain and suffering does not by necessity deny its presence; there are many who, when asked, will point to painful, difficult, and unbearable times in life which have brought about profound, often unexpected good in their lives, unforeseeable in the midst of their dark days. There surely is much suffering which defies our capacity to understand, even through we strive with every fiber of our being to find the goodness therein. But the fact that such inexplicable suffering exists, and that answers are often lacking, does not preclude the possibility that God is good, or that such suffering may ultimately lead to something greater and more noble than the pain endured.
We are … not merely imperfect creatures that need improvement: we are rebels that need lay down their arms
In our egocentricity we often neglect to look for the benefit in our suffering which comes not to us, but rather to others. Caring for someone suffering unbearably provides an opportunity to the caretaker to experience selfless love, compassion, tenderness, patience and endurance — character traits sadly lacking in our selfish world, which routinely turns its back on suffering to pursue an untroubled life of self-fulfillment and self-gratification. It is not inherently evil to be called to give beyond our means and ability — as caring for someone suffering always demands — for in the exhaustion and inadequacy thus revealed, we may discover unknown inner strengths, and come to a richer, and more fulfilling dependence on God. We are, as CS Lewis so accurately described, “not merely imperfect creatures that need improvement: we are rebels that need lay down their arms” — and finding how shallow are our reserves of love, compassion, and strength, we may through this brokenness seek to acquire them, humbly, from their Source.
But surely an omnipotent God has the power to stop suffering — is He not either impotent or evil when failing to use such power to remove our suffering? The omnipotence of God, like His goodness, is but dimly perceived. For the power of God is in perfect harmony with the purpose of God, and is thus used to advance these purposes for the greater good. Thus, the good deed of creating man with free will — and thereby capable of love — by its very nature restrains the omnipotence of God to violate that free will. The evil of the world exists in large part, if not wholly, because this free will has been abused. Yet the abuse of free will must be permitted, that the proper use of free will — the laying down of arms, the surrender to the sovereignty of a wholly good God — may take place, freely and unfettered as required by love. God must tolerate the existence of suffering and evil, that all may have the freedom to choose the good — though many will refuse to do so.
Yet he does not merely tolerate the presence of suffering, but provides for its very redemption: that suffering, though itself evil, may ultimately produce good. Thus pain, suffering, death, and evil need not triumph: they may provide the means that some may turn toward the good, or bring forth further good for themselves or others. This is redemption: to buy back that which is destructive, worthless, of no value, evil, and make it worthwhile, valuable, even priceless.
Christianity, throughout its history, has struggled with and largely resolved the problem of pain, within the confines of the mystery of God. Yet Christianity in its many doctrinal eddies has sometimes chosen the wrong path and the wrong answers to this challenge. Such errors generally fall into two broad categories: the concept of suffering as punishment or retribution from God, and the manipulation of God for man’s gratification. The first of these runs counter to the core doctrine of the cross: that God has chosen to provide in Christ a sacrificial lamb — that Christ, through his suffering, may bear the justice of God, so that we may see the mercy of God. Our suffering is not a punishment for sin, as such punishment negates the purpose of the cross. Correction, it may be; discipline, it often is; opportunity, it always is; punishment, it never is.
The countering position — that of God as divine opiate, ever present to kill our pain — is a variant of the faith which has become perniciously widespread, feeding on a culture of ease and self-gratification which creates God in its own image. Thus God becomes a font of wealth, of health, of prosperity, of a trouble-free materialistic lifestyle, a divine vending machine whose coinage is faith. Faith, however, in such a worldview is no longer a profound trust in a God who is beyond understanding and infinitely wise, but becomes instead a means of buying from God all which we demand. Hence, we may be wealthy, if we only have enough faith; we may be healed, if our faith is sufficient; we will not suffer if we will but strengthen and enlarge our faith. Our faith must be prefect, lest our pleas go unheard. The strength of faith matters more than its verity; we charge the gates of heaven with the bludgeon of self-will.
The perniciousness and destructiveness of this perversion of historical Christian faith lies in removing from the hands of God decisions of life and death, health and illness, wholeness and suffering, while burdening us with the hopeless demand that we steel our faith to impossible heights to coerce and manipulate the will of God. That such efforts are typically fruitless seems self-evident: God most surely is capable of healing — and does indeed do so often, even dramatically at times — but most surely does so in accordance with his divine wisdom and will. Should His wisdom dictate that suffering, poverty, brokenness, even death and despair would better serve the purposes of drawing men to Himself, what measure of human obstinacy and recalcitrance will change this will? When such “faith” proves futile, it destroys trust in God, and not infrequently leads to utter loss of belief, a bitter agnosticism born in false expectations and misplaced hope.
We demand of God that which we alone deem to be good, then blame Him when He pursues a greater good beyond our understanding
Hence, we demand of God that which we alone deem to be good, then blame Him when He pursues a greater good beyond our understanding. This is the struggle to which Kathleen is alluding, as she questions the goodness of God in failing to heal her husband, blaming her own “sins” for his untimely demise. To us, such a healing seems only good — in so far as it mitigates our pain and loss, as well as that of those we love — but like the surgeon’s knife, sometimes such pain must not be withheld that evil may be conquered by the good. Were he healed, and restored to full health, would he not then face death on yet another day? Our lives have both purpose and a proper time: we live for that purpose, and we die when that purpose is fulfilled. That those who are left behind cannot grasp that purpose — and appropriately suffer profound pain and loss at this separation — does not negate that purpose nor impede its culmination.
We live in a time when our expectations of health, of prosperity, of a pain-free life are increasingly met in the physical realm, while we progressively become sickly, impoverished, and empty in the realm of the spirit. Despite our longer lives, we live in dread of death; despite our greater health, we obsess about our ills; despite our comfortable lives, we ache from an aimlessness and purposelessness which eats at our souls and deadens our spirits. Though we have at our command the means to kill our pain–to a degree never before seen in the history of the world–yet we have bargained away our peace in pursuit of our pleasure. The problem of pain has never been an easy one; in our day, it has not been solved, but rather worsened, by our delusions of perpetual comfort and expectations of a trouble-free life.
Until we come to terms with suffering, we will not have comfort; until we embrace our pain, peace will never be ours.
Dr. Bob is a physician in the Pacific Northwest, the fortunate husband of his wife of over 40 years and father of three truly remarkable children. Blessed by the grace of God with the great privilege of knowing His Son, and having experienced the limitless depths of His mercy, patience and forgiveness, he desires to serve Him and others well.
· at ·
gmail · com
... every now I find a new blog (new to me, anyway) and see something there so resonant and stirring that I can honestly say that I feel a thrill of excitement at the discovery ... Dr. Bob can surely write, but he can also think and feel, and he can write eloquently about what he thinks and feels ...
The doctor was indeed in touch with a number of important things that rise and fall within the soul of America, but can never die. The page contains the essays, ever growing in strength and clarity, of Dr. Bob ... Of those “voices rarely heard,” Dr. Bob's is among the best.
Dr. Bob ... is one of the smartest, most disciplined and most intense people blogging today. When he takes up a subject he makes it melt with the intensity of his concentration. The quality of his blog is perfect, and he is a person who won't settle for anything but the best. All of this, and good character as well. It's a rare and admirable combination.