July 19, 2015

What to Do When the Wheels Fall Off

A few weeks ago the news came out that Elizabeth Elliot had passed away at age 88.  Elliot had been serving the Lord in various capacities for nearly her entire life.  What she is perhaps best known for is having been married to Jim Elliot for a short time.  Jim was every bit as dedicated a servant of the Lord as Elizabeth was, but his story did not end in the same way hers did.  In 1955, Jim and four other missionaries, including Nate Saint, were attempting to make contact with the Huaorani tribe deep in the jungles of Ecuador.  After making several initial peace offerings by lowering gifts in a bucket from their plane the pair finally decided it was time to make personal contact with the tribe.  On the morning of January 3, 1956 they landed and met the tribe members for the first time.  They were received with excitement and it was looking like things were going to go smoothly.  This road for the advance of the Gospel was appearing most promising.  But just five days later everything fell apart.  When the tribe warriors came out of the woods that morning to the Amazonian beach the missionaries were using as a landing strip and campsite they did not come for peace, but to shut down this outsider intrusion into their private lives.  Nate, Jim and three other men with them were murdered in cold blood, speared to death by the Huaorani warriors.  They each left behind a wife and a total of 10 kids.  These five men had committed their lives to serving Jesus and advancing the Gospel regardless of the costs.  They were selflessly committed to this goal and yet this was their end.

Surely we would think that men and women who were living their lives so fully in obedience to God would somehow be exempt from such an evil, violent end, and yet all the evidence points in the opposite direction.  Scholars estimate that 70 million Christians have been killed for their faith in the two millennia of the church.  Of that number, a full 45.5 million met this fate in the 20th century alone.  In other words, more Christians died for their faith between the years 1900 and 2000 than did so in the previous 19 centuries combined.  What do we do with this level of evil?

We don’t have to stop there.  We can find gross examples of evil—both human-caused and natural—everywhere we look.  We don’t even have to look as far back in history as 1956.  We can just look at the last six months.  There was the earthquake in Nepal that killed thousands.  There was Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the strongest ever recorded, that devastated much of that island nation.  There was the deeply racist young man who went into a black church, listened to Bible study for an hour, and then shot as many people as he could, killing nine, in hopes of sparking a race war.  There is ISIS which continues its butchery across the Middle East.  Then there was the grisly news broken just this past week about Planned Parenthood.  Evil is everywhere we look.  It’s all around us.  We can’t hide from it.  It’s there when we travel across the world.  It’s there when we travel across the country.  It’s there when we travel across the street.  We find it in the culture around us.  We even find it in the church.  If you haven’t dealt with a crisis in your family recently, just wait, something’s coming.  How do we deal with this?  What are we to make of this in light of our claim to believe in a God who is sovereign, just, powerful, and good?

The challenge of evil in this world has long been one of its most besetting problems.  The problem is vexing enough that whole religious systems have been developed specifically to deal with it.  One of these is Buddhism.  Buddhism’s answer is that all of life is an illusion and that in order to get rid of pain we need to get our minds wrapped around the fact that we are all nothing.  But, while we wait for everybody to get there, the illusion we live in each and every day operates on a cause and effect principle.  What we do will come back on us at some point.  If not in this life, then in a subsequent life until we finally escape the cycle of rebirth.  That’s karma.

As far as an answer goes to the problem of evil, this one is pretty bad, but we can easily see how it developed.  I mean, we can deal with a simple cause and effect principle.  People who do dumb things should expect dumb things to happen back to them.  If you put your hand on the hot stove it is going to get burned.  Cause…effect.  Easy.  It seems very just.  But, there are many evil things that happen that don’t have any apparently good explanations like the deaths of Jim Elliot and his partners.  And assertions that they are simply the result of the transgressions of our past lives smacks so deeply of injustice that it can’t possibly be right.

Other non-Christian worldviews offer similarly flawed assessments.  Harold Kushner has been arguing for forty years that bad things happen to good people not because God is cruel, but essentially because He is impotent to stop them and is as angry about them as we are.  While that’s nice in the abstract, it’s basically Fatalism 101—life happens; get over it—and that’s just not satisfying as far as answers go.  When we experience a personal tragedy—or even when we witness one from afar—fatalism just doesn’t cut it.

Other answers fail equally.  The broadly Eastern principle of maya argues that everything is an illusion, including our pain, and that if we will just learn to see that we won’t be bothered by it as much anymore.  For a long time people explained bad things by imagining that the gods are angry.  If we would just do the things that keep the gods happy, everything would be okay.  Well, as you can probably imagine, where this idea takes hold (even in the church) it tends to lead to people being taken advantage of to the benefit of someone who represents the gods in some capacity.  After all, how are we supposed to know what pleases the gods without someone who speaks on their behalf telling us?  Still others have proposed a simpler solution: retribution.  Bad things just happen to bad people.  If something bad has happened to you it’s because you deserved it.  Now you may not know what exactly it is that you’ve done, but still you deserved it.  The disciples thought like this.  In John 9 when they came upon a man who had been blind since birth they asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he is like this?”

The good news for followers of Jesus who believe God spoke through some 40 individuals over the course of 1,500 years to tell a single, consistent story aimed at revealing Himself and His character to us (most notably in the person of His Son, Jesus the Christ), we are not left on our own to deal with this intractable issue.  The writers of Scripture wrestled with the problem of evil and its occasional apparent attribution to God just as much as we do.  They were honest about their struggles and were inspired by the Spirit to write them down for us.  And while there are numerous places that deal with it in one fashion or another, there is one of the ancient documents we often call “books,” that deals with it more head-on than any of the others.  It isn’t everything the Biblical authors have to say on the subject and you should read all the others because without a full picture we don’t have a chance at making positive sense out of it, but it is a pretty comprehensive statement all the same covering not only one reason bad things occasionally happen to apparently undeserving people, but also how to minister to those who find themselves in such a hard place, how those who are there should respond out of them, and a pretty strong reminder that we don’t know everything and the likelihood that there’s more going on than we realize is pretty high.

This incredible story centers on a man named Job and for the next three weeks in a series I’m calling Grace in Hard Times, we are going to explore his story together and seek to understand the treasure trove of wisdom and perspective it has for us on the problem of evil.  This morning we are going to look at just the beginning of the story.  Then next week we’ll look at how all the major characters responded to the awful things that happened to Job.  Finally in a couple of weeks we’ll look at God’s response and how the story ends.

When the curtain opens on this drama things for Job are about as good as they could possibly be.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures, find your way to Job 1, and look at this with me.  If you have a non-digital version, open to the middle and then turn a bit to the left and you should be pretty close.  In the first few verses here we see just to what extent Job had it made: “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.  There were born to him seven sons and three daughters.  He possessed 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys, and very many servants, so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.”

Are you getting the picture here?  Job was rich.  But he wasn’t just rich, he had a great family.  And he didn’t just have a great family, he was a great guy.  And it wasn’t just that he was a great guy, he was a godly man.  And just because he had everything else going for him, he was probably good looking too.  But even that wasn’t the whole of it.  Not only was he rich and had a great family and was a great guy and a godly man and probably good looking too, he actively thought about other people first, especially his kids.  He was a great parent.  Keep reading in the text with me at v. 4: “His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them.  And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and consecrate them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all.  For Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’  Thus Job did continually.”

I mean, come on.  Really?  Was there actually a person like this or was this just something made up to make a point?  Well, there are several pointers toward this being a real story about a real person named Job who probably lived somewhere around the time of Abraham.  Furthermore, when you read it, you are fairly well forced to make one of two conclusions.  Either this all really happened (meaning somebody got some special insight from God because there are parts of the story that could only be known by such a route), or else someone was a moral and theological genius because no one could just make up everything that’s here.  Our moral imaginations are too fractured by sin to allow for it.

In any event, Job’s life is about as idyllic as you could imagine.  He was the guy everybody simultaneously hated because he made them feel so inferior by virtue of his wild success in everything, and yet who they all wanted to be.  But then something happened.  Something no one could have expected and in fact could even have known about.  There was a gathering before the throne of God.  The text says in v. 6 that “there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord…”  Now, we don’t know what this looked like.  We don’t know its purpose.  We could guess and some scholars have made some awfully intelligent guesses, but ultimately we don’t know.  The point is that sometime, somehow, there was a gathering before God’s throne.  The text presents this as something that happened regularly and on at least this occasion there was who is for us an unexpected guest: “…and Satan [more literally the Accuser or the Adversary] also came among them.”  Why he was there, again, we don’t know.  There are conversations about this we can have another time, but right now it won’t help us to guess.  Right now we need to focus on what we can know.

And what we can know is that in v. 7, the Lord speaks to Satan: “From where have you come?”   Given the stage, Satan responds: “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”  Now, we don’t know what exactly he means by this or what exactly he was doing in his travels, but from the context and what we know about Satan, he was probably looking for some way he could mess with God’s people and interfere with God’s plans.  God responds with what is as high a praise as I can imagine.  He holds out Job as an example of His best and brightest.  Look at v. 8: “And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?’”  Now Satan doesn’t know it—and at this point in the story neither do we—but God is setting up a trap for him.  God knows that Satan is prideful and always overplays his hand and so He holds out Job to Satan and says, “Have you seen how great he is?”  Satan takes the bait and the wheels of the cage start spinning though it will be some time before it closes on him.  Verse 9: “Then Satan answered the Lord and said, ‘Does Job fear God for no reason?  Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?  You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.  But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.’”

What’s going on here?  Satan is basically asking permission to go after Job.  (That he has to ask for permission is worth noting.)  He hopes to show God that the only reason Job, or anyone for that matter, is faithful to Him is because of the blessings He has given him.  And God (probably with wry smile on his face) essentially says, “Okay, let’s find out.”  Verse 12: “And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Behold, all that he has is in your hand.  Only against him do not stretch out your hand.’  So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.”

What comes next is awful.  Satan wastes no time in getting to work.  In a single day Job learns of the loss of all his livestock which was essentially the extent of his wealth, the death of nearly all his servants, and the death of all ten of his children.  This would be enough to break anybody, to lead them to curse God—just as Satan had planned.  And yet Job doesn’t.  He drops to his knees in utter grief and desperation and cries out to God in worship: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.  The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Satan expected one thing, but Job gave him another.  Unfortunately for Job, though, there was more to come.  Look down with me to 2:1.

“Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord.  And the Lord said to Satan, ‘From where have you come?’  Satan answered the Lord and said, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’  And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?  He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.’  Then Satan answered the Lord and said, ‘Skin for skin!  All that a man has he will give for his life.  But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.’  And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.’”

So Satan again comes before the Lord and the Lord again holds Job out as exemplary still in spite of the damage he was allowed to do to him before.  Again Satan complains that the Lord has been too generous with Job and that is the reason Job is as faithful as he is.  What is it that people say when things go wrong around us?  Well, at least I have my health.  Satan wanted to take that from Job.  When a person can’t even claim health as a lingering blessing surely they will then curse God and turn from Him.  Again the Lord allows Satan to wreak havoc, this time in Job’s own body.  And he does.  Verse 7: “So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.”

His situation was so awful, his reversal of fortunes so great that even those around him were losing their faith and calling him to the same.  Verse 9: “Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still hold fast your integrity?  Curse God and die.’”  Now, I don’t think she wanted him dead so much as she didn’t want to watch him suffer anymore.  And we can understand this.  Haven’t you ever been in a place while watching a loved one slowly and painfully waste away from some disease that you wished for them to die so they wouldn’t have to suffer anymore?  She wanted the same thing and the thought then was that if you cursed God, He would actively strike you down.  Job might have died without his integrity and faithfulness then, but at least He wouldn’t be suffering anymore and in her mind that was the better of the available options.  We get that.

Job had now been through way more than what any person should have to endure.  Perhaps you haven’t experienced pain a quite the level Job was facing, or at least not in quite the same rapid-fire fashion, but you have faced pain and hard times in your life.  We all have.  You have faced hard times that seemed totally inexplicable; times when the wheels fell off the wagon for no apparent reason and no amount of effort on your part seemed to explain it or make any difference in it.  What do we do in these times?

We do what Job did; what the writer is pointing us to do.  To get a sense of what this is, look at Job’s response to his wife’s call to curse God and die in v. 10: “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak.  Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”  Evil here doesn’t mean moral evil, but rather hard circumstances more generally.  As we will see in more detail next week, Job never once doubted God’s character.  He was absolutely convinced about the nature of the character of the God he served.  He knew God was just, loving, faithful, and good.  He knew that God would only act in ways consistent with such a character.  And because of that he knew that God would only allow such terrible circumstances to befall him if he had a good reason for it.

Skeptics will sometimes challenge believers on the character and even existence of God using the problem of evil as their vehicle.  They will allege that evil exists in the world of a supposedly all-good and all-powerful God because He is either not all-good or not all-powerful.  They will try and force us to choose one or the other.  Our response needs to be that they are not seeing the full picture.  God is all-good and all-powerful, but He is also all-wise.  He has a particular plan for His creation that will be for its highest good and His highest glory.  He will allow only those things to happen which will hasten it all down the road to this point.  In other words, God only allows bad things to happen because He has a morally sufficient reason to do so.  Our challenge is that we can’t often or even ever see what this is.  Our place is to trust in God’s character as Job did and to keep following Him knowing that He will lead us through all the hard times to wholeness and rest on the other side.  To put all of that a bit more succinctly, when hard times hit, don’t lose sight of the big picture.

What Job recognized and what we need to recognize is that there’s more to the story than we can see from our vantage point.  Job couldn’t have known what was going on behind the scenes of his situation.  He was part of a much larger drama.  God showed off His masterpiece to His biggest critic and the critic exclaimed: “You painted it too perfectly!  Wash out a few strokes and the whole thing will run off the canvas.”  God let him spill some black ink on the picture and then went on to incorporate the ink such that what came after was even more glorious than what was before.  When hard times hit, don’t lose sight of the big picture.

There is a bigger picture of which we are merely a part.  We’re not the artist, we’re merely a pixel.  Pixels may at times wonder what’s going on around them, they may feel isolated and alone, they may feel like the whole bucket of paint is getting dumped on them from time to time, but when they understand that they are part of a larger painting in which they are an essential part all those other things become much easier to bear.  Elizabeth Elliot learned this specifically through what happened to Nate Saint’s son Steve.  You’ll have to come back to hear that story.  For now hold on to this: When hard times hit, don’t lose sight of the big picture.  Such a posture won’t make the hard times themselves any easier and it won’t mean you won’t still wrestle mightily with them as we will see next week—you’ve got to come back!—but it will give you the grace you need to keep moving forward toward the beautiful end God has in store for you.  When hard times hit, don’t lose sight of the big picture.