October 5, 2014

Purpose in Pain

On November 5, 1861 a man named Horatio Spafford married the woman of his dreams, a Norwegian girl named Anna Larsen.  She was 18, he was 33, but that wasn’t such a problem back then.   He was a prominent lawyer in the city of Chicago and with the aid of his family connections was quite wealthy as a result of his sizable investments in the city’s real estate.  The next year the newlyweds began their family.  Over the next eight years they were blessed with three daughters and a son.  Things were looking like they couldn’t get much better.  But, you know as well as I do that life has a tendency to get in the way of sustained happy times.  In 1870 the couple’s only son died of scarlet fever at the age of four.  While that kind of thing was much more common in those days than now, the loss of a child is without exception a devastating blow.  It would seem that God owed them a few years of peace.  And yet their troubles were only just beginning.  The next year even as they celebrated the arrival of a new daughter, the infamous Great Chicago Fire broke out and destroyed sizable sections of the city…primarily those sections of the city in which Horatio was significantly invested.  Still reeling from the death of their son the couple could only watch as a huge amount of their wealth literally went up in flames.  Two years later, in 1873, an economic downturn hit the city and they saw even more of their holdings vanish.  Nearly broke but in need of some time away to recover their fragile sanity, the family decided to spend some time in Europe.  At the last minute, however, Horatio got held up by some business dealings.  Not wanting to delay the whole family, he sent Anna and their now four daughters on ahead of him on the steamship, the Ville du Havre.

What happened next can hardly be seen as anything other than God mocking their misfortune and doubling down on the pain He had already caused them.  The ship sank in the middle of the Atlantic and of the hundreds on board, 27 survived, including Anna…but not a single one of the girls.  When she reached shore in England, she sent a telegram to her husband that read “Saved alone.  What shall I do?”

Indeed, what shall we do when the bottom drops out from under us, but instead of hitting the floor somewhere below, continues falling for what seems like ever?  Or, if you haven’t experienced something like that you may have wondered at one time or another when reflecting on the situation of those who have: How can a loving God allow such horrible, unmitigated tragedy to take place in His world?  Maybe a God like that doesn’t even really exist…

This morning we are in the third part of our series, God’s Not Dead.  With the movie as our jumping off point, what we are wrestling with in this series is this question: If God’s not dead, who are you going to tell about it?  As we talked about in the first part of the series, though, the thought of sharing with someone else the news that God is not dead and that they should give their lives to Him is a remarkably frightening thought to many believers in spite of the essentially simple message.  And yet, if you are a Jesus follower, this isn’t an option as far as Scripture goes.  We are commanded not only to spread the word, but to be ready to do so.  Thus this series.

In the first part a couple of weeks ago we talked about how we can be both ready and unafraid of this challenge.  I shared with you five principles of being both ready and unafraid.  Last week, then, we shifted gears and began examining some of the evidence and arguments necessary for us to be ready.  Specifically we looked at some of the scientific evidence and how to answer those who would use science to reject God.

The fact is, though, many folks who claim scientific reasons to justify their disbelief in God aren’t telling the whole truth.  They may have some scientifically-rooted objections, but these for them serve only to confirm the doubts they already have stemming from another part of life: the hard part.  I said last week that there are two major areas from which people object to the Christian faith: science and the problem of evil in the world.  The simple reality is that the problem of evil leads more people to turn away from God and harden their hearts and minds to the notion of His existence than probably anything else.  The reasons for this are many and obvious.  Not everybody has the opportunity to learn much science, but everybody experiences pain at one point in life or another.  Everybody.  No exceptions.  Furthermore, while we certainly experience a fair amount of pain that is of our own making, we experience a lot of pain that is of somebody else’s or perhaps nobody else’s making too…kind of like Horatio Spafford encountered.

Well, why should we get hurt and go through hard times that are not our fault?  I mean, if we mess up, that’s one thing.  We should have to pay the price for our mistakes.  But why should we get hurt because of somebody else’s failing?  You’ve almost certainly heard a story of a drunk driver crashing head first into another car, killing all the people in the car, and walking away without a scratch.  How is that right?  How is that just?  How is that fair?   And anyway, if God is supposed to be good, why all the pain and suffering?  Doesn’t He care?  Isn’t He supposed to be able to do something about it?  Why doesn’t He?  What’s the deal?  He must not really exist.

Let’s be honest this morning, folks: these charges are frightfully hard for Christians to answer in part because we struggle with them just as much as folks who aren’t yet Jesus followers.  Becoming a follower of Jesus does not mean having everything all figured out.  Yet, if we are going to be able to share the news that God’s not dead, we need to be equipped to explain why belief in the God of the Bible is reasonable in spite of all the brokenness of the world around us.

Well, if we are going to understand how to respond to someone’s objections to God based on all the evil in this world, we need to understand where it came from and what God intends to do about it.  For this, we need to turn to the Bible which contains answers to both of those queries.  On the question of where the evil came from, we need to turn to Genesis 3.  If you have a copy of the Scriptures within arm’s reach, grab it and turn there with me.  I want you to see this.  Genesis 3 picks up sometime after God has finished creating the world.  We don’t know how long it was, but that’s not important.  What happens in Genesis 3 is that the man and the woman God created in sinless perfection get tempted, and they fall to it.  Listen to how this went starting at v. 1.

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden”?’  And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”’  But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’  So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”

Now, this passage has been analyzed endlessly, but the basic idea here is that the serpent convinces the woman (and the man since he was there the whole time with her) to desire what God said they could not have.  He tempted them to put themselves in the place of God and decide what is right and what is wrong for themselves irrespective of what God had declared.  Again, then, there’s a lot more we could say here, but the point is that evil entered the world when people started thinking we could take the place of God.  That’s what the serpent meant when it said, “and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  We were already created in God’s image.  What we were tempted to do—and we fell for it—was to put ourselves in His place.

So then, in a single act not only our nature, but all of creation was corrupted by sin and that has somehow been passed down from one generation to the next ever since.  All the pain and misery, then, that you have ever experienced, that anybody has ever experienced, can be traced to this moment in history.  As soon as we made ourselves the measure of things we lost out on ever having a chance at achieving a lasting peace and happiness on our own.  The long road of human history stretching forth from that moment only serves to illustrate this fact.  In our world there has always been conflict.  Until Christ returns there will always be conflict.  But, that brings us to the other side of the issue.  As bad as the world is, it won’t always be like this.  At some point in the future, God is going to eliminate all the evil entirely.  He will wipe it out and it will be gone for all eternity.  In that day all of those who belong to Him will get to enjoy the world as it was always intended to be enjoyed.  We actually have a description of this time courtesy of the apostle John.  It’s found in Revelation 21.  Flip to the other end of your Bible and check this out with me too.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with [people].  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’  And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ . . .And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.  They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”

So what we have here are two truths that speak to the current state of our world with both reality and hope.  Far too many of the answers people seek out to the problem of pain in this world miss out on one or the other of these and are thus insufficient to deal with the issue.  The first truth is that the world is in fact broken.  There’s no use denying that fact.  It’ll only leave us unprepared to deal with the world’s brokenness when we are forced to face it.  The second truth is that it won’t always be like this.  It is going to get better.  The brokenness we face now is not the final answer on this world.  Missing out on this important fact invariably leads to nihilism which only serves to deepen the brokenness further because when people believe in nothing they’re willing to do anything.

Here, though, we arrive at a problem.  It’s great that we’ve been forced to embrace the reality of the world’s brokenness.  But we really couldn’t ignore that anyway.  And, it’s great that God has plans to do something about it in the future.  But how does that help us now?  Knowing God is going to get rid of all the pain in the world at some indeterminate future date sounds wonderful, but it doesn’t make the pain I’m going through today any less intense.

So how do we deal with this?  What does God have to say about this?  What is His answer to the pain that I’m facing right now; pain that I didn’t cause and yet through which I am still having to walk?  Two words: He died.  God understands us well enough (He did make us, after all) to know that the promise of future relief from pain wouldn’t be very satisfying without something to help in the moment.  Here’s the problem, though.  If God took away some measure of the pain we feel now as a result of the choices we make (and one person’s choice always affects someone else), He would render those choices less meaningful than they were before.  In other words, He would have to take away some of our free will.  Parents should be able to recognize the truth of this immediately.  Think about the parents who swoop in to clean up the worst of the damage resulting from the bad choices their kids make before they can experience their full weight, they are keeping them dependent on them and incapable of getting along well in society on their own.  Now, while people today seem to be more and more willing to exchange liberty for security, to give up freedom for a less painful life, God knows that is not a positive situation for folks to be in.  We were made to be free.

Well, if God can’t take away the pain of this world without taking away our freedom, what could He do?  How about experience the hurt with us?  Have you ever met someone who had experienced a pain similar to one you had felt?  Wasn’t there an instant comradery there that gave the two of you a point of connection that wouldn’t have otherwise existed?  You felt a kinship, a closeness with that person that you wouldn’t have otherwise felt.  You felt more hopeful about your own pain simply by knowing that you didn’t have to face it alone anymore.  There’s just something special about being able to look someone else in the eye when you are hurting and have them whisper, “I know.”  This is what God did for us in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  He allowed Himself to experience the full weight of the brokenness of this world—the very worst possible physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, and any other kind of pain you can think of.  Furthermore, He did it out of His great love for us so that when we are hurting so badly we can just barely stand it He can look us in the eye and whisper quietly in our ear, “I know.”  No matter what is the cause of your pain what you will find in your heavenly Father is someone who intimately understands exactly what you are facing and will walk with you through it to life on the other side.

But He didn’t stop there.  On the third day He was raised from the dead, utterly defeating His pain and setting the stage for the final defeat of our own.  Because of the resurrection not only can God assure us that He knows what we are feeling, He can also remind us that there is relief on the way.  If He did it once, He can do it again.  He has been fully restored from His pain and if we will follow Him our own restoration is coming.  In the meantime, He’ll walk with us through whatever it is we’re facing, all the way through the Valley of the Shadow of Death to life on the other side.  When you meet someone who is hurting and has turned from God because of it, this is what you tell them: The world is broken, but God has things well in hand.  Regardless of what your particular experience of the brokenness of this world might be, God knows what you are going through, He’ll walk with you through it, and He won’t ever let the situation get out of His hands.  The world is broken, but God has things well in hand.

In order to finish off our time together this morning, I want to offer you five big ideas that might help you put words to all of this when talking about it with someone else.  We’ll run through these pretty quickly, but you can go back and look over them more carefully later.  The first principle is this: Evil is a choice.  It is the choice to do something that diverges with God’s character and thus attempts to remove Him from the equation.  It is not a choice into which we are forced, but it is a choice that we make with absolute consistency when operating on our own.  Furthermore, it is a choice for whose risk God had to allow in creating beings who shared in His image.  God chose to give us the ability to make meaningful choices with real consequences (the most important being to commit ourselves to Him), a choice on His part that had to include the ability to choose other than He would prefer.  Unfortunately, we made this choice and the world has been broken ever since.  Yet not broken beyond God’s ability to restore it.  The world is broken, but God has things well in hand.

The second principle is just as important: No God—no evil.  Without an acknowledgement of the existence of God, we don’t have any rational way to distinguish between good and evil in any kind of an objective sense.  Without some standard external to ourselves we can always and only express our preferences for one kind of behavior or another.  Now our preferences might be governed by the culture around us, but this in no ways means those preferences are objectively right or wrong.  Without an external-to-us standard, there is no objective right and wrong.

Principle three: morality is built into humanity.  Just because we can’t coherently hold that one set of behaviors are right or another set are wrong absent a transcendent God doesn’t mean we make coherent judgments all the time.  In spite of our sometimes aggressive efforts to either ignore or resist it, we know inherently whether or not something is right or wrong.  There are simply some behaviors that automatically prompt a response of revulsion in people who have not given themselves totally over to the evil that dwells in their hearts.

Principle four: God has a plan to remove evil.  We touched on this already and the plan is summarized in John’s detailed, but sometimes hard to understand revelation from God.  Worth mentioning here is the fact that His plan is better than anything we could devise because if He were to simply remove all evil in an instant as we would have Him do, He would have to remove us too because we are, by nature, evil.  To quote from the author of the book God’s Not Dead, “people typically desire God to stop others from doing evil, but they don’t wish for God to impinge upon their own freedom to do whatever they desire.  They really want evil to stop happening to them, but not through them.”  God’s plan will remove evil completely and at just the right time.

The final principle here is this: God will judge evil.  This fact in and of itself helps to restrain evil now to some degree.  After all, part of the reason you don’t speed (more than you already do) is so that you don’t have to pay the price for getting caught.  The fines for getting caught may not deter you entirely, but they do generally keep you from going crazy.  The very fact of God’s promise to judge evil suggests powerfully that while the world certainly is broken, He has everything well in hand.  The world is broken, but God has things well in hand.

This is our answer to a hurting world; a world confused and angry about the pain it knows all too well.  This world is not as God intended it.  He knows the depths of your pain better than you could possibly imagine.  And, He’s going to make it right at just the proper moment.  The world is broken, but God has things well in hand.  And, to give you a picture of what can happen when this truth takes hold in a person’s life, consider the rest of the story of Horatio Spafford.  When he received the news from his wife of the utter tragedy on the sea, he caught the next ship across the Pond.  At one point in the journey his ship crossed over the place in the sea where the Ville du Havre had sunk.  Drawing from the well of his personal faith in the God who is good, the God who has the world well in hand in spite of its brokenness, Spafford began to pour his heart out to God by writing some poetry.  What did he write?  You know the words well and have perhaps experienced their healing power in the midst of your own brokenness.  “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”  Amazing words given the pain he knew, no?  But he didn’t stop there.  He pointed forward to the place he knew his hope was leading: “For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: If Jordan above me shall roll, no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.  And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul.”  Indeed, the world is broken, but God has things well in hand precisely because He is alive.  The question is: who are you going to tell about it?