Archive for September, 2005

Job's Friends (part 1)

Tuesday, September 13th, 2005

Job’s friends get dumped on a lot. And rightfully so. They take a bad situation and manage to make it worse by accusing Job of bringing this suffering on himself.

But before they do that, they get one thing right. When they show up they just sit in silence for seven days (Job 2:11-13). Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes the best thing is silence.

This is such a profound thing that it became a part of the Jewish culture that continues today. It’s called “sitting shiva” — literally “sitting sevens”.

This is precisely what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he said “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). We do pretty well at rejoicing with each other. We don’t do so well at mourning with each other. It’s as if we think Paul wrote, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; fix those who are mourning.” Or, “Give good advice to those who are mourning and get them back on the right track.”

After seven days Job’s friends speak, and they reveal how foolish, naive, shallow and bad their theology is. They probably should have just sat there in silence and then gone home, but they didn’t. And we’ll talk about them some more in the next couple of days. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Their words are terrible. But their silence is brilliant.

Do you have friends like that? If not, you better find some because they are extremely rare in the land of Uz.

Questions from The Book of Job

Monday, September 12th, 2005

God’s question: Have you considered my servant Job?

Satan’s question: Does Job serve God for nothing?

Satan is basically accusing God of being naive. Satan is also accusing Job of being depraved in an exhaustive way. He says that Job only serves God out of selfish motives — because Job knows that God is a good source of blessings. Turn off the blessings, and Job will stop serving God. Mankind, according to Satan, is unable to choose selflessness — incapable of nobility.

God is saying that this man Job isn’t like that. He’s not just nerve endings and body parts. Francis Crick and the evolutionary psychologists of the world are wrong. Humans do not merely act out of self-interest. Mankind is created in God’s Image and can choose self-sacrificial love. People were created to know, experience and share that kind of love, and it is a more powerful force than either pleasure or pain.

My question: Is God trying to convince Satan or us?

A Rare Saturday Post (Must Be Something Important)

Saturday, September 10th, 2005

I’ve you’ve read this blog much at all you know that I rarely post on the weekends. I’m usually busy speaking on Saturdays, and when I’m home I want to spend time with my family.

But I’ve got some questions on my mind that I can’t quite sort through. If you’ve read this blog much at all you also know that I tend to think while I write. I use this space as a way to think through what I’m going to teach in my Wednesday night class or the way I’m going to approach the material going in the book.

Today, these questions are very personal.

God comes to Abraham and says, “That’s it. I’ve had it with that city. I’m going to destroy it.” Abraham barters God down but doesn’t succeed in delivering the city. Still, God appears reasonable. Something we don’t always think of when we think of deity.

God comes to Moses and says, “That’s it. I’ve had it with those people. I’m going to destroy them.” Moses manages to actually talk God out of it this time. Once again, God listens to reason and reconsiders — changes his mind according to the text.

God comes to David and says, “That’s it. I’ve had it with you. Your son is going to die.” David begs and pleads but God does not change his mind this time.

A woman comes to Jesus and asks for help. He says, “I didn’t come to help people like you.” She begs and pleads and actually makes Jesus laugh. Jesus changes his mind and commends her for her faith.

Jesus tells a story about a woman who pleads her case before a judge. The judge rules against her, but she doesn’t give up. Eventually, she wears the judge out, and he reverses his decision.

I’m trying to figure some things out. What if Moses had said, “Well, if God wants to destroy these people, I’m not in a position to talk him out of it”? What if the woman had said, “Well, if the judge says ‘no’, then it must be God’s will”? What if God had said, “I’ve made up my mind, and it’s no use trying to pursuade me otherwise”?

The Bible is filled with stories. Some of them are about people who didn’t want to do what God asked them to do. Moses. Gideon. Jonah. Jesus even asked his Father for an alternative to crucifixion. God used various means of convincing them.

Some of the stories in the Bible are about people who didn’t want God to do what he said he was going to do. They used various means of trying to convince him — and sometimes they actually worked!

Here are the questions I’m wrestling with:

What is it about God’s nature and character that we’re supposed to model in the situations I’ve mentioned here?

How do you know if God is trying to get you to reconsider something?

Why are we so quick to assume something is God’s will — when it may or may not be?

God Is Not A Cow; Neither Is He The Ice Cream Man

Thursday, September 8th, 2005

There are several important observations we should make before wading into the story of Job.

First, it might help to think of there being two different locations in the first couple of chapters of Job. There’s what we could call an Upper Stage and a Lower Stage. The Upper Stage is heaven; the Lower Stage is earth.

Second, there’s tremendous irony used in the telling of this story. For example, what we usually think of as the plot of the story — isn’t really the plot. And the person we usually think is on trial — isn’t really the person on trial.

See, what we usually think of as the plot — a good man who suffers terribly — that’s only the plot on the Lower Stage. There’s a whole other plot that explains all that. It just plays out on the Upper Stage, and we forget about it.

And the person we usually think is on trial — a good God who allows suffering — that’s only true if we forget about what we’ve learned on that Upper Stage.

The actual plot (according to what we learn from chapters 1 and 2) goes something like this: A man who loves God suffers terribly. Will he continue to love God even if it doesn’t pay off?

God’s not on trial; Job is.

Now, for those of you who have thought of yourselves as being in Job’s shoes — think that through a little. Job thinks this play is a whodunit. But we already know all that. What we want to know is how Job is going to respond to his suffering. Is Job just interested in God the way a farmer is interested in his cow? Is it just about the milk and the cheese?

That’s what Satan says to God. He says, “Job loves you like kids love the Ice Cream Man.”

Is that true? Do we just love God for the stuff he provides? If so, what happens if the stuff stops coming? What happens when the cow goes dry and the Ice Cream Man’s truck breaks down?

Living in the Land of Uz

Wednesday, September 7th, 2005

“In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.”

So begins the famous Book of Job — a story that, according to William Safire, “delights the irreverent, satisfies the blasphemous, and offers at least some comfort to the heretical.”

Uz was far away — east of Israel — and Job lived long ago — a contemporary of Abram as near as we can tell. The story might as well begin: “A long, long time ago in a land far, far away….”

I think it begins this way to keep the original readers from going to seek out Job or any of his descendants. That would miss the point entirely. The point is, Job’s story is our story. The land of Uz is Job’s land. It’s our land. It’s this land.

The story begins with life as we would expect it. A good man with a good life. The two go hand-in-hand, right? The goodness of a person’s life is directly proportional to the goodness of their life. That’s the way things ought to be, right?

But that’s not how things are in the land of Uz. Uz is a place where very bad things happen — even to very good people. In Uz, bad things sometimes come without warning and without explanation. Uz is often a place of confusion and despair.

Uz is where we live, and this is our story.

Look Out, Suburbs

Tuesday, September 6th, 2005

The sentiment seems to be everywhere these days — even coming from the most unlikely of sources. Ridiculous fringe groups who claim to be Christians are suggesting that Hurricane Katrina is an act of judgment from God — judgment on sexual deviancy or gambling or something equally unsavory. Islamic fundamentalists believe this is Allah’s vengeance on the Great Satan that is American decadence. European liberals are saying this is somehow the result of global warming or a way of demonstrating God’s disapproval of America’s foreign policy.

It’s hard not to wonder about this. New Orleans is certainly known more for its vice than for its virtue. Political corruption is a way of life. Poverty and lack of education are certainly evils in our society that few seem overly concerned to eradicate.

And yet….

In the midst of all this I find myself wondering if we really want to start playing this game.

We should exercise caution as we sit comfortably in our easy chairs in our air-conditioned, suburban castles. If God is ready to start handing out punishments, he might start with the obvious places: New Orleans, Las Vegas, Hollywood.

But how long until he really gets rolling and tears through the suburbs with a holy fire unlike any other? How long until he decides to take on the real evils: pride, arrogance, complacency, apathy? If this is judgment, maybe he’s just getting warmed up. Maybe this is just a preview of what is to come.

Personally, I do not believe that’s what is going on. But if you’re going to start with the blaming and the passing of judgment, you better be consistent. And you better look out, suburbs!

The Highest Virtue (Redux)

Monday, September 5th, 2005

I’m continuing a series of posts from January. These were thoughts related to the aftermath of the tsunami that struck Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia. I think they are appropriate for us to think through in light of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

As we consider how to respond to the tragedy, let’s remember that Christianity is less about what and why — and more about who. Christianity is an invitation to a relationship, and relationships are personal in nature — not merely propositional. Thus, Christianity is not about what you know — it’s about who you know, who you’re becoming and who you love.

Also, please think and pray about how you can give generously to an organization like Samaritan’s Purse. Better yet, explore options to get involved personally. Gifts of money are great and will help the victims. Gifts of time and personal involvement will help the victims and change you forever as well.

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The Highest Virtue

The more I think about it, the more I realize that most of our false assumptions about God’s character and nature arise out of our imagining what we would be like if we were God and had access to his resources. It’s no wonder that we’re scared and confused by him; we’ve been so heavily influenced by the Greek philosophers that their assumptions have become ours.

Case in point: Most people today — if they believe in God at all — believe that his highest attribute is power. He is nothing if not all-powerful. And he uses that power to dominate others. It’s really Nietzsche’s Will to Power with a thin veneer of theology.

Love was a lower virtue than power, the Greeks thought, because love implies some sort of need. Power, on the other hand, could be absolute — not lacking anything. This kind of power made the one holding it perfect and invulnerable.

Thus the Greeks imagined Zeus as the ultimate god of power. He had to break the rules every now and then — he had to be capricious — had to break his word — had to smite someone periodically just because he could. Otherwise, if he submitted to some kind of code, he would be thought to be lower than that code.

Plato came along (stick with me here) and refused to believe that the gods would be arbitrarily violent. But he still maintained this idea that they were invulnerable. They could do anything they wanted to anyone they wanted and no one was allowed to take offense at that. No one could affect them or cause them pain.

Obviously, this painted Plato in an interesting corner. To get out of his dilemma, Plato argued that the gods must be emotionless beings. In fact, if they were tied emotionally in any sense to anyone or anything that would unravel all their power.

Aristotle further developed this idea and gave it a name: Divine Impassibility. This is the belief that the gods cannot be affected by any outside source. The gods are unaware of the joy and sadness experienced by mere mortals. The gods not only do they not know about how we feel, they don’t care. They have their agenda, and that’s all they’re focused on.

Is this an accurate reflection of the God we find in the Bible? If so, what do we do with passages like 1 John 4:8? If not, why do we wonder whether or not God might actually hear us when we talk to him and do something in response?

As a systematic theologian (almost anathema in these postmodern days), I know it’s somewhat futile to consider a taxonomy of God’s attributes. None of them is more important than another. Still, what is the highest virtue? Does God possess that virtue?

The God Who Suffers (Redux)

Friday, September 2nd, 2005

I’m continuing to post several things I wrote back in January in the aftermath of the tsunami that struck Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. As we all read these, I encourage you to think deeply about what you know about God’s character and nature. I also challenge you to sit down with friends and family and think about what you can do to reflect that character in your own lives.

This is a time of crisis. It is also a time of opportunity. Now more than ever we must take seriously the question that is so familiar to us that we know it by its initials: WWJD?

Seriously, what would Jesus do?

I also encourage you to contribute financially to an organization like Samaritan’s Purse.

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The God Who Suffers

I’m reading the controversial book The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann. As far as I can tell, the first 50 pages or so are just a restating of the central argument of Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. Steve tells a story, though, that really resonates with me, and it’s really making me think through some things.

Like many of us who grew up going to Sunday school, he had an array of teachers who tried to make the hard parts of the Bible easy to understand for kids. One difficult portion is the story found in Exodus 33 where Moses is allowed to see God’s backside — seeing something of his glory. But Moses isn’t allowed to see God’s face because, as the text says, “Anyone who sees [God’s] face will die” (v. 20).

What’s up with that?

Well, Steve’s Sunday school teacher did what a lot of our Sunday school teachers did. He took a kleenex and lit a candle. Moving that tissue slowly closer to the candle’s flame, it ignited before the two even touched. God is like that! God is an all-consuming fire, and we are thin and sinful — like tissue paper. No one can get close to him without being burned up. That’s why no one can see God’s face and live.

Well, that’s scary. That’s the premise behind Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. But is it accurate? I suppose in one sense it may be. And yet….

I have a friend whose mother is gradually losing her battle with Alzheimer’s while his father is going blind. I see how hard this is on my friend. He looks miserable sometimes and feels helpless. I have another friend who suffers chronic pain — everything he does hurts. There is no comfortable position for him to sit or stand. I am afraid the pain will drive him mad. I know a couple who cannot have children biologically. Sometimes I catch them watching me with my kids, and I see the confusion and sadness.

These are not the most horrific sights. Certainly, none of my friends would compare their situation with those who are suffering in Sri Lanka or Rwanda or even the ghettos of Brazil — where it’s a miracle if you live to be my age. My friends live in relative comfort compared with those whose lives are wracked with the torture of AIDS and abject poverty. And yet the pain of my friends is most accutely felt because…well…because they’re my friends. I’m emotionally attached to them. The people in other parts of the world are easier for me to ignore. All I have to do is turn off the TV.

I sometimes look at the suffering of my friends, and it reminds me of just how deep the reservoir of pain is in this world. In those moments, when I stare deep into the well of human suffering, I just want to die. I don’t want to live with the pain of what I’ve seen. Going on with the knowledge that such suffering exists in the world is difficult.

Now, imagine how God feels.

If he is who the Bible would have us believe he is, he has witnessed every act of suffering, every time innocence has ever been lost, every example of depravity. He has heard every cry, every agonized silent scream.

Perhaps it is this, rather than our sinfulness, that explains why we cannot look at God’s face and live. If God is love — it says that in the Bible, you know — then it makes sense for the one who loves most to also be the one who suffers most. I imagine all that suffering etched on his face. I also imagine that no one could bear to see a face marked with that much pain and live.

A Startling Absence of Mystery (Redux)

Friday, September 2nd, 2005

I am reposting some things from January — things I was thinking about just after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia. Together we are working towards understanding what has happened, how it happened and how we are to live in light of such tragic events.

Clearly, there must be a distinction between God’s causative will and God’s permissive will. Not everything that happens was caused by God, though it was clearly allowed by God. This is a knotty problem, and people smarter than I have spent years trying to untangle it. Still, our faith seeks understanding — so, we grope around for answers. These brief articles are my best attempt to think through this myself and help you do the same.

If you’d like to contribute financially to the recovery efforts, my suggestion is to do so through an organization like Samaritans Purse.

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A Startling Absence of Mystery

I guess my biggest problem with Enlightenment-era theology is the notion that everything has a rational explanation. I used to believe that, but I’m less certain now. The Bible itself affirms that for now we only know in part — we can only see things dimly, like in a fogged-up mirror. None of us knows completely.

In fact, to use the words of Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, “Religion begins with wonder and mystery.” I fear that the modern church’s attempt to dispel all the mystery from Christianity has robbed us of a way of dealing with evil. Whether it is “natural evil” like a tsunami or “personal evil” like genocide in the Sudan — saying, “Well, it must be God’s will” just doesn’t cut it. That is an insufficient answer for a suffering world.

The world (and the events of the world) is a mystery, a question, not an answer. Perhaps even a rhetorical question at that. Any attempt to answer a rhetorical question is really an exercise in both redundance and futility. The mystery of a Creative Genius rather than the aloof concept of power — the God of mystery rather than the Master Mind who stands apart — in other words, the God of the Incarnation, the God who became the Suffering Servant, the God in relation to Whom the here-and-now world derives meaning — this is the only idea adequate.

Our admission that we do not completely understand this mystery is more honest and compelling than outlining the abstract concept of a Grand Designer. Our willingness to emulate this God by entering into the suffering of others with a firm commitment and resolve to roll up our sleeves and respond to evil with goodness (with holiness, even) — this is the righteous response. May it be ours.

Whom Shall We Blame? (Redux)

Thursday, September 1st, 2005

In light of the current topic, I’m bringing back some posts from January. This post was originally from January 3, and it was written in the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

BTW, if you want to help the relief efforts, you still might want to consider Samaritan’s Purse. They usually focus on international work, but they are on the ground in Alabama right now helping people, and they have my full support.

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Whom Shall We Blame?

It’s almost impossible to get my mind around the death and destruction left in the wake of the tsunami. More than 150,000 are confirmed dead — a number that will continue to rise over the coming weeks and months. If you’d like to make a contribution to the relief efforts, you might want to consider Samaritan’s Purse (http://www.samaritanspurse.org/home.asp).

In light of disasters like this, it is our natural inclination to look around for someone to blame. In a society that still has traces of a biblical heritage, the most natural response is to blame God. This happened in the aftermath of 9/11, so it’s not surprising that people are now asking if God had something to do with this.

Oddly, it seems some Christians are more than eager to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of God. Defending his sovereignty (what is known as a theodicy) has become all the rage among our Calvinist brethren. But I don’t buy it. I do not believe that God was “up there” and said, “Well, this is going to kill a bunch of people — probably consigning most of them to hell — but they weren’t elect anyway, so here goes.”

That doesn’t sound like the God I read about in the Bible. I know the passages in Job. I know what the psalmist said. I even believe those ideas are divinely inspired. But I can’t square the idea of a God who arbitrarily kills hundreds of thousands (many of whom are innocent children — original sin notwithstanding) with the biblical portrait of a compassionate, merciful God who is determined to set things right-side up.

What about you? Do you think God’s to blame? If not, then who? Whom shall we blame? Is that even an appropriate question?