And Yet…We Praise Him. Thanksgiving When Life Is Hard.

2400 years ago, Plato wrote his famous work, The Republic. In it, he addressed a crucial question. Is justice an intrinsic good? Is the just life, the righteous life, really the good life? That is, if you removed all the rewards of righteousness and the penalties of unrighteousness, would it still be worth it to live justly? Plato’s character, Glaucon, claimed that it wouldn’t. Those who live justly, he argued, only do so for its worldly benefits.

Many thousand years ago, Satan made the same argument to God concerning his righteous servant Job. “‘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'” (Job 1:9-11).

And so, God allowed Job to be tested. He was stripped of all his earthly goods including all of his children and yet…He praised Him (Job 1:22).

Two thousand thousand years ago, Paul and Silas were beaten because of their identification with Jesus Christ. They were thrown in jail and placed in shackles and yet…they praised Him (Acts 16:25).

Two weeks ago, my uncle suffered a stroke during his bladder removal surgery. He awoke unable to see. Barring a miracle, He is now permanently blind and yet…he praises Him.

A week ago, my mother, who has suffered from the effects of cerebral palsy her whole life, underwent ankle replacement surgery. Her pain is great and her recovery will be long. There is a possibility she will end her life in a wheel chair and yet…she praises Him.

Today, the Prosperity Gospel tells us what Glaucon told Socrates and what Satan told God. Righteousness is only worth what it produces. God is only worth what He gives. He is not the end to happiness, but only a means. The good life is the life that is full of health and wealth and if God does not give it, He is not worth our time. Our righteousness has been in vain (Psalms 73:13).

This Prosperity Gospel has a childish sort of logic to it, a basic arithmetic.  Be good. Get good. If this is the case, then Job and Paul and Silas and my uncle and my mom and so many more are either fools or they know a greater truth. The Prosperity Gospel cannot account for worshiping prisoners or singing blind men. It has no explanation for joyful suffering.

Like Satan in the garden, it mixes truth with lies. The content of its promise is true, but its timing is wrong. We are promised health and wealth, but not in this life. Its claim that God wants to make us happy is true, but its understanding of that happiness is wrong. God is both the means and the end to our happiness. He is not only the giver of the treasure. He is the treasure.

This is the true heart of the Christian faith and it radically changes its message. Grace confounds the Prosperity Gospel’s basic math. In fact, it reverses it. We have done bad and yet, we receive good. Moreover, the treasure we receive is of such great worth that not only does any earthly treasure pale in comparison, but it is such that we would gladly give it all up in order to obtain it. As Paul said, we would count it all as rubbish that we may gain Christ and be found in Him (Philippians 3:8-9).

Christ is the treasure we could not afford to buy and the treasure we would sell anything to keep. That is how you account for worshiping prisoners and singing blind men. That is the only way to make sense of joyful suffering.

Next week, we will all gather with family and give thanks for our blessings. For those who are suffering, this may be harder to do. It is hard to believe in God’s goodness when it can’t be tasted and seen, but there is a day of prosperity that is unseen, but surely coming. We couldn’t earn it and we can’t lose it. This treasure is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us (1 Peter 1:40).

The good life is not the easy life, but the life lived for Jesus. If we have Him, we have more than sufficient cause for giving thanks. If we know Him, we have known and we will know happiness. While we tarry here, we are not promised easy and comfortable circumstances, but a joy that exists independently of all circumstances. We may have seen great sorrow and we may see greater sorrow still and yet…we praise Him.

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The Prosperity Gospel’s Deadly Whisper

“Find rest, o my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. Trust in him at all time O people; pour out your hearts to him, for god is or refuge” (Psalms 62:5-8).

That was the verse shared by someone at church about four months ago, a verse I memorized in college. But that Sunday, I just thought, “That’s nice. I like that verse” and moved on with my life. Only later did I realize it was for me, that it was the verse God was giving me as the theme for the season of trial He was about to lead my family through.

A week or so later, my husband lost his job. We had just come off a year of great blessing. Great new job. Great new house. Beautiful new baby. This year could not look any more different. Unemployment. Sickness. Job offers falling through. Maybe we’d put too much stock in these earthly blessings. “Are you punishing us, Lord?” I wondered. Not punishing. Refining. Refining our hope. Refining our rest.

What does it mean when trials come regardless of “good behavior”? This is the great question of the book of Job.

The truth is, we all want a simple calculus. Do good. Get good. Do bad. Get bad. Obey. Reap blessings. Disobey. Reap trials. We want God to operate on our terms. It’s no different, really, from the Old Testament draw to idol worship. Gods made of human hands can be controlled by human hands. They are manipulable. Containable. Predictable. Non-threatening.

A living, breathing, omnipotent, sovereign God on the other hand? That can be a terrifying thing. He cannot be controlled or manipulated. He lives far above us in heaven and does all that He pleases (Psalm 115:3). His judgments are unsearchable and his ways are inscrutable (Romans 11:33). If we submit to Him (or not), we are very much at His mercy.

Trials have a way of revealing what we really believe about God and about ourselves. I could give you a point by point run down of the Gospel.  I can scoff at Prosperity Gospel preaching and provide a scriptural rebuttal and yet, its seductive whispers can sneak behind my theologically equipped mind and make their way into my more vulnerable, more wayward heart. It is there that God is sifting.

I must confess that I can want God to behave more like an idol, to be a tool in my hands that I bend into making my life what I think it should be. I can want the Prosperity Gospel to be true.

As we have endured and continue to endure this season, it has forced me to ask myself some questions. Do I really believe that God is sovereign? Is the misfortune that has come our way a product of bad luck or divine providence? What has God promised me? Comfort, ease, and a life free of trouble? Or a hope, a joy, and a peace that remain in spite of trouble? What is the purpose of my life and what role does God play in it? Is my life about me and is God my fairy godmother who makes all my dreams come true? Or is my life about Him and His glory?

The answers to these questions directly determine how we respond in trials and suffering. I cannot pretend that my answers have always been the “right” ones. The verses I’ve been most drawn to are from Psalm 77. “Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion” (v. 8,9)  My soul has refused to be comforted (v. 2), and yet still searched diligently to remember the deeds of the Lord (v. 11). I believe. Help my unbelief.

The lie of the enemy is that God owes us much and yet, withholds much. The truth of the gospel is that God owes us nothing but wrath and yet, gives us nothing but grace. Which will I believe?

I do not serve a god made of clay, fashioned by human hands, but the great and mighty creator and ruler of the universe. He has redeemed my life from the pit and it is His to do with as He pleases. He is not a good luck charm I invoke when trials come. He is my refuge when trials come. He is not making a plan for my life. He is making my life for His plan.

No one cares if we praise God when the sun is shining, but the world will stop and marvel when we praise Him in a storm, when our worship operates completely independently of our circumstances. That is the mark of a faith that is really real, of a heart that loves God for Himself and not for His blessings.

I am weak and weary, but I pray that trials will prove the tested genuineness of my faith, refined like gold in the fire, and resulting in the praise and glory and honor of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:7). I have faltered and will no doubt falter again, but I am resolved to say with Job, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away: blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him” (Job 13:15).


Is It Really Good That God Is Sovereign?

I have not written in a long time.  I have been rather preoccupied mentally and physically with the whirlwind excitement and nausea of the first few months of pregnancy, but I am glad to be back at the keyboard and it is this new life experience that has prompted this post.  Along with all the joy of finding out I was pregnant and telling family and friends, I have at times encountered an old enemy:  fear.  He shows up at my most vulnerable moments.  He questions beliefs I hold that might be tested.  He asks perniciously and repeatedly, “What if…?”  What if I lost the baby? What if the baby has a defect or a disease?  What if God is not really good?  What if God is not really sovereign?  Ultimately, what if it is not really good that God is sovereign?

All of this, along with the book I am reading for my ladies group, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts by Jerry Bridges, has led me to really ponder this subject and what I really think about the sovereignty of God.  I have always believed that God is sovereign, but my attitude towards this truth has often been one more of resignation than of joy and thankfulness because let’s be honest, sometimes we wish He wasn’t.  I have found, however, that the sovereignty of God is not just a fact, it is a glorious fact: one I should treasure, trust, and find ultimate peace and rest in.

I)  The Difficulty of the Sovereignty of God

Most Christians would say they believe in the sovereignty of God, but I think few are really comfortable with all the implications of that.  As Bridges points out, we are perfectly fine with accrediting God when something good happens, when someone is saved, or we get that job we needed or meet our spouse.  However, we have a harder time with the bad stuff, when an unsaved person dies or we don’t get that job or we find ourselves consigned to live of singleness.  In those instances, the really tough ones, we tend to want to let God “off the hook.”  The only problem is that God never asks or even wants to be let “off the hook.”

In the Scriptures, God is adamant and unapologetic about His absolute sovereignty over every person and event, large or small.  God is seen not just allowing or regretfully standing by as bad things happen, but ordaining everything that comes to pass.  “Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it?  Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come? (Lamentations 3:37-38).” And yet, Scripture is also adamant that God is not the author of evil or sin, that we and not He are responsible for the evil and suffering wrought in the world.  This is a mystery indeed that I will not attempt to fully understand and which no doubt, causes us to question if it is really good that all in our lives, even the bad and painful, is from the sovereign hand of God.  Can such a God really be trusted?

I think it is helpful to remember that our problem in grasping the goodness of the sovereignty of God is really one of perspective.   We are very much the child and He is very much the Father.  A father is, in many ways, sovereign over his child.  He decides when he will eat and sleep, when he will work and when he will play, where he will go and what he will do.  He does many things which make no sense to the child, which to his understanding, do harm and not good to the him.  The father decrees things the child does not like and concludes that the father must be opposed to him.  The child sees things this way because he does not possess the wisdom, the information, and the perspective that the Father does.  It is only when the child has grown, when he has gained the maturity and mental capability to grasp the bigger picture of the father’s plans that he understands that all the father did which often seemed so questionable, he did in love and for the good of the child.

II)  A Far Worse Alternative

I will not deny that the sovereignty of God is a fearsome thing. It does not promise that only good will pass our way.  It robs us of our false assurance that we are the makers of our own destiny.  It makes us vulnerable to pain we would rather choose to avoid.  Indeed, it makes us ask if it would not in fact be better if this God was not so sovereign. Perhaps it would be better if more should be left up to us or to chance.

Consider this though.  If God is not totally sovereign, if God is not behind my cancer or the loss of my loved one, then what is?  It may only be my enemy or blind, unfeeling chance, neither of which do I wish to be at the mercy of.  I may fancy myself to be the arbiter of my own life (which really would be a terrible thing) and yet we all know that this is not really the case.  We are all susceptible to the whims of people and circumstances.

If then God is not fully sovereign over the bad circumstances in my life, then I may only conclude that He has left me vulnerable to the devil whose only design is my harm.  Either that, or my suffering is nothing more than bad luck which shall render it meaningless and therefore, hopeless. We find then that we should much rather suffer at the hands of a sovereign God who has promised to infuse our suffering with purpose and work it for our ultimate good than at the hands of him whose only purpose could be our destruction or random chaos which has no purpose at all.  The surprising truth is that if my suffering is from God, then my suffering can be trusted.

III)  Pain is Valuable and Evil is Redeemable

We often distrust the sovereignty of God because it may bring us suffering and we dislike suffering because it hurts.  I do not wish to trivialize the pain of suffering, but I must observe that our aversion to pain and our commitment to avoid it at all costs is short-sighted, much like the example of the child earlier.  We dislike pain because well, because it’s painful, but the truth is that pain can be extremely valuable.  It can achieve things for us.  The runner endures the pain of the race because he wishes to obtain the prize.  The mother labors that she might give life to her child.  The father disciplines and brings pain to his child that he may mold the child’s character (Hebrews 12:11).  We endure pain because we believe that the pain is earning us something which will make the pain worthwhile.  This is the promise of scripture.  Our pain is not pointless.  It is not in vain, but rather it is delivered to us intentionally and lovingly from the sovereign hands of God Himself.  Our “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5:3-4).”  And this hope does not disappoint.  In other words, our pain is worth it.  It is achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs it all.

But what if our suffering should be a result of evil?  What then?  Has God ordained that evil should be done to us?  I cannot explain this fully. God is not the author of evil and yet He is sovereign over it and uses it for His purposes.  Consider the cross.  Has ever a more evil and wicked act been performed than the crucifixion of the guiltless savior at the hands of guilty men?  And yet, God the Father ordained that this evil should come to pass, that His son should be crushed.  And God the Son willingly embraced the pain of this evil.  Why?  Because it purchased for Him something of greater worth:  the glory of God and the salvation of His chosen people.  In this, not only are we redeemed, but so is the evil of the Cross.  That which was wicked was made good.  That which was hopeless became the fountain of all hope and the greatest act of hate became the greatest act of love.  In this the example of our Savior, we see that our pain, though real, is valuable and the evil of this world, though mysteriously ordained by God, will also assuredly be redeemed by God.  What man has meant for evil, God has meant for good (Genesis 50:20).

IV)  The Real Answer:  Sovereign Love

I must add that though I have been dealing with fears and these difficult questions abstractly, I am not now in a position of suffering or pain.  I am currently dealing with the question of God’s sovereignty mostly intellectually.  I recognize then that I am in no position to preach to the one in enduring real trial and pain.  Indeed, I am sure that these abstract musings would be of little help at all to the one in the midst of a storm. In a storm, we can’t see beyond our reach and in the fire, we can’t think beyond our pain.  We don’t need abstract ideas.  We need a person and Jesus is the person we need.

The real, heart answer to this question then is that it is good that God is sovereign because He loves us and we can hope in this love because it is sovereign love.  If He be sovereign, but not loving, He can only be feared. If He be loving, but not sovereign, He can never be fully trusted.  The cross tells us that He is both.  His love is not weak impotent and His sovereignty is not detached and impersonal.  His sovereignty is love and His love is sovereign.  His words for the one who suffers are these:

“But now, this is what the LORD says–he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior (Isaiah 43:1-3).”

“Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10).” 

God does not promise that He will not give us pain.  In fact, He promises just the opposite.  What He does promise though is that He will be with us.  This is the answer to fear and doubt.   He, not just a God or even the God, but our God will be with us. God became man that He might stand in our place in our greatest trial: the judgment of our sin.  His sovereign love directed Him to endure such affliction from sinful men in order that He might make those sinful men His own, in order that He might be their God with them in every trial and every storm.  We can trust His sovereignty, treasure His sovereignty and rest in His sovereignty because His sovereignty has done this for us.  We are His people and He is our God.

September 11th Reflections on God, Evil, and Psalm 10

Today is September 11th, a day on which acts of unspeakable horror were committed and thousands of innocent people lost their lives.  As I imagine many people did today, I went back in my mind to that day of evil.  Where I was, what I was doing, and what I was thinking as I watched planes crash and buildings fall to the ground…Why?  It is a question we all ask at one time or another and I began thinking on it again today.  Why would God allow something like that to happen?  It is a serious and important question, one which has kept many from faith in God.

“Why O LORD, do you stand far off?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Psalm 10:1

Not Just Why, but Who?

However, I think an equally important question is not just why, but who?  In the face of evil and suffering, it is easy to become angry at God or even decide that it must mean God is not really real.  I think though that we must be careful to first consider the direct cause of evil in the world: ourselves.  We cry against the wrongs committed against men, but it is to be noted that these wrongs are done at the hands of other men.  This tells us two very significant things about mankind: one, we hold ourselves to a higher standard than all other species and two, we continuously fall short of this standard.

In our outrage at evil, we deny God’s existence and yet, if God is not real and we are but products of the blind and indifferent process of evolution in a universe with no ultimate justice, then our outcry against evil is completely unfounded.  We are nothing but animals and so we should look to the animals for example.  We can no more object to the murder of innocents than we can to the predator who takes his prey.  Yet, we know this cannot really do.  We cannot really live like that because we know whether we are willing to admit it or not that we are different from the animal.  We are held to a higher standard.

It is this fact that we do not want to face because if there is a standard, there is a judge and that is a frightening thing.  For just as we know that we are held to this higher standard, we know that we have not met it. Looking at the history of mankind, it is evident that there is something terribly, terribly wrong with us, something rotten at our very core.  So we most certainly should ask why God would allow evil, but we should not forget that it is we who have committed it.  It originates with us.

The Wicked Man

If we are the direct perpetrators of evil, then the question of “Why?” must not only be levied at God, but at ourselves.  What is it that is so wrong with us?  Why would a man or men commit such heinous acts as murder or terrorism?  The Bible gives us an answer.  It tells us about the wicked man.

“In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.  He boasts of the cravings of his heart; he blesses the greedy and reviles the LORD.  In his pride the wicked does not seek him; in all this thoughts there is no room for God….He says to himself, ‘God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees'” (Psalm 10:2-4,11).  

The wicked man is wicked because he does not fear God.  In his pride, he believes that God does not see his evil acts nor that He will call him to account.  It is slightly ironic that in reaction to evil so many deny God and assume He does not see when it is the denial of God which has led men into evil in the first place. Evil has come into our hearts and our world because our hearts have turned from Him.

The Intellectual and Practical Answer of the Gospel

There still remains the question of, “Why, God?”  Intellectually, it is a question of logic.  How may a good and omnipotent God allow evil?  This is no easy question and I do not pretend to have it completely figured out, but I would say that I have come to peace with this question intellectually because the world would make less sense if there was no God.  If God is not real, then there is no higher standard and our objection to evil is unfounded.  We would not cry out as we do. And yet, we do. I find then that our objection to evil is stronger evidence for God rather than against.  I argue more extensively for this here: https://emilysuzanne11.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/how-can-a-good-god-be-compatible-with-evil-and-suffering/

Practically as well, the theist is in a better position than the atheist.  If there is no God, then not only do we have no grounds for calling evil acts evil, but we also have no hope of evil being punished and the wrongs committed against us being brought to right.  We may, in our anger against injustice, eliminate God from the picture, but in so doing, we throw away our only hope for justice.  Thus we are left without the ability to call evil evil and without any hope of triumph over it.

The Christian, however, knows evil for what it is, the outpouring of the hearts of wicked men who have hated God, and also knows how justice will be served, either through the wrath of God on us or through the wrath of God on Christ who took the evil of man upon Himself in his death and defeated it in His resurrection.

The Personal Answer of the Gospel 

Finally and most importantly, the Gospel provides a personal answer to evil because it is a personal problem.  We are both the perpetrators and victims of evil.  We are broken people.  It would not be enough if God only punished evil because we would still be left sick and bleeding.  We need not only justice, but salvation. Not only a judge and a victor, but someone to come to us in our suffering and bear our burdens with us. Jesus Christ is that person.

I remember while studying Philosophy in college, I went to hear the Christian philosopher Os Guiness speak on the problem of evil.  I was expecting an astoundingly insightful argument, something to blow me away.  When asked how a Christian comes to terms with evil and suffering, he smiled and said that you simply have enough faith in Jesus Christ.  I remember thinking, “That’s it?”  I felt slightly embarrassed in front of the atheists and agnostics in the room.  It seemed such a cliche and overly simplistic answer, but I realize now that it is anything but.

I have been married for a little over a year now.  I am not always with my husband so I do not always know what he is doing. Nor do I know what he is thinking all the time. He is very different from me so I do not always understand the things he does or why he does them, but I do know him.  I know his character.  I know his commitment to love and protect me.  I have experienced his love and faithfulness to me.  So I know that I can trust him even when I do not understand or agree with all that he does.  I believe that he will honor his commitment to love me and that he will be faithful to the vows he made to me. My faith in him is based on my experience of him.

It is the same with Jesus Christ.  I do not doubt God in the face of great evil in the world because I know Jesus Christ.  I know Him personally. Through the Gospel, He has made His heart and character known to us. He has shown His unfailing commitment to rescue us from the evil we have wrought with our own hands by taking it upon Himself.  As Os Guiness said, “Christianity is the only religion whose God bears the scars of evil.”  Jesus has shown Himself to be good and trustworthy and so we trust Him even when it does not always make sense.  More on this here:  https://emilysuzanne11.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/how-can-a-good-god-be-compatible-with-evil-and-suffering-part-2/

The answer to evil then is not just some argument, or something, but someone: the person of Jesus Christ who will both “judge the world in righteousness” (Psalm 9:8) and “be a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9).  He both avenges the afflicted and enters into their affliction with them.   In this, the Gospel of Jesus Christ provides all that we need in the face of evil: a judge, a victor, and a healer.

“But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand.  The victim commits himself to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.  Break the arm of the wicked and evil man; call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out.  The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land. You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more” (Psalm 10:14-18).