The Glory Road Blog, A Kingdom Highway
November 25, 2016
“I stand amazed at the fathomless wealth of God’s wisdom and God’s knowledge. How could man ever understand his reasons for action, or explain his methods of working?” (Romans 11:33, Phillips).
This writing was inspired by two comments in Richard Rohr’s nourishing, excellent book, The Divine Dance. 1) God does not cause us to suffer, and 2) There is no wrath left in God. No one anointed me preacher, priest, or guru, so perhaps it doesn’t matter what I think, and I certainly do not speak for God, but when I get a rumbling in my Spirit, and feel an earthquake in my soul, so to speak, I always go to God for confirmation or rebuttal of my thoughts.
I seem to have painted myself into a corner in considering the subject of God’s part in human suffering, and need to write my way out. You are welcome to take the journey with me if you are so inclined. The first question is, does God actually bring pain to us, cause us to suffer? In my youth, because I only knew ABOUT God, I would have said, “No, of course not.” (That answer was no doubt prompted by fear of the awe and sheer power of the Almighty).
After He baptized me in the Holy Spirit, I experienced God’s love up close and personal, which changed everything. Now that I’m old, and have walked many miles with Father God, it is clear that His mercy has sustained me throughout all the pitfalls, the losses, the cactus patches, and impediments on my journey.
Last week’s writing, “Whose Free Will?” is a piece of this puzzle. In it, we explored the reason I am convinced that only God has free will. Paul indicates in Romans 11:32, that, “God has bound all men over to disobedience that He may have mercy upon all.” If that be true, then God is the author and prime cause of all things, love, joy, glory, pain and suffering. Consider the book of Job, which is the oldest book in the Bible. It has some shocking scenes in it. In one of these, Satan appeared before the Lord, along with the other sons of God, and was asked: “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:6-12, NIV).
Satan challenged God’s evaluation of Job by saying that the man’s righteousness was a result of the hedge of protection God had put around him and everything he had. “But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” God gave permission for Satan to destroy everything Job had, but not to lay a finger on the man himself. The imagery is clear: God gave permission, but it was the hand of Satan which did the damage. This scene was repeated again, and this time, God gave Satan permission to touch Job’s body, but not to take his life. In other words, Satan did the dirty work, but it was God who laid the parameters of exactly how far he could go. If a General sends his troops to a battle, is he not at fault for the suffering and death caused? If God is the only one who has free will, and if He is the author of disobedience, which ALWAYS causes us pain, then the inescapable conclusion is that He does cause suffering. But why?
Of course, Job’s comforters laid guilt on him, saying that it was because of his sins that God brought suffering on his head and destroyed all he had, but God Himself told them that Job was right and they were wrong (Job 42:7-11). Why was Job singled out for all this anguish? He gives the answer himself: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6, NIV). When confronted with the awe-ful-ness of God, the wonder and glory of his Creator, Job realized that his self efforts counted for nothing, and this seems to me to be the painful lesson we all must learn.
Paul said there are vessels of honor and vessels of dishonor. Most of us try to act like vessels of honor, but in so doing, we often get an inflated idea of our responsibility before God. To the degree that we believe that it is our actions which bring us to a right standing before God, to that same degree, we have to endure the self-emptying of suffering to bring us to the place where we are ready to accept our own inabilities. Only then are we ready to be filled with the fulness of God. Watchman Nee said that when our hands are full, we cannot receive God’s blessings. Like Mary, we must come to Him with nothing in our hands, so that like her, we can say, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, RSV).
Now in terms of Rohr’s second statement about there being no wrath in God, the calling of Abraham sheds a lot of light on this topic. God called Abraham to leave hearth and home, the land of his forefathers, and follow Him to the Promised Land, with this Divine Promise: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3, NIV). Abraham was 75 years old when he left Ur of the Chaldees and set out for Canaan. He had many adventures along the way, and God made him “very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold” (Genesis 13:2). But time rocked on, and still, he had no son, without which he could not become the great nation God had promised him.
In the first of his do-it-yourself schemes to produce a son, Abraham asked God if he could make Eliezer, his servant, his heir. God replied, “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir” (Genesis 15:4). Abraham believed Him and God “credited it to him as righteousness” (Vs. 6). It was after this encounter that God and Abraham went through the ancient blood ritual of walking through the pieces. It was the way to “seal the deal” in the ancient world. Animals were killed and their bodies cut in two on either side of a ditch where the blood collected, then the most important of the parties, in this case God, as a “smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed through the pieces” (Vs. 17), and the lesser important of the two, Abraham, walked after Him. The significance of the ritual was that whoever broke the covenant, would have his blood shed in like manner as the animals. The text recounts that Abraham was terrified, and who could doubt that? God could not fail, but Abraham and his descendants could and would fail again and again (See Genesis 15:9-18).
Time rocked on and God required blood of the disobedient children of Israel countless times, but still they did not learn, and so He sent them off to Babylonian captivity as their punishment. They were chastened and humbled when they eventually returned to Judea, but that did not help much in making them a triumphant, more righteous people.
Fast forward the tape to Bethlehem, where God with us, Emmanuel, was born. The Promise God had made to Abraham was fulfilled in the flesh. Jesus was the son of man and the Son of God as well. He came to the poor, the sick, the sinners, the marginalized, and He wreaked havoc on the self righteous scribes and Pharisees. He spoke of love and forgiveness, of serving others in need of help, and of giving all Glory to God. He sought no glory for Himself, and told Philip, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). Some received Him gladly, but the religious leaders of the Jews, “blind guides” and “whited sepulchers,” He called them, were threatened down to their sandal lacings. So, they murdered Him. This time, instead of requiring our blood, God said, “Here, take mine.”
Many Christians still believe that God poured out His wrath on Christ as a substitute for us, because we all had broken the Covenant, and thus deserved to die. Paul told us the truth about that horrendous event: God was in Christ on that cross, reconciling us to God, not the other way round: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:18-19, NIV).
In the fabulous chapter of The Divine Dance entitled, At-One-Ment, Richard Rohr said, “I think penal substitution is a very risky theory, primarily because of what it implies about the Father’s lack of freedom to love or to forgive his own creation… The cross is the standing icon and image of God, showing us that God knows what it’s like to be rejected; God is in solidarity with us in the experience of abandonment! God is not watching the suffering from a safe distance somehow, believe it or not, God is in the suffering with us.” End quote.
It was not God’s wrath poured out upon Christ that day; it was ours! He did not need to be reconciled to us. We needed to be reconciled to Him! God is sovereign in all things, including some really bad happenings, but long ago I came to see any of those personally delivered into my life as course corrections, not God’s wrath!
One cannot say, as Paul did, that God consigned all men to disobedience without concluding that God therefore, is the prime cause of pain, because disobedience ALWAYS leads to pain. However, as Isaiah has said in so many ways, God never leaves us comfortless, and He holds our hand as we journey through trials and tribulations: “When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2, RSV). The worst pain we suffer comes from feeling abandoned by God, and the antidote for that feeling is the Spirit’s assurance that He will never leave nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Through Paul’s myriad trials and tribulations, he received comfort as can we, from God’s assurance, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9, NIV).
Father we thank You for giving us all things in Christ, for loving us unconditionally, through sickness and health, poverty and wealth, trials and testings, and for delivering us safely home at the appointed time. “Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name,” now and forever as we join our voices with “the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” Amen. Jan Antonsson
Jan Austin Antonsson
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