Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Hard Truth from a Good God

* (This was written in November 2019,  months before most of us had even heard of the current virus sweeping the globe  and published now in hopes that it will be an encouragement to someone.) 

Daily headlines of sadness and atrocities are enough to tempt anyone to question God’s goodness. Add to that extreme personal losses, and the notion of a “good God”can feel like a cruel joke.

This forces the eternal question: why does God allow pain and suffering? 

Although sometimes there are obvious consequential patterns to hardship, when there are not we find ourselves like “Job’s counselors” trying to explain tragedy.

In an effort to make sense of suffering some try to find reasons “down the road” that will supposedly redeem the pain. Hopeful salve is applied to wounds with “see God knew…” And God does know and thankfully does redeem, giving “beauty for ashes and joy for mourning” (Is.61:3). Yet too often the rationalization isn’t enough and so can feel like so much salt in open wounds.

Still yet others, with tender, empathetic hearts are tempted to massage God’s character when facing suffering. Recently in a popular magazine a Christian woman said that she had learned to “forgive God” for the suffering in her life. In context I think I understood that she wasn’t trying to say that God had done anything wrong (as much as her actual words sounded that way) but rather that she needed to let go of expecting an explanation from God about why He had allowed these hard things in her life.

So if not those responses, what should our response to suffering be?

Inherent in that very question is the idea of why does suffering even exist? Isn't God supposed to be good? And if so why isn't He being good to me right now?

Does God even want to be good to me?

Its something that - if we're honest - many of us think. Some understanding may come in many of the parables where Jesus used the context of vineyards to explain the Kingdom of God. (Whenever we see the words - “the kingdom of God is like” - we should lean in hard!)

These common themes of God’s sovereignty and our submission to His will are shown through interactions between vineyard owners and their workers. Yet it is our very acceptance of these truths that may actually intensify the real issue we have with God allowing hardship in our lives.

We know He is in control. We know we are not. He knows what’s going on. He loves us. He could stop things or cause “better” things to happen. He has both the authority and the ability. He often seems to not have the desire. Ouch.

What to do with that? Stay with me, please.

One such "vineyard parable" in Matthew’s Gospel account (Ch.25:14-30) reveals more of a hint to understanding suffering. The “Parable of the Talents” tells of workers given varying amounts of their employer’s money to invest in his absence. Upon his return he commends each for their management of his money. The worker who received the least had simply buried it and then returned his master’s money with no interest gained.

He explained his inaction saying, “Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed.”. This master responded by punishing his servant severely, having him thrown “out into utter darkness”. Simply because he hadn’t made a profit for his master? Hardly. But think, who sets the standard of what is “good”?

It wasn’t for his actions alone that this servant was punished. (Our actions always reveal our hearts.) Rather it was because this servant called his master “hard” (sklĂ©ros in Greek, where we get ostiosclerosis, hardening of the bones). But is it truly “hard” for a Master to do what he wants with what is his? Or is that not simply the very definition of Master, or more common to our age - owner? The owner had simply asked his employee to do something that was usual and able to be done and when it wasn't done, the employee blamed the owner.

In another parable (Matthew Ch. 20:1-16) workers hired at different times of the day all received the same pay, despite how long they worked. When challenged, the owner responded “I am doing you no wrong.”, explaining “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’” (Some translations say “Do you wish to call evil the good I am doing?”) Yet the vineyard workers that worked all day and got the same wage as those who worked much less thought it was anything but good.

They thought their master was being unfair, unjust, and possibly even unkind and cruel. And sometimes so do we, if we’re honest.

If God is good, why isn’t He good to me? And how am I supposed to deal with that?

So is God good? Or more specifically, is He good to me?

What do I truly believe? 

Sometimes I look at circumstances, and begin to think - “God, you are hard. Because what you have given me is not good.”, (or fair, or right, or…you fill in the blank).

So it’s understandable why the woman in the magazine article said she was learning to “forgive God”, (again, hopefully meaning “let go of expectations of explanations from God”). I agree that there is something to let go of, but if it is not (obviously) some shortcoming from God, what it

There’s a hint in the question from the parable where the master said to his servant - “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” The “evil eye” was a reference to jealousy or greed. The master (God) is essentially saying, “Don’t think that I am not good, just because you want something different than I have given you.”

Remember that these servants had been given what they agreed to, and all had been given a full day’s wage. What was not good about that? Apparently, because they wanted more.

Is that so bad? Yes, when it means that the servant’s estimation of “good” has replaced that of the one they call master.

Yet God’s goodness is firmly established. From the very beginning of life creation shows all that God did was good. Even before that the gospel sprung from God’s heart of love with His justice and His goodness - “For God so loved the world…” (Jn. 3:16) . We read that “every good and perfect gift”
(James 1:17) comes from God and that “no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps. 84:11), and on and on. God's goodness flows from not only every page of His Word but, if we take the time to notice, from every page of History.

And still, how often do I either act or react because, like the servant, I’m afraid, because somewhere in my heart I think that God is “hard”? If I honestly look at what I do (or don’t do) in life, would I discover that I truly don’t believe that God is good?

Listen to how we sometimes unfortunately speak to each other. “Be careful what you ask for, you may get it!” As if God is somehow sadistic just waiting for us to ask for something that will not be good for us. I’ve even said the oft repeated “Do you know how to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.” Although it’s all meant in humor, what parent would laugh in the face of their children’s heartfelt and hoped for plans?

“Yes”, you say, “but often what looks good to God does not feel good to me at all!” Death, horrible illnesses, assault and abuse…all of this God allows. How can He then be good? At the awful risk of sounding cruelly insensitive to pain, the question that is the plumb line in facing hardship has to be - who sets the standard, God or me? Who gets to decide what is good?

If it is God, then is it ok to let God know that we are not happy with what He has determined to be good for us? Or that we don’t understand it? Of course! The Psalms are filled with David questioning God’s logic in allowing good people to suffer and evil men to prosper, etc. Even the original archetype of suffering, Job also questioned God regarding the suffering he endured.

So questioning God is not sacrilege, but calling God anything but good is. This is why the servant who called his master “hard” was so harshly punished. To call good evil is blasphemy defined.

Knowing good from evil

So why do we question God’s goodness?
When Job questioned, God answered with Himself. But often, rather than letting God Himself be our answer there is a hunger to find other more seemingly manageable answers. And at the root of those “other answers” is this lie: “I think I have a right to understand what God does, especially about hardship”. Essentially, this is striving to “know good from evil” and therefore “be as God”.

Satan knew from the beginning that this was a good temptation because, like every lie, it touches on a truth - our deep connectedness with God. After all, we have been made in God’s very image! He calls us His children, He love us so dearly. He invites us to share every part of our hearts and lives with Him. So, sometimes we can actually forget that He is, in fact, completely “other” than us.

In so many ways we are thankful that God is not like us. We rejoice in His unconditional love, in His long-suffering and patience, and so many of His other overflowing attributes that humanity lacks. But with the issue of pain and hardship so often we are tempted to expect God to fit in a human-sized box of reasoning, explanations and communication.

But not only are “His ways not our ways” (Is. 55:8-9), He is in no way obligated to explain them to us. As the disciples said to a similarly hard truth - “truly this is a hard saying, who can receive it.” (Jn. 6:60)

The classic devotional writer Oswald Chambers possibly said it best - “If you have not heard a hard word from God I question whether you have truly heard from God at all.” God gives hard words, but He is not hard. God is love, and whether we understand or not, all his “hard” words come from a heart of love and perfect knowledge and understanding, such as we cannot fathom.

So what is the answer? 
In the midst of hardship such as few of us will ever know, Job said of God, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him;” going on to also say “yet I will argue my ways to his face.”
(Job 13:5)

Job knew God’s goodness so well that he knew it could withstand even his arguments. God’s goodness was greater than any explanation or answer Job could have hoped for regarding his suffering.

So although they are troubling, the greatest enemies of the truth of God’s goodness is not the half-truths we concoct to try and make sense of hard things. Nor is it simply gritting our teeth and bearing it when tragedy strikes. Both of these responses to suffering stand in opposition to the perfect goodness of God, but they are not the greatest enemy of the truth that God is good.

No, our one True Enemy is the same one since the garden, the Original Enemy that cast the firsts shadows on God’s goodness and introduced doubt and deception from which these lesser enemies then took root and have grown.

Thankfully, the same weapon that defeated the serpent then can defeat him now in the midst of your pain and suffering - God’s appearing.  Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus.

In each moment, just as with Adam and Eve, just as on the cross of Calvary, God seeks us out armed with loving sacrifice to cleanse and restore - not only belief in His goodness overall, but the actual reality of God’s goodness in your individual life. God wants to show you His goodness in the midst of your suffering today.

This is the purpose of His Word, the reason why He sent His Son and the practice of His Spirit given freely to all who ask: that we would know His goodness being saved from our sins, by His redeeming love and holy Truth, and be transformed and made whole. 

Because even if you have all correct biblical knowledge of the goodness of God it would do little to convince you of the truth of His goodness without His life-giving presence invading your suffering.

Lean into the sometimes hard truths of both His goodness - that defies understanding - as well as His complete and utter right to our total submission. His ways are not our ways, and yet, He is good. And He loves you so.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Far From Home...

"Wherever you are, be fully there".
Jim Elliot

Great words, right? But if "home is where the heart is" now and then some things make it painfully obvious that our hearts and our homes are divided. Or is it just me?

When I first decided to move to Ukraine I asked a dear American friend (who already had lived here a few years) how he dealt with living between two worlds.

"How - when you're in America - do you not feel guilty with all the abundance that we enjoy knowing that so many of your friends in Ukraine are in need?", I asked. (Even after just a couple of trips to Ukraine I could see ahead that this would tear at my heart.) "And how - when you're back in Ukraine - do you not feel jealous for all that excess that seems taken for granted in America?"

Not pretty - the thoughts of my heart - are they? I'm not proud of them, but I also doubt I am the only one that has lived in between two worlds that hasn't thought these things. And knowing the blackness of my soul, I knew I would struggle with these questions. (And I don't live in India, or Africa or elsewhere in the world where basic clean water is not even available!)

"You pretty much can't really think about one when you are in the other", was my friend's advice. Enjoy blessings when you have them and be happy for the blessings of others even when you don't have them, is what I've taken his advice to mean. Add to that - be thoughtful in how you live in order to bless others - and it's a good way to live. Comparing is such a slippery evil slope.

But then - worlds collide. ;)

Little 8 year old Yanna from Kyrgyzstan comes to have surgery in Ukraine because the medical system is so much better here than there. But still the days are filled with running to the drugstore every day to get her medicines, buy food to cook for her and bringing in a fan to combat the sweltering humid summer heat. (I helped somewhat, but really it was mainly Yanna's aunt with some help from girls from our church that carried the load). Here you bring your own soap, towels, sheets, toilet paper, etc. etc.  Yanna's aunt Anya squeezed into the same hospital bed with Yanna to stay there to be able to cook for her and be company before the surgery. And then sleeping on a rollaway (or in the chair!) after the surgery to help feed her and turn her when she hurt (Yanna had back surgery to combat spina bifida) and give her medicine as needed, even eventually having to learn to place the catheter. After Yanna's surgery she couldn't walk, so if they went outside Anya carried Yanna outside to sit on a bench if the beat-up child's stroller they used as a wheelchair wasn't available. And on and on.

Then my mom has a stroke back home in Oregon. I show up late at night to the hospital after a really long flight and a crazy overnight layover in the Moscow airport. The nurses help me make out the couch bed in mom's rom, get me sheets and a pillow, show me where the coffee maker is and fridge stocked with juice, pudding, etc. is and repeatedly ask "you're sure you don't need anything else"? There are 3 or 4 nurses that are openly Christians and are encouraging with words of Scripture, etc. (even one playing the piano and singing praise songs with me!) and all the others who are all equally kind. After two brain surgeries things were tough with mom...emotionally, physically, etc. But regularly nurses would come in to check her vitals, administer her meds, or just see how she was doing. World's collide.

Yes we pay through the nose for that kind of care in America. And yes not even everyone can afford it. And yes my mom's hospital is a particularly nice one. And in Ukraine there are capable nurses and doctors who give good care even if they don't have all the trimming that are standard in America. I'm not criticizing or complaining. It's not about that...those issues are all important, but other posts for another time or even another writer.

I'm just's collide. A young American on a short trip here tells me I lack compassion. Maybe so. A dear person in America tells me I'm ungrateful. Maybe so. You know how they say "the best offense is a good defense"? I've decided the best defense is no defense. ;) "I am what I am by the grace of God" and - thank God - I know He doesn't let me stay in one place for long so all these defects will be addressed in His time. :) All I know is that life is not as neat as some would like and guessed it...worlds collide.

Sometimes, thankfully, worlds collide in beautifully serendipitous ways, too. :)

A hard day, my back in real pain for days, caught in traffic on my way to the post office over an hour away from where I live (which is just across the city!), I'm told I'm at the wrong post office. :( Argh. Get to the "right" post office and pay to pick up a package (a couple of dollars only) sent from someone whose name draws a complete blank for me. BUT..I see the name of my hometown on the return address and soften a little. I open up the package to find...what I can only call "a hug from home". A copy of the Grants Pass Daily Courier (our local town's little daily newspaper that I used to deliver!), mint chocolates (a combination not found here, as far as I know) all the fixins for S'mores and MAGAZINES IN ENGLISH!!! :) It was a care-package from folks in Calvary Church in GP. I nearly cried. :) Not because any of those things are necessary to life. They're not. And not because life is so hard here. It's not. I love it here. I have amazing friends. A beautiful home and even a car (after years of public transport). My days are filled with the joys and heartaches of helping people finding their way in this world and I couldn't be more fulfilled. It was just....worlds colliding. Ya know?

And then today...awesome sermon in church Ukrainian. ;) I speak Russian and although I understand Ukrainian to a great extent it is still an exercise in concentrated listening to get the most out of my pastor's sermons. After church my absentee ballot from America is in my mailbox (!) and I enjoy a quiet lunch of tuna sandwiches and salad (ok, fried potatoes, too! I do still live in Ukraine! ha!) with Vica - the latest girl to live here at our transition home. The day before dear friends from a sister church came for a baby shower. It was a raucous, LOUD, totally fun group of young families with their kids (LOTS OF KIDS) whom - it seems to me - only yesterday those parents were the kids! Great! Tiring (I'm getting old!), but great! The day before a young Ukrainian couple - the pastor and his wife - came and stayed overnight. We stayed up late talking - alternately in Russian, English and both at once! - about life, and making ends meet and the mystery of people and God and life. And then tonight catching up on laundry and emails and what-not watching "Walk the Line" (the Johnny Cash story) with Russian, of course. ;) Good thing they didn't translate the songs, though. :) World's collide...but sometimes in the nicest, craziest cacophony-of-cultures way. dear friend Lori used to call me "her all or nothing friend" and here I am - the "anti-blog Queen" again proving that to be true. No posts forEVER and then this epic saga. Oh well... :)

So what's my point? "Wherever you are, be fully there" where are you? Where am I? I am not in Grants Pass with my dear mom as she continues to recover (but my beautiful sister Janice is, and her wonderful daughter Caitlin was, and my brothers Mark and Matt are not far away, and as ever our great dad is there - and God willing I will be again soon...we are blessed), my heart and my prayers are there. I am not in America facing the struggles that many of you are with the current economic and social issues, but I got my ballot and pray that God will give me wisdom for my vote to be there. I am here in Ukraine, but not being Ukrainian, not having grown up here and endured through the hardships and victories that has made Ukraine into the nation it is today, even if my body is here till it lies in the grave I can never expect to ever be "fully" here feeling and understanding everything as those who were born and raised here.

So where am I? "In Your presence oh LORD, is fullness of joy, and at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore". (Psalm 16:11) Aaaahhhhhhh.... if I were my cat right now I'd be purring with  my eyes closed. Where am I? With God, I pray. He's my home, my love, my life. What can I lose if all is in Him? What is the tragedy of my life but only to lose Him? Still, my body is here. And I lose sight of the reality of God SO often, but He is so faithful to woo me back, take me by the hand and invite me to turn down the noise, listen to the music and dance again. Mmmmmmmmm.....

So, I need compassion. ("Everyone needs compassion"...or so I hear.) ;) I need to be more grateful. I want to be there, but I am here. I am happy to be here, but my heart and thoughts are there. Where am I? Safe in His embrace. Lost in His arms. Holding on and being held onto. And I wanna be "fully there" each time worlds collide.

Just some thoughts I had tonight.... Love you all, dear friends and family. :)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


So, these kinds of things always happen to me. :)

I had just gotten out of my car to take a picture of a sailboat that had run aground on the beach in Santa Barbara. I don't know what happened, but because the area was having some of the worst storms in quite some time, it wasn't too much of a surprise. The streets were littered with huge palm branches that had been blown free from their towering trees. Streets and lawns were flooded and everything in this celebrity locale known for keeping up appearances was quite out of sorts.

There was an ambulance at the ready (not that I saw that anyone had needed it) and many other "Lookey-Lous" like myself taking pictures and taking in the sight. It was quite impressive. Here was this beautiful, lithe boat stopped, stuck in the sand, just sitting there like the subject of a painting by one of the great masters. But, and I know this is silly, because it was still upright, it almost seemed as if it was letting itself be pummeled by the waves. It seemed that at whatever moment it might choose it could simply pull away from the shore and sail confidently back out to sea. Of course this wasn't to be, but that was the feeling I had, something of grace and dignity about this tragic event.

As I stood there (this is the part that seems to always happen to me) a woman shuffled by swathed in one green army blanket and carrying another one over her arm. She mumbled something and I said "Excuse me? What?" (which I suppose probably explains the reason why these things always seem to happen to me.) She came closer and at first I thought she might be homeless. I couldn't really see her clothes under the blanket, but she wore new looking soft suede deck-shoes. (The shoes usually are the clue). Homeless or just California eccentric? Who knows. Here in Santa Barbara, where "artists" of all types abound and homeless folks once registered to vote using a huge historic tree near the train tracks as their address, anything is possible.

She walked on past me and then abruptly turned around and - with one hand half-covering her mouth and the other still clutching her blanket - she started in.

"This! All...this!" she proclaimed with a wide expansive wave of her hand, blanket still in hand. "So, so, so much....things, and material, and, so much, just material stuff. And you know, just abandonment. Abandonment! Just abandon it all to, to, to the ruler, the ultimate ruler, the ruler of everything, and just abandon, just abandon to Jesus".

She was on a roll. She went on to say that maybe the owner of the boat, "maybe he was in counseling, and maybe his counselor told him to just, you know, let go. And he just, you know, let go." And on and on.

Then, just as abruptly, she stopped, slapped her free hand over her mouth and - sort of smiling, sort of sheepish - she said "but then, maybe YOU are the owner! Maybe that's your boat! Oh no. Oh no. Oh no." But she was smiling and even laughed a little. It was actually cute.

"Oh no. I'm with you all the way" I quickly added. "Sad, what happened. But I get your point - abandon yourself to God".

With that, she shrugged her shoulders, palms upraised, turn and walked away. And I took a few more pictures. This kind of stuff always happens to me.