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.