Thursday, October 4, 2012

(Don't) Feel the Burn

leaves

Sunday my Bible study class was revisiting Matthew 7:9-11, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This passage reinforces an idea from an earlier chapter of the same discourse about God’s provision when we seek him, explaining that God gives good gifts to his children: 

“Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” 

Doesn’t that give you a little glow inside? It’s a simple concept in such plain language that a 2 year old can understand it. I checked! In contrast to the whims of chance or the fickle self-service of traditional gods, Yahweh is a father to us, lovingly giving us what we need when we ask him. Jesus is right, I would never give my baby gravel when she asked for goldfish crackers, nor give her squirming snake tacos instead of fish. I love my children so imperfectly, but well enough that practical jokes like that are obviously just plain mean! 

So why does a room of Christians who have experienced the love Jesus is explaining talk the passage around into meaning the virtual opposite? How can we do it over and over again all around the country in different churches? 

Well, some have interpreted that Scripture passage to mean that if you ask God for anything, like a million dollars, or a Ferrari, or for your mother not to die, you will get it if you have enough faith. Then God comes off as uncaring when it doesn’t happen, or maybe you have inadequate faith, and it’s hard to tell which is which. That is not a Biblical view.

 In contrast, much of the evangelical church has swung in the opposite direction, as if by setting our sights really low, we can save God from looking weak, and ourselves from bitter disappointment. That is not Biblical either. Both extremes exhibit poor views of God.

So in class we talk about how we usually want the wrong things. Like maybe we are sick and we ask for ice cream and we get a bitter medicine instead, which is so much better for us. Granted, we sometimes ask for the wrong thing, but that is easily mended and not actually what these verses are talking about. The child here asks for good adult-sanctioned things and gets them! 

Next we discuss pain, and this is what really sticks in my craw. We talk about God bringing us pain as a gift. You know, to teach us something. It’s such a common misconception. I have said it myself in the past, but I don’t believe that is what the Bible teaches us. Pain comes from the fact that we are fallen creations made to live in a perfect world, but the world isn’t perfect. 
Maybe "God gives us pain" isn't really what anybody means, but it is what we say, and I know that as a teen and young adult that sank deep in me. 
 Of course it is loving of God to teach us things so that we will be saved pain later. It might be uncomfortable, but let's get this straight. 

Pain doesn't come from God. Pain comes from sin. Pain comes from death.

The pain we are all avoiding isn’t the burning sensation of a workout well done. Well, maybe that too, but what we really are dreading is the burn of cigarette lighters on little bodies and houses ablaze. Life after the fall. We are avoiding the flames of funeral pyres. 

For a long time I winced at approaching “gifts of God” for fear of the burning lesson, but he has taught me first, that I can learn without getting so close to the fire, and second, that the pain is not coming from him. You see, I have been through a conflagration or two, and they have hurt like blazes, and it’s true, I have been taught. But consider this: I am a recovering pyromaniac and many of the fires have come from my addiction to matches. I have needed skin grafts from chemical fires ignited between loved ones, and I have gagged on the smoke of raging wild fires in a tinder-dry world full of societal evil and arsonists. I am one of the lucky ones. 

Some of the people I love won’t make it. 

If God brings me through, if he heals me and trains me to extinguish flames, need I blame him for the blaze? 

When he gives beauty for my ashes why do I think the charcoal in his hands must be his? 

Jesus experienced the agony of pain too, only he didn’t build his own bonfire the way I do. He plunged into this blaze to bring us out. As he was with Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, he stays with me when everything burns, but he himself was terribly alone, forsaken, as he faced God’s fiery wrath against sin and death. His pain and separation was not of his own making, it was mine and yours. Because of this greatest voluntary gift of his own life for mine I see where pain really comes from– not from God, but from our brokenness. Because of this sacrifice I can trust him about things like daily bread and fish and life transformation without bracing for a blaze. 

God calls us to be bring life, peace, and wholeness to others, and to our world. We are each firefighters alongside him. Let's start by claiming our own kindling instead of blaming it on our Creator.

2 comments:

jmcphail520 said...

I've never heard it said that God causes pain, or that it comes from Him. I've heard more of the opposite--too much blame on a fallen world, and not ENOUGH discussion of the obvious, difficult, and biblical truth that God does ALLOW pain, even if He's not the cause of it. I think many people fail to see much of a difference between causing and allowing... either one seems cruel and weak. It would take far too much space for a blog comment to get into my views, interpretations of scripture, experiences, etc. on all of this. I'm infinitely thankful for passages on suffering and pain (like Romans 5:3-5) and on who God is (like Nahum 1:7-8).

Sidenote, but on this same topic, I feel like there's this discomfort with pain in the church--like that Christians shouldn't have struggles. It's the total opposite of what the bible teaches.

lydia said...

J, you bring up good points. my brain and Bible pages are whirring. I shall have to write of it more fully. But the first thing about not having heard people say God causes pain I think depends primarily what bent of church you attend and who you are talking to. There are many different flavors!

I consider this understanding of where pain comes from in the first place to be a building block for further considerations about the whys, wherefores, and hope!

In my experience there is also a range of comfort on the topic of suffering and how it is handled within the Church at large. Like you say, some people believe that if you are suffering you are doing something wrong. There are also people who believe that if you are NOT suffering you are doing something wrong. They are both conditionally right and conditionally wrong in my opinion. It's like broken clocks being right twice a day!
Let's talk more about this soon, my friend!

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