Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Feeling the Burn

sunset silhouettes
It wasn’t too long ago that I wrote that I don’t believe that suffering comes from God, but is a result of sinful lives in a broken world. If you haven’t read it yet, you may want to start here on "Don't Feel the Burn." My friend J pushes the subject forward:

“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). Side note, 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.”

To fully explore this subject would take more than a doctoral thesis. It would take a lifetime of walking with God, and probably reaching heaven to get a handle on it. It’s a little wild to be addressing it in blog posts, and maybe you’ll see the length of this and think this IS a thesis! It’s really not meant to be exhaustive, it’s just a discussion we are having. So let’s discuss!

Whenever anyone brings up the question of why an all-powerful all-loving God doesn’t eliminate suffering, I want to blurt out “Because if he were to get rid of suffering, he’d have to wipe us out!” I don’t blurt that out. More on the impropriety of blurting at the end.  It appears that God seriously considered the wipe ‘em all out plan, (Gen. 6:5-7:13) but at the same time, 

“[The Lord] is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance.” 1 Peter 3:9b

Sin is malignant, like stage 4 cancer in our souls and bodies. There is no way for us to extract it and live. We are the walking dead, and we are spreading death. Sin and death are the causes of pain and suffering, so to eliminate suffering would be to eliminate the cause of suffering: You and me. God is really into the longer play to save us. He has the time and was willing to pay the expense. Continuing with the cancer theme here, Jesus switched places with us. He let the cancer kill him, and gave us his own clean bill of health. Because he is all powerful, death was not able to keep him. He defeated sin and resulting death in the long run, but not everyone has to take his offer. Our government is discovering that mandating a healthcare plan breeds a lot of resentment. God already knew that, and he doesn’t mandate your spiritual health, he just makes the offer that you can be healthy. He gives anyone who wants it a clean bill of health and regimen to stay that way. Unfortunately no one follows that plan fully: We stumble through it until we go to heaven. To a greater or lesser extent we generate more pain and suffering.

Those who choose to reject the offer of life or ignore the instructions for a healthy life, i.e. the Biblical model, have all of the consequences to look forward to.
I have long believed that God’s judgment and wrath is that he removes his presence and intervention from our affairs. He lets the consequences of our actions come to bear on us. The language of Romans 1:21-32 is really helpful to me here: He gives rebellious people over to their idols and impulses apart from himself. Basic Christian theology is that we were made to have communion with God forever and that communion is broken. Being without God (not just disbelieving, but being outcast from his influence) is as bad as bad gets. Broken communion = God’s wrath. God’s wrath is his withdrawal. Remember how Jesus cried out  

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34 

The punishment was in God’s absence. I think it is really amazing, then, that as he died he also cried out  

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Luke 23:46. 

Jesus had suffered before, and learned to keep coming back to God, so in the most extreme case, the sins of the whole world on him, and God turning his back to him, he still returned to trust and not rebellion or anger.

Now there is nuance because the Scripture– prophecy in particular, like Isaiah for instance– speaks of God actually using (as opposed to the more neutral “allowing”) the pride and greed of kings to bring judgement on his, God’s, people who were given many chances to repent (Isaiah 9:11-12). In these it is clear that the tools of judgement will be destroyed by their own sins (Isaiah 10:12) and that God’s presence will return to his people when they have repented (Isaiah 10:20).
There is no shade of God walking away and not caring what happens. There is no hint of him not being in control. It is so clear that in God’s view people doing whatever they please without regard to the way things really work  –which is, once more, that we be loved by God and love him in return– that willy-nilly hedonism is worse for us than pain. Those hard consequences may be an amputation that saves you from death by gangrene. Our relationship to God’s role in the suffering of punishment is something each of us has to sort out in our own hearts.

So then why doesn’t God just save us and then evacuate us? We wouldn’t keep generating the pain, nor experiencing it! Let’s start eternity now!  

I can think of two reasons off the top of my head why God isn’t doing that.
For one, 

“For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10 

 We get to be part of the redemptive work God is doing in this world.

Second, let me tell you about tomatoes. 
Horticulturalist Harry Klee, who is obsessed with getting a really good supermarket tomato was asked on NPR’s Talk of the Nation May 25, 2012  about growing good hydroponic tomatoes. Hydroponics is the technique of growing plants in nutrient-infused liquid. Mr. Klee dismissed the idea of growing good hydroponic tomatoes for market, and abominated the idea of eating them at all. The truth is, even regular green house tomatoes don’t taste great, but hydroponic tomatoes are the right color, shape, and texture, but they don’t taste like tomatoes should. He explains: 

“ grape growers had figured this out centuries ago. How you grow [the plant] and where you grow it is really important, and I personally think that hydroponic tomatoes are probably not going to be as flavorful as something that's grown in a rich soil. And, you know, that's what a lot of the greenhouse growers now are doing. They're growing them with an artificial media with, basically, just water and nutrients, and I don't think you'll get as good a tomato that way...You know, the reality is that, again, much like wine grapes, stress is good. Stress puts pressure on the plant. It makes - it grows differently. It just, I think, produces a tomato that tastes better.”

Stress grows a better tomato. Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.
The Bible teaches that suffering comes from sin, which is separation from God, but that God uses suffering to mature us, and draw us closer to him. An example of that would be Paul, who wrote in Philippians 3:8,10 

“More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ... that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death...” 

It’s a pretty risky plan. Like tomato plants, not all of us thrive in those tougher conditions.

“Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I will move the world.” –Archimedes

Suffering is the lever and our hearts the fulcrum that move our worlds.  Depending on the disposition of our hearts toward God, the lever of suffering has greater or less effectiveness to refine our character and relations with God. If an omniscient and omnipotent being could be said to gamble, this is his gamble. Suffering can teach us obedience and strengthen our dependance and relationship with God, or we might harden our hearts against him. Suffering and stress can accomplish a beauty and purpose in us that no amount of ease can do.

Hebrews 5 holds Jesus up as the premium example of this. Verses 8-9 say Jesus was perfected by learning obedience through suffering. What a paradox! How can someone sinless be perfected? It really helped me to have the picture of the hydroponic tomato. Chances are, the tomatoes you are eating this winter were hydroponically grown. Hard as a rock, but with less taste. Neither inedible nor sustaining. In a lab with nutrients and grow lights you can grow a “perfect” tomato, in that there is nothing technically wrong with it. That tomato just isn’t going to have the nuanced flavor and spicy sweet fragrance of a tomato grown in rich soil, vine ripe, heavy in the sunshine. That’s the way suffering changes us. It gives us unique flavor, new qualities, and strength that the mere clean slate doesn’t offer.

That said, the Bible clearly instructs us to 

"...weep with those who weep, and mourn with those who mourn." (Romans 12:15). 

This is the don’t- blurt part. You know all about blurting if you are an advice giver. You know I am. My natural response to someone suffering is to figure out the upside, and give a little 3-point pep talk on why this will be good in the long-run and how to leverage the experience to benefit. Having “helpful” lessons and theorems extrapolated by my non-suffering self is excruciating to a person who is in pain. My thoughtless advice is discarded at best, or threaten, hurt and anger someone bitterly. Chances are you yourself have been “cheered up” by someone who didn’t understand what you were going through. No doubt you can still remember how lonely you felt. I do. 

It’s a tough balance. Some people are natural born mourners, too, ready to cry right along with you. That can be very nice, but there’s a point at which mourning can turn into wallowing, and that’s not constructive either. 

"There’s a time for everything and a season for every thing under the sun. A time to weep, and a time to pry your butt out of bed and get on with it."

 Okay, you caught me. The first part was Ecclesiastes, but that last was the New Lydia Paraphrase.
I think this is where I often get it really wrong, pistol whipping hurting people with truisms when they need a hug and a babysitter to watch their kids, or lending a kind listening ear and shoulder to cry on for people stuck in self-destructive cycles. Whichever is the least helpful is where I tend to go, and I think that’s true of most of us. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit to be with us through our own suffering and also to guide us in how to be with others in their pain.

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