how to speak of God’s love?

the following is the final message given to a gathering of university students in berkeley, california in a semester-long study of Jesus’ response to the question: what’s the most important commandment? (mark 12:28-31)

so to wrap up our series on love, i want to shift our focus from our love of God, love of others, and love of ourself to God’s love for us. after all that we have been talking about this semester, we can be left thinking the most important thing is our love, but i want to flip that tonight.

the yale theologian miroslav volf puts it this way:

“in the minds of most people, christianity is supposed to be about love of God and neighbor, even though…at the heart of christianity does not lie human love at all, but God’s love for humanity.”

the most important love is not ours, according to Christian tradition, but God’s love for us.

but here’s the thing: it’s tough to talk about God’s love.

how do we speak about God’s love that’s not met with an immediate eye roll? how do we speak about God’s love in a way that’s not reduced to sentimentality?

or, perhaps even more importantly, how do we speak about God’s love in a way that doesn’t ignore the incredible suffering in the world? how do we speak about God’s love in a way that doesn’t give the impression that we live in complete ignorance of the world happening all around us?

as the peruvian priest and theologian gustavo gutierrez has asked, how do we say to the poor, to those with no rights, “God loves you”?

the first thing i did when i woke up this morning, even before getting out of bed, was check a facebook alert on my phone—which is never a good idea. and i noticed a news story a friend of mine shared that made me want to stay in bed all day.

the story was about a massive international child pornography sting involving the arrest of 348 adults and the rescue of nearly 400 children. those involved in stopping the multi-million dollar international operation said that they had never seen anything like it before, in terms of the sheer quantity of video confiscated and the horrific nature of the acts carried out against these children.

perhaps most tragic among the findings was that among those arrested were 40 school teachers, nine doctors and nurses, six police officers, three foster parents, and nine pastors and priests.

this was the first thing i read this morning, knowing i would be speaking on this topic tonight.

how do you possibly speak about God’s love in light of this news?

i want to try to speak to that point tonight by putting a finger on three characteristics of God’s love: God’s pursuing love, God’s freeing love, and God’s costly love.

but before I get into those, let’s pause and pray.

gracious God, i thank you for this time and this space where you bring us together each wednesday, away from the busyness of our day and week, so that we might meet with you and with one another and maybe even with ourself for the first time.

 

Lord, I recognize the incredibly fragile nature of speaking on your love in a world that is so full of deep suffering, pain, and anger. and yet, your word is clear that you are not simply a loving God, but that you are Love—even when we struggle to see it.

 

i ask that you would work through these, my words to reveal how your love has been at work in the world, and is still at work in the world, even now. it is with hope in your Son that we pray, amen.

God’s pursuing love

you may have noticed in tonight’s scripture readings that we’re jumping all over the bible. the first reading was from a prophet in ancient israel, found in the old testament book hosea. the second passage was a powerful story from Jesus’ life, found in john’s Gospel. and the third and last passage was from a letter to the early church in a city called ephesus, reflecting on Jesus’ life.

and my hope for tonight is to show how God’s love is a thread running throughout the entire biblical narrative, connecting the old and new testaments.

so to start, as quickly as possible i want to speak on how ancient israel understood God’s love. and in order to do so, i need to speak on a few key ideas: creation, fall, and covenant.

according to ancient israel’s traditionall those stories that would have been passed down from generation to generationGod created humanity to live in a right, loving relationship with God and all of creation. but humanity used its freedom to turn away from that relationship, and that led to all of the broken, challenging life that humanity has known ever since.

israel understood its distance from God as the source of its deepest longings, pains, and struggles. this broken relationship with God feels like endless struggle, rather than ease of life. it feels like craving something that nothing will ever satisfy. it feels like loneliness.

a writer i’ve shared with you here before by the name of david foster wallace, who was not a christian but who was deeply in touch with the human condition, described our struggle this way:

“We’re all lonely for something we don’t we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that goes around feeling like missing somebody we’ve never even met?”

 

this is a contemporary, north american, well educated white man explaining our modern experience, but it fits with how israel explained their struggles, too. this is what it feels like to live at a distance from our Creator, they’d say. that’s our condition. that’s the creation and fall story, and it accounts for pretty much everything that’s happened since.

not to spoil it for those of you who haven’t read it, but pretty much the rest of the old testament books tell the story of God trying to repair this relationship with humanity. God does that by pursuing a particular people, called israel, and entering into a relationship with them, a relationship that had stipulations attached to it.

God’s relationship with israel was called a covenantal relationship because God had certain expectations of what it looks like for israel to be in right relationship with their Creator. God committing Godself to israel placed certain obligations on israel.

and the truth is, this is how committed relationships work, or else they break down.

most of you know that i’m in a committed relationship with jen, my wife of 10 years, and you would not be surprised if i tell you that this relationship places certain obligations on me. my being in a married relationship with my wife means i don’t get to be intimate with anyone i want. because she has committed to being physically intimate with me, and only me, and she rightly expects the same from me in return.

the same is true when it comes to God’s commitment to israel. when God said, I’m going to love you uniquely, God asked israel to do the same in return.

no longer will you look to other nations’ kings for security, or other nations’ gods to fulfill that loneliness, that void that you feel, God told israel. only I can do that.

so when God and israel have a d.t.r. moment, God gave israel certain rules for their relationship. and here’s the interesting thing about those rules: God told israel that if they lived into those relationship commitments well, things would go well for them. their entire life would be restored, they would flourish.

they called this restoration shalom. you’ve probably heard the word shalom, often translated as “peace.” but it’s more than that. the word shalom paints a portrait of complete restoration. its peace in the fullest, most holistic sense.

and, interestingly, israel is told that God would use their relationship not just to restore this particular people, but to reconcile all of creation to Godself again.

but if you’ve read any of the old testament, you will likely know that basically most of the stories are of israel failing to live into this relationship well. they’re constantly distracted by other desires, other relationships. constantly turning away from the God who reached out to them in love, and turning instead to foreign political rulers in their fears and insecurities, or turning to other foreign gods.

and time and time again, what we read is the story of God: getting angry at israel’s infidelity, and then getting jealous. which is just as it should be, by the way. anger and jealousy is the normal response for infidelity, in any committed relationship.

if i was unfaithful to my wife, if i turned to someone other than her for my most intimate needs and fulfillment, she would rightly be angry and jealous. if she wasn’t, that would reveal that something was wrong with our relationship. you would have reason to question not only my love for herbut whether she really loved me, too.

the same is true for God’s relationship with israel. God genuinely loved this people, genuinely wants to be reconciled to all of God’s creation, which explains the anger and jealousy we find throughout the old testament.

but then something interesting happens…

after God’s anger and jealousy subsides, God returns to israel, and recommits to their relationship. what we find in the old testament is a God who pursues His unfaithful lover with reckless abandon, over and over again.

it’s as though God cannot help Himself.

which brings us to the passage read for us from hosea. after israel has once again turned away from God for other lovers, the prophet hosea gives us a picture of God turning back to his unfaithful lover.

after washing and cleansing israel from her relationship with these other lovers, hosea gives his people a picture of God and israel returning to the honeymoon stage of their relationship, and his bride singing to God as she used to.

and then I’ll marry you for good—forever,” God tells israel. “I’ll marry you true and proper, in love and tenderness. yes, I’ll marry you and neither leave you nor let you go.”

God’s love, as we see it in the old testament, is that of a God who pursues His unfaithful bride over and over and over again, with reckless abandon.

this is also an image that appears throughout the new testament—think of the parable of the shepherd with 100 sheep who loses one and leaves the 99 behind to go after that one.

and this God who pursues His creation in love is a story that shows up in so many people’s lives.

last week i shared a song from a favorite singer of mine, andrew belle. i mentioned the fact that he became a christian after he already had success in his music and the affect that had on his work, especially lyrically.

he said this in a recent interview:

“i can’t really pinpoint when i became a christian, but all i know is that in 2010 i had one of those existential crises. life blowing up times… stuff was going badly. i just realized that i was living on a trajectory of life… and i didn’t want to be going in that direction anymore.”

 

“really for the first time, i actually felt like I realized, ‘wow, i’m really a despicable person at the core of me. there’s something wrong, and I can’t do it on my own.”

the track i played for you last week comes from his album, “black bear.” the title refers to belle’s experience of being pursued by God.

“flannery o’conner describe Jesus as this ragged figure, lurking in between the trees and motioning and calling. in my head, I pictured a ragged bear—a black bear—just kind of disheveled and not attractive.”

 

“[black bear] is the whole idea of being pursued or hunted, tracked down, ultimately by God, and the person of Jesus Christ is the black bear.”

many others have described their own conversions similarly, as being pursued by God, including c. s. lewis. as a 30-something oxford university lecturer and ardent atheist, lewis refers to himself as “the most reluctant convert in all of england,” wanting to be left alone, who was pursued by God, and who finally gave in.

so many others describe their own experience with God in this same way. God’s love is not one we must find; it is a love that pursues and finds us.

which brings us to the new testament and our second point.

God’s freeing love

when God’s love finds us, it doesn’t leave us as we are. God’s love affects us.

over and over again in Scripture, God’s relationship with humanity is that of a freeing love. in the new testament, God shows up in the flesh and bone Person of Jesus, constantly freeing people…

…from the guilt and shame and the voices that tell them they cannot go out in public.

…from skin diseases that put them at a distance from others.

…from being a slave to the law, rather than understanding the law as a gift and means to peace, restoration, and life in a full sense.

…from self destructive behavior, and from so many other chains.

and the scene that was read for us from john’s gospel is an instance of God’s freeing love, but not how we initially expect.

woman-caught-in-adultery-sebastiano-conca-1741

woman caught in adultery, by sebastiano conca (1741).

to get a good picture of what’s going on here, listen closely to this story. picture it. we’re told that this woman was “caught in the act of adultery,” caught “red handed,” we might say. which means she’s not likely well dressed or covered up.

and then she’s brought to where Jesus is teaching in the temple by religious leaders. she is completely shamed, with no opportunity to hide herself or take shelter from these men.

and she’s brought to Jesus, we’re told, in order to tempt Jesus.

“moses, in the law, gives orders to stone such persons,” they say to Jesus. “What do you say?”

their question isn’t actually about this woman; this is about Jesus.

what’s he going to do? they wonder. how will he respond?

this woman is used as an instrument for Jesus’ capture. surely Jesus sees that. but this woman, most likely, doesn’t realize it.

she only sees her shame, guilt, and her fear for her life. because she knows that these men, if they choose, have precedent to pick up stones and heave them at her until her life is taken from her.

with her heart racing, her mind racing, her fear through the roof, she, too, is wondering: what’s he going to say? what’s he going to do?

and then, in a turn of events that no one sees coming, Jesus bends down and uses His finger to write in the dirt. and we’re told not what He writes, but that when He straightens up, He asks whoever is present and who is without sin to go ahead and throw the first stone. and then he bends down again and keeps writing.

and all of the men there, with their stones in hand, begin to turn and walk away, starting with the oldest.

“woman, where are they?” Jesus asks when he stands. “is there no one here left to condemn you?”

“no one,” she says. and you can just imagine her relief.

this woman had pictured herself as the target of so many heavy stones heaved until she could no longer stand. but now, now she’s free.

and notice: Jesus doesn’t tell her to enjoy her freedom by doing whatever makes her happy so long as it doesn’t intrude on someone else’s happiness—which is largely what we’re told today, right?

instead, Jesus says: “neither do I [condemn you]. go on your way. but from now on, don’t sin.”

which is to say, don’t keep living into those ways of life that threatened to take your life.

Jesus looks at this woman and says, in so many words:

“I know you. I know all about you…

 

I know you don’t like what you do, don’t like the fear and hiding that come from it—even though you keep doing it, even at risk of your own life.

 

don’t keep doing that.

 

know that I love you more than you dislike what you do. you are more than the worst thing you’ve done.”

and what i hope you see is that this woman is israel in all of the old testament stories of an unfaithful lover. we are this woman. i am this woman.

in search of love and fulfillment, but looking in all the wrong places. turning away from my true love to lesser loves. condemned by so many voices telling me i don’t deserve to be loved.

and Jesus’ says, accept the gift of true life and love I’ve come to give you.

Jesus’ love doesn’t let us remain as we are. He frees us to live life in the fullest sense. He changes us, from the inside out, and then sends us out to share that life with others.

but here’s the brilliance of what Jesus does here. He doesn’t just set this woman free from her accusers. do you see that? He also frees her accusers. from their self righteousness. and from the torment of stoning this woman to death, an act that would have likely stuck with them for the rest of their lives.

Jesus frees not just the accused, but the accusers, too. God’s love means freedom for all.

Costly love

God’s love is not just a love that pursues and frees humanity, it is also costly love. and it’s costly because it’s always costly to be in relationship with others.

the russian novelist fyodor dostoyevsky put it this way:

“to love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.”

similarly, the author susan sonntag writes:

“it hurts to love. it’s like giving yourself to be flayed and knowing that at any moment the other person may just walk off with your skin.”

it hurts to love, to be in intimate relationship with others, because doing so requires vulnerability. and once you’re vulnerable, it’s only a matter of time until you’re hurt.

it’s true for humans in relationship, and once God entered into human relationships, it was true for God, too.

God’s love is costly because it required God’s vulnerability with us.

the german theologian dietrich bonhoeffer said that once God became human, either humanity had to die to itself, or God had to die. and of course we didn’t want to die, so God had to.

there’s a film from the early 1990s called the fisher king that’s set in modern day manhattan. in it, robin williams plays a mysterious, homeless, holy fool figure by the name of perry. it is unclear whether perry is brilliant or crazy.

in one scene, perry is walking with a woman named lydia after their dinner date. walking side-by-side down a quiet sidewalk, lydia insists that he doesn’t have to bother with all the compliments.

“it’s old fashioned,” she tells him. “given what we’re about to do.”

innocently, perry asks what they’re about to do.

lydia explains that they’ll both likely go up to her apartment for coffee, when perry interrupts her to mention that he doesn’t drink coffee. lost in her own thoughts, lydia doesn’t seem to hear him. she goes on to say that, once in her apartment, they’ll talk and get comfortable, have a drink, and then he will most likely sleep over.

and when they wake up the next morning, she insists that he will be distant. he won’t be able to stay for breakfast, except maybe coffee (he points out again that he doesn’t drink coffee, but she doesn’t hear it). then they’ll exchange numbers and he’ll leave and never call.

with a sigh, lydia explains that she will go to work and that, for the first hour or so, she will feel great. but then, she tells him, ever so slowly she will turn into a piece of dirt.

and when she has finished saying all of this, she pauses. reflecting on this scene that she’s just painted, lydia is silent. when she finally speaks up, lydia thanks perry for the great night and she runs off down the sidewalk.

perry is left standing by himself on the sidewalk wondering what has just happened. a second later, he chases after her.

and when he finally reaches her, lydia picks up right where she left off: going on about needing to end things before they go any further, until he finally has to interrupt her.

“please, would you just shut up for a minute?!”

“no, please stop… i’m not coming up to your apartment. that was never my intention… i don’t want just one night. i’m in love with you.”

lydia stares at perry like he’s lost it. unfazed, he continues.

“and not just from tonight. i’ve known you for a long time. i know you come out from work at noon every day and you fight your way out that door and then you get pushed back in and three seconds later you come back out again.

 

i walk with you to lunch and i know if it’s a good day, if you stop and get that romance novel at that bookstore. i know what you order, and i know that on wednesdays you go to that dim sum parlor and i know that you get a jawbreaker before you go back in to work.

 

and i know you hate your job and you don’t have many friends and i know sometimes you feel a little uncoordinated and you don’t feel as wonderful as everybody else and feeling as alone and as separate as you feel you are…

 

i love you… …i love you… and i think you’re the greatest thing since spice racks and i would be knocked out several times if i could just have that first kiss.

 

and i won’t, i won’t be distant. i’ll come back in the morning and i’ll call ya if you let me… but i still don’t drink coffee.”

“you’re real,” lydia asks, “aren’t you?”

Jesus’ love is like this holy fool’s love, who knows this woman in all of her odd idiosyncrasies, in all of her self doubt and shame, and who says he would be knocked out several times just to show her his love.

i mentioned before that those who brought the woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus weren’t really there to condemn the woman; they were there to condemn Jesus.

the stones they brought were really for Jesus, and the thing about those who throw stones is that it’s only a matter of time before they return. in the end, they came with more powerful stones: the force of Rome and the threat of crucifixion, if Jesus didn’t back down.

and of course He didn’t back down. nor did He overpower them.

He continued to pursue us in love and the Father in obedience, and it cost Jesus His life.

“I would be knocked out several times to show you my love…”

but, surprisingly, from the darkest of days following Jesus’ death, christians came to find that His death wasn’t the end of the story, but the beginning.

to their amazement, the earliest disciples found that the Father honored Jesus’ love and obedience by bringing Him back to life—and the promise they received from Jesus was that they and we, too, might find life in His life.

Jesus’ love is a costly love, but it means life from death. and not just after we die, but life from the kind of life that’s more properly described as death.

so that brings us back to where we started: how can we speak of God’s love in the midst of so much senseless suffering?

God’s love means that we in no way minimize or try to explain away the suffering in our world, the suffering in our life.

God doesn’t ignore our suffering, nor does God seem primarily concerned with explaining it. instead, God enters into our suffering, shares it, and redeems it—all of it, somehow.

to quote dostoyevsky again:

“i believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for…in the world’s finale, [that] at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

for christians, we believe the suffering in this world is not the result of evil in an abstract sense, out there, but that it is inside of us, right here.

and in love, God pursues us and frees us from that evil and from certain death—death we feel, and from which we think there is no way out. and God does so at great cost to Himself.

and then, when we are freed from death to life, God calls us to go out and live in this new way of life so that others, too, might catch this life, like a good infection.

focus-christmas-caroling-dec-2016

“be kind to on another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you,” paul writes to the early church in the city of ephesus, read for us earlier.

“be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

rather than destroy the darkness inside us—the darkness that threatens to destroy us from the inside out, like cancer—Jesus touches and heals this darkness. and then He calls us to go out and be a light in the dark that remains, so that one day there will be no more dark, only the full light of His life, radiating throughout all of God’s creation.

faith like a virus

a good friend of mine recently cleared out his dining room and put everything in storage so that one of his employees would have a place to live over the summer. it helped that the dining room was actually a bedroom to begin with. but he didn’t stop there. when he found out that this guy had never had new bedding his entire life, he went out and bought him an entire new setup. new bed. new bedding. and, when it came down to two comforters, a down comforter and an imitation down comforter, he decided to go with the down comforter, even though it represented a significant cost increase.

almost as if to defend his decision, he explained that he knew both comforters would be good enough, but it wasn’t about just giving this guy a bed that would be good enough. “ultimately, it’s not about me serving (this guy),” he explained, “it’s about me serving The Lord.”

i don’t know a whole lot about mother theresa. but when i hear or think of her name, my mind immediately pictures an older woman, worn hands, wrinkled smile, helping the poor in a village somewhere far from here. somewhere very unlike the conditions i am used to.

i heard something pretty interesting said of mother theresa years ago, though, something that has stuck with me ever since. i heard that she was once asked, “why do you love the poor so much?” and her response was quite shocking… “i don’t love the poor,” she was said to have responded. “i love Jesus Christ. but when i look at the poor, i see Christ.”

smile for a change

the other day i made a quick stop at the grocery store to pick up some dinner before coming home after work. as i entered through the double doors and made my way past the vast cheese selection, a man in an electric wheelchair crossed my path on the way to the eggs. he was a pretty rough looking man. more beard than legs. eyes heavy. the kind of man you would assume had received his injuries in battle. and as he passed in front of me, i was overcome by a smile. without being able to explain it any differently, it was my natural response. and, in turn, i received an incredibly warm and congenial smile from this man.

not that i am deserving sainthood for simply smiling at a stranger, but it seemed as though a simple smile, in that situation, was Christ’s way of working through my life to touch someone else (or was it the other way around?).

at one point in His ministry, Jesus told his disciples a story,

“…I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? when did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? when did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

the King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'”

faith that goes out

and i think that gets back to this quote from mother theresa. we are to love those in our life we come across, particularly the hungry, the stranger, those in need of clothes or just a friend. and we’re to love them because, through loving them, we are loving Christ.

when i look at my own life, and the love that i give to others, there’s certainly a pattern. typically, the amount of love that you receive from me is directly proportional to the amount of care, love, concern you show for me. almost as if to reciprocate the attention you have shown me. and, if that’s the case, if my love for you is dependent upon your love for me, then i could potentially live a very unloving life, which is a pretty scary thought. it’s the makings of a very lonely life, indeed.

and yet, Christ calls us to a very different lifestyle. one in which we love others not because of what they will do for us, or have done for us, but simply because, through doing so, we are loving Him. and that changes everything.

that changes the way i approach a disabled veteran in the grocery store. that changes the way i love family members who only seem to bring pain by the paths they’re walking. it changes the way i treat complete strangers, or the passerby on the sidewalk. it changes the way i treat the hungry. it changes the way i treat those who are cold or living broken lives.

but it’s not just about being ‘a nice guy,’ it’s not about just doing enough. for, if your love was about just doing enough, it would hardly be special. it would hardly make the recipient feel special. would a brand new synthetic down comforter be enough to keep someone warm and comfortable at night? absolutely! is it a step above, though? is it exceptional? for, if we are really serving Him, our acts of service should be more than ‘just enough.’

every opportunity

what would happen if you took every opportunity, every encounter and interaction with someone as an opportunity to show them the love of Christ? those you know. those you don’t.

what if you looked at every conversation as an opportunity to show that person how Christ listens to us?

what if you told others how much they mean to you (in the same way that God has told us how much we mean to Him)?

what if you encouraged those who need to be encouraged?

what if we lived life in a way that showed others that their life was more important to us than our own?

faith like a virus

i can’t help but think that that would make a difference. first in the lives of a few, but then in the lives of many. that, by seeing and experiencing this kind of lifestyle, others would want to follow and do the same for others. and that, through that, it would spread. it would spread and multiply in a way that changed the lives of many.

what if your faith was like a virus? a virus that gives life, rather than takes it away (what c.s. lewis called the “good infection“). what if your life changed the life next to you? what if it changed it for the better?

and, were we to be looking down on this picture from above, we could almost see it move and grow, like one of those diagrams that shows the spread of a virus. first across your town, then across the state and into the next, then moving even further.

i can’t help but think that’s the picture God gets to look down on and enjoy. smiling to Himself, knowing that it was the life of His Son that started it all.

love: the cross of Christ

on this day, “Good Friday”, the day we remember Christ’s crucifixion, i cannot help but be overcome with sadness. sadness for the excruciating pain that Christ felt, sadness for the loneliness and abandonment He went through as His disciples fled as He was beaten and persecuted. and yet, i find great joy in this day, for this sadness is a thin veil for the incredible joy that is to come.

the why of the cross

many images come to mind when i consider this day and the cross of Jesus Christ. i imagine the aslan character of c.s. lewis’ famous chronicles of narnia series, walking steadfast toward the altar that he would be slaughtered on, as the wild beasts around Him hunch back in fear that He might lash out at them at any moment, which he could. yet he never does. He knows why he is there, and he came to see it through. i am deeply thankful to c.s. lewis for painting such a vivid picture of the restrained power on Jesus’ part as He was lead to His death.

and i think of a sermon i heard several years ago, where the pastor shouted, “don’t you dare be sorry for Him! He made the choice to go to the cross! and He did that for you, out of love. no, don’t be sorry for Him, for that is a slap in His face.”

if the cross of Christ was unintentional, if He did not desire to be crucified, then we would have every right to be sorry for Him. but that is not the case. no, it was out of love that He refused to back down when given the opportunity to deny that He was the Christ. that is what drove Christ to the cross that day. that is what allowed Him to not relent when the loneliness, fatigue, shame and pain set in. no, He simply could not. why? because it was always about His love for us. and that love was and is greater than anything that stood in His way.

He knew exactly what it meant for Him to be lifted up and crucified. it meant the salvation of the world! it was so that God’s love could be made known to all generations. and He saw that, clearly. that, that is what drove Christ to the cross.

to bring us home

did Christ suffer? absolutely! more than we will ever know. but it was not because He had a masochistic father who took joy in bringing His Son pain; it was because both the Father and the Son knew that His pain would bring healing for our pain. and, ultimately, that it would bring us the right-standing with The Father that He had always enjoyed.

but this once, on this day, that was a position He did not enjoy. no, He gave it up for our sake. that we might be called His sons and His daughters.

Oh what love it took to walk steadfast to the Cross that day! Oh what determination it took! may we never forget or minimize that act of love. may it stand ever present in our minds as the ultimate symbol of His love for us and His desire to bring us home to Himself. and may we find great joy and comfort in that, even in His pain, even in his suffering.

pain: how could a good God allow…

he rose his hands as he sang, and it caught me completely off guard. you see, he is the kind of guy who doesn’t typically raise his hands while singing in church. even when the pastors make a point to ask us to raise our hands to a particular song as an act of obedience, he’s one of the few not to.

but this morning was different. as we sang, his arms were held outward and his palms faced upward. and it was only when my attention moved from this scene to the lyrics of the song we were singing did i realize why; the words explaining the mystery to me:

“you give and take away,
you give and take away,
my heart will choose to say,
Lord blessed be your name.”

it was only earlier that week that this man’s brother had lost a long fought battle with cancer. a battle our church had been praying for for a very long time. yet, here he was, a man who does not typically worship The Lord in songs with arms raised, praising the very Father who had ‘taken away’ his brother, leaving behind a wife and children. and i was left standing there in amazement.

the ‘why’ of pain

i can’t begin to write on the extent of pain in this world and hope to somehow make it seem as though i have seen even a hint of it. i haven’t. but i know that the issue of such pain is a reason so many choose not to believe in, or simply choose not to follow, God. yet, apparently, some can still say ‘blessed be your name’ even amongst the pain.

i am not sure what i would say to the mother who approaches me and asks, “if there is a God, and if He really is good, then how in the world could He allow my daughter to be raped?!” i don’t know. i don’t have the answers. and i can’t begin to act like i do. but i still believe Him to be good, i still believe Him to be righteous and all-loving. i believe in that with all that i have.

we can say the pain in this world is because of our original sin (which i believe to be true), because of Adam and Eve, and the decisions they made (as we so often like to do), but what does that achieve? anything? it certainly doesn’t make the pain go away.

we can say God allows the pain in this world to refine us (which i also believe to be true), to teach us to turn to Him and rely on His strength and comfort. as Packer pointed out, “this is the ultimate reason… why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another – it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold Him fast… when we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, as likely as not we shall impatiently shake him off; but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we shall thankfully lean on him.” (Knowing God, 227)

true, if all we know is the smooth road of a life without pain and hurt, we will have little need for a God who comes in love and holiness. but, unfortunately, i don’t think this point will do much better for someone in the midst of the loss of a loved one, the devastation of a rape, or another terribly painful situation.

or, we can say that God will act in these painful situations to bring about his redemptive plan, to bring about His goodness (again, which i believe to be true). yet, during the loss of a loved one, or another similarly painful situation, the only seemingly “good” plan would be to bring the loved one back.

i don’t have the answers. and i can’t begin to act like i do. and so often, i think those of us who profess to believe in an all-loving God feel as though we have to.

the alternative

i’ve often thought about the alternative – God always preventing us from the pain of this world – and that has helped provide some clarification for me on this point. for, if we imagine a God who never allowed His children to feel pain, to never hurt for a loved one, who simply snapped his fingers at our prayers, pulling us from a painful situation, then our love for Him would be no more than our love for a way out of pain.

as any parent would know, the love from a child that is based solely on the gifts they give is not the deep-rooted love between a child and a parent who loves them enough to not always give the gifts they want, or think they need. to put it another way, our love for The Father should not be based on what He gives or what He takes away, but, rather, on His holiness and on His love (which He has displayed for us with the death of His Son on the cross).

and it is for this reason that i believe He does not snap his fingers and take away our pain or remove us from painful situations (as He could, if His word is true).

just one question

and yet, i know that, if they were to have only one question answered by God, many, many people would ask something like this:

“if you really are the God of the Bible, an all-loving Father, then how could you allow _______ to happen?”

how will He answer? i’m not sure. i could attempt to write some pithy response. but, truly, i don’t know.

what i would say to such a person is this: The Bible tells us that God is love, that He loves us, that He is good and righteous, and that He is unchanging. as such, we must never think that any pain we feel, go through or hear of is a result of a lack of His love, Him not being good enough, or that He has somehow let up. for, if he is unchanging, He could not let up; He could not be more righteous; He could not love us more.

with that, i will conclude with one last attempt at consolation to this point: an analogy.

the grand canyon and God

i’ve never been to the grand canyon. i’ve seen pictures, of course, but i’ve never actually been there. what i hear from those who have, though, is that it’s simply breathtaking. that it makes you feel so very small, just by being there.

now, no one in there right mind would stand at the edge of the grand canyon and yell at it for not being more expansive or deeper. anyone who did would be considered out of their mind.

in the same way, i am confident that once we have the opportunity to see The Father of all Creation with eyes wide open, the last thing we could ever imagine doing is berate Him for not being more righteous or more loving. no more than you could ask water to be more wet. He simply could not be.

i still don’t know how God would answer this question, but, when the opportunity presents itself, somehow i believe the question will seem much, much less important than it does now. and, i am confident that the answer will have much less to do with His love and righteousness than many would seem to believe.