Watch this one and you’ll “wrestle” better today.
Perhaps, people who are talking past one another can agree that what we need right now are leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King brought together a number of elements that gave real hope. And hope is what we need. Feel free to ignore my analysis. But at the least watch the below video clip. Or, better yet, listen or read the entire speech Dr. King gave the night before he was murdered.
Like most of our nation, last night and this morning ,my heart has been heavy for the situation in Ferguson, MO. I watched the story for hours.
It is frustrating to see how little real progress is being made. Nearly anything that be can said is inflammatory one way or another. Those interviewed talk past one another over and over again. People on all sides of the issue believe they have the moral high ground and so, they feel no obligation to listen.
But surely most of us can agree that it is a good time to reflect on Dr. King’s leadership. I am very aware that Dr. King was not a perfect leader. Spare us from pointing out his faults in the comments. But he was certainly used in incredible ways to lead forward in the Civil Rights Movement. He was especially effective at giving hope. Notice how he did this in his final speech (full audio here, full text here):
- Dr. King applied Scripture to the context of his day. Whether or not we agree with all the applications he made, his audience certainly did. When Dr. King talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan and said, the Good Samaritan didn’t ask, “What will happen to me if I help?” He asked, “What will happen to him if I don’t help?” He challenged his audience that they must stop to help the sanitation workers. He referenced Scripture over and over again. Indeed, without biblical categories and thought, Dr. King could not have led the Civil Rights Movement and we cannot hope to find our way without the beacon of truth to guide us.
- Dr. King connected the story of the Civil Rights Movement to the biblical narrative. As soon as he said, “I have been to the mountaintop,” his audience immediately knew what he meant: (1) You have been in bondage just like the nation of Israel in Egypt. (2) I am a Moses-like leader. (3) The end is in site. We can see the Promised Land. (4) You getting there is more important than me getting there. People are created to be a part of something larger than themselves and their time. Dr. King showed his followers how this was so.
- Dr. King told the story of the progress of the Civil Rights Movement over and over again. In one of the most powerful segments of his speech, Dr. King reminded his audience that there was a time when African-Americans in Georgia started “standing up straight.” And then he said this:
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.
This paragraph reminded his audience that they were going some place – – that they had been going some place – – that they were through being ridden. One of the reasons that tempers are so high right now is because people on all sides of the issues feel that no progress is being made.
- Dr. King modeled courage. He knew he might die. He thought it was probable. And he did die. When he told the story of being stabbed in New York, he did so to remind his audience what he had been risking. People have hope when they know that their leaders are willing to die for what they believe.
- Dr. King saw the local churches and pastors as a direct part of the solution. If we are going to make progress, we need the leadership of our churches to help us do so. In his mountaintop speech, Dr. King challenged the pastors:
And you know what’s beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, “When God speaks who can but prophesy?” Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me,” and he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”
And I want to commend the preachers, under the leadership of these noble men: James Lawson, one who has been in this struggle for many years; he’s been to jail for struggling; he’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggle, but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people. Reverend Ralph Jackson, Billy Kiles; I could just go right on down the list, but time will not permit. But I want to thank all of them. And I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry.
It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.
- Dr. King gave very specific instructions about how they would protest. We’re going to march. We won’t be violent. We won’t let dogs, or water hoses, or mace stop us. We will ignore unconstitutional court injunctions. We will be arrested. We will be put in jail. It as the kind of protest that people could support without violating their consciences.
And so, Dr. King gave real hope. By reviewing the story of progress made, by connecting their story to the biblical story, by likening himself to Moses-like leadership, by showing that he was willing to die for this cause, by assuring them that they were on the mountaintop looking over into the Promised Land, Dr. King was saying, “We can get there; we will get there.” This is the sort of hope we need.
The hope of the resurrection is the sure promise that, for the believer, all that is sad and hurts will become untrue. These quotes help us meditate on our blessed hope.
From The Lord of the Rings series:
“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?
A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”
Another quote, this one from Keller:
The fourth great doctrine is that of the bodily resurrection from the dead for all who believe. This completes the spectrum of our joys and consolations. One of the deepest desires of the human heart is for love without parting. Needless to say, the prospect of the resurrection is far more comforting than the beliefs that death takes you into nothingness or into an impersonal spiritual substance. The resurrection goes beyond the promise of an ethereal, disembodied afterlife. We get our bodies back, in a state of beauty and power that we cannot totally imagine. Jesus’ resurrection body was corporeal – – it could be touched and embraced, and he ate foot. And yet he passed through closed doors and could disappear. This is a material existence, but one beyond the bounds of our imagination. The idea of heaven can be a consolation for suffering, a compensation for the life we have lost. But resurrection is not just consolation–it is a restoration. We get it all back–the love, the loved ones, the goods, the beauties of this life–but in new, unimaginable degrees of glory and joy and strength. It is a reversal of the seeming irreversibility of loss that Luc Ferry speaks of. (Keller, 58-59).
“Son,’he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven, : and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.”― C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce.
Which is fundamental to reality: persons or impersonal structures? Your answer to this question determines whether you see life as a great, beautiful adventure, or if you are living in a gray world of particle collisions. You will have to stretch your minds a little when reading this post, but it is worth doing!
John Frame acknowledges the influence of Francis Schaeffer as he articulates this thought in Apologetics to the Glory of God (pages 35-37):
The great question confronting modern humanity is this: Granted that the universe contains both persons (like you and me) and impersonal structures (like matter, motion, chance, time, space, and physical laws), which is fundamental? Is the impersonal aspect of the universe grounded in the personal, or is it the other way around? Secular thought generally assumes the latter–that persons are the products of matter, motion, chance, and so on. It holds that to explain a phenomenon in terms of personal intentions (e.g., “This house is here because someone built it live in”) is less than an ultimate explanation, a fully satisfying explanation, requires the house because of the ultimacy of the impersonal (e.g. “The person built the house because the atoms in his brain moved about in certain ways”). But is that a necessary assumption?
Let us think of the consequences of each. If the impersonal is primary, then there is no consciousness, no wisdom, and no will in the ultimate origin of things. What we call reason and value are the unintended, accidental consequences of chance events. (So why should we trust reason, if it is only the accidental result of irrational happenings?) Moral virtue will, in the end, be unrewarded. Friendship, love, and beauty are all of no ultimate consequence for, they are reducible to blind, uncaring process . . .
But if the personal is primary, then the world was made according to a rational plan that can be understood by rational minds. Friendship and love are not only profound human experiences, but fundamental ingredients of the whole world order. There is someone who wants there to be friendship, who wants there to be love. Moral goodness, too, is part of the great design of the universe. If personality is absolute, there is one who cares about what we do, who approves or disapproves of our conduct. And that person has some purpose for evil, too, mysterious as that may seem to use . . . Beauty, too, does not just happen for a while; it is the art of a great craftsman. And if indeed the solar system comes to a “vast death,” there is one who can deliver us from that death, if it pleases him to do so. So it may be that some of our thoughts, plans, trust, love, and achievements have eternal consequences after all, consequences that impart to all these things a great seriousness, but also humor: humor at the ironic comparison of our trivial efforts with “eternal consequences.”
What a difference! Instead of a gray world of matter and motion and chance, in which anything could happen, but nothing much (nothing of human interest) ever does, the world would be the artistic creation of the greatest mind imaginable, with a dazzling beauty and fascinating logic. It would be a history with a drama, a human interest, a profound subtlety and allusiveness more illuminating than the greatest novelist could produce. That divine history would have a moral grandeur that would turn all the world’s evil to good. Most amazingly: the world would be under the control of a being somehow, wonderfully, akin to ourselves! Could we pray to him? Could we know him as a friend? Or would we have to flee from him as our enemy? What would he expect of us? What incredible experiences might have in store for us? What new knowledge? What blessings? What curses?
John Stott wrote, “The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith.” Virtually all theologians agree. There is no tougher area of theology to consider. And yet, today fewer Christians wrestle with the problem of evil – – and that may be the biggest problem of all.
The problem of evil is the question of how it can simultaneously be true that:
- God is all-powerful and all-knowing.
- God is good.
- Yet, evil and suffering exist.
From the finite vantage point of our minds, it may seem as though the only reason that suffering exists is because God can’t stop it (he’s not sovereign or all-powerful) or he won’t stop evil (he’s not benevolent or good).
I won’t lay out a Christian response to the problem of evil – – though I’m doing that in my current sermon series at The Red Brick Church – – and I believe there is a completely satisfying answer. But here I want to make the point that as troubling as it may seem to consider why God allow suffering, it is far more troubling to never wrestle with the question of why God allows children to be harmed or for hurricanes to come.
Let me explain why it is a problem if we are not somewhat conflicted about suffering. First, understand that the problem of evil is unique to people of the Bible.
- Polytheists don’t struggle with the problem of evil. They believe that suffering flows out of the conflicts of many flawed gods.
- Atheists don’t struggle with the problem of evil. Suffering is simply another aspect of material reality.
- Monism (Hinduism or Buddhism) believes in the unity of everything which will one day be achieved.
- Deists holds that God wound up the clock of the universe and is now watching it tick. He is not involved.
Only people who believe in one, sovereign, good God wonder why God allows suffering. And struggle we do! Given that we live in a fallen world where little girls are sold into sex slavery, why wouldn’t anyone struggle with the problem of evil?
Fact: right now, somewhere in the world there is someone being raped or murdered.
Fact: God hates rape and murder.
Fact: God could stop rape and murder.
The question is not why has so many pages have been written about the problem of evil. Rather, the question is why aren’t people asking about it more? While preaching through Job I’ve considered why aren’t thinking about the problem of evil more. I’ve come up with the following possibilities:
- A person might not struggle with the problem of evil because he or she has a thin understanding of the experiences of life. A five year, who has been protected from suffering, has probably never cried out, “Why?” But those who have watched loved ones waste away to cancer, or lose their minds to Alzheimer’s wonder why God allows it.
- A person who is cocksure or cavalier about theology might not struggle. I’ve heard people say, “There is no problem of evil. God allows pain for his glory.” While this s a true statement – – it is amazingly insensitive and non-pastoral, and it is unhelpful when comforting someone whose child has been murdered.
- Others have personalities that are not given to theological reflection. They are blessed with a deep and child-like faith.
- Admittedly, some no longer struggle over the difficult question of the problem of evil because they have very mature faith. They have worked through their concerns and now they trust God.
I would call those first two possibilities shallow Christian responses to the problem of evil. Many of us are guilty of them at some point to one degree or another. But the above reasons are not the alarming explanations for why people are not struggling with the problem of evil. Here’s another set of reasons people aren’t wrestling with the problem of evil.
- Many people do not wrestle with the problem of evil because they do not really believe that God is sovereign. Deep down they have accepted the answer that God feels bad about evil but he isn’t really big enough to stop it.
- Others don’t wrestle with the problem of evil because they are what Christian Smith has called “moralistic therapeutic deists.” That is, they believe in a distant God, who is easy to please, who exists to make us feel better. They comfort themselves with simple platitudes like, “Well, it must all work together for good,” but they do not consider their relationship to God or who He really is.
- Still others don’t wrestle with the problem of evil because they do not believe God is just – – deep down they do not believe that wrong behavior must given an account to an all-powerful God who will judge evil. They never picture themselves giving an account to God.
If you think about this latter list, what you see is that these reasons have in common is that they are characteristics of people who do not believe in the God of the Bible.
Again, the problem of evil is a question posed to those concerned with the God of the Bible. When people stop asking the question, it shows that people are not really contemplating a good and sovereign God.
In my decades of pastoral ministry, I have done many funerals for those who are not Christians – – and, of course, many for those who are – – and I have had very few people say to me in anger – – “Why did God let this happen?” And to be honest, I think it is a problem. Job was upset with his suffering because he believed in a good God who is in control and he wanted to know “Why?” The fact that we so rarely face people asking Job’s passionate questions is because we live in a culture where, increasingly, people do not believe in a sovereign, good God. Indeed, it may be that most people with whom we rub shoulders are deists, not theists.
Which is to say, the real problem of evil is when we stop believing enough in the sovereignty and goodness of God to ask the really hard questions.
Interacting with the problem of suffering, Christopher J.H. Wright writes:
Whereas we often ask “Why?” people in the Bible more often asked “How long?” Their tendency was not to demand that God give an explanation for the origin of evil but rather to plead with God to do something to bring about an end to evil. And that, we shall see is exactly what God has promised to do (page 27).
In Job 9-10, Job is in agony. The heart of Job’s pain is that he longs for dialogue with God – – yet, there seems no possible way forward. Commentator Christopher Ash breaks down Job’s struggle in the following way. Job can’t:
- “Will” himself through the suffering (Job 9:27-29) – – he can’t just cheer up and move.
- Job cannot cleanse himself. There is no hope of Job being his own savior (Job 9:30-31).
- Find a mediator (Job 9:32-35) – – Job longs for one to stand between God and him, but there is no one immediately forthcoming.
So Job’s complaints give way to despair. He raises four agonized questions:
- Why are You Against Me God? (Job 10:1-3)
- Why Do You Watch Me? (Job 10:4-7)
- Why Did You Create Me? (Job 10:8-17)
- Why Don’t You Kill Me? (Job 10:18-22)
At this point, much of what Job says is flatly wrong. He is wrong to say that God treats the innocent and the wicked in the same way (Job 9:22-23). We begin to wonder why God does not rebuke Job in a harsher way. Ash explains the way in which Job is right even as he is wrong.
Whatever Job says, the fact that he says it to God and says it with such vehemence suggests that he knows he has not yet reached the end of his quest for meaning. There is in Job the inner energy of faith, the mark of a real believer. Job may be wrong in his perception of God and of the reality of his situation, but he is deeply right in his heart and the direction of his turning and his yearning. Thank God for that. (Ash, 151).
At the beginning of the same chapter, Ash writes:
It is possible to be wrong and right at the same time. God will say that Job has spoken rightly about him (42:7). And yet Job says a great many things about God that are not right. How are we to reconcile this apparent contradiction? When we listen to Job’s speeches, we need to bear in mind the distinction between Job’s perception and Job’s heart. His heart is in the heart of a believer, which is why the Lord commends and affirms him at the end. But his perceptions are partial and flawed. We hear in these speeches the honest grapplings of a real believer with a heart for God as he sees what he thought was a secure worldview crumble around him. This is why we will hear Job say some things that are plain wrong, and yet we hear him say them from a heart that is deeply right (Ash, 139).
One of the best parts of being a pastor is having a front row seat as parents teach their children about the preaching of the Word of God. This morning my friend, Jaxen (the blond little boy pictured below with his older brother) , gave me an illustrated note to tell me that he is grateful for my preaching of the Holy Word.
There is so much about the note that I appreciate:
- Jaxson is thankful for his pastor and recognizes that pastors are a gift from God (Ephesians 4:11-13).
- Jaxson has a high view of the word of God. He refers to the Bible as God’s “holy” Word.
- Jaxson knows that it is important to take the time to thank people.
- Jaxon (see illustration) thinks I am skinny.
Thank God for Christian homes.
Yes – – we know the traditional spelling of “grateful” at the Red Brick Church. We just prefer “greatful” to communicate the extent of our gratitude.
I am thankful for the ways that the Internet and social media allow others to suggest worship music to accompany sermon series. My youngest sister, Erin (see her blog here), suggested this song to go along with our Job series at the Red Brick Church. The video is worth watching! My sister wrote:
I don’t know how familiar you are with Steven Curtis Chapman, but this song always reminds me of the book of Job because of the message behind it. And if you know anything about the testimony of the Chapmans, they are no strangers to tragedy. Last year at this time, Chad’s grandpa was dying. Chad was extremely close to his grandpa. The week after coming home from his funeral, on Chad’s birthday (which he happens to share with SCC who also happens to be his all time favorite artist), we were able to attend The Glorious Unfolding Tour at Harmony Bible Church in Danville, IA. It was during that concert that God began working on our hearts toward adoption. In March we decided to take the next steps. Now we have two new daughters in China who wait for us to come and bring them home. I should also mention that some of our best friends through this adoption were also at the concert and we didn’t even know them then. Now, today, we are praying for their daughter, Evie, as she will have life-saving heart surgery on Monday. This song is very deep and meaningful to us. “This is just the beginning of the beginning!”
Here’s a window to my world of study – – this is how I organized my attempt to understand Job’s friends.
One of the real challenges of preaching Job is that it’s such a long book. There are three cycles of Job’s “friends” responding to him. Below is a page from my study notes that I have been working on for quite some time.