Category Archives: Theology

waiting words

Because there is so much that we can’t fight. When we are waiting we are often painfully aware that we are not in control. This agitation can push us into badgering others, anxiety attacks or the occasional misplaced obsessive compulsion. On our better days it pushes us into prayer. And in this waiting place, prayer can be like walking into an empty room, a conversational cul-de-sac. When you most need Him, God doesn’t show up. The God who spoke all life into being, from whom “every good and perfect gift” comes, who died to defeat death, pain, sin and hell for us—where is He now with His good gifts and power to save?

After the death of her mother and crumbling of her marriage, Lauren Winner describes her feelings this way: “When you find that God is absent, you do many things… You narrow your eyes at your absent God the way you would narrow your eyes at your lover, in a fight, when he has just said something awful and mean and true about you, the way you narrow your eyes before you say Fine, then! And storm out of the room. You are growing a carapace, to protect yourself from this absence. You begin to turn your attention elsewhere, to any elsewhere that might pay you some attention back.” My husband and I recently wondered whether we are getting more skilled in trusting God or just getting numb to the ups and downs of anticipation and delay. Are we just looking elsewhere for attention, distracting ourselves with more urgent concerns than an absent God? If so, then we are not waiting well.

Psalm 22 is some good waiting: fully voiced despair, demand for God alone and unflinching, steely-eyed hope in Him. If the psalm itself doesn’t charm you, Jesus’ meditation on it through the cross experience ought to lure you in. And for both Jesus and the psalmist, declaring God’s victory was best done in the midst of apparent defeat. The timing of faith is crucial; it’s not faith when it’s over and the answer is clear and the pieces have all fallen into place—faith is most faithful when the object of its hope is utterly unapparent.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
                       Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
                        and by night, but I find no rest.

The first irony here is that the psalmist is still calling out to a God that he accuses of absence. The Septuagint’s translation of the cry here is something akin to “why don’t you pay any attention to me!?” And his enemies’ taunts only prod his fear awake: Let Him rescue him if he delights in him… The implications of this unmet reality are devastating for one whose life centers on the covenant, who from birth has called on my God. We wonder… maybe He ignores me because I am insignificant to Him, because He disdains me and my inability to hold it together, my pathetic pleas.

In contrast to his forefathers, who were delivered, he is ashamed. Denied the security of the primary relationship of his life, he doesn’t even feel human: But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people… He feels eyes upon him, the discomfort of unanswered questions, the tsk-tsking as heads wag, the eventual vocalization of long-held suspicions and finally outright attacks on his integrity—this from his own community! Much like Job, he realizes that only the solidarity of God is useful.

He comes to this argument perhaps less nobly than Job. He is less convinced of his righteousness in his desparation, but desperation for God is still good. Sometimes our faith is little more than a shoulder-shrugged statement like Peter’s “to whom else would we go?” He fights doubts of God’s pleasure in him with something of a blameshift: I’m not sure how you feel about me now since you’re ignoring me, but don’t forget that you’re the one who made yourself my God! As you sit by watching me face death, don’t forget that you’re the one who brought me here in the first place. I have no one else besides you—for good or bad, you’re my God! His enemies are closing in, encircling him while God is nowhere to be seen—but his eyes are still scanning the horizon for a savior.

The psalm gradually turns from despair by way of several halting jerks back and forth: current absence but past presence, pragmatic but nonetheless loyal attachment to his God, and then a commitment to fully explain God’s faithfulness to a community that now disdains him. While still under the calculating eyes of his enemies, the psalmist envisions a day of praise and this is what he plans to say: That God doesn’t scorn the lowly. That He is not annoyed by the desperate pleas of the poor. That He doesn’t look away, averting his eyes from our pain. That when we cry, He is listening. That He saves.

He has not despised or abhorred
                        the affliction of the afflicted,
             and he has not hidden his face from him,
                        but has heard, when he cried to him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
                        those who seek him shall praise the LORD!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
                        and turn to the LORD…All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
                       before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
                        even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
                        it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
                        that he has done it.

The Gospels unanimously portray Christ meditating on this psalm throughout his suffering and finding its honest resolve fortifying. Even the accusers are painted with this psalm’s language—they wag their heads and echo “He trusts in God; Let God deliver him now if He desires him…” One scholar interprets Jesus’ cry of “It is finished!” (Jn 19.30) as a restatement of the psalm’s final phrase: “He has done it!” In light of the timing (pre-resurrection), it at least borrows its boldness. While still in his precarious position, the psalmist vows to God that he will someday tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. Then Hebrews 2.7 tell us that we are those brothers. That when Jesus was on the cross he was gaining the voice of experience and planning to use it to convince us of God’s faithfulness. For it’s not angels that he helps, but people. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God… for because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Jesus waits with us. The One who could do anything, with all things at his disposal, chose suffering. God does not give into demands, but He stays by those who pray.

So here, in brief, are some waiting words:

–       keep calling—stay loyal
–       remember God’s goodness in the past and let those memories form your actions. This is not dishonest—it is accurate. (We know more about the past than the future or even present.) And then push yourself a bit more to use it to shape the way you imagine the future.
–       Put the shame to shame, giving it no weight. You may feel shame before people, but never before God. He knows every sin, hears every cry, sees every impatient sigh, every shallow and easily frightened spot of our souls. And is still our God. If there are taunts, lifted eyebrows, and uncomfortable questions they are not from God. He does not squirm in the face of evil like the powerless do.
–       If you are crying out to silence, assume it is the silence of One listening, hanging on to every word.

And, finally, it helps to imagine the devil writhing in agony over your well-timed faith. “Do not be deceived Wormwood. Our case is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” (C. S. Lewis’s master tempter Screwtape)

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the sight of the knives

I think I went into this understanding that following Christ would not easy. But there are a lot of days where I just feel exhausted spiritually, like each choice or thought or act stands before me like a mountain to climb and waking up is like facing a whole range. The Christian life is a race of the marathon category and to be quite frank, I didn’t think I’d be this pooped with this much still to go. I’m only 31 and given current stats I’ve got a lot of mornings to wake up to still.

While Christ has accomplished all we need for our salvation and God’s grace is sufficient for all we face, every time I turn around I’m told to “appropriate” and “remember” and “focus” on it. There is some serious mental labor involved there and it seems like an awful lot of work for something I understand to be a gift. Given the tension of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, it’s not a dilemma I expect a solution to necessarily, but in my worst moments I sort of feel like God bait-and-switched me. Like I was somehow conned into this without reading the small print. 50 years until Christ’s righteousness is revealed in me?!? And how can I possibly do all that you ask me to in the way you ask me to in the meantime? Without becoming a hermit that is… The task ahead of me and the frequency of my failure in it is simple overwhelming. I really just want to skip ahead to the part about righteousness, hanging out with Jesus and streets of gold.

In Romans 8, Paul talks about creation and the followers of Christ groaning, longing for that day. I’m glad he said this stuff in addition to all the rest because when we sing “At the Cross” in church, I’m the person sometimes lip-syncing the line “and I’m happy all the day” for my conscience’s sake. In Colossians, Paul’s eschatology is more “realized” and he talks about our life in Christ in such present-day language it makes me wonder what’s wrong with me. There’s a small clue, though, in the phrase “and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” It’s that hidden part that gets me everyday! But what slips past as a descriptive phrase rushing towards action in Colossians is a thoughtful paragraph in Romans 8. The rich visual imagery makes it clear that Paul (and the Spirit) have been in the trenches with that hidden bit.

Verse 18 starts a new section in the chapter and Paul’s opening statement has often been very convicting for me. Paul is always exulting in the glory of God with rash, praise-dripping statements, so it’s easy to skate right by his words here, but don’t. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Sure, we know that the future will be fantastic, and that the present time is full of suffering, but what I often missed was Paul’s recognition that we are prone to comparing the two. Every day I make choices about which reality I think is more “real.” Do I think the suffering part or the glory part is more significant and therefore the foundation of my thoughts, feelings and actions? If my mind contained a giant old-fashioned scale, there are a lot of days where the suffering side is not even tipping slightly, but crashing down and sending the glory flying away. I compare what I feel now and think that this reality of difficulty is weightier than the reality that lies ahead; I compare them and decide that the present time is worthy to compare and consider against glory. Not so shockingly, I often choose to dwell in the suffering reality and let it reign in my life.

Verse 23 is where we groan. And groaning is a good thing because it is the sign of the Spirit in you. The awareness that things are seriously screwed up in this world and in our own lives is an awareness that things should be better. That suffering should not the end of the story, but glory should be. The groaning indicates a longing for this state of weakness to be conquered.

But verses 24 and 25 are what I especially need to hear. I’m right there with Paul on the groaning and on things needing to be fixed, but much less enthusiastic on being stuck in between! What’s in between? Hope. In his commentary on Romans, Moo says that Paul’s point in these verses is to show that the need for waiting should not be surprising. Why not (because, yeah, I totally missed that too…)? All the way back in verse 17 Paul says we suffer with Him (Christ) so that we may also be glorified with Him. “So that” is the language of cause and effect meaning that we get to glory because we suffer. Lest we think that cruel, the statement is softened on all sides by the example of our own God in the flesh. Furthermore, Paul explains the “why” in verses 24 and 25: hope. This is the time that hope is on display and the display of hope demands the absence of its object. My next thought is always something like “Ok, God but how long does this displaying really need to take?” Something like when my grandma told my mom that her chore was to wash the dishes so that she would learn how to do it, to which my mom replied “it only takes one time to learn that…” But that thought is exactly the type of comparing Paul says we can’t do. I’m imagining that my 50 or 20 years of hoping is somehow more bad than the good of an eternity full of faith made sight.

The sign of hope (verse 25) is eager endurance, a phrase I have come to have a love-hate relationship with. Love because it’s full of irony and challenge and hate because I rarely rise to that challenge. Last night I sat at a graduation and sang an old-school song I hadn’t heard in a while about being faithful. Faithfulness is something I think our generation has a hard time with. We’re willing to die a martyr’s death in the 10/40 window, but have a hard time giving our money to church instead of Gap. And before any older people (who probably aren’t reading this, now that I think of it…) jump on our case, let me say that I think it begins with good reasons. For one, we want to do right with passion, not out of legalism, duty or people-pleasing. But as we get older and realize that there are a lot of days and moments that the passion isn’t blazing hot, we struggle. We want to feel it because we believe that truth should be felt.

Paul’s answer is the Spirit, the firstfruits and down payment of the glory ahead. In his book Spiritual Depression, Lloyd-Jones says this of 2 Tim 1.7:

As I understand it, the big thing that Paul is saying in effect to Timothy is: ‘Timothy, you seem to be thinking about yourself and your life and all you have to do as if you were still an ordinary person. But Timothy, you are not an ordinary person!.. We allow the future to come to us and to dominate us, and we compare our own weakness and lack of strength with the greatness of the calling and the tremendous task before us. And down we go as if we were but our natural selves. Now the thing to do, says Paul to Timothy, is to remind yourself that we have been given the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, and to realize that because of this our whole outlook upon life and the future must therefore be essentially different… The way in which we face it all is by reminding ourselves that the Holy Spirit is in us. There is the future, there is the high calling, there is the persecution, there is the opposition, there is the enemy. I see it all. I must admit also that I am weak, that I lack the necessary powers and propensities. But instead of stopping there I must goon to say: ‘Yes, I know it all, but—…’ And the moment I use that word ‘but’ I am doing what the Apostle wants me to do… In other words, we have to learn to say, that what matters in any of these positions is not what is true of us but what is true of Him…

The Spirit is the bridge between Christ’s time on earth and the revealing of our now-hidden life. We’ve been trying to teach Clive how to wait patiently because while he knows he’s not supposed to interrupt that doesn’t seem to stop him from repeating “excuse me excuse me excuse me” ad infinitum while the other parties are finishing their conversation. So I told him that patience means waiting happily without complaining or selfishness. While I was reading Romans 8 yesterday he came down from his nap and asked me what I was reading about. I told him “Mommy’s trying to learn how to wait better.” I’m beginning to understand why patience (among other things) is a fruit of the Spirit. And encouraged by the reality that He is the Spirit of Christ who leads me in this new covenant age in all the “appropriating,” “focusing,” and “remembering” I must do. So while there are still days that will feel like mountain-climbing and the marathon has only just begun, I am not alone. And I’ll end here before it starts to sound like that footprints poem.

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Practical Theodicy: part two

This is part two to this post.
Evil is not primarily a problem to fix or an experience to escape but rebellion against God and its consequences. My discomfort or inconvenience or even pain is not the tragedy here—the reason it feels so wrong and hurts so much is because it is connected to our rejection of the One with whom we have to do. Most times that connection is very indirect, but the suffering of this world can serve us by teaching us to feel the depth and gruesomeness of that wrong. This is where the “little” evils fit: lost socks and tempers and such.
So the extent of evil is not measured by how I feel, but how I feel can remind me of the extent of true evil. In this perspective, suffering if God’s servant to remind us of the greatest wrong and the greatest right. In the moments when I come squarely to face with the evil in my own heart, it is a chance to reaffirm what I was made for (to glorify and enjoy God), to feel the wrongness of losing that and to rejoice that it has been given back to me by Christ. So when I have one of “those days,” what I am feeling is the weight of sin and, comparatively, the jubilation of a world free from sin. Actually, Paul says that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. Which means that as bad as evil feels now, it’s nothing compared to how good it will feel for everything to be made right—it’s beyond our imagination let alone our experience.
From the perspective that everything should be right and good (which is what I still wake up with every day), the sin-smashed state of this world leaves us shell-shocked. But from the perspective that we have all chosen to turn our back on the One from whom all life comes, I’m also shell-shocked that life goes on as much as it does. I’ve had the opportunity to be in an anatomy and physiology class lately and the unthinkable genius of my own body is overwhelming. If just one group of cells decided not to do its job or my tiny capillaries suddenly decided not to allow the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, I would die instantly. Explanation of these processes is most often impossible—all scientists can do is describe the few bits of data they’ve managed to observe. And yet here we all are, pumping blood and breathing, moving and speaking and seeing and hearing every second of every day for decades. Sure, things go wrong but not nearly all that could. We still have gravity to count on and seasons and day and night and the vast majority of children grow and most cars on the road stay on the road. Considering the potential for problems, there’s a lot of life happening here on this planet. This extravagance of mercy is from the hands of Jesus. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Jesus holds all things together, using his authority over all the powers that operate in this world to bring them, even in sin, to his goals and purposes. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. The goal is reconciliation, a drawing back of all creation back to its Creator. Jesus makes gravity work so we have the chance to know Him and discover that life, as good and as bad as it is now, is nothing compared to what it could be. So when something big or little goes wrong, an accurate theodicy will result in gratitude and trust that I have so much good from the hands of Jesus that I count on it every day and that tragedy is tragedy, not the norm.
Lastly this, which I find extremely practical even though it comes from an abstract philosophical discussion of theodicy: “Evil is not there to be understood, but to be fought.” We have theologian Henri Blocher to thank for this bit of brilliance, which he arrives at after 100 pages of analyzing various theological responses to the problem of evil throughout Christian history. No matter what you do, he concludes, you cannot dilute the evilness of evil, the goodness of God or the sovereignty of God. And what that leaves you with is an unexplainable mystery—where did evil come from and how does it coincide with the nature of God? But mystery does not equate with absurdity and the lack of explanation for evil is nothing if not fitting. How could the one bit of reality that is out of step with the God of reality who created all logic and wisdom be explained? “We do not understand the why of evil. But we can understand that we cannot understand. Human reason is made to trace the connections in God’s created order, and to weave harmonious patterns from them; to understand means to integrate. A rational solution to the problem of evil would necessarily imply that evil was an integral part of the harmony that came forth from God!… But evil is disruption, discontinuity, disorder, alienness, that which defies description in creational terms…” When you reach the end of understanding evil and face a choice between the reality of God and the reality of evil, choose to side with the God who makes the complaint of evil possible. It is the experience of His goodness and a suspicion of His power that makes the cry of protest rise in our hearts. An accurate theodicy will not exhaust its believers in a futile chase after evil’s source, but in a battle against its insidiousness. When we face failure and heartbreak, don’t wallow in the aches of “why?” forever, but join the God who hates it more than you and gave his own life to ruin it.
“In the light of the cross, how could there be any doubt about the three propositions at the heart of the Christian position? The sheer and utter evilness of evil is demonstrated there…as hateful in the weight of guilt which could be removed only by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God… The complete sovereignty of God is demonstrated there: all this happened ‘by God’s’ set purpose and foreknowledge… Of no other event is it attested so fully that God ‘willed’ it. The unadulterated goodness of God is demonstrated there. At the cross, who would are entertain the blasphemy of imagining that God would, even to the slightest degree, comply with evil? It brought him death, in the person of his Son. Holiness stands revealed. Love stands revealed. At the cross, God turned evil against evil and brought about the practical solution to the problem.”
Don’t be overwhelmed by evil, don’t merely try to escape the feeling of it, don’t try to grasp it—fight it! Fight it with gratitude for mercy, trust in a sovereign but dying God and a grace-filled imagination that longs for righteousness to cover the earth like the waters cover the sea. It’s coming.

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in us and among us

repost from November 2010

We were at a missions conference last week where I taught a workshop on discipleship and sanctification. The title was initially proposed to me as “Sowing where the Gospel has been preached,” and in that conversation, the next phrase that immediately came to my mind was “keep preaching the gospel.” And when you start talking about how to preach or know the gospel, you can’t get very far (or even start) without the Holy Spirit. If the gospel is Christ (as Paul states in Rom 1.3) and the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, then we need to be careful that all this gospel-talk is not just busy back-patting fact-rehearsing, but a talk empowered and sweetened by the Spirit to change our lives.

In my preparation for this workshop, I read a lot of James Dunn and some of the things he said are still swirling in my head. Here’s one: “The ‘functions’ of the body are precisely the charismata of the Spirit (Rom 12.4)…Charismata (or charisms) thus understood are the living movements of the body (1 Cor 12.14-26, Eph 4.16). Without them the body is dead. Christian community exists only in the living interplay of charismatic ministry, in the actual being and doing for others in word and deed…There are no dead organs in the body of Christ…”  (Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit, p. 249, emphasis mine).

First, don’t jump when you read the word “charismata.” Having and using these (the Biblical word) doesn’t make you one (the English cognate). Dunn uses it here in the best sense and it’s a word Gordon Fee defines as “a concrete expression of grace.” Now what could be more beautiful than that? And Paul uses it of lots of things other than specifically Holy Spirit-dispensed actions (such as eternal life and marriage, to name a couple). But the work of the Spirit in our lives is also in this category and I’m learning that nearly everything the Spirit does He does to us. Not just me. I used to think that the Spirit has regenerated me, sealed me, illumined my mind… But after reading Dunn, I started looking at those passages in Greek and realized that Paul kept talking to the saints in second person plural, which is difficult to translate into English. So Paul doesn’t pray (for example) that, “he may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being” but that God would grant you all (me, my sisters and brothers in Christ, the church) to be strengthened.

The image Dunn gives really helped me to process this: the Spirit’s work is the movements of the body. A body naturally does things; muscles and tendons and bones work together to go somewhere and do life, to live. But without those parts working together, no movement happens. And then our “body” is just a collection of pointless parts. That is why he says that the Christian community (and evidence of the Spirit) exists precisely in the interplay of our ministry to each other. I think I’m just beginning to understand this, but it has already changed the way I’ve experienced my conversations with fellow believers this past week. The Spirit’s goal in gifting us is uniting us to Christ and each other. This might sound goofy, but I think we often live out the body like an octopus body—each person connected to Christ, but barely connected to each other. This isn’t the Spirit’s design, though, and Christ is exalted and His work on earth furthered by our connection to each other. Not just as I read my Bible and try to become more like Christ on my own, but as the Spirit uses that process to enable me to encourage others to become more like Christ as well. And really, what kind of “Christlikeness” would focus only on my own spiritual state and leave others in the dust? Not the kind that looks like the Christ who abandoned all self-interest. So where is the Spirit’s body? Not at an address, not in a random collection of individual mystics, but in the interaction of Christ-followers as they discover the “concrete expressions of grace” in their lives. As we talk and give and serve and pray and push out into the world everything that God dwells in us to give.

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a practical theodicy

I’ve been reading up a bit on Gnosticism because I’m reading Colossians and it seems that Paul is fighting some pre (not-quite-full-blown-yet)-Gnosticism there. Gnosticism is, for the record, not an easy thing to get your head around, a situation further complicated by the fact that it was a “mystery” religion that kept a lot of things, well, mysterious. But one thing I’ve grasped is that it was, like all religions or spiritual beliefs, attempting to deal with the problem of evil. Theodicy is the classic Christian problem of evil: as in, how can evil exist if a good, all-powerful God also does? Gnosticism tackled the problem by putting a buffer zone between its god and the world they lived in. They believed there was a divine being who either lived in or was equal to a “fullness” which was a sort of heaven. This Divine being began expressing itself with “emanations” which are sometimes portrayed as beings, sometimes as cosmic forces. Imagine it like a chain of bubbles and the further the “emanation-bubbles” get away from the “fullness” the more corrupt they get. Until you get to one emanation who had a mind of his (or her, depending on which Gnostic you listen to) own and started creating a world when he wasn’t supposed to. And this is our world. All that to say that they believed the world and life here was messed up because God didn’t create it and had nothing to do with it. Sometimes this meant they advocated a very ascetic lifestyle, very carefully monitoring their contact and involvement in the physical world (apparently like the people Paul was arguing in Colossians) and sometimes the opposite extreme. Salvation would come through proper enlightenment about these things (and a lot of other mysterious things that history didn’t record) and eventual reuniting of all the emanations within humanity (the super-spiritual people) with the Divine fullness—this would happen if they followed the ascetic practices (according to some Gnostics anyway).

Thinking about how other people attempt to handle the evil and corruption of this life made me take a closer look at how I handle evil and corruption in my own life. Every day we face this, whether in big ways (reading about truly terrible things happening all over the world or even people we love suffering) or in little ways (the frustrations and failures of daily life).  Oddly enough, it’s the little things that usually do me in. It usually works like this: I’m plugging along through my day and then a couple things just go wrong. Also oddly, this never fails to shock me. At this point, I’m probably frustrated but still steaming ahead, working hard to rectify whatever’s gone wrong, stay on course, etc. And then, if it’s one of “those days,” another few things go wrong and I reach the limit of my own strength. I’m suddenly mentally overwhelmed, emotionally drained and then, like dominoes falling, the few little things that have gone wrong seem somehow, in my pea-brain, to be connected to everything that is wrong in the whole world. Oh no, we have not just lost a sock people—did you know that there’s also people starving everywhere and beating their children and plotting to bomb other human beings? And in the face of everything that is wrong in the whole world, I wonder what ‘s the point of holding my tongue and exercising some patience? And I usually end up sinning over a sock. Which only serves to further emphasize that everything really is wrong in the world, especially me. You know how your mouth feels when it’s bone dry, with everything in it sticking to itself and unable to move well and tasting sourly of only itself? That is how my soul feels when I come so squarely up to the evil around me and in me. My question is about what I do in those moments—what is my practical theodicy? “Practical” because it’s not an abstract philosophical discussion, but the evidence of what I really believe the solution to the problem of evil is. What do I turn to?

The first thing the Spirit has shown me is that I don’t view evil primarily as rebellion against Creator God, but mostly an unpleasant experience to “fix.” This isn’t actually so distant from the classic philosophical theodicy because most of the time when we discuss the “problem of evil,” it is very personal. Unfortunately, no one can get that abstract about evil. But the reason we discuss theodicy in the first place and the reason that I dislike those daily frustrations is because it messes up my life—not because it messes up God’s. Ironically, nothing would be truly evil if it weren’t affronting God. I mean, if I told someone not to eat something and they did anyway, the world wouldn’t fall apart (wait… that actually did happen five minutes ago…). So the fact that I feel so wronged has nothing to do with the true depth and extent of evil. The only reason I think there’s a connection is because I’ve put myself in God’s place—self-idolatry.

And the self-idolatry makes my practical theodicy a lot easier to handle. Are you still with me?… because this is where it gets practical (I know you thought I put that word in there just to tease you, ha!). If I am the Judge and if evil’s evilness is measured by how much I feel, then all I have to do is make myself feel better and get to my happy place. So I handle the discomfort of a fallen world and my own sin a lot of ways: thinking about something else, complaining, making excuses, doing something I enjoy, or something I can do well instead of fail at, whining to my husband, comparing myself to a false standards (i.e., others), the sympathy and affirmation of friends… “I might not be able to speak kindly and wisely to my kids today, so I will just get an A on this test instead.” Or I choose to feel excited about a perfect, complicated dinner rather than daring to trust God when I feel hopeless.

Furthermore, the little things do me in precisely because I expect to be able to handle them. I don’t expect to end famines or pedophilia, but keeping my house clean… surely I’m good enough to do that! This reveals another aspect of my practical theodicy. Not only do I view myself as the Judge of what is evil and what is right, but I also view myself as Savior. When faced with the fallen state of the world and my own soul, I apparently think the solution (at least on a small scale) is my own ability. If I can just work hard enough, read enough books, come up with the right words at the right time, schedule and plan carefully enough, etc. and etc. When I wake up in the morning to tackle the tiny regime of the fallen world that’s mine, I don’t pray—I plan.

So my official line is that I believe in an unfailingly good God who created, defined and is the standard of all that is right and good, but my practical theodicy shows that I actually consider myself the standard. I judge evil not by comparison to God’s character, but by comparison to my own desires and ideals.

And another thing I profess to believe that there is an all-powerful God who is sovereign over all, but my practical theodicy shows that I consider him less than trustworthy. Instead, I choose, time and time again, to fall back on my own resources.

So far, this has been really negative. But it’s going to get really positive next (in a pending part two), because scripture declares that God is both capable and willing to resolve the problem of evil. And he has.

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Your Kingdom Come

–Repost from June 2011

Your Kingdom Come
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

Today I want the bright and sparkly, the deeply pure and right. I am groaning to be comforted, to hold my inheritance and to taste satisfaction. I want to see God.

What I have is friends who came and packed for me when I only felt like crying into empty boxes. And a friend who is bringing me dinner not because it is easy or she has nothing else to do, but because of Love. And a little tiny person who goes into full-body convulsions of joy upon seeing me. And a slightly bigger one who still thinks that the Bad Guy can be fought with punches. This is the kingdom coming from afar. Some days I can see it so clearly and some days my mind casts a dense fog.

For Thine is the kingdom
And the power
And the gloryForever and ever.
Amen.

The heat of obedience is that we are trying to feel, see and bring the rule of God to earth precisely because it isn’t here. This absence sends me reeling almost every day. So if we pray as Jesus taught us we will be reminded that it isn’t ours to bring, only to ask for and watch for. I once read a commentary on the book of Job that had as its subtitle the phrase, “the triumph of impotence.” Throughout the book we hear a righteous and upright man beg for an audience with God, complain that God’s had is heavy on him, chase after a glimpse of God and refuse to buy into the small but tempting explanations of those around him. Strahan said that, “It is the chief distinction between Job and his friends that he desires to meet God and they do not.” The end of this story is that he does meet God and find contentment in the dust and ashes of the human condition. He finds triumph in impotence, in quietly trusting the God he’s been busy chasing the whole time. He doesn’t get answers; he gets God.

I have so many questions for God, mostly about what He isn’t doing, about why his will and rule seem landlocked in heaven. About why nothing we’re doing seems to work, about why obedience is so hard and we feel so powerless, so impotent.

For this impotence to display the triumph of God, I must keep going to God with the questions, with both the beginning and the ending of Jesus’ prayer. Chapter 23 is one of my favorite passages in the book of Job as he puts his foot down declaring that the darkness will not silent him—only God is worthy of the response of fear. When we crumble under life’s weight, we must fall to a bow.

Today also my complaint is bitter…
            Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
                        that I might come even to his seat!
Behold, I go forward, but he is not there,                        and backward, but I do not perceive him;
on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him;
                        he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him.
But he knows the way that I take;
                        when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.
My foot has held fast to his steps;
                        I have kept his way and have not turned aside.
I have not departed from the commandment of his lips;
                        I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food.
But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back?
                        What he desires, that he does.
For he will complete what he appoints for me,
                        and many such things are in his mind.
Therefore I am terrified at his presence;
                        when I consider, I am in dread of him.
God has made my heart faint;
                        the Almighty has terrified me;
yet I am not silenced because of the darkness,
                        nor because thick darkness covers my face.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

It’s better to know God than to know everything else.

 I say, “My endurance has perished;
                        so has my hope from the LORD.”…
            But this I call to mind,
                        and therefore I have hope:
            The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
                        his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
                        great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
                        “therefore I will hope in him.”
            The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
                        to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
                        for the salvation of the LORD.

It is good to wait for the kingdom to come because it is his and he cannot fail to bring it. I wish it was today, but as Paul would tell me (and does)… what would be the point of hope then? It is good to wait.

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