Tag Archives: suffering

Evil Is Bound by the Shore

There’s a marvelous biblical metaphor I’ve only known about for a few years, that the sea is a picture of evil and chaos. When Jesus preformed any miracle, he did so with Messianic implications, never as a mere demonstration of his power. So when he walked on the water, he did so as a metaphor of his authority over all the earth, including this ancient picture of evil. (If you need more to support this idea, note that the beasts of Daniel and John’s prophecies rise from the sea and that in the new heaven and earth “the sea [is] no more” (Rev. 21:1).)

I wrote earlier this week about the uneasy idea presented in the book of Job about evil having a place in the created order, and when God answers Job at the end of the book, that’s largely what he talks about.

Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’? (Job 38:8–11)

The Lord’s first speech can read like a list of creation areas. Look at the sea. Look at the sky. How about the depths of the earth? Do you have any control over these things? But this is a grand and majestic poem from thousands of years ago. It has many beautiful lines and pictures to provoke our attention. Here the Lord says he has “shut in the sea” and bound it, even like an infant, and he’s talking about evil. The Lord is describing all of the wickedness and natural horror in the world in terms of that dark, mysterious, alien world off the coast. It may eat away at our shores and flood our river valleys, but the Lord has said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther.”

That’s not to say evil is actually good; it’s only to say God sees a place for it that we will not understand.

Why won’t the Lord drain the sea complete? Why must we live in a world where monsters swim the deeps and storms born over the ocean crash into our cities? That question isn’t answered, but if we worry over God’s ability or intent to control the seas in our lives, he asks, “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16). In short, do you have a handle on creation’s extremities? Could you unlock the gates of death? Of course not; only the Almighty has. His knowledge extends to every corner of existence. That’s not academic knowledge; that’s intimate control. By the wise Lord’s all-powerful hand, evil keeps to its place. Though it may overflow it’s banks from time to time, that’s not because it has gotten away from God’s control. The Lord can stop the springs of the deep whenever he wants. Wickedness will not flood us because the Lord holds it back. Anything that afflicts us has been given limited permission to do so.

So what do we do when, like Job, our suffering overwhelms us?

Read and pray the Psalms. Cry out to the Almighty God in faith, remembering his character, wisdom, and faithfulness. In all things, seek to love him with all of our heart and love our neighbors in response to that love. And recognize we do not need to defend God from every charge, because God’s own defense does not explain the place of evil.

“God thunders wondrously with his voice;
he does great things that we cannot comprehend” (Job 37:5).

The Agency of the Adversary

In Job 1–2, we see a couple scenes of a heavenly council. “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6). I think a common view of these scenes is to see Satan, the Adversary, barging into heaven to bring his accusations uninvited. I’m told, however, the language does not support this idea. The sentence above could just as easily describe a day when the angels came before the Lord and Michael was among them. The point of the scene is what Satan has to say. In short, the Adversary was one of the heavenly council at this time. (And if he was not, how could he have barged in anyway? No one gains an audience with God on his own terms.)

Why was he there? What purpose could this being serve in the council of God? That’s the most disturbing message in the book of Job. It’s much easier to view God as the conqueror of evil, someone who hates evil will a pure hatred, and he is that, but evil persists like weeds in my yard. (In that sense, my yard is the epitome of evil.) God does hate wickedness and all the rebellion that has brought evil into our world, and he is the Almighty, able to snuff it all out. A new dawn is coming that will overtake the night forever and “take hold of the skirts of the earth” in order to shake the wicked out of it (Job 38:13), but that dawn has yet to come. Today, evil still has a place in creation.

I may be getting ahead of myself here. Continue reading The Agency of the Adversary

The Innocent Suffering of Job

Since last August, I’ve been leading our Sunday School class in a discussion of Job. I didn’t think we’d take it chapter by chapter, almost verse by verse, but we have. My expectations were set by my casual reading of a difficult book. Reading this ancient poem on my own is almost fruitless and fairly boring. It’s much more rewarding to go through it with a reliable guide. Everything I’ve learned has been through Christopher Ash’s commentary, which is just as readable as I had heard (recommending with two links).

Perhaps the difficulty of reading through this long, dialogic poem is the reason so many of us don’t get its central message. We bog down in the long-winded complaints and accusations, coming away only with the idea that God can run over anyone he wants and make it all right again in the end. But the tension point of Job’s argument is one we still miss when trying to apply God’s Word to our own or other people’s lives—that Job is completely innocent.

The first couple chapters present to us a man who is “blameless and upright, who fear[s] God and turn[s] away from evil.” That’s how his character is summarized for us upfront, and God repeats that description (2:3). Job is brought to the point of death “without reason.”

No matter what other questions we have about that, we have one truth to apply to our lives—innocent suffering exists.

Many people naturally believe that just about all suffering has a reason that can be avoided. The pain in our lives can be avoided by the proper regimen of diet, respectable living, and sound thinking. If you find yourself in pain or hardship, you’ve either caused it yourself or God is judging you for something. Seek the Lord, these people will say, so that you can learn what you need to learn in order to get out of this trial. Because the trial is unnatural. The trial is not how God intends your normal life. Suffering doesn’t just happen.

But Job tells us it does.  Continue reading The Innocent Suffering of Job

How Do Christians Handle Pain?

“Any attitude that emphasizes hope while ignoring lament comes from a naïve and unrealistic optimism that contradicts our actual experiences. Lamenting without hope, on the other hand, is equally unrealistic, a kind of unfaithful cynicism that ignores God’s activity and crushes us in its unrelenting despair.”

Professor Kelly Kapic talks with ByFaith about his 2017 book which presents itself as “a theological meditation on pain and suffering.

As we close out our celebration of the Almighty becoming a man, Kapic’s book may be just the theological conversation we need to see ourselves as people with originally good, now broken by sin, physical bodies. It’s understandable that we often pray for God to take away our pain and sickness, but as Kapic notes in this video, all of us are either growing older or dead. What we feel and can do now in our bodies is part of the real world in which God calls us to bring him glory.

I regularly get emails from people who have read the book and speak of discovering the role of lament as if for the first time. That tells me, if I am hearing correctly, that we might not be doing a very good job of displaying this biblical expression in our corporate worship and Christian experience.

(See also this listing from WTS Books)

‘The Ruthless Love of Christ

[Below is the text of the sermon I preached at campus chapel this morning. I think it went well, judging by the response. I hadn’t preached in many years, and I’d forgotten how exhausting it is. Someone told me, “Of course you’re exhausted. You’ve been wrestling with the Word of God.”]

Chapel Sermon, Nov. 3, 2016
“The Ruthless Love of Christ”

“Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. Martha then said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give You.’

“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’” (John 11:20-21)

Many long years ago, I was involved with the ministry of an organization called Lutheran Youth Encounter, which, as it happens, just went out of existence this past year. It was similar to our AFLBS summer teams. We sent musical and ministry teams out to work with the youth in congregations. The musical group I was part of was somewhat unusual, in that we organized ourselves and wrote our own music. I was the lyricist. You’ve probably never heard any of our songs, and with good reason. But we had our own fan base, and were famous to a tiny public.

At the end of one summer’s ministry we had a big final concert for all the teams. Afterward I spoke with an old friend, who introduced me to his new girlfriend. I told them I was depressed. A rewarding summer of ministry was done. I was moving on to a different college ahead of my friends. I felt lonely and unsure of the future.

The girlfriend said, “Don’t be depressed. Didn’t you hear the song that one group sang tonight? The one that said, ‘If You Love Me, Live?’”

“I know the song,” I told her. “I wrote it.”

It was worth the depression to be able to deliver a line like that. I live for that kind of stuff.

I’ve always been a glass-half-empty kind of guy. I look at the dark side. I’m not bragging about that. I hold – intellectually – with the ancient wisdom that says that happiness is a moral virtue. Happy people generally make the world better. Unhappy people make it worse. There’s no sanctity in a long face. The joy of the Lord is our strength.

But I also mistrust those people whose Christianity seems to deny the dark side of life. There’s a strain of Christianity that suggests that if your faith is genuine, you will never suffer. That Jesus will roll away, not only your sins, but all your troubles of any kind. Continue reading ‘The Ruthless Love of Christ

Why it’s not called “Very Bad, No Good, Horrible Friday”



Tissot, “The Sorrowful Mother”

It’s a darker than usual Good Friday for me. I just got word that my boss, the dean of our seminary, a gentle and godly man, passed away suddenly today. He just wrote me a recommendation for graduate school. It must have been one of the very last things he did in his office.

He sat across from me in my office about a week ago, and we discussed our ages. I said I was pretty old to start working for a Master’s. He said, “I’m a decade older than you, and I’m not planning to go anywhere.”

Is it good to die on Good Friday? A complicated question, as is the whole matter of “Good” Friday.

As far as I can tell, there are two major ways of explaining evil in the world (outside of the popular view that “it’s all garbage, so let’s just have a good time until we die”) today. One is what might be called the Buddhist Way, which understands evil to be an illusion, because existence itself is an illusion, so there’s no point getting upset.

The other is what I’ll call the Christian Way (though there are probably non-Christians who hold it in some variety). That way calls for citing the Old Testament statement that “God is a Man of War,” and believing that evil is real, but that He is in the process of defeating it.

Both ways have their problems, and cannot be proved by logic or science. But I know which suits me better. Continue reading Why it’s not called “Very Bad, No Good, Horrible Friday”

Luther on Meditating on Christ’s Suffering

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

[Some] so sympathize with Christ as to weep and lament for him because he was so innocent, like the women who followed Christ from Jerusalem, whom he rebuked, in that they should better weep for themselves and for their children. Such are they who run far away in the midst of the Passion season, and are greatly benefitted by the departure of Christ from Bethany and by the pains and sorrows of the Virgin Mary, but they never get farther. Hence they postpone the Passion many hours, and God only knows whether it is devised more for sleeping than for watching. And among these fanatics are those who taught what great blessings come from the holy mass, and in their simple way they think it is enough if they attend mass. To this we are led through the sayings of certain teachers, that the mass opere operati, non opere operantis, is acceptable of itself, even without our merit and worthiness, just as if that were enough. Nevertheless the mass was not instituted for the sake of its own worthiness, but to prove us, especially for the purpose of meditating upon the sufferings of Christ. For where this is not done, we make a temporal, unfruitful work out of the mass, however good it may be in itself. For what help is it to you, that God is God, if he is not God to you? What benefit is it that eating and drinking are in themselves healthful and good, if they are not healthful for you, and there is fear that we never grow better by reason of our many masses, if we fail to seek the true fruit in them?

… St. Bernard was so terror-stricken by Christ’s sufferings that he said: I imagined I was secure and I knew nothing of the eternal judgment passed upon me in heaven, until I saw the eternal Son of God took mercy upon me, stepped forward and offered himself on my behalf in the same judgment.