October 29, 2012

Barriers to Faith: Doubting God's Goodness

Over the past few weeks we have been looking at some Barriers that keep us from getting where we want or need to go in our faith journey. Sometimes we hesitate to go 100% in with God, Jesus, the Christian Faith, so we are taking a look at some of those things that, from time to time, can get in the way. They can distract us, and, if left unchecked, can keep us from growing deeper in our faith.

One of the most common barriers we face is known as the Problem of Evil. St. Thomas Aquinas, a brilliant theologian and thinker from the Middle Ages, called the Problem of Evil a troublesome argument for the Christian Faith. John Stott said, "the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith."

The Problem of Evil is often stated several different ways. 
1. Why do bad things happen to good people?2. Why do bad people get away with their bad things?3. Why do good people do bad things?
The typical, philosophical argument looks something like this:
If God is loving and good.And if God can do anything.How could a loving and good God allow evil and pain in our world.Either God is not good and loving or God can’t anything and therefore isn’t God!
Ultimately it all boils down to an attempt to understand how a God that we call loving, fatherly, all-power, all-knowing...How can this God allow suffering to take place if He has any power whatsoever to stop it?

Imagine you are walking down the street and see a two-year-old child riding their bike in the middle of the street. Car tires squeal at the end of the block, and a car is rushing down the street toward her. Wouldn’t you rush out to either remove the child from danger or wave down the driver and attempt to get them to stop? If you and I would do that for a child, why won’t God stop the horrific evil we have seen over and over throughout the history of the world? Can’t He do something about it?

You see, there are philosophical issues with the Problem of Evil, but most of us don’t have intellectual doubts about God when it comes to this area...we have relational doubts. We are not looking for an air-tight philosophical proof that demonstrates or answers this question...we are looking for something that heals a wound or gives insight into the suffering we or a loved one has to face.

Why do so many people have to suffer and die?
Why is the sex slave industry destroying so many lives?
Why do young children suffer beatings, abuse, and death every day?
Why do I have to wrestle with this chronic pain?
Why did my loved one have to die?
Why can’t I have children?
Why? Why? Why?

When it comes to talking about the problem of evil, it is less about philosophy and theology and more about a personal relationship with a God who would allow such things. Rather than talk about philosophical proofs and reasons, it is like talking to a divorcee who has suffered from a cheating spouse. We feel betrayed by God. Because if God is good and can stop it, but allows this sort of thing then I don’t want anything to do with Him. We are really asking, “How can I trust a God who allows these things to happen?”

Our modern theologies and contemporary church culture often doesn’t help. They create more problems than they solve! 

“God never gives us more than we can handle,” some people would say, but they have never had to stare at their child in a hospital bed fighting for their life. They have never had a family members abused or murdered. Maybe it isn’t that severe. We have just been out of work for a while and the bills are more than we can handle. We often get way more than we can handle!

“You reap what you sow!” is another saying we throw around. Certainly is has some truth to it. 

If you smoke a pack a day for 35 years you will most likely get emphysema or cancer. If you steal from an employer you will most likely get caught and suffer the consequences. If you treat people around you poorly you will often live a lonely life because no one wants to be around you. If you treat others with respect you will likely have friends. If you take care of your health, you will more than likely have a better standard of living. 

We usually receive the consequences of our actions. So if we sow bad things we will reap bad things and if we sow good things then we will receive good things. 

But so often it isn’t true. We receive far worse than we sown. Or far better!

We are looking at Psalm 73 today, and the opening line is an example of bad theology that leads to bad thinking. Psalm 73:1 says, “Surely God is good to Israel, those who are pure in heart.”

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart! This sounds like great reasoning. Those who follow God should receive good things from Him. But there are times when we may seriously doubt whether God is good. Our pain is so severe we ask Why? We struggle with the pain, and realize somewhere along the way we have way more than we can handle. We can’t possibly keep going if this is how life is going to be. And we begin to doubt that God is really good.

So we can sympathize with the author who, after quoting what was a common belief in his day, says, “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.” It just doesn’t seem to be true! His feet are slipping. He is losing his foothold of trust in God, in Yahweh whom he has been trying so diligently to follow. His faith is slipping.

I asked Mary for permission to share just a short snippet of her story. She and Laban tried several times to have children and have had several miscarriages along the way. In the midst of their trials and struggles, Mary’s prayer throughout this was WHY? Why is this happening? Why can’t we have children? And in the midst with all the pain, there were moments when Her feet almost slipped. 

There are times when our pain and suffering get so bad that our feet almost slip. We begin to doubt the goodness of God because he doesn’t seem to be upholding his end of the deal.

We find ourselves saying something like the author does a few verses later in Psalm 73:13-14, “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.”

You know God I have prayed on a regular basis. I have read my Bible. I have helped the poor and the broken. I have obeyed everything You asked. It seems perfectly reasonable for You to do good things for those of us who have tried so hard to obey You.

And yet the pain persists. The loved one goes unhealed. The problems keep coming.

It is so easy to slip into this mode isn’t it? 

And what is so frustrating to this author, as it can be for us, is he looks around at the people who have spent their lives spurning God’s will, living disobedient, evil lives, doing whatever they please, and they seem to be doing just fine.

Psalm 73:3-12,
3 For I envied the arrogant    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.4 They have no struggles;    their bodies are healthy and strong.5 They are free from common human burdens;    they are not plagued by human ills.6 Therefore pride is their necklace;    they clothe themselves with violence.7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity;    their evil imaginations have no limits.8 They scoff, and speak with malice;    with arrogance they threaten oppression.9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven,    and their tongues take possession of the earth.10 Therefore their people turn to them    and drink up waters in abundance.11 They say, “How would God know?    Does the Most High know anything?”12 This is what the wicked are like—    always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
I read business, leadership books on a regular basis. I want to be a better leader so I try to keep learning in that area. And most leadership books describe leadership and those who succeed in leadership as someone who is caring for their people while leading the company and making the hard decisions that progress the company. They listen to others and bring out their best. They have principles and live with integrity and have a balanced life where they also have a successful family.

But we know that isn’t necessarily true, don’t we? I have worked for several people who have been anything but the leader described in those books. They are selfish and self-serving. Tehy are cut throat and mean. They have sacrificed their family to spend more time at their work. Then they get promoted, they succeed financially, they are doing just fine. 

We see the business person whose company has cheated, driven other companies into the ground, put millions out of work, and yet have succeed and become multi-million dollar industries without suffering any consequences. We see dictators and leaders who persecute their own people, most of them living in poverty, while they live it up. Our newspapers and entertainment magazines are filled with people who do whatever they want and spurn God’s will, and yet their lives are successful, they have whatever they need, they are healthy.

The Psalmist is looking at the ungodly who are successful and saying, “What gives God? How is this right? Why do those who try so hard to what is right suffer so much and those who do everything to spite you suffer so little?” 

The Psalmist just can’t understand. We so often don’t understand why it happens this way. Psalm 73:16 says, “When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply.”

When we suffer pain and face trials in our lives our enemy sees the perfect opportunity to attack. We read Matthew 7:7-8, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” So we start asking and seeking and knocking, but nothing happens. Then the enemy comes and says, “You know God said that, but he didn’t mean it for you. God certainly blesses people, but He just doesn’t seem to be doing it for you. This probably means that something is wrong in your life.”

Have you ever felt that way? God blesses and helps and answers prayer for everyone else but me! 

Pain has a way of filling up our entire field of vision. It gets so close to our face that we can’t see anything else going on in our lives. The pain and suffering get so close we begin thinking there is nothing else good in our lives, and that God doesn’t want to or can’t or won’t bless us. 

Then other people’s joy is exaggerated. Their joy actually causes us more pain because we can’t see around our pain enough to realize we do have some good in our lives.

Those people over there...they have NO problems at all...we hear whispered in our ear. You life is nothing but pain. 

Psalm 73:16 says, “When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply.” So not only are we frustrated by not being able to understand what is happening, we are troubled by it. One translation says, “it was oppressive to me.” When we stack pain upon pain and when that pain fills our entire vision we will fail to see any joy in our lives...and it will become oppressive. 

We have this drive within us to understand everything. It seems like it is just part of being human. And there is something so unreasonable, so completely unable to be understood about pain and suffering and evil...that it is frustrating.

Christopher Wright, in his book titled The God I Don’t Understand, said this about our attempt to make sense of evil:
We finite human beings cannot, indeed, must not “make sense” of evil.  For the final truth is that evil does not make sense...Evil has no proper place within creation. It does not intrinsically belong to the creation as God originally made it nor will it belong to creation as God will ultimately redeem it. It cannot and must not be integrated into the universe as a rational, legitimated, justified part of reality. Evil is not there to be understood, but to be resisted and ultimately expelled. Evil was and remains an intruder, an alien presence…evil is beyond our understanding because it is not part of the ultimate reality that God in his perfect wisdom and utter truthfulness intends us to understand.
We are frustrated by our attempts to understand and explain evil and pain because it really has no place in the world God created for us to live. It is an intruder. It is not meant to be here. 

But we are not left completely helpless in this regard.

Psalm 73:16-17 says, “When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.”

It wasn’t until the Psalmist entered the sanctuary of God that he was able to gain some understanding. In his day the Sanctuary of God would have been the Temple where God’s Word was taught, the sacrifices took place, and where God’s presence was. Today it would be understood as the Church where we hear God’s Word preached and read, and we serve each other by using our spiritual gifts, and where God’s presence is sensed in community with others.

It isn’t until we enter the sanctuary, until we enter God’s presence that we are able to catch a glimpse of understanding about the Problem of pain and suffering in our world.

When we enter the Sanctuary we learn something about Sin.

So much of the pain and suffering in our world is not traced back to God, but rather back to sin. How many times have the sins of our past come back to haunt our present? I have a friend who says, “I’m trying to undo in my 30’s what I did in my 20’s!” 

But even more than that so much of the suffering in our world can be traced back to sinful human behavior. From the holocaust to abuse to ethnic cleansing and genocide to sex trafficking...these can be traced not to God, but rather to human sinful actions. One person committing a sinful act that affects so many people around them.

Even a good bit of the extensive damage of natural disasters can be traced to human sinfulness. Much of the damage and death in New Orleans was due to poor maintenance of levees, inadequate supplies, and late response to a horrific disaster. Not to mention the brilliant idea of building a near coastal city where most of the people live below sea level.

Even in areas where earthquakes happens, much of the damage is due to poor construction standards and inadequate responses to the dangers. Not to mention how much suffering is increased due to looting and the predatory conduct of those who have “come to help.”

Another things we learn is something about Human Freedom

God has given us the ability to choose. We are not mindless robots. We are not minions who do His bidding. We are given the opportunity to freely choose to love and to worship and to respond. If we did not have this freedom it wouldn’t really be love or worship.

And in giving freedom that comes with some risk. If I didn’t give Lori a choice as to whether or not she could “love” me. In the first place that wouldn’t be love. But in the second place, it would be a form of slavery or control. We have heard about relationships where one person’s insecurities about losing the other have led them to control and dictate the behavior of the other person. And we are able to recognize how wrong that is.

The same holds true for the relationship between humans and God. Our actions are allowed freedom. We are free to choose to love and to worship...but we are also free to walk away from God and reject Him. And this freedom has consequences.

But why, you might ask, doesn’t God intervene to stop some of this?

Imagine you are playing a game where every time the other persons makes a wrong move they are able to simply take it back. I want that rule to apply to me, but not you. Eventually there comes a point where you are no longer playing a game of any real consequence. If everything action is revocable then it is meaningless.

If my free choices and your free choices don’t have real consequences; if God stepped in at every moment, every time we chose wrong - and changed the outcome, then our choices have no meaning at all and there really is no such thing as free choice. 

In the Sanctuary we learn about Jesus.

A few weeks ago, I asked on my Facebook page, “If you were sitting across the table from Jesus, what would you ask Him?” I got some funny answers. Marcy here won for funniest. She said, “Was I supposed to make dinner or were you?” 

There were several funny answers and then there were the serious answers. One person, with very brutal honesty asked, “Why did you let my father die?”

That is a question about pain and suffering and loss in our lives, and there is no simple answer for it. The philosophical and theological explanation won’t take away the pain or ease the sense of loss in that question.

What I do know is God knows exactly how we feel when we lose someone close to us. He watched as His Son died a horribly painful death. He fully understands what it is like to lose a loved one. 

The Problem of Evil creates the biggest challenge to belief in God, but, ironically, God is the only adequate answer to Problem of Evil. Jesus death is a big statement to us that God willingly came down to suffer with us. He did not stand aloof and distance, he came and suffered in this world with us.

And through the death of Jesus, God is working to reverse evil onto itself. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, God uses evil to fight itself. Like the adult who uses a child's own hands to hit him/her self. Jesus death and resurrection tells us that evil will not have the last word. In fact, it won’t have the last word in our lives. 

1 Corinthians 15:55-57 says, 
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?    Where, O death, is your sting?”56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ death demonstrates that God has come down to suffer with us and resurrection tells us that God will ultimately do something about the problem of pain and suffering and evil in our world. There is coming a day when all pain and sorrow will cease. There is coming a day when suffering and deaht will be a thing of the past, and God’s Kingdom will come on earth as it is in Heaven! 

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