Tsunami’s, earthquakes and a loving God…

In the wake of the terrible events in Haiti- the thousands who lie dead under the weight of the buildings that were shaken down by a cataclysmic ‘act of God’- many of us may ask this question-

How could a loving, allpowerful God allow these things to happen?

It is a question as old at least as Job.

I have no easy answers, but spent some time digging into this issue before- see here ,  here, here and here .

I liked a lot of what Tom Honey had to say here-

Rob Bell in Scotland (and other places near you)…

So Rob Bell brings his brand of super hip preaching/performing to Scotland.

His latest tour is called ‘Drops like stars‘ and calls in to Perth Convert (Oops I meant to say CONCERT) hall on March the 19th- organised by Dundee for Christ.

Is it worth the trek accross hill and glen to hear him speak?

Despite my reluctance to endorse celebrity Christianity- I think the answer to this question is yes. I heard his speak at Greenbelt recently, and his disarming and deeply insightful intelligence was quite something. I went cynical, but came away a fan.

The blurb for this current speaking tour contained this

We plot, we plan, we assume things are going to go
A certain way and then they don’t and we find ourselves
In a new place, a place we haven’t been before, a place
We never would have imagined on our own,

And so it was difficult and unexpected and maybe even
Tragic and yet it opened us up and freed us to see
Things in a whole new way

Suffering does that—
It hurts,
But it also creates.

How many of the most significant moments in your
Life came not because it all went right, but because
It all fell apart?

It’s strange how there can be art in the agony…

The Drops Like Stars tour is a two
Hour exploration of the endlessly complex
Relationship between suffering and creativity—
And I’d love to see you there.

The ‘light and shade’ nature of Spiritual formation has been a recent theme here, so I will get hold of the book, even if I can not get to Perth…

And if there is a T-shirt…?

What is God doing 3- Pain, testing

There is a book by Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand, called ‘Pain, the gift nobody wants’.

Dr Brand was a world renowned authority on leprosy, and spent his whole life working amongst the untouchables of the Indian subcontinent. What he was able to show was that leprosy was not the direct cause of the damage to skin and tissue or the loss of extremities so common in this terrible disease. Instead, this was caused by the effect of living a life unable to feel pain. Leprosy damages the central nervous system, and suddenly our sensitivity to the world around us – its sharp edges, its heat and its pressure – is removed. The end result is terrible damage. What Dr. Brand was able to show was that pain, far from being a cosmic accident, was in fact a blessing. This was revealed most clearly in the absence of pain seen in sufferers of leprosy – normality in negative.

Could it be then, that at some level, suffering is good for us? It is how we learn about ourselves, and our relationship to objects around us, and helps us to learn essential things that ensure that we do not put our bodies at risk?

This led me to thinking about whether we could apply some of this logic to the more complex human emotions – what would life be like with no suffering?

What if there was no hate?

What if there was no grief?

What if there was no anxiety and fear?

How could we know about love if we had no understanding of what the alternative is like?

If we did not feel appalling loss at the death of a loved one, what would be the value of human life?

Lepers are seen as outcasts, less than human. I wonder what the effect of being impervious to emotional pain would be like. I have come to think that the ability to suffer is one of those defining characteristics of being human.

Perhaps lepers are in fact super-human.

What is light without shade?

But it is all easy for me to get philosophical about this stuff- my skin is clear…

Testing
Others have described suffering as a test from God: a process by which our faith is put to the heat and tempered. Some would even say that what does not kill you will only make you stronger.

There seems to be some truth in this as I look around me. We learn far more about our selves and our relationship to life’s big questions during difficult times than when all is calm and peaceful. It seems that we only really turn to God in those moments when all alternatives have been tried and failed. When there is no hope left, but Him. Strangely enough, many people report a strengthening of their faith through adverse circumstances. You must know people like this, and perhaps like me marvel at their fortitude. It is almost as if pain and suffering become a bridge to allow God into the centre of people’s lives – bringing a new kind of peace and joy and certainty. Suffering itself seems for some to have redemptive power – somehow it brings the best (and the worst) from us.

But it is only a small step from accepting that God would use these circumstances for our advantage to wondering if he sent them in the first place. Is there really no other way?

What is God doing 2- Job’s comforters

( a continuation of a thread of excerpts from an article. The previous one is here.)

Blake's Job

The pictures are all by that hoary old mystic, William Blake.

One book of the Bible tries to examine the issue of pain and suffering in the world issue more than any other – the book of Job. It is a difficult book, with many questions unanswered about its origins. Some say the book was written down around the time of Abraham, or Jacob, perhaps by Job himself. Other say the book is much later, perhaps written by a great poet, such as Isaiah. Some of the style of the writing may be in keeping with the time of David and Solomon.

There is also divided opinion as to whether there was an actual historical figure called Job, or whether this was rather a didactic poem, prophetically inspired to shine light on some truths about God. It is clearly a historic book from the outset, but Hebrew scholars have often seen the story as a parable.

What of the story?

Job was a good man – rich in family and possessions, and a benefactor to the poor and needy. He had it all, and had already lived a long and prosperous life before the tale begins. Then, for some reason, God allowed the Devil to test Job, so that the Devil could see that Job’s goodness was not dependent on God’s blessing. Firstly, the Devil was given power over Job’s property. He lost all his cattle, then his sheep, and finally his camels. Then a cruel desert wind blew on the house of his eldest son and it fell, killing all his sons and daughters who had gathered to eat together.

Job tore his clothes in grief, but had this to say,

“Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked I will leave this world behind. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Next the Devil was given permission to attack Job directly, and Job contracted some dreadful skin disease. He sat in the ashes of his life, and was forced to scrape at his sores with a broken pot to try to get relief. In despair, his wife tells him to “curse God, and die.” But Job says, “We receive from God all that is good, why should he not also send trouble?”

Job then gets a visit from three old friends. They sat with Job in silence for seven days, pondering his fate, searching for wisdom. What was God doing?  Then, in turn, they spoke. First Job was accused of harbouring some secret sin – any man who had experienced the misfortune that he had must have done much to deserve it. Job should repent and throw himself on the mercy of God, who was correcting his ways. But Job can only protest that his punishment is more than his crime.

Job’s friends start to list the glories of God – who can fathom the mysteries of God? And Job’s replies become more and more bitter, and angry. Who can blame him?

“…so man wastes away like something rotten; like a garment eaten by moths. Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He springs up like a flower and withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure. Will God fix his eye upon such a one? Will you bring him before you for judgment? Who can bring what is pure from what is impure? No-one! Man’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed. So look away from him and let him alone till he has put in his time like a hired hand.” (Ch. 14)

And from the comfort of respectability, Job’s friends continue to caution him against his rash words, but he becomes less tolerant of their self- righteousness. The whole story begins to read like a court room drama, with God being accused of crimes against humanity.

Then, step forward a younger man, Elihu, angry with Job for justifying himself against God, and angry at the others for their inability to bring Job to his senses. He speaks bravely about the wonders of God, and suggests that suffering might be put upon man to keep him from greater sin, and for moral betterment. Elihu speaks well and is obviously a good man, but his words ring just as hollow as mine seem to when I too try to explain human suffering.

Suddenly, into the story steps God. It is almost as if he can hold himself back no longer. God offers no explanations; rather he bursts out question after question;

“Where were you when I made the world?”
“Have you ever given orders to the morning or shown the dawn its place?”
“Can you raise yourself to the clouds and cover yourself with springs of water?”
“Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?”

And Job does what we all must do. He falls on his face and says, “I am unworthy. How can I reply to you?” “My ears had heard you, but now I have seen you. Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Job saw God, in all his glory, in all his power and splendour, and lived.

God corrects Job’s comforters (but Elihu is not mentioned) and restores Job. He lives for another 140 years, old enough to see his great-grandchildren prosper.

As I look back at this story – it is all there. Sin and the fall of man, greed and man’s injustice, the test that comes to us through pain. Writ large is an eternal perspective, and a God who through it all, still loves, still wants to be close to us. Also, however, is the God of mystery. He did not answer the why questions apart from using who questions of his own in reply. He is God.

At the end of my searching, reviewing and wrestling, I still can not answer the questions of why there is pain and suffering and starvation in this world. I have some clues, and perhaps like Elihu, I can gain some part of the truth. But ultimately, God is God. Who am I to presume to understand? Like Job, we live our lives in the shadow of the wings of the Almighty. We search for meaning and for significance, and many of us have found this in part through relationship and encounters with God – but ultimately, I think,  we all walk towards wonderful (and at times unfathomable) mystery.

All the wonderful images were pinched from here.

What is God doing? SIN

In response to the my recent post about the film ‘God on Trial’ I am going to post excerpts from an article I wrote called ‘What is God doing?’

This is the big question for all of us trying to stumble through life. What is it all about? If there IS a God, what is he doing? Does he not see all the pain and suffering in the world? Why does he allow the flowering of such evil in the lives of those created in his image? How about landslides and Tsunami’s and earthquakes? So many lives snuffed out casually and with no discernible heavenly distress. What is he doing?

Some members of my family, who I love, have looked at this God of ours, and come to the conclusion that religion is all smoke and mirrors, behind which lies emptiness. Evolution brought us here, they would say, and we will leave nothing behind but a DNA chain (if we are lucky) when we end. On the few occasions I have tried to talk about this a little more with them, we have rarely got beyond the spectre of starving children. No God of love could allow such a thing, ergo there is no God. I try to reply, but even to my ears, the words sound weak, and inadequate. Because I too want to ask Him, what are you doing?

The teachings of the church over millennia have had to grapple with these same problems, and some explanations have been offered. Some of these answers now seem shallow at best, and others downright repugnant. Perhaps we should not judge too harshly those who have carried the responsibility of interpreting such mysteries for others. A simple certainty can be very seductive.

I decided to try to gather together some of the main perspectives that had been handed down to me through my own tradition – a kind of review of the arguments- a view from the anthill.

Sin

Some would say that bad things happen to people for a reason, as judgement on those who have sinned and displeased God. We can justify this statement by following the story lines of the Old Testament – evidence of a punishing and wrathful God can be found. There have been those throughout the history of the church who have used this image of God to explain famine, flood and loss in battle. More recently, through high profile disasters, voices have again been raised proclaiming Gods judgement on those outside his laws. The attack on the twin towers in Manhattan was seen as just rewards on New York’s gay community. The Tsunami was proclaimed as an attack on the largely Moslem countries found around the Indian Ocean. Sure, many non-Moslems, and non-gay people died, but they were innocent victims killed by friendly fire. I am not making this up, honestly!

A powerful school of thought, which has gained dominance, particularly in evangelical and fundamentalist circles, has increasingly seen the course of history in terms of dispensations. The world as we know it is in decline- sliding towards its inevitable destruction. It has been so bad that first God decided to remove his Holy Spirit, and eventually will remove his Church, prior to the end times, when the world will be destroyed, and replaced with Planet Earth, mark 2. The end result is a world view that sees the sinful and faulty planet as a hopeless case. The sooner we all leave it, the better. The more we isolate ourselves and live as a people set apart, the better. When bad things happen, they will be an inevitable consequence of living in a world fragmenting and falling into destruction.

Other teachers who have studied the Bible describe a different version of the fall of man- going something like this. God made the world, and over all placed men (and women). He gave free will to his people, and when they turned from Him, all creation groaned. Everything became out of balance, distorted and discordant. From this process, rivers flood, volcanoes erupt and people fight, grab and lust- sin is let loose on all creation. God did not give up. Throughout history, he has tried to offer men and women redemption and the chance to participate with Him in a different way of being, but we live in a world untransformed and awaiting a final day when, according to the bible, Jesus will return. According to this view of history, our understanding of sin is still crucial to ideas of why bad things happen in the world, but it is about an unfolding process, not about individual guilt.

Powerful and biblical though this picture is, I still feel pangs of dissatisfaction. Does God sit next to some great cosmic scales of justice waiting for the sands to run out, watching us all running our little human races? Having the means to intervene and sort out this mess, but not the inclination?

This image of God troubles me greatly. This is a distortion of all that I have come to believe and hope for. I believe in a God who tempers anger with mercy, to such an extent that he sent his own Son to take on the sin of a fallen world. I believe in a gospel that proclaims the coming of a new Kingdom HERE and NOW, introducing the constant tension between our calling to work for good in our time, whilst living in hope for a future when all things will be made new.