Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Problem of Evil

Many of you in our congregation know Thomas Higgins. For those who don't, he previously attended our church and is now a student at Olivet Nazarene University. He still comes back to visit on breaks and even did a lesson on sanctification on a Sunday night here several weeks ago. Recently, he posted the following note on facebook and asked for a response from several friends including myself. I thought it might be worthwhile to post Thomas' question and my response here.

Here is Thomas' initial note.

I have had a turbulent few months and have at many times questioned why I've been met with the circumstances I've had and what possible good could come from them. I've no doubt that everyone reading this has experienced first hand how unfair and cruel this world can be.

Classically, the problem of evil is... If God is infinitely powerful AND infinitely good, than why is there evil and suffering in the world??????

Ok, now that I have said that, there are about 3 dozen theodicies (answers to this problem) that I've heard of before. None of them are entirely adequate for someone who is suffering i.e. not good funeral icebreakers. However, as a Christian I have a rather large stake in what the character of God is and I've been wrestling with a theodicy lately that I've found immensely comforting, but have rarely heard talked about. Suffering is sanctifying. As a believer, my ultimate goal is to become more like Christ. To sanctify means to become like Christ. To understand that my suffering makes me more like my Savior is extremely comforting to me. It means that when I am miserable it is not meaningless. My suffering has purpose, not necessarily for a grander, strategic, universal good, but for me, for my life, today.

But I would like to hear from you. Like I said there are literally dozens of attempts at answering this problem. How do you understand it? What do you believe?

Here is my response.

Hey Thomas. I'm a little slow in getting to this but it is a weighty question so I hoped to carve out the time for it that it deserves.

I think that your idea of suffering being sanctifying has considerable merit, especially in a very practical sense for the American church today. In a culture where the prosperity gospel runs rampant, it is exceedingly important that we be reminded that being Christian does not equal being continually blessed and free of suffering. The idea that suffering will often make us more Christ-like since, after all, Christ himself was holy and suffered tremendously, is a message that needs desperately to be preached, taught, and embodied in the Church today. Furthermore, if this idea brings you comfort at this point in your life, then that too is significant and meaningful.

What I think would be an error would be to offer this particular theodicy as the answer to all suffering and evil. In fact, I think that is probably where a lot of theodicies go wrong. We tend to take one explanation and try to apply it to other situations where it really doesn't belong. In reality, I think we need a variety of ways to address the many different forms of suffering that we encounter in the word. Some suffering maybe sanctifying for the individual, some may be due to some larger plan that God has, some may be the result of our own personal choices or disobedience, some may be the direct result of another's sin, or most often it is probably some combination of all of those things.

I think this is how we actually see the Bible answering the question when we look over the entire story rather than picking a verse here or there to prove our point. The story of Joseph is an example of God using suffering for a greater plan or purpose. There are many stories of people suffering precisely because of their own sin. The prophets call out to God because of the suffering others inflict on them and the disadvantaged around them. Then there is Job who suffers through no fault of his own but purely as a test, almost a game, between God and Satan. As others in this discussion have mentioned, Paul even takes another approach to suffering as an opportunity to glory in Christ. It seems to me that the Bible itself refuses to answer this question in a one dimensional way and we would probably do well to follow that example. As the history of the theological and philosophical discussions regarding theodicy shows, the evil that exists in our world is complex.

I think ultimately God's answer to the complex problem of evil is the resurrection, which is really kind of a non-answer or more than answer, depending on how you look at it. In other words, the resurrection doesn't really answer the original question of "How can a good and all-powerful God allow evil and suffering to exist?". Instead, it almost ignores that philosophical question and answers the question we really need answered which is "What is God going to do about the sin and evil that has marred his beautiful creation?" The answer: The one who had the power to create life in the first place has the power to breath new life into it and make it new once again.

In other words, I think that it is important for us as Christians to seek to understand what God is doing in the world and it is important for us to find ways to offer comfort to those who are hurting. However, I think it also important that we not always feel the need to have the answer or the reason or an explanation for each existence of evil and suffering. I think we have to accept that God allows enough freedom in his creation that sometimes genuinely evil, tragic events happen for which there is no reason or explanation. God himself would have rather that they did not happen. God may be able to bring some good out of every tragedy but that doesn't mean that God planned or intended the tragedy in the first place. I believe that ultimately, the answer to all of our suffering is not an explanation of its existence but the promise, through Christ's resurrection, that one day it will be completely overcome.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Irony of Resurrection

Acts 4:5-12 is filled with irony.

Peter and John have been arrested because they have been "proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead." The next day, they are brought before an intimidating group of powerful and important people. These religious authorities ask Peter and John what authority they have to be teaching the people in this way. Peter, although he is uneducated and untrained (v.13), speaks boldly to those in power saying that it is in the name of Jesus that they teach the resurrection and that a crippled man was healed. Peter even goes so far as to say that it is "by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead - by this name this man stands before you saved."

This is the fundamental irony of the passage that leads to all the rest. The one who was rejected, despised, and crucified by the religious authorities was raised from the dead by God himself. Those in power, the trained and educated theologians, the ones who were supposed to know the heart of God the best, put to death the only one by whom all people must be saved. In contrast to these ungodly ones who are supposed to be godly, God raises Jesus from the dead - and so the universe begins to be turned upside down. Once the process of death itself is overturned, it is hard to imagine what can't be. The crippled begin to walk. The powerless and uneducated speak boldly and prophetically to those in power. The crucified can be the savior of the world. We might even go so far as to believe that God could take us - broken and scarred sinners through we are - and begin to transform us into ambassadors of life breathing resurrection power in our world.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pointing Away from Ourselves

The sermon text for this week (Acts 3:12-19) is a speech which follows on the heals of a miraculous healing. God has just worked through Peter and John to heal a man who had been lame from birth and sat at the Temple gate every day begging. As the man stands to his feet for the first time in his life, a crowd quickly begins to form, amazed at what has just taken place.

As I think about this man standing up and the crowd quickly closing in to see what had happened, I wonder what I would have done in that situation. If God worked through me to heal someone, how would I respond? To be honest, I'm not sure I would really be prepared for that. I think I would be just as astonished as the crowd that was forming and I probably wouldn't know what to say. My intentions and actions would probably wander back and forth between wanting to stay and enjoy the adulation of the crowd and wanting to slip away, trying to remain unnoticed until I could wrap my mind around what had just happened.

But Peter, the same Peter who couldn't confess his association with Jesus during his trial, doesn't hesitate here. As soon as he sees the crowd gathering, he immediately begins to turn the attention away from John and himself and toward God and his servant Jesus. Peter declares boldly that it was not because of any power or piety on his or John's part that this man was healed. It was because of God's action in Jesus' name that he was made whole. In fact, Peter (and Luke as the writer) goes to such great pains to make it clear that this is done through Jesus' name that the sentence structure of v. 16 becomes very awkward. The Greek sentence reads something like this; "And through the faith of his name, this man whom you see and know, being strengthened by his name and the faith on account of him has given to him this complete health before all of you." It is as if Peter is tripping over his own words in an attempt to make it abundantly clear that this is done through Jesus' name. Peter's entire speech in these verses points away from himself and toward the crucified and resurrected Jesus.

I often think of the Book of Acts as a series of stories or snapshots that give us insight into what it means to be the Church; a kind of narrative ecclesiology. In Peter's speech, Luke gives us another glimpse of what it means to be the Church: a community who is constantly pointing away from ourselves and toward the story of Jesus and thereby inviting others to become a part of that story as well.

2009 Annual Report

Yesterday we had our Annual Church Meeting and Elections here at our church. You can listen to the podcast of my Annual Report on the player below or you can read the written text of the report by clicking here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

New Hope for a New Season

Lord, we have been to the cross. We have see you beaten and buried. We have felt the grief of abandonment while you lay in the grave. But now, Lord, fill us with the hope you your resurrection. Help us to see in our broken world glimpses of your new creation. May the new life that you give flow through our veins even now as we live in the dawning light of your glorious kingdom. Teach us what it means to live as disciples of the crucified and resurrected Lord.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Song for Good Friday

With good reason, we often remember Good Friday with an eye toward Easter Sunday morning. We know that today is not the end of the story and without the resurrection, Jesus' death would mean little or nothing.

But there is also a sense in which we need to see Good Friday for what it is in itself, apart from Easter. Today is a day that signifies everything that is wrong with out world; a world so rampant and overwhelmed by sin that we put to death our own God and crucified our own savior. Today is a day for reflecting on the pain and suffering that exists all around us; a day for remembering the bruised and broken for whom Christ himself became broken and poured out.

This is a song that often helps me to do just that. (The video is supposed to be just a black screen. The lyrics are provided below.)

The Blues by Switchfoot

Is this the New Year or just another night?
Is this the new fear or just another fright?
Is this the new tear or just another desperation?

Is this the finger or just another fist?
Is this the kingdom or just a hit n' miss?
I miss direction, most in all this desperation.

Is this what they call freedom?
Is this what you call pain?
Is this what they call discontented fame?

It'll be a day like this one
When the world caves in
When the world caves in
When the world caves in

I'm singing this one like a broken piece of glass,
From broken hearts and broken noses in the back.
Is this the New Year or just another desperation?

You push until you're shoving
You bend until you break
Do you stand on the broken fields where your fathers lay?

It'll be a day like this one
When the world caves in
When the world caves in
When the world caves in

When the world caves in (yeah)
When the world caves in
When the world caves in

Is nothing here worth saving?
Is no one here at all?
Is there any net left that could break our fall?

It'll be a day like this one
When the sky falls down and the hungry and poor and deserted are found.
Are you discontented? Have you been pushing hard?
Have you been throwing down this broken house of cards?

It'll be a day like this one
When the world caves in
When the world caves in
When the world caves in

Is there nothing left now?
Nothing left to sing?
Are there any left who haven't kissed the enemy?
Is this the New Year or just another desperation?

yeah, yeah

Does justice never find you? Do the wicked never lose?
Is there any honest song to sing besides these blues?

And nothing is okay
Until the world caves in
Until the world caves in
Until the world caves in
Until the world caves in
Until the world caves in
Until the world caves in
Until the world caves in
Until the world caves in
Until the world caves in
Until the world caves in
Until the world caves in

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Prayer for Maundy Thursday

Our Holy Father,
By your grace, you have sanctified items as common as crushed wheat and grapes.
We pray that by that same grace, you would continue to sanctify us,
A people always common and often crushed,
To be Your Holy people.

In this meal,
May we find ourselves
To be a people gathered in unity around your table
A community centered around and shaped by your broken body and shed blood
Recipients of life in Your New Covenant

Monday, April 6, 2009

"and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

The end of Mark's Gospel is disturbing. At least, what is probably the end of Mark's Gospel is disturbing. If you take a look at the end of Mark, you'll notice that many modern translations print v. 9-20 of chapter sixteen with parentheses, brackets, a footnote, or some other notation to point out that these verses were probably not originally part of the Gospel of Mark. It is thought that some later scribes who were copying Mark's Gospel probably added this verse to give the story a more suitable ending.

Why did these scribes feel they needed to add something to Mark's story about Jesus?

Well, if you read Mark with 16:8 as the ending, the reason becomes apparent. In Mark, similar to the other gospels, the women come to Jesus' tomb only to find that Jesus' body is not there. Instead, there is a man robed in white who tells them not to be afraid but to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is alive and will meet them in Galilee just as he promised. But this is where things get uncomfortable. If Mark ends at 16:8, then there is no record of this promise being fulfilled. Mark doesn't tell us that Jesus ever met with the disciples or that they ever saw him raised to life. In fact, Mark says that the women fled from the tomb for "trembling and astonishment were holding them and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid!"

That can't possibly be the end of the story! It is so unsatisfying. There is no closure. Worse than that, it seems that Jesus, who liberated so many from disease and sickness and was himself apparently liberated from his captivity to death, is unable to liberate three of his own followers from their fear. For Mark portrays their fear as a kind of slavery when he says not simply that they were filled with fear but that "trembling and astonishment were holding them". The story ends with these women held captive and unable to speak. With such an ending, we can begin to see why a scribe may have wanted to add his own more positive and triumphant conclusion.

But maybe that is Mark's point. Maybe in writing such an odd ending, he is inviting us to write our own. Or more precisely, he is inviting us to step into the story and make it our own since the story of Jesus' resurrection does not end with the empty tomb. It is a story continued by the Church. Perhaps Mark anticipates our question of "Wait! How does the story end?" and his response is "You already know and are continually finding out for yourselves because you are the recipients and messengers of this resurrection life."

Or to put it another way, the very existence of Mark's Gospel is testament to the fact that these three women were not held captive by their trembling and astonishment forever. After all, if they had been and they had kept the empty tomb a secret then, at least by Mark's telling of the story, the disciples would have never known about the resurrection. By Mark's account, the resurrection becoming known was entirely dependent upon Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome. Mark could not have written this final chapter and would not have written the rest of his story if Salome, Mary, and Mary were not eventually freed of their fear and able to speak about what they had seen.

Mark is inviting us to see that Jesus continues his mighty acts of liberation even as Mark's own telling of those acts has to come an end.