Monday, April 3, 2017

God's Unseemly Behavior

Many people, even some who claim to believe in God, find what He does or what He permits, well, unseemly. Why would an all-powerful, infinitely benevolent God wipe people out in Old Testament times? Why does He let children die of cancer? Or anyone, for that matter? To ordain or even to permit this kind of suffering seems inappropriate - not right somehow.

Of course to raise these questions might be the ultimate in hubris. Who are you, O man, to sit in judgment upon God? But on the other hand, the Bible includes the complaints and questions of plenty of people. Just read the book of Job, or Habakkuk, or the Psalms. (But the freedom to ask these questions doesn’t mean you get the answers you demand. As Job, Habakkuk, and various Psalmists discovered.)

I’ve been thinking about these things for a long time, ever since my father died of cancer when I was fourteen. And this weekend a series of seemingly unrelated events provoked the questions again.
  • On Friday morning I spoke at the interment of Jerry Staples, a beloved member of my church who died of cancer.
  • Friday evening friends from church treated Dionne and me to a performance of the play Shadowlands. Shadowlands tells the story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, whose transatlantic correspondence became a friendship that blossomed into love and marriage. They were wed knowing that Joy had terminal cancer. She died three years later.
  • Saturday morning I officiated at the wedding of young couple. It was what all weddings should be - full of faith, hope, and love. As well as fun and humor.
  • Sunday morning at church I preached a sermon on the Incarnation.

I began to see a thread running through all these events: Jerry’s death brought both grief and joy. His cancer was detected in an advanced stage, and yet his loved ones marveled at God’s orchestration (the word used most often by his widow and sons) of his last hours on this earth before he slipped into heaven.

Shadowlands presented C.S. Lewis’ wrestlings with the problem of evil. One of the greatest apologists for the Christian faith, his questioning was anything but academic when it was his own wife who suffered and died.

The wedding the next morning reminded me of the beauty and promise of marriage. But I could not shake the previous night’s sobering caveat - we’re all going to die, and sometimes those we love leave us painfully. When young couples marry, they probably don’t start their life together envisioning the inevitability of death. (Wedding vows used to include “till death us do part”. Not so popular anymore, but probably a good idea.)

And then on Sunday morning I preached on a text that begins by declaring that something God does is “fitting.” As far as I know, this is the only time the Bible declares an action of God to be “fitting.” In the face of all the things people charge God with doing (or not doing) which they judge to be inappropriate, unseemly, callous, cruel, or worse, here is a modest statement that He has done something that is “fitting” - appropriate, right.

So what was so fitting? Hebrews 2:10 says, For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.

What was right, appropriate, seemly, fitting, was that Almighty God, in order to bring many sons and daughters from the wreckage of sin to the glory of heaven, sent His own Son to become one of us, to suffer with us and to die for us.

I don’t find academic answers about the problem of pain very satisfying. For example, this week I read a respected apologist’s argument that evil is not a “thing”, but only the absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light. Therefore, he said, God didn’t create evil. Well, okay. You might win a debate with that one, but it won’t comfort your heart too much.

Here’s what I do find comforting.

In the play Lewis concluded that pain is God’s hammer to shape us for eternity. This life is only the “shadowlands.” Jerry’s life and death was a testimony to that reality. Nobody who knew Jerry or watched his last weeks of life could deny that God took him home. His death brought grief and tears, but also joy and hope.

The Scriptures don’t provide answers to all our questions. Sometimes God's ways don’t seem “seemly.” To us. But God provided something much better than a FAQ page. He sent His own Son to become one of us. The incarnation of Christ is the only way anyone makes it out of the shadowlands.

His suffering and death in our place is the fullest statement God has ever made about pain, sin, suffering, and death. Or as Hebrews 2:14-15 puts it a few verses later: Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.