Much Suffering is Mysterious and Unjust

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job sit literally alongside one another in the “wisdom literature” section of the Bible, and it is important to recognize their differing yet complementary perspectives on suffering. While Proverbs tends to emphasize the justice of suffering and how much suffering is directly related to wrongdoing, Job, Ecclesiastes vividly show how much of it is not.

The biblical story of creation was unique among ancient accounts of the world’s origin. Other accounts describe the world as coming into existence through a battle or struggle between divine beings or other supernatural forces. In these views there are multiple power centers in constant conflict and tension. That meant that the world was basically a chaotic place, a place where anything could happen, depending on which power gained the upper hand. This view has resurfaced today in the writings of scientific materialists who see the universe as the production of violent, unguided forces. In this kind of world, the most important trait is strength and power.

But Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad points out the uniqueness of the Hebrew Scriptures. There we read that creation was the result of one all-powerful God without rival, who made the world not in the way a warrior wins a battle but more as an artist crafts something of wonder and beauty. As an artist, he creates for the shear joy of it (Prov. 8:27-31). And therefore the world has a pattern to it, a fabric. A fabric is a complex underlying designed order or structure.

Biblical wisdom, according to von Rad, is to “become competent with regard to the realities of life.” Since the world was made by a good and righteous God, the fabric of the world has a moral order to it. That order is not based on power but on righteousness. Power and self-interest may appear successful in the short run, but they do not ultimately “work” in a world created by a good and just God. Therefore, cruel, selfish power is not only sinful, but stupid. It brings about loneliness, emptiness, and destruction. Faithfulness, integrity, unselfish service, and love are not only right but wise, because they fit the fabric of reality.

Except. While Proverbs points to the fact that, in general, hard work leads to prosperity, and laziness leads to want–it doesn’t always work that way. Job and Ecclesiastes supplement Proverbs’ understanding of the world. Our world has been created by God and therefore has a foundational moral order to it. And yet something is wrong with that order now. It is partly, though not fully, broken. . . . while Proverbs shows us the reality of God’s order, Job points to its “hiddenness” and Ecclesiastes to its “confusion.” At the end of the book of Job, God appears and insists that the moral order of the universe is still intact, but it is in large part hidden from human eyes. So while there is still a certain amount of “poetic justice” in which evildoers fall into the very traps of they set for others, much suffering is disproportionate and unfairly distributed. The good can and do die young.

The New Testament testifies to the same view of things. In John 9, Jesus heals a blind man and takes pains to show his disciples that he was not in that condition because of his sin or that of his parents, but in order to fulfill God’s inscrutable purposes. Thus, suffering people should not automatically be blamed for their condition.

The biblical idea not only contrasts with the teachings of karma, it goes against common sense. Psychologist Mel Lerner has demonstrated that most people have a deep desire to believe “people get what they deserve and deserve what they get.” They tend to assign blame to victims of tragedy especially if it is not possible to punish a perpetrator. This comes from a normal human impulse to make sense of things, but it also likely stems from the deep human need to believe we are in control of our own lives. People want to believe “that couldn’t happen to me–because I am wiser, I’m better, I know what I am doing.” The Bible’s assessment is less flattering to non-sufferers and kinder to those who are hurting. Much suffering is mysterious and unjust.

Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 134-35.

Artwork Courtesy of Ridha Ridha

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Does Your Mind Wander During Prayer?

“When we talk to one another, there may be a hundred and one things popping in and out of our minds that have nothing whatsoever to do with our conversation, but they do not in any serious way impede communication. It is only in extreme cases that we get so distracted that conversation becomes impossible . . . It is far better to make do with that very ordinary modicum of concentration that allows us to carry on conversations in spite of the hubbub in the background.”

Simon Tugwell, Prayer in Practice, 18-19.

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We must remember that our practice of prayer is not merely a matter of our own ability to remove distraction, vice, and inappropriate thoughts, but is also, and more importantly, an interaction with the actively present Holy Spirit of Christ. . . . we need not despair when we do not know how to pray, because “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). Prayer is ultimately more about God’s grace than about our performance. Karl Barth is right, I think, when he says: “Perhaps we doubt the sincerity of our prayer and the worth of our request. But one thing is beyond doubt: it is the answer that God gives. Our prayers are weak and poor. Nevertheless, what matters is not that our prayers be forceful, but that God listens to them. That is why we pray.”

Evan B. Howard, “A Biblical/Evangelical Response to Evagrius of Pontus,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 7:1 (2014): 138.

ARTWORk BY DUY HUYNH

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Spiritual Disciplines For Those Over Fifty

The . . . discipline of listening, can help us stop superimposing our own take on every situation before we even have a chance to hear and see what is really there. The practice of delighting can encourage us to notice and be thankful for what is small and seemingly insignificant. Deliberately lightening our store of possessions and list of social obligations can free us up to explore this new land we are entering with greater curiosity and flexibility. Settling into our life as it is can help calm the voices of our culture who insist we should be out there checking items off a bucket list. The practice of confronting can teach us to look backward with a humble, honest eye, and then to forgive both others and ourselves.

The discipline of appreciating life in its hardest-edged forms can be a good antidote to curmudgeonly irritation and anger. A daily practice of befriending the stranger can give us a new sense of purpose, in the same way that the discipline of generating can teach us how to sow seeds for the future in those who are much younger. None of these, however, can so readily vanquish our natural fear of old age and dying as the act of blessing the world through our very presence: of living, the best we can, as Christ lived.

The classical afflictions of old age (close-mindedness, complaining, fear of change, obsessing about comfort and security, boredom, denial, resentment, judgmentalism, hoarding, cursing an increasingly unfamiliar context) do not hold up well under this onslaught of virtuous practices. Yet it is important to remember that none of these practices is about achievement, or even about self-improvement in the sense that we are striving to become “better.” Instead, these quiet daily disciplines can help transform us into . . . typical people . . . who . . . live in the continual presence of God.

Paula Huston, “A Season of Mystery,” Conversations 12:1 (72-73).

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Was Jonathan Edwards a “Mystic”?

Once, as I rid out into the woods for my health, anno 1737; and having lit from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer; I had a view, that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God; as mediator between God and man; and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension. This grace, that appeared to me so calm and sweet, appeared great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent, with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception. Which continued, as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me, the bigger part of the time, in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. I felt withal, an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, than to be emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and pure love; to trust in him; to live upon him; to serve and follow him, and to be totally wrapped up in the fullness of Christ; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity. I have several other times, and views very much of the same nature, and that have had the same effects.

I have many times had a sense of the glory of the third person in the Trinity, in his office of sanctifier; in his holy operations communicating divine light and life to the soul. God in the communications of his Holy Spirit, has appeared as an infinite fountain of divine glory and sweetness; being full and sufficient to fill and satisfy the soul: pouring forth itself in sweet communications, like the sun in its glory, sweetly and pleasantly diffusing light and Life.

Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative (c. 1740).

Artwork Courtesy of Matt Kleberg

 

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What Does it Mean to be Chastened by God?

“God’s chastening is not God’s way of getting even: God got even at the cross . . . the chastening isn’t God getting even; it is preparing that person for something better, more valuable and worthwhile. God chastens us ‘for our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness’ (Heb. 12: 10). Often God chastens the very one who, as far as anyone could tell, didn’t apparently need it or deserve it.”

R. T. Kendall, God Meant it for Good, 68.

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Foolishness is a Passionate Conviction

Foolishness is a passionate, deeply embedded conviction . . . . It is not changeable by education. It’s changeable only by the power of the Spirit, which is often released through community, through soul care. Foolishness . . . is a passionate conviction that we need something other than God, and whatever He chooses to provide, to satisfy the deepest longing of our soul. Foolishness says, “Glad I have God. Good, I’m saved and going to heaven; that’s a good deal, but I know what I need to be satisified: I need to have a better marriage, need to have a better job, better ministry, better self-esteem, more psychological health, better physical health. That’s what I need, I need the blessings of God; God himself isn’t the point; He’s useful; He’s not somebody I worship and enjoy and relate to; He’s simply there as a useful powerful being so I can have what I really need.”

That’s foolishness. It’s a passionate conviction that something other than God deeply satisfies. It’s also a passionate conviction that nothing matters more than my immediate sense of satisfaction. Foolishness is a conviction that says that what matters right now is that my soul feels satisfied–that’s the point of everything, that’s what I am going to live for . . . .

[Foolishness] is a passionate conviction that I want to believe. I want to believe a lie. It’s a passionate conviction that my experience of satisfaction matters more than anything else in the world and that God is not reliably up to the job of providing satisfaction, so I better work hard to make sure that I get it, work hard religiously to persuade Him to give it to me, or work hard practically to get what I need to feel the experience of satisfaction. We’re foolish people. Every child begins life with a natural inclination to pursue personal satisfaction as their number-1 agenda, and to find that satisfaction in some source other than God. . . . there’s nothing wrong biblically with desiring satisfaction. I’m not condemning our desire for satisfaction. The Bible does not condemn it. In Jeremiah 2, God looks at His people and He says, “Your thirsty people who are going to the wrong place to satisfy your thirst.” He never condemns the thirst. The thirst is legitimate. The thirst is what, when embraced, drives us to God. When we see what we really long for, then we go to God. Primarily to relieve our thirst? No. Primarily for Him, which in the process relieves our thirst. What God condemns is not the thirst but going to the wrong place to satisfy the thirst.

Larry Crabb, SoulCare Foundations 201, Understanding People and Problems

Artwork courtesy of sampsoniaway.org

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Self-Loathing: Rooted in Pride

“The Lord shall fight for you” (Exod. 14:14)

“Be careful .  .  . not to allow your mind to dwell much on your weaknesses and unworthiness. These excessive feelings spring from a root of pride and a love for our own excellence. To become discouraged weakens your prayer life, and this is worse than your imperfections themselves. The more miserable you see yourself, the more it should cause you to abandon yourself to God. Press in to have a more intimate relationship with Him.”

Madame Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing God Through Prayer, 56.

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