Some corny, old-school sayings stick with you throughout life. As a kid, whenever I’d unwittingly stray between my dad and the TV screen he’d say, “I reckon you’ve been drinking muddy water, son. Move it. I can’t see Bonanza through you.” In a spiritual way, we’ve all been gulping down so much murky H2O we can’t see through each other to take in the glory of God. Everything around us looks opaque and dirty. That makes it extremely difficult to trust that God’s in the neighborhood, still in control, that His plan is proceeding right on schedule and that heaven awaits all who accept His free gift of salvation courtesy of the atonement of our sins completed by Christ on the cross.
Psalm 89:1 reads, “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord” but that’s far from easy to do when a son, a daughter or a spouse gets cut down in their prime. Psalm 135:3 states, “Praise the Lord for he is good” yet that’s the last thing that comes to mind when you hear your best friend has been diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer and is given only months to live. Bad news like that drains trust out of us faster than blood flowing from a severed artery. “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Psalm 34:1) offers little comfort when tragedy strikes close to home. Writer Anne Donovan, after delivering a stillborn baby, said “Those things I had relied on – modern science, women’s intuition, God’s mercy – had failed, and I had nothing to hold on to.” She confessed that when her well-meaning Christian friends tried to console her with shallow, Hallmark card phrases like “It was God’s will and we can’t always understand His perfect ways” or they’d tell her she should feel grateful that “The Lord must’ve been in need of another angel and chose your precious baby to keep Him company until He calls you home,” the only taste in her mouth was dirt. She added, “I just clenched my teeth to keep from saying something I’d regret.” We must all remember at times like these it’s wise to remain respectfully quiet, pray for the sufferer’s inner peace and just be there for them while they endure their emotional agony. Nothing we say or do will set things right. Referring to Job, Eugene Peterson wrote, “Sufferers attract fixers the way roadkills attract vultures. First, no matter how insightful we may be, we don’t really understand the full nature of our friend’s problems. Second, our friends may not want our advice. Third, the ironic fact of the matter is that more often than not, people do not suffer less when they are committed to following God, but more.”
I suspect that every person who’s notched a few decades of living under their belts has experienced something so devastating, so gut-wrenchingly sad along the way they’ve learned trusting in a gracious, omnipresent God while slogging through the aftermath of an event of that magnitude is every bit as hard as coming to terms with their overwhelming sorrow. When a gigantic tsunami struck 14 different countries in December 2004 and killed at least 230,000 individuals in the span of an afternoon not many of those who survived were heard shouting hallelujahs to the great I AM for His compassion. When Islamic terrorists savagely beheaded 30 Ethiopians in April 2015 just because they were believers in Jesus instead of Allah the families of those murdered weren’t singing, praising or tasting God’s goodness. The horror was just too much to bear and grieving was all they had the strength to do. Brennan Manning wrote, “The ubiquitous presence of pain and suffering – unwanted, apparently undeserved, and not amenable to explanation or remedy – poses an enormous obstacle to unfailing trust in the infinite goodness of God.” Perhaps the most difficult thing a believer will ever face is maintaining unflinching trust in a magnificent Creator when the unthinkable happens to them or someone they love dearly. Even more challenging is how a Christian can be expected to encourage others to trust in a caring God when all the afflicted person sees is abject darkness in every direction. What we can’t do is ignore or dishonestly label irrelevant their warranted question of “Why?” because there’s hardly a day that passes when that fundamental question doesn’t deserve to be asked somewhere on this diseased planet.
The fact is, evil walks among us and has done so since the fall of Adam and Eve. We can hide our eyes from its ghastliness but that doesn’t make it go away. A man calmly slips into an elementary school and shoots as many innocent children as he can, a vicious serial killer’s identity remains a mystery for years while their heinous spree of murder continues unabated, a depressed mother suffocates all of her tiny offspring because she thinks they’re “possessed,” the lingering memories of the barbaric holocaust – the roster of atrocities goes on and on, making an impression on non-believers (and frequently even believers) more indelible than the mystery-shrouded love of God. Little wonder so many dismiss Christianity as wishful thinking and opt for low-maintenance agnosticism or stoic atheism. Louis Dupre wrote, “The sheer magnitude of evil that our age has witnessed in death camps, nuclear warfare and internecine tribal or racial conflicts has not raised the question how can God tolerate so much evil, but rather how the more tangible reality of evil still allows the possibility of God’s existence.”
The body of Christ can accomplish remarkable, exemplary acts of mercy and kindness but sooner or later every member will run into the thick granite wall of how to cope with pain, suffering and unrestrained evil in their midst. No matter how obedient we are to God’s laws we can’t undo the consequences of an Interstate Highway bridge packed with cars suddenly collapsing into a river without warning. I’ve been rereading the Book of Job lately wherein God shows no interest in addressing the beaten-down protagonist’s specific complaints. In the Psalms David insists God unleash His wrath upon his enemies and put an end to the injustices and mistreatment they’re dishing out but he gets no response whatsoever. What we are told repeatedly throughout the scriptures is that we can’t see God drawing good out of all this evil because we and our neighbors around us have been drinking muddy water. We can’t see through each other to catch even a passing glimpse of God with His arms outstretched, ever-ready to enfold us in His relentless love. Is this the “hard part” of Christianity? Yes. Without a doubt. Harriet Beecher Stowe once wrote to a crestfallen friend, “When the heart-strings are suddenly cut it is, I believe, a physical impossibility to feel faith or resignation; there is a revolt of the instinctive and animal system, and though we may submit to God, it is rather by constant painful effort than sweet attraction.”
Speaking of the story of Job, I find it interesting to note that not once do Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, Elihu or even Job himself blame his woes on the real culprit, Satan. In the preamble we’re informed Job’s catastrophes were instigated and brought about by the devil. God did grant His permission but that’s not exactly a “Fox News Alert.” He also allows us to do horrible things to each other without intervening. But even today when something atrocious happens folks ask how God could’ve let it occur but avoid putting the onus on the elephant in the room, Satan. Too often we act like he doesn’t exist and, therefore, he can’t be held responsible. But the reality is he’s behind everything that’s wrong with this world. When he got the first couple to believe his lies evil made its entrance and spread like a virus. It always bugs me when someone who’s a slave to a particular sin says “Well, that’s just the way God made me.” Wrong. It’s true God made us in His image but Satan’s “death gene” has totally infiltrated and corrupted what God intended to be perfect. There were no diseases, no birth defects, no abnormalities, no handicaps, no sexual-identity confusion in the Garden of Eden. Problems like that entered humankind’s collective DNA strand when Adam and Eve decided to do things Satan’s way. Why’s the water we’ve been drinking so polluted? Because the devil succeeded in churning up the pond, that’s why.
As if all our pain, suffering and the inevitable effects of sin aren’t enough, some believers callously pile on disturbing and unsettling images of a malevolent, vindictive God and then present to the downtrodden their breaking of God’s laws the reason for their sorry situation. Manning opined, “They speak in giddy or sepulchral tones of a deity who, with malicious glee, dispatches to a fiery lake ninety percent of the people he created in his image and likeness.” As a lad church attendance was mandatory. I dutifully complied but more often than not what I witnessed was a preacher pounding the podium with his fists, insisting God was preoccupied with comparing my good deeds alongside my bad ones and I wasn’t faring well at all. God didn’t want me to love Him; He wanted me to be terrified of Him. When the pastor would refer to the ongoing cold war’s H-bomb standoff that threatened to annihilate every living organism at a moment’s notice he’d flash a smug smirk and speak longingly of the coming Rapture when the Elect would fly to heaven and those left behind would get their well-earned severe comeuppance. God’s mercy rarely got mentioned. I’ve concluded my generation rebelled against whatever was handy in large part because we figured if God was a mean-spirited tyrant then what was the point in trying to please Him? The dice were loaded and the house always won. So we went in search of gentler God or more amiable idols while the grace-laden Jesus the New Testament describes got trampled in our stampede away from the stern, legalistic faith of our fathers. Satan was delighted over our disillusionment and gladly plied us with alcohol, drugs, promiscuous sex and “New Age” spiritual concepts to fill in the gaps and we ate it all up like hogs in slop.
So is there any solution? Of course there is! He’s been standing right behind each of us the whole time, waiting patiently for us to turn around. He’s Christ. In my case I rediscovered Him at my first Celebrate Recovery meeting, hanging out with the riff raff, the broken and the sick that weren’t in need of a pep rally but a healer. People just like me. Manning wrote, “The bromides, platitudes, and exhortations to trust God from nominal believers who’ve never visited the valley of desolation are not only useless; they are textbook illustrations of unmitigated gall. Only someone who has been there, who has drunk the dregs of our cup of pain, who has experienced the existential loneliness and alienation of the human condition, dares whisper the name of the Holy to our unspeakable distress. Only that witness is credible; only that love is believable.” What a contradiction! The ones most bloated with muddy water end up being the ones who can see the hope of Christ most clearly. Plus, God frequently uses scarred survivors He’s healed to bring Him more patients. It’s an amazing transformation to watch. However, it’s important to understand those who receive healing from Jesus don’t become bulletproof. They still have to battle their sinful nature – and discouragement – one day at a time.
If you’ve never read Philip Yancey’s book, “Disappointment with God,” I suggest you put it on your list. In it he poses what he calls “three questions no one asks aloud.” They are: (1) “Is God silent?” (2) “Is God hidden?” and (3) “Is God unfair?” I’m not going to attempt to encapsulate his thought-provoking conclusions but Yancey does point out how Jesus’ life offered some relevant answers. (1) Christ certainly wasn’t a silent, reclusive monk. He spoke the truth clearly, often and to anyone who cared to approach Him and lend an ear. As the Bible says, “the Word was made flesh and took up residence among us“(John 1:14). (2) Jesus was a man, not an ominous, lightning-filled thundercloud atop a mountain. Folks could touch, smell, hear and see Him. God was right here, strolling around with us on terra firma. He said, “The person who has seen me has seen the Father!’” (John 14:9). Ironically, it was Christ’s humanness that kept his own race from accepting Him as the promised Messiah. They were expecting a superman armed with Roman-destroying lasers but, instead, the Deliverer showed up looking just like them. (3) This is the one that caused the most controversy. When Jesus failed to snap His fingers and make everything rosy for all Israel the fickle populace turned on Him quick as a blink. He did tout a kingdom but it wasn’t the powerful, politically imperialistic one they’d anticipated. He said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) and it made them so mad they tortured Him and hung Him on a cross to die. Now, before we mount our Clydesdales about their reaction we must ask ourselves, “Are we that different from the Jewish nation?” God proved He’s not silent nor hidden nor unfair through His Son but isn’t it true we keep asking those same three questions because we don’t like the answers?
The hardest truth to swallow is that God has entrusted the state of this world to Christ’s followers. We’re His ambassadors, so to speak. Yet He didn’t leave us powerless. He sent Himself in the form of the Holy Spirit to guide the way. God is living in and working through us. Some question that approach. The Apostle Paul called it the “…foolishness of God.” Frederick Buechner was more direct. He opined it seems God chose to get His holy work done using, “…lamebrains and misfits and nitpickers and holier-than-thous and stuffed shirts and odd ducks and egomaniacs and milquetoasts and closet sensualists.” Nonetheless, 1 Corinthians 1:25 states, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Three verses later Paul added, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something.” Yep, crazy and messed-up as we are, God expects us to be the difference-makers down here. As usual, Manning provides a humbling perspective. He wrote, “We are, each and every one of us, insignificant people whom God has called and graced to use in a significant way.”
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are to represent God’s holiness on earth and rectify the planet’s unholiness that puts distance between mankind and our Creator. Paul, after his scathing criticism of some church members in Corinth for their crass behavior and utter disregard for decency, becomes exasperated and asks them, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” (1 Corinthians 6:15). The contrast he presents is striking. Jesus prayed to His Father, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them, because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world. Set them apart in the truth; your word is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I set myself apart on their behalf, so that they too may be truly set apart” (John 17:14-19). We believers have, by God, been delegated the job of doing His will on earth. Philippians 2:13 says, “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Now, if we consider that task a burden we’re mistaken. It’s nothing less than an honor. We should put our faith and trust in God because He so completely puts His faith and trust in us.
It’s fair to say God went far out on a limb trusting us as He does. Yancey wrote, “God’s plan includes risk on both sides. For us, it means risking our independence by committing to follow an invisible God who requires of us faith and obedience. For God, it means risking that we, like the Israelites, may never grow up; it means risking that we may never love Him. Evidently, He thought it a gamble worth taking.”