Disclaimer: If you’re a member of my congregation coming to church this Sunday, don’t read this. Or do, if you need to hear it again!
There’s nothing that makes me angrier than bad theology. Than seeing something that the Church or a professed Church Leader has done in the news, and recognizing that this just made my job harder. That somewhere, someone is doubting whether the church really cares about them because of Christians who think that our God is wrathful, vindictive, and fickle.
Consider this: On May 20, less than twenty-four hours after the tornadoes struck in Oklahoma, a prominent Protestant preacher tweeted Job 1:19. For those of us who don’t have instant recall, he posted “Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.” He’d later say that his quote was taken out of context.
He also wrote this in 2001 after the tsunami hit Thailand: “The point of every deadly calamity is this: Repent. Let our hearts be broken that God means so little to us. Grieve that he is a whipping boy to be blamed for pain, but not praised for pleasure. Lament that he makes headlines only when man mocks his power, but no headlines for ten thousand days of wrath withheld. Let us rend our hearts that we love life more than we love Jesus Christ. Let us cast ourselves on the mercy of our Maker. He offers it through the death and resurrection of his Son. This is the point of all pleasure and all pain. Pleasure says: ‘God is like this, only better; don’t make an idol out of me. I only point to him.’ Pain says: ‘What sin deserves is like this, only worse; don’t take offense at me. I am a merciful warning.’ But the topless sunbathers amid the tsunami aftermath in Phuket, Thailand did not get the message.”
So God doesn’t love sunbathers? Or people who vacation in Thailand? Since when do we have any Scripture that allows us to know if God likes or doesn’t like those things?
Next up, God prefers Coke over Pepsi? The Cowboys over the Redskins?
I’m sorry, folks, but that’s NOT what I hear God saying in the midst of tragedies where nature strikes or humans make decisions that negatively impact.
I’m all about repentance, because we all need it. We all need to turn from the things that hold us back, to turn away from sin, to embrace the love of Jesus Christ and his miraculous resurrection. We all need to recognize that life isn’t about us, but about God and loving others.
But too often we put things on God that are human rather than godly. We figure God must be angry because we’re angry at the things we see in the world today. We want God to blast the things we don’t like, and fail to recognize that if God blasted evil… where would he stop? Pretty soon, we’d be gone, too.
God wants our undivided attention but he lay his son’s life down to get it. If we can’t see that in blessing and cursing, we’re missing out. But the Church is no different from anywhere else—it’s full of people who want to explain away the hurts they see.
Nevermind that Job didn’t actually do anything wrong—he wasn’t in sin and therefore condemned by God—bad stuff just happened to him.
But from the example of Job (thanks to Rachel Held Evans for pointing this out!), the initial response, before they belabor their explanations and reasons for all the tragedy in Job’s life is this:
When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (Job 2:11-13)
They recognized his grief and cared so openly about him that they sat next to him SILENTLY and said nothing. FOR SEVEN DAYS.
Even the judgmental lot that were Job’s friends recognized in grieving to SHUT UP and BE STILL in the presence of the GRIEVING. But I don’t hear God SCREAMING ABOUT REPENTANCE when tragedy strikes.
I don’t hear him blaming gun laws. Or homosexuality. Or mixed marriages. Or which party is in office.
Instead, all I hear is the sound of God weeping.
I hear the sound of God’s heart breaking. Of the celebration in heaven that there are new souls there, with the recognition that we’ve lost something here. I hear a blend of rejoicing in the now (the souls united with God in heaven) and the not yet.
And I think that’s all over the Bible.
In Genesis 6, it says, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”
Humanity had become so evil it couldn’t ever find its way to God. And there was nothing but the law to wrestle with, the law of the expulsion from Eden, not even the Ten Commandments. So, it seems that it was more merciful of God to wipe out the evil, than to allow people to live indefinitely, even more than one hundred years, stuck in their evilness. But then there’s Jesus, who popularly is believed to have preached to the dead for the three days he was “buried” between death and resurrection. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
In John 11, we can read the story of Lazarus. He was the brother of Mary and Martha, who had often hosted Jesus at their house. He fell ill and the sisters reached out to Jesus, knowing he could come and heal Lazarus. Jesus risks the threat of death by going to Judea to see Lazarus—his disciples think it’s possible they will die too!
But when they arrive, we see that Lazarus had been dead for four days. Four days—Jesus’ best friend (who wasn’t a disciple) had been dead for four days, and Jesus could’ve prevented it.
Martha sticks it to Jesus—I know you could’ve saved him. But I’ll take it a step further, I know you can save his soul.
Jesus says, no he’s going to rise again. Martha: I know he’ll rise at the last resurrection.
So Martha tells Mary and she comes and gives Jesus the guilt trip again: Lord, if you’d been here…
So Jesus sees her weeping, and he becomes “troubled.” He weeps too. He knows she’s sad, and being with her makes him sad. He’s sharing her loss. But he hasn’t said anything yet.
So Jesus prays to God that Lazarus would rise again—and he does. Granted, Jesus prayed it from the position of God’s will being done, the same way when he asks for the cup to be taken from him at the garden—and it’s not. So God’s will in suffering is sometimes for different reasons, isn’t it?
In the last two weeks, I prayed for a man to be “healed” and seen his leg amputated anyway, have mourned with a friend who lost his wife and infant child. I will bury a thirty-seven-year-old woman who had survived so much physically and emotionally, and seemed to be on the upswing. I have grieved the loss of life in Oklahoma, in Pakistan.
And in the name of Jesus I claim hope, grace, power, and RESURRECTION.
We have an Easter hope built on experience, on the Holy Spirit, on the gift of love by God.
And in these moments we hold fast to them.
I don’t know if you are one of the people touched by tragedy in the last few weeks or if you are someone trying to care for someone suffering.
But remember this: the world wants to answer the question “why?” while God’s Word reminds us that the most important question is “how?”
Not, why did this happen but how will we respond?
In I Corinthians 13, it says that “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
This is more than cool marriage Scripture. It’s a description of God. GOD is all of these things. And if we are to be like God then we must be them, too.
God doesn’t cause bad things to happen but it does say that he works for good in ALL THINGS.
If God wanted to “blast” us, why would he have sent Jesus? If we were to get the destruction and pain we “deserved” then why send Jesus to save us from it? Isn’t it because God actually wants MORE from us than the tragic life that threatens our joy?
Remember Sandyhook? One girl’s parents put the money to an animal sanctuary in her obituary in lieu of flowers. $175,000 later there’s a new sanctuary for animals (her passion) and people who have been hurt and need to heal.
Remember Columbine? Because of Cassie Bernall, thousands of people have heard about Jesus and come to have a relationship with him.
It says that those who mourn are blessed BECAUSE THEY WILL BE COMFORTED.But we need to know that in our sorrow, we can see God moving. It doesn’t take the suffering away but it reminds us that God’s love is with us.
Love your neighbor. Pray for your enemy. Weep with the grieving.
Put your hands to the labor of rescuing, rebuilding, restoring, all you can.
When in doubt, say nothing. Just love. Amen.