He Came to Bring God’s Kingdom

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).

 images-1Recently, one of our children sent me a video about a most incident of the First World War. We are far removed from the realities of World War I, but it was one of the most horrific wars in human history. It raged on from 1914 until 1918. For France, Germany, and England in particular, a generation of young people were killed, maimed, or otherwise impacted. By the end of the war, Russia had embraced Communism and the royal houses of Europe had forever lost their influence. The war saw the development and employment of new technologies, such as the submarine and the airplane, as well as terrible technologies that the world has tried to avoid since, like poisonous gas. By Christmas 1914, the war in France was bogged down to two opposing armies facing each other in trenches only yards apart.

imagesIn the days leading up to Christmas, soldiers began singing songs and exchanging gifts and pleasantries across the “no man’s land” that separated the opposing armies. On Christmas Eve, many units from both sides called an informal truce, crossed into no man’s land, roughhoused, exchanged small gifts, sang Christmas Carols, and returned to their own lines. [1] I believe that this incident illustrates the difference. Both sides, committed to a deadly war, believed they had a bond of love and membership in a kingdom that it some ways was bigger than the war they were fighting. In the midst of war, the Kingdom of God was present.

The Jewish Expectation

From the Babylonian Captivity until the coming of Christ, the Jewish people prayed for, hoped for, and often worked for the reestablishment of the kingdom of David. The prophets, including Isaiah, had visions of a time when God would restore the kingdom of David, place one of his descendants upon his throne, and institute a time of peace, justice, and plenty. Isaiah contains many prophecies that shaped the expectations of the Jews. This morning, we have already heard some of these expectations. The Messiah was to be a child king. He would lead the people of God. He would possess wisdom and be a wonderful counselor. He would be the Son of God, filled with the power of Jehovah God. He would live forever and be a father to his people. He would be a prince of peace, ushering in a world without war. He would be the true son of David. He would be just and righteous. [2]

4464In other passages, Isaiah predicts that the Messiah will be spirit-filled and have divine wisdom and understanding. He will respect and fear God without limitation. He will have a spirit of justice and see into the reality of things, not being misled by prejudice. He will care for the poor and needy as much as the rich and powerful. He will be faithful to God. He will conquer the world with his wisdom and teachings. He will institute a time of peace where the lions and the lambs will lay down together and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God. He will not only gather the remnant of Israel, but will also assemble the ten lost tribes of Israel. His teachings and his justice will be so compelling that the entire Gentile world will rally to his side rest in his peace. [3]

In other words, the ancient prophet saw day when not only the hopes and dreams of Israel, but the world’s hopes and dreams, our hopes and dreams would come true. War, famine, poverty, disease, and injustice—all the enemies of human life would be defeated.

The Kingdom Christ Brought

One day, more than 500 years after Isaiah first spoke these prophesies, a young rabbi from Nazareth, historically part of the tribal territory of Zebulon, the land of darkness, who currently lived in Capernaum, in the Galilee, came preaching that the Kingdom of God was at hand. His name was Jesus bar Joseph. When he came, he showed unusual devotion to God, unusual wisdom in his teachings and parables, and unusual power in the way he healed the sick, the lame, and the mentally ill. He also periodically made unusual claims. He proclaimed that the Day of the Lord the prophets had foretold was here. He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand—and he was its king. He even claimed that, in some mysterious way, he was the Kingdom of God. In other words, in him, the Kingdom of God was present. Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21). [4]

images-2He also made the astounding claim that the Kingdom of God could not only be in him and created by him, but it could be within each one of us. “The Kingdom of God is within you,” he said (Luke 17:21). In other words, the wisdom, the love, the peace, the power, the eternal life, which is the essence of the Kingdom of God, can be felt in each of our lives if only we will respond to the gracious call of Jesus, which is the Good News of the Gospel. It can, in fact, be with us each and every day of our lives.

This kingdom Jesus brings is not like the kingdoms of this earth. It is not like the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Empire, the British Empire, the Nazi Empire, the Russian Empire, even the Pax Americana the world has enjoyed since 1945. These kingdoms are doomed to rise and fall. Jesus’ kingdom will not end. It does not end with our death, for we will be with him in paradise (Luke 23:43). At the end of history, he promises to come in an unimaginable way and finally defeat the foes of God, of Truth, of Justice, of Righteousness, and establish a perfect kingdom that will last forever—a kingdom in which there will be no more death, or disease, or war, or pain. [5]

A couple of times in our marriage, Kathy and I have gone to look at timeshare units. Often, the people who develop them offer free weekends, where you can come and live in a timeshare in, say, Destin, Florida for a few days, spend some time at the beach, and dream about what life would be like if you owned a timeshare. God is a bit like a Timeshare developer. We do not have to wait until heaven to have a kind of foretaste of the kingdom and experience for just a little while what God’s kingdom is like. Paul tells us that we Christians are already citizens of God’s kingdom, which is the Church of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:21). When we accept Christ as the king of our hearts, become a part of the Body of Christ, and begin to behave as Jesus behaved, we experience in a small way what heaven is like and what the Kingdom will be like when it comes.

The Kingdom Comes to Us

So, how can we become a part of God’s kingdom of wisdom, love, and peace? In today’s text, Jesus says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). To be a part of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of Jesus, we have to repent. We must turn around, look at ourselves, recognize how far we really are from God, and then turn from the kingdoms of this world to his kingdom. We will never repent unless we believe, and so we must believe to enter the kingdom of God. In other words we must believe and put our trust in the gospel that Christ proclaimed: that God loves us, sent his son to die for us, wants us to be his children, part of his family, members of his kingdom (John 3:16). Once we have that kind of faith, we must listen to God in our hearts and his word, Holy Scripture—because God’s children listen and hear his voice (John 10:27). Finally, having become hearers of the word of God, we must also become doers of the word of God (Mark 3:35, James 1:22-27; Romans 2:13). If we repent, believe, listen, and obey, we will be a part of the body of Christ and experience with other believers a foretaste of what heaven will be like right here on this earth.

Why He Came.

579261When I fist saw the film clip about the Christmas Armistice of 1914 and read about it, my thought was simple: This is why Christ came and this is the difference Christ makes. Even in the midst of war, the combatants of the First World War living at the very end of Christendom (there would be no more Christmas armistices in a world committed to total war) knew there was something more important than the petty battles of earthly kingdoms. They loved their countries. The French loved France. The Germans loved Germany. The British loved Britain. Nevertheless, the doughboys of World War I believed that there was another kingdom to which they all belonged, an eternal kingdom of peace where men and women would beat their swords into ploughshares and the human race would make war no more (Isaiah 2:4). They knew in their hearts that their own kingdoms, as much as they loved them, were not the final kingdom. The final kingdom, the Kingdom of God, was greater than their worldly kingdoms.

This Christmas, all over the world there will be battlefields. Their will be wars and rumors of wars between Jews and Muslims, between Kurds, Arabs, and Persians, between Sunni’s and Shiites, between Muslims and Hindu’s, between Israel and Palestine, between Russia and the Ukraine, between Conservative Republicans and Liberal Democrats, but there will be no Christmas truce. In some cases, it will because the combatants live in lands that have forgotten the Good News of the Kingdom of God, though they once knew it. In some cases, there will be no truce because the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven has never entered the culture. So, this why he came—and this is why it matters that he came: He came that we might dwell in his kingdom of wisdom, love, and peace.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A link to a video can be found at http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/nov/13/sainsburys-christmas-advert-recreates-first-world-war-truceThere are many articles on the Internet about this incident. Sadly, the commanding generals of both sides discouraged this kind of behavior, and as the war grinded on the use of mustard gas and the bitter battles of the war the practice was largely discontinued.

[2] Isaiah 9:6-7.

[3] Isaiah 11:1-12.

[4] Jesus’ exact claim can be looked at in two different ways, both of which are a part of this sermon. The claim can be and seems to be both that Kingdom of God is in Him and can be within each of us. See, William Barclay, “The Gospel of Luke” in the Daily Bible Study Series rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 220.

[5] See Revelation 21:1-6.

Living and Leading from the Center

Centered Living imageToday, I am posting to alert readers that I have now republished a Second Revised Edition of Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love. Frankly, I did not like the numerous typographical errors in the book and also wanted to slightly revise some of the wording. In the Preface to Second Edition  I note that it is four years since I finished the first edition. In the interim, some of the situations that pushed me to write the book have come to completion and new challenges and problems have arisen. The book is often a part of my early morning routine and a companion during times of stress and difficulty. What fascinates and encourages me is the utility of the book in working out problems, and especially problems that find their source in people and their conflicts.  I believe the book continues to prove its utility, at least in my life and work.

As I anticipated, there have been people who feel that the work is not sufficiently Christian. For those folks I can only say that I never read the book without an eye to places where I might have strayed from orthodox Christian faith. While it is true that “where words are many trespasses will not be lacking” (Proverbs 10:19).  I am satisfied that the work embodies an orthodox, Trinitarian theology. In any case, it is my intention that everything I write be such that the founders of the Christian faith and of the tradition of which I am a part would find the work faithfully Christian.

The second complaint has been I did not expound the doctrine of Grace sufficiently. This is true; however, if one reads carefully, one will see that grace is fundamental to the “Tao of Christ”—as Chapters 62 and 63 make clear.

Book Cover.pegFor those who prefer a specifically Christian working out of the implications of a wisdom approach to Christian faith and life, my book Path of Life attempts to confront the problems of contemporary society and its rejection of Christian faith and morals in one long sustained argument for the reality of Christian faith, morals, and wisdom. I would not have spent the time I spent writing the book if I did not think it made an important point for how contemporary Christians can best serve our culture.

Those who know me well know that I believe that it is important for the future of the church, of our society, of our families, and of our world that people, and especially those who have the ability and opportunity to influence others begin to recover the ancient wisdom of the Christian faith and some of the ancient wisdoms of the world. In the Preface, I state my belief that Christ is the Ultimate Truth, and when a person has come to that Truth, one is free  to see and adapt truth wherever one finds it. I put it this way, “When we have confidence in the truth of Christian faith, we are free to accept and value all truth. As the great Methodist missiologist E. Stanley Jones put it, ‘I was free, free to explore, to appropriate any good, any truth found elsewhere, for I belonged to the Truth, to Jesus Christ.'”[1]

I hope that some of my friends and readers will purchase and study the updated version of the book. It can be purchased at Amazon.Com. There is a link to the page on this blog site.

[1] E. Stanley Jones, A Song of Ascents (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1968), 92.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

Don’t Chase Your Tail (or, Don’t Look for Meaning Where It Isn’t)

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl 1:1-2).

imgres-1Many people consider Winston Churchill the greatest person of the Twentieth Century. Most of us know he was the Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II. Many people know of his oratorical skills. Fewer know that he was a writer and author of highly regarded histories, including histories of the English people and of World War II. Fewer people know that he was also an above average painter. His life and career began near the end of the Victorian Era and extended until the 1960’s. He retired from Parliament at ninety. Near the end of his life, as he pondered his life and the decline of Britain, he exclaimed over and over again, “All has been for nothing.” [1] If Winston Churchill could not find meaning in his achievements, what about the rest of us?

At our staff meeting this week, we talked about the many futuristic movies that come out each year: many are what are called Dystopia’s. Utopia’s are ideal societies Dystopias are degenerate societies. Both Utopia’s and Dystopia’s represent what writers and moviemakers think the future will be like. Increasingly, movies describe a future that is violent and dangerous. Movies like Deviant, Blade Runner, the Terminator movies, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and others portray a society characterized by poverty, violence, corrupt governments, police states, squalor, suffering, oppression, and social decay. Make no mistake: these movies are successful because people increasingly fear this is the future we face. More and more young people view the future negatively. They don’t see life as having any stable meaning. They distrust existing institutions and see little hope for their improvement. They lack hope for the future and confidence in historic faith and morals. This is a big problem for our nation and for many other nations

In the last blog, I talked about the problem of suffering and the wise life. This blog deals with the problem of meaning and the wise life. As I mentioned in the prior blog, the wise men and women of Israel were aware that undeserved or disproportionate suffering was a challenge to their notion that wisdom brings blessings, including prosperity to a people. They were also aware that wise living, as important as it is for successfully facing life’s practical problems, does not guarantee meaning and purpose in human life.

The Problem of Meaning.

imgresPractical wisdom has its limits. It can only profit human beings in the practical things of life. it can help us chose wisely, make a living, save for retirement, make friends, raise children, build a business, and the like.  Practical wisdom cannot, however, answer life’s most difficult questions. Questions involving the meaning and purpose of life, the reason for suffering, and the often-dubious moral nature of the universe cannot be answered by human wisdom. These questions require a supernatural wisdom.

The search for wisdom is a human enterprise, and like all human enterprises, it is limited by our human finitude, sin, and shortcomings. Because we are human and understand that we must some day die, all of us are in some way aware that what we do, what we look like, what we accomplish, what we experience, where we go on vacation or to enjoy our hobbies: these things cannot give our lives ultimate meaning or purpose. They are all doomed to pass away. Therefore, all merely human attempts to construct a meaningful life are doomed to failure. This is one reason why the so-called “Enlightenment Project” has failed so spectacularly. It is also why modern attempts to construct an ultimately meaningful life outside of some religious tradition (such as existentialism) have largely failed. Over the long run, they simply cannot succeed.

Not long ago, two authors, Richard Leider and David Shapiro wrote a book entitled, “Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life”  [2] In writing the book they found that most people’s number-one fear is living a meaningless life. According to a recent poll, 97 percent of “Generation Y” (twenty-somethings) are looking for work that will allow them to have an impact on the world. Even in our secular culture, the search for meaning is important. It is also important for Christian faith to address the issue of meaning, for it is in religious faith–a faith whose ground lies beyond the horizon of human life and human potential–that ultimate answers to the greatest questions of life, including the question of meaning, are to be found.

Therefore, if the problem of meaning was important in the ancient world, it is even more important today and in the emerging post-modern culture of our society. Today, people and especially young people, live in a culture of meaninglessness. In movies, on television, in the media, and in the lyrics of songs, they and we confront a culture in which many cultural elites and ordinary folks have lost confidence in the things that for generations gave life meaning. In particular, there is a kind of revolt against the “American Dream” and the notion that increasing affluence and personal peace can make life meaningful.

Solomon: The Ultimate Example

The Book of Ecclesiastes was written as if Solomon were the author. The book and Solomon’s life are one big illustration and meditation on the problem of life’s meaning and purpose. Solomon began well. He began his adult life with a sense of his limitations and a pleasing humility. When David died, Solomon carefully solidified his power, relying on this mother and some of David’s closest advisors, like Nathan the Prophet (see 1 Kings 1-2). He made wise diplomatic alliances (1 Kings 3:1). When God appeared and offered to give him whatever his heart desired, Solomon asked for wisdom (1 Samuel 3:7-9). God was so moved by Solomon’s request for wisdom that he promised Solomon that he would receive wisdom, riches, honor, a long life, and all the many other things for which Solomon might have asked—and that is exactly what occurred. Solomon was the most successful king of his day, known all over the ancient middle east for his wisdom. Unfortunately, his life did not end in the way it began.

king-solomon-babySolomon’s initial wisdom is nowhere more obvious than in the most famous incident from his life. Two women, both prostitutes, brought a child to him. [3] One of the women had rolled over in the night and smothered her baby. Both women claimed the living child was theirs. No one could tell who was the real mother. Solomon ordered the baby cut in half, with half given to each woman. Naturally, the real mother cried out at this result, offering that the other woman her baby. Solomon awarded the baby to the woman who cried out in defense of the child. The people were amazed at Solomon’s wisdom.

The writer of Ecclesiastes recounts all of the ways in which a wise and active king like Solomon might attempt to find or create meaning in life. He undertook great building projects, just as Solomon undertook to make Jerusalem a lovely city with the Temple to God as its centerpiece. Unfortunately, his building projects could not give his life meaning. The writer had many women and enjoyed all of life’s pleasures. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Many of these women were, however, from foreign countries and brought foreign gods with them. In marrying these women, Solomon violated God’s command that the people of Israel were not to intermarry with the surrounding people (I Kings 11:2). Just as God prophesied, Solomon’s wives led him astray. These women did not provide meaning or purpose for Solomon’s life. Solomon has children to whom he may leave his throne, but his son is foolish and his kingdom does not last but a short time after his death. In the end, the story of Solomon is of a man who begins well, but ends poorly.

In Ecclesiastes, the writer, like Solomon, begins his quest for meaning by seeking wisdom. He studies, observes, and reflects upon life. But, the complexities of life are too great. In the end, he admits that achieving all-embracing wisdom is beyond human capacity (Ecclesiastes 7:23). Faced with the realization that the search for wisdom is unending, the writer seeks to find meaning in success and pleasure. He exercises his human abilities, building houses and gardens, acquiring flocks and herds, and planting crops and fruit trees (Ecclesiastes 2:4-7). He eats and drinks to his heart’s content (Ecclesiastes 2:1-2). He amasses great wealth (Ecclesiastes 2:8). He denies himself nothing his heart desires. In the end, it does not give his life meaning (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11). The message is simple—not even Solomon, the greatest and wisest of the Jews, could give his life meaning and purpose by his accomplishments and experiences. Neither can we.

The story of Solomon is like the imaginary story of Allen I tell in Path of Life. [4] Allen is introduced as a successful businessperson who built a fairly large company and is, by any standard, a wealthy person. He has several homes, a private airplane, and many of the outward signs of wealth. For a time when he was younger, he kept a mistress. His success was not without cost, however. He worked long hours and sacrificed time with his family and children. By the time his children were in college, they were all more or less estranged from him. His son, who he once hoped would take over the family business, has not been home for some years and lives in a different state. Some years ago, his wife left him—tired of living alone with a man who most often ignored her. Since the divorce, Allen spent most of his time working. Not so long ago, he was visiting with his lawyer about his will. It was a difficult conversation. Finally, the lawyer looked at him and said, “Allen, you are trying to run your business from the grave—and you cannot do that. When you die, it is all over.” Allen comes to see the wisdom of that remark. His years of work seem wasted. As he reflects on his life he thinks, “I have just a few months to live, and I have to wind down this business or sell it. My life’s work is wasted.”

In each of our own ways, we can end up just like Allen: we can spend our lives on things that don’t really, ultimately matter. We live in a materialistic and romantic culture. We all, whether rich or poor, are tempted to find meaning in possessions or in experiences that bring us some form of pleasure. Experience teaches that these attempts ultimately fail us. When I was in seminary, I worked for a few weeks at a retirement home. It was filled with all sorts of people. Interestingly, those who had a religious faith were most often content, if sad that they had to leave their home. Many were walking with a kind of calm dignity towards the end of their lives. Those who were not, were often people who placed all of their sense of worth and meaning on accomplishments,  things or experiences of the past.

The Limits of Wisdom

In the end, the writer of Ecclesiastes like a burned-out shell gives up the search for meaning. The search for meaning and purpose, whether by wisdom or foolishness, by work or leisure, by the search for beauty or a life of self-denial, whether by goodness or self-seeking selfishness, fails. Ecclesiastes concludes that all a reasonable human being can do is enjoy the simple pleasures of life and accept what comes from the hand of God (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26). It turns out that a good marriage, honest business partners, children who are well-raised and who take care of parents when they are old, using our God-given talents as best we can for the benefit of ourselves and others, having a good name, and all the other teachings of wisdom are good things we should practice. They just cannot provide ultimate meaning.

Our human quest to find ultimate meaning within the boundaries of one finite human life cannot succeed. Yet, the author of Ecclesiastes is not a nihilist or a moral relativist. In fact, he is quite the opposite. Faced with the limits of human wisdom, the writer is thrown back into the arms of God (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Despite the limitations of human life, we are still well-advised to respect God and obey his commands. In this world, and in the next, we will be called to account for our practical and moral failures. However, for meaning, we must look elsewhere.

This is not to say, we should not enjoy life and its simple pleasures. While it is true that our accomplishments cannot provide meaning and purpose for life, this does not mean we should not enjoy them. One good piece of advice the writer of Ecclesiastes gives is that we should enjoy the pleasures of youth while we are young because they will not last forever (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7). The writer believes that we should be good and follow the law of God, but remember that this law is for this life. It cannot give our lives meaning and purpose. The writer believes we should enjoy food, family. feast days, good wine, the love of our spouse and all the other blessings of life. We just cannot ask more of them than they were intended to provide for us.

When All is Said and Done

LIFE2I love the image attached to this paragraph. [5] It is a series of four pictures representing the spring, summer, fall, and winter of life. In the beginning, there is a young boy flying a kite, perhaps on a family farm. Then, there are two young lovers kissing at the same place, representing the summer of life with all its passion, commitments, and striving. Third, there is an old man looking at his wife’s grave at the spot they first kissed, remembering their love. Finally, there is no one, just two graves at that sacred spot.

Ecclesiastes reminds us that our earthly lives have a beginning, middle, and end. We cannot be children forever. We cannot be young lovers forever. We cannot succeed forever. We cannot build forever. Life is a journey from the cradle to the grave. We don’t even know for sure how long that journey will be. The best we can do is love and respect God, live with wisdom and goodness, love God and other people, and enjoy at each stage of life the pleasures that stage or time of life offers to us. However, we cannot give those things ultimate meaning. For ultimate meaning, we must look to God and to Easter morning.

[1] Richard Toye, Churchill’s Empire: the World that Made Him and the World He Made (New York, NY, Henry Holt and Company, 2010), 303. This quote appears in my book, Path of Life.

[2] See, Hugh Whechel, “Fear of a Meaningless Life” (July 3, 2012) at blog.tifwe.org/fear-of-a-meaningless-life/#sthash.oLyPv99I.dpuf. I have not read the books quoted; the passage is based on the blog.

[3] This story is found in 1 Kings 3:16-28.

[4] As always in this series of blog posts, a great deal of this blog is from G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

[5] See, http://souljournaler.blogspot.com/2010/07/examining-scripture-xc-under-sun-i.html

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

The Wisdom of Suffering

Then Job replied: “Indeed, I know that this is true. But how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God? Though they wished to dispute with him, they could not answer him one time out of a thousand. His wisdom is profound, his power is vast. Who has resisted him and come out unscathed? … When he passes me, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him. If he snatches away, who can stop him? Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’ … “How then can I dispute with him? How can I find words to argue with him? … “He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him, that we might confront each other in court. If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together, someone to remove God’s rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more. Then I would speak up without fear of him, but as it now stands with me, I cannot. (Job 9:1-4, 11-21, 14, 32-35).

There is no question a pastor hears more frequently than, “Why does God permit suffering and evil?” It comes in many forms. It comes when a child dies or has an incurable disease. It comes when someone is seriously injured in a freak accident. It comes when there is a natural disaster that inexplicably takes the lives of many innocent people. It happens when some great injustice is discovered. [i]

In Path of Life, I tell a story concerning “Jane,” a mother of several young children, who contracted an incurable disease.[ii] Naturally, her Christian friends and Sunday school class prayed for her healing. For a time, the cancer went into remission. Unfortunately, the remission was only temporary. After a time the disease returned, and there was little that the doctors could do. All this time, her well-meaning Christian friends continued to pray for her. After a time, they began to wonder why their prayers were not answered. Finally, they came to the conclusion that it must be that there was some unconfessed sin in Jane’s life preventing God from answering their prayers. Of course, Jane confessed every sin she could imagine, but there was still no healing. Her prayer partners were unsatisfied, until finally a more mature Christian friend stepped in to assure the young mother that her suffering might have nothing to do with sin, and her lack of healing certainly could not be related to any failure to repent. How could well-meaning Christians be so insensitive? A partial answer is that we, like the wise men of old, want a just and fair universe. We all want to believe that the created universe will be predicable, that good will be rewarded, and evil punished. When things don’t turn out that way, we wonder, “Why?”

Job: The Problem of Suffering.

imgres-1Job is introduced to a reader as the the most righteous, God-fearing person of his generation. He is healthy, wealthy and blessed. Everyone respects him. Then, one day, Satan convinces God to take away his hand of protection from Job. Satan believes that Job must not truly love God, but only respect and follow God’s laws because of the blessings he receives. God believes this is not true. In order to settle the argument, they enter into a wager, and God allows Satan to deprive Job of all his blessings, health, family, wealth, friendship, respect of others—all these things are taken away. Three friends come to comfort Job, but when Job loudly complains about his suffering, they begin to defend God and accuse Job. Basically, they primarily argue that Job must deserve his punishment, either personally or as a member of the human race afflicted by sin. Job must have sinned as all people do. Job needs to accept God’s discipline and repent. Over and over again in the book, Job argues against the various explanations of his friends, continually defending his own righteousness and the unfairness of his suffering. .

A Problem in the Wisdom Tradition

 Thus far in this series of articles on wisdom, we have been dealing with what I might call “basic, elementary, practical and moral wisdom.” We have been dealing with the basics of how to conduct ourselves so that we make good decisions in life, manage our affairs wisely, and have sound human relationships. In this blog, we come to deeper issue and problem beyond a superficial understanding of wisdom. If before we could come to a kind of human understanding of how to live wisely, now we must be satisfied with a mystery.

The wisdom tradition holds, as one of its most basic teachings, that the wise, prudent, righteous, God-fearing life is the blessed life. However, the ancient Jewish wise men and women were not unrealistic romantics. They saw that life is often unjust. They were as aware of the injustice of much human suffering as any modern cynic. Therefore, they asked the question, “Why?” “Why would a righteous, holy God permit innocent people to suffer undeserved harm?” We have exactly the same questions as the ancient wise men and women. We, like them, can see that good people are not always blessed and sometimes suffer terribly. We see in our own lives and in the lives of others that a lot of suffering is not deserved or is hugely disproportionate to what we deserve. We also see that unrighteous, irreligious, even evil people sometimes never suffer for their deeds and misdeeds. We see that evil people often avoid punishment for their sins and appear more blessed than those who seek to do God’s will. We wonder how a righteous God could allow such a situation. No matter how much we think about the problem, the problem remains only partially and inadequately answered.

In response to Job’s suffering and complaints against God, Job’s friends all argue for God’s justice. They are not persuasive for a basic reason: at the beginning of Job we are told that there is no satisfactory human reason for Job’s suffering (Job 1:1-2:7). God, in inspiring the writer or writers of Job, did not want to give us easy or pat answers. He wanted us to recognize that the problem of suffering is a divine mystery we will never fully understand (Job 38-42).

Jesus and the Problem of Suffering

In the New Testament, there is a story about a man blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples, formed in the culture of the Jewish faith, knew that traditional Jewish teaching requires that suffering have some explanation in sin. So they asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind” (John 9:1-2)? The disciples posed the same questions to Jesus that Job poses: “Would someone please explain suffering to us?” Jesus does not answer his disciples on the basis of the wisdom tradition. Instead he says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). It is as if Jesus is turning the question of his disciples into a demonstration of the loving presence of God.

This leads to another way of looking at Job. The wisdom teachers were so focused on the wisdom and the power of God that they did not address the real question people have: “If God is a God of Love, then how can God allow suffering?” If there is an explanation that we can accept, it will come in the form Jesus revealed: a suffering God, a God who is present with us in our suffering and who works in self-giving love to redeem suffering from within human history and human life. In other words, any attempt to create a wisdom of suffering, takes us beyond our previous ideas of God to the feet of a God who is himself present in human suffering and redeeming it. God is not outside of our suffering but within it.

In the end, neither Job, nor the disciples, nor contemporary people, nor a philosopher, nor a theologian, nor a pastor can satisfactorily explain suffering. It is a part of life we must endure. There is an old gospel hymn that puts it this way:

“Jesus walked this lonesome valley;
He had to walk it by himself.
Oh, nobody else could walk it for him;
He had to walk it by himself.

“We must walk this lonesome valley;
We have to walk it by ourselves.
Oh, nobody else can walk it for us;
We have to walk it by ourselves.”

The writer of the hymn almost had it right. Jesus had to walk the long road to Calvary alone, and he cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” (Mark 15:34). [iii] He cried out in solidarity with every sufferer—past, present, and future. However, there has always been something about this old gospel hymn that bothered me. It stops too soon. By faith, we hear another verse that goes something like this,

“When we walk our lonesome valley,  We don’t walk it by ourselves. For, Jesus Christ, he walks it with us; W e don’t walk it by ourselves.”

I don’t know about you, but when I feel abandoned by God and by human beings in a moment of suffering, it is helpful to sense that God is still present in Christ redeeming and sanctifying what I cannot understand.

Christians and Suffering

imgresAll of us are going to have two experiences in life: we are going to suffer, and we are going to have friends that suffer. When we suffer, it is important not to deny the suffering. Suffering is real, it is painful, and it threatens our relationships with God and others. God understands this. There is no sense in not being totally honest with God about how we feel. God knows how we feel. One thing that everyone who reads Job immediately understands is that Job is not suffering in silence. He expresses to his friends and to God what he feels. Finally, suffering is an area where we need to understand the difference between being faithful and understanding. Faithfulness is not enjoying what is happening to us or understanding what God is doing in and through our suffering. It is accepting what God is doing and living through it. Suffering is always a test of patience and endurance.

Job’s three friends do not fare well in the eyes of commentators or in God’s eyes. Before we criticize his friends, we do need to remember that they were there for Job. Hearing of his misfortune, they came to be with him for seven days and seven nights. (Seven and three being perfect numbers in Jewish numerology, we might see in his friends a perfect attempt to console a sufferer.) The fact that they sat silently before the destitute and deformed figure of their friend speaks well of them. They tried as best they knew to comfort him. They did not begin with a series of sermons on sin and its consequences. Nevertheless, they fell into a temptation into which we too easily fall: the temptation to defend God and explain suffering. Job’s friends did well when they were simply present for their friend, Job. They erred when they began to talk.

When our friends are suffering, we need to be present, as Job’s friends were present. People need to know we care—and we need to show we care in words and in deeds. Some years ago friends of ours suffered a loss. Kathy went immediately to be with the wife. Immediately after church, I went to be with the husband. We cried and sat together. We helped with arrangements and around the house. We spoke about the loss with them, and we tried not to minimize or deny the tragedy. We spent time with them after the event was over. Years later, they mentioned that they appreciated that we were there, that we did not try to explain, and we were not afraid to talk about and sympathize with their loss. Sometimes, all we can do is come, love, sympathize, and be silent. That is enough.

The Present One

In the end, suffering cannot be explained; it can only be endured. Job does not come to understand his suffering by an exercise of human wisdom. He comes to understand that as a human being he cannot know the secret purposes and counsels of God (Job 40:4). The answer to the problem of undeserved suffering, if it can be found, cannot be found in the human wisdom tradition.

Where, then, is God in our suffering? Perhaps the best explanation is that God is in the midst of it all in Christ, the Word of God, suffering with every sufferer, taking upon himself the guilt and pain of the world, deserved and undeserved. In the words of the scientist turned religious thinker, John Polkinghorne:

“He is not a spectator, but a fellow-sufferer, who has himself absorbed the full force of evil. In the lonely figure hanging in the darkness and dereliction of Calvary, the Christian believes that he sees God opening his arms to embrace the bitterness of the strange world he has made. The God revealed in the vulnerability of the incarnation and in the vulnerability of creation are one. He is the crucified God, whose paradoxical power is perfected in weakness, whose self-chosen symbol is the King reigning from the gallows.” [iv]

On the Cross we see revealed the truth that God not only reigns in glory over his creation, but paradoxically, suffers the travail of its finitude, incompleteness, sin, and suffering. In the end, the wisdom tradition points beyond itself to One greater than Wisdom—to the Crucified and Suffering Savior of the world.

[i] It is helpful to think about the kinds of suffering we undergo in order to fully appreciate the difficulty of the subject matter. There is, of course, the suffering we all bring upon others and ourselves because of stupidity, finiteness and evil. Others or we make a practical or moral mistake and suffer the consequences. This kind of evil, we may call “moral evil.” The suffering of Europe under Hitler do to the moral mistakes of the German and other peoples and Hitler’s own evil is the most common example. There is another kind of suffering we endure: “natural suffering.” We live in a world in which there are tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, cancer and various life and health threatening disasters. Many people cannot understand why the world could not have been made differently. It is helpful, I think, to remember that any world capable of producing the human race is capable of producing natural disasters and disease. See, John Polkinghorne, Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science with Religion (London, ENG: SPCK, 2005), chapter 8 for a long and, I think, very helpful discussion of this problem.

[ii] A large part of this blog is based on G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 179-193. As I say in the book, the vignettes are not reflective of actual incidents, but composites of many years of ministry.

[iii] In crying out these words, Jesus is quoting Psalm 22, which begins as a hymn of abandonment in suffering, but ends as a hymn of praise for deliverance. Against those who see in the words of Jesus a simple cry of abandonment, I like to think it is both a cry of abandonment and a cry of faith in God’s delivering power, even from death.

[iv] John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 1989), 79.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved