Is God Punishing Me? Theology Matters.

Even though I knew better, one of my first thoughts after I got the news that Dominic had run ahead to heaven was, “Is God punishing me?”

Because when something THIS awful happens, it seems logical to assume it is in response to a massive cosmic imbalance.

As a matter of fact, even though it sounds counter-intuitive, it’s almost more comforting to believe there is a discernible reason behind my son’s death than to swallow the truth I may have to live the rest of my years not knowing.

I combed through my life-searching every nook and cranny-for what I did that deserved this kind of retribution.

And while I, like all of us, have a closet full of sin, I could not find a single transgression that rose to the ranks of demanding my son’s life in payment.

But then I realized that any of my sins-whether I counted them big or small-DID demand payment.

And God sent HIS Son to pay for them.

To us, the greatest demonstration of God’s love for us has been his sending his only Son into the world to give us life through him. We see real love, not in that fact that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to make personal atonement for our sins.

I John 4:10 PHILLIPS

They HAVE been paid for.  All of them.  Every single one.

There is no sin debt outstanding.

That’s an important concept to grasp.  It is absolutely critical that bereaved parents (and others who suffer horrible tragedies) get this theological point right. 

God is not out to extract payment for sin.

Now, He may well allow us to suffer the natural consequences of our sinful actions.  There may be things we must endure because of sinful choices we make.

But that is very different than suggesting God is visiting sickness or death or ill fortune on a heart because of unconfessed sin.

As a matter of fact, that was precisely the charge God Himself laid against Job’s friends when they simply would not let go of the idea that Job must have done something to justify his suffering.

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them, and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

Job 42:7-9 ESV

Even Job wanted God to explain Himself.  

While the Lord showed up, He never did give Job an answer. 

Instead HE asked the questions.  

We like to think we can figure God out, dig up the reasons why this happens or that doesn’t.  

Truth is, we’d do better to follow Job’s example once he encountered the Living God:

Oh, I am so small. How can I reply to You?
        I’ll cover my mouth with my hand, for I’ve already said too much.  (Job 40:4) 

Before I knew only what I had heard of You,
        but now I have seen You.
    Therefore I realize the truth:
        I disavow and mourn all I have said
        and repent in dust and ash.

Job 40:4 ; Job 42:5,6 VOICE

God’s thoughts are not my thoughts, His ways are not my ways.  

But He is perfect. 

He is SO perfect that He has provided the once and for all sacrifice that satisfies the price of sin by the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. 

I may not understand (DO not understand!) why He has allowed my son’s death. But is was NOT punishment.  God does not lie.

I can rest satisfied in that truth.

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Have I Put God in a Box?

I honestly thought I had a fairly accurate and well-rounded theological grid before Dominic ran ahead to heaven.

I had studied Scripture diligently for over 25 years, read extensively, engaged in active and insightful conversation with thoughtful believers and swallowed some difficult truths.

But when faced with my child’s untimely and sudden death, I realized that I had also swallowed some untruths and half-truths.

I thought I had God figured out, that I knew how He worked in the world and that I was definitely on the inside track to gain His favor and blessing.

I was wrong.

I wrote this a couple years ago, but it is something I have to come back to over and over in this Valley of the Shadow of Death:

Every idea of [God] we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed…’ I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.’

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (1964)

It’s possible that you haven’t thought of it this way, but if you are a believer in Christ and have yet to walk through faith-shattering trials, you may have placed God in a box.

I know I had.

Read the rest here:  God in a Box

What If I’m Angry* With God?

God’s grace meets us where we are, not where we pretend to be.
~Esther Fleece, No More Faking Fine

Yes, I know, the commonly touted wisdom in church circles is not to ask, “Why?”

It’s also bad form to admit that you might actually be angry* with God. 

But I can pretty much guarantee that over half of any congregation sitting in the pews on a given Sunday has had at least one moment when, with raised eyes they screamed, “Why?????” to the sky aimed at a God they didn’t understand but believed in anyway.

I know I have.  

David did.

Paul did.

Job did.

So what does a heart do if it’s upset with God?  Stuff it?  Reason it away?  Shame it to silence? Hope it fades on its own?

I think the only thing a heart can do with that anger and doubt and disappointment is take it straight to the Throne of Grace where we are promised to find help in an hour of need.

Hebrews-4_16

That’s what I did.  

I wrote hundreds of pages of journals with my Bible beside me.  When the Holy Spirit brought a scripture to mind as I was writing, I looked it up, read it and usually copied it into my journal right alongside my questions and rambling.

Sometimes I would write the letters large and decorate them or look up the meaning of words in a concordance or dictionary and write the definitions or synonyms out to help me deepen my understanding.

In the end, my heart was finally able to accept the truth of Who God is-my loving, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent Heavenly Father-even when I do not like what He is doing.

Reaching a place of accepting His will while still acknowledging the pain it brings me (like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane) has given me a measure of peace.

It has freed me to walk on in this life and to take the good, the bad, the painful and the wonderful in stride.

Do I still have moments (days!) when I want to scream?

Absolutely. But I am submitted to God and bow my heart to His.

It took a long time.

The more I read and studied Scripture, the more I found evidence of anguish, tears, and the messiness of human emotion. When we are in pain, the pain we are facing is temporary, even though it never feels temporary. Pain can linger, and it will always be with us, but for the believer in Jesus Christ, pain is never the final destination.

~Esther Fleece, No More Faking Fine, p. 134

*I am lumping a lot of strong (often considered “negative”) emotions in with the one word “angry”-for me, it was actually disappointment-God did not live up to my expectations (which is not to say He should or that my expectations were accurate).  For others it might be distrust and for some it might be doubt (does God love me?).  I’m most certainly NOT suggesting that Jesus was angry with God in the garden but it is plainly stated in Scripture that He begged God for another, less painful way that would still accomplish the Father’s plan.

 

When I Don’t Know What to Pray: Praying the Names of God

The Bible says that “The Name of the LORD is a strong tower, the righteous run to it and are saved.”  (Proverbs 18:10)

Clearly that does NOT mean that every person who calls on the Name of the LORD will be kept physically whole.

Many, many believers have suffered and died while the name of Christ is on their lips.  

But I do believe that in a very real, very meaningful way, calling on the Name of the LORD has saved me.  

It saved me first from my sin and guarantees that I will meet my son in eternity.

And it continues to save me when I am at the end of my own resources and need to appropriate the strength of my Heavenly Father to hold onto hope.

Over twenty-five years ago I was introduced to a wonderful book by Sylvia Gunter called PRAYER PORTIONS.  My copy is battered, dog-eared, torn and treasured.

prayer portions

It is full, full, full of wonderful teaching about prayer and, more importantly, of biblical prayers to actually PRAY.  

While my prayer life post child loss is not at all what it used to be, I still rely on her list of the names and attributes of God to help my heart make it through tough days.

Here is one Alphabet of the Names and Attributes of God

Abba Father – Gal. 4:6
Balm of Gilead – Jer. 8:22
Comforter – 2 Cor. 1:3
Deliverer – Ps. 18:2
Everlasting God – Isa. 40:28
Father of Mercy – 2 Cor. 1:3
Good Shepherd – John 10:11-15
Holy One – Pro. 9:10
Intercessor – Heb. 7:25
Judge of the living and thedead – 1 Peter 4:5
King Eternal – 1 Tim. 1:17
Light of revelation – Luke 2:32
Man of sorrows – Isa. 53:5
Never-failing One – Heb. 13:5
Offering for sin – Heb 10:14
Potter – Isa. 64:8
Quieting Love – Zeph. 3:17
Righteous – 1 Cor. 1:30-31
Santification – 1 Cor. 1:30-31
Teacher – John 14:26
Upholder of all things – Isa. 41:13
Very present help – Ps. 46:1
The Way – John 14:6
Exalted – Psa. 148:13
Your glory and lifter of your head – Ps. 3:3
Zealous – John 2:17
From PRAYER PORTIONS by Sylvia Gunter
I pray that it helps your heart as much and as often as it helps mine.
strong tower1

It is No Sin to Ask, “Why?”

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Sunday I sat through what started off as a promising sermon.  

The text was from  Jeremiah when he was sent by God to the potter’s house for an object lesson.

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”  So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.  

Jeremiah 18:1-6 NIV

This story hits home in so many ways.  

I identify with Jeremiah’s tears shed over the message he was called to deliver (Israel was about to experience harsh judgement) and the image of God as Potter and me as clay in His hands, to be molded and shaped according to HIS purpose and plan regardless of how I might like to be molded and shaped.

But the sermon took a turn that hurt my heart when the preacher began suffusing the message with personal experience.  It is absolutely his prerogative to relay his own life story as but it is another thing to draw general conclusions from HIS experience as being relevant and instructive for EVERYONE.

His wife had been diagnosed many years ago with a brain tumor.  She underwent extensive surgery and therapy but ultimately survived and is still living today.

Hallelujah!

I am thankful their story has a hopeful and happy ending (so far).  The problem came when the pastor said, “I never asked, ‘why?'”  and then proceeded to imply that asking, “why?” was wrong and the mark of an immature faith.

I’m delighted his faith was strong enough (or naive enough) that his heart never argued with his theological framework.  

That is not my experience. 

And it is not the experience of millions of faithful Christ followers who have been asked to bear up under burdens that do NOT have a hopeful or happy conclusion this side of heaven.

It took every bit of self-control I had to not stand up and shout, “REALLY?  What about Job?  What about Paul?  What about David?  What about JESUS?”

The Psalms are filled with questions.  

Jesus Himself asked, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” from the cross.

God invites us to ask.  

“Come now, and let us reason together,” saith the Lord

Isaiah 1:18 KJV

My faith is stronger because I have taken my questions to the only One Who can answer them.

He doesn’t always answer. 

But He always listens.  

He doesn’t give me reasons. 

But He gives me Himself.  

I am the clay-I know that.  But unlike dumb physical material that can be molded and shaped without feeling or self-awareness, I am a human being, created in the image of God Himself and endowed with feelings, knowledge and a heart that longs to understand.

So I must chooseas an act of free willto offer myself as a living sacrifice, to remain supple and malleable under the Hand of my Creator as He makes me into what He intends me to be.

But submission does not preclude my questions.  

I would argue that true submission insists on acknowledging and asking the questions and choosing to yield anyway. 

Anything less is not submission, it is simply fatalism. 

I serve a God Who is my Father, not my dictator.  I serve and worship a Savior Who is gentle, humble and kind, not harsh, proud and uncaring.

It is no sin to ask, “Why?”

In fact, it is exactly the kind of exchange relationship insists upon.

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth of falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

 

 

 

 

Holy Week Reflections: Resurrection-Reality and Reassurance

Paul wrote, “if Christ has not risen, then our preaching is in vain [it amounts to nothing] and your faith is devoid of truth and is fruitless (without effect, empty, imaginary, and unfounded).” ( I Corinthians 15:14 AMPC)

If Jesus was just another prophet or good man or moral teacher and his body lies buried forever then there is no foundation for my hope.

But He IS risen!  And I DO have hope!  

“The worst conceivable thing has happened, and it has been mended…All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” ~Julian of Norwich

I’m not sure when I first read this quote, but it came to my mind that awful morning.   And I played it over and over in my head, reassuring my broken heart that indeed, the worst had already happened, and been mended.

Death had died.

Read the rest here:  Resurrection: Reality and Reassurance

Holy Week Reflections: Clearing Our Own Temples

Growing up in church I was always taught the story of Jesus clearing the Temple of money changers from a couple of perspectives.  One, that He experienced and expressed righteous anger-as distinct from most of our own selfish human anger; and two, that doing business in God’s sanctuary was a no-no.

As I got older and began studying Scripture for myself without all the cues provided in Sunday School booklets for how I should be interpreting the verses, I came to a little different understanding of this very familiar passage.

The Temple was constructed with several “courts” in successive distance from the Holy of Holies where the Presence of the Lord dwelt above the Mercy Seat.

second_temple1

The outermost court was the Court of the Gentiles where even “unclean” outsiders were invited to draw a bit closer to the God of Israel, to hear about the great Jehovah and hopefully, have their eyes opened to truth.

But by Jesus’ day, the Jews had turned this court-this place of invitation for seekers-into a place of convenience for themselves when coming to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice and Temple tax as required by the Law. 

This enraged Jesus! 

Jesus went straight to the Temple and threw out everyone who had set up shop, buying and selling. He kicked over the tables of loan sharks and the stalls of dove merchants. He quoted this text:

My house was designated a house of prayer;
You have made it a hangout for thieves.

Now there was room for the blind and crippled to get in. They came to Jesus and he healed them.

Matthew 21:13-14 MSG

Now, most of our churches are scrupulous about not commercializing the space set aside for worship.

But we are far less careful about not constructing barriers to the outcast, limping, broken, stranger and alien.  

We are just like the Jews-we want our worship space to be convenient and comfortable for US-for those who have already heard the Gospel-and do not mind if our convenience and comfort make it hard for those who do not know Jesus to even get inside the doors.

There are no money-changers in our lobbies but we have our own version of crowding out seekers. 

We have our own customs that we don’t want to change even if they have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity.  We have our favorite Bible translations even if they use such archaic language most people can’t understand it anymore.  We insist that our services remain tethered to times and days and forms that don’t suit modern schedules or sensibilities.

Jesus was angry because the people entrusted to invite others to know and embrace the Truth were making it impossible for them to get inside.  

I’m asking myself this Holy Week, do I do the same?

Am I building walls or opening doors?

Am I more concerned with my own comfort and convenience than another’s access to the Lord I claim to serve?

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