Last night I heard an interview with a Christian couple who lost their baby a few hours after her birth. They talked about how they still believe God could have healed her, but chose not to. It's something they don't understand, and they feel tremendous grief. Yet they trust Him. How can they still believe in "a God that took their baby"?
For several years now, I've been probing the mystery of how God can be completely loving and still not always appear to act on behalf of those who love him, when it's within his power to do so.
As a Christian, it's tempting to want to defend God or present his "reasons" for not healing or for allowing tragedy. We often rub salt into the wound with phrases like, "all things work for good" or "God will never give you more than you can bear." We speculate about suffering in such a way that we can boil it down into detached cliches-- rationalizing to ourselves that God's lack of response isn't so bad after all. We try to make it sound admirable, or noble, or honorable to suffer. But trying to find the silver lining in a cloud with no sun behind it can be exhausting and futile.
How do we have faith when God distinctly rejects our requests for relief? Why should we continue believing in a God who sometimes resists fixing our hardest problems or relieving the pain in our darkest hour? Where is the hope and protection that scripture offers up to us? It can almost feel like we are being mocked. What protection? What defense? Why does her faith bring her what she needs, but mine does not? Do I not believe enough? Do I have too much hidden sin in my heart? Is Jesus not really who he says he is?
John the Baptist asked that last question. I was really surprised the first time I ever heard a sermon on that passage of scripture because before that, I had completely missed the motive behind the question.
While John lingers in prison, he sends his friends to question Jesus about why he wasn't acting the way that John (and us, as readers) expected. Jesus came to "set the prisoners free," but here John was-- Jesus' cousin, friend, and forerunner-- locked up, soon to be killed. Why hadn't Jesus set him free?
John asked, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"
Why haven't you set me free? What am I missing here? If you're really the Messiah, why don't I see the healing, the protection, and the miracles in my life?
It's something we all wonder deep down when the tragedies of this earth knock on our door. The rest of the time, we try to push down that rising voice inside of us when we see genocide on the evening news or hear of one more person who's lost their job in the failing economy. We see it; we think, "This doesn't fit who I think God is or how I expect him to act," and we push it aside and turn back to making dinner.
It's not pleasant or convenient to think about it when things are going well for us-- and John the Baptist surely didn't question Jesus' identity during the good times, when he was baptizing him in the river, hearing God's voice from heaven. John only began to verbalize his doubts when his life was on the line and Jesus wasn't doing anything about it.
So the answer Jesus gives here really is the linchpin of this whole issue. I mean, the cat really came out of the bag. How's he going to respond to this very plain and straightforward question-- a question of the ages?
Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."
I heard a sermon by Dr. Erwin Lutzer the other night about having faith when God's response disappoints us. He talked about this passage with John and paraphrased the last line like this:
"Blessed is he who does not get upset about the way I run my business."
Now, it's one thing for Jesus to say that lightly to John who's in trouble, but it's another thing entirely for Jesus to offer up his own life, showing that he takes suffering very seriously. Jesus obediently went to the cross to die for our sins and was executed in a much more brutal and terrible way than John. And although it's not pleasant for us to grasp, there is some relief in the open acknowledgement that even as Christians (maybe especially as Christians), this life will bring us pain. There are times we will feel unprotected. We are not exempt from suffering, nor do we hurt less than anyone else. Our pain is not somehow lighter or easier in its nature because of our faith. It is a lie to think it is. So what is the difference between a Christian and anyone else who suffers?
I've heard several of my friends say to me that they are able to be quite patient when they are waiting for something that they know will come-- like a pizza they are certain will be delivered by 7, or a date with a special someone set for Friday next week. It's easier for them to wait because of the anticipation of what's to come and the promised end to their state of longing. Without that promise of reward on the horizon, patience becomes difficult, often turning into despair, and the uncertainty of waiting becomes a weight.
I get tired of waiting for things that might never happen on this earth. I might never be fully healed. I might never be able to reconcile with my dad. I might never bear a child. I might never see complete justice on this earth for what my family has endured. Nothing is certain-- money, health, relationships. I can hope all I want; still there are no earthly guarantees.
But the one guarantee I do have is a sure hope of heaven because of my faith in Jesus Christ.
I used to think this hope was distant, rather irrelevant, and almost mythical-- something to be glad I had as an insurance policy to "back up" for the day when I'd eventually need it. Someone would say "the hope of heaven," and I'd think-- but that's a million years away-- I need hope here and now!
But the fact is, heaven is more than a long-way-off dream. It could be our tomorrow if our lives are taken from us-- in a car accident, a sudden heart attack, or even Christ's return to earth. We have to live in that immediate awareness of the proximity of heaven and the temporal nature of our human sufferings. When we allow our suffering to become larger than the present moment, it overwhelms our vision, and all we can see is our pain.
We have a choice to make in that moment of pain (our prison moment)-- we can become offended at the way God runs his business, or we can "consider him [Jesus] who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that we will not grow weary and lose heart."
Dr. Lutzer summed up his sermon about disappointment with 4 points that are so clear and honest, my heart can't help but leap at the tremendous, guaranteed hope to which they point:
Sometimes faith changes circumstances.
Sometimes faith does not change circumstances.
Faith never judges God by circumstances.
Faith in Christ always leads to ultimate victory.