Suffering

Book Review – Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament

Rage, misery, sorrow, distress, suffering, lamention. These are not the sorts of experiences that one would think would engender confidence in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ nor even deem it attractive to the skeptic. Yet these are the experiences that well-known Christian apologist experiences when his wife goes through the cruel horrors of dementia.

What is clear from Groothius’ experience is that no-one is immune from the ravages of living in creation that has turned against itself, of living in a world that is chaotically sinful and sinfully chaotic . As Groothius himself writes:

“Dementia…can be eerie. When creation turns against itself at is highest level, the incremental and insidious chaos can rattle the most stable soul”[1].

We were all made for the Garden, yet we all live on the other side of Genesis 3. We all live outside the Garden now.  This is primary issue that Groothius’s book raises, in fact, this issue is the backdrop of his entire book.

The Scriptures are very clear as to why we are the way we are, why the world is the way it is and it is equally clear that the way we are and the way the world is not what was originally intended.

In Genesis 1 and 2, we read that what God created the world in six days, and it was very good. It was perfect, in its seasons and its functions; all that lived within it lived perfectly within the world. The created world was perfect. So no magma displacement, no tsunamis, no crop failures, no droughts, no floods, no disease, no death. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were in a perfect relationship with God, they were in a perfect relationship with each other, and in a perfect relationship with the creation. God established a perfect created order, is one of vocation, permission and prohibition.And it was given for the good of Adam and Eve, for the good of all future human beings, and would lead to blessing[2]. No chaos. No creation turning against itself.

But the fall in Genesis 3 changed, or rather distorted the order, and with that distortion what was born chaos, and with it, came the ultimate consequence, death. Not instant death, but death via the process of dying, the process of a plethora of disease. The body of human persons will do what it was never meant to do, return to the ground from whence it came[3].

This is the curse that unites all humanity, the militant atheist, to the sceptical agnostic, to the Christian apologist. For the latter, yes, he was redeemed, right with God, adopted by grace, yet in this life there was no removal of the physical curse of death nor its process. He and his wife are outside the garden. His book in many ways is a longing and a lament for what was lost, but also an acceptance.

Groothius writes: “I prayed and faster. We sought out those gifted in healing and spiritual deliverance. We read all the books on healing and laboured to implement their admonitions. Yet futility stalked us relentlessly”[4]. In his book Groothius comes to the realisation that although we should “fight against the evils of this world since they flow from the fall…there is no virtue in prolonging defeat. He appropriate points to Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes. There is a time for everything. Quoting Ecc. 3:1-6 he points out the fact that the Qoheleth is “not a nihilist, rather, he is realist[5]”. For the reader, what is highlighted is that the Christian faith is raw, existential, timely and “in –time” and part of living in time is that we have a God who is transcendent yet immanent and is sovereign over our time[6]. The challenge for a Christian apologist of the theological depth and acumen of Groothius is the acknowledgment that God knows what he does not know, and that included God’s timing. His knowledge of God, of the truth of God does not cancel out his emotional wrestling with God[7], nor his rage against God. Yet he comes to the conclusion that when it comes to following God, “there is no other alternative”. God is omniscient, we are not[8].  The Apostle Paul writes:

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Cor. 13:9-12)

Groothius, it is clear from his work, vocation and academic credentials has a deep well in which to draw answers, the right answers to difficult questions, answers that are profound and what one would hope for from an apologist, philosopher and ethicist. But until the face to face comes, Groothius, like the rest of redeemed humanity have to live in that now/not yet tension, of living by faith and Groothius does us a great service in pointing us to the most seminal moment in life outside the Garden – pointing to the one who made the Garden, the one who was nailed to a cross, who died and was buried and three days later rose again, the one who is coming back to lift the curse. In a sense, take his people back to the Garden, only a garden that is better than the first. . Which Groothius writes “are my only hope in life”. What great hope it is. A Groothius writes, “When I look at Becky’s face, happy or sad, I see what has been taken away, and I see what no earthly cure can touch. But I know that God’s favor has not been taken away from this child, that her awareness and intelligence will be restored. But we are still walking through twilight and into a night when no one can work. And God is working still”[9].  He certainly is.

Footnotes:

[1] Chapter 4, p.31

[2] God created human beings to work, they were given a vocation, (Gen 2:15), to work the Garden of Eden and keep it (to care for it). They were given permission – they have absolute freedom, and the example given of this freedom is in regards to food. Gen 2:16. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden…BUT…and here is the third part of that order, prohibition…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.

That is the order.

[3] Groothius writes profoundly, “God is before all, he transcends us as Creator, he brought forth nature and humanity to dwell in him – but as dust…By command we exist; by command we return to dust. At some point all of us lose our youth and sense the dustiness of ourselves”. Chapter 9, p.70.

[4] Chapter 5, p.33.

[5] Ibid.

[6] In chapter 7, Groothius helpfully writes about time and about the importance of knowing the signs of the times – see pp.54-55.

[7] See Chapter 6, 41-44.

[8] “Even though mortals can known many things about God’s existence, and nature from the Bible, rational intuition, and sound reasoning, much that we would like to know is obscured from us…we know in part, God knows in full. (Chapter 6, p.48).

[9] Chapter 9, Moses and Our Sadness, p. 78

Fix Your Eyes On the Fix

God isn't fixing this

 

Recently in the USA there was another mass shooting. And not long after the above headline ran in the New York paper, The Daily News. The thinking behind this headline is that prayer is not enough, or prayer is not working. We pray and pray and pray, asking God to stop the death, stop the suffering, any suffering, any human evil, all human all. We just want God to fix this.So since he won’t (because he is malevolent) or perhaps cannot,(because he is powerless or non-existent), we have to fix it.Yet when I reflect on this tragic event and many tragic events I often think of the words spoken by our Lord Jesus that Luke recorded for us in chapter 13 of his gospel.

1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

I suspect that these words (which are sadly not heeded by many in the Western world) are the very words that people desperately need to heed.

Now we don’t know what those present said to Jesus in v.1, but the response of Jesus in v.2 I think does hint at what they may have said, perhaps something along the lines of, “Those Galileans whom Pilate killed must have sinned in a really big way for them to die in the way that they did.”

And the response the Lord Jesus is to ask a question that I think is a very good question. Look with me at v.2:

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?

I think it is clear what they thought the answer to Jesus’ question was, they would have thought “Yes!” But before we look at Jesus response, notice what Jesus does in v.4. He cites another example of suffering and human tragedy, this time he talks about an industrial accident which resulted in the deaths of eighteen people.

Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?

They may have thought “yes”, but the answer of Jesus two both the questions he asks is:

No, I tell you,

He said no. Are those who Pilate worse sinners than anyone else living in Jerusalem? No. Are those who will killed in an industrial accident more guilty of sin than those in Siloam who were not killed? No. Jesus answers shows us that not every single suffering calamity that comes on a person is caused directly by their own sin. But (and this is a big but); according o the Lord Jesus, the question of whether suffering is due to a person’s sin is not the issue because whether a person experiences suffering or not, they are guilty of sin anyway. Those who are spared suffering should not assume innocence and therefore think that they will escape the judgement of God.

This is hard teaching from Jesus, because it is our nature to say, “I don’t sin”. It is our nature to say “I am not a sinner”. Yet according to the Lord Jesus the right response to God when suffering happens is for people not to demand God “fix this”,or “right this!” but rather we “get right” with God. Look at the rest of v.5:

 “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Jesus point is that all human beings are sinners, all human beings ignore God’s rule over them so whether people are suffering all not, everyone needs to repent. Now repentance is one of those churchy words that we can hear a lot and still get it wrong.

Repentance – what it is not. Repentance is not feeling sorry for one’s sin. It is not feeling remorse. The Holy Spirit can convict a person of their rebellion against God, and they can feel remorse but still come away unrepentant. Repentance is not a feeling. Repentance is a verb.  When Jesus commands people to repent, and it is a command from Jesus, not a suggestion; he means that people have to stop living their life in the way our nature defines it, the way our culture endorses it, in the way our heart justifies it,– which says life is all about you. This is the heart of what sin is – it is a declaration of independence against Jesus’ rule, control, kingship, authority. Or as CS Lewis wrote, “The anti-God state of mind”.

Jesus is serious about sin. Suffering is a problem, but sin is the greater problem, it is the Great Problem. In the 90s’ when I was a teenager there was a band entitled DC Talk and in their song In the Light, the lyrics state:

“The disease of self runs through my blood. It’s a cancer fatal to my soul. Every attempt on my behalf has failed to bring this sickness under control.”

 

Of course! We cannot bring it under control, because the problem is us. It it is human condition that unless we see it for what it is, we will not see the need to repent. From time to time other Christians have asked me what I think is the biggest stumbling block to belief. I would say that there are many but up the top of the list would have to be the reality of human sinfulness. So many people truly don’t think that they are sinful, therefore the need for repentance is nullified.  Suffering is a way that God jolts the unbelieving world to see the reality of the human condition, the reality of our sin.

There can be no doubt that there are many many people who are suffering as result of the recent shootings in America, but perhaps the reason why ‘God isn’t answering the prayers of people in the way that they want is because the prayers being offered up to God are not prayers of the repentant but rather are prayers of people who ignore God most of the time who due to suffering them demand that God “fix this!”. In others words people are not heeding the warnings of the Lord Jesus, they are not heeding the warnings that suffering is delivering, they are not repenting.

Repentance – what it is:

Repent means to do a u-turn. A u-turn when it comes to who is the most important person in your world. We have the nature where we declare our independence from God every day. And repentance is the act of the will, the choice where one says to God, “Independence day is over for the rest of my life”. To repent is live with Jesus as the most important person in the world instead of the self. The repentant person is the person is who dependant on Gods love grace and mercy that He has bestowed upon them in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, rather than their own so called goodness.The repentant person is the person who trust Jesus as their saviour and (and this is a big ‘and’) submits to his rule. This is what the Lord Jesus Christ wants people to do in light of human suffering, turn to God in repentance.

This is what the Lord Jesus Christ wants people to do in light of human suffering, turn to God in repentance.

And finally, what should we do when we suffer?

Now of course I don’t know and cannot know if you have suffered much in your life, but if you are thinking of giving up on Jesus! I can only plead with you by saying don’t. The worst thing that we can do when life does not make sense or when suffering seems unjust and/or when we suffer is to say to God,  “Well God, you can’t be trusted anymore”. God can be trusted! God does know what it is like to suffer. And Christmas is a great reminder of this! God knows what it is like to be human, to experience grief and pain, the loss of loved ones, physical pain, emotional pain and spiritual pain. God the Son became one of us! And he suffered in way that no other human being ever would! He paid the penalty that was not his, but ours. He died a death that was not his, but ours. He took the punishment that was not his, but ours.

We may not be able to make sense of life, we may not have the answers that we long for, and when we look at the world through the eyes of sinful broken finite humanity, it may seem that God has not fixed this, but God has provided the answer and the fix, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. And when we see Jesus face to face, (either when we die and meet him, or when he returns whatever happens first), our questions will evaporate. He won’t answer the questions because we won’t need to ask them!

But until then we live by faith, not by sight. When life does not make sense…fix your eyes on the fix; fix your eyes on Jesus and repent. When we don’t have all the answers…fix your eyes on Jesus and repent. When we suffer…fix your eyes on Jesus and repent. And on that great day, the great indescribable day when He returns, we will literally, physically fix our eyes on Jesus, the one who is the answer, the one that life is all about, the one whom we will serve and worship for ever.