Posts tagged ‘Pain’

Just Passing By

In Mark 6, Jesus’ disciples are sailing across the Sea of Galilee. Late into the night, Jesus decides to hit the water too, but instead of chartering a boat across the lake, Jesus steps out onto the lake. Mark tells the story like this:

Shortly before dawn He went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw Him walking on the lake, they thought He was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw Him and were terrified. (Mark 6:48-50)

Three of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and John – recount this story, but Mark adds a unique detail that is not found in the other accounts when he writes: “He was about to pass by” (Mark 6:48).

This detail reminds us that Jesus is doing much more than simply trying to work a miracle. He is offering His disciples some revelation. He is showing His disciples who He really is.

In Exodus 33, Moses requests to see God. God reminds Moses that although he cannot see Him face-to-face:

There is a place near Me where you may stand on a rock. When My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by(Exodus 33:21-22)

Moses may encounter God, but it will be only for a cursory, partially concealed moment. Moses will only get to encounter God as He passes by.

Likewise, in 1 Kings 19, when God reveals Himself to the prophet Elijah, He says to him:

Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by. (1 Kings 19:11)

After the announcement of God’s arrival, there is a hurricane, an earthquake, and a fire, but God is not in any of these things. Instead, He passes by in “a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12).

Like Moses, Elijah gets to encounter God, but it is only in a cursory, partially concealed way. Elijah only encounters God as He passes by.

This is how God consistently revealed Himself to His people of old – by passing by. So, when Jesus begins to pass by His disciples as they are sailing along on the Sea of Galilee, He is making a claim about His identity: He is the same One who passed by Moses and Elijah. He is God!

But in Mark 6, the story takes a surprising turn. Because instead of being there one moment and gone the next like God was when He revealed Himself to Moses and Elijah, Jesus, as He is about to pass by His disciples, instead:

climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed. (Mark 6:51)

Before, when God met with His people, He only passed by. Now, when God meets people in Jesus, God gets in.

During difficult and uncertain times – like the ones we are experiencing as a society – it can be easy to wonder: Where is God? Why hasn’t He shown up? Mark 6 reminds us that Jesus does not just pass by us in our pain, in our uncertainty, and in our fear. He gets in. And because God gets in, He and we are all, as the saying goes, in the same boat.

Christianity is unique among the world religions in that it teaches that there is a God who does not just look down on our pain, but actually joins us in our pain. Jesus joins us in the boat.

The seeming absence of God, then, is undone by the presence of Christ. So, if you’re looking for God, you don’t have to look far. He’s right there. And He will not pass you by.

October 19, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

Easter MorningThe women on that first Easter went to the tomb to mourn.  They went to mourn the loss of their friend.  They went to mourn the loss of, for one of the women, a family member.  They went to mourn the loss of hope.  Of course, when they arrived the tomb, they got something they had never bargained for.  They were greeted by a glorious being with an unlikely message: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; He has risen, just as He said” (Matthew 28:5-6).

It was on Easter morning that these women, to use the words of the prophet Jeremiah, had their “mourning [turned] into gladness” and received “comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).

Mourning may not be pleasant, but it is needed.  In many ways, I would argue that we don’t mourn enough.  At funerals, rather than addressing the reality of death, people will often try to dull the pain of a loss by casting the service in terms of a celebration of the person who has died.  A eulogist will say something like, “This person wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad!”  Mourning, which is nothing other than the natural and inescapable response to something as heinous as death, is dismissed, downplayed, and depressed in favor of a skin-deep smile.

To make matters worse, when we are not mourning something as intense as the loss of a loved one, we can wind up jettisoning mourning altogether. We not only try to moderate our mourning, we can replace our mourning with something different entirely.

There is plenty that should command our mournfulness.  Greed, corruption, malfeasance, and general godlessness should pain us all.  Sadly, rather than mourning these things, we often trade mourning for grumbling.  This seems especially true in the political arena.  We grumble about health care.  We grumble about immigration.  We grumble about political constituencies that are not our political constituencies.  But replacing mourning with grumbling is dangerous.

The ancient Israelites were experts at grumbling.  Exodus 16:2 says, “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.”  Numbers 14:2 repeats the same refrain: “All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!’”  The ancient Israelites were experts at grumbling.  But their grumbling carried with it consequences.  The Psalmist recounts the story of Israel during her wandering in the wilderness and says: “They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the LORD. So He swore to them with uplifted hand that He would make them fall in the wilderness” (Psalm 106:25-26).  The apostle Paul admonishes his readers to “not grumble, as some of [the Israelites] did – and were killed by the destroying angel” (1 Corinthians 10:10).  Clearly, God has little time or tolerance for grumbling.  Why?  Because grumbling leads nowhere good.  It leads to rebellion.  The Israelites grumbled about God and then built a golden calf in rebellion against God.  It leads to revenge.  Cain grumbled about his brother Abel’s sacrifice to God right before he killed his brother.  Grumbling leads to sin.  James puts it quite succinctly when he writes, “Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged” (James 5:9).

There is plenty for us, in our day, to mourn.  But sincere mourning over sin is quite different from self-righteous grumbling against sinners.  One perpetuates sin by doing little more than whining about it.  The other fights sin by asking the Lord to rescue us from it.

In a world filled with grumbling, may we remember how to mourn.  And may we also believe Christ’s promise: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).  Mourning, Jesus says, is blessed.  Grumbling, Scripture warns, is condemned.  Let’s make sure we’re doing what God blesses rather than falling prey to what He condemns.

March 28, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Pain, Suffering, and Morality

AuschwitzI’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking lately on suffering and its effect on faith.  In one way, I can’t help but believe and even assert that there is every reason to question God in the face of great suffering.  Elie Wiesel’s gut-wrenching account of his time in a Nazi concentration camp comes to mind not only as a natural response to pain and suffering, but as a needed one:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget these flames that consumed my faith forever.[1]

Elie’s description of his first night in a concentration camp should arouse in us nothing other than horror, grief, and sympathy.  Although I don’t know precisely how I would react to such an experience, I would be naïve to think that Elie’s reaction could never be my reaction.  The scene is just too jarring.  The brutality is just too disgusting.  The deaths are just too agonizing.  I too could question God.

And yet…

Some did not respond to the concentration camps the way Elie Wiesel did.  One survivor of the camps, Alex Seidenfeld, in an interview with the Associated Press, said simply, “We stayed alive.  We survived.  How could this have happened without the almighty?”[2]

Elie looked at all those who died and asked, “How can God be?”  Alex looked at all those who survived and asked, “How can God not be?”  Elie looked at all those who died and angrily shouted, “God didn’t stop this!”  Alex looked at all those who survived and declared, “But God did save some of us from this!”

The question of where God is in the face of suffering is really a question of God’s role in the midst of suffering.  Is God’s role to stop us from suffering or to save us through suffering?  In one sense, it is both.  But the first role, at least according to Scripture, doesn’t find its full expression until later, at the end of days.

Ultimately, I would argue that, even if God does not stop all suffering, it is difficult to surmise from the existence of suffering that God does not exist.  C.S. Lewis famously explains why:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? … Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense.[3]

C.S. Lewis puts his finger on the reality that the problem we have with suffering is that we believe and perceive that it is, in some sense, wrong.  It is unjust.  But if we reject God, we lose the privilege of saying that anything is wrong or unjust because, without God and His ordering of the universe, standards of organized morality disappear into the ether of a universe that coalesced around the free-for-all of chance.  This world and all that is in it, to borrow a phrase from the famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, is nothing more than “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.”[4]  In this view, suffering exists in the same way that a ball that lands on black 22 on a roulette wheel exists.  It just happens to happen sometimes.  There is nothing more to be said about it, at least not morally.

Arguing against a moral God in light of what is perceived to be immoral suffering, then, is an argument that collapses on itself.  You can’t argue against God using a framework that has its basis in God.  Either suffering just is, or it is somehow just wrong.  To question how there can be a good God who allows bad things assumes that, even if implicitly, there is a God and that, in some regard, He is not playing by His own rules, or at least by what we perceive to be His rules.  If this is the case, it may be fair to ask Him, “Why?”   But, as a Christian, I would propose that it might be even better to ask Him for help.  From what I hear, even if God doesn’t always stop suffering, He is quite adept at blessing people in suffering.

_____________________

[1] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York:  Hill and Wang, 2006), 33.

[2] Aron Heller, “Observant survivors keep the faith after Holocaust,” The World Post (1.26.2016).

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  Harper Collins Publishers, 1980), 38

[4] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, vol. 12 (London: Routledge, 1985).

March 14, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Hope in the Midst of a Colorado Tragedy

The Century 16 Theatre at which James Holmes opened fire during the movie, “Batman: The Dark Knight Rises.”

When 24 year-old neuroscience Ph.D. candidate dropout James Holmes burst into an Aurora, Colorado theatre at a midnight premier of “Batman:  The Dark Knight Rises” in full tactical gear with a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol, packing as many as 6,000 rounds, the carnage was nearly instant.  Twelve are dead.  Over fifty are wounded.

Almost immediately, investigators sprung into action, trying to answer the same question they always try to answer after an act of senseless violence like this:  “Why?”  So far, Holmes hasn’t left us much to go on.

One of the things that strikes me about this mass shooting is how utterly elusive Holmes’ motive seems to be.  He has no Facebook page to scour for clues.  He has no Twitter account to review.  He didn’t host a blog.  He wasn’t connected to anyone on LinkedIn.  In an era of ubiquitous social media, investigators have not been able to turn to any of these standard-fare communal clearinghouses for insight into this man’s mind.  His police record has left investigators just as mystified.  One traffic violation in 2011.  That’s it.  No arrests.  No prior investigations.  Nothing that would lead officers to believe this man could or would explode in a rampage of mass murder.

The L.A. Times has been hard at work trying to understand Holmes’ motive, interviewing several people who knew him, albeit not very well.  Here is how they describe him:

  • “A generally pleasant guy…James was certainly not someone I would have ever imagined shooting somebody.” – James Goodwin, high school classmate
  • “He was very quiet…He was a nice guy when you did occasionally talk to him.  But he was definitely more introverted.” – Tori Burton, fellow with the National Institutes of Health
  • “A super-nice kid…kinda quiet…really smart…He didn’t seem like a troublemaker at all.  He just seemed like he wanted to get in and out, and go to college.” – Dan Kim, UC San Diego student[1]

The portrait of Holmes, even if not particularly profound, is incredibly consistent.  He was nice.  He was smart.  He was studious.  He was introverted.  And he did what?  He massacred how many?

Jesus says to the religious leaders of His day, “On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:28).  Jesus knew the goodness a person presents on the outside often conflicts with the darkness he harbors on the inside.  And as it was with the religious leaders, so it is with James Holmes.  On the outside, Holmes looked like a bright, promising Ph.D. student.  But on the inside, as we are now learning, he was full of dark aspiration.

The Bible has a word for this conflict between a person’s externally righteous appearance and his internally depraved heart:  hypocrisy.  This is why Jesus begins His diatribe against the religious leaders by saying, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites” (Matthew 23:13)!  In the ancient world, a “hypocrite” was an actor – someone who put on a mask to perform in a play.   Though the actor presented himself as one person on stage, he was, in reality, another person in his day-to-day life.

What is so sad about James Holmes is that, as he burst into that theatre filled with moviegoers, he was not necessarily being hypocritical, at least in a theological sense.  Instead, he was – as the doctrine of human depravity makes all too horrifyingly clear – just being himself.  He was carrying out in a shower of gunfire the sin that, exacerbated by what seems to be an apparent mental illness, had been smoldering in his heart for a long time.  And lest we pontificate on Holmes’ wickedness from a position of self-righteous arrogance, we must remember that the same depraved root of sinfulness that lives in Holmes’ heart lives in every human heart – even in our hearts.  As the prophet Jeremiah soberly says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it” (Jeremiah 17:9)?

In a situation as devastating as this one, Christians are in a unique position both to minister to the hurting on the one hand and to speak honestly about the depth of human wickedness on the other.  To the hurting – especially to those who have lost loved ones – we can offer a shoulder to cry on and a message of hope:  “Christ conquers death!”  To those who ask “Why?” we can respond with one, simple word:  “sin.”  Sin led to this act.  Sin leads to all wicked acts.  Sin leads to our wicked acts.  But, like with death, Christ conquers sin.

As this story continues to unfold, we are sure to learn more about the gunman – his background, his possible motive, and, perhaps, his personal demons.  But no matter how much we may learn about his past, we cannot change the past.  Loved ones will still be lost.  Survivors will still bear physical and emotional scars from that dreadful night.  And the hearts of so many will still be broken.  The past will stand as it is right now:  tragic.  Only Christ can take this terrible moment from our past and redeem it in the future – when He calls those who trust in Him to rise from death to eternal life, unscarred and unmarred even by a gunman’s bullets.  And so in our distress, we hope and trust in Him.  What else can we do?


[1]Complex portrait emerges of suspected Colorado gunman James Holmes,” Los Angeles Times (7.20.12).

July 23, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Follow Zach

Enter your email address to subscribe to Pastor Zach's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,086 other followers


%d bloggers like this: