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When God’s Ways Make No Sense, What Then?
Three Stories, Three Answers
More often now than earlier in my Christian life, I find myself asking three rather weighty questions, questions that fifty years of counseling have convinced me that many others are asking as well. Perhaps not out loud. The questions might be heard as evidence of little faith, maybe as questions that really shouldn’t be asked by Christians who trust Jesus to guide them through their lives.
But these are three questions that life will at some point nudge every honest Christian to ask.
Question 1: Why Must Suffering Play Such a Big Role in the Christian Life?
Shouldn’t a loving God protect us better than He does? Why does He disappoint us so often by doing nothing in response to some pretty important prayer requests? Life hurts, and God allows the source of our pain to remain. Why? We know suffering has its good purposes. Nothing else so effectively can expose a demanding spirit (“I’m entitled to better treatment!”) and prompt much-needed repentance. And the suffering of prolonged uncertainty over health issues and financial difficulties encourages deepened dependence on the God who is in control of tomorrow.
But can’t a serious Christian mature just as well in good times? Couldn’t whatever suffering that may be necessary for our spiritual formation be less severe and more quickly ended? Must so many go through so much? It doesn’t make sense.
Question 2: Why Must Failure Be Such an Ongoing Part of the Christian Life?
Paul saw himself as a wretched man, not before he was miraculously converted but afterward, when he was a seasoned, unusually mature follower of Jesus. In Romans 7:24, the Greek word Paul chose that we translate “wretched” (ESV) clearly implies that the great apostle continued to bear the weight of the enduring misery of human weakness. In his words, “I want to do what is right, but I can’t” (v. 18). So much for a sugarcoated understanding of a changed life. Paul was never free from sin—from sin’s penalty, yes, but not from sinning. Like all Christians today, Paul was not a slave to sin. The sin nature is no longer a master that Christians involuntarily obey. Until heaven, though, Christians struggle with sin’s appeal and too often yield.
Earlier in that same chapter, Paul told us that thanks to the gospel we can now live in the “new way of living in the Spirit” (v. 6). Does that mean it is possible for a Christian to harness the Spirit’s power so that recurring sin will no longer be a problem in life? As an old man, the apostle John looked back on his life and warned everyone that “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth” (1 John 1:8). It seems God leads us through failure toward maturity, rather than doing whatever is needed for us to move past ongoing failure. What does gospel power mean in a Christian’s life? Shouldn’t it mean that when we want to do right, we reliably can? Apparently not! But why not? It doesn’t make sense.
Question 3: How Are We to Respond to Seemingly Random Suffering with No Obvious Purpose and to Repeated Failure That We Try Hard to Resist but Sometimes Can’t?
I might have preferred to respond to the first two questions with easy-to-follow counsel. I could have written a book suggesting how Christians can routinely experience the presence of God with an intensity that reduces suffering into a short-lived anomaly in an otherwise happily blessed life. Perhaps the faithful practice of spiritual disciplines and contemplative prayer, both important ingredients in a Christian’s journey, would deliver pain-eclipsing joy into our lives. But a Christian journey is one that follows Christ, the man of sorrows who knew joy in the middle of pain.
Or I could highlight the requirement of obedience to Christ’s commands, and speak of the Spirit’s power that enables us to live without significant failure. But Scripture insists, and experience confirms, that we will suffer and sin. Hardship and failure (the latter more easily denied) are part of every Christian’s life. In line with the apostle John’s teaching about “fooling ourselves” and his own experience, Martin Luther wrote in his first thesis, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”
This third question must be asked by every Christian who wrestles with the first two, and it deserves a thoughtfully biblical response. That necessity prompted me to write this book.
A Christian’s Response to an Incomprehensible God
- Am I following the Lord? Or am I asking Him to follow me? Maybe I’m in danger of becoming a modern-day Jonah, feeling so disappointed and angry over God’s way of directing my life that I drop any pretense of being a God-follower.
Fifty years ago I began my doctoral program in clinical psychology. Before arriving on campus at the University of Illinois, I made a private decision to abandon Christianity. God wasn’t doing in me what I knew needed to be done. I had rededicated my life to Christ a dozen times during my teenage years and was still struggling with unabated lust, insecurity, jealousy, and personal ambition that had more to do with my dreams than God’s plan. Christianity as I knew it, and I was an orthodox evangelical, had failed me. I decided to give psychology a chance to help me figure out what was wrong and change me.
The adventure didn’t work out so well. Five years later I wore doctoral robes that were draped over a still lustful, insecure, jealous, and personally ambitious young man. I moved back to Christianity, convinced there was hope nowhere else. Five decades later I’m still wondering why God allows so much struggle in people’s lives and why He doesn’t arrange for failure to be a distant memory in the lives of His followers.
It’s hard to dismiss the thought: There must be a way—more fervent prayer? increased passion for ministry? faithful practice of spiritual disciplines?—to arrange for my senior years to be golden, with less struggle and more victory. Am I trying to maneuver God to bless me in ways I imagine a loving God would want to bless a man who has been following Him for more than sixty years now? Could I be worshiping a golden calf in my “Christian” efforts to arrange for golden years?
What are God’s thoughts on the matter? Does He see things differently? What are His ways of loving me that I can count on? Am I open to hearing Him tell me what His thoughts and ways actually are? And the big question: How will I respond if I do hear from God? Am I in danger of responding like Saul?
When Jonah heard from God, he resisted and ran. (I tell his story in the next chapter.) Before he became Paul, Saul heard God speak through a serious study of the Old Testament. But he distorted what he heard to fit what better suited his understanding of religion. And he denied the meaning of every passage that led him to a different way of thinking. The Messiah a slaughtered lamb? Jews and Gentiles becoming one family of God? Unthinkable! (We’ll look at Saul’s story in chapter 3.)
Remember Habakkuk? (I review his story in chapter 4.) He heard something from God that he really did not like. Evil Babylon would punish less evil Judah? That made no sense. But Habakkuk did not resist and run. He did not distort what he heard from God into a more pleasing message; he did not deny the unpleasant truth that God told him. Instead, he trembled in confusion and fear, then trusted God to always be telling a good story, even when the story ran into some really hard chapters. Habakkuk is a model for Christians today.
I remember as a thirty-year-old enjoying lunch with eighty-year-old Dr. William Hendriksen, a renowned New Testament scholar. I had just read his commentary on Galatians and was eager to hear his take on the “other” gospel Paul was warning us to reject. For more than an hour that seemed like twenty minutes, I listened to this brilliant professor answer what to him must have been simple questions.
But then he surprised me. As our time drew to a close, Dr. Hendriksen reached across the table, rested his age-marked hand on my arm, and with moist eyes said, “Oh, Brother Larry, I think I’m just beginning to understand the gospel.”
At the very real risk of including myself in company where I don’t belong, now in my early seventies I’m thinking that perhaps I’m just beginning to understand the gospel. It’s so much more but never less than forgiveness of sin, restored relationship with God, and the promise of heaven forever. It’s a call to radical discipleship, to a life of perseverance through unpredictable suffering and of joy in knowing there is no condemnation for ongoing failure. It is not an easy life. It wasn’t meant to be.
Think of it this way:
- If I hear from God and feel no urge to resist and run, thinking that He’s asking too much, I haven’t heard from God. My view of the gospel is shallow.
- If I hear from God and am not tempted to distort what I hear into a call to a comfortable life, and if I’m not inclined to deny any real attention to passages that say otherwise, I haven’t heard from God. I’m believing another gospel.
- If I hear from God and see no reason to tremble at the cost required to trust God no matter what struggles come my way and what ongoing sin continues, I have not heard from God. I’ve heard a cheap gospel.
When Christians, properly settled on the plan of salvation in Christ, hear the call of God on their lives, something deep in their souls is disrupted. When Christians hear God’s call, not simply to a specific ministry or to a moral lifestyle or to theological study but to become a certain kind of person no one can ever fully become this side of heaven, a battle begins. The journey finds its way onto a narrow road.
It is then we quietly expect God to make the journey easier by doing at least two things: one, to bless us with enough good things and fulfilling opportunities to make the journey appealing; and two, to supply the power needed for us to overcome both our addictive sins and our relational sins and to overwhelm our weakness with the Spirit’s strength so that sinful failure becomes only an occasional concern.
God does neither, not routinely. But why not? God loves us; He is good and He is powerful. The Father is in control over all that happens. The Son is praying for us as a faithful high priest. And the Spirit has moved into our souls, stirring the divine energy now alive in our new hearts. Suffering should diminish. Things should more often go our way. Prayers should be answered. And sin should become less of a problem, perhaps only an occasional slip now and then. Victory in Christ, victory over former temptations, a victorious Christian life—it all should be ours to celebrate and enjoy. That’s how many of us think.
When difficulties intrude and failure continues, we meet the incomprehensible God. Who is He? What is He up to? We hear the gospel plan for our lives, a plan that includes trouble, hard times, failure, and ongoing sin, and it’s not what we had in mind. It doesn’t make sense. What then?
Three options present themselves. I listed them in the introduction. In more concise form, let me describe them again. It will prove helpful to keep these three options in mind as you keep reading.
Option 1: Resist God’s call to a life of difficulty and ongoing failure and run from Him toward a way of living that seems better. Live for prosperity and healing, or at least for relief. You’ll feel better.
Option 2: Stick with God but distort His message to better line up with your thoughts about what life should be and with your ways of understanding how God should lead you. In the process, convince yourself you’re still following God.
Option 3: Hear the gospel story that will lead you through suffering and failure to hope only in Christ, never in yourself. Tremble before the God whose thoughts and ways, so far above yours, will at times make no sense to you. But trust that the God who died for you when you deserved eternal judgment is up to something good. He is always telling a good story. He can never do less.
The story of Jonah illustrates option 1. As we look at his story in the next chapter, we might see a little bit of Jonah in ourselves.
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