Friday, June 19, 2009

The Father Heart of God

     In 1967, Chaim Potok published his best-selling novel The Chosen about two teenage Jewish boys growing up in 1940s Brooklyn. One of the boys, Danny, was raised in a strict orthodox community where his father was the spiritual leader. Danny is expected to take his father’s place as head of the community one day, but there’s a problem. Danny is a brilliant, gifted boy and his father believes he doesn’t have enough empathy to be a good rabbi. So he intentionally shuns his own son, talking to him only when they discuss the Torah. He inflicts pain upon his son for his own good. What kind of father would do that to his own son?

     That got me wondering, Does God do that? Does our Heavenly Father inflict pain and suffering on us? The Book of Job explores the problem of suffering in depth. Job is a most unfortunate man, despite the fact that he is righteous. He goes from being wealthy to abject poverty and from health to miserable chronic illness. He loses all of his children—everything. His wife tells him to curse God and die.  This he does not do, but he does complain, a lot, and protest his innocence. He can’t help asking God, Why?

     Several things are clear in the text. Job did not suffer on account of anything he did wrong. In one of the most troubling verses in the Bible, God tells Satan that Job retained his integrity, “even though you made me destroy him for no reason” (2:3). Even if God didn’t cause Job’s misfortune, he clearly permitted it. Despite allowing Job to suffer, God is good. How can these things all be true? How could an all-powerful God allow the innocent to suffer and still be called good? It’s the classic statement of the problem of evil. 

     In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said fathers naturally give good gifts to their children and adds, “How much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Matt. 7:11). I’ve heard some people argue that “Father” is a Christian, not Jewish, term for God. They say you won’t find God addressed as “Father” in the Old Testament. That may be technically true, but the idea of God as father is certain there. In the book of Isaiah, the LORD says of Israel, “I have nourished and brought up children and they have rebelled against me” (1:2).  If God is indeed our Father, then we have to ask, What kind of father allows his children to suffer?

     Job not only wanted an answer, he demanded one. “My desire,” Job says, “is that the Almighty would answer me, and that mine adversary had written a book” (31:35). Little did he know that his life would become one of the main stories his “adversary”—that is, God—put in His book! Well, after thirty-eight chapters, God finally shows up. Better late than never. Only he doesn’t give Job a direct answer to his question. God answers Job’s question with more questions, starting with, Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? (38:4). 

     God goes on to ask Job how much he understands about the origin of the universe, about oceanography, about meteorology, and other things. This arrangement of rhetorical questions shows that Job’s understanding is too limited to grasp the answer to the questions he asks. Feeling appropriately rebuked, Job confesses that said things he didn’t comprehend, things too lofty for him (42:3).

     I like the fact that God didn’t deny Job’s pain or try to minimize it by saying those glib things we sometimes hear such as, “You’re young enough to have more children.” There are no easy answers to hard questions like, Why do the innocent suffer? 

     Ultimately God answered Job’s question not with words but with deeds. He sent his only Son, Jesus, to earth to participate in our suffering as an example of God’s love. Jesus was falsely accused, unfairly condemned, and cruelly tortured before dying a criminal’s death. The God of the Bible is not aloof from or unresponsive to human pain and suffering. He redeems it—through the death of his only Son. This is the Father Heart of God: He loved us enough to suffer with us and for us. 

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Shack Group

Over the past two weeks I’ve been attending a discussion group on William P. Young’s novel The Shack. This engaging, thought-provoking book plunges the reader head first into the problem of evil (Why do bad things happen to good people?). It’s a real page-turner, but I have some reservations about the theology behind the book. I also don’t like the way the author keeps the reader guessing, Is it true? Did it really happen? It’s gimmicky, at best. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

The discussion group has been a joy. It’s made up of young and old, Baptists and non-Baptists, ministers and lay people.  Most are white Americans, but there are also minorities, including some foreigners. Some participants are theologically conservative, others progressive.  Yet we’re all there for the common purpose of discussing the book, which means we’re talking about, and debating at times, what it means to believe in God.

In the book of Revelation, there’s an image of heaven in which those around God’s throne sing a new song:

Thou art worthy to take the book,

And to open the seals thereof:

For thou wast slain,

And hast redeemed us to God

By the blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation

And hast made us unto our God kings and priests

And we shall reign upon the earth.

I’m drawn to the fact that heaven is made up of a diverse group of people. In contrast, the churches I’ve attended for most of my life have been quite homogeneous, often intentionally so. Most Sunday mornings I worship in a sea of white, middle class, Republicans. Our common faith in Jesus Christ should unite us, not demographics. I want to find a church that looks a little more like heaven, or at least more like my discussion group.