Many suggest the moral of the story of Job is that God is a mystery and we cannot possibly understand God as mortal human beings. I am not convinced that is the lesson to learn from reading Job’s encounter with undeserved suffering. God rejected Job’s friends’ assumption that bad things don’t happen to good people. People don’t get cancer because of sin. Those who claim natural disasters strike because of national sin fail to explain innocent lives that are lost.
God also rejected Job’s assumption that the wicked must be judged or the righteous rewarded immediately: “…Why should I not be impatient…Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days” (21:4, 24:1)? Job understandably contemplated if God really cared by not intervening sooner in his suffering. God defended Himself: “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself”(40:8)? God doesn’t react to suffering, inevitable in a free world, as we do. Job’s questioning helped him to appreciate more God’s love and knowledge in running a free world.
I must admit that not all of suffering is explainable according to the freedom model. Natural disasters cannot be easily explained though surely human accumulated mismanagement of the earth over thousands of years has contributed to destruction by earthquakes, floods, and droughts. Drunk drivers kill innocent people but what about when a parent backs out of a garage and kills their child? If humans cannot fully understand one another, perhaps we cannot totally understand God. There are times when we have to trust that God loves us deeply and is by our side. We do know that God has not avoided senseless or undeserved suffering through His Son.
The truth is much of suffering results from personal evil, whether self-inflicted or inflicted by other. Evil choices make by cruel and lawless people result in a great deal of suffering. God’s alternative to control all circumstances is to negate or manipulate freedom. Human parents who respect freedom are not cruel parents. The good that can result from evil never justifies the evil actions of others, but was God’s risk in allowing freedom necessary to obtain the greatest good in relationships? Freedom is necessary to change as many people as possible of their own volition rather than just annihilate them. Not even God can force people to be unselfish.
Destroying freedom is to destroy true love and the good that results from free, moral decisions. God certainly allows suffering because He is capable of interfering, but God is not the cause of all of suffering. Understanding why God allows sufferings and is not unjust for doing so may help us to not feel alienated from God and know we have a Friend in the midst of our suffering:
- Most understand deserved suffering. Cheat on your partner and expect all hell to break loss. Provoke your children to wrath unnecessarily and don’t expect them to visit when older.
- Undeserved sufferings are a reality in a free world. Depending on God in such times enables us to not fall in love with what the world offers. I become more aware of my character flaws during suffering than prosperity, thus I benefit more when my prayers are not answered.
- Personal tragedies or undeserved insults can empower us to be more sensitive and serve others in similar situations. Miracles turned heads but Jesus’ suffering turned the hearts of billions of followers. Suffering is necessary if you are going to be of much use to others.
- Suffering prepares us for disappointments which are inevitable in a free world. Leaning on God in times of suffering allows us to gain wisdom for living in the world we do.
We followers are surely not influencing our culture as much as Jesus had in mind. Personally, friends know that God and I have a thing going on because in groups they always ask me to say grace. Yet, friends aren’t flocking to my doorstep begging to get to know my God better. Partly, that may have to do with my character flaws. I think some of it has to do with Christianity’s reputation. Followers can always do more service by loving others as they want to be loved. But, followers can’t even love other followers where people want to be part of such a gathering.
First, an excuse and then I will suggest what may be one main reason we are not making the impact Jesus envisioned when on the earth. The truth is many don’t pursue a relationship with God because of spiritual apathy. The resurrection of Jesus can be defended based on reliable historical evidence, but amazingly not everyone cares to investigate further the implications of this miraculous event. Both earthly and spiritual matters are worthy of discussion but many don’t care to talk about spiritual matters, even if not being coerced to believe a certain way.
Enough excuses! There are many reasons us followers as a group are so unattractive but I am convinced there may be one main reason. I am not hopeful things will change but a man can dream. Most people desire to have close, intimate relationships with their family and friends. But, the truth is we Christians have nothing to offer. Jesus did not come to make hundreds of denominations. Jesus came to plant the church. Jesus didn’t teach hundreds of conflicting beliefs. Jesus had one set of beliefs. A church’s statement of core beliefs could read “whatever the Bible says.”
This leads us to the problem though. Non-followers witness how we fight about what the Bible teaches. Christians seldom agree to disagree. Interpretations are fallible but we insist on our views at the expense of relationships. The Bible was written in foreign languages thousands of years ago. The Bible is not a single text with a single author. What good is Christian love if we can’t consider one another’s opinion gracefully, so to work out our own convictions with as much consistency as possible. We act like couples headed to divorce because we think our way or the highway, despite the issue not being moral in nature. Jesus didn’t come to give us a set of core doctrines. We have made theology than love what Jesus was about.
We might be better off doing away with churches, so we can’t gather to come up with beliefs that scare off some followers much less those who are skeptical in the first place. Don’t churches really just swap followers? We get weary of our church so we go to another church because the music is louder or the preacher is less boring, etc. Jesus could probably survive without what we call church these days. In the NT the church wasn’t a building but bodies. I must admit though that when in a dark alley I am less scared when I know the folks are coming from church.
Christians are unattractive because of our views and lack of open-mindedness. Our theology must not make it difficult for people to turn to God by misrepresenting God’s character. Must we insist that the Bible teaches husbands have authority over their wives or that God prefers men over women as leaders? Is there really a difference between strains of other religions that proscribe gender roles if Christianity does the same thing, albeit with a different set of prohibitions? Our discussions must allow each person to come to their understanding of God if they are seeking. Trust God to work in the heart of His individual children. What if we did away with denominations and just called ourselves a gathering of God followers? What if our discussions about what God is really like were civil and lead to agreeing to disagree but then leaving hand in hand to love others like they want to be loved?
God promised to make Abraham into a great nation. God decided because of the continuous evil in the world that Jesus would be sent to earth to demonstrate God loved us more than we could ever imagine. God choosing Israel wasn’t favoritism as only one nation could be chosen by God for the Messiah to be born into. God intended through Abraham to bless all nations (Gen 12:3). It isn’t favoritism when all win.
God proclaimed an unconditional, love relationship with Israel before the Laws were given to Moses. Abraham had a faith relationship with God before the Mosaic Covenant times. God has never demanded obedience to any laws first before establishing a relationship. The Laws were given by God to simply guide Israel morally for their own good. Imagine living in a nation that abided by the Ten Commandments. Parents understand that a relationship based on unconditional love with rules in the best interest of the child is the pathway to intimacy and transformed lives.
Jesus detested the religious of His day who suggested that a relationship with God was based on adherence to a set of rules, thus confusing people about God’s unconditional love for them. The Jews perhaps preferred a supposed position of favoritism because they were first given the Laws. Some Jews maybe wanted to think of themselves as better than the Gentiles rather than believing a special relationship with God was open to all. We all know bigotry. The Pharisees certainly liked being the chosen because it kept them in a job and in power. We today may hold on to certain beliefs, not because they are in the best interest of all, but because they keep us employed.
- The Law only condemns, pointing out our shortcomings, for none can keep the Law perfectly. God’s grace can encourage, giving us peace that God love us despite our imperfections
- The Law cannot forgive, only deter us in the short-run because of the fear of punishment. God’s grace forgives us, knowing there is life after failures
- The Law encourages only obligatory obedience and doing the bare minimum in order to pass. God encourages matters of the heart than can lead to lifelong transformation
- The Law can lead us to false pride because of others’ failures or lesser works than our own. God invites us to accept the shortcoming of others and strive to be our best
God’s love and grace provides comfort to those whose failures afflict their consciences. God does not heap on more hate for constantly falling short. God gives up confidence to continue to pursue holiness despite our regrets. We can be comforted that every act of kindness no matter how small matters to God. God give us hope that it is never too late to start, as God’s accounting system is different thankfully (Mt 20). A priority on God’s unconditional love and grace does not do away with holiness but makes it possible. True intimacy with God inspires us toward life transformations.
Has the fear of God or gloomy uncertainty as to God’s favor conquered battles against self-centeredness or long-standing habitual sins for you? Serving a parent or boss out of respect than obligation empowers us to be our best. Fear-based relationships lead to temporary changes or trying to not get caught. Intimacy inspires. God is no different than human parents. Parents ultimately want their children to understand their unconditional love for them so they might follow their wisdom for their own good. Good deeds are appreciated by God, but our efforts will never be enough in our own mind. Discussing obedience before God’s unconditional love for us is a hopeless journey in achieving a relationship with God and being the kind of people we desire to be. Do we desire to trust God over ourselves? Obedience for our own good will naturally follow, though the journey is different for all.