Thursday, November 04, 2004

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent: Part 3

In the first two posts of this series, I've talked about how it's understandable when we wonder why tragedy befalls the innocent. I've also observed that generally speaking, God doesn't seem to answer that question.

But on the pages of the New Testament section of the Bible, there is a tantalizing example of a time when God did give a reason for one of his innocents' suffering.

A man named Saul from the city of Tarsus was not always innocent. Burning with an Osama Bin-Laden-like zeal for his faith as a Jew, convinced that followers of the risen Jesus were dangerous heretics, he approved murdering these people who would later be called Christians.

He also gained authorization from religious authorities in Jerusalem to go to synagogues in other towns and regions to have his fellow Jews confessing Jesus as Lord excommunicated from the faith and worse.

But, Saul's life changed. On his way to the city of Damascus, carrying authorization papers, Saul encountered the risen Jesus. He himself became a follower of Jesus and eventually, undertook a life-long mission of carrying the Good News of Jesus to the world. Gratified and stunned to learn the truth about God--the truth that God wants to save us and not condemn us, that eternity and forgiveness are free gifts from a gracious God and not things that we can earn---Saul, now renamed Paul, spent the rest of his life telling the world about Jesus Christ and the new life He makes possible.

Much of the New Testament is composed of Paul's letters to early Christian congregations spread around the Mediterranean basin. Paul proclaimed that the power of sin and death over one's life could be erased when as a matter of faith, one received Jesus Christ as God and Savior. He said that on the cross, Jesus paid the debt all of us owe to God for our rebellion against God. Faith, says Paul, is a surrender by which we go through death, dying to sin, in order to rise to a pure, new life with Jesus Christ.

In his magnum opus, the New Testament book of Romans, Paul writes:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. [Romans 6:5-10]

Paul's life of faith and of sharing Jesus wasn't easy. He never generated enough personal income to be able to devote all his time to preaching, working as a tentmaker throughout his adult years. In addition, he suffered a series of misadventures and persecutions as a follower of Jesus. Tradition holds that he was ultimately executed for his faith. Clearly, Christ's forgiveness and the gift of reconciliation with God that Paul claimed to have because of his faith in Jesus didn't make his life easier. In fact, it had the opposite effect. In one of his New Testament letters, Paul recounts some of his experiences as a follower of Jesus:

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. (Second Corinthians 11:24-28)

It all could cause a person striving to follow the God met through Jesus Christ to ask, "Why?" Or, to at least ask God to change things, to make life a bit easier.

We know of at least one source of suffering that did incite Paul to ask God for relief. It was an unspecified "thorn in the flesh," an affliction that may have been physical. emotional, relational, or spiritual. We simply don't know what it was. That may be for the best because the fact is that no matter what the source of our suffering in life, its impact on us is amazingly similar. Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh in Second Corinthians:

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (Second Corinthians 12:2-10)

According to Paul, God refused to remove suffering that had come to him from Satan. Why? To keep Paul from becoming filled with spiritual pride.

If Paul is to be believed, God allows even devoted believers to be hit with suffering and tragic circumstances as a means of protecting them. Protecting them from what? A famous passage from the Old Testament says, "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18).

Recently, former President Bill Clinton published his memoirs and discussed his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a liaison that nearly shattered his presidency and deeply wounded his second term in office. Clinton said that he'd had that affair simply because he was capable of having it. Period. (I appreciate Clinton's disarming honesty!)

Sometimes we can become full of ourselves, mistakenly thinking that our successes or good fortune emanate from our talents, innovativeness, cleverness, perseverance, tenacity, or charm...never considering that even our capacity for developing such gifts come from the One Who crafted us in our mother's wombs.

The first of the ten commandments in the Old Testament book of Exodus says, "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3). Theologians from Martin Luther to Paul Tillich and C.S. Lewis have reminded us that whatever is most important to us in life is our god. Speaking for myself anyway, I've found that no false god--be it money, power, sex, houses, cars or whatever--has waged a fiercer war for my ultimate allegiance than one persistently alluring god: Me...My Ego.

Through his suffering and God's refusal to relieve it, Paul was driven to acknowledge his dependence on God for all the best blessings in his life.

I learned this lesson myself once again yesterday, not from suffering but from weakness. Some time ago, I was invited to give a presentation to a group in metropolitan Cincinnati. For months, I thrashed over what I would say to them. After a good deal of prayer, I created an outline for my presentation. But yesterday morning, just hours before I was scheduled to speak, I woke up feeling flu symptoms. I was achy all over, felt as though a temperature was coming on, and in spite of a good night's sleep, fatigued. On top of that, I simply sensed that my presentation wasn't what the group needed to hear. And so I prayed, "God, You know better than I do. Guide me. Fill me with Your Spirit. Get me through this thing physically. And put Your words in my mouth."

The appointed moment came. I was given an introduction that was so complimentary, I was tempted to look around the room to see who'd been selected to speak in my place. I approached the microphone. I hardly remember what I said. But God was in it. The post-presentation Q-and-A session went well. So did the luncheon conversation. I came home, gratified but exhausted.

But if I hadn't awakened feeling so crummy and insecure, I might have gone ahead with my planned presentation. It may have gone okay. But then, I would have learned to depend on myself rather than on God.

From his thorn in the flesh, Paul learned reliance on God. Sometimes God allows the innocent to suffer because it's only through our weakness that the greater power of Christ can dwell in us and touch the world around us. It also may prevent us from declaring our independence from God, inciting us to keep the door of our hearts and wills open to the God Who has an eternity of good He wants to pour into our lives.

One last point. No loving Christian would ever tell another person that their suffering is being allowed by God to teach the suffering friend a lesson. That would be arrogant and un-Christian. Remember that Paul gained insight as to why God refused to heal him of his thorn in the flesh not in conversation with others, but in his own personal prayer interchange with God. The insight that some of our suffering may be from God is a personal one, between God and the sufferer alone. The very best thing we Christians can do when others talk with us about their suffering is keep our pie holes shut, listen, and offer to pray for them.

God willing, more tomorrow...

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