I have experienced “rapture on the lonely shore” and have partaken of the healing solace found “in pathless woods.” I know now, on a deeper level, that polish comes through trouble and that not a single heartbreak in one’s lifetime need go to waste. All things can be used of God to develop in a believer an unshakeable trust in Him. He is the Rock of Ages and I am confident that He holds me tight in the place cleft especially for me.
I had been in conversation on Facebook with a Jehovah’s Witness who had set up the straw man of John Shelby Spong as an “authority” on the subject of hell. He was using a video-taped interview with the heretical, now retired, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark as support for his argument against the concept of eternal punishment. In earlier postings, he had made other pointed attacks against non-JWs. In turn, I had been sharing the manifold errors that I believe are clearly evident in the history and theology of the Witnesses. I had been praying that the man might be released from the deluding influence of the organization. In each encounter, he had responded using copious copied-from-JW sources. When in this most recent exchange, he came back with–what I took as–a compounding personal affront, I impetuously, without consulting the Lord, withdrew from the conversation and unfriended him, shaking the dust off my feet as a testimony against him.
Now I have spent most of my professional life studying world religions and new religious movements; I have engaged with many, many individuals walking innumerable paths. I can’t recall ever being the one to withdraw from a conversation, and I’ve been trying to comprehend why I did this time. I think I’m upset with myself because I fear it may have been the wounding to my person that served as the final straw and not the many affronts to Christ.
I woke this morning to find the following as the day’s devotional entry in Streams in the Desert. The line that leapt out from this was this: “Beloved, whenever you are doubtful as to your course, submit your judgment absolutely to the Spirit of God, and ask Him to shut against you every door but the right one.” It is possible that the Lord might have called me to withdraw from the conversation because other work needed to be done in the man’s life before he would be open to hearing what I had to say. The problem is I didn’t wait to hear from the Lord.
The devotional that follows gives a nod to one of my favorite verses (Isaiah 30:21): “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.'” I used to keep a copy of this verse on my desk at the seminary and churches I was serving. As I now sit at a crossroads in my life, I am especially grateful for the call to return to these words today. Sometimes doors are closed. Sometimes God directs our steps to the right. Sometimes we are led to go left. Sometimes, we’re told to stay put. And sometimes…
Here’s the devotional, with its admonition to look to the Lord for clear direction:
Having been kept by the Holy Spirit [at that time] from preaching the Word in Asia (Acts 16:6).
It is interesting to study the methods of His guidance as it was extended towards these early heralds of the Cross. It consisted largely in prohibitions, when they attempted to take another course than the right. When they would turn to the left, to Asia, He stayed them. When they sought to turn to the right, to Bithynia, again He stayed them. In after years Paul would do some of the greatest work of his life in that very region; but just now the door was closed against him by the Holy Spirit. The time was not yet ripe for the attack on these apparently impregnable bastions of the kingdom of Satan. Apollos must come there for pioneer work. Paul and Barnabas are needed yet more urgently elsewhere, and must receive further training before undertaking this responsible task.
Beloved, whenever you are doubtful as to your course, submit your judgment absolutely to the Spirit of God, and ask Him to shut against you every door but the right one. Say, “Blessed Spirit, I cast on Thee the entire responsibility of closing against my steps any and every course which is not of God. Let me hear Thy voice behind me whenever I turn to the right hand or the left.”
In the meanwhile, continue along the path which you have been already treading. Abide in the calling in which you are called, unless you are clearly told to do something else. The Spirit of Jesus waits to be to you, O pilgrim, what He was to Paul. Only be careful to obey His least prohibition; and where, after believing prayer, there are no apparent hindrances, go forward with enlarged heart. Do not be surprised if the answer comes in closed doors. But when doors are shut right and left, an open road is sure to lead to Troas. There Luke awaits, and visions will point the way, where vast opportunities stand open, and faithful friends are waiting.–Paul, by Meyer
Today as we look at the sixth chapter of the gospel of John and at the tenth chapter of the gospel of Mark, we’ll be examining the meaning of Christ’s coming into the world in terms of new life, abundant life, and spiritual enlightenment. We’re going to begin with a look at today’s Bethlehem and we’ll relate what we find to the story of the blind man Bartimaeus, who had both his physical sight restored and his spiritual eyes opened by the Savior Jesus Christ.
Some years ago, I came across an article in the London Times that carried this headline: “Bethlehem gets a wall for Christmas.” The story opened with these words: “The birthplace of Christ was this week sealed off from Jerusalem – just in time for Christmas – by a 25 foot wall and huge iron gate resembling a nuclear shelter.”
The wall that was being erected is part of a hugely controversial 423-mile barrier that Israel has been building through Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. As the wall at Bethlehem was nearing completion, the mayor of the city said it had created “a big prison for its citizens; it is living one of history’s darkest chapters.” Today, the city of 22,000 is only one-third Christian as Palestinian believers have been quietly abandoning the place.
According to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, about 35,000 pilgrims are expected to cross Israel’s checkpoint into Bethlehem during the next few weeks [Source: PRI]. While the Western churches observe Christmas on Dec. 24-25, the Eastern churches, due to the discrepancies between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, observe Jan. 7. The Armenian Apostolic Church observes Jan. 6, marking both Christmas and the Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Magi and the baptism of Jesus Christ.
Except for a few roundabouts, sporadically policed routes, access to Bethlehem is from Jerusalem and requires crossing a 27-foot-high checkpoint manned by Israeli security authorities. Popularly known as “Checkpoint 300,” it is part of the separation wall Israel began building during the second intifada in 2002.
Bethlehem, the city of David, lies five miles south of Jerusalem to the west of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. It was here that Rachel was buried. It was here that Ruth gathered grain in Boaz’ field and it was here that David was anointed king. But, most significantly, Bethlehem, which translates from the Hebrew “House of Bread,” was the birthplace of the One who was to be revealed as the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Come with me in the next moments in your imagination; let us make a pilgrimage together to Bethlehem.
Once we make it past the new wall, we can visit the place that most authorities believe was the site of Christ’s nativity – a grotto or cave now located under the Church of the Nativity. The gospels make no mention of a cave but Justin – a reliable source – writing around 2 A.D. does speak of the “cave” in which Jesus was born. And, in fact, many dwellings of the period were built in front of caves and the cave part would have been used to shelter animals in inclement weather.
About 325 years after the birth of Jesus, the emperor Constantine built a large basilica over this hillside grotto and this Church of the Nativity remains today among the oldest of the well-known churches around the world.
The grotto is under the chancel and is approached by steps leading down from each side of the choir. In a crypt at the front of the grotto is the place where Jesus is believed to have been born. A silver star on the marble floor at the east end of the crypt is inscribed with these words in Latin: “Here, of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born.” And fifteen lamps burn day and night around this star.
Some time ago, I read an article by Charles N. Barnard, which recorded his journey to Bethlehem over the days preceding Christmas. I recall it again here.
On the afternoon of December 23, he made his first visit to Manger Square. His express purpose in this timing was the beating out of the Christmas crowds.
He entered the Church of the Nativity through a small, low door and was quite surprised to find that the limestone Grotto of the Nativity is a close, cluttered space with many lights, stars, mosaics, lanterns, canopies and jewel-like ornaments hanging from a blackened ceiling. After a brief look-see, he headed back to his hotel, where he watched the televised news with its frightening reports of street violence in the West Bank towns all around him.
On Christmas Eve, he returned to Manger Square but his guide warned him he wouldn’t want to stay. “You’ll see,” Raphael said. “It’s the same every year. A sideshow.”
Picture these images: roadblocks, rows of tire-puncturing spikes stretched across the pavement like shark’s teeth; barricades of stones; squads of soldiers.
The streets decorated with strings of red, yellow and white lights. Random spurts of fireworks. Checkpoints. Businesses — restaurants, beauty parlors, retail shops – inviting folks in off the path. Distraction upon distraction.
Then English-language Christmas carols coming from a public address system. Then another checkpoint. Finally, Manger Square. With all the lights and flags, it could easily have been a used car lot on a rainy night.
A few hundred people are milling about near the souvenir shops, the street vendors, a Barclay’s Bank open until midnight and the Christmas Tree Café. A movie screen carries the images of Western movies with Hebrew and Aramaic subtitles. One group of young American Baptists holds an impromptu sing-along, “Jesus is Coming, Sing Hallelujah.” By 10 o’clock, the streets fill with larger crowds – thousands now. By 11, the crowd is becoming conspicuously drunk in some places and music from the many visiting choirs is nearly drowned out. There is a distinct odor of marijuana in the air.
In front of the Church of the Nativity, long lines of ticket holders are forming. Many have held reservations for a very long time and they will still pass through five checkpoints before they get in.
Then, suddenly, the first chanted phrases of the Latin Mass – clear, pure and strong – take possession of the square. A new image flickers on the TV screen and the crowd is silenced. Choir voices, broadcasting from within the basilica, now accompany the picture. “In excelsis deo . . .” The traveler looks at his watch. It is midnight. Christmas has broken in upon the scene.
This story – which I’ve abridged for presentation to you – appeared in a secular magazine but there are many, many images within it that inform our understanding of the Christian experience. Here is a pilgrim wandering along streets of darkness trying to make his way to the place of Christ’s birth. What does he find along the way? The distractions of life within the body: food, drugs, various kinds of amusements, all manner of diversions. Then there are the walls, the barricades, the checkpoints, the misguided masses oblivious to what lies in their midst. Then there are the voices of truth crying out, trying to be heard, only to be drowned – if only momentarily – by the noise and clatter of the crowd. Then there are the few glimpses of light and finally the ticket holders are in line walking the last few steps toward their goal.
“I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus said. “I am the Way, the Truth and The Life” – the very life. No one will go hungry. No one will thirst if only they will come to me. He feeds and waters our spirits. For, He said, it is the Father’s will that everyone who looks to Him and believes in what He is, in who He is, believes in what He has done – will have eternal life, raised at the last day, welcomed in, if you will, as one of the ticket holders, one of the faithful who has walked the path and remained true. The ticket holders, keeping their eyes on the goal of Jesus Christ – growing more determined with each step not to yield to the distractions, the temptations – determined to make it past the barricades to reach the place of Christ and enter in.
The blind man Bartimaeus was one who was determined to reach Jesus. Jesus and His disciples met this son of Timaeus as they were traveling on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. Bartimaeus was sitting by the roadside as they approached. When he heard whom it was who was passing, he called out for the Lord’s help. This man then became one of the first of those, outside of the ranks of the apostles, who is recorded as having proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah – the divine One promised by God. You’ll note that in verse 47, he called Jesus “Son of David,” a term specifically Messianic and, further, Bartimaeus turned to Jesus as Savior.
Bartimaeus shouted to this Jesus: “Have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” Bartimaeus came running to the Savior’s side and Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“I want to see,” he said.
Bartimaeus may have believed in Jesus’ power to heal perhaps because he was familiar with Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would enable the blind to see. His faith led to healing. And his healing was not only of physical blindness but of spiritual blindness as well for we are told that he received his sight and followed Jesus.
There are many references to spiritual blindness throughout Scripture. The prophet Isaiah speaks of those who are like the blind groping along the wall, feeling their way like men without eyes.
The gospel writer, Matthew – again referring to spiritual blindness – says that if a blind man leads another blind man both fall into a pit.
In the fourth chapter of 2nd Corinthians, Paul writes: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
And, in Ephesians, Paul writes: “They (unrepentant, unredeemed sinners) are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of their ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.”
Jesus did not just cure Bartimaeus’ physical blindness, he – more importantly – lifted the darkness from the man’s soul so that he could walk in spiritual light.
At times, I’ve been asked by those who are searching: “Why is there this darkness? Why is there this wall?”
One needs to take in all of Scripture to get a whole picture but a beginning of an answer comes from the 28th chapter of Ezekiel. There we find a recounting of the beginning of humankind: You were a model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden. You were blameless from the day you were created until wickedness was found in you. You were filled with violence and you sinned. Your heart became proud and you corrupted your wisdom.
In those verses, the writer goes on to record the Lord speaking of inflicting punishment but also of gathering up His people. Elsewhere in scripture, we learn that He will provide the means of forgiveness for sins – a Savior – a Messiah – Christ the Lord – God Himself who would come in human form to suffer the punishment for our rebellion.
In Ephesians, chapter 2, we read about a dividing wall. The wall of hostility discussed in verses 11 and following, refers to the distance between Jews and Gentiles in biblical times. It also refers to the wall that exists between non-believers and God. The One who is able to take down those barriers is the One who has made believing Jew and believing Gentile one. Jesus is the One who has brought reconciliation through the cross. He is the One who has given us access to the Father through the Holy Spirit.
Someone told Bartimaeus that Jesus Christ – the promised Savior – was passing by and that simple witness led to the man’s redemption.
He cried, “Have mercy on me!” He looked to the right person for the right thing at the right time.
In Acts 4, verse 13, we read: “Salvation is found in no one else for there is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved.”
And in the second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 6, Paul writes: “In the time of my favor, I heard you, and in the day of salvation, I helped you. I tell you now is the time of the Lord’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”
Jesus loved Bartimaeus. Jesus loves each one of us. Jesus loves you – He loves you so much that He gave His life that you might have eternal life. He came to save those who were lost – lost in spiritual darkness. There are various cures and no cures for physical blindness. There is only one cure for spiritual blindness and that cure is Jesus Christ.
As we approach Christmas, let us not be shy in celebrating our Lord’s birth. Let us pray that the Lord may tear down any walls of hostility that we have built or maintained in our personal lives. Let us not get sidetracked by all the distractions. Let us not be found guilty of removing Christ from Christmas. Let us seek a closer walk with God in the light of His Holy Spirit, in the light of His Holy Word.
Let us give thanks for the Lord’s mercy upon us, for His healing and for the gift of spiritual sight. Let us follow Him in faithfulness and in truth. Let us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, get past the barricades and make our way to the Child of Christmas. Let us love and encourage one another and seek to bring others into a relationship of faith with the Lord. Let us faithfully share the message of Christmas.
I came to faith in Jesus Christ on Pentecost Sunday in 1982 at a Billy Graham Crusade held at Boston University’s Nickerson Field. The Reverend Graham’s signature is on my Master of Divinity diploma from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; he was one of that institution’s founders and was chairman of the seminary’s board during my years there. As a student, I was given the opportunity to train in and engage in evangelism through one of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) phone centers that was activated each time a crusade aired.
Later, I served as a visiting professor in evangelism and urban ministry at Gordon Conwell and required the same training and engagement of my students. I contributed to The Billy Graham Christian Workers’ Handbook and worked with the BGEA on a film for use in the telephone training centers. I was a delegate to Lausanne II (Manila, the Philippines, 1989), one of a series of events called by the Lausanne Movement, which was founded by Billy Graham. I am a Christianity Today Book of the Year honoree and Billy Graham founded that magazine. I was one of the first students invited to participate in the Arrow Leadership Program, founded by Billy Graham’s brother-in-law, Leighton Ford.
In 1991, the Graham Association created a profile of my life and ministry for airing during one of the crusade telecasts. I was just starting my work for the Lord and was stunned to learn that my profile would be the second in a series that began with that of baseballer Dave Dravecky. Reverend Graham’s message for that program was entitled “Who Is Jesus?” I can still hear the voice of Cliff Barrows introducing my segment. And, of course, George Beverly Shea’s comforting bass-baritone filled and lifted the hearts of those in the stadium seats at the Meadowlands in New Jersey along with the hearts of those listening from their seats at home.
The list of life intersections goes on and on. I am deeply indebted to Billy Graham. He and his organization set the trajectory for my life in ministry. He is, indeed, a man of integrity, humility, generosity and faithfulness who has been used of the Lord in the transformations of millions of individuals around the world.
In Reverend Graham’s last message in the 2013 video-recorded My Hope America, he shares his heart for our nation today, and the following simple, yet powerful prayer, a final reminder, that if we’re willing to come to Christ, He has the power to change our lives and future forever.
“Our country’s in great need of a spiritual awakening. There have been times that I’ve wept as I’ve gone from city to city and I’ve seen how far people have wandered from God.
I want to tell people about the meaning of the cross. Not the cross that hangs on the wall or around someone’s neck, but the real cross of Christ…With all my heart I want to leave you with the truth, that He loves you, and is willing to forgive you of all your sins.
Sin is a disease of the human heart….There is no other way of salvation except through the cross of Christ.
Today, I’m asking you to put your trust in Christ.
‘Dear Heavenly Father, I know that I’m a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins, and rose from the dead. I turn from my sin, I repent of my sins, I invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.'”
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Today’s entry in the Our Daily Bread devotional begins with this: “I have always enjoyed the wit and insight of Peanuts creator, Charles Schulz. One of my favorite cartoons drawn by him appeared in a book about young people in the church. It shows a young man holding a Bible as he tells a friend on the phone, ‘I think I’ve made one of the first steps toward unraveling the mysteries of the Old Testament . . . I’m starting to read it!'”
I just checked to see how the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California is doing in the wake of the October wildfires that so devastated the northern part of the state. I discovered the facility will be closed until further notice. Efforts are underway to restore the air quality inside the museum with 20 blowers being used to purify the air. Professional cleaners are at work on the air ducts and the Museum’s interior, endeavoring to make the place safe for the return of staff and artwork. Once it is safe, the collections staff will clean the art and reinstall current exhibitions.
I was relieved to see the museum survived the horrific fires, but saddened to learn that Schulz’s home, where he had resided for 30 years, was destroyed. His wife was able to evacuate, but much memorabilia was lost. I thought I might post some photos from our visit to the museum for all you Peanuts fans.
The following was originally published on September 7, 2012 on my website, The Rockery (www.the-rockery.com).
On August 29, 2005 at 6:10 a.m. Central Daylight Time, Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States as a Category 3 hurricane bringing with it devastating floods, battering winds . . . catastrophic destruction. More than a million people came under evacuation order. Damage in dollars totaled 81 billion; a mere $40.6 billion of which was in insured losses. More than 3,000 deaths were – directly or indirectly – attributed to the storm. More than 400,000 jobs were lost.
The fall-out from this tragedy spilled out all over the United States in terms that were not only physical and material but also emotional and spiritual. Some folks expressed deepening fears about, concerns over, our safety as a nation. One blogger hinted that the storm was God’s answer to the gambling casinos in Biloxi and/or to Southern Decadence Day, an event scheduled in New Orleans for – what turned out to be — the weekend of Hurricane Katrina. Others, of course, saw the event as evidence that we are nearing the end of the end-times, linking the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, 9/11, the London bombings, and Hurricane Katrina to the Luke 21:11 prophecy: “There will be great earthquakes, fearful events and great signs from heaven…”
But others wondered how New Orleans could have survived as long as it had, lying well below sea level surrounded by Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico with inadequate levees that were ripe for breaching, just waiting for the right conditions for disaster to be met. The human-made dimensions of this catastrophe, they insisted, had to be recognized in the midst of any discussion of Hurricane Katrina.
Others pointed fingers at the government. President George W. Bush addressed the nation and attempted to assure Americans that elected officials were concerned that people be safe. He also sought to assure the country that healing could be found not only from the losses of life and property but from the divide that was in evidence between the haves and the have nots. Relative to this, the question was asked by one New York Times reporter: “How could self-interested, shortsighted politicians put off reinforcing the levees?” The same reporter also asked, “How could God allow the negligence, racism, indifference or hardheartedness that long gnawed at the social fabric of New Orleans or the blindness or incompetence of officials who should have understood the brewing human storm, as well as the meteorological one?”
At a joint White House news conference with the President of Iraq, President Bush admitted that Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government.
Natural disaster? Punishment for sins? A sign that the end is near? Evidence of human folly? A breakdown of leadership? Why were we hit by this catastrophe and what are we to salvage, what are we to learn, from what’s left as we look back at Hurricane Katrina?
Just as it was in the days immediately following the attacks of 9/11, so it was following this storm: many who – pre-event – might not have thought to look to the church for answers, came looking. Two thousand eight hundred and nineteen people were killed on 9/11 but it is estimated that, in the aftermath, 422,000 New Yorkers suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. Thousands poured into the churches around the country looking for answers. I visited a great number of congregations around that time and was disappointed to see the inadequate ways in which so many were responding. The United States, as a nation, is still feeling the after-effects of Katrina and 9/11 and lots of folks are still wrestling with questions. We haven’t forgotten. We still live with the specters of what have been called “natural evil,” under which Hurricane Katrina” would naturally fall, and “moral evil,” under which we might consider 9/11.
Natural evil. On December 26th of 2004, an undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean generated a tsunami that killed more than 280,000 people in Sri Lanka, South India, Thailand and other countries. On the anniversary of Katrina, Hurricane Isaac bore down on the Gulf Coast. At a point, tens of thousands were without power and 4,000 were in shelters. Seven deaths have been attributed to the storm. As I write this, meteorologists are keeping tabs on two hurricanes in the Atlantic: Michael, a Category 3, and Leslie, a Category 1. High season for storms such as these won’t end till November. At least 80 people are also now known to have died and another 730 have been injured in a series of earthquakes that hit the Yunnan and Guizhou provinces of China last Friday.
And that is the challenge I’ll be facing in this entry. As a foundational passage to keep in mind as we enter into this, let’s look to Romans, chapter 8:
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God . . . And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Moral evil. Today, we are appalled by the genocide in Sudan and appalled by human trafficking, the illegal trade of human beings for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor. We are appalled by murder and child abuse. Moral evil. Human evil.
In the wake of what we perceive as “evil,” one question is raised again and again: How could a loving, all-powerful God allow such things to happen?
And if we are honest, probably each one of us when we’ve come face to face with our own times of personal suffering – when we believe our own lives have been catastrophically hit by evil – have either raised a fist to God or cried out in lament: “Why Lord? How could you let this happen?”
How do we sort through the realities of evil, pain and suffering in the light of a good, gracious and giving God? This is the province of theodicy, reconciling a good God with the existence of evil.
Traditionally, considerations of this subject move in two directions: the aforementioned moral evil and natural evil. The questions that are attached: Why does God allow suffering? If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, can’t God stop both moral and natural evil? And, if He can, why doesn’t He?
As Will Reaves noted in a Christian News and Research article: “That these perennial questions arise in response to every tragedy, war, and disaster shows the enduring nature of our doubt and the magnitude of the question. Both ‘natural’ evil (such as hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes) and ‘human’ (or moral) evil (such as genocide, terrorism, various forms of injustice) challenge our ability to make the reality of an omnipotent, loving God sensible in the wake of suffering.”
John Stott has said that “the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith.” There is perhaps no greater obstacle to faith than that of the reality of evil and suffering in the world. Even for believing Christians, there is no greater test of faith than this: that the God who loves us permits us, at times, to suffer.
I’ve noted that there are basically two kinds of evil: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil speaks to the actions of free creatures. Murder, rape and theft are examples. Natural evil speaks to natural processes such as earthquakes and floods. In this entry, I will focus on the latter.
Various approaches are taken to the problem of evil and suffering. These include the philosophical approach that considers the questions from the standpoint of the skeptic who challenges the possibility that a God exists who would allow such suffering. And there is the religious approach to the problem of evil. This is the problem of evil considered from the standpoint of the believer whose faith in God is severely tested by trial. This latter approach is what I’ll address here as this requires us to appeal to the truth revealed by God in Scripture. In addition to consulting scripture, I’ll also be borrowing liberally from articles written by Albert Mohler, Rick Rood and others.
So…we’re going to try in this to understand natural disasters in the light of Scripture and we’ll consider some of the reasons that God may have for allowing the catastrophic to occur.
There are certain foundations we need to lay as we go.
First, we need to remember that the Bible clearly reveals God as omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing). The Creator rules over all creation. Not even a sparrow falls without His knowledge. He knows the number of hairs upon on heads. He rules and reigns over all nations. Not an atom or molecule of the universe is outside His active rule.
Second, the Bible is just as clear in showing God to be absolute righteousness, love, goodness, and justice.
So…Could God prevent natural disasters? Absolutely. Does God respond to prayers regarding the weather? Of course. One example is recorded in James 5:17 where we read: “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” Another example is found in Mark, chapter 4, where we find Jesus rebuking the wind, ordering the waves to be still, calming the storm.
Does God sometimes cause natural disasters as a judgment against sin? Yes. In the book of Numbers, chapter 16, we read how God caused the earth to open up. He used an earthquake to swallow rebels who had challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron.
Is every natural disaster a punishment from God? No. In Matthew 5:45, we’re told that God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
In much the same way that God allows evil people to commit evil acts, God allows the earth to demonstrate the consequences that sin has had on Creation. Again, Romans 8:19-21 tells us: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
In these verses, Paul is referring back to the book of Genesis and reminding us that the fall of humankind into sin had effects on everything, including the universe we inhabit. Everything in creation is subject to frustration and decay. We live in a fallen world that, like its human inhabitants, is waiting for renewal, waiting for the new heaven, for the new earth. Because of sin, throughout the ages, the world has been tainted. We experience illness, death, disease, natural disasters, all types of suffering.
God created us – not as robots forced to do His will – but as individuals with free will. He desires that we use that will to love Him and to love one another. An old confession of the faith states: “God from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any way to be the author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures.”
So why would a loving and all-powerful God allow the catastrophic – citing, for our purposes here, especially Hurricane Katrina – to occur?
Let’s go back to where we began for a look at the possibilities.
Was this a natural disaster? Hurricanes travel in clusters and hurricane activity waxes and wanes in cycles. There were predictions months before Katrina hit that the Gulf would be in for some heavy, heavy activity. And people were warned. A poll of evacuees living in shelters in the Houston area after Katrina revealed that three-fourths had heard about the evacuation order. More than two-thirds said they didn’t evacuate because they didn’t realize how bad the storm and its aftermath would be. More than half said they had no way to leave.
Natural disasters often cause people to reevaluate their priorities in life. Did the Lord turn the evil for good by sending people to help the suffering, by moving Christians to minister and counsel and pray and tell people of the hope they can find in Jesus? Yes.
Was this a case of divine discipline? The Old and New Testaments make it clear that suffering can be an avenue of God’s discipline in our lives, similar to the discipline a loving parent administers to a child. A loving parent stops a child from putting his hand on a hot stove. The child “suffers” at the moment by being denied access. But the parent sees the big picture and disciplines the child. So, too, God can discipline us.
Hebrews 12:10-11 illustrates this. There we read: “God disciplines us for our good that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
Was the hurricane a sign that the end is near? It has been said that we have been in the end times since the days of Jesus. While we are told to be on the watch, we are also commanded not to spend enormous amounts of time speculating on when the end will come.
Did the hurricane put human folly on display? Yes. Did we see a breakdown in leadership? Yes. Did some human beings make some bad choices? Yes. Can God bring great good out a terrible tragedy? Romans 8:28 tells us, yes, He can. We may not know the reason for suffering in any given situation. But we can affirm, with relief and joy, that in “all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” The Psalms are full of cries for deliverance from trouble as well as the assurance that God is with us and will deliver us from suffering.
I don’t know why God allowed Hurricane Katrina to cause such devastating damage along the Gulf Coast and I wouldn’t dare to assert otherwise. God may have had a different reason for every individual touched by the storm, including you. But, you know, as Charles Spurgeon explained: when we cannot trace God’s hand, we must simply trust His heart.
You might be surprised to learn that when a poll was taken of Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in shelters in the Houston area just days after the storm, eight in ten said that their faith had been strengthened through the ordeal. And 90 percent were hopeful for the future. More than half of their homes had been destroyed. Almost three-fourths didn’t have insurance to cover their losses.
The great hope that we have in the midst of suffering is that, in a way that is beyond our comprehension, God is able to turn evil against itself. And it is because of this truth that we can find joy even in the midst of sorrow and pain. We are even counseled in scripture to rejoice in trial, not because the affliction itself is a cause for joy (it’s not), but because in it God can find an occasion for producing what is good.
And God is not only aware of our suffering. He feels it. As Paul Little has noted: “No pain or suffering has ever come to us that has not first passed through the heart and hand of God. Christians follow Jesus who the scripture reveals as the “Suffering Servant.” He understands our sorrows. He walks with us in our trials, in our sorrows.
Suffering can provide an opportunity for God to display His glory and to make evident His mercy, faithfulness, power and love in the midst of painful circumstances. Perhaps you have a testimony to offer in support of that truth. It’s a testimony that must be voiced, that must be shared with those who are struggling in the darkness that is the world apart from Jesus Christ. He does not leave us alone.
As in the case of Job (who was tested through trial after trial and eventually came to offer an outpouring of thanks to the Lord for the lessons learned therein), our faithfulness in trial shows that we serve Him not merely for the benefits He offers, but for the love of God Himself (Job 1:9-11).
Trials also provide an opportunity for believers to demonstrate their love for others, to compassionately care for those in need. And, as we are comforted by God in our own afflictions, so we are better able to comfort others in theirs. Suffering also plays a key role in developing godly virtues, and in deterring us from sin. Oftentimes, we learn obedience in times of trial.
And evil and suffering can awaken within us a greater hunger for heaven, for that time when God’s purposes for these experiences will have been finally fulfilled, when we’ll understand far more than we do now, when all tears will be dried, when pain and sorrow shall be no more.
I’d like to close with some images and leave you with a question.
Following Katrina, the Philadelphia Inquirer carried a cover story about what people carried away after the storm. The article opened with these words: “When people are uprooted by a natural disaster, what they salvage assumes great importance. Some of the objects the displaced clung to were sensible, chosen to provide comfort in the dehumanizing anonymity of an emergency shelter. Some were practical, items that would ease the process of rebuilding. Some were emotional, touchstones of a past that would never be replaced. Upon such fragments, a blanket, a photo, a shard of stained glass, a future, may, must be built. Pat Walker fled her flooded trailer with her memories – a cardboard box containing two bound books, some letters and a few cards. Linda Temple gathered vital documents such as birth certificates and Social Security cards for her four children, ages 3 to 8. John Cummings, a 68-year-old father of eight children ranging in age from 16 to 40, returned to his home in a New Orleans suburb to get his daughter’s clothes. His youngest child, a junior in high school, needed to have some of her old clothes, not just replacements, he said. ‘There’s nothing like that favorite skirt.’ James Savage brought the family’s silverware, wrapped in a pink towel. It was ‘my grandmother’s,’ the man said. Angie Rogers had time only to take her black macramé purse containing her glasses, a comb and her id. And Tom Cruise (not the movie star) wouldn’t leave without his dog. After the storm, Jayne Davis made her way back to the condominium complex she’d called home. The only possession she could find was a large bronze cross. ‘We should have this blessed,’ she told her husband. He replied, ‘I believe it already is.’”
My question for you today is: What will you salvage from Hurricane Katrina and other “catastrophes”?
Unpacking that, what I mean by that is: What lessons will you learn? Will you learn to cling to the cross and find the blessings there even in the midst of trials? Will you look for ways to minister to others in their times of trial? Will you examine the priorities in your life and welcome the Lord’s continuing development in you of godly virtues?
Can you, with Paul, affirm that – in ALL things – we are more than conquerors through the Lord who loves us, convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord?
Featured Image: Severe weather montage. From left to right starting at the top: F5 tornado; wildfire; thunderstorm and lightning; flooding; hurricane; ice storm; giant hail. Source: Fallschirmjager.
I am often asked for recommendations of devotional materials. Topping my list is Devotional Classics. (I’ve mentioned DC elsewhere on this site but want to reemphasize it and a couple of others today).
I’ve used this book in my seminary and church-based classes on spiritual formation and development in the disciplines of the faith. I have seen many lives transformed as individuals committed themselves to the work it necessitates. The volume, edited by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith, uses 52 selections that introduce the reader to the great devotional writers (from Augustine to Thomas a Kempis to Catherine of Genoa to Dietrich Bonhoeffer…). Each excerpt is linked to a biblical passage and is accompanied by probing questions and challenging spiritual exercises. You could focus on a chapter a week through a year and be enormously blessed.
You might also wish to bring alongside this book, two others. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth and Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. The first divides the classic disciplines of the Christian faith into three “movements of the Spirit.”
“The inward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting and study offer avenues of personal examination and change. The outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission and service help prepare us to make the world a better place. The corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance and celebration bring us nearer to one another and to God.”
The second book features essays on the contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical and incarnational streams and grounds each in profiles of individuals throughout history whom the author considers exemplars of these traditions. The three books, taken together, provide refreshing nourishment for the mind and spirit.
Two more recommendations for daily devotionals: My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers, and Streams in the Desert by L.B. Cowman. Each begins with a biblical passage and ends with a meditation on that passage. You’ll find that Chambers will poke around your spirit to urge you to greater faithfulness and Cowman will minister to your soul when you hit rough patches.
“Ask for a confirming sign from the Lord your God. You can even ask for something miraculous”–Isaiah 7:11 (NIV)
Ahab went out to meet Elijah. The moment Ahab saw Elijah he said, “So it’s you, old troublemaker!”
“It’s not I who has caused trouble in Israel,” said Elijah, “but you and your government—you’ve dumped God’s ways and commands and run off after the local gods, the Baals. Here’s what I want you to do: Assemble everyone in Israel at Mount Carmel. And make sure that the special pets of Jezebel, the four hundred and fifty prophets of the local gods, the Baals, and the four hundred prophets of the whore goddess Asherah, are there.”
So Ahab summoned everyone in Israel, particularly the prophets, to Mount Carmel.
Elijah challenged the people: “How long are you going to sit on the fence? If God is the real God, follow him; if it’s Baal, follow him. Make up your minds!”
Nobody said a word; nobody made a move.
Then Elijah said, “I’m the only prophet of God left in Israel; and there are 450 prophets of Baal. Let the Baal prophets bring up two oxen; let them pick one, butcher it, and lay it out on an altar on firewood—but don’t ignite it. I’ll take the other ox, cut it up, and lay it on the wood. But neither will I light the fire. Then you pray to your gods and I’ll pray to God. The god who answers with fire will prove to be, in fact, God.”
All the people agreed: “A good plan—do it!”
Elijah told the Baal prophets, “Choose your ox and prepare it. You go first, you’re the majority. Then pray to your god, but don’t light the fire.”
So they took the ox he had given them, prepared it for the altar, then prayed to Baal. They prayed all morning long, “O Baal, answer us!” But nothing happened—not so much as a whisper of breeze. Desperate, they jumped and stomped on the altar they had made.
By noon, Elijah had started making fun of them, taunting, “Call a little louder—he is a god, after all. Maybe he’s off meditating somewhere or other, or maybe he’s gotten involved in a project, or maybe he’s on vacation. You don’t suppose he’s overslept, do you, and needs to be waked up?” They prayed louder and louder, cutting themselves with swords and knives—a ritual common to them—until they were covered with blood.
This went on until well past noon. They used every religious trick and strategy they knew to make something happen on the altar, but nothing happened—not so much as a whisper, not a flicker of response.
Then Elijah told the people, “Enough of that—it’s my turn. Gather around.” And they gathered. He then put the altar back together for by now it was in ruins. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes of Jacob, the same Jacob to whom God had said, “From now on your name is Israel.” He built the stones into the altar in honor of God. Then Elijah dug a fairly wide trench around the altar. He laid firewood on the altar, cut up the ox, put it on the wood, and said, “Fill four buckets with water and drench both the ox and the firewood.” Then he said, “Do it again,” and they did it. Then he said, “Do it a third time,” and they did it a third time. The altar was drenched and the trench was filled with water.
When it was time for the sacrifice to be offered, Elijah the prophet came up and prayed, “O God, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, make it known right now that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I’m doing what I’m doing under your orders. Answer me, God; O answer me and reveal to this people that you are God, the true God, and that you are giving these people another chance at repentance.”
Immediately the fire of God fell and burned up the offering, the wood, the stones, the dirt, and even the water in the trench.
All the people saw it happen and fell on their faces in awed worship, exclaiming, “God is the true God! God is the true God!”
Elijah said to Ahab, “Up on your feet! Eat and drink—celebrate! Rain is on the way; I hear it coming.”
Ahab did it: got up and ate and drank. Meanwhile, Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bowed deeply in prayer, his face between his knees. Then he said to his young servant, “On your feet now! Look toward the sea.”
He went, looked, and reported back, “I don’t see a thing.”
“Keep looking,” said Elijah, “seven times if necessary.”
And sure enough, the seventh time he said, “Oh yes, a cloud! But very small, no bigger than someone’s hand, rising out of the sea.”
“Quickly then, on your way. Tell Ahab, ‘Saddle up and get down from the mountain before the rain stops you.’”
Things happened fast. The sky grew black with wind-driven clouds, and then a huge cloudburst of rain, with Ahab hightailing it in his chariot for Jezreel. And God strengthened Elijah mightily. Pulling up his robe and tying it around his waist, Elijah ran in front of Ahab’s chariot until they reached Jezreel.”–1 Kings 18:16b-39, 41-46 (The Message)
Make thy petition deep, O heart of mine,
Thy God can do much more
Than thou canst ask;
Launch out on the Divine,
Draw from His love-filled store.
Trust Him with everything;
And find the joy that comes
When Jesus has His way!—Selected
We must keep on praying and waiting upon the Lord, until the sound of a mighty rain is heard. There is no reason why we should not ask for large things; and without doubt we shall get large things if we ask in faith, and have the courage to wait with patient perseverance upon Him, meantime doing those things which lie within our power to do.
We cannot create the wind or set it in motion, but we can set our sails to catch it when it comes; we cannot make the electricity, but we can stretch the wire along upon which it is to run and do its work; we cannot, in a word, control the Spirit, but we can so place ourselves before the Lord, and so do the things He has bidden us do, that we will come under the influence and power of His mighty breath.—Selected
“Cannot the same wonders be done now as of old? Where is the God of Elijah? He is waiting for Elijah to call on Him.”
“The greatest saints who ever lived…are on a level which is quite within our reach. The same forces of the spiritual world which were at their command, and the exertion of which made them such spiritual heroes, are open to us also. If we had the same faith, the same hope, the same love which they exhibited, we would achieve marvels as great as those which they achieved. A word of prayer in our mouths would be as potent to call down the gracious dews and melting fires of God’s Spirit, as it was in Elijah’s mouth to call down literal rain and fire, if we could only speak the word with that full assurance of faith wherewith he said it.”—Edward Meyrick Goulburn, Dean of Norwich