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!'”
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
From today’s Streams in the Desert
Accompanying photo: DFG Hailson
Oh, how I enjoy being gently wakened by a soft breeze and a sound river of birdsong just as the sun is rising! Our Creator knit us together in our mothers’ wombs and He knows us better than we know ourselves. He delights in bringing this treat of peace and pleasure for our senses before us each morning. How superior is this to the “alarm”! How grateful I am to be safe and secure from all alarms as I am leaning on the everlasting arms!
Accompanying image: Song Thrush, John Gould, Birds of Great Britain (1862-73).
When you see the nails piercing through Christ’s hands, believe surely that it is your work. When you see His crown of thorns, believe that it is your evil thoughts.—Martin Luther (1483-1546), leader of the Reformation in Germany
The spectacle of the crucifixion of Jesus was hideous. No language can express how awful and how diabolically evil it was that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, was being put to death by torturous crucifixion. This was one of the cruelest deaths imaginable; the physical agony to be endured was unimaginable. But Jesus was put to death this way. As Mark records, “It was nine in the morning when they crucified Him” (Mark 15:25).
Jesus had been mocked and beaten bloody by soldiers. The soldiers had “dressed Him up in a purple robe and twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on Him” (Mark 15:17). Humiliation with pain and torture—all for the innocent Son of God.
These horrible things were done to Jesus by others. But theologically, Jesus went to the cross for the sin of the world, which includes the sin of you and me. The old spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Our answer has to be, “Yes, we were there.” “I was there.”
From today’s The Sanctuary for Lent 2017 by Donald K. McKim.
“The greatest problems of our time are not technological, for these we handle fairly well. They are not even political or economic, because the difficulties in these areas, glaring as they may be, are largely derivative. The greatest problems are moral and spiritual, and unless we can make some progress in these realms, we may not even survive.”
So writes D. Elton Trueblood in his foreword to Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. This blessed book, written by Richard J. Foster, has been used since its initial printing in 1978, to deepen the interior lives of countless individuals, nurturing them toward more abundant living.
“Superficiality is the curse of our age,” Foster asserts. “The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is…for deep people.”
The classic Disciplines, or central spiritual practices, of the Christian faith allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us. Dividing the Disciplines into three movements of the Spirit, Foster shows how each of these areas contributes to a balanced spiritual life. 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.
Foster asks us to “picture a long, narrow ridge with a sheer drop-off on either side. The chasm to the right is the way of moral bankruptcy through human strivings for righteousness. Historically this has been called the heresy of moralism. The chasm to the left is moral bankruptcy through the absence of human strivings. This has been called the heresy of antinomianism. On the ridge there is a path, the Disciplines of the spiritual life…[T]he path does not produce the change; it only places us where the change can occur. This is the path of disciplined grace…[and] our world is hungry for genuinely changed people. Leo Tolstoy observes, ‘Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.’ Let us be among those who believe that the inner transformation of our lives is a goal worthy of our best effort.”
If you are feeling spiritually dry, if you have tired of superficiality, if you are hungering for a more abundant life, I recommend you carve out some time to spend with Celebration of Discipline. I have used this book in many classes on spiritual growth and have seen astonishing transformations in those who have devoted themselves to the principles set forth within.
“Rise, let us be going” (Matthew 26:46).
In the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples went to sleep when they should have stayed awake, and once they realized what they had done it produced despair. The sense of having done something irreversible tends to make us despair. We say, “Well, it’s all over and ruined now; what’s the point in trying anymore.” If we think this kind of despair is an exception, we are mistaken. It is a very ordinary human experience. Whenever we realize we have not taken advantage of a magnificent opportunity, we are apt to sink into despair. But Jesus comes and lovingly says to us, “Sleep on now. That opportunity is lost forever and you can’t change that. But get up, and let’s go on to the next thing.” In other words, let the past sleep, but let it sleep in the sweet embrace of Christ, and let us go on into the invincible future with Him.
There will be experiences like this in each of our lives. We will have times of despair caused by real events in our lives, and we will be unable to lift ourselves out of them. The disciples, in this instance, had done a downright unthinkable thing—they had gone to sleep instead of watching with Jesus. But our Lord came to them taking the spiritual initiative against their despair and said, in effect, “Get up, and do the next thing.” If we are inspired by God, what is the next thing? It is to trust Him absolutely and to pray on the basis of His redemption.
Never let the sense of past failure defeat your next step.
From My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers (1874-1917).
Accompanying image: The Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, with the Basilica of the Agony in the background, 1898.
Richard Rolle (1290-1349) writes, in his The Fire of Love, about the spiritual flame that feeds the soul: “I cannot tell you how surprised I was the first time I felt my heart begin to warm. It was real warmth, too, not imaginary, and it felt as if it were actually on fire. I was astonished at the way the heat surged up and how this new sensation brought great and unexpected comfort. I had to keep feeling my breast to make sure there was no physical reason for it.
“But once I realized that it came entirely from within, that this fire of love had no cause, material or sinful, but was the gift of my Maker, I was absolutely delighted, and wanted my love to be even greater. And this longing was all the more urgent because of the delightful effect and the interior sweetness which this spiritual flame fed into my soul. Before the infusion of this comfort, I had never thought that we exiles could possibly have known such warmth, so sweet was the devotion it kindled. It set my soul aglow.”
When I came to faith in Christ at a Billy Graham Crusade in Boston, Massachusetts, I felt this flame within me. It was as though I was on fire and all the spiritual detritus within me had been burned away. I felt the embers flash into flame again, when on a Cursillo weekend, I sensed a call to the ministry. This time the fire was accompanied by light that seemed to surround me and encompass me. I entered seminary, and in my first preaching class, my professor, Gwyn Walters, told me he could feel the fire within me when it came through, as a “fire in my belly,” as I expounded on the Word of God.
Like Rolle, I have also moved through times when I felt “spiritually frozen…missing what I had become accustomed to…[feeling] myself barren.” Disappointments and overturnings in my life obtruded into my soul warmth, disturbing and quenching the flame. I was comforted then by Rolle’s assertion, that the flame, once kindled, is “irremovable” because it has taken hold of the heart.
Rolle notes us that no mortal could survive the heat at its peak if it persisted. “We must inevitably wilt before the vastness and sweetness of love so intense and heat so indescribable.” Yet at the same time, we long for more of this “honeyed flame;” we long to be “held in thrall with those who sing their Maker’s praise.”
The soul warmth within me continues to bring comfort and enlightenment and an overpowering sense of the presence and love of the living God. The fire still burns steadily and, often, fans into flame.
Have you experienced the “fire of love” as described in this post? Would you be willing to share your experience with me? I am working on a chapter about soul warmth and spiritual fire and would appreciate your input. Please respond in the comments below or email me at email@example.com. Thank you, in advance, for any assistance you are able and willing to provide.