Archive | March, 2019

God works in mysterious ways? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s involvement in our lives. Part 5]

22 Mar

Does God seem mysterious to you? Confusing? Distant?

In this fifth and final post in our series fact-checking phrases about God’s involvement in our lives, we’re seeking to evaluate the phrase: “God works in mysterious ways.”

This is related to “everything happens for a reason”.  When we say “everything happens for a reason” we are saying we believe God is working things for good, and though we might not immediately know that good outcome, if we look for it, we will find it.  Or we might realize it later on.  Sometimes it only becomes apparent many weeks, months or years later. 

But when we say “God works in mysterious ways,” we are saying that we might never figure it out.  That sometimes God’s purposes are unknowable.  Sometimes God is mysterious. In fact, the Bible teaches this.

In Isaiah 55:8-9 we read, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Or we could turn to, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)

So what does this mean?  Theologians tell us that one of the first things we need to learn about God is that he is incomprehensible.  What “incomprehensible” means in the theological sense is that we in our human capability will never be able to fully understand God.  God will always be somewhat mysterious to us.

But that does not mean he is totally mysterious, as he has revealed himself to us.  In fact we Christians believe that he has revealed himself quite extensively, to the point that we can know him well.  He has revealed himself in nature, in his Word, and especially in Jesus, who shows us a wonderful picture of what God is like. 

What do we learn about God through what he has revealed?  That God wants to be in relationship with us, and he has revealed enough about himself for us to have a close relationship with him. 

When we say “God works in mysterious ways,” however, we are often in a quandary, unable to figure out why a bad thing has happened.  Thus it can be our attempt to console ourselves.  There is, however, another way we use “God works in mysterious ways,” as expression of trust.  Though we don’t understand our pain, we still want to express our faith in God. This is in keeping with the psalms of lament which, after a major complaint against God, still include a statement of trust.

“God works in mysterious ways” can also be an expression of frustration or despair.  We might not want to be in the situation.  We want answers and details and they are not coming.  We don’t want God to be mysterious, and we rebel against the confusion. 

Think about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was going to be arrested and crucified.  What was God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer?  “I hear you, son.  But you will have to go through this.”  Sometimes God will answer in a way we don’t expect or we simply don’t like! 

The problem is that saying “God works in mysterious ways” can give the idea that God is random, or purposefully mysterious, almost like he is playing games with us, trying to be sneaky or tricky.  There is no doubt that there will be situations in life that we cannot figure out, but God also has tendencies, patterns, ways of working, and is not mysterious.   As you walk with God, you get to recognize his work in the world. 

To say “God works in mysterious ways” can be a way of pushing God to the margins of life, however, rather than embracing him in the midst of mystery.  Think again of the psalms of lament, crying out in complaint to God.  In those laments, the psalmists are fully embracing the mystery, and yet still reaching out to God, seeking to bring him close in the middle of the pain. 

So in conclusion, we Christians believe God is at work in the world.  Yes, there are times when we might not be able to figure out what he is doing or why.  But we use our free will to choose to follow him, to honor him, in the middle of the pain.

If you are trying to comfort or encourage people who are in pain, I encourage you to avoid these phrases we’ve studied in this series of posts.  I know it can be very hard to know what to say, and thus we often default back to what we have heard ourselves.  This is the tendency where as adults, to our horror, we realize, “I sound just like my parents!”  Even when we promised ourselves we would never say the things our parents said to us.  Now it’s coming out of our mouths!  Why?  Muscle memory.  We heard it said to us, and it just comes right back out.  Often we learn later in life that what our parents said was actually based in wisdom! But when it comes to these phrases we have been fact-checking, we would do well to battle the tendency to just let them spill out without thinking.  It might mean forcing yourself to be quiet.  It might mean giving the hurting person a hug and simply saying, “I’m here for you, I love you, call me anytime,” and then checking back on them over and over and over, not giving up on them.

Let go and let God? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s involvement in our lives. Part 4]

21 Mar

I would like to recommend that you not say the following to people going through pain: Let go and let God.

This is popularized in Carrie Underwood’s song, “Jesus Take The Wheel.” 

Before I explain why this might not be a helpful statement, it is important to note that there is much to commend about “Let go and let God.”   Especially the idea of relinquishment, which is encapsulated in the common Christian sentiment: “Lord, have your way in my life.” 

Furthermore, this idea is biblical! My favorite expression of relinquishment is found in John 15:1-4.  There Jesus teaches that not only should we depend on God, but he also says that we humans need to see our powerlessness, and therefore depend on his power.  In other words, we have to depend on God because we are unable to accomplish the kind of life God desires for us apart from him.  God wants us to give up control of our lives to him, making him Lord of our lives.

So what could possibly be wrong about this statement? 

First, it might not be appropriate for certain people you are trying to reach out to.  A friend of mine told me a story about a fellow soldier in his National Guard unit.  This guy was a very typical alpha male, my friend said.  A “Get ‘er Done” guy, who could handle anything you bring him.  He is the kind of person who would receive “Let go and let God” as a weak statement.  We Americans have a tendency toward individualism, and it can be hard for us to give up control of our lives.  If you know you are talking with a person like that, it might be a bad idea to say to them “Let go and let God.”  It could even come across as offensive to them.  I would recommend looking for another way to reach them.

Second, this statement needs clarification: “Let go and Let God” does not negate the responsibility we have.  “Let go and let God” does not absolve us of effort on our part. It is very much connected to what we said in the series fact-checking common phrases dealing with difficulty when we talked about the phrase “God helps those who help themselves.” Take a look at how these two phrases could be in direct contradiction to each other: 

“God helps those who help themselves” emphasizes human responsibility to obey God.

“Let go and let God” emphasizes human dependence on God.

They could be conceived as contradictory, but I would like to suggest that these two phrases actually work together well.  Both are needed, providing checks and balances on each other.

God does not ONLY help those who help themselves.  As we saw last week, sometimes God helps people who are incapable of helping themselves, because he is merciful and gracious like that.

Likewise, when we “Let go and let God,” we must still be actively depending on him, and working to serve him and grow and become like him.  Depending on God, at least in part, means letting go of our ways of thinking, or our cultural ways of thinking, and doing things God’s way.  Following the way of Jesus.  Learning from him how to live. 

My conclusion is that “Let go and let God” needs some explaining. Avoid using it as guidance for those going through a difficult time, unless you balance it with further explanation about what it means to depend on God, and why that is so important. By itself, “Let go and let God” could be very vague and confusing, and as a result, counterproductive. At it’s root, though, is a wonderful concept of relinquishment that is vital for disciples of Jesus.

Check back in to part 5 as we fact-check our final phrase about God’s interaction with the world: “God works in mysterious ways.”

God is in control? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s involvement in our lives. Part 3]

20 Mar

If God is in control, why does the world seem totally out of control?

In the previous post in this series, I referred to three reasons bad things happen. Christians struggle to make sense of evil and pain in the world, just as anyone does. Why would God allow it? Why did he create our world this way? We often respond with a shrug, and a fairly tepid, “Well, God is in control.” Usually Christians understand God’s control in one of two ways, and we’re going to review them in this post.

First, some say that God has given us free will, because he wants to be in a loving relationship with us, and that requires free will.  In order to have a real, genuine give and take relationship with God, we need to be able to say “No” to him.  We need to be able to deny him, to turn away from him.   If we have no other choice but to love and obey him, that would not be a genuine relationship.  That means we would have no free will, or maybe we would have a seriously diminished free will, and I suspect few of us would really want that.

There are, admittedly, times in my own life when I say to God, “Lord, make me a robot for you, because I am so sick of my constant screwing up.”  But if God would turn off our free will, our person-hood would cease to exist, and we would essentially be robots.  The result of free will, though, is that we are NOT robots, and that means we often make terribly selfish choices against God, against each other, against ourselves, and against the world.  Those selfish choices lead to pain and disaster, as we see all the time on the news.  You might think, “Geesh, if that is what God did, creating free will…was it worth it?”  Because the pain and evil has been really bad, hasn’t it?  It has!  God took a massive risk in creating free will.  Thinking relationally, he risked that his creation that he loved, you and me and all humanity, could deny his love.  When you give people a choice, they can and do sometimes make poor choices. And thus there is much pain in the world.

So the free will view explains that God actually does give up a measure of control…and he gives it to us.  But we’re not all bad, right? We can do amazingly beautiful creative loving things with our power, limited though it is in comparison to his.  Throughout the ages, people have done acts of amazing artwork, invention, unity, friendship, commitment and love.  I’m not just talking about famous artists or world-changers.  We all have an opportunity to use our free will in God-honoring ways.  From how we parent and grandparent.  From how we neighbor, how we work, how we handle ourselves in school, and certainly how we participate in a church family.  Lest we get too negative and jaded, we need to look for the amazing results of godly free will all over the planet. 

So maybe the free will view could be summarized as saying that God is in control to the degree that we give him control?

That brings us to the second way Christians explain the presence of evil in the world. God’s sovereignty. Sovereignty is about God’s control.  Free will gives humans control. Sovereignty says that God has never given up control, no matter how out of control the world seems.

We believe that God is control in the master plan sense.  Satan or evil people cannot ultimately thwart God’s master plan. Throughout Scripture we see this many times.  Nothing could stop Jesus from being born, from living his life, from having his ministry.  Nothing was going to stop the resurrection of Jesus, for example.  Nothing will stop him from coming back.  In that sense, yes, God is in control.

But he also gives us a measure of control.  My denomination, the EC Church, is in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition and we believe God allows free will, and we must use our free will to choose him.  Many do.  And it is a primary aspect of the mission of God’s people to help others choose God too. 

But we also know many do not choose God.  So there is a proper sense in which the phrase “God is in control” needs some explaining.  If all we mean, when we say “God is control” is that he is going to work out his master plan, then it is a true statement.  But if we mean that God is going to make things great for people in suffering, then it is not a true statement.  He might allow the pain to continue.  We might never know why we went through the pain.  In fact, there might not be a spiritual reason.  It could simply be that we live in a broken and fallen world.  To people in those situations, it could actually be counter-productive and harmful to say to them “everything happens for a reason” or “God is in control.”  As we saw last week, there’s a much better way to come alongside people who are struggling.  And we’ll talk more about that in a future post in this series.

One thing I would recommend we don’t say to people who are struggling is the next phrase that we are fact-checking, and we’ll cover that in part 4.

3 reasons bad things happen [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s involvement in our lives. Part 2]

19 Mar

Does everything happen for a reason? Many people believe so, but as we discussed yesterday, sometimes things happen because of the kind of world we live. What do I mean by that? What kind of world do we live in? Our world demonstrates at least the following three tendencies that very much affect why things happen.

First, something scientists call the second law of thermodynamics – this is a principle of heat transfer that says things, generally, move from order to disorder.  The technical word for this is entropy.  Things rot, they rust, they wear out, they break.  It is the super-rare exception that a car, for example, would improve its working order.  Cars break down and need tune ups.  Our bodies heal, yes, but the normal tendency is that they age and break down.  This is what Paul is likely referring to in Romans 8:21 when he says that creation is in bondage to decay.

Second, Satan is in the world, tempting, lying, and as we read in Scripture devouring. And he is no joke.  We should be cautious in our view of Satan’s influence.  I so often hear that a person is going through a difficult situation because of Satan.  But we really don’t know that Satan is responsible, do we?  If your car is broken down, it’s almost certainly not because of Satan; it is because cars follow the second law of thermodynamics, and they break down.  It seems to me that we are generally too quick to blame Satan, and maybe we blame Satan when it was actually our own fault.  He is real, though, and powerful, and he does tempt and devour.

The third way to describe our world is talk about the broken and fallen nature of people.  People are in the world using their free will in ways that are selfish and harmful.  Sometimes we are dealing with pain of our own making.  Sometimes the pain is brought on us by others.  Sometimes it is both.  Because we have free will, and we don’t always use it in a way that is in keeping with God’s Kingdom, it leads to pain. 

But does that mean God is hand’s off?  Deism is a view of God that says this.  God created the universe, he set things in motion, but is now hand’s off.  Like a bowler releasing his bowing ball.  Is God like that?

Or is God in control?  That is the second phrase we’re fact-checking.  I’m bringing them together at this point because they are related.  “God is in control” is very much connected to the idea that “Everything happens for a reason.”  Usually we think of God like that.  He is in control, and therefore the pain we’re going through must have meaning or a purpose.  There is a reason. 

But does God control things like that?  If he does, then why is there so much pain and evil in the world?  Some people state, assuming that God is good and that God is all-powerful, that he would control the world so that there would not be pain or evil. Because the world is obviously filled with pain and evil, they conclude that either God is not good or God is not all-powerful.  As a result, some say, God doesn’t exist. 

These are deep questions, hard questions, scary to bring up.  But let’s face it head on.  What do we Christians do with this situation of evil and wickedness in the world?  Is God in control? 

We Christians respond to this in a number of ways.  And that is what we will investigate in our next post, so check back in!

Everything happens for a reason? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s involvement in our lives. Part 1]

18 Mar
Image result for order and disorder

How involved do you think God is in your life? Does he seem distant? Or does he seem close? Maybe he shows up, but only rarely?

With this post we begin a series fact-checking common sayings related to God’s interaction with the world.  This is very much related to what we talked about in the previous series of posts, as we talk about God’s involvement in our lives especially when we are going through difficult times.  We start wondering what God thinks about our pain, and what he might have to do with it, and if he will step in and free us from our pain.  When the answers to our musings don’t come easily, we can spout ideas that make us feel better. But are they true? Let’s take a look at the phrases we’re going to be fact-checking in this series:

  1. Everything happens for a reason.
  2. God is in control.
  3. Let go and let God.
  4. God works in mysterious ways.

You might be surprised to see some or all of these included in this list!  Why would a Christian possibly need to fact check the phrase, “God is in control?”  Am I suggesting that God is not in control?  We’re going to find out!  But we start with…

Everything happens for a reason.  Does everything actually happen for a reason?  By asking that question, I don’t mean to insinuate that everything might not have a cause.  All things have a cause.  When we say “everything happens for a reason,” however, we are usually looking for the good that could come out of a difficult time.  The silver lining, we call it. 

In fact, when we are going through a hard time, we often NEED to think that everything happens for a reason.  We need to make sense of pain and difficulty.  We would struggle even worse, emotionally, theologically, and philosophically, we think, if there was no reason for the hardship we’re facing.

So are there any passages in the Bible that could support the idea that everything happens for a reason?  The go-to verse is Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”  It sure sounds like this verse supports the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” But does it?

Scan through the whole chapter, and you’ll see that Paul is talking about suffering and how the Holy Spirit actually prays for us when we don’t know what to pray.

The NIV starts a new paragraph at verse 28, and I would like to suggest that might not be a good editorial choice, as it seems that Paul was actually continuing a line of thinking throughout the whole chapter.  Look at the near context, for example, in verses 26-27, and you’ll find Paul teaching that the Holy Spirit is praying that God’s will would be done in our lives, and thus it follows in verse 28 that we know that all things work together for good to those who love God. 

That doesn’t mean that we will agree with God’s will for us, or that we will even know what God’s best for us is.  God doesn’t promise in this passage to explain it all to us.  Instead, what Paul is saying is that we can trust that there is definitely spiritual work going on in the spiritual realm, and it is for our good.  We just might not now realize it.

This morning’s devotions from An American Lent (Sun. March 17, 2019) spoke to this when they said, “But, he is also the God who is able to reveal his goodness in the midst of the most horrific circumstances. He is everywhere and so his goodness can be found there too.” But we might not always find it.

To say that all our sufferings happen for a reason places a far too heavy burden on us to figure it out!  Sometimes, and maybe even most times, bad things happen because the world is a fallen world.  What does it mean that the world is a fallen world?  That it is always bad, always evil? NO.  But instead a broken and fallen world demonstrates at least three tendencies, and we’ll review those in the next post.

How to walk through pain [False ideas Christians believe about…difficulty. Part 5]

15 Mar
Photo by Thiago Barletta on Unsplash

How should we respond in the midst of pain?

The psalmists often lament, crying out their complaint to God as to why he is not answering their prayer.  This is why we are fact-checking statement about dealing with difficulty. The post you are reading is number 5 of 5. If you’re starting here, I encourage you to go back to the first post, as we fact-checked statements like “God helps those who help themselves,” and “This too shall pass,” finding that we Christians are too quick to dole out these mantras and can actually increase a person’s pain. Many going through hard times are actively seeking God, remaining faithful to God, even if it seems God has grown silent and is nowhere to be found. So what can we say to people that will help them?

First of all, we need to check out motivation and pause before we say or do anything. Remember that difficulty is called difficulty because it is difficult.  We struggle.  We feel anxiety, panic, stress, and fear.

Perhaps the best initial response is simply to give the person a hug, and affirm that you love them and are here for them. Then pray for them, out loud, right then and there. You don’t need to make any statements about the pain going away. Just like the lamenters in the psalms do, just ask God to be there.

Then listen. Allow the person to talk. We Christians would do well to practice the discipline of empathy, learning to mourn with those who mourn, as Paul says in Romans 12:15.

As difficult as it can be in those situations, the proper response is to continue to trust in God, following the way of Jesus. 

It is okay to try to encourage someone with the phrase, “this too shall pass”, but be empathetic to remember that the person is struggling, and it might not pass. These statements are proverbial, meaning they are generally true, but there are exceptions.  And those exceptions are what we need to be very attuned to.  People and their struggles don’t fit neatly into categories. 

It is okay to try to point someone to God in the midst of their struggle, but remember that they might have been seeking God already for days, months, and all they are feeling is distance.  In those moments, it is okay to lament, to complain to God, saying “How long O Lord, are you going to make me wait?”

My wife recently heard someone speak about losing their child.  They said they turned to their spouse at that moment and said, “This will forever change us.  How we move forward in this will determine exactly what changes it makes.”  This couple decided to pray hard and regularly for God to grow them and teach them through this pain that will be with them forever.  I can tell you, as we know them on the other side of their pain, that that is exactly what happened.  There are other situations where I’ve seen pain, and people have simply just asked God to remove it.  Sometimes he does, but sometimes it is not removed.  Some people battle for years with bitterness and anger and negativity. How we walk through difficulty matters. We are not promised it will be taken away.  We are not guaranteed to be able to handle it on our own.  Sometimes stuff happens because our own choices, or because of others’ choices.  Sometimes stuff happens because of how poorly we handle it or how badly we respond to other’s actions.  Stuff happens because we live in a fallen world with sickness and disease.  Through it all God is here.  He hasn’t left.  Let’s invite Him into our mess and ask him to change us and grow us to be more like Him, even as we do the work to make things different in the midst of it.

This too shall pass? [False ideas Christians believe about…difficulty. Part 4]

14 Mar
Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

Are the difficult times in life good or bad? You might read that and think, “How could difficult times ever be good?” Well, when we experience suffering, we tend to feel more helpless and needy and thus we pray more. Increased levels of communication with God, as with any relationship in which greater communication almost always results in being closer to the person, leads to a good change: increased intimacy with God. Maybe difficult times, then, are good? 

So many of us have experienced a deep closeness with God during the hard times.  Therefore, we sometimes say that the phrase, “During times of suffering, you’ll be closer to God.” But is it true?

What we have seen in this series fact-checking phrases that Christians commonly believe is that, like the two-liner statements in the biblical Proverbs, many of these phrases are not guaranteed promises, but they are statements that are generally true.  The same can be said about “during suffering, you’ll be closer to God.”

While generally true, we need to see that this statement is sometimes false, given that some people have gone through suffering and lost their faith!  So this statement is not a promise.  Suffering often brings us closer to God, but it also sometimes crushes faith.  We need to be very sensitive to that.  Many people in the midst of suffering are having a crisis of faith.  God gave us free will, and there are many responses to difficult circumstances.

And that brings us to our next statement.  When people are in the midst of suffering, we say, “This too shall pass.”

How many of you say this?  Or have heard it said?  It is a go-to phrase for many. Is it in the Bible?  Nope. So why do people say this?

Because people in the midst of struggle are really having a hard time, and they need hope.  So we tell them “this too shall pass,” trying too give them hope that the pain will eventually finish.  But is that true? 

Generally, yes.  Most difficult times have an end date.  Yet in the midst of the difficulty, it is very, very hard for us to be comforted by a possible good future.  We are in the pain now, and we can think that the rest of our lives will be this way.

So there is a tension in the reality of life. Whether it is a health situation or a financial situation or a difficult relationship, it is generally true that they almost always pass, get resolved. But not always. Look, for example, at 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.  Paul reminds us that our troubles will all pass. Here’s the thing thought: the pain might not be done until we die and are pain-free in heaven.  But it will pass. 

That is a harsh reality…this too might not pass until we die.

One of my first acts as senior pastor was to gather a bunch of people to meet with an elderly man in our congregation to pray for him and anoint him with oil.  He was sick and was hoping and praying for healing, and God did not answer that prayer for healing.  James 5 even says that God will heal.  Instead, a few months later that man passed away.  The sickness did not pass on this side of heaven.  Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians that he, himself, had what he called a “thorn in the flesh” and he asked God numerous times to take it away.  We don’t know what the thorn was.  Could be a broken relationship.  Could be a health problem.  Could be an enemy.  But God never takes it away from Paul. 

So again, we have a proverbial phrase.  Pain generally will pass and things will go back to normal.  There are most often seasons in life.  And seasons come and go.  Writing this in the northeastern United States in early March, I am personally ready for the warmer temps of spring!  In parenting, there are seasons.  We recently had an interesting conversation with one of our college-age sons.  He was home for a visit, and somehow we got to talking about these seasons in life.  My wife mentioned that once our kids turned 12-15 years old, we as parents suddenly lost most of our knowledge and became dumb and irrelevant.  But once the kids turned 19-20, we parents amazingly became smart again!  There are seasons, and the statement “this too shall pass” reflects how that is generally true.  Most often, the difficulty comes and goes. 

But not always.  So again, be sensitive to those in pain.  They are in the middle, struggling.  Encourage them and be with them in the pain.  But, do not give false promise that it will guaranteed be taken away.  That is not a promise God gives.  We can and should hope for that, work towards that and pray for it.  But, that is different than saying that God has made it a promise.

As we talked about earlier, in the pain, many can have a crisis of faith.  Sometimes we think “God why are you allowing me to go through this?”  And it seems to us that God is silent.  Nowhere to be found. 

So how should we respond in the midst of pain? Check back in to part 5, and we’ll explore how to have a healthy approach to the difficulty in life.