Tag Archives: pain

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.

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!

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.

God helps those who help themselves? [False ideas Christians believe about…difficulty. Part 3]

13 Mar
Photo by J W on Unsplash

“If you are unemployed and need a job, and you pray for a job, don’t expect God to give you a job if all you do is collect unemployment while you sit on the couch all day watching Netflix and eating chips. Stop making excuses and get to the unemployment office!”

What do you think of that quote? Kinda sounds true, doesn’t it?  We even have biblical examples of this.  Nehemiah, for example, when he was leading the people to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, and they were being threatened with an attack, he didn’t just pray for God to rescue them.  He prayed and posted a guard. 

Or take dieting, another contemporary example. If you want to lose weight, it is good to pray about it, asking for strength, but you must also do the work of eating healthy and exercising. 

Why am I talking about this combination of prayer and work? Because the next phrase we’re fact-checking is “God helps those who help themselves.” We’re in the middle of a series looking at commonly-held ideas Christians have about dealing with difficulty. Earlier in the series we suggested that “God won’t give you more than you can handle” (here and here) is a phrase Christians should discontinue. But what about “God helps those who help themselves”?

Dealing with difficulty must be seen as the responsibility of both God and us.  So this phrase seems like a good one.  For the most part, I think it is a good phrase, but I do have one important clarification.

Does God ONLY help those who help themselves?  We can sometimes think like this.  When people are struggling, we can become very judgmental about them, very cynical, as it doesn’t seem like they are doing as much as we think they should do to deal with their difficulty. So we start thinking, “God will never help them.”  Or we can become very negative thinking, “God SHOULD never help them.”  Almost as if it would be wrong for God to help them because they aren’t doing enough. 

Doesn’t God, though, sometimes help those who don’t help themselves?  What if you are in a situation where you can’t help yourself?  Is it okay to pray for God’s help?

Sometimes we need God to intervene!  We can’t put God in a box.  He often responds uniquely to our pain, sometimes in surprising ways.  We would do well to be careful about becoming judgmental against those who are struggling, when we start feeling they should be doing a lot more to get themselves out of the difficulty. 

As Christians who are part of church families, we should not force people to handle pain all by themselves.  We are a part of community with a mission to love and help one another.

A few weeks ago, our home’s hot water started running out way faster than it should have.  It had happened years ago, and the plumber changed the heating elements on our water heater as they got corroded with build-up.  So I thought, I’m going to do it myself this time, and save money.  I bought the new elements, and I looked up a couple YouTube videos to learn what to do.  It seemed simple!  I put the socket on the bottom element to try to remove it, and though I pulled hard, it wouldn’t budge.  I tried harder, and the socket slipped, and my hand slammed into a sharp part of the heater, cutting it up, blood dripping everywhere.  I learned quickly that I needed help.  So I contacted a friend from church. He’s got the right tools and much more experience! The next evening he came over, and sure enough, helped me out.

Sometimes that’s what we need in our of struggles; people with more tools and experience in different areas than we have.  This is why God wants us living in community, in church families.

Remember the story of lame man?  His friends brought him to Jesus for healing, but the house where Jesus was teaching was so crowded, they couldn’t get in the door.  Their solution was to open up a hole in the roof, as roofs in those days were made of materials that you could open up.  They dropped the guy down on a stretcher right to Jesus.  Take notice of a prime detail in the story: the lame man could not go to Jesus himself, so his friends brought him.  It could be said, “that man didn’t help himself.”  But it didn’t matter.  His friends stepped in on his behalf, sought Jesus, and Jesus responded.  In fact Jesus says that he healed the man because of his friends’ faith!

Does that mean that if you seek Jesus you will be brought out of whatever circumstance you are in?  Does this mean that if you remain in a difficult circumstance it is because you aren’t working hard enough and so Jesus has decided he won’t help you?  Not at all.

This is why when people in our church are in hardship, we should be the loving community that visits them, makes meals for them, prays for them, loves them.  We don’t expect them to do it all alone. 

The general rule, though, is that when we ourselves are in hardship, we should pray and work towards healing and resolution.  And thus, the statement “God helps those who helps themselves,” has some value, but it absolutely needs the clarifications we discussed.

Check back in to part 4 of the series as we fact-check “During times of suffering you’ll be closer to God.”

When life crushes you [False ideas Christians believe about…difficulty. Part 2]

12 Mar
Photo by Mwangi Gatheca on Unsplash

Have you been there? The feeling of life crushing down on you, and you just want to crawl into a ball. Most of us have experienced that awful feeling, probably numerous times in our lives. We feel we can’t handle life, and wonder if we are failures. In the middle of the pain, we raise all sorts of questions about God and how he feels, and where he is, and if he cares.

In part 1 of this series fact-checking ideas Christians believe about dealing with difficulty, I introduced the phrase “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” and concluded that the first part of that statement is false. 

But what about the second part of the statement: “More than you can handle”?  What is that referring to?  What is more than you can handle?  That’s the image I mentioned in part 1 when God supposedly gives a person “boxes of pain” like a health crisis or a job loss, but as God keeps giving them more boxes (again, supposedly), the load eventually becomes too much, crashing down on a person, ruining them. In life this is very real. It could be a mental breakdown, it could mean declaring bankruptcy, it could be a divorce, or even death. 

I have two concerns with this.  

First, the statement “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” insinuates that God would never allow a person to go through such an awful situation that they would break down or die.  Look at real life, though, and you see that plenty of Christians regularly go through awful situations where they break down and die.  Think of Christians who are persecuted for their faith. Throughout history many thousands upon thousands have died for their faith.  But we don’t need to go to the extreme of death. People of all kinds regularly go through extremely difficult situations, and they feel overwhelmed by the pain. Clearly God allows people to go through more than they can handle. So this second phrase of the statement is also wrong. 

The second problem I have with “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is that this statement can create the expectation that a Christian should be able to handle everything flawlessly, even the horrible situations in life.  It gives the impression that if we have a breakdown of some kind, whether a divorce or an emotional breakdown or a bankruptcy, then we are failures as Christ-followers. Because God apparently wouldn’t give us more than we can handle, our breakdown is our fault, our lack of faith. Many people have borne that guilt, finding it to be a crushing pain on top of the difficulty they’re already facing.

Is God like that? Does he expect us to be so filled with faith that we should never struggle no matter how bad life gets? Not at all. Therefore my conclusion is that this statement is not true, not biblical, and we should stop using it. 

What is true is that God is with us in the midst of our pain.  He will never leave us.  We can go to him for strength and for wisdom and for comfort.  He is always available.

In 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, the Apostle Paul says that God comforts us in the midst of our pain!  That is the truth we need to cling to. If you have felt the weight of the world crashing down on you, know that God is ready with open arms to forgive if you need to be forgiven, to comfort if you need to be comforted, and to guide you if you need wisdom. He doesn’t give you more than you can handle, but life sometimes does, and know that God is for you and with you.

Check back in to part 3 when we fact-check the next phrase about dealing with difficulty: “God helps those who help themselves.”