by Dennis Michelson
Psalm 22:1 - "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Introduction: In pastoral ministry I am often confronted by people who have two basic questions. The first one is "why?" The second is "how long?" The words of our text plunge the depths of both of these questions, especially since they were uttered years later by our Lord on the Cross. These questions have plagued the faithful over the generations.
Jeremiah asked "Righteous art thou, O LORD, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? Wherefore are they all happy that deal very treacherously?" Job was bothered by the same dilemma "Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power?"
The question seems to be - if God is both omnipotent and perfectly good, then how can He permit such evil? It seems that the existence of evil calls into question the existence and nature of God. Some say (erroneously) that if He is willing but not able to stop evil and suffering, then He is not omnipotent. Others (erroneously) posit that if He is able but unwilling, then He is not perfectly good.
Believers do not generally face this problem until something takes place in their life that jolts them to the core. The problem then is that their brief theological answers are rarely satisfying. They go along through life with "Christian slogans" like "suffering is the result of sin; free will means that God leaves people to make their own mistakes; or heaven and hell will set the record straight."
When our Christianity encounters a crisis then we want something more than the assurance that are beliefs are consistent. We want to "know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye may be filled with all the fulness of God." (Ephesians 3:19) This does not mean that our beliefs are irrelevant. It means that you need to learn how to find comfort in those beliefs.
If your beliefs are not consistently applied in the suffering and challenges of life then they appear incapable of bringing comfort, stability, godliness, strength, humility, joy, holiness and faith. CONSISTENT BELIEFS, INCONSISTENTLY APPLIED ARE LIKE BEING RIGHT WITHOUT BEING RIGHTEOUS. This leads to an unattractive brand of Christianity where we use our beliefs to "make" everyone else righteous - but ourselves!
The following are five ways to avoid this kind of Christless, Crossless, Christianity:
1. We resort to limited thinking by having an imbalanced view of Scripture.
We tend to remember the triumphs and forget the tragedies. The "good guys" do not always win in the short run.
2. We succumb to the tyranny of the urgent.
We think that if God is going to relieve our sufferings, then He must do it immediately. We equate delay with denial. (Revelation 6:9-10)
3. We misunderstand certain key texts.
We use Romans 8:28 as a slogan but there is nothing in that text that promises us an easy time, or even a quick way out of the groaning to which the entire universe is subject. Read the first 27 verses of the chapter.
4. We have a form of theology with all of the answers.
We have developed standard answers to every problem - especially if the problem is afflicting some other person. We become just like Job's "friends." When our certainity and our dogmatism gives us so much assurance that we leave no room for mystery then we are headed for a devasting catastrophe. Our confidence does not bring comfort since we only know a lot about the Bible but very little of the God of the Bible.
Christianity that is nothing but certainties becomes haughty and arrogant, rigid and unbending. The God of such Christianity is just not big enough to be trusted when you are up to your neck in the muck and pain of life. A Christianity that has no mysetery will fall short in the day of adversity. Conversely, a Christianity that is all mystery leaves nothing to proclaim but mere faith in faith.
5. We have not adequately reflected on the Cross.
We have rightly focused on the Cross as our means for salvation but given little thought to taking that Cross up daily and filling up the sufferings of Christ. God had only one Son without sin, but has no sons without suffering! When we become arrogant and angry then it suggests that we think we should be exempt from cross-bearing.
When life conflicts with our learning then we tend to develop theodicies. A theodicy is a theological and philosophical study which attempts to prove God's intrinsic or foundational nature. Be careful that in your sincere attempt to "put God in a box" that you do not arrive at sub-biblical, or even sub-Christian conclusions. Much of popular Christianity has done this very thing. Please note the following three sub-biblical views:
1. God is not omnipotent or has limited His omnipotence.
2. God has made humans totally free. Of course if humans are totally free then God must be absolutely contingent at some point.
3. Knowledge of evil is necessary in order to have knowledge of good.
All three of these views are currently taught in the professing Christian Church. Now note four sub-christian views (theodicies):
1. Atheism means that the universe is primarily mechanistic. If there is no God then there is no evil.
2. God is less than omnipotent. A famous example comes from the bestseller by Rabbi Harold Kushner, entitled "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." After the Rabbi lost his son he resorted to a sub-christian theodicy and came to believe that God could not have prevented the death of his son. He said, "I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die."
3. Deism. God did make the watch, wound it up, and is simply absent while it runs down.
4. Pantheism. God and the universe are one. This is the theodicy embraced by Hindus, New Age, and "mystical Christians."
Conclusion: When we suffer unjustly then we cry for justice. Is it justice we really want? Why, then, the Cross? If justice would suffice, then Jesus died in vain. If God had simply been "just" with Jesus then He would not have sent Him to the Cross. Is it simply justice we really want? What do we do with a God who loves us so much that He sends His Son to bear our suffering?
How must these realities which lie at the center of our faith bear on our understanding of the problem of evil and suffering? From any Christian perspective, our theoretical and practical approach to evil and suffering must focus and fasten on the Cross - or we will be found to be sub-biblical or even sub-christian.
Personal Note: I am in the generation of those who lost their direction but increased their speed. On many occasions I have heard preachers get louder as their arguments grew weaker. I am heartened by the fact that as many of my generation have grown older they have also started growing up. I do agree that "all truth is God's truth" but none of us know the Truth as well as we think we do and even more know less of God. May this be our prayer:
"That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death . . .Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Jesus Christ." (Philippians 3:10-12)