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Can a Good God Bring Pain?

Dave Zuleger / October 5, 2015
Can a Good God Bring Pain?

Do you believe that God can author pain or suffering in your life for your good? Could affliction, from a larger, longer perspective, be a carefully, lovingly chosen method for blessing?

Some say absolutely not. If our heavenly Father brings pain, he would be an abusive parent. And so they are offended by statements like this:

Suffering is one of the great instruments in God’s hands to continue to reveal to us our dependence on him and our hope in him. God is good to give us the greatest gift he can give us, which is more of himself, and he’s good however he chooses to deliver that gift.

For some facing excruciating pain or loss, they’re some of the sweetest words they’ve ever heard. For others, the same vision of God makes them sick to their stomach.

At least part of the problem is how this vision of God’s goodness in bringing suffering is often presented. Sadly, some of us have been guilty of entering a painful situation, rattling off Romans 8:28, and expecting everyone to feel better. Romans 8:28 is a beautiful promise, but it can also feel like a blunt sledgehammer to people who are hurting and don’t yet understand quite what God is doing in their pain, even if they believe Romans 8:28 with all their hearts.

On the other hand, some will simply say that all Romans 8:28 means is that God will turn this evil thing, a thing that he could not help from happening, into some sort of good for us. They present a God suddenly sovereign enough to reverse the situation, a situation he wasn’t sovereign enough to stop in the first place.

With the first person, we are left wondering, “But what is the good in this situation, God? What is the good in this deep pain?” With the second, we have the nagging feeling that even though sin, Satan, and a fallen world have something to do with our pain, the all-sovereign God who loves us couldn’t stop it.

Two Layers of All Pain

A way forward lies in seeing the two-tiered reality of our pain. In all pain, there are always two sources or agents at work, but only one is ultimately ruling. One source is the reality of brokenness and sin. Because of the worldwide rebellion against God, Satan rules the current evil age. The other and ultimate source of every pain is God, who “declares the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10) and “does whatever pleases him” (Psalm 135:6).

In Job 2:5, Satan asks God for permission to afflict Job to prove that Job will turn his back on God. Satan does not get the final call. God grants him permission, and establishes rules (2:6). Satan afflicts him, sparing his life (2:7–8). Job’s wife comes and says, “Curse God and die,” because of the suffering (2:9). Job responds, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10).

God could have stopped it. Someone might protest and rebuke Job, “Job, don’t say that! God doesn’t bring pain. It was Satan!” However, the immediate context in Job says, “In all this, Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10). Job got it right. Later, his friends came to comfort and show sympathy for “the evil the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11).

Job’s experience sounds a lot like Amos 3:6, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?”

The Pain of Calvary

Or, what about the most undeserved pain ever inflicted, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? Clearly, Satan was at work, entering into Judas (Luke 22:3) to betray Jesus into the hands of his murderers. However, when we read about the suffering of Christ in the Bible, we find a different person writing the gruesome story.

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief. (Isaiah 53:10)

Again, Satan seems to be instigating the evil, and yet God is sovereignly willing the death of his Son. Pilate and the religious leaders delivered him up to the cross, so maybe they’re the ones to blame. But ultimately the Bible won’t go there either: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Satan is at work, yet God is still sovereign over the cross (and over Satan). God wills pain for good purposes and results. Like a Father disciplining his children for their long-term maturity and happiness, God brings pain into our lives for our good (Hebrews 12:5–11).

As we read and see that Christ endured the suffering “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2), we begin to see that maybe God knows what we need to be truly, eternally safe and happy far better than we do ourselves. Even when Satan and this broken world around us try and afflict us to kill us, if we belong to Christ, God is authoring it for our greatest, most lasting good (Romans 8:28; Genesis 50:20).

Two More Examples

In 2 Corinthians 12:7, a “messenger of Satan” afflicts Paul. Certainly, Satan is the source here, right? Yes, except that the purpose given for the messenger is, “to keep me from becoming conceited.” Do we think Satan didn’t want Paul to be conceited? No, this must be God’s purpose in Paul’s pain. And Paul asks God to take it away. But he says, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Enduring pain, Paul learns to rely on the grace of God. Though afflicted, he gets more of God.

Likewise, Peter says these Christians he was writing to rejoice while they are “grieved by various trials” (1 Peter 1:6). The purpose of their suffering is that as their faith, when tested with trials, comes out on the other side, it becomes more precious than the most refined gold (1 Peter 1:7). Again, deep, durable, and precious faith must be a purpose of God, not of Satan. Satan hates faith. And this tested-through-fire faith results in “inexpressible and glorified joy” (1 Peter 1:8).

The Best God Gives

So, what is the good from God in pain? Where is the joy in suffering? It’s in more of God. It’s more dependence (2 Corinthians 1:9), less sin (2 Corinthians 12:7), deeper faith, and increasing, everlasting, unshakeable joy that can only be found through refining. To be sure, this process only works if you have a vision of life and reality that prizes God’s glory as the only place anyone can be fully and eternally happy.

As believers, we should be slow to speak and quick to listen when we enter into others’ pain, giving time and perspective to let God speak into the situation. At the same time, let’s not run from the reality that God indeed brings pain. It’s a hard, but necessary truth for our faith and joy in Christ that will ultimately enable us to persevere and heal with hope and confidence. He knows what we need better than we do. As a master physician with a painful prescription, his ultimate goal is not our harm, but our greatest good.

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We Need to Talk About Submission

Kim Cash Tate / October 5, 2015
We Need to Talk About Submission

Maybe you’ve been there — a personal conversation, a Christian conference, a popular blog — where the mere mention of “submission” is followed by a verbal frenzy:

  • An apology for the mention (“I know, we don’t want to hear it, but . . .”).
  • An apology for God (“He’s not being unfair . . . I know it may seem that way . . .”).
  • A bow to feminism (“Women are some of the most powerful people on the planet, amen?”).
  • An escape clause (“God understands how hard this is . . .”).

I find myself surprised when someone speaks in a straightforward manner of the God-ordained role of a wife to lovingly support and submit to her husband (who has his own God-ordained expectations as he submits to Christ). Increasingly, it seems, the subject is deemed unfit for polite conversation, even among believers — even from the pulpit.

Perhaps as a woman, this should please me. The further we drift from talk of submission, the easier my life becomes. With tacit agreement that this is hard, outdated, and maybe even unfair, I am free to embrace a measure of leadership, assertiveness, and other “natural gifts” in my home.

But as a follower of Christ, my desire is to see Jesus glorified, not my flesh. And submission is tied directly to the glory and honor due to our Lord and his word. The dialogue may not be replete with “amens,” but here are three reasons we need to talk unapologetically about submission.

1. Submission points to the supremacy of Christ.

When I hear a reference to marriage as an illustration of Christ and his church, it is usually the “one flesh” verse that is cited (Ephesians 5:31). There’s nothing hierarchical there. Nothing controversial. The husband and wife become one; Christ is one with the church. It’s a beautiful picture that we embrace.

But there’s another marriage illustration, one that is purely hierarchical — submission. The husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. And as the church is subject to Christ, so is the wife to her husband, in everything (Ephesians 5:22–24). This is a beautiful illustration as well. It reveals that submission in marriage is but a sub-focus, a reflection. It points to a greater glory.

When we marginalize submission in marriage, we dull the reflection. If we don’t talk about it — let alone, live it — the whole notion of submission becomes foreign. The world needs to know that there is divine order and authority. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is seated at the right hand of the Father, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, with everything in subjection under his feet (Ephesians 1:20–22).

Submission in marriage bears witness to our risen Lord who reigns supreme. Rather than shy away from the topic, we ought to embrace it as an opportunity to point people to the greater glory of Christ.

2. Submission esteems the truth.

When we hear “Titus 2,” we likely think of an older woman and a younger woman. In fact, we may picture a mentor-mentee relationship more than we actually consider what the older woman is to teach the younger. Yet a specific list is given, and among the character qualities and duties is this: The younger woman is to be subject to her own husband (Titus 2:5). There’s a reason given: so that the word of God will not be dishonored.

But what if the older woman decides not to touch the issue? What if the church they attend isn’t affirming it? What if the younger woman concludes that, since no one is talking about it, it must not be for today?

As believers, we don’t want to resemble in the slightest way those who suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). To the contrary, our obligation is to uphold the truth of the word of God, no matter the times we live in, no matter how uncomfortable we may be. And granted, we will feel uncomfortable talking about submission in many circles. The discomfort is by design. The god of this world has waged assault on submission in order to suppress this truth.

As Christians, we would not seek to align ourselves with his mission. Yet, if submission is relegated to the realm of those things we just don’t talk about, truth takes a hit. Conversely, when we embrace the beauty and glory in submission and help others to do the same, the word is glorified.

3. Submission affirms God’s created order.

More and more, we will be called to witness to people from the book of beginnings, Genesis, to illumine God’s will for marriage. That the first married couple was a man and a woman is key, of course. But also key is the order in which they were created — man first, then woman — and the purpose for which the woman was created.

God fashioned Eve from Adam’s rib because Adam needed a suitable helper. Any notion that submission is somehow the product of the fall or of the times in which the New Testament was written is simply untrue. In the garden, where all was declared “very good,” submission was in view. It was central to the divine beauty and perfection that existed in their marital relationship.

To retreat from the topic of submission is to throw aside fundamentals of marriage that God ordained from the beginning. If ever there were a time to dialogue about marriage, submission, and the attendant glory of Christ, it is now.

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Home Alone

Marshall Segal / October 4, 2015
Home Alone

One of the most common conflicts in homes today is triggered by a smartphone. Someone in most homes has cultivated the habit of disconnecting from others in the room and constantly checking his phone. In fact, if you’re around long enough, it feels less like a habit and more like a right or basic need — air, food, sleep, and Facebook.

I’ve been that person in our home, and am making serious effort to change.

The message we’re really sending while sending one more quick text is: Better to be away from the family — the spouse, the children, the roommate, the guest — and at home with the phone. As Sherry Turkle has observed, our phones now present the potential to be with someone, but always somewhere else as well (Alone Together, 152). To constantly check our phone, then, is to put up an away message and declare that we’re not really there. We’re home together, yet home alone.

The same device that connects us with people all over the world alienates us from those just across the room. It’s the in-home home-wrecker. The trade-offs are pretty silly when we stop and look up long enough to weigh them. We trade the needs in front of us, the meaningful conversation with our spouse or children, the opportunity to truly know and be known, and for what?

Angry birds
Sports scores
Facebook comments
Fantasy football
YouTube videos
Celebrity gossip
Breaking news
Doodle Jump
Text messages

None of them wrong, but none of them worth living or dying for, either. None worth straining a marriage, family, or friendship for.

The Lies That Bind

Satan presents a host of lies to keep us attached to our phones — a kind of twisted spiritual “upgrade” from the corded phone — and detached from those around us. Phones were once attached to walls; now we’re attached to them. There are more lies, of course, than I could identify or address here. Two lies, though, are especially compelling and sum up a lot of the others.

On the one hand, we’ve been taught that we’re each an indispensible part of the world’s engine, a hinge on which everyone else in our lives precariously hangs. What would they do without me? It would be selfish, even unloving, to close myself off completely from them. The world needs me.

On the other hand, we hang our hearts on the world, longing to be wanted, longing for the next affirmation, for that feeling of being important and included. We’ve been wired from birth to want love, and so we fall into a speed-dating world of work emails, social networks, and viral videos. We cling to our phones because we crave the world’s attention and affection. I need the world.

Gaining freedom from our phones requires being liberated from lies like these that bind the technology to us like links in a cold, steel chain.

Lie #1: The World Needs Me

For some of us, a savior complex tethers us to our phones. We’re afraid something will happen and someone will need us — and only us — immediately. What could they possibly do if we weren’t available? Well, probably whatever they did for thousands of years before the telephone existed, or for a couple hundred more while it was anchored to the wall. Or more likely, and yet strangely unthinkable to a me-centered generation, they’ll just call someone else.

If we put the phone down and went for a walk, we might be willing to admit we’re not as needed as we think or act. But that’s scary, too. We love being needed.

But the world doesn’t need me. God has governed, preserved, and prospered the world without me for most of history — thousands and thousands of years. If I suddenly died tomorrow, there would undoubtedly be significant pain, loss, and change for a few, but the world would survive, move forward, and be just fine. The omniscient and omnipotent God is still in control, and utterly committed to fulfilling his work everywhere on the planet.

He will take care of every detail with perfect love, perfect timing, and unlimited power. And he’ll be especially and graciously attentive when it comes to protecting and providing for those who love him (Matthew 6:26, 30). That truth relieves us of trying to play God’s part and enables us to serve the small (yet significant) role he’s given each of us.

Ironically, by trying to “save” the world with our incessant availability — checking and checking and checking — we’re abandoning the world that needs us most, the people under our own roof. The people who need us most — and who we need most, if we’ll admit it — typically aren’t on the other end of an email or Tweet, but on the other end of the couch.

The face time you have with the people you live and work with cannot be replaced with Facetime (or Facebook, or Instagram, and certainly not by Buzzfeed). God has placed all of you — mind, body, and soul — in only one place at any one time, so all of you is only available, face to face, to a few.

The apostles knew that in the long run even personal handwritten letters were not enough (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 John 12; 3 John 13). Paul and John wanted to see these people (Romans 1:11). Tone, body language, facial expressions, and physical touch mattered in these relationships. We’ve lost track of the immeasurable and irreplaceable value of physical presence in relationships. That value puts a premium on the love we give and receive in our homes, our neighborhoods, our church families, and our workplaces.

Lie #2: I Need the World

We have a need to be needed. We love the idea that someone might text or call or tweet to get our attention. We don’t want to miss that moment when someone else thought of us. We need the world. Alert after alert, our phones justify and praise our existence. They reassure us that we are considered talented, important, and loved by someone — even if the affection is often shallow, superficial, and short-lived.

Our smartphones make us feel needed, and they give us control, or at least the mirage of control. Turkle writes, “Today, our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control. This can’t happen when one is face-to-face with a person” (157). We decide when to click, what apps to add, and who to engage. Face-to-face relationships aren’t as convenient as Facebook friends or Twitter followers. You can’t swipe a spouse or child away for a little while. But those relationships are the frontlines of faithfulness as well as the opportunities with the greatest potential for lasting impact.

The information age has transformed us all into need-to-know, nosy people. Like a desperate, sleep-deprived reporter, we check our sources every few minutes, looking for the next headline — sports, eating, politics, and parenting. We work hard to be in the know, but end up knowing everything about nothing. Tragically, we know the latest trends on Twitter, the funniest videos on Facebook, and the Instagrammed milestones of others’ infants, but we have a harder time answering questions about our own family or roommates.

As believers in Jesus and the gospel, our identity is never in how much we’re needed in this life, or in what we control, or in how much we know. Our life is measured by the life that was given for us, by the price that was paid to secure and satisfy us forever (1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Peter 1:19). We were made and saved not to be loved by social media, but by the almighty God of holiness and mercy.

Do Not Disturb

One practical way forward is to set up and use a Do Not Disturb feature on your phone. You can choose to still receive calls from particular people, or from people who call multiple times in an emergency, but you eliminate the vast majority of notifications. You can schedule it every night at a certain time or turn it on for an hour or two while you eat dinner or work on a project or spend time with your family.

If work is the reason you keep your phone so close, you probably have allowed work to creep too far into your life. Very, very few jobs require (or even expect) you to be available every minute of every day. In fact, your endless availability probably says more about your own needs than theirs.

To some, it may sound unloving or anti-social, but ironically it may be the most loving and inviting decision you make today. The truth is many of us have a Do No Disturb sign up most of the time. The question is whether it faces the world around us or the people beside us.

By shutting out the world for a few moments, you welcome those next to you in and give them more attention than they’re used to receiving (perhaps from anyone). You also remind your own heart, against all of Satan’s false promises (Matthew 4:8–9), where your treasure and security truly lie.

Undivided, undistracted attention is a precious commodity and gift today, like some handcrafted artifact from the ancient world. Surprise someone you love by ignoring your phone, leaving it out of sight, turning off alerts, and listening well.

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