Deep – Confused

Psalm 73:25 (NIV)

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.


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Additional reading: Psalm 73

There are three words which will make the strongest man weak in the knees; the most courageous man slink away like a wounded dog; the most upbeat man queuing up for a Zoloft script; and Dwayne Johnson wannabes crying like a baby. These three words will either be words of life or they will be words of death:

“Some Assembly Required”

Maybe it’s just my learning style – which in educational parlance is ‘when all else fails, read the instructions’, when I have to assemble something, I just look at the bits and pieces, line ‘em up, and get into it. But then, as my wife knows very well, there will also be tears.

One particular event – the desk – comes to mind. The instructions were written in Ingrish. Originally Chinese, then translated into Swahili, and then to English. Of sorts. The desk was an Officeworks item, and I was putting the top on the desk, and it looked all symmetrical, so I guessed it didn’t matter which way it went on, right? Unhappily, it was asymmetrical in one tiny place. And that stopped the  thing from going onto the rest of the frame… So I am huffing and puffing and kind of thankful that these flat packs do not come with their own blood pressure monitor, and we’re living in Queensland, and it’s frightfully humid, and it just should not be this difficult!!

To say that I was CONFUSED by the experience would have been delightfully G-Rated, but totally unlike what actually transpired…

Maybe we think that faith should be more like a flat pack: You have the instructions. You read and follow the instructions. So you should get what you spent your money on.

Confused

Many Christians, perhaps unawares, operate like this: I go to church. I identify as a Christian. I pray. So, life should not be this complicated, and the fact that it is this complicated leaves me pretty confused.

We all know people who have gotten stuck by life circumstances: they follow Jesus, but things don’t seem to work out the way they expected. So in their confusion they decide to unfriend and unfollow God.

Such confusion is not only an individual thing. It can affect communities. Attendances might be inconsistent. Finances can get tight. It can be a struggle to find people to serve in different aspects of ministry. It confuses us… it just should not be this difficult, right?? Let’s be open about that. But one thing we should not do is think it is too much of a struggle and  give up. We must not let our confusion or the discomfort of our situation determine our response.

My guess is this has only become a significant issue for the church over the last 200 years. The more we have modernised, become affluent, the more health and standards of living have improved the more we expect our faith to make life easier. Everything else is so much easier than it may have been for our grandparents. We have instant information via the internet. We have instant hot water. We have instant light. We arrange doctor’s appointments via a phone app. And we expect following Jesus to be much the same.

But if things are tough we should neither be confused nor surprised, for plenty of Christ’s people before us have shared that experience before us. Read the Scriptures however and you will that is not the experience of even the most faithful of God’s people. The writer of Psalm 73 could identify with our confusion:

“But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.” (Psalm 73:2–5, NIV)

Or who could forget about Job? Lost his livelihood, his health and his children. Could not see any rhyme or reason to his sudden descent into the valley of the shadow of death, yet he maintained that God was not punishing him.

Think of Jesus. Sinless, holy son of God. Blameless. Righteous. Yet reviled and rejected. He had nowhere to lay his head. Beaten. Scorned. Crucified.

If this was Jesus’ experience, it should not surprise us if it is also ours. No servant is greater than his master.

My portion

Quite amazingly, the Psalmists who often lay tangled in the loose ends of suffering remained confident in God. The David who was hounded and exiled on several occasions could also write

“Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” (Psalm 16:5–6, NIV)

The writer whose soul panted for God as a deer pants for water could also write

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (Psalm 46:1–3, NIV)

As Paul remained in prison he could write

“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10–11, NIV)

Yet in suffering deep and unknown could confess

“…in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10, NIV)

Rarely are we so honest.

These scriptures expose our tendency to place unhealthy, unwise and unwarranted expectations on the church and on the God whom we worship. That it should be easier. That it certainly should not be as difficult as it is.

I say this for two reasons.

One, I believe that in this time of challenge God is driving us back to himself, and challenging our the focus of our faith and discipleship. Frederick Beuchner has remarked that these situations are ‘the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.’

Part of the problem is that our church culture tends to be determined by what we want out of a church:

Great preaching. Brilliant music. Engaging programs for children and youth. Modern facilities. Effective discipleship. A vision and mission we can connect with. Powerful evangelism. Oh, and great coffee…

Is church a context in which we truly worship God, or just another context where we want God to make us happy?

All those things are good, but isn’t this just checklist Christianity? Where the church that gets the most ticks is the one we go for?

David Platt has said

We are settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is about abandoning ourselves and following Jesus

So here is the challenge: Is corporate worship a context in which we truly worship God, or just another context where we want God to make us happy?

Two: think of what might have been. Imagine if we were never in challenging  and trying situations. That services were always full, that our music teams had a full complement of musicians and vocalists. That we had plenty of leaders for our ministries, oodles of room for activities, and outreach program that was pumping, producing converts. That disciples were growing and creating more disciples. That everything was just great.

Would we ever get to ask the hard questions we’re asking now? Would we be in touch with our thirst, or emptiness, our spiritual distance and our confusion?

See, when all we want to do is avoid the discomfort, God wants us to feel it, to know it, to own it, and to learn from it.

when all we want to do is avoid the discomfort, God wants us to feel it, to know it, to own it, and to learn from it

The best thing we can do with our difficult situation  is bring it to God, acknowledge the blessings we have received, acknowledge our tendency to trust in the work of our own hands, repent of that tendency, and ask him to revive us again.

Into God’s presence

That’s the point: we need to observe in the things that are not the best the promptings of the One who is the best. In the things that are not as good as they could be, we need to renew our love for the One who is more good than we can possibly imagine. In all our struggles and failures we look to Christ who is our victor and our glory. Our comfort can never be in the things we do. Our only comfort can be Jesus, knowing him, and being known by him.

So, if we’re confused with where things are at, here’s how we can respond:

Recognise Jesus

His death has brought us right into the presence of the living Lord!

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:19–23, NIV)

He is the living water, soothing the thirst of our hearts. He is the bread of life, satisfies our emptiness of soul. He counted his glory as nothing, gone the distance, bridged the gap, and reconciled us to God. Christ and Christ alone will resolve the confusion we feel, for in him is life, true life

He said:

“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3, NIV)

Repent

Sounds like a big call, but where we’ve placed our trust in things, in people, we need to acknowledge that, turn to God, and seek his forgiveness. We have placed improper expectations on the church, and sought in the church that which only Christ can give. Blindly we have followed out culture, placed ourselves at the centre of life, even of the church. We need to turn around, and return to Jesus as the first love of our hearts, the living water, true bread, the One who died to reconcile us, who as the way, the truth, the life ends our confusion forever.

Live differently

Love Jesus daily, through renewed and daily prayer that he change and transform us, conforming us to his likeness. We can do this by loving others.

It takes time to rebuild, and where we end up will always be a little different to where we have been before. One thing you can do is commit to growing healthy God honouring community. Do all you can to help build a great church.

Love your church

Meaning? Well, that will be my next series, “Living Members” starting at Gateway on June 21. For now, start with a daily prayer:

Lord, Help us become a healthy church. Help me do whatever I need to do to make that happen. Together, bring us back to the core, to the heart, to Jesus himself.

Dealing with Disaster (Group Questions)

Discuss:

Share your thoughts about how the tragic events of the last few weeks have impacted you. How have these events influenced your prayer life?

Read Lord’s Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism: What strikes you about this personal assertion of God’s providence?

Read Psalm 46

Think of a time when life was hard for you or your loved ones. Was it apparent that God was your fortress? What impact did this have – positively or negatively – on how you managed that challenge?

What would the writer of Psalm 46 have to say to those who hold that God’s blessing is measured in health, wealth and prosperity?

In times of tragedy and trial we will often say ‘God will work things out for our good.” Is this what Romans 8:28 actually says? Who are the “those” in the phrase “the good of those who love him”?

What does Genesis 50:15-21 tell us about divine sovereignty and human responsibility?

Are you ‘a person of the problem’ or a ‘person of the solution’? How is this seen in your behaviour?

Read Matthew 5:13-16. List the things your church is doing to be ‘a community of the solution’ addressing suffering in your local community.

Read the full text of “Dealing with Disaster: Where is God in tragedy?” here

Dealing with Disaster: Where is God in tragedy?

Read: Psalm 46

Images

A grandfather boards a plane with three young grandchildren. This is an adventure! The kids are incredibly excited!

Arjen and Yvonne Ryder are travelling home. They are keen to see their children and reconnect with their church community.

Six others traveling to an HIV conference in Melbourne, include Joep Lange who has dedicated his life to find a cure for HIV and to relive the suffering of those who have the disease.

On July 17 their plane was blown out of the sky. All 298 people died instantly.

Ismail, Ahed, Zakaria, Mohammed and Sayed live in a poor Gaza neighbourhood. Their play is simple. One hot day the boys run down to the beach, hoping for relief from the heat and from the rockets which slam incessantly into their neighbourhood.

While the boys are at the beach, a rocket slams into a shipping container on the nearby break wall. Petrified, the boys run for their lives. A second rocket targets them, and seconds later four of them are blown to bits. The fifth escapes with serious injuries.

Near Aleppo, Syria, six men once followed Islam. Recently ISIS extremists captured them, charged them with apostasy, and publicly crucified them.

We are people who follow Jesus. How do we deal with such evil?

God’s Word

God’s people have wrested with that confronting question all through the ages. They have seen slavery in Egypt. Exile in Babylon. Persecution of the early church. More currently eviction and persecution of Iraqi Christians under threat of death.

It all seems a world away from suburban Australia. Ours is a peaceful country, possibly the best in the world. We have ice cream in our freezers, iPhones in our pockets, we plan our holidays and leisure pursuits.

These terrible events invade our comfort. And the greatest temptation is simply to push them away. We escape into the screen. We get out with friends. We grab some food. We create a diversion to escape the world of horror and evil.

One writer says

We cannot and we must not soften the blow; we cannot and we must not pretend that evil is not that bad after all

(NT Wright: Evil and the Justice of God, p.20)

So, if we are not to soften the blow, how do we deal with it? How does God’s word help us?

Lord’s Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism opens our minds to the whole sweep of Scripture with a daring assertion: even in the face of evil, God is sovereign, in control of all things, and loving toward all he has made.
Q&A 27

Q: What do you understand by the providence of God?


A: Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God
by which God upholds, as with his hand,
heaven and earth and all creatures,
and so rules them that
leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years,
food and drink,
health and sickness,
prosperity and poverty
—all things, in fact,
come to us not by chance
but by his fatherly hand.

But wait: we are talking about MH17, about ISIS crucifixions – did these really come from God’s fatherly hand? Well, God did not do those acts of evil. They were done at the hands of people, people committing crimes against humanity.

But by the same token, they were not acts of chance, or random forces operating outside the mysterious sovereign will of God.

I don’t know how to explain this. But I do know that if there are things outside God’s power he is not much of a God. If there are things in our world over which he has no control he is not worth believing.

But this is not the testimony of God we read in the Bible. Scripture teaches this sovereign God remains passionately and compassionately involved in our world and our lives.

Scripture teaches this sovereign God remains passionately and compassionately involved in our world and our lives.

So we are left with a tension: people are fully responsible for their behaviour. God is fully sovereign over his world and our lives.

We understand there is great mystery here.

Truth is, there are some things we may never be able to understand. Even in eternity we will know fully, but we will not be omniscient. We will stay human, and God will stay God.

Jesus reminds us that despite these mysteries, despite the limitations of human understanding, our loving God stands above all our woes. That his sovereign grace and almighty power is our only hope.

This God knows what we need:

““Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:25–33, NIV)

Jesus reminds us that despite these mysteries, despite the limitations of human understanding, our loving God stands above all our woes. That his sovereign grace and almighty power is our only hope.

We see the same in Psalm 46. This Psalm is a voice of hope and trust in the midst of dark threat and danger.

Let’s go there…

vv.1-3 This Psalmist reminds us that anything can happen. Even the unthinkable: mountains fall into the sea; the earth gives way. In this very context we hear the voice of faith:

But we will not fear!

There are shades of Daniel in the lion’s den, or the three in the fiery furnace: When God is our refuge, our strength, whom – or what – shall we fear?

vv.4-7 God is with us, and his presence is our protection. “God with us!” That tiny word ‘with’, when the Lord is the subject, is an indicator of covenant language and a signpost to his covenant faithfulness. The promise that God will be with his people is grounded deeply in his eternal promises.

“I will be with you” the Lord said, and led his people through the Red Sea with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. This God, Jacob’s God, is our mighty fortress.

But what, then, of Arjen and Yvonne Ryder?

Or Joep Lange?

Or any of the other 295 people on board MH 17?

A missile blew up their plane!

How could God be their fortress?

Well, Christians believe there is life, an existence with God that even a surface to air missile cannot take away. Those who trust in Jesus have an enduring hope in a glorious promise:

“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 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 that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31–39, NIV)

It was this hope which prompted Daniel’s friends, when threatened with death in the furnace, to say that whether they survived or perished in the flames they would not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s image (Daniel 3:16-18). They knew, they trusted, they believed in the reality of life with God beyond physical death.

vv.8-9 Christians believe God will one day bring an end to warfare, to terrorism, to missiles, to grief and suffering.

“God will one day restore creation so the dark and threatening sea of chaos will be no more”
(NT Wright)

On that day they will beat their tanks into carousels, and their guns into bakery equipment.

This is no cliché. This is truth. This is where our world is heading, friends: a day is coming when God will put all things to right.

How do these truths impact God’s people?

v.10 “Be still, and know that I am God”

Cease striving.

Stop railing against it all.

Don’t let bitterness take root.

Stop hassling about ‘why?’ and concentrate on ‘what’.

Not: ‘why did this happen’

But: ‘as people who know the love and mercy of Jesus, what do we need to do to bring the grace of God’s kingdom to expression in this situation?’

Be still. Know that he is God.

And you are not. You are human. You cannot work this out. No one can.

No, God is not the author of evil. He sent Jesus to break the back of evil and to triumph over it.

And a day is coming when this Jesus will bring his world to rights. He will recreate it and bring it back to shalom, so that it will all be ‘very good’ once more.

A day is coming when those who fire missiles at kids on a beach will stand before the King of Heaven and Earth and give account for what they have done.

A day is coming when those who fired that missile at a plane full of scientists, families, couples, and children will give an account.

It is possible that human investigations into the incident may fail. The perpetrators might not ever be identified.

But God knows who they are, and they will answer before him.

A day is coming when ISIS extremists will stand before the Great King, and made to give an account for their violence.

There is One Judge who will act with justice. No one will miss out on that.

v.11 And so the Psalm’s refrain again: “The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” (Psalm 46:11, NIV)

Your ultimate hope comes from relationship with the Lord Almighty. You are called to reach out to Jesus, who promised “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
This truth is no guarantee that we will never have any troubles, or that we will be spared tragedy and grief.

But we know, with the Psalmist, and with the writers of Lord’s Day 10, that it is in the crucible of grief that the strongest trust and confidence on the Lord is formed.

Take heart friends. You are not at the mercy of random forces of evil. You are in the hands of the living God, our sovereign Lord.

Answering the inevitable questions

But having said that, how do we answer the questions people ask? What can we say about all this?

First: Admit your ignorance. There are some things we just don’t know.

We don’t have all the answers. No one does. To admit this is to admit our humanity.
Try and say otherwise, or cover your ignorance, and people will know you’re faking it. And rightly so.

Second: Psalm 23 reminds us that even as we walk through the valley of death and grief, we know the Lord is with us.

You will notice the Psalm does not say we’ll be miraculously transported to the beautiful mountain top and start soaring with the eagles. We stay in the valley. The grief and suffering remain. The comfort is our God is not unaware or unmoved by our struggle. His rod and staff – his guidance and protection – comfort us. He is with us. Always. His Spirit, the Comforter, lives in us, experiencing with us all our struggle and pain. Our God is not unaware or uninvolved in our lives when tragedy or grief comes our way.

Third: The reality of suffering and pain challenges how we look at our world.

Tragedy is its own preacher: reminding us that despite all our advances and all our knowledge, we are small, and ignorant, and totally dependent on our living Lord.

Tragedy is its own motivator: drawing out of complacency. It drives us toward a better world, a greater story, a narrative – a view of life which can give us hope. This is why were are currently working through the Foundations Series: we want to understand our world, and how God’s plan in Jesus enables us to live as his new people.

Fourth: there is a greater tragedy, a greater evil than any warfare or act of aggression between people.

It happened 2000 years ago, when the Son of God was put to death on a torturous Cross.
This innocent Saviour died in the place of guilty rebels.

He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was laid upon his shoulders. By his suffering, we were healed.

In which other life context would you want another person to take your punishment? To suffer for your wrongs?

In that sense, the Cross of Jesus is the deepest and most appalling of injustices. In another sense through this greatest of evil, King Jesus conquered:

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:15, NIV)

This Jesus promises the comfort of his grace and the presence of His spirit to all who call on him. This Victor, the great Overcomer, is with you, and he will give you strength to cope with life’s sharp and brutal edges. The Cross and the open tomb remind us that Jesus takes evil and turns it into something that results in good.

“We will not be delivered from suffering, but with God’s help we can be transformed by it”

(Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised)

Fifth: This Jesus will return, to throw evil, aggression, and its exceptionally ugly author into the abyss for all eternity.

We long for and pray for a world where there will be no more weeping, crying, mourning or pain. Where the old order of injustice and aggression will be no more. In all the grief of this world, we look to the new heavens and the new earth.

We do this not as a means of escape, or as reason to ignore the pain and grief around us. We look to the next world to filter and focus what we do in the here and now. We want to see God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We also look to the new heavens and the new earth in faith that Jesus is returning. He will make it right. He will bring his eternal shalom.

Sixth: everyone of us must ask: am I a person of the solution, or a person of the problem?

Ask yourself: am I ruled by Jesus, and so working to break down evil in my community? Am I working to relieve suffering in my world? Am I a man, a woman of peace? Am I a person of the solution or a person of the problem?

See, if you ignore the evil around you and in your community, if you turn a blind eye, you are part of the problem. The church is not called to turn a blind eye. The church is called to be light of the world right there where you are.

So, is my church community working hard to address the suffering in our own neighbourhood? Do we understand that God’s mission is to bring an end to evil and suffering? As his people, do we accept his mission? Will we align all we do to see that he is honoured, that we will follow his call, and do all we can to bring his kingdom to glorious expression in our locality?

In the face of terrible tragedy, know that God will contain evil, he will restrain evil, he will prevent it form doing its worst, and he will even use the malice, ignorance and stupidity of human beings to further his own sovereign purposes (NT Wright). This is our comfort.

And we know that God seeks to wipe away the tears of the suffering even in this life, to break the chains of injustice, and to bring evil to account.

He will do this through the power of his risen Son.

And he will do this as his Son rules his people.

People like us.

This is our great mission.

May God give us the grace, strength and courage to shoulder it.