Paul’s thorn in the flesh
2Corinthians 12: The weaker I get the stronger I become.
As Paul defends his ministry he describes a vision he experienced many years earlier. At least I think he’s describing a vision he had. His wording moves to third person, but the setting of the passage concerns visions and revelations given him by the Lord. Paul was lifted up into heaven and there heard things he was forbidden to share with others. The Apostle says that if he wanted to he could focus on such experiences and trump about anyone. Instead, though, he chooses to focus on his humiliations and, in fact has found his most troubling, humbling handicap (although he doesn’t tell us what it is) to be yet another great blessing. This handicap serves two good purposes in his life. On one hand it balances out the ecstasies he experienced in Christ, keeping him firmly grounded in the here and now. On the other hand, his weaknesses drive him to even greater dependency on the Lord. As he relies on the Lord rather than on his own experiences, as deeply spiritual as they might be, he finds strength. Blessings are, well, a blessing! However, they can also be a curse. If I think the Lord has made me a favorite because of some deep spiritual experience that experience can actually serve as a stumbling block in my life. Of course, the Lord knows this. I think he sometimes withholds some special intimacy from us for our own good. At other times, as it is in Paul’s case, the Lord works in our lives in wonderful ways but refuses to do something that would be precious to us to keep us from becoming so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good. We don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh is, but we can see it as he does: as part of God’s working in a life for the good of one he dearly loves.
Take Away: Sometimes the Lord does things for us because he loves us. Sometimes the Lord doesn’t do things for us because he loves us.
At the end of myself and at the beginning of God
2Corinthians 1: And he’ll do it again, rescuing us as many times as we need rescuing.
Since his first letter to the church at Corinth Paul has gone though some hard times. His words remind me of some of the Psalms of complaint when David thought it was all over for him. In words similar to what David used, Paul describes how he was crushed and sure that he was at the end. In his despair he realized he was out of options and that there was nothing he could do to save himself. At that low point, he remembered his greatest Resource. When he came to the end of himself he found himself at just the beginning of God. Throwing himself on the mercy of God is the smartest thing he ever did. After all, Paul reminds us, this is the God who even raises the dead. The Lord was equal to the challenge and, for Paul, the sun rose once again in his life, giving him a new lease on life. This journey to death’s door and back, Paul says, has turned out to be a positive event in his life. These days he’s quicker to stop struggling and to start trusting in God to bring about a rescue in his life. This is a lesson I need to learn anew. I serve a God who loves me and who has the power to, when necessary, raise the dead. I may not like it when life brings me my share of uncertainty and even pain. At the same time, I can remember that the same God who has brought me through difficult times in the past can “rescue me as many times as I need rescuing.”
Take Away: In an uncertain world the Lord remains my steadfast certainty.
At the cross
Mark 15: Jesus groaned out of the depths.
The Gospel writer takes us to cruel Golgotha, a place of torture and death. This is no well-intentioned passion play in which the special effects man tries to convince us of the pain and suffering while keeping in mind that some precious souls in the audience don’t want it to be too real. These are real nails being driven into real flesh. This is real blood, real suffering. Our Lord is not only being killed in this horrible way but he’s carrying a spiritual burden of sin and separation from his Father that’s beyond my understanding. Before Pilate he remained silent, but now, out of the depths of his suffering he groans under the weight of it all. I want to look away and think about other things but that groan draws me back and I look up into his face, into his eyes. He mouths the words, “I love you.” My eyes fill with tears as he breathes his last.
Take Away: For me he died.
Weeping with those who weep
Joel 1: Get them into God’s Sanctuary for serious prayer to God.
The event that drives Joel’s sermon is a natural disaster. A swarm of millions and millions of locusts have devastated the country. Every green thing has been stripped bare. The result is that famine is most certainly coming to the land. What are they going to do now? One thing Joel calls for is for people to take their fear and pain to the Lord. He says to the priests, “You, who lead people in worship, lead them in lament.” This is no time for empty promises that everything will be okay. Rather, this is a time for fasting and crying out to God. Joel takes his own advice and a few lines later he prays, “God! I pray, I cry out to you!” Today, I find this passage to be frighteningly instructive. It’s quite likely that our version of the disaster of Joel’s day will come. What is the church to do when a hurricane or earthquake or tornado sweeps through the community destroying lives and property? Joel says this is a time for pastors and other leaders to lead the community in lament; a time for “weeping with those who weep.” I’m not ignoring the good that can be done in practical ways, but I’m reminded here that the church isn’t to just “put on a happy face.” It’s okay, and even necessary, for God’s people to lead the way in crying out to God, declaring the pain and suffering of a community in the face of disaster.
Take Away: Sometimes it’s the role of the people of the Lord to lead the way in crying out to God.
Working through grief and loss
Lamentations 1: Judah has gone into exile.
Lamentations, to me, is the book of the Bible most like Job. In Job’s story we find him in a state of misery, lamenting all that has been lost. Lamentations takes us into similar unwelcome territory. The destruction of Jerusalem isn’t a tidy event. There’s a long siege that results in starvation and a descent into barbarism of the worst sort. It’s the mildest of statements to say that things get ugly. Inhumanity and misery rule. Now, Jeremiah, still reeling from it all creates poetry in an effort to describe the remaining sense of loss and grief. While it’s true that their destruction is the result of their own sin the misery of it all is real. In Lamentations the weeping prophet takes us on a walk through the rubble of his beloved Jerusalem. He replays for us the scenes of murder and rape and loss. I confess that I’m not looking forward to spending these few days with Jeremiah. Two things come to mind as I begin this journey. First: loss is a part of the human condition. Even as Job faced it, so does Jeremiah; and so do we. Second: sometimes we’re wise to allow ourselves to embrace this unwelcome aspect of life. We tend to hurry past the bad times; to smile through our tears; to cheer up believing things will get better. It really doesn’t work that way. The route to healing may begin with our taking time to grieve — to lament — all that’s been lost. Like it or not, that’s the path we follow when we walk with the weeping prophet in the book of Lamentations.
Take Away: The route to healing may begin with our taking time to grieve.
Serving God for nothing
Job 30: What did I do to deserve this?
Job’s final reply to his friends is his longest speech. He doesn’t summarize so much as restate all he has already said. He’s cried out to God for justice, but can’t get an answer. He’s lived a just life, avoiding immorality, falsehood, dishonesty, and pride. He’s treated people with respect and honesty, caring for the poor and the stranger. Now, in the midst of the trial, all he’s wanted is an audience with God, an audience which has not been granted. Job, like his friends, believes that bad things only happen to bad people. He maintains that he’s lived a life pleasing to God, yet bad things are happening. If he could only sit down with God and work all this out! Were that to happen, he’s sure this mess could be straightened out. Among all the other losses Job has suffered is the loss of his comfortable understanding of God and life. However, even with that taken away (and maybe this is the last thing to go) Job continues serving God. And he does so, yes, for nothing! At this point, Satan’s accusation from the opening paragraphs of this story is proven false. In spite of the suggestion otherwise, a man will love and serve God even when he’s getting nothing out of it; even when it seems God, himself, is breaking the rules; even when all else is taken away. If the book of Job ended with chapter 31, the point of the whole story is made.
Take Away: Yes, it’s possible for a person to love the Lord and trust the Lord even when there appears to be no tangible gain in it.
Getting away with it
Job 21: They’re given fancy funerals with all the trimmings.
Zophar admits that, for a while, evil people get away with it. However, he says, their good times are always short-lived and then everything falls apart for them. Job is having none of it. He replies that he’s watched things too, and it isn’t very often that such people get their just deserts. In fact, he’s attended their funerals and heard the lies said about them even as their bodies were lowered into the ground. The big theme of Job’s story is “will a man serve God for nothing.” Then, as things play out, we’re confronted with the issue of human suffering. Is it possible that people suffer and it isn’t because God is angry with them? Now, we meet yet another theme. It’s the reverse concern. If it’s true, as Job contends, that sometimes people suffer through no fault of their own, is it also true that sometimes evil people get away with it? Is it possible that some enjoy all the pleasures of sin all the way to old age and never hit the brick wall of God’s judgment? I think that before this ordeal Job was fairly comfortable with Zophar’s philosophy. At least he hadn’t given it much thought. Now, he finds himself dealing with the issue of how unjust life can be. All the time God remains silent, allowing Job and his friends to grapple with it all. For most of us, reading through these discussions is more philosophical than anything else. Once in a while though, these issues become quite serious and they did for Job so long ago.
Take Away: Some people live their entire lives believing things to be true that aren’t. Once in a while though, we’re given the opportunity (or maybe “forced” is a better word) to get a fresh grip on “truth.”
Looking for justice
Job 14: If we humans die, will we live again?
This is one of the most famous statements in the book of Job and it comes as Job laments the unfairness of life. A tree can be cut down and yet be the source of new life, but Job hasn’t seen that with human beings. When a person, good or bad, dies and is buried it appears that it’s the end for them. Is there a possibility of resurrection? Job hopes so. After all, if God is good and yet people who serve him come to tragic ends and that is that, well, something is wrong! This insight doesn’t stop Job from his suffering and questioning, but it’s a brilliant insight concerning human suffering. We may not always see the full picture of God’s justice and goodness now, but the final chapter of his dealings with human beings isn’t written at the grave. If God’s justice isn’t seen this side of the grave, it must be seen beyond it.
Take Away: Without Easter Job has arrived at a theology of a resurrection. Isn’t that neat!
How things really are
Job 5: What a blessing when God steps in and corrects you!
If I work my way through the book of Job and pick out various quotes from Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Eliju and then present them to about any Christian I think they’d find the words quite acceptable. On the other hand, I could pick out many things Job says and those same Christians would shake their heads in dismay. How can it be that this old book which has been available to God’s people for so long be so poorly understood? Eliphaz says the same kind of stuff that we say. He reminds Job of his good life and suggests that he draw on that for hope now, in this day of suffering. He tells Job that everyone knows that for God’s people everything will turn out okay. It’s the bad people who need to worry about what the future holds. He even reminds his friend that human beings are born into trouble. In other words, “that’s life.” Job needs to throw himself on the mercy of God who delights in lifting broken people. So now, Job ought to be thankful that God cares enough about him to discipline him. If Job does that everything will be just fine. Eliphaz concludes, “This is the way things are.” The thing that I find spooky here is that if this speech was, for instance, in the Psalms, I’d read it and not think anything about it, just accepting it as truth. It’s only as I realize who it is who says this and then skip to the end of the story that I realize I need to do some serious sifting through this kind of thinking if I’m to actually know “how things really are.” It isn’t that everything Job’s friends say is wrong. Instead it’s that not everything they say is right. This is a book for people who are willing to think about big issues.
Take Away: Beware of things you’ve easily believed.
Telling it like it is
Job 3: Why didn’t I die at birth?
All of my life I’ve heard people speak of the “patience of Job” and, frankly, I don’t get it. Just a quick read through chapter 3 reveals that Job doesn’t stoically accept his condition. He’s miserable and he wishes he’d never been born. “May those who are ‘good at cursing’ curse the day of my birth,” he says. As I look at this miserable man I can’t help but appreciate his stark honesty. This guy isn’t given to platitudes. Instead, he tells it like it is, and at this moment in his life, life isn’t worth living. Somehow Christians have gotten the idea that we ought to behave as Job does in chapter one when he sincerely declares “God gives, God takes.” We read that and make it our model for dealing with pain and suffering. However, we need to keep on reading. Soon we find this same man crying out against his own life. Beyond that, to excuse Job as being “out of his mind” in pain is such a horrible put-down of Job. Yes, he’s in agony but he’s still thinking and the things he says reflect exactly what he believes. When we deny ourselves (and Job) the right to be absolutely honest about how we feel we destine ourselves to continue in a shallow relationship with God. You see, when I’m going through a trial God isn’t interested in seeing me put on a brave front and hearing me say all the right things. It’s honesty that he wants and sometimes that includes our telling him, and others, how miserable we are. Such honesty opens the way for God to work in our lives at levels we didn’t even know existed.
Take Away: There’s never a time to pretend things are different than they are before the Lord.