Sunday, August 28, 2005

God's Goodness and his Love

About three years ago, I was in a position where I was forced to ask myself whether God really was as good as his press agents had made him out to be.

Those who know me well, know what I'm talking about. At the time, I was the foster father to a 2-year-old boy who had suffered severe neglect at the hands of his parents and was developmentally delayed in every area but size. Our son had been with us since January that year, and as August rolled to a close, it was painfully obvious that he was headed back to his parents, who, even the social worker agreed, hadn't shown the least sign of changing.

At the time, I raged against God. Jesus warned that if anyone destroyed a child, it would be better for that person never to have been born — yet here God was, allowing a helpless child to be thrown back to the wolves, just as the boy was starting to benefit from being with us.

It was the age-old question. If God is so good, then why wasn't he doing anything? What's the point of following him if he's just going to lead you into a pit and leave you there?

Even a cursory view of the Bible shows that these aren't new questions. The psalmists regularly upbraided God for his indifference to their situation. King David complained that evil men had surrounded him, mocking both him and God, and yet still God did nothing. And yet the Bible repeatedly claims that God is good, full of love, and that his mercies endure forever.

The Apostle Paul, when he's writing his epistle to the Roman church, appeals to Nature as evidence of God's goodness: The rain, he points out, falls upon the just and the unjust, because God is patient and merciful with all people.

I've always wondered if Paul couldn't have picked a better example. If the rain falls on people without regard for their individual status before God, it's also true that drought hits them equally hard. The virtuous suffer just as much as the wicked when there's nothing to drink and the crops shrivel up in the ground. If anything, they suffer more, since times of drought and hardship are when the corrupt are at their most powerful. If anything, rainfall seems to argue for God's indifference. Maybe God knows every time a sparrow falls to the ground, but it's not as though he did anything to save the sparrow's life, is it?

If God is merciful to the unjust, why can’t he be a little kinder to their victims? A man as evil as Adolf Hitler knew what it was like to be in love, to enjoy a good meal, and to see the first flower of spring — even as Hitler and his agents were systematically denying those pleasures to six million Jews. Men as full of hate as Osama bin Laden have known the joy of holding their own newborn babies, but there are many victims of al Qaeda's terror who never got to see their children born.

Sometimes it seems that God's not just indifferent, he's actively cruel. Terrorists blow up children; industries dump toxins into the air and water, and refuse to clean them up; dedicated employees find their pension funds pilfered by wealthy and unscrupulous CEOs; the rich get richer while everyone else gets poorer and we're told this is sound economics and good for the country; senior citizens have to choose between buying heart medicine and food, and property taxes just went up again. All this happens, and God just sits by.

We can say it's life that's unfair, not God, but that feels like a cheat, a way to let God off the hook. If he's so full of the milk of kindness, then why doesn't he actually do something about it? Millions of children die every year from unsafe drinking water, and the best he can do is have an ineffable purpose we can't grasp? Good theology means nothing to a beggar whose only child lies cold and unmoving in her arms.

Meaningless suffering, particularly the pointless suffering of children, is the most unanswerable argument against God's goodness that I have ever encountered. As Philip Yancey discovered when he wrote "Disappointment with God," the raw emotional honesty born of needless pain puts the lie to our glorious statements that it all serves a purpose. Our arguments falter, our words feel empty, and if we have any wisdom at all in us, we shut up.

We shut up, because God is good. And the beauty of God's goodness isn't found in clever arguments or deep theological responses. God's goodness is found in his suffering, and he is revealed when we get close enough to suffer with one another.

It's in the Cross.

The Cross is the lynchpin of human existence. On the Cross, Christ became the embodiment of sin. On the Cross, Christ revealed the full measure of righteousness. When we suffer because of our sins, Christ suffers with us and bears the greater burden. When we suffer for the sake of righteousness, then we join in his suffering and can look forward to the same victory that he claimed once the suffering has ended. And when we suffer through no fault of our own but simply because life is unfair, then we can know that Christ endured those things too, and we can take comfort that he understands.

So if the Cross is the fullest expression of God's love, and if it suffuses all human history with meaning, what does that mean? It means that the whole of human history, from the day God breathed life into Adam down to the advent of the New Jerusalem (and far, far beyond that) is also an expression of God's love.

It's only been in the last few years that I've really started to gain a mature understanding of God's love. I can't speak for anyone else, but for the longest time, I don't think I loved God as much as I was just in love with him. For comparison, look at the relationship I now have with my wife.

When we started dating, and when we first married, we had periods marked by a giddy, heady feeling of euphoria. She was sensitive, charming, well-mannered and considerate. She laughed at my jokes, shared my interest in science fiction and fantasy, and held the same religious convictions as me. All I could think about was how much I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. We were in love.

Since we married almost seven years ago, there have been times I've wanted to scream. She's nagged me, criticized the way I fold the laundry, delivered withering critiques of projects I was proud of, and blown up at me for not being able to read her mind. Once, when I had got up early and done a number of things just for her, she left me in tears within an hour by complaining about how I had done each of those things without once stopping to thank me for doing them in the first place.

The sun and the moon still set on her, the stars above still circle her, and I'm still amazed that she wants to spend the rest of her life with me, but our relationship has matured. There have been times for each of us when it would have been easier to walk out, but we stayed. That's not being "in love" -- that is love, and it's much more satisfying.

One of the more captivating illustrations I've found for describing God's love is a cold mountain river. It's wild, and uncontainable, and it's rushing with irresistible force down the rapids. We're caught in the stream, buffeted and bruised, cold and unable to grip anything. The air is crisp and cool as we're swept along, sometimes falling beneath the surface for a moment before we burst out, gasping for breath.

Losing ourselves in God's love means surrendering ourselves to the current, and letting it carry us over the waterfall, trusting that when the river dashes us against the rocks, we'll come to life more than ever before.

Losing ourselves in God's love means living in the Cross, because that was where God most fully stepped into history. Christ's whole ministry was a preamble to the Cross; the church's whole history has been an epilogue to the Resurrection.

And living in the Cross, of course, means living outside the demands of law. That's tougher to accomplish than we like to think, because while we properly understand the relevance of the Cross to ceremonial and sacrificial law, we miss its relevance to moral law. We see the Cross as putting the finishing touch on our behavior; as though once we have made our best efforts and tried our hardest, God's grace kicks in makes our efforts complete. The only problem is, that's not grace. It's law, and law never heals, it only kills.

Ask a divorcee. Chances are, they'll be able to tell you about the times they fell into this trap. "If I had only been a better wife, he wouldn't have left me" or "If I had been a more attentive husband, she wouldn't have felt neglected." If I hadn't spent so many hours at work, if I hadn't been home so much, if I hadn't forgotten to fix the roof. Parents do the same thing. "If I had been a better parent, my child wouldn't be gay." "If I hadn't been so strict, he would love me more." If, if, if.

You can also see the flip side, where Christians, without thinking, point to God's kindness or blessing as their reward for obedience or due discipline. "Oh, it's all by the grace of God it worked out this way. We just followed the scriptural principles on how to raise our children, on how to keep our marriage vibrant, and on how to balance work and home life. Without the Lord, it would have been a disaster." (Notice the statement of pride? Although they're claiming to give God credit, they're also stressing how much they did to earn God's favor — and they're also reinforcing the guilt feelings of everyone whose life hasn't worked out so nicely.)

The truth is, you can do your best job and still fail, or do a rotten job and have everything work out just fine. Influence still exists, but Christ died to free us from the law. The law, if we were under it, would result in utter failure for all of us, since none of us is capable of following the law and to break the least part is to be guilty of breaking it all. By living under the law, we subject ourselves to a burden that steals our joy, keeps us from experiencing Christ's love, and leaves us miserable and alone.

Living in the Cross means letting go of our self-imposed performance expectations and allowing ourselves to act out of love rather than obligation. When James tells us that faith without works is dead, he means not that we do things because God still expects us to perform good deeds, but that our faith will express itself in tangible ways as we love those around us. Being involved in a soup kitchen because "Christians care about the poor" is the first kind of act; it's law. Being involved in a soup kitchen to help the people there because they need the help springs from a different source, and is an act of love. Same action, different heart.

The other hard part about living in the Cross -- and really, it's the same hard part, just seen from a different perspective -- is learning to love.

Honestly, I have no idea how to do that. It's hard — nearly impossible, really — to get close to someone whose behavior is odious. Yet Christ not only did it with the Samaritan prostitute he met at the well, he did it with virtually everyone he met. A collaborator with the Romans was one of his disciples, and so was a reactionary who wanted to kill all the Romans and their collaborators. Jesus didn't get grossed out by lepers or offended by people who committed adultery. When a Roman centurion came to request a healing, Jesus didn't bat an eye at delivering a miracle for him, even though the man was a trained killer.

Jesus didn't love people because he could understand them, because he wanted them to believe, or because he felt obligated. He loved people because they were people. I don't know how he did it, to be honest.

But on those rare occasions where we pull it off, where we love the way that he did, where we share their pain instead of merely feeling it, where we open our lives to "sinners" without fear that they will pull us away from God, where we really and completely die to ourselves, to this world and even to what our churches expect of us — when we do that, people see God.
And they know that he is good.

Copyright @copy; 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Fortunato said...

When I was thinking about law and grace in the past, I could summarize it with the idea of the Law of Cause and Effect.

In a godless world, things follow other things logically (Law) -- not just the natural world but even our moral behavior. We merely react to the forces that impose themselves upon us. We are merely products of a fallen world.

God breaks the apparent Law of Cause and Effect. Christians are no longer pawns, trapped in a terrible cycle of sin and decay -- treating others a certain way because they treated US a certain way -- but can react freely in each moment and make different choices totally unrelated to events.

The cue ball no longer has to deflect at the proper angle, as the Law decrees. It can hop, skip, or jump over the whole pack; it can simply stop; it can stop being a cue ball and become a basketball.

And of course this ties in with the Resurrection, which was the most visible and deepest disruption of the Law of Cause and Effect. When Jesus came back to life, God "broke the rules" and showed that neither He nor we are pawns of the natural law.

Our entire hope is based on the fact that the "rules" we used to live by no longer apply. Our behavior no longer dictated by what happens to us. We are free to act outside the normal boundaries, regardless of what might happen.

Newbirth said...

I remember the terrible agony and intense questioning you went through when you lost Chris. I felt so helpless to do anything more than just stand by and watch. I'm glad to see you came through it with your faith still intact. CHR has been a real learning expereince for me - to see others question God, and to do so myself. And always without judgement. You guys have all been so kind to me when I didn't deserve it that I can't help but see Christ in all of you. More than any other online group, you've helped me grow and stay close to Him.

Bad Alice said...

What a beautiful and thoughtful essay. I plan to read it a few more times. I work for a Christian organization, and I've seen people in deep suffering rejoice in the Sovereign God, that all works to good. I don't get it, really. Sometimes I'm cynical about it and think, oh, they're just repressing their anger. Anyway, I'm always grateful when I read about other people wrestling with these questions and not taking refuge in pat answers.