Saturday, March 24, 2018

Whether He Heals or Whether He Slays

As we have been forced to confront my wife's mortality in the return of her cancer, I have found myself having a lot of conversations about God. Conversations about His role in suffering, about prayer and healing, and about His goodness and sovereignty and what they mean.

In the midst of these conversations, I have felt a tension in how we think about God. It is a tension that exists in our culture, between the feel-good pseudo-Christianity of smiling preachers on book covers and the battered reality of saints laboring in the trenches. It is a tension that exists in each of our hearts. Often, it is an invisible tension, and yet how we resolve it makes a crucial difference to what we think Christianity means.

I've also been spending a good bit of time in the book of Job. For the unfamiliar, Job is a faithful man who loses everything. His possessions, his children, his health. As he grieves, three friends come to him to offer "comfort" - to try to fix Job's situation for him. In their diagnosis and in Job's response I think we find this same tension, so I'd like to spend a bit of time reflecting on one of those exchanges and then apply its principle to our lives and faith.


A Dialogue About God
Let's pick up the discussion in chapter 11. Zophar, one of the three false comforters, speaks. He says a bunch of true things to Job. God is mighty and opposes wickedness. On a surface reading, all of Zophar's counsel sounds reasonable. It's exactly what the religious folks in our world might say. It leads to this advice:
If you prepare your heart,
   you will stretch out your hands toward him.
If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away,
   and let not injustice dwell in your tents.
Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish;
   you will be secure and will not fear.
You will forget your misery;
   you will remember it as waters that have passed away.
(Job 11:13-16)
Again, this sounds good. However, we know from the end of the book (Job 42:7-9) that they have not spoken rightly. So what's the problem here? 

It rests on how the comforters view God's relationship to humanity.

It is true that God calls us to chase after righteousness and turn from wickedness. It is even true that blessing often accompanies a life pursuing God's ways. However, what Job's friends do is turn this reality into a mechanism for self-advancement. Righteousness becomes a way to force God's hand, a way to make God serve humanity. Our faithfulness, in their schema, exists to secure God's blessings.

This becomes apparent in Job's reply. He first points out the reality that, in this life, the wicked often prosper. "The tents of robbers are at peace, and those who provoke God are secure, who bring their god in their hand." (Job 12:6) This leads Job to remind his comforters of God's absolute rule.
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
   the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you...

Who among all these does not know
   that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
   and the breath of all mankind. (Job 12:7, 9-10)
Job then doubles down on this sovereign independence of God over humanity:
With God are wisdom and might;
   he has counsel and understanding...
With him are strength and sound wisdom;
   the deceived and the deceiver are his...
He pours contempt on princes   and loosens the belt of the strong.
He uncovers the deeps out of darkness
   and brings deep darkness to light.
He makes nations great, and he destroys them;
   he enlarges nations, and leads them away. (Job 12:13, 17, 22-23)
All of which lets Job put his finger on what the counselors are getting wrong. It is something about God and how they view their relationship with Him. In the first place, their wrong view has led them to the position where they feel they need to justify God.
Will you speak falsely for God
   and speak deceitfully for him?
Will you show partiality toward him?
   Will you plead the case for God? (13:7-8)
Instead of this desire to explain God's works, Job reminds his comforters that before God the right posture is one of reverent terror. "Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you? (13:11) This holy terror then flows into Job's ultimate statement of faith in verse 15: "Though he slay me, I will hope in him." (Job 13:15a)

That is a startling verse - so startling that many try to explain it away. They see Job as being somehow mistaken on this point. Yet that doesn't hold up to a reading of the book as a whole. God commends Job for the general righteousness of his speeches. Yes, there is some correction, but it is actually God doubling down on this point. He speaks from the whirlwind, reminding Job that He is even greater than Job imagines.

Here is the fundamental difference between Job and his comforters in these chapters. Both acknowledge that God is mighty and just and commands us to be righteous. The difference is in how they use those truths. Zophar seeks to make these ideas about God serve humanity; Job instead realizes that they teach us that humanity exists to serve God.

Though He Slay Us
It is true that God is good. He grieves over our suffering. He opposes evil. He blesses us in all kinds of ways.

It is true that God loves us. He works our salvation in Jesus. He tenderly holds us in our pain.

However, both of these truths have been distorted in our world because we focus on the goodness and the love without having a proper appreciation of the God who is the subject of the sentences. We treat God's goodness and love as if they make us peers, as if God displays them because we deserve them. We use them to make God serve our wants and needs.

This is not the Living God. He is absolutely worthy of praise. He demands it, but not in the petulant human sense of the word. God demands praise simply by nature of Who He is. It is the difference between the greatness of a man and the greatness of a mountain. Human beings always have conferred greatness. For all their accomplishments, their power ultimately rests on the recognition of others. The titles and money and fame society give. Mountains have intrinsic greatness. They simply are what they are. If you fail to give them proper respect, it doesn't diminish the mountain one bit. More likely that you will be diminished, dying of exposure somewhere on their slopes.

God's greatness is intrinsic. He is absolute power. He has perfect understanding. He is infinitely worthy. Those are simply attributes of being the Lord. They are not diminished when we fail to recognize them, but we are endangered by pretending like they aren't true. We owe God glory and honor and power, not because of some quid pro quo arrangement. We don't obey Him because it is mutually advantageous. Our faith is not a fulcrum we use to lever the Almighty into a more manageable position. We are dust draped in skin, and our Creator can do with us as He pleases.

Of course, the jaw-dropping wonder of Christianity is that this God does bless and save us. He comes to us in Jesus and suffers and dies for us. He holds us in our pain and struggle. That is all true, and it is right that we often focus on it. Yet without first appreciating the absolute independence and power of God, without first being terrified of His majesty and letting His dread fall upon us, we are in danger of falling into the trap of Job's friends. We make those truths into tools by which we might use God rather than beautiful realities that deepen our praise of Him.

The longer I seek after Jesus, the more convinced I am that this error is what causes so much faith in America to be so anemic. We have used the rhetoric of God's love to make Him into a crutch or a buddy. We have filed off any rough edge that makes us uncomfortable. We have ignored any command that might condemn our preferences. God serves us in America. He is just another offering in the buffet of consumer delights. It is little wonder then that such a God fails to constrain us to obedience or compel us to service.

Yet God's glory is intrinsic, and even in our failure to recognize it, the mountain still stands. 

All of which brings me back to the reality we are facing right now. My wife is dying of cancer. Yes, we are seeking God's comfort in this struggle. Yes, we are praying that He would heal her, and we fully trust that He might. But we want even those prayers to exist within the larger reality that God is glorious no matter what course His providence runs. We exist for Him, to give Him glory and serve Him in living and in dying. Our hope is in Him, our praise is for Him, whether He heals us or whether He slays us. 

Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it, "For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's." (Romans 14:7-8)

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