41. What about Suffering?

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 41. Q.3. What about Suffering?

Rom 8:20,21 (JBP)   The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited—yet it has been given hope. And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in

Concerns & Questions:  A regular question or series of questions that arise include: Why is there suffering? Why did God make a world with so much suffering? Why doesn’t He step in to remove it? If He is good and loving and all powerful why doesn’t He step in and act on our behalf? But what is ‘suffering’? A dictionary definition is ‘undergoing pain, distress or hardship’.

Sources of Suffering: The first step is to identify the causes of ‘suffering’ as we have defined it.  Let’s try and pin down the main causes:

  1. Inflicted by others: Pain caused by others may have at least three sources. First, the list of violent acts that the human race shows it is capable of, is long and distressing and runs from individual violence (verbal or physical) that can include beating, abuse, rape, torture, to corporate violence that can include war, genocide, oppression, and terrorism. View the whole world and these things constitute the vast majority of the world’s suffering. Second, perhaps to this we should add the things that we don’t do for one another that we should do, such as caring for the weak, providing for the needy, and that covers not only the large number of refugees from war zones, but also simply the plight of individuals who have not been coping with life generally. Third, there are the hurts, pains etc. imposed on us by the negligence of other people, i.e. accidents causes by lack of care.
  2. Self-Inflicted: this is an area where we are even less comfortable. This is where, living contrary to the design of God for His world, we take on lifestyles that are harmful – over-eating, excessive alcohol or drug use, unrestrained sexual lifestyles that are accompanied by diseases, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, criminal acts, and stress and anxiety from too much self-effort. Choice of attitude, approach to life, and inability to cope with the pressures that the modern world sometimes brings, are maybe the primary ways we cause harm and suffering to ourselves. As above, we should perhaps add pain caused by accidents which are in turn caused by our carelessness or negligence, and maybe we should even include our misuse of the world that causes environmental problems with global warming etc.

These first two are the suffering caused by humanity itself in individual or corporate recognizable acts.

  1. The Breakdown of the World: The fact is that we suffer a variety of other things that cause pain, suffering, even death, things that can be identified as the world mis-functioning, or not functioning as it was originally designed to function (which we’ll consider shortly). This list includes

– illnesses and that may be viral, genetic misfunction or cell breakdown. (look up ‘disease’ in Wikipedia)

– climatic causes – hurricanes, tornadoes, floods from excessive rainfall,

– earth upheavals – volcanoes, moving tectonic plate movement causing earthquakes and tsunamis.

(Note in passing that the Sin of mankind, according to one doctor, causes diseases and releases spiritual forces that cause harm. See more in the next study.)

Where is God? The questions that we suggested above might be rationalised to a) Why did God make the world like this? and b) Why doesn’t He step in to help us?

God’s Design & the Fall: Without the Bible, without God, the atheist is just left with a horrible world and indeed various atheists have described it as such. You can only blame God if you believe there is a God, but the atheist will say to us, “This God that you say you believe in, why….?” and so it is legitimate to ask what does the Bible say about all this?

From the beginning, if you are going to blame a God who exists, we are told that this God created this world – by fiat in a split second or over seven periods of time or by long-period evolution is irrelevant; it is down to Him! But here is the most important thing: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Gen 1:31) There is no room there for saying that any of the things in the three groups above existed. It was a perfect world. So how come the difference between that and the descriptions in the three groups above? The answer is found in Gen 3 in what we refer to as ‘the Fall’ that might be summarized as mankind choosing to ignore or disregard God and live how they decide to live. The consequence of that is ALL the things listed in those three groups above. Do you see why identifying those three groups are so important.

I so often define ‘Sin’ as “self-centred, godlessness that results in unrighteous self-destructive acts” Unrighteous simply means actions that are contrary to God’s design. The Adam and Eve picture of Gen 3 shows them acting in an entirely self-centred way that excluded God from the equation and resulted in them doing something that opened the door to a whole way of living that was godless, hard, and self-harming. They typify what the whole of mankind is like. They and the world (and us) were not as it had been, no longer perfect, but broken, dysfunctional.

But Why? But why did God make us like this? Hold on, what was the alternative? It all hinges on this thing called free-will. Most people don’t realize how much we exercise ‘free-will’, the will to choose at any moment what we will do: when to get up in the morning, what to eat for breakfast, when to leave for work, how to travel to work, how to perform our work, how to respond to people or circumstances, when to enter into or break off a relationship, how to respond when we see a person in need, how to respond to a rebuff, when and how to write a song, a novel or some poetry, or paint a picture, or create a sculpture. Literally everything we do involves us exercising this ability to choose. We each have tremendous potential for being amazing people, in caring or in courage, in creativity and in construction, the potential of being self-less, godly, beautiful people who can be a blessing to the rest of mankind and to God. However, on the other side we can, as we saw above, be utterly self-centred and godless, harming ourselves, harming others and harming the earth, and we grieve God.

But where is God in all this? More questions. If God allowed us to be this sort of creature – capable of incredible good and incredible bad (evil)  – has He created it like this and then walked away? Definitely not! There are three things we should note about God in this:

  1. He feels: It is clear from the picture of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus (Jn 11) that he feels for us. It is clear when God was speaking to Moses at the burning bush that He felt for His people (Ex 3:7). God does not hold Himself aloof from people, He feels for the young parents who have just lost their new-born baby, He feels for the woman who cannot conceive, He feels for all of us who anguish. Jesus allowed his compassion to motivate him (see Mt 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34) and told of his Father’s compassion in one of the best known parables (see Lk 15:20).
  2. He involves Himself: The Bible is full of God who intervenes on behalf of mankind. After the exclusion from the Garden at the end of Gen 3, God did not just leave mankind to it; there are instances again and again and again of God who was interacting with people (Gen 5:24, Gen 12:1, Gen 3 etc. etc.) to reveal Himself and be revealed through them. Jesus is the peak of God’s intervention in the affairs of mankind, described by John as God (Jn 1:1), Creator with the Father (Jn 1:3), yet who came from heaven (Jn 6:38) to dwell in flesh (Jn 1:14) to reveal the Father and die as a sacrifice for our sin. In his ministry, through Jesus we see, The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor,” (Mt 11;5) or, as Peter summarised it, he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil.” (Acts 10:38) This was God NOT accepting the status quo of the fallen world but intervening in it to change it – as He still does today. (For His sovereign will see the next study) Today, by the presence and work of His Holy Spirit, the Lord provides all the grace we need to handle this world.
  3. He has a new end goal: The present world is not the end goal of God. Yes, He has given us free will, yes He gives us space to exercise it, yes He works to bring redemption here on earth, but none of these are the end goal. There will come a time, the Bible declares, when He will bring an end to this present existence and establish for the redeemed, who throughout history have responded to Him, a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 3:12, 21:1,2). Not only will there be a new place in which the redeemed may live and enjoy their God, but there will also be a Final Judgement where all will stand before God to account for their lives and those who have rejected Him will be rejected for the new heaven and new earth (Rev 20:12-15) and destroyed. Justice will be seen to be done for every wrong and every injustice seen in history.

Recap:   

– there are clear and obvious causes of suffering.

– most of it is down to the effects of the sinfulness of mankind, resulting from wrong use of free will.

– God doesn’t stand outside our suffering but feels with us and often intervenes to alleviate it.

– all wrongs and injustices involving suffering will be held to account at the end.

– this world of suffering is not the end but a world without “death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4)  is the ultimate destiny of all who will respond to His call.

May that be the ultimate experience of each of us.

7. Appearance & Performance (2)

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 1 – Falling Short?

7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Mt 24:1 ‘Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple.

Jn 12:24 unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Recap: In the previous study I have dared tread on hallowed ground, risking offending those who hold great store in history, tradition and education and, indeed, religious formality. I only dare do this because I know where this is going and detractors of what I have been saying can only do it if they ignore or reject the teaching of the New Testament.  In that previous study, I noted that appearance, self-confidence, performance, and unbelief are primary hindrances to Biblical faith. I maintained that religious performance should simply be the channel through which the presence of God can be manifest and promised to explain that in detail in later studies in this series. In considering unbelief in the life of a local church, I touched on worship and public prayer. Now I am going on to another vital aspect of church life that is so often a demonstration of unbelief, that of pastoral care.

Tolerating Pain: Many years ago, the first book I wrote was called ‘Creating a Secure Church’ and in the first chapter I imagined a typical congregation with people listening to their pastor, but with their minds filled with the worries of everyday living. Now nothing has changed. In a local church I know fairly well, a congregation of up to 150, the following are what I suspect are fairly typical anguishes: women with non-Christian husbands, men and women who are struggling to make ends meet financially, families with worries about their children and their teenagers, people wrestling with failures and guilts from the past, people with worries about their jobs, their finances and the future, young people worrying about study and/or exams and their futures. These are people with many and varied worries and concerns, hurts and anxieties, and so I have to ask the question, what do we do about them?

Ignore the Pain? This is the first expression of unbelief in respect of pastoral issues, and I believe it is true of so many churches. Pretend it is not there or if it is there, accept that this is what we all have to suffer, living in the Fallen World.  But Pastors may be aware of it and yet feel out of their depth in dealing with the scope and breadth of such issues, so simply try to cover some of these things in a surface way in twenty-five minutes of Sunday morning preaching. Some churches have house groups but what I so often find, is that they do such spiritually sounding things as Bible Study and ‘praying for the nations’ yet fail to create an atmosphere of security whereby people are put first, people who are anguishing and struggling with burdens that almost overwhelm them. In church, if God is to be our first focus, people should be a close second, because they were with Jesus. A damaged people cannot be a community-transforming people. Our transformation should start within the church, and then when we learn to do that, we can reach out to do it in the community.

When Jesus declared the Isaiah mandate as his mandate, “to proclaim good news to the poor.… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,” (Lk 4:18) the reality is that those poor prisoners are in our congregations too, and it is only unbelief that continues to tolerate that state of affairs; Jesus wants to heal, deliver, transform and change such people with their threatening circumstances.

We can in our churches be the same as the synagogues in Jesus’ day, shown by the classic instance in Mark 1 when a demon possessed man was in the synagogue and when Jesus delivered him, the reaction was amazement by the people who considered this something new. Presumably this man existed in the synagogue on a weekly basis at least and it was only when Jesus turned up that he was delivered. I have a suspicion that many in our churches (including leaders) would be utterly shocked if our neat and orderly services were interrupted by Jesus turning up and healing and delivering people publicly.

Misguided Disciples: In the first verse of Matt 24, the first of our starter verses above, Jesus’ disciples are carried away by the grandeur of Herod’s Temple. And, of course, that was how it was always described, Herod’s Temple. Herod the Great added on to the old, smaller temple, and created this great and beautiful building. And here is the irony of those verses: the disciples were excited by the amazing building and missed the fact that God, in the form of His Son, was walking away from it.  Jesus, in his response to them, warns, “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down,” (v.2) and of course that was exactly what happened within some forty years in AD70.

Now the example of the disciples in this instance is what is at the heart of the belief system of so many people and I only mention this in this study so that we will realise that this feeling of grandeur can never be at the heart of true faith. Please understand, I am not attacking great ecclesiastical buildings, or religious institutions or other institutions that support and strengthen our societies, but I am saying they have little place in creating biblical faith. Similarly, familiar religious practice and standard service formats are in no way an expression of the life of the church revealed in the New Testament and should in no way replace a vibrant life of the Spirit in the church.

Death to self: We have, in this study, been suggesting that it is so easy to look at status and size as means of gaining confidence in who we are, or of establishing a sense of security, and that regular format services can act as a means of creating a weekly comfort zone. However, there is a teaching in the New Testament that lays an axe to the particular belief that human effort and endeavour is the key to religion. It may be summarised as the need to die to self to become a follower of Jesus. The second of our starter verses today came from the lips of Jesus: “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”  He was, of course, referring to himself and his impending death but he was also laying down a principle that applies to each of us, and indeed dare we suggest it, the way we go about ‘church’.

Baptism: Baptism of believers in the New Testament period involved total immersion and the act of immersion was a picture of the spiritual reality of what would happen to Jesus and what has to happen to us. Going down into the water is symbolic of him – and us – dying, and then being raised up out of the water is symbolic of his resurrection and ours, as we are raised to a new life.

The Message version puts it, “That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!” (Rom 6:2,3) It continues with the apostle Paul’s teaching, That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father.” (v.3-5) He explained the same thing to the Colossians: “Going under the water was a burial of your old life; coming up out of it was a resurrection, God raising you from the dead as he did Christ.” (Col 2:12 Message version)

This same concept comes up again and again in the New Testament, that in coming to Christ we have to die to our old life, i.e. we have to completely let go of it, we have to reject and leave that old self-centred life, the life of human endeavor, that is so often godless and which, so often, results in things going wrong  We have already described Sin as self-centred godlessness that leads to unrighteous acts. God has designed us to live in relationship with Him but before we come to Christ, we will not have known that experience, we will have led self-centred lives, lives that are in reality, godless.

Being nice, having status, relying upon traditions, buildings, institutions, regular religious formats etc., none of these things counts for anything with God. We could say so much more here, but we will let the teaching of the following Parts speak further as it becomes applicable. These are the things that I have found had motivated and challenged me to come to this point of starting afresh to consider what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be part of the Church.

Instead of diving straight in and making suggestions about what the New Testament says about ‘church’ we need to start before that by considering what a Christian is, what has happened to them to be able to claim this title, and yet before that we need to consider what went before, their need, and what brought about the transformation that the New Testament speaks about. That is where we will go in the next Part.

(If you have simply come to this series and not followed it each day, you may wish to know where it is going, and so here at the end of each Part is an overview of the series)

Part 1 – Falling Short?

  1. Wonderings about Church
  2. Concern for People
  3. Challenged by Scripture
  4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
  5. Problems with Religion and Revival
  6. Appearance & Performance (1)
  7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Part 2 – A Different People

  1. Different
  2. Believers
  3. Supernatural
  4. Repentance and Conviction
  5. Needing to be ‘Saved’?
  6. A People of Faith

Part 3 – Making of Believers

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

  1. The Significance of Vision
  2. More on ‘Why Vision?’
  3. The God Focus
  4. Spiritual Expressions
  5. Building People

Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

  1. Clear your Mind
  2. A New Creation
  3. Life (1)
  4. Life (2)
  5. Being Together
  6. Fellowship

Part 6 – thinking about Leaders

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

  1. Uniqueness
  2. Another quick look at ‘Vision’
  3. Power – for Life Transformation
  4. Power – for Life Service
  5. Power – for Living
  6. The Need for Faith
  7. More on Faith.
  8. Obedience
  9. Finale – the Church on God’s heart

39. Contentment

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 39 :  Learning to be Content

Eccles 4:4 And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Motivation is a strange thing. What is it that motivates us? If you like crime dramas or detective novels, you’ll know about motivation; it’s the thing that drives someone to commit a crime. Or every now and then you come across a story of someone who has battled against the odds and persevered and pushed on to achieve great things, and somewhere in the story you’ll look for the motivation. What was it that drove this person on when most people would have given up? What makes a person driven?

In our verse above today we come to one of those verses that has to be held lightly for it is not the entire truth. All Scripture may be inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16) in the sense the He prompted the people to write the things on their hearts, but sometimes, as in Job’s case and Solomon’s case not everything they wrote was true for they both wrote from a difficult perspective. Job wrote from the perspective of pain and Solomon here from the perspective of old age when he had lost contact with God. So hold lightly what he says here!

In his jaded outlook he maintains that everyone works and seeks to achieve because of their envy of others. Now that is no doubt true of a very large number of people but not everyone. Some people work to simply stay alive, some at the opposite end of the scale who are rich simply to fulfil personal desire to do something with little care about others, and finally, there will be those who work to fulfil their calling before God –  but we’ll come to them later.

Without doubt many people are motivated to work and motivated to achieve by other people. The person who presses on in a career and lays down their life to achieve great things in it, if they were honest, would acknowledge that they were trying to rise above the rest, or get the things they see rich people have. It is looking at other people that drives them on.

Indeed, if our motivation is to “keep up with the Jones’s” then we will always be seeking more and more and more because the first set of people we see who have more than us, are just above us in the social or economic scale; they’re the ones we know and want to catch up with. Once we’ve done that we encounter the next tier in the affluence stakes and they become our target and so it keeps on. There will always be a Bill Gates above us to spur us on if that is our motivation.

We may not like the word ‘envy’ but that ultimately is what it is if we look to other people and wish we had what they have – which is of course what modern capitalism is built upon. Unfortunately there is that echo back to the Ten Commandments where we are exhorted not to ‘covet’ what other people have, but that is slightly stronger than envy because coveting implies we plot to get what they have. Envy is just an attitude thing although, as Solomon shows here, it can be a motivating force.

Again, with our modern knowledge of how people work we might suggest that envy that motivates in this context is an indicator of a low self esteem. We think other people are better than us because they have more than us and so we work to improve our self esteem by working or achieving more. It is, as we showed above, a futile task because it is rather like working to be good; we never know when we’ve arrived, so we have to keep on striving.

For the Christian we need to learn to hold a balance between being content with what we have and stretching forward to reach what God is holding out to us. For herein is the truth, that the Lord always has something more for us and it requires us to reach forward in faith to take it. Yet this is not a striving thing, this is not a personal effort thing. This is simply resting in the provision of God – in terms of things and personal abilities – reaching out to what HE puts before us and although that may stretch our faith, it doesn’t stretch us to straining point which so much world activity does.

No, contentment for the Christian is being happy with what the Lord has given us at the moment and NOT having to strive to catch up other people. It is a very different thing to emulate someone and to envy them. My wife had an uncle who in old age still followed and served the Lord and was a tremendous witness. He truly experienced what the writer of Psa 92 wrote about: The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Psa 91:12-15) As I encountered this aged saint I felt, “This is a life I would truly like to emulate because here is a wonderful example of godliness!”  That is different from envy which desires for personal gratification. It is good and right to desire to flow in God’s will as revealed in His word and by His Spirit. Envy is born out of self-interest and leads us into wrong attitudes and actions and robs us on contentment. Don’t let it!

42. No Escape

Meditations in Job : 42.  No Escape

Job 16:6 Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away

Within the various ‘speeches’ in the book of Job, we find various themes or refrains being repeated. It’s a big book with many words, so it is indeed helpful to be reminded from time to time the same things. Job has just been expressing what he feels about his friends but now he moves on to express again something of the sense of hopelessness that he feels, locked in to what is happening to him, unable to do anything about it.

This sense of helplessness is common to sinful mankind living in this fallen world. In its simplest form we find it when we go to the doctor and he tells us that we have ‘a virus’ and so all we can do is go away and rest. We can’t just get rid of it. We may try and suppress the common cold, but we are stuck with it until it works its way out. We break an arm, say, and we are stuck with a plaster caste until it heals up, and that takes weeks! We give way to some wrong act and are caught. Now there is the process of law which grinds on. We wish we could turn back the clock so that it had never happened but we can’t and so we are stuck with it. Then there are the prisons of living in a deteriorating body or a body that just doesn’t function fully or properly. There are the prisons of addiction and we wish we had never started down this path, but now we are trapped in this prison. Or there is the prison of simple poverty or debt and we can see no way out. As we look on these things, we realise that, humanly speaking, there seems no way out.

Job clearly felt like this.  Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away.” (v.6). Whatever he says does nothing to relieve him of his pain and if he stays quiet, it is still there. He feels utterly exhausted and there is nothing he can do to change it: “Surely, O God, you have worn me out; you have devastated my entire household.” (v.7). It has affected the whole of his life and so there is nowhere to turn for respite. How terrible it is when families are split up and you find yourself in devastating circumstances when you really need the comfort of the family, but there is no one there for you! How many children in the West today are with only one parent and feel bereft when the trials of life hit and they long for the other one to be there for them.

He declares this is the work of God, which in some senses makes it worse for there is no escape from His divine, sovereign will: “You have bound me–and it has become a witness; my gauntness rises up and testifies against me.” (v.8) You have bound me! This is no accident of life; this is a sovereign work of God. Bound? Tied up in this situation so there is no escape. It has become a witness? The fact that he is locked into this position of suffering, unable to do anything about it, suggests that all it not right in his life. His friends suggest it is because of sin.  My gauntness rises up and testifies against me! His obvious appearance speaks volumes.

He continues: “God assails me and tears me in his anger and gnashes his teeth at me; my opponent fastens on me his piercing eyes.” (v.9) He feels that God is angry with him and is tearing him to shreds, and is glaring at him. The result of the Lord’s activity, he says, is that, “Men open their mouths to jeer at me; they strike my cheek in scorn and unite together against me.” (v.10) He is a laughing stock, he says, and everyone says the same thing.  He is sure that this is God’s work: God has turned me over to evil men and thrown me into the clutches of the wicked.” (v.11) When God moves it has practical outworkings in our everyday lives. God has given Job over to others it appears. He further describes what he feels: “All was well with me, but he shattered me; he seized me by the neck and crushed me. He has made me his target; his archers surround me. Without pity, he pierces my kidneys and spills my gall on the ground. Again and again he bursts upon me; he rushes at me like a warrior.” (v.12-14) His life had been fine until God moved against him and like a wrestler threw him down, or like an archer pierced him with many arrows. It seems like He comes at him again and again in a whole variety of ways.

Now this is certainly not the most enlightening of Scripture but it does reveal the sense of awful, almost fatalistic, inability to escape from these apparent attacks from the enemy. This suffering of Job is not merely like having a headache; he is covered with sores, you may remember, is in immense discomfort and pain, looks terrible and is the scorn of all who pass by and see him. It is a reminder to those of us who may have friends who are going through hard times, not expect them to “snap out of it”. It is quite likely that they just can’t do that! They feel totally unable and whatever victorious viewpoint we have arrived at in our Christian lives, THEY may not be in the same place, so ‘praising the Lord’ or whatever other medicine you use, may be just be outside their reach at the moment; later on they may be ready to receive help and climb out of the slough of despair, but for this moment, they may be stuck there and just need your comforting presence.

I like the story I once heard on a well known TV series in the past: a man was walking down the street at dusk when he fell into a very deep hole left by the road workers. He cried out for help but there was no one there. A little time passed and he heard footsteps. A doctor arrived and peered down at him. He scribbled on a small pad and threw down a prescription and walked off. The man felt utterly alone. Just then he heard more footsteps and a Rabbi peered over the edge of the hole. “Rabbi, pleased help pull me out of the hole,” the man cried. “My son, the hole is too deep,” the Rabbi replied, “I will go away and pray for you.” And with that he left. Time passed and he heard more footsteps. To his delight, when he looked up the man saw his friend, Joe, peering down. “Joe, help me out,” the man cried. Suddenly the opening of the hole was darkened as Joe jumped in. “Joe, what are you doing? Now we’re both down here?” the man asked. “It’s all right,” said Joe, “I’ve been down here before. I know how to get out.”

It’s not smart or even critical words we need when we’re ‘in a hole’, it’s loving friendship, that understands and accepts. If only Job had received that!

3. Childless

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.3

3. Goodness doesn’t mean freedom from pain

Luke 1:6,7 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

Much of a Christian leader’s life is spent, not simply in teaching, but in correcting wrong ideas about Christianity. One idea, that is often around in people’s minds, is that if you are good, godly and/or a Christian, life will always be good. Not entirely true!

There is a truth in the teaching that if you are a Christian you are in line for God’s blessing, because that’s what Jesus came to do. The only problem is that we live in a Fallen World where Sin is the name of the game and because of that, things don’t always work out right. Sometimes we get it wrong, sometimes other people get it wrong, sometimes it’s just that’s how a Fallen World works.

Elizabeth and Zechariah, as recorded in Luke, chapter 1, are good examples of good people. Luke doesn’t give us any grounds to think badly of them in his description. They were upright in the sight of God; in other words that was God’s view of them, so that must be right! Moreover they observed all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. Now that says something. There aren’t too many of us who could make that claim, so these are good people, but life isn’t truly wonderful for them. Why? Because they had no children and, to make it worse, they were both well along in years, so they weren’t likely to have children.

Anyone who has struggled to have children and been unable to, knows the anguish that this couple would have felt. Even more in their culture, for having children was a high priority. Solomon had written, Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (Psa 127:4,5). That was the thinking of the culture. It was bad news not to have children. So here is this elderly couple who have struggled through life without any children – but they are good!

Doesn’t God reward goodness, someone might ask. Isn’t there a link between being good and God blessing you? Well if you look at most world religions you might be led to believe that, because striving to be good is so often equated with encounters with God, in their claims. However, that’s where Christianity veers away from the rest because it acknowledges ‘goodness’ is something that evades us. Chief letter-writer in the New Testament, the apostle Paul, knew this to his detriment. He wrote, what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:19)

No, even our best efforts at doing good are tainted with self-centredness or self-effort. As we come to this ‘Christmas Story’ we need to realise from the outset that this is all about people, but none of them are perfect. This is all about God doing amazing things (including with Zechariah and Elizabeth) but not because they are good, but simply because He’s chosen them and they’re available. This is a story of God doing great things, not people doing them. Put aside your self-righteousness and you’re ready for this story!