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Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

I am not an honest man.
It is the honest man who speaks
in frank and often shocking ways.
It is the honest man who speaks
the truth you’ve thought but haven’t
had the words to say.
It’s provocative and resonant.
He is both entertainer and prophet.
It’s empowering.
In the company of his words
it is indeed you who are thinking.
And you join the rally cry for that
ambiguous thing, change.
I have great respect for the honest man,
the honest woman.
I too hear their call and I too accept it.
Yet,
I am not the honest man.
I don’t speak the truth, because
I’m confused at the fundamental level.
I’m angry
and it clouds my judgement.
I’m sad and I cannot offer
hope.
I keep company with Job and Qohelet,
the disciples on that lonely Saturday,
Christ, of course, on that godforsaken cross, with
faith as small as half a mustard seed.

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William Blake's Job

William Blake’s Job

As the oft-repeated verse goes, “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service” (Romans 12:1). So also the oft-repeated accompanying comment: Worship is holistic. Singing in church has little value if it something less than an expression of the individual and church’s wider commitment to God. When the whole life is directed towards him, even the mundaneness of taking a shower is taken into this position of worship. Nothing is excluded from this living sacrifice, except sin, that which is opposed to God and his plan of redemption. This is not to say that sin prevents it, however. As the Spirit worked in Jesus so the Spirit works in us. We can offer our lives as worship while we await for sin and death to be finally overcome.

What place does doubt play in this very short sketch of the Christian life? Is it sin that will be done away with when the world is brought into new creation? Or is it, somehow, an expression of the life directed towards God? A surface reading of the New Testament suggests the former:

But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. Whoever asks shouldn’t hesitate. They should ask in faith, without doubting. Whoever doubts is like the surf of the sea, tossed and turned by the wind. People like that should never imagine that they will receive anything from the Lord. They are double-minded, unstable in all their ways.

(James 1:5-8).

Doubt could be understood as hesitating to approach God and ask him for something or, having asked God, hesitating to believe that the prayer will be answered. For James, doubt in this sense would probably not be a form of worship! This makes sense when seen in the context of new creation: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Why would the Spirit bring us to doubt if we will one day be free from all doubt?

However, the question becomes more complicated when understood in the context of the wider biblical picture. At the end of 12 chapters in Ecclesiastes surveying the absurdities and evils of life the Teacher can conclude, “Perfectly pointless… everything is pointless” (12:8). Add to that the second voice in the postscript. Not only, “Worship God and keep God’s commandments because this is what everyone must do” (v.13) but, surprisingly, “The Teacher searched for pleasing words, and he wrote truthful words honestly” (v.10). Apparently the Teacher who decried the absurdities and evils was not misguided! The narrator who opens and closes Ecclesiastes reassures us that Teacher’s doubts are not only compatible with the life of worship but actually worth reflecting on.

This is true also of the Psalms:

But now you’ve rejected and humiliated us.
You no longer accompany our armies.
You make us retreat from the enemy;
our adversaries plunder us.
You’ve handed us over like sheep for butchering;
you’ve scattered us among the nations.
You’ve sold your people for nothing,
not even bothering to set a decent price.

(Psalm 44:9-12).

This is not the one-off, sinful musings of a person who has set their self against God. It is holy writ, taken up by the people of God and sanctified as the language of prayer and worship. Would you kiss your mother with that mouth, let alone your God?

An interesting case is Job, whom, as the story goes, God allows Satan to afflict by killing off his children and livestock, and striking him with sores all over his body. Job’s initial responses to the horror include praising God despite the situation — “The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name” (1:21) — and even defending God — “Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?” (2:10). However, in the main body of text we encounter a seemingly different Job: “Does it seem good to you that you oppress me, that you reject the work of your hands and cause the purpose of sinners to shine?” (10:3). God does not just seem distant but positively evil: “You know that I’m not guilty, yet no one delivers me from your power” (10:7). Which of these set of statements is spoken in faith or worship? It is hard to imagine any liturgical context where such language is directed in faith to God above, that is, whatever faith in that context would mean! It should also be remembered that, after much dialogue with the friends who apparently came to comfort him, Job is answered by God himself with the longest uninterrupted divine speech in the Bible. At the conclusion of this speech Job affirms again his faith in God’s power. He is declared righteous in contrast to his friends who “didn’t speak correctly, as my servant Job” (42:8).

In what sense can these examples be considered doubt? Maybe not in James’ sense. At least in the case of the Psalms and Job, such utterances are directed towards God rather than in a place apart from him. They arise from the mouths of those who have faith because, despite the content of their complaints, they do not direct it at a subject other than God. They are not uttered “behind his back,” so to speak. And it may be too simplistic to consider them as wavering. There is an urgency in the examples given which seeks answers from heaven. The supplicants are persistent in seeking God to respond to their situations. Thus by doubt I mean that which arises from either having seen God at work in history or more generally from an expectation that God’s being means that life should prevail over death and yet does not see this at work at present: Biblical doubt concerns the cries directed towards the One who could and should be present but is yet absent.

Marcus Reichert's Crucifixion VII

Marcus Reichert’s Crucifixion VII

This brings us to a New Testament example. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ last words on the cross as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken/abandoned me?” (Mark 15:33). By abandonment here I do not see some split in the Trinity (which is probably impossible and with which the world and God would cease to exist), but the simple continuation of the Old Testament tradition of the suffering righteous, as Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus quotes here, shows. Jesus has been abandoned by his Father insofar as his Father did not deliver him from those who crucified him. His abandonment is in the unanswered prayers offered in Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:36). It is Jesus’ abandonment which brings this form of doubt into the Christian life of worship.

This also allows for doubt to be seen in the context of new creation. Both the passion narrative and Psalm 22 point to Jesus’ deliverance: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here” (Mark 16:6). God did not leave his servant to die but “he didn’t despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered—he didn’t hide his face from me. No, he listened when I cried out to him for help” (Psalm 22:24). Doubt will be done away with. Yet, as long as creation remains the world of sin and death, doubt remains an important part of the Christian life. The end of Jesus and the psalmist’s story does not mean that there was never a middle. We are in the middle, the redemption of which will one day be brought to completion, and as such we cannot be detached from this middle but stand with it and share in its fears, worries, and doubts. In the same chapter we find the call to holistic worship we also find: “Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying” (Romans 12:15). We need to creatively incorporate doubt and protest into our personal and communal worship.

I end with three of my own doubts that I direct towards the only One who could possibly one day answer them:

  • How can I celebrate the victories and glimpses of redemption that you bring in my life and the lives of others when so many people are left seemingly untouched by grace and love?
  • I can see how you can redeem Jesus’ suffering, who took the cross upon himself willingly and was rewarded with resurrection life. But how can you redeem those who suffer unwillingly?
  • Through the work of the Spirit in the present it is possible to begin to imagine a world without sin and death. In this sense I can see the future of the world being redeemed. But how can this redemption touch every ugly and unspeakable corner of history? You can offer us a better future but how can you offer those who have suffered a better past?

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I went through a really rough couple of months this year. Nonetheless, in it I came to know something of Jesus that has been greatly significant for my faith. I would like to stress that this refers to a specific period in a specific person’s life and I am in no way providing reflections on some kind of universal suffering. I understand that suffering escapes definition. It is better understood piecemeal in the particular stories that individuals and communities choose to share with others. I won’t be sharing my “rough couple of months” but only indirectly by way of my reflection on these.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). As promised, after three days in the grave, Jesus is risen from the dead and appears to the disciples. As glorious as it is,  however, there remains for the disciples the enormous task of making disciples of all the nations, by whom they will be hated (24:9-14). They will be called blessed for sharing his sufferings (5:10-11). And, before joining him in his resurrection they must join him in his crucifixion (16:24-25). It seems that Jesus’ being with the disciples is not only in the love, hope, and power of the Spirit, his body which is the church, and his future return, but his being with them is also in the call to crucifixion. That Jesus is with us is the confirmation of our suffering.

(The above refers to specifically Christian suffering, i.e., taking up your cross is an active and voluntary identification with Jesus in his suffering that characterises being Christian. My concern here, however, is not only with these sufferings but also suffering that is not specifically Christian. Indeed, this “everything-else-suffering” forms part of the precondition of Christian suffering, as God on the cross has identified with all human suffering and death).

While the New Testament provides much material on suffering, such as its littleness in relation to the coming return of Jesus and the new life that he offers (e.g., Rom 8:18-30; 2 Cor 4:7-18), or, not unrelatedly, as a way of building character or faith (e.g., Heb 12:3-13; 1 Pet 1:6-7), this is not all that Scripture provides. The Book of Job, for example, counters other Jewish wisdom literature of its time that advocate righteousness (fear of God, obedience to the law, being just in your relationships with others and the land) because it is the righteous who will prosper. But the wicked, who act as if there is no God and do to others as they please, will surely have their comeuppance. Job, however, is a righteous person who is thrust into the depths of suffering. In one day, a series of events takes away all of his livestock, servants, and children. While he is still grieving these losses, he gets covered in sores from head to toe. Three of his friends come to comfort him. But they are ill-received. They consistently locate the source of Job’s suffering in some sin that must have brought judgement upon him. Yet Job will not buy it. He turns his attention to his Judge on high, perplexed at why in actual fact the wicked do prosper and the righteous often suffer: “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (Job 21:7; see whole chapter).

For me though, the most important part of the Book of Job is the two chapters just before the last where God answers Job’s complaints. The disturbing thing is that God does not really provide an answer:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?

(38:4-5).

God goes on to rebuke Job with further questions on the wherefores and whatabouts of morning and night, the rains, the constellations, and exactly how numerous animals undertake their daily lives. God seems to be saying that the answer to Job’s suffering cannot be found by reflecting intelligibly on the nature of God or the world. Suffering is a fact inasmuch as everything else is a fact. There’s probably a lot more there, and, as said above, this is not all that Scripture has to say of suffering. What can be said on my part though is that the fact of suffering means first of all that it is. It’s not something that if we look hard enough actually is not. Secondly, while nonetheless affirming the particularity of everything that is, suffering as a fact is as factual as everything else. To affirm the fact of suffering is to affirm its albeit violent and disruptive arbitrarity. Thus to say that suffering is a fact is at the same time to say that it is not. It is not, in the same sense that everything else is not, that is, it is not because it is seen in the context of the arbitrary totality which encompasses everything and is “just there,” without any connection to some transcendent purpose.

Job is a type of Christ. In the Book of Job we see the righteous Christ in a suffering that does not acknowledge this righteousness. (We also see a resurrection of sorts, but that can wait for another time). The cross bares the utter factuality of suffering. No longer is it that suffering is a fact only for the world. He from whom “All things came into being … and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3) has given himself completely to suffering and death, asserting it not just as a fact for us but a fact for himself. So, too, the cross bares the utter arbitrarity of suffering. It is true that Christ suffers out of love, a suffering for us, that we may gain infinitely from it. But it is such a death that the whence and whither of any why for this suffering is swallowed up in the moment of death itself, in the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). There is no purpose, only utter arbitrarity and nothingness: he from whom all being comes has been swallowed up in non-being. If we say otherwise, have we said that Christ has given himself to death?

It is true that the resurrection must be seen on either side of this, proleptically in the hope of the Old Testament, the miracles and sayings of Jesus, and the transfiguration, and then on the other side, in its actuality on Easter Sunday. But the fact of suffering which Christ takes upon himself means also a separation of himself from resurrection. In that “moment” of humiliation and death on the cross, there is no resurrection. Resurrection is the impossibility that God raises that which is not, from the dead. It has its own absoluteness that in a limited sense precedes but in its true sense comes after the absoluteness of death.

Yet we must go further than a separation of resurrection from crucifixion. In the suffering of the cross, Christ enters into death and is emphatically separated from his Father, and the Spirit of life who sustains him. It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that this separation is prefigured. Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt 26:39). Jesus does not want to submit himself to death, yet he knows this is the Father’s will, indeed, his will (e.g. Phil 2:6). He thus lays aside his desire for self-preservation and submits to death. But in this sense he is forsaken by God. The Father has forsaken the Son in neglecting to answer his prayer, “let this cup pass from me.” The Father has forsaken the Son in submitting him to utter meaninglessness. So, too, Jesus is forsaken by the Spirit. In death, the Spirit of life who kept so close to Jesus in his earthly life, indeed in all eternity, has allowed death to overtake him (Matt 27:50).

This is not the end of the story but it takes place at its disturbing center. The crucifixion reveals not so much the presence of God in suffering but his absence. The absence of deliverance, purpose, and life in the Father and the Spirit, and in the Son the absence of the sufferer from comfort. Jesus suffers alone. Nonetheless, this absence at the heart of the crucifixion demonstrates just in what way God is present in human suffering. He is present in the Son, suffering alone, but, paradoxically, with us. He is present insofar as suffering and death are now facts for God. Thus, so too is God present in the Father and the Spirit, in the Father sending his Son and in the Spirit in bringing the Son to us and making him real for us. God is absent, but this is not any absence. It is the awful and beautiful absence of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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I know I’ve been incredibly silent recently and that might continue for a while. Nonetheless, I thought I’d record some of my favourite insights from the course I’m doing this semester on the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He’s quite prolific so we don’t cover everything, but it’s been exciting to get to know someone who really strived to know Jesus and make him known in his own context and trace the development of this guy’s thought. Bonhoeffer came from an upper-middle class family and showed a greater interest in Jesus as he advanced throughout his teens, desiring to become a minister. I love this: “[His family] sought to dissuade him, claiming that the church was not really worthy of his commitment; it was, they insisted, ‘a poor, feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution.’ To which Dietrich replied: ‘In that case I shall reform it!’¹ Anyway, he’s famous for his theological innovation coupled with his involvement in the Confessing Church, the German church which sought to oppose Hitler’s Third Reich, and his imprisonment and later execution just before the close of WWII for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

On the the person of Christ:

From now on we cannot speak rightly of either God or the world without speaking of Jesus Christ.”

(DBWE 6:54).

I can never think of Jesus Christ in his being-in-himself, but only in his relatedness to me.”

(DBWE 12:314).

The concept of the body as applied to the church-community is not a functional concept referring to the members but is instead a concept of the way in which the Christ exists who is present, exalted, and humiliated.”

(DBWE 12:323).

On grace abstracted from the person of Jesus:

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that teaches this doctrine of grace thereby conveys such grace upon itself. The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be free. Cheap grace is, thus, denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God.”

(DBWE 4:43).

On the suffering of Christ:

The fact that it is Peter, the rock of the church, who makes himself guilty [of attempting to hinder Jesus’ suffering] just after he has confessed Jesus to be the Christ … shows that from its very beginning the church has taken offense at the suffering Christ.”

(DBWE 4:85).

On Christian community:

The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies.”

(DBWE 5:27).

[Christians] need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the divine word of salvation… The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians.”

(DBWE 5:32).

On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life should be, and they will often be anxious to realize it. But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community.”

(DBWE 5:35).

On denominations:

The concept of denomination is not entirely clear. It is not a theological concept. It says more about historical, political, and social conditions.”

(Green and DeJonge, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 571).

On fundamentalism. Yes, that fundamentalism.

At the beginning of this year, the journal Christian Century published a series of essays on the topic: ‘How my mind has changed in the last decade.’ … A common thread in all these essays–with the exception of the fundamentalists, who deliberately declare that nothing essential could have changed in their thinking since they espouse the same teaching then and now–is the admission of a decisive theological turn in the last ten years.” Nonetheless, “The failure in Christology is characteristic of all current  American theology (with the exception of fundamentalism).”

(Bonhoeffer Reader, 589-590).

Although this is pretty standard Reformation theology it’s been interesting being introduced to it via Barth and Bonhoeffer:

[A]t Pentecost, too, one preaches about Jesus Christ, the one who is present in the Holy Spirit, and nothing else.”

(DBWE 15:552).

On idolatry and nihilism:

The usual interpretation of idolatry as ‘wealth, lust, pride’ doesn’t seem at all biblical to me. That is moralizing. Idols are to be worshipped, and idolatry presupposes that people still worship something. But we don’t worship anything anymore, not even idols. In that respect we’re really nihilists.”

(DBWE 8:447).

On the ethical failure of duty:

[D]uty is so circumscribed that there is never any room to venture that which rests wholly in one’s own responsibility, the action that alone strikes at the very core of evil and can overcome it. The man of duty will in the end have to do his duty also to the devil.”

(DBWE 8:40).

On ethics and Christian freedom:

[I]t is the arena of everyday life that presents the fundamental difficulties, and which one has to have first experienced in order to sense how insufficient, inappropriate, and unsuitable it is to address it with general moral principles.” Thus “[Human beings] are not essentially and exclusively students of ethics. It is part of the great naivete or, more accurately, folly of ethicists to overlook this fact willfully, and to start from the fictional assumption that human beings at every moment of their lives have to make an ultimate, infinite choice.”

(DBWE 6:365).

The ‘ethical’ merely identifies the limits formally and negatively, and thus can only become a topic at the boundary, and in a formal and negative way. God’s commandment, on the other hand, is concerned with the positive content and with the freedom of human beings to affirm that positive content.”

(DBWE 6:386).

On this-worldliness:

It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future.”

(DBWE 8:51).

OT faith differs from other oriental religions in not being a religion of redemption… To the objection that redemption has a crucial importance in the OT as well (out of Egypt and later out of Babylon, cf. Deutero-Isaiah), the reply is that this is redemption within history, that is, this side of the bounds of death, whereas everywhere else the aim of all the other myths of redemption is precisely to overcome death’s boundary… The Christian hope of the resurrection is different from the mythological in that it refers people to their life on earth in a wholly new way, and more sharply than the OT.”

(DBWE 8:447).

* * *

¹F. Burton Nelson, “The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). The quotes are translated from Eberhard Bethge’s lengthy biography in German.

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Recently I finished Peter Enns’s commentary on Ecclesiastes. It’s in the Two Horizons series, which is a reasonably accessible series that gives you the exegetical basics of the text before ripping into its theology and context in a wider biblical theology. Having never read a commentary cover to cover, I learnt quite a bit. I was surprised at how all the popular passages from Ecclesiastes are either flanked with poisonous levels of cynicism or just read by us badly. Take for example, 3:11,”He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (NIV):

Qohelet does not mean that everything is “beautiful” (a common translation of yāpeh). This is hardly the place for an aesthetic comment, which would be wholly out of accord with the persistent point Qohelet is making here. Rather, God has made everything “appropriate” … In other words, Qohelet is simply reiterating the note of despondency we have seen beginning at 3:1: God ordains the times and seasons, and humanity pretty much goes along for the ride… As if to frustrate humanity further, God has also set ōlām into their hearts (v. 11). We must resist reading foreign notions of “eternity” into ōlām (see 1:4, 10; 2:16). Qohelet is not saying that, despite this sorry state of affairs, God reminds us that there is an afterlife awaiting us, where all these questions will be answered. Rather, God has put in our hearts, that is, made us aware of, the expanse of time, both backward and forward. We, as human beings, are unfortunately conscious of the passage of time, and we can extrapolate on and on, both back in time and forward in time. This is precisely what Qohelet is doing, for example, in 1:9-10. He is able to say that, regardless of outward appearances, there really is nothing new – ever.

(locations 763-771).

Another particularly interesting point had to do with structure. Enns points out that there is a “frame narrator” who introduces the main voice, Qohelet (1:1-11 in the third person) and concludes the book (12:8-14). Now, I’ve previously had a problem with the conclusion, as it seems to hastily shepherd the reader into fearing God and keeping the commandments despite a significant chunk of the text spent decrying the absurdities and injustices of life. Yet the frame narrator is surprisingly affirmative of Qohelet’s words. He acknowledges him for his wisdom and teaching (12:9) and notes the truthfulness of his words (12:10). However, the reader is not to go beyond Qohelet’s words (12:11-12). Qohelet has doubted sufficiently, we hear him and doubt with him, and yet we continue in our faithfulness to God (12:13-14).

The Book of Job makes a similar move. In the prose prologue and epilogue, Job remains faithful despite his suffering (1:21; 2:10; 42:1-6). This contrasts pointedly with his lamented dis/engagement with God and his friends throughout most of the text. The only possible exception which comes to mind is Psalm 88, the only lament psalm which doesn’t resolve. Yet if we look at it in its canonical context, Psalm 1 affirms that the righteous will prosper where the wicked will perish, and Psalm 150 only has very nice things to say about God. Maybe the same can be said about Jesus’ birth and resurrection straddling his crucifixion, and even of creation and new creation straddling the Fall?

How do you think these frames contribute to our experience of suffering? Do they in any way undermine the present experience of suffering? Are there legitimate alternative ways of reading these texts?

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As of 2009, Romans 8:28 was the third most read verse on Biblegateway. Try to guess the others before peeking! Anyway, you probably know it:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Jesus Culture subtly restates it in Your Love Never Fails: “You make all things work together for my good.” I wonder if this has become the dominant direction in which this verse has been taken for middle-class Christians? The community of “those who love God” has become the individual, and God’s eschatological, cosmological, redemptive good has become middle class comforts. But it isn’t all for bad. I won’t deny the consolation that this verse can be for anyone who suffers. Regardless, what’s Paul’s context? The following verse reads, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” What is conforming to Jesus’ image? Can it be anything other than following in his footsteps to the cross, “sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11)?

As much of the early church experienced persecution, it was likely the church at Rome had undergone or were anticipating some future persecution. In the same way that God works all things together for the good of the church, Paul cites Psalm 44 a few verses on, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom 8:36). Yet as Jesus died for the ungodly, not the righteous (5:6-8), the church is to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (12:14), giving themselves as living sacrifices to God (12:1; cf. Phil 2:17). I would love Romans 8:28 to be my favourite verse, but I’m not sure I’ve yet accepted all that it entails!

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This is a theme that has been developing in my theology over this year. Romans 8:18-23 I think demonstrates it well:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Here the imperfections and sufferings of creation, although they are tied to sin (5:12), are also “not of its own will.” I respect the theological qualifications of this passage that attempt to distance God from having any direct connection with sin, but the theme is prevalent throughout Romans, no doubt understanding that the same qualifications may apply: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32). He sent the law, knowing that it would incite sin, yet that his grace would increase (5:20-21). He hardened Pharaoh’s heart for his purposes (9:17). And he used the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as part of his plan to include the Gentiles (11:15).

When God creates, the possibility of fall is intrinsic to his creation. God wills that his creation will freely respond to him so he must also allow free rebellion. Sin is not merely the individual breaking the moral law, delivered from this through repentance, but the failure of the cosmos to respond to God, of which creation is both perpetrator (sin) and victim (suffering).¹ Is God’s redemptive work in salvation history a response or always originally intended? I’m of the opinion that God creates with the plan to redeem, knowing sin is necessary to a free creation. Additionally, suffering may even be necessary for redemption to be fully realised: That which is created and freely loves God knows something of this love, but that which is created good, suffers and rejects God, and then is reconciled and redeemed, knows something else: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (5:20).²

* * *

¹Anthropocentric accounts of the fall must first explain why the Genesis story includes a snake.

²Not that I am involved in any great suffering so that I can give meaning to it. This at the moment is a merely intellectual exercise, although I do appreciate that when Paul speaks of suffering, he means it.

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