Suffering and Faith, Part 3

The truth about suffering: Because God is the God of all comfort, we know He cares completely. 

To whom or to what do you turn when you need comfort?

One of the hallmarks of our time is an impulse to medicate as a way of seeking comfort. It’s telling that we have a phrase — “comfort food” — to describe our tendency to turn to calories when we’re stressed or depressed. Over two-thirds of Americans admit to turning to some sort of “comfort food” as a pick-me-up at the end of a bad day. Pizza, chocolate, mac ‘n cheese and ice cream typically top the list of favorite American comfort foods. Using food as a way of medicating our stress might make us feel better for a little while…but you know as well as I do that when we make it to the bottom of that quart of ice cream, our problems are still there.

At other times we choose the alluring escapism provided by technology. So we’ll binge-watch an entire TV show on Netflix over the course of a weekend or we’ll endlessly scroll through our social media feeds or we’ll throw ourselves into the immersive world of our favorite video game. (Fortnite, anyone?) And while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of that, we have to acknowledge that escapism is simply another form of medication which does nothing to treat the real source of our stress and discomfort.

Thankfully, there is a comfort that transcends the fleeting comforts of YouTube and pizza rolls. But all too often, we settle for the wrong forms of comfort because we’re looking for comfort in all the wrong places. There is no comfort like the Lord’s comfort. If you’ve ever experienced His comfort, you know this to be true.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Look at the universal language Paul uses:

  • God is the God of all comfort.
  • He comforts us in all our troubles.
  • And this so we can comfort those in any trouble.

Grief and sorrow and pain are universal. As I mentioned in my earlier post, everyone hurts. But the universal nature of grief and pain is matched by the universal nature of God’s comfort. Because God is the God of all comfort, we know He cares about our pain.

And this knowledge is transformative. I talked this week with a young man whose story greatly touched my heart. The only word to describe his current circumstances would be nightmarish. An automobile accident years ago claimed the life of his five-year-old son. Two of his children continue to deal with debilitating injuries as a result of the wreck. Another child is deaf while yet another deals with learning disabilities. For this young father, these challenges are compounded by the fact that his wife is seeking a divorce. And there are even more circumstances he deals with that I simply cannot share. Suffice it to say, this man’s life has been devastated by pain at nearly every turn recently.

And yet…it seems that for the people of God, there is always an “and yet.”

And yet, his faith in God remains. More than that, his faith flourishes. How is this possible? Given all that he has endured — the suffering in his own family and the ensuing pain he feels — he spoke to me with clear eyes about his conviction in a God whose mercies is new every morning. “He has been so faithful,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do without Him.”

This is a man who knows what it means to suffer.

Moreover, this is a man who also knows the God of all comfort.

Because God is the God of all comfort, we know He cares completely.

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Suffering and Faith, Part 2

The truth about suffering: Because God can handle our tough questions, we can be honest about our pain. 

Someone has estimated that there are over 186,000 sentences in the Bible. That includes a LOT of questions. And the question that is asked more than any other in the Bible is this:

“How long, O Lord?” 

This is a question forged in the fire of suffering. It is usually voiced as a cry for justice and deliverance, a cry for God to do something. 

  • How long, O Lord, before you act to rescue your people?
  • How long, O Lord, will you go on ignoring me?
  • How long, O Lord, can you turn your face away from me?

Such questions might strike you as being a bit sacrilegious or irreverent, but they’re not. Far from it. This might come as a surprise, but these questions come directly from the pages of the Bible. And I believe these questions are included in the Bible to give us the proper language for taking our cries of sorrow before the Lord.

These “how long?” statements prove that God can handle our tough questions.

The biblical language for this sort of thing is “lament.” The Bible is actually filled with lament. We have an entire book in our Bible called “Lamentations.” Biblical scholars classify approximately 40% of the Psalms as “lament Psalms,” which are distinct from praises, psalms of thanksgiving or psalms for other occasions. Basically, two out of every five songs in the Bible’s hymnal are lament Psalms. Compare that with the contemporary hymnal Songs of Faith and Praise, the most commonly used hymnal in my tradition. An estimated 13% of the songs in Songs of Faith and Praise could be called “lament songs” — and even then, most of them are pretty loosely understood this way. (Statistics from Glenn Pemberton’s excellent book, Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.)

You’re far more likely to hear lament on a country radio station than in a church today.

God helps us walk through suffering by giving us the gift of biblical lament. Someone has said that lament is the sound of tears turned heavenward. These would be the “How long, O Lord?” passages, the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” passages.

Lament is language for the valley. Remember David’s words from Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” We all walk that valley during certain seasons of our lives. And the Bible is filled with this kind of lament language, language that gives voice to our experiences in the lowest parts of life’s valleys.

If 40% of the Bible’s hymnal is made up of Lament Psalms, don’t you think lament should be a regular part of our worship assemblies? Maybe this is why we have such a hard time when we suffer. It might be that — unlike ancient Israel — we simply don’t allow for the expression of grief and suffering in our worship assemblies.

The Bible is filled with lament because life is filled with valleys. Back to my original post, this is where the reality of our experience finds resonance within the truth of God’s Word. If the Bible never talked about life’s valleys, we would have reason enough to question it’s truthfulness. But instead, we find a Word from God that is literally filled with lament, a Bible that speaks openly about our valley experiences.

The most frequently asked question in the Scriptures is, “How long, O Lord?”, a question of lament that emerges from the lowest, darkest point of the valley. 

We see that Jesus himself cries out in the language of lament when He declares from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a direct quote from Psalm 22, a Psalm that begins with an acknowledgement of the darkness of the valley but concludes with a stunning vision of life on the other side of the valley, a vision of a people yet unborn hearing of the Lord’s righteousness. And this is what Jesus quotes from the cross! He isn’t referring to “verse 1” of the Psalm — first-century Jews wouldn’t have even known what we were talking about if we spoke of the Bible as “chapters” and “verses.” No, Jesus is referencing the entire Psalm when he makes this statement from the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is simultaneously an expression of both lament and hope.

In this way, Psalm 22 demonstrates the two elements of biblical lament:

  • Lament honestly describes our grief and pain.
  • Lament earnestly trusts in God for deliverance.

Biblical lament is honest about pain, honest about the way we are hurting. But with biblical lament, there is also a constant turning back to trust in the Lord. Lament is not just stomping your foot and throwing a temper tantrum, although if you need to do this from time to time, God can handle it. No, true lament — as an expression of worship — is being honest before the Lord while continuing to trust in him. This is the lesson of Psalm 22: In our grief, even when we feel that God has forsaken us, he is there.

When we are honest about our pain, we can begin to be gracious with ourselves. This means acknowledging that it’s okay not to be okay sometimes. I hear people say things when they’re hurting, things like, “I have to be strong for my family.” And I respond, “Says who?” I reject this notion that we have to somehow shove aside our true feelings all for the sake of “being strong” for others. If that’s the case, we need a new definition of “being strong.” What we really mean by “being strong” is this: “don’t show your loved ones how much you’re really hurting.” But we’re not doing anyone any favors by doing this.

One of the greatest gifts you can give your loved ones is to let them see your humanity. To let them see you when you’re hurting. When you’re honest about your pain, you model for them the faithful way to deal with trying circumstances. Maybe it’s saying something like, “This really hurts and I’m struggling mightily, but I’m continuing to trust in Him.” That’s a much better gift than putting on a show of artificial “strength.” And honestly…their faith is contingent upon how strong they believe He is, not how strong they believe you to be anyway.

We can be honest about our pain because God can handle it.

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Suffering and Faith: Part 1

I can summarize this post in nine words. So, if you’re in a hurry, here goes:

Suffering is universally painful but God is eternally faithful.

Everyone suffers. Some more than others. And suffering usually knocks us off our feet, drives us to our knees. But through it all, God remains faithful.

Not only does that serve as a summary for this series of posts, this aptly summarizes much of my own story which has been marked by several seasons of grief. In 1987, my father passed away when I was 10 years old. My Junior year of high school, my mother passed away. Five years ago, we lost my brother-in-law, my father-in-law, and my wife’s grandfather over the course of eleven hellacious months.

When it comes to grief and suffering, I have street cred.

But I really only say that so I can say this: in my grief, God has been faithful. At times in my life, I allowed Satan to use my grief against me. I gave him a foothold in my heart because of my suffering. I posed the same question asked throughout the ages: “Why would a benevolent, good God allow me to suffer?” This led directly to a question of God’s character — questions about His goodness and love I’d been hearing about my entire life. I struggled to square the belief in an eternally good God with the reality of my unchanging — and therefore, seemingly eternal — circumstances of grief and sorrow.

Most of this took place in the wake of my mother’s death. When you bury both of your parents before your 18th birthday, you’re bound to experience a bit of existential angst and spiritual nomadism. I sure did. There was even a period there when I marched headlong out of the Kingdom and resided in that bleak shadow realm of hopelessness. I wasn’t propelled so much by doubt — which is a bit too intellectually “heavy” to describe my 17-year-old self — but by despair. I despaired not only in the deaths of my parents but also in the “death” of the God I once claimed to follow.

But eventually — over the course of several months, in one respect; but in other ways, through the ensuing years and decades, for this journey continues even today — eventually, I stopped blaming God for my suffering and I started believing that He was faithful even in my suffering, in spite of my suffering. Such realization came slowly, but it came nonetheless. And that made all the difference. Our suffering does not negate the faithfulness of God.

Over the next few posts, I want to highlight three biblical truths that have helped me in my suffering. I should say that I believe these not simply because “the Bible tells me so.” The pithy aphorisms of juvenile faith won’t bear the freight of true suffering, at least not often enough in my opinion. I understand this opens me up to the accusation of some of my brothers and sisters, that some will quietly judge this inability to simply believe “because the Bible tells me so” as an inexcusable deficiency of both faith and character, therefore dismissing all that I have to say. So be it. I’m just trying to say that I needed (and continue to need) more than pat proof-texts and pablum disguised as “answers” from those who have never truly asked questions of theodicy.

However, I have come to an even deeper belief in the reality to which the Scriptures point. I have come to believe these biblical truths because they are consistent with my experience of God. This is not to say that I cannot believe anything that is inconsistent with or foreign to my own experience. It is simply to say that I believe this consistency is what grounds these as “Scriptural truths” to begin with — the a priori reality that undergirds the textual maxim. In my experience with God, these things have been proven to be true. That is why the Bible tells me about them in the first place.

In the end, these truths point to the enduring, eternal faithfulness of God, even in the wake of our suffering.

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Forgotten Identity

In the early morning hours of August 31, 2004, employees of a Burger King in Richmond Hill, Georgia found a man unconscious next to the restaurant dumpster. He was fully naked, sunburnt, and covered with ant bites. More importantly, his skull showed signs of blunt force trauma. When he regained consciousness, his amnesia was so great that he could not even remember his name, much less the details of his attack.

Burger King employees helped revive him and called 911. He was taken to a hospital in nearby Savannah but with no identification, he was officially listed as “Burger King Doe” and diagnosed with dissociative amnesia. For more than ten years he was unable to remember his name, obtain a Social Security card, collect any benefits from the government, or get a job. He eventually named himself “Benjamin Kyle” based on his intuition that his first name might have been Benjamin.

The sad story of “Burger King Doe” — or “Benjamin Kyle”, if you prefer — is a reminder of Aristotle’s famous maxim: “Man is by nature a social animal.” We learn identity in community. We do not name ourselves; rather, we are “named” creatures, given identity by those who were named before us. My two names — “Jason” and “Bybee” — remind me both of my immediate and distant lineage: Alton and Myrna, who selected my first name; and the generational stream of Bybees of which I am a part. This is my identity. This is who I am. And I learn all of this in community.

How sad, then, when our community fails to teach us who we are. “I think my name might have been Benjamin.” We realize what is at stake when no one tells the young person who she is and from where she comes. She is left to answer the question on her own, to fill in the gaps as best she can. Self-discovery is a uniquely human endeavor, but this need not be in conflict with our intrinsic yearning to have an identity conferred, to be told about ourselves by someone other than ourselves. “I think my name might have been Benjamin.” Such sad, sad words.

It turns out that “Benjamin Kyle” wasn’t a “Benjamin” after all. With the help of investigative reporters and genetic testing, he learned his true identity in 2015. In the end, even for “Benjamin Kyle”, the journey toward identity was a communal one.

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27

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Marriage with a Mission

Earlier this month, our family traveled to New York City for our summer vacation. We had a great time seeing all the sights. One of our highlights was seeing the city from the top of Rockefeller Center — the “Top of the Rock” tour, as it is called. I’m always amazed by these architectural wonders jutting out of the ground like man-made mountains. I love reading all the little details while waiting in line: how long the building took to build; how many workers were required to complete the job; how many miles of plumbing run through the building, etc. The view from the top is always spectacular, but I also marvel at the layout of these skyscrapers throughout the city. From atop the Rockefeller Center, each building looks as if it has been carefully placed there as part of a master design to accentuate the cityscape.

To observe a city layout — particularly one like New York City — is to observe the product of tremendous intentionality.

Intentional is my “one word” — not for a set period of time, but for my entire life. I guess that’s why I’m so enamored with skyscrapers and urban development.

Did you know that God has a mission for marriage? According to the Scriptures, God is intentional in his purposes for marriage. You can read about this in Ephesians 5. I’m going to include a lengthy portion of that chapter here, but I encourage you to take a few minutes and read the whole thing:

Ephesians 5:21-33

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit to your own husbands as you do the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Earlier translations unhelpfully chose to separate Paul’s call for mutual submission from his teachings on marriage by including 5:21 in the previous pericope about drunkenness and exalting the Lord in song. Thankfully newer translations have rectified this problem, giving proper hearing to v21 by including it under the Wives and Husbands heading that was traditionally bracketed from v22-33. (Such headings are not original to the text, an important detail to keep in mind when reading Scripture.)

With this teaching, Paul offers an “operation manual” of sorts for marriage. Marriage functions according to God’s purposes when:

  1. Wives submit to their husbands — a submission patterned after the way the church submits to Christ.
  2. Husbands love their wives — a love patterned after the love Christ has for the church.
  3. And all parties heed the call to mutual submission.

After quoting Genesis 2 — about leaving father and mother and becoming one flesh in marriage — Paul once again mentions the church. He says in v32, This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church. 

There is more to the meaning of marriage than meets the eye. It is a great “mystery” — revealing something deep, something that otherwise remains hidden. This is not intended to diminish singleness; Paul himself knows full well the great value of “being free” (1 Cor. 7). But something is undeniably revealed in the marital relationship, one forged in the fire of covenantal commitment.

The mission of marriage is to declare the Gospel — the life that comes through submission and love. This is the point Paul seeks to make and it is one worth absorbing. In its purest sense, marriage is a picture of the eternal love of God, demonstrating the kind of love Jesus has for his people. In a sense, marriage is evangelism. It is a window through which we see and understand the implications of love free from conditions.

This is God’s intention for marriage, His purpose from the beginning in Genesis 2 — that marriage would be a declaration of Good News, a pantomime that boldly asserts, “This is how God loves!”

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MLB 2018 All-Star Break

With the All-Star Game on in the background, I thought I’d write a bit about the 2018 season so far.

Just for a point of reference, here are my predictions from Opening Day.

As you can see, I picked New York, Cleveland, Houston, Boston, and Minnesota as the AL playoff teams. Of course, I had the Yankees winning their division and the Red Sox as a Wild Card team, but I’m still feeling pretty good about going four out of five on these picks. I suppose Minnesota could still have a second half run in them, but I didn’t expect Seattle to be right there in the thick of things. And I never would have believed you if you told me that the A’s would be 3 games out of the second wild card at the break.

The AL playoffs might be event-watching this fall. Houston, Cleveland, Boston, and New York have the look of those NBA “super teams.” And just think…after possibly winning as many as 100 games, either the Yankees or Red Sox will have to play in the one-game “play in” Wild Card game! You could really make a case for any of these four teams to win it all. Should be a lot of fun to watch.

Along those lines, identify the most electric pair of AL teammates:

  • Jose Ramirez and Fransisco Lindor
  • Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton
  • Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa (or George Springer?)
  • Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez

For my money, I’m taking Ramirez and Lindor, but this proves how deep the American League is this year.

Over in the National League, my prognostications don’t look so great. I had Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles as division winners with St. Louis and Arizona as Wild Card teams. After a shaky start, the Dodgers are sitting in first place and the Cubs just crept into the top spot in the NL Central, but the Nationals have been a huge disappointment. I thought the Baby Braves were still a year or so away (looks like I was wrong on that one) and I claimed that the Phillies were “recklessly throwing cash this way and that in an attempt to be relevant.” Well, it’s the All-Star break and Philly is in first place in the East, so I have to take the “L” on this one, too. Arizona is a half-game back in the Wild Card, so there’s still some time for that prediction to come to fruition.

And then, there are the Cardinals. What a mess. It looks like my Redbirds will miss out on the postseason for third straight year. I hate to say it, but it might be time to blow it up and rebuild.

According to the trade chatter, Manny Machado is headed to Los Angeles, which makes the Dodgers the clear cut favorite to win the NL pennant once again. Losing Corey Seager was a huge loss back in April, but having Machado for the stretch run should put the Dodgers in great shape once again. If I had to pick a dark horse, I’d probably still go with the Nationals. I just think they’ll make a second half run in the East. If they can make it, watch out for that pitching staff.

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The Story We Live In

Two high-profile suicides last week have me in a reflective mood. According to the CDC, the suicide rate in the United States has risen nearly 30% since 1999. Like most people, I had no idea. Unsurprisingly, this seems to coincide with the findings of Gallup’s most recent well-being survey: even though the economy continues to bounce back, the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index score dropped off tremendously in 2017. In fact, Gallup noted that the 2017 spike reflects the largest year-over-year drop in well-being in the 10 years Gallup has tracked these data. We are a polarized, anxious, unhappy people and it shows.

All of this prompts me to think about the veracity of our stories. Everyone lives in the context of a story — a meta-narrative that lends meaning and purpose to life. Who am I? What is the point of my life? What truly matters? For thousands of years, the pursuit of such questions was the domain of religion, philosophy, even science. History’s best and brightest — from the Stoics to Charles Darwin to Galileo to the Apostle Paul — have provided us with an assortment of Big Stories (meta-narratives) as answers to our most pressing questions. Even atheism — essentially the assertion that there is no divinely authored meta-narrative — is itself a meta-narrative from which one derives meaning, even if that meaning is decidedly existential.

In his seminal After Virtue, Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes:

I can only answer the question, “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question, “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”

If you don’t remember reading MacIntyre in your Philosophy 101 class, he’s essentially critiquing the modern culture of individualism as “morally vacuous.” We are narratival creatures — “storied” in the sense that we derive meaning from the story out of which we choose to live. What’s the first thing you do when you meet someone new? You begin to narrate your story: what you do for a living, who you’re married to, who your kids are, etc. This comes instinctively because we are wired to ascribe meaning through story. Each story is focused on a telos — a particular end. But we rarely consider the virtue of a particular story’s telos. Instead, we just kind of roll with it, thus our moral vacuousness.

To put it differently, the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have me thinking about the lie the Enemy feeds us through the stories of the world. To the minds of many, Spade and Bourdain lived a representation of “the good life”, filled with notoriety and wealth and privilege. In our celebrity culture, these two were living the kind of lives to which many would naturally aspire. And yet, tragically, this version of “the good life” was apparently unsatisfying. Maybe envy really is useless after all.

I can’t claim to know the stories out of which Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were living. But I feel certain that somewhere along the way, they were handed a false telos. Maybe that telos was the “good life” of fame and fortune and, in the end, that story inevitably failed to deliver on its promise of fulfillment. Maybe that telos was the utter despair they felt in their last moments — the cold, grim possibility that there really is NO telos after all. Maybe we’ll never know what that telos was for these two, except to say it was a false one.

And it’s enough for us to reflect on our own lives at a deep level. To ask about our telos, our meta-narrative, our story.

And, hopefully, to expose the moral vacuousness of the Enemy’s lies.

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