Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why Does God Allow Bad Things To Happen? Part 4: An Eternal Perspective

You know, if anyone knew of how miserable and unfair life could be on this earth, it was the Apostle Paul. The dude was imprisoned, beaten countless times (often near death), received the 39 lashes five times, beaten with rods three times, stoned, shipwrecked three times and adrift at sea for a night and a day, constantly in danger of different people, of Gentiles, of robbers, or false brothers, in danger of rivers, the wilderness, the sea, constantly experiencing toil and hardship and labors, had many sleepless nights, hungry, thirsty, often without food while in cold and exposure.

So, how is your day going so far? How does the rest of the day look? There’s a safe bet that you won’t be experiencing any of these things in the near future, if ever.

Paul’s resume of disaster, which is found in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, is quite impressive, unfortunately. This list of events that he gives us are very much real and true. Most of them are recorded in detail throughout the book of Acts. Paul, by no means, had a good life by the standards we would use today.

Let’s also consider the prophet Jeremiah, commonly referred to as the “weeping prophet”. He was no exception to the miseries that often came with faithful ministry. While I am not trying to center on the hardships of ministry, per se, it is important to know that whether we are in the ministry or not, we will have very difficult moments in our life that our sometimes hard to understand and do not seem fair.

Jeremiah was set apart at birth and sent into ministry at around the age of 20! What were you doing at the age of 20? Probably not acting as a spokesperson of God to an entire nation, eh? The few friends that Jeremiah had, scorned him and ridiculed him, hoping to see him fail. No one liked him. They all hated him and his message of repentance and the warning of devastation that would come to Israel and Judah if they didn’t.

You know what happened? Well, the book of Lamentations is believed to be written by Jeremiah and it is lamenting about the destruction of Jerusalem, which means that none of his warnings were heeded and no one responded positively to Jeremiah’s message. Just think about how it might feel to dedicate your life from 20 years old to confront a nation that is steeped in idolatry and fornication, only to see no fruit come from it and have a history of persecution and ridicule. The culmination of all these things is the destruction of his beloved city, Jerusalem.

By definition, the word lamentation means “the process of lamenting”. To lament is to grieve, or mourn, or regret deeply. This, we can be certain, is what Jeremiah did and not just once, but constantly. Pay attention to Jer. 9:1-3:

"Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people! Oh that I had in the desert a travelers' lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a company of treacherous men. They bend their tongue like a bow; falsehood and not truth has grown strong in the land; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, declares the LORD."

Is it any wonder we know him as the weeping prophet? He was devastated at the life of Israel and no doubt heavily burdened with his own emotions of seeing nothing come to fruition because of his ministry, yet he was faithful to proclaim what the Lord told him to. Why? Because the Lord told him to. It’s that simple.

After Jeremiah was beaten and placed into the stocks overnight at a city gate in Jerusalem (by the priest of the temple of the Lord, no less!) Jeremiah said, “the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

The man had a divine mission and was faithful to complete it regardless of the outcome. He knew God was sovereign. He had an eternal perspective.

He echoes later in Lamentations 1:13, “From on high he sent fire; into my bones he made it descend.” Jeremiah was passionate.

“My eyes flow with rivers of tears because of the destruction of the daughter of my people. My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite, until the LORD from heaven looks down and sees; my eyes cause me grief at the fate of all the daughters of my city” (Lam. 3:48-51).

With these two amazing men of God we see a constant theme. That is, the Christian life is not a guarantee of an easy life. In fact, it is often going to be filled with great trials and we can certainly expect some persecution, albeit light persecution in today’s world, for the faith that we hold unwaveringly to. Life will certainly have its draining periods that hit us emotionally, physically, financially, etc.

In our previous posts, we’ve already talked about how the world in its fallen state will be in a constant state of destruction and groaning until it is made new again. We’ve talked about the sovereignty of God and how He is in control of both the good and the bad and even causes them both to happen. We have also talked about specific examples of bad situations that can rock us to our core.

Now, how can the Christian cope with such devastation, even when we understand that God is sovereign? Is there any other practical view that we can hold that acknowledges God’s sovereignty, but also brings more clarity to it all?

I’ve touched on it in Part 3 briefly, but in this post I want to drive home the point that having an eternal perspective is key when working with this subject. Again, not everything is revealed by God for us to know as far as all of His purposes, but He does give us some hope and peace that we can easily apply to all of our situations in life no matter how dire.

Welcome to the Woodshed. Get your double-edged sword out, ‘cause we’re going in…

The Apostle Paul (the same guy with the resume of disaster) offered some amazing words of comfort when writing to the Italian believers in Rome. Of all the people to understand the kind of unfair things that can happen to us, Paul would be the best to ask for advice on how to handle it, no?

He has already helped us in our recent posts in understanding God’s sovereignty and that, no doubt, was the at the core of his beliefs about God. If God is not sovereign, then God is no god at all. In fact, people who deny God’s universal sovereignty by rejecting the fact that He is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), immutable (unchanging), etc, then they really have a lame faith. That’s putting it mildly. Think about it. God, indeed, is sovereign over every single (if you will) noun: person, place and thing.

In our recent posts I have hammered the reality about God’s sovereignty. Assuming I’ve convinced you that God is indeed sovereign and does in fact cause both good and bad things to happen and does in fact allow Satan to cause other bad things to happen, then it should be safe to say that you no longer curse God or get mad at God for these bad things because you know that God is infinitely wiser than we are.

Now that you know He allows them to happen and even afflicts us for certain purposes, whether hidden or revealed, we will no longer be left wondering why life is unfair. It’s not that life is unfair, it’s that God is sovereign. That fact that he allows us to keep living our sinful lives without smiting us from this earth is essentially unfair in the light of a holy and perfect God. We don’t want fair and just, or else we’d all end up in Hell. Do you realize that? God is just, yet he is merciful. He is fair, yet He is gracious.

With all that said and given our acceptance of God’s sovereignty, how can we cope for the mean time? I said before that understanding God’s sovereignty takes the wind out of the sails of our anger when bad things happen to us like losing a family member at a young age, or losing our job, or watching our house burn down with all of our cash and assets, etc. Yet, even with no wind in the sails we can sometimes seem to be left to float in a sea of nothingness, with a constant wet dew on our clothes that leaves us cold. We may not get angry, but we may feel depressed and anxious and full of doubt and fear, even though we recognize that for some reason, God allowed this event to happen in our life.

When Paul was writing to the Romans in chapter eight, he was talking about God’s sovereignty in salvation and how He predestined us, called us, justified us and will glorify us. Then he goes on to say, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Yes, God will sometimes afflict us with hardships, but for someone who chose us before the creation of the world and called us to repentance of our sins and justified us in the presence of His holiness and will soon glorify us in eternity… Even though he may add some hardships along the way, we have an eternal, heavenly home to look forward to where no pain or hardships will ever exist. Tears will cease flowing. Anguish will disappear as if it never existed in the first place. Hardships? What are those in comparison to the infinite, magnificently prearranged splendor of God’s holiness in what is to be our future and permanent home? This is the eternal perspective! Do not lose sight of it or else the waves of the sea of life will suddenly look bigger than they are and our running around in fear will cause more rocking on the boat than our actual circumstances.

If God is for us, who can be against us? We have salvation! We have an eternal perspective.

If anyone reading this has come to place their faith in Christ’s resurrection and repented of their sins, seeking forgiveness from Him, then he is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul is telling his readers in Rome that life in the Spirit is what counts. God is the one who called and justified us. Nothing can change that, or reverse that. Paul constantly urges his people to stop living in and of the flesh and the law that brings death, but to live by the Spirit that brings life (Rom. 8:2).

Pay attention to what he says in 8:35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” Sounds a lot like the list of things he personally experienced, does it not? Paul has been there on multiple occasions.

The next phrase in verse 36 is so fitting as Paul quotes from Psalm 44:22: “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

What’s so significant about this? This verse is oozing with God’s sovereignty in their affliction. For your sake we are being killed…”

Paul just got done asking if persecution, or sword, or anything else could separate us from Christ’s love. Then he quotes a Psalm that is strictly acknowledging God’s hand in their disaster even though they were being faithful to God in the first place. The whole time, here, Paul is not abandoning God’s hand in disaster, even among the faithful Christians back then, during Paul’s time, and during ours.

John MacArthur commented on this Psalm passage and said that the Psalmist writer “had no specific answers [as to their suffering]; only this inescapable conclusion that, by God’s sovereign will, they were allowed to be destroyed by their enemies.”

Paul brings his thought to a glorious conclusion in verses 37-39. After asking if we could be separated from Christ’s love even if God allows us to be afflicted in suffering, he answers his own question: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That deserves a hearty ‘amen’! We need to remember this. This will help our eternal perspective because when it comes down to it, we’re not going to be on this earth forever, but we will go somewhere forever. Eternity is pretty simple. There are two places: Heaven and Hell. That’s really all that matters and we need to be living in light of that reality.

The moment we start pondering Christ’s return and the end of the age and what Heaven will be like, etc. it immediately puts our other fears and thoughts and earthly sufferings into an interesting perspective doesn’t it? They are suddenly diminished in the light of the very real truth that the Lord is coming soon and eternal life in either Heaven or Hell will be the final destination for every single person that has ever lived. Just read Revelation sometime soon and see if you come out the same. There is no way you can read that book without gaining a better perspective on what really matters.

Paul went through a lot of hardships. What we don’t want to do is think that just because he didn’t list our specific painful issue in his writings, that he couldn’t understand what we’re going through. Again, when you consider his list of disasters, along with Jeremiah and other Bible figures, then you’ll soon see that it didn’t always seem fair for them. So it is with us and our circumstances.

Having an eternal perspective is what will console us because the eternal perspective is real. The Christian will really be in Heaven someday in the presence of Jehovah. Someday, we will see the loved ones we lost if they were also believers; we will see the babies that never made outside the womb to breathe fresh air; we will forget the possessions we lost; we will forget the pain that people caused us; we will forget the little amount of money that we could barely live on. When we really remember how temporary this life is on earth, the size of the painful burden on our shoulders will begin to shrink as we trust in the Lord for that day to come.

The pain we experience here and now is certainly real and as I have said in prior posts, I am not belittling the real fact that emotions are inescapable and inevitable. What we need to do, though, is to keep our eternal perspective in the midst of our crises and in the midst of our traumatic experiences. It’s the only thing we’ve got. Our God is for us.

In Paul’s opening to his second letter to the Corinthians church, he said, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor. 1:3-5).

Let’s be clear that most of the time when Paul is speaking of afflictions and hardships, he is referring to persecution for their faith in Jesus. While I do not want to lose sight of Paul’s original point in the face of persecution, we can still read these truths about God and know that in any hardship He is still a comforting God. As he said here, our affliction is sometimes used to comfort others who are going through the same thing. This is timeless. We should always be learning and growing from our hardships that the Lord provides and then use them to comfort others.

I have personally been on both sides of this process and it reveals a beautiful truth about… what? God’s sovereignty! Paul said to the Romans: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (8:28).

Knowing all of this, let’s take a giant leap into a perspective clarifying, abbreviated tour through Revelation. Let me just give you a portion that will really make you think in the long term, or eternally. Keep in mind that this stuff is really going to happen. Really. Take a look:

“Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lamp stands, and in the midst of the lamp stands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (1:12-26).

John was searching for words to try and come close to explaining the glory of the Lord God Almighty. This God is who called us to salvation and ordains our good times and bad times. This God has us in His grip. This God is who we should be obedient to and show works that show our repentance. This God is who deserves our worship and our submission.

As if that wasn’t gripping enough, read slowly about what will literally take place in the future. Again, this is prophecy, yet to be fulfilled. It will happen.

“When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand” (6:12-17)?

There is almost too much to list. You have to read the whole book in one sitting. It is gut-wrenching, yet it is something that we can read about and know where we stand with God. All of the bad things listed will not be our fate. There is a real confidence that comes from reading through these pages and knowing that we who are Christians will not suffer from our unrepentance. At the same time, it is an immediate call to check your life and get right with God if there is anything we are doing that is sinful or unholy. This eternal perspective is good for us in more ways than just one!

Additionally, Revelation has some pretty amazing imagery for what Heaven will be like…

“And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass. And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (21:21-23)

And finally, with some instructions in the last chapter:

“And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

The Lord is coming. It is imminent. He will come to judge the living and the dead. Why do I go over this stuff? Because the Word of God is true and if these things are true, then our very understanding of our temporary issues on earth right now will easily be overshadowed by the infinite greatness and holiness of God.

I know I cannot speak to every single heartache that happens in this world, but let’s not forget that God is in control of everything. While we have a natural tendency to become fearful and disheartened in our weaknesses and afflictions, we have God on our side who is walking us through every single one of those moments.

If you have not repented and placed your faith in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, then I encourage you to do so now. By repenting of your sins, acknowledging Him as your Lord, and trusting Him as your Savior, you will inherit eternal life in Heaven with Him as well. It is only because of this that Paul can speak with such assurance and perfectly wrap up this post:

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Keep your eternal perspective.

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