Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Making Sense of it All

How can we make sense of the suffering in this world? Why does God not intervene or intervene more? Where are we now in history and what are we heading to? How should we respond to all that is happening around us?

Scott Peck begins his book “The Road Less Traveled” with the statement “Life is difficult”.

If we start with the premise that life is meant to be all fine and well, and God is there to make everything right, then we will always be expecting things to work in our favor and we will be upset, distressed and disappointed when it doesn’t. But if we begin from the premise that life is meant to be difficult, then we will be thankful for every grace, every little blessing, and we will be appreciative and have so much to be thankful for, all the time.

This reminds me of a particular time when I was distinctly thankful for what would otherwise have been a “take for granted” norm of everyday life. I had just returned from a whole month in Bangladesh. I made myself a cup of tea, took a sip, put it on the table behind me, sat at the computer and proceeded to type out an email telling of my experience in Bangladesh. After typing out a paragraph, I turned around to take another sip and I remember I was so thankful I did not see 10 flies sitting on the rim of my tea cup! It had been a daily experience for a whole month in Bangladesh of keeping those pesky flies off my tea cup. Most of the time we are so ignorant of what the people in Bangladesh, and other such nations trapped in the depths of poverty suffer every day. I need to remind myself ever so often how thankful I need to be every day, and the need for me to go and share what I have with them.

Those who are devout animists go the other extreme when they believe that life is meant to be suffering, and everything has already been fated or determined, and so their belief keeps them from working to improve anything, or seeing and appreciating the little joys in life. Most nations whose predominant culture is animistic remain in poverty, trapped in their worldview, unable to see the resources they have, and are ever dependent upon aid from more developed nations.

So how do we make sense of it all?

This side of heaven, I don’t think we will ever have a complete or accurate picture. In 1 Cor.13, Paul said we know in part, so we have to make the best of it and learn to live with the incomplete. But I believe a more accurate picture than what most Christians have is possible and necessary. It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings : Prov.25:2. I believe that God purposely hides Himself and conceals things to give us the joy of discovering Him and discovering the “hidden” things.

I look back and realize that 10 years ago I did not know, see or understand life as I do now. That tells me that 10 years from now it is very possible that I may again look back and realize that what I know, see and understand today could be quite far from the truth – assuming I am progressively getting a more accurate picture as the years accumulate!  So I could be very wrong in how I understand it now, but currently this is the picture I have :

I believe God meant life to be difficult. I believe God purposely subjected the whole of creation to frustration (Rom.8:20-21) for several reasons. First, it is in the hope that through the trials we go through, we would be desperate enough to seek Him and return to Him. He put the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of eden knowing full well that man would take the fruit, with all the terrible consequences of that choice for all of mankind and for all time. Nevertheless it was a crucial part of His plan. If he had kept man from having a free choice, all He would have had would be automatons who would not know love.

God is love, and He desires a love relationship with us. Love cannot be programmed. Love cannot be compelled. Love is not love if it does not come freely from one’s heart. So He had to give us free choice and He had to let that free choice be tested. He had to let man go, for it is only when we return to Him that He can say, “Now you are truly mine.” (See my other post "Why God put the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of eden"). God longs for us to be passionately and madly in love with Him, just as He is passionately and madly in love with us. (See my other post : “Who was this Woman?”)

Second, He intended the whole of life to be a test. Our lives are very temporary, indeed a very short testing and training ground for what is to come. It is in the crucible now that we are tested. I believe God hides, silently watching to see what choices we make. What we do with what we’ve got, how we respond to the experiences of life, both good and bad, will determine how close we get to Him, how much He will reveal of Himself to us, what position we will occupy, and how we will relate to Him when He comes again in the fullness of His kingdom on earth. I have seen unknown, nameless, faceless nobodies do, "little things in great ways" (in the words of Mother Theresa) that God sees (like the widow with her two mites) that I am sure God will honor in time to come.

This short life is not all there is to it. There is much, much more to come. We were made for eternity, not just time. Nevertheless what choices we make and what lessons we learn in this short difficult life are significant. Notwithstanding that life would be difficult, life is meant to be appreciated and enjoyed. We are to make the most of what He has given to us – time, relationships, abilities, talents, opportunities, etc. Some have been given more, some less. Some have a better start in life, some a worse start, some have it very much better, and some really bad. What will we do with what He has given us?

Third, in the midst of the uncertainties, the trials and difficulties, and the limited knowledge we have, we have been given the opportunity and indeed privilege to learn to love and to learn to be overcomers, for how else can love be learnt and experienced? And how else would we learn to be overcomers? Each situation we encounter is therefore not only a test but also an opportunity to learn.

Fourth, I believe that trials, difficulties and suffering serves God's highest and ultimate agenda for each of us - to be molded and changed to become more like Jesus. I always say that Rom.8:28 is probably the most misunderstood verse in the Bible. Most Christians think that it means when bad things happen to us, we don't need to worry, we just need to pray and trust God and He will work and straighten everything out for our good, and everything will be OK. But that's not what the verse says. In fact quite the opposite. We make the mistake of understanding the "good" from our perspective of what's good. However, the "good" and the "purpose" that Paul is talking about in verse 28 is actually the suffering that God will use to change us to become like Jesus (verse 29). Verse 28 has to be read in its whole context beginning from verse 16 to verse 39. So one of the best things that God can do for us to to allow suffering to come into our lives. Not to straighten things out, but straighten us out! God desires to complete what He started out in Genesis - to make us into His image and likeness. (See my other post "Reflections on Suffering")

I see that at times God intervenes, but most of the time He does not. In His mercy and grace He somehow holds back the full consequences of our folly, for otherwise we would have destroyed ourselves long ago. So it is His grace that the world has lasted so long. Somehow, by His grace, there’s more sanity ruling in the minds of men than insanity, and His mercy and grace has saved us from an earlier self-annihilation. Most of the time however, He lets nature, from the time of the fall, run its course. He will intervene only if we pray, for prayer opens the door for Him to intervene (see my other post "Why Pray"). Otherwise He stays out of our world.

But even when we pray, He does not necessarily intervene in the way we want Him to, or expect Him to. Though God has a servant’s heart, God is not our bell boy nor servant. He does what He pleases and no one can question Him or hold Him to accountability for anything. He however delights to intervene when we truly call on Him with a sincere heart. So He waits for us to go to Him, and to come into union with Him for what is on His heart. When we discover His heart and become one with Him for His will to be done, then it would be not just His will but also our will and God can have His way into our world and we can together change and transform things from what is to what can be. Being made in His image, that is the glory He has destined for us – to be creative and to take dominion and reign and rule with Him over all that He created. (See my other post "Why pray?")

What about the positive choices that we make that are aligned to His will? Will we be able to bring complete transformation to this world? I don’t believe we will. The best we can do, even with and through His strength and power, will be limited. There is a time frame for this imperfect world. Everyone who got healed eventually died. We will only see the fullness of His kingdom when He comes again. Nevertheless, we are to work with Him at change and transformation and for His kingdom to come. It is not so much what is accomplished and what is achieved that counts, but how we ran the race.

As the time nears for this time of testing to end, for this world to end, God will withdraw His hand of mercy and grace and allow us the full consequences of our choices, and He will mete out His judgment for the choices we make. I believe we are near the end and we are already beginning to see that happening. We will see increasingly the breakdown and collapse of everything that God did not build. Every man-made system and institution will collapse. Every kingdom will fall. Everything will be exposed for what it is. God will remove His hand that has been holding things together and shake everything that can be shaken so that only what cannot be shaken – what He made and what He built will remain. (See my other post "Costly But Not Precious"). In the end, only His kingdom will remain. Rev.11:15

It is also through the shaking that our hearts will be tested. In His mercy He will push man up against the wall and confront him with what Watchman Nee calls “the most basic question in the whole universe” – Who’s in charge? In other words, every man will be confronted with this question from God, “Am I, or am I not God?” because until every person, including Christians, answer that question, we are doomed. God has no future for anyone who refuses to become part of His kingdom where only He rules and reigns. Every other little kingdom has to fall and will fall.

Where are we now on God's calendar?

I'm not sure. I could be very wrong, but this is what I see :

The current global economic crisis is testing us. Another test has been happening over the last 30 – 40 years with the exponential increase in disasters and explosion in poverty. Have a look at the graph in


and you will be shocked. Click on "Natural Disasters", then click on "World 1900 - 2008", then click on "Number of Disasters".

Jesus called the end-time crises the beginning of birth pangs. By that, we know that before the "birth" of the fullness of His kingdom on earth, there will be a tremendous increase in the number and intensity of crises. These are the "contractions" before the baby is born. I could be wrong but I believe we are already at the doorstep of Matt 24 and in the next few years we will see a massive outbreak of disease, ethnic conflicts, religious persecution, wars and natural disasters.

But the main point I would like to make here is not on the issue of timing or urgency but this - It is significant that Matt 25 on the sheep and goats comes immediately after Matt 24 on the crises that will hit the world with its resulting increase in humanitarian needs. How have we been responding to the needs of people in crisis? How will we respond to the poor and needy? I am still talking about tests. As I mentioned in another post, the poor are a test for the rich.

With the terribly poor record of how Christians have responded to the needs of the poor (see statistics in "Awakening to a World of Need"), it is no wonder that one day, many will say to Jesus, “When did we see you hungry, and thirsty, naked, sick and homeless and in prison?”

That is currently my “big picture”.

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