Lament over Sin

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Those who sow in tears 

shall reap with shouts of joy! 

(Ps 126:5)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Second Beatitude says those who mourn will be comforted, but what does God mourn for? In Genesis, God grieves over human wickedness:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Gen 6:5-6)

Human sin grieved God so much that he sent the flood, sparing only Noah, his family, and two of each animal (Gen 6:7-8).

Books of the Law

Elsewhere, studies of the word for mourning used in Matthew 5:4 in the Greek, associate it most often with grief over death. For example, Abraham mourns over the death of his wife, Sarah (Gen 23:2), and Joseph mourns over the death of his father, Jacob (Gen 50:3).

By contrast, studies of the word for crying used in Luke’s Beatitude (Luke 6:21) in the Greek, associate it most often with prayer in the midst of suffering. For example, a significant point in the life of Moses arose when as a baby he cried lying in the basket floating in the Nile. On hearing Moses’ cry, the daughter of Pharaoh is moved to rescue and to raise the child as her own, disobeying her father’s edict to drown all Hebrew baby boys—including Moses (Exod 1:22; 2:6). Later, Moses cries to the Lord in prayer to heal his sister, Miriam, who has been afflicted with leprosy, and she is healed (Num 12:13). By contrast, crying in the sense of whining or self-pity evokes God’s anger (Num 11:10).

Books of the Prophets

The focus of mourning shifts in the Books of the Prophets from death of a person to anguish—crying out over the fate of the nation of Israel (e.g. Jer 8:18–19).

Israel cried out to the Lord in anguish primarily because of the ups and downs of leadership in the four hundred years after the nation left Egypt. During these years Moses led the nation of Israel out of Egypt and Joshua led them into the Promised Land with strong charismatic leadership. But leadership weakened as they entered a period of the judges when, as today, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judg 17:6) During the time of the judges, a cycle of sin, trouble, revival, and restoration became the normal pattern (Younger 2002, 35). The turning point in this pattern arose when the people turned and cried out to the Lord to keep his promises:

And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. (Deut 30:1–3)

In the Book of Judges this pattern of sin, trouble, revival, and restoration is repeated at least five times (Judg 3:9, 15; 4:3; 6:6–7; and 10:10). 

Later during the period of the exile of Judah to Babylon, mourning becomes prominent as the first of two parts in a lament. A lament starts with grief, but ends in praise. Jeremiah, the Mourning Prophet, wrote  the  Book of Lamentations; we also read many lamentations in the Psalms, as in: 

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Ps 130:1–4)

The heart is first emptied of bitterness; then, it opens to God (Card 2005, 19). This lament form also appears in the Second Beatitude, where Jesus says—“Honored are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4).

This mourning over sin, godly grief, appears as Jesus begins his journey to the cross (2 Cor 7:10). In the same way that God mourned over sin when preparing the great flood, Jesus mourns over the hardness of heart of the Pharisees on the Sabbath:

And he said to them, Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill? But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, Stretch out your hand. He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 3:4-6)

Here when Mark writes about the hardness of heart, he is comparing the Pharisees to Pharaoh (Exod 4:21).

The narrative in Mark 3 is also significant because it explicitly links human suffering to sin and God’s grief. Mark 3 “is the only passage in the gospels where Jesus is said to be angry. (Elliott 2006, 214). Jesus gets angry, because “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) and he cares about the well-being of people more than he cares about Sabbath observance (Lester 2007, 14–16, 106).  Because Jesus cares about suffering people, we should too.

Reference

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NAVPress. Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel. Lester, Andrew D. 2007. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. Younger, K. Lawson. 2002. The NIV Application Commentary: Judges and Ruth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Lament over Sin

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2020  

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Joy in Sorrow: Monday Monologues, Podcast on March 16, 2020

Stephen_W_Hiemstra_20200125b
Stephen W. Hiemstra 2020 (Ken Burtram Photography)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Joy in Sorrow. After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on this link.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Joy in Sorrow: Monday Monologues, Podcast on March 16, 2020

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2020

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Joy in Sorrow

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Honored are those who mourn, 

for they shall be comforted. 

(Matt 5:4)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The tension within ourselves is never more obvious than when we grieve. Grief vanquishes all pretense of our self-sufficiency as we cry out to God from the bottom of our hearts and acknowledge our dependence and loss. This loss and subsequent grief is the most basic form of human suffering (France 2007, 109). Because grief and blessing sit at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum—one feels cursed, not blessed in mourning, it is paradoxical to be honored for mourning.

Mourning and Comfort

Mourning and comfort are brought together in Matthew’s rendering of the Second Beatitude. The Greek word for mourning (πενθέω; “pentheo”) means—“to experience sadness as the result of some condition or circumstance, be sad, grieve, mourn” (BDAG 5773.1). Meanwhile, the word for comfort (παρακαλέω; “parakaleo“) means—“to instill someone with courage or cheer, comfort, encourage, cheer up” (BDAG 5584(4)).

Luke’s rendering of the Beatitude speaks not of mourning and comfort, but of crying and laughter. In the Second Beatitude, Matthew focuses on the inward tension and release of grief (mourning/encouragement) while Luke focuses on its outward expression (crying/laughing). The Apostle Paul sees this inward tension as critically important in our spiritual formation. He writes: “For godly grief (θεὸν λύπη; “theo lupe”) produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor 7:10). Paul uses an entirely different word for grief in the Greek that means: “pain of mind or spirit, grief, sorrow, affliction” (BDAG 4625). In Paul’s analysis we see grief tinged with guilt and shame—a motivator for repentance.

The Object of Mourning

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is the object of mourning, which appears only once before and once after the Second Beatitude. Before the Beatitude, Matthew records the mourning of Jewish mothers after King Herod’s slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem (Matt 2:18). Matthew cites the Prophet Jeremiah:

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. (Jer 31:15)

Rachel died in child-birth when her second son was born. She called him—Ben-omi (son of my sorrow)—but Jacob renamed him: Benjamin (son my right hand; Gen 35:18). In the quote from Jeremiah the Greek word for weep (κλαίω) is the same word as used in Luke’s Second Beatitude and it simply means: weep or cry (BDAG 4251.1).

After the Beatitude, Matthew reports Jesus telling a short parable:

And Jesus said to them, Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Matt 9:15)

Because mourning accompanies both Jesus’ incarnation (the slaughter of innocents) and his ascension (Jesus’ parable), for Matthew the object of mourning is always Jesus.  Underscoring this point, note that the stories of the widow at Nain (Luke 7:11–16) and Lazarus (John 11–12), which have obvious references to mourning, do not appear in Matthew. A possible exception to this generalization about mourning are the references to hell as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, and 25:30).

Why Does God Mourn?

If mourning requires an object, what does Jesus mourn for? Much like God mourned over sin before sending the flood (Gen 6:6), Jesus mourned over the sin of the nation of Israel, borrowing words from the Prophet Isaiah: “to comfort all who mourn” (Isa 61:2). Isaiah 61 connects the Beatitudes and Jesus’ call sermon and draws attention to Jesus’ role as a prophetic messiah. Messiah is the Hebrew word translated as Christ in Greek—both mean anointed one (John 1:41; BDAG 4834). In Jewish tradition, prophets, kings, and priests were anointed which explains the three types of messiahs and points to three offices of Jesus’ messianic ministry.

By contrast, Isaiah’s prophesy announced the release of slaves in Babylon who previously disobeyed God and rebelled twice against the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. Because of their rebellion, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, burned the city and the temple, and took many Jewish survivors back to Babylon as slaves (2 Kgs 24 and 25). In this context, Jewish salvation was literal—God would pay their ransom and redeem them from slavery, using King Cyrus of Persia to redeem them (Ezra 1:1-3). Redemption of sinful slaves (rebellious Israelites) is a small step removed from redemption of slaves of sin (us).

Mourning over sin starts in Matthew with John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2) who draws heavily on the prophetic tradition. For example, mourning over sin starts in the Prophet Isaiah’s call story:

And I said: Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts! (Isa 6:5)

Elsewhere in the prophets we read: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.” (Mal 4:1) Facing an eternity in hell (a burning oven) for our inadequacy, brokenness, and sin (evil deeds), scripture suggests that appropriate responses include repentance, mourning, and reconciliation.

Prophet Voice

Another word for mourning—woe (οὐαὶ)— is the classic expression of prophet voice and Luke uses it as a contrast immediately following μακάριος in his Beatitudes. For example, we read:

Honored (μακάριος) are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. . . But woe (οὐαὶ) to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (Luke 6:20, 24)

In Greek, woe is an: “interjection denoting pain or displeasure, woe, alas” (BDAG 542.1). Matthew uses the word, woe, eleven times, but not in the context of his Beatitudes, like Luke.

Mourning is also a form of anxiety that Jesus suggests may focus on food, clothing, and the future (Matt 6:15–34). Jesus continues:“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt 6:33) Jesus’ brother James completes this thought:

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you . . . Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (Jas 4:8–10)

Here James links mourning to humbling ourselves before God. 

Triad of Humility

The link in James between mourning and humbling suggests a subtle reading of the first three Beatitudes as a emphatic triad of humility. In fact, early manuscripts reverse the Second and Third Beatitudes (meek becomes mourn and mourn becomes meek), suggesting textual support for this interpretation (Nestle-Aland 2012, 9). Remember that poor in spirit and meek can be expressed in the same Hebrew word (עָנָו; Num 12:3). In the current ordering (that is, poor in spirit, mourn, meek) mourning is bracketed by two expressions for humility that suggests that it is a synonym for humility.

References

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

France, R.T. 2007. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing

Joy in Sorrow

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2020  

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Prayer for the Persecuted

Life in Tension by Stephen W. HiemstraBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Eternal and Compassionate God,

We thank you, Lord, for visiting us when we are afflicted and suffer unjustly.

For you are a God who cares, who understands our grief, our wounds, our sorrows, our diseases.

We lay our afflictions before you for we cannot bear them alone.

Heal our wounds, comfort us in our griefs, and purge us of disease.

Restore us; redeem us; save us; in doing so teach us to bear the wounds, griefs, and diseases of those around us and to point them to you.

Teach us to intercede for the people around us in action and in prayer.

For you are our God and we are your people.

You are with us; you are for us; and you have given your name to us.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, let our security reside only in you, now and always.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Prayer for the Persecuted

Also see:

Grief Prayer 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

 

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36. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webEternal and Compassionate God,
We thank you, Lord, for visiting us when we are afflicted and suffer unjustly. For you are a God who cares and understands our wounds, our sorrows, our diseases. We lay our afflictions before you for we cannot bear them alone. Heal our wounds, comfort us in our griefs, purge us of disease. Restore us; redeem us; save us; in doing so teach us to bear the wounds, griefs, and diseases of those around us and to point them to you. Teach us to intercede for the people around us in action and in prayer. For you are our God and we are your people. You are with us; you are for us; and you have given your name to us. In the power of your Holy Spirit, let our security reside only in you, now and always. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Kodak Prays for the Persecuted

Kodak_review_05162016Betsey Kodat. 2015. Arise, LORD! Scriptural Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Herndon, Virginia: CreateSpace.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The annual number of Christian martyrs in 2015 has been estimated to have been 90,000 people. This estimate is a decline from 377,000 in 1970s in the heyday of world communism,[1] but it is still about three times the number (34,400) in 1900 (IBMR 2015, 29) and has probably increased since that estimate was made because of genocide reported in the ISIS conflict in the Middle East. Those directly affected by genocide and martyrdom thankfully remain a small portion of the Christians worldwide suffering persecution.

Betsey Kodat In her book, Arise LORD! Scriptural Prayer for the Persecuted Church, takes her title from Psalm 3—

O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God. But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill. I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around. Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked. Salvation belongs to the LORD; your blessing be on your people! (Ps 3:1-8 ESV)[2]

—and focuses on intervening for those affected in prayer (3). Prayer is, of course, hard enough because in order to pray for the persecuted, one needs to admit to yourself that persecution exists and believe in your heart that God both truly exists and cares enough to intervene. Intervening in prayer also requires admitting our own impotence to stop persecution, often a hard step for gung-ho Americans, so by inviting us to pray for the persecuted God is also inviting us to set aside our pride and approach Him in humility. This need of humility is aptly captured in the cover graphic displaying the disciples in the storm on the Galilee (Matt 8:23-27) which symbolized persecution and early church fathers referred to as “the ship of Peter” (7).

In approaching prayer for the persecuted, Kodat recommends a 4-part movement in prayer:

  1. Opening Prayer,
  2. Strategic Prayer,
  3. Specific Prayer, and
  4. Closing Prayer (7).

The basic prayer in 4-movements structures the core chapters in her book and the group prayer template, which functions as the book’s concluding chapter (166-168). Kodak expands these 4-movements into 6 steps in application, allowing for preliminary research and a period of spontaneous prayer just before the closing (15).   Let me turn briefly to each of these 6 steps.

Step 1: Preliminary Research. Kodat admonishes us to: “Research target needs before you pray, using reputable resources, then select prayers that meet these needs” (16) She then offers a list of websites that can be used to undertake this research. Research for prayer might seem like overkill, but in prayer we are asking God to channel His power to specific ends. By engaging both our hearts and our minds, taking time to be specific demonstrates to us and to God that we are serious about prayer.

Step 2: Opening Prayer. Kodat recommends that we open prayer employing 6 specific topics: placing ourselves in God’s hands, praising God, binding Satan, confession, thanking God, and song (17). These instructions remind me of the “harp and bowl” prayers of the saints (Rev 5:8) where music and petitions are mixed together in continuous prayer.[3]

Step 3: Scripture-based Strategic Prayer. Kodat offers a list of 7 topics for strategic prayer to select among for particular occasions. This list includes—general needs, strength, leaders, supporting churches, nations, national leaders, and persecutors[4]—and it targets topics that may prevent or correct the problem of persecution (18).

Step 4: Scripture-based Specific Prayer. Kodat offers a fairly short list of 4 specific prayers (19)—for crises, recovery from crises, ongoing oppression, and a 4-page list of specific items mentioned throughout the book (170-173). Being specific in prayer has commonly been promoted as a way to channel God’s power, but channeling is unnecessary for an all-powerful God; a better explanation for channeling is so that God’s concern for us would be more obvious (John 9:3).

Step 5: Spontaneous Prayer. Kodat advises us to “pray with Holy Spirit insight as your heart leads.” (20) This advice might seem out of place because for most people this is the only way that they normally pray, but something more interesting is at work. If we become too formal in our prayers and neglect to engage our hearts, then we pray for reasons other than love—remember the Apostle Paul’s admonition:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:1-3)

Nothing is gained by praying without love, in part, because our love marks us as disciples of Christ worthy of God’s attention to our prayer (1 John 4:21).

Step 6: Closing Prayer. Kodat’s guidance on closing prayer is brief:

“Choose a blessing, and pray it in unison along with ‘leaving our concerns with God’ and the Lord’s Prayer” (20).

In particular, Kodat advises us to pray corporately to intensify the power of prayer (21).

Betsey Kodat’s Arise, LORD! Scriptural Prayer for the Persecuted Church is a readable and thoughtful devotional focused on interceding for the persecuted church. Each devotional includes an introduction to the topic, suggested resources, a list of suggested prayers, and scriptural resources. In addition to being a prayer warrior, Kodak writes, teaches, and is a dedicated mom,[5] but I know her best for her tireless work for the Capital Christian Writers’ club[6].

[1] Communism is an atheist philosophy and remains widely influential in secular circles even today. Over time, communist nations have been fairly open in their persecution of Christians who are often accused of representing a foreign influence. This idea of foreign influence is also an excuse used in the case of Middle Eastern persecution of Christian minorities (Iwanicki and Bailey 2012).

[2]A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son…” (Ps 3:1).

[3] International House of Prayer (http://www.ihopkc.org).

[4] This rather-unusual idea of praying for the persecutors comes directly from Christ—“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt 5:43-45)—who essentially advised us to persecution as a ministry opportunity.

[5] http://www.BetseyKodat.com.

[6] www.CapitalChristianWriters.org.

REFERENCES

 International Bulletin of Missionary Research (IBMR). 2015. Christianity 2015: Religious Diversity and Personal Contact. Cited: 28 December 2015. Online: (http://www.gordonconwell.edu/ockenga/research/documents/1IBMR2015.pdf).

Iwanicki, Hugh and Dave Bailey. 2012. Shock and Alarm: What It Was Really Like at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. North Charleston: CreateSpace. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1pl).

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Suffering Predates Salvation

Life_in_Tension_web“He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.” (Isa 25:8 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In both the Old Testament Books of the Law and Books of the Prophets, suffering and salvation are linked prominently. Reproach and persecution are amplied by the emotional distress suffered because it is frequently very personal.

In the Law, the story of Joseph stands out. Joseph was the first-born son of Rachel whose older sister, Leah, had had six sons and a daughter while Rachel was barren. The Bible records these words when Joseph was born:

“Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, God has taken away my reproach.” (Gen 30:22-23 ESV)

Rachel was reviled by her sister, Leah, out of jealousy with a focus on her barrenness [1]. Because Rachel was also Jacob’s favorite wife, Joseph soon became Jacob’s favorite son. We read:

Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors.” (Gen. 37:3 ESV)

Jealousy between Joseph and his brothers led them to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt and to report to Jacob that he had been killed by wild animals (Gen 37). After suffering from the hands his brothers, being sold into slavery, and sent to prison, Joseph proved himself to be a hard worker, honest man, and able leader. He is later promoted by Pharoah to be prime minister and through God’s intervention saved Egypt and his own family from starvation during a terrible famine (Gen 38-45). In effect, the son who was reviled and persecuted became the savior of the family and nation.  Does this story sound familiar?

In both the case of Rachel and her son, Joseph, the primarily cause of the raproach was not righteousness; it was jealousy—jealousy over childbearing and jealousy over favortism.

In the Law, the story of Job stands out. Job is a righteous man persecuted by Satan (Job 1-2) but reproached by his friends who doubt his righteousness. For example, Eliphaz the Temanite asks: ”who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (Job 4:7 ESV) Likewise, Bildad the Shuhite calls Job a windbag and asks: “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” (Job 8:3 ESV) This raproach by Job’s friends goes on and on. It gets so bad that God himself gets angry at these friends and corrects their misconceptions of Job’ righteousness (Job 42:7).

In spite of the raproach of his friends and the loss of his family and fortune, God comes to Job’s rescue and rewards Job’s faithfulness. We read: “And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.” (Job 42:10 ESV)

The raproach and suffering that we observe in the Old Testament arises, in part, because of differences in the ethical systems articulated. Three stand out.

First, one is righteous in keeping the law and unrighteous in breaking it. God rewards the righteous and punishes law breakers. This is, for example, the expectation of Job’s friend Eliphaz the Temanite (Job 4:7).  It is also the ethic displayed in Psalm 1.

Second, one is righteous in being wise and observing how the world really works. For example, we read: “One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless.” (Prov 14:16 ESV) In effect, evil is not just bad, it is also stupid.  This is the dominant ethic promoted in Proverbs.

Third, righteous suffering is blessed. This lesson comes directly from Job’s experience, but we also witness this relationship in daily life. We sometimes call it differred gratification. Education and investment activities both work this way. The rub is that plans do not always work out—there is a risk of failure. However, the parable of talents teaches us that God rewards those who trust in him and punish those who refuse to (Matt 25:14-30).

As the saying goes, the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear.

[1] The theme of woman teasing each other viciously over barrenness figures prominently in conflict between Sarah and Hagar (Gen 16:4). It also is important in the story of the birth of the Prophet Samuel. There we read: “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.” (1 Sam. 1:6 ESV)

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Righteous Suffering

Life_in_Tension_web“Then the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt
and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters.
I know their sufferings” (Exod 3:7 ESV).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For the Christian and for the Jew, the experience of God frequently arises in the context of righteous suffering.

Genesis begins the Bible with the creation account, but Genesis itself was written by Moses who encounters God as a refugee from his homeland and his people in the desert tending his father-in-law’s sheep (Exodus 3:1). As a man wanted for murder, Moses find himself in the presence of God consumed by grief over his sins and shamed by his inability to help his people. Here is a former prince of Egypt now tending sheep not even his own. Do you think Moses felt persecuted? Do you think that he suffered?

God gives Moses a new assignment. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Exod 3:10 ESV)

Moses is not anxious. Quite the contrary. He is wanted for murder in Egypt. Going to Pharaoh entails substantial and obvious personal risk. However, God offers Moses a number of assurances. Most important among these are the words: “But I will be with you” (Exod 3:12 ESV). In the midst of our own suffering God promises to be with us.

In the Law of Moses, God promises to be with us in the midst of suffering. God’s presence is manifested two other tangible gifts: the giving of the divine name and the giving of the law. With respect to the NAME, we read:

“God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM. And he said, Say this to the people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you. God also said to Moses, Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Exod. 3:14-15 ESV)

The ancients believed that knowing the name of a god gave one power over that god. When God freely gave Moses his name, he was offering him what we might call the power of prayer. And God’s covenant name was significant: YHWH which in Hebrew means “I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”. In common English, we might say: “I am the real deal”. The ancients were accustomed to gods made up by their leaders to serve their own political purposes [1]  A REAL GOD with REAL POWER was something entirely new.

With respect to the Law, the covenant of Moses begins with a reminder: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exod. 20:2 ESV). The laws that followed gave the people of Israel a clear picture of what God required of them. To our ears, this sounds like no big deal, but the problem faced by the ancients was not knowing who God was and what he requires. It is hard to pray to God if you do not know his name or know what he requires of you. Consequently, knowing God’s name and having his law may life an aweful lot easier and reduced anxiety levels dramatically.

In the prophets, suffering continues but something new appears. The Prophet Job is described as a righteous man:

“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1 ESV)

Job is so righteous that God even brags about him to Satan:

“Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8 ESV)

To which Satan asks to test him and God grants his request. Satan is given permission to take everything Job has away and to afflict horribly (Job 1-2).

What is interesting here is that the story of Job is thought to have been the oldest book of the Bible, written my Moses, and used to convince the Israelite people to follow him out of Egypt. What is new here is the first evidence of the need for a savior: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25 ESV) Even in his apparent righteousness, Job feels a need for salvation. Righteous suffering, whether by human taskmasters or Satanic oppression, pushes us to seek out and to rely on God rather than our own resources or on the law [2].

This theme of relying solely on God is repeated in the story of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When his friends refuse to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol instead of the one true God, they are thrown into the fiery furnance. We read:

“And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, Did we not cast three men bound into the fire? They answered and said to the king, True, O king. He answered and said, But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” (Dan 3:23-25 ESV)

Righteous suffering not only leads us to God, it becomes a testimony to others. This is the blessing.

The eighth beatitude is perhaps the most paradoxical: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10 ESV) How can we be blessed in suffering? The answer comes later in Matthew directly from the mouth of Jesus: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:39 ESV)

This is the Christian paradox.

 

[1]  An example of this phenomena is found in the story of Jeroboam, ,the first king of Israel (Northern Kingdom) after rebelling against Rehoboam, the son of Solomon:

“And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah. So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.” (1 Kings 12:26-29 ESV)

[2] The Prophen Jeremiah writes: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34 ESV)

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Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 3

 

Wil Hernandez, A Spirituality of ImperfectionHernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 3

Hernandez, Wil. 2006. Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Paulist Press. (Goto Part 2; goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Over time I find myself losing Henri Nouwen’s books. Some get lost because I lend them to friends. I forget who and they forget to return them. Others get lost because I read them at a particular stage in life and they get mixed in with other books from that stage. Still others get lost in the sense that I mix Nouwen’s ideas with my own and I forget where I got them. Writing reviews helps me sort out better what Nouwen really said and what I thought about it at the time.

In the second half of his book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, Wil Hernandez focuses on 2 things: explaining Nouwen’s spirituality and describing Nouwen himself.

Spirituality of Imperfection

While the Bible describes sin as a basic human characteristic; a less judgmental pastoral response to sin interprets sin as brokenness.  The first observation is a theological statement; the second is an ethical statement that points the sinner to God in the role as Great Physician. Nouwen helped me to find this integration.

Hernandez writes:

“Henri Nouwen’s proclivity for integration represented a major step towards wholeness. On a much deeper analysis, his commitment to pursuing integrity spoke more about his heightened awareness of his fractured human condition than an obsessive drive for perfection. Nouwen’s integrative pursuit of the spiritual life never obviated but instead incorporated facets of psychological, ministerial, and theological imperfections.“(75).

One cannot be whole until one understands one’s self which implies seeing both the good and the bad. Imperfections, which typically hold us back interpersonally and professionally, are hard to look at objectively. Peering at our imperfections from different points of view aids this task of integration and clarifies our vision.  We learn more from failure than from success because failure forces us to admit and deal with our brokenness—our imperfections.

The Eucharist

Nouwen saw the Eucharist as a symbol reminding us of Christ’s physical brokenness on the cross that helps us to deal with our own brokenness (78). Once again faithful to his Catholic roots, Nouwen viewed the cross as “the compelling symbol of authentic Christian experience”. Without the suffering of Christ, the victory of Christ in resurrection is devoid of meaning (81). Suffering forces us to ask ourselves the tough questions about our own brokenness. Thus, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus asks: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26 ESV) (86)

Hernandez observes:

“the spiritual journey for Nouwen was never about perfection, but about struggling to live in a deep and meaningful relationship with God that would bear fruit in the lives of others.” (92).

Here we hear an echo of God’s blessing of Abraham:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV)

In other words, leave your comfort zone for my sake and I will bless you so that you can bless others. Facing brokenness and imperfection to minister to others quickly leads away from comfort, but also leads towards communion with Christ.

A Perfect Example of Imperfection

Why do we cheer for athletes who overcome physical handicaps to compete and win?  For me, the answer is that overcoming physical handicaps is inspiring not only to other special needs individuals but also to those of us who, in spite of having no handicaps, struggle to overcome everyday challenges of inertia and personal limitations.

Hernandez sees Nouwen as a “perfect paradigm of imperfection” for at least 3 reasons.  Nouwen was:

  • “a restless seeker”,
  • “a wounded healer”, and
  • “faithful struggler” (95).

Restless seeker

Nouwen continuously tried to resolve his loneliness (96).  He tried different experiences, such as spending seven months in the Abbey of Genesee, a Trappist monastery (97). He tried to distract his restlessness with busyness.  Hernandez writes:

Nouwen continuously tried to resolve his loneliness (96).  He tried different experiences, such as spending seven months in the Abbey of Genesee, a Trappist monastery (97). He tried to distract his restlessness with busyness.  Hernandez writes:

“Nouwen’s penchant for spreading himself thin, along with his obsessive-compulsive behavior and ‘workaholic’ drive, all seemed to conspire in bringing out the unhealthy side of his restless maneuvers.” (98)

Nouwen was ultimately restless seeking after God (99).  According to Augustine, our restlessness is planted in us by God himself—its resolution can be found therefore only in God (101).

Wounded Healer

Nouwen used his incompleteness to become a place of hospitality for others. Hernandez observes:

“Only the bruised, wounded minister can powerfully connect with those who are badly wounded” (116).

One of my first ministries, even before I had even thought of seminary, was to victims of breast cancer. My wife, Maryam, was twice afflicted with breast cancer and we both suffered miserably. Not only were we victimized by the disease, we were victimized with depression and the inability of those around us to provide any meaningful support.  My sister, Diane, later died needlessly from breast cancer because of similar issues.  My wounds gave me knowledge and street credibility for reaching out to others suffering in this same journey.  The book, Wounded Healer, was an early exposure to Nouwen which provided comfort even though I scarcely understood what it said.

Faithful Struggler

Nouwen understood implicitly the role of suffering in discipleship (118). Nouwen also understood the role of leadership as providing an example to those around us (119).  After Reaching Out, I would have to say that Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus, is the most cited in my work because it centers on the temptations of Christ.  Nouwen (1989, 7-8) sees these tests as common leadership temptations. Namely, the temptations are to be relevant (turn stone into bread), powerful (become my vassal and rule the world), and spectacular (throw yourself down and prove who you are) (Luke 4:4, 7, 9).

Assessment

Hernandez pictures Nouwen as faithfully struggling with his demons to become a Christ-figure to modern society. His commitment to celibacy (126) and service to L’Arche (viii) scream authenticity in a world more used to leaning into pain than leaning on Christ.  As in Gethsemane where Jesus said:

“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me. And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”  (Matt 26:38-39 ESV)

Nouwen was faithful in turning to God instead of yield to his pain.

May we all learn to follow his example.

References

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1989. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-148).

Nouwen, Henri J.M.  2010.  Wounded Healer:  Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York:  Image Doubleday. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-ZJ)

 

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 3

Twilight_review_05042015Alister McGrath. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: DoubleDay. (Goto part 1; goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Because human beings cannot live without hope, nihilism itself points to God. As Freud himself admits, we were created to worship God!  In effect, atheism contains the seeds of its own destruction. The paradox of Christianity is that the cross has become a symbol of hope [1].

McGrath’s argument for the twilight of atheism is found in chapter 7 where he notes an unexpected resurgence of religion. He starts with his own experience as a former atheist and 5 additional points:

  1. The intellectual argument against God has stalled,
  2. Suffering in the world is an argument for God, not against God,
  3. Atheism lacks imagination,
  4. Renewed interest in the spiritual, and
  5. The remarkable growth of Pentecostalism (6-7).

Each of these points deserves discussion.

The Intellectual Argument Against God Has Stalled. McGrath writes:

“the philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt.  The matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith, in the sense of judgments made in the absence of sufficient evidence…The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God.” (179-180)

Part of the appeal of atheism was that it was logical consistent and, presumably, based on scientific reasoning while Christianity was not.  McGrath writes:

“the arguments of Feuerback, Marx, and Freud really offer little more than post hoc rationalization of atheism, showing that this position, once presupposed, can make sense of things.  None of the three approaches, despite what their proponents claim, is any longer seen as a rigorously evidence-based, empirical approach that commands support on scientific grounds” (182).

If atheistic arguments require as much faith as those supporting the existence of God, then observers need to make their decision based on something other than logic.  In fact, McGrath observes an interesting parallel between the atheist arguments against God and the classical arguments for God’s existence set forth by Thomas Aquinas (181).  Once this parallel is acknowledged, it is clear that the atheist argument is no stronger than the argument for faith.

Suffering In The World Is An Argument For God, Not Against God. The classical argument against God is a question.  How can an all-powerful, benevolent God allow pain and suffering?  Either God is not all powerful or he is not benevolent.

While this is a good question, McGrath asks: who planned the Holocaust  and who slammed the doors shut on gas chambers? (183)  If the new gods of modernity and postmodernity are so good, why is the past two hundred years so full of genocide and murder?  By contrast, the God of the Bible is a god who suffers alongside his people—“who bears our sin, pain, and anguish.” (184)  The modern experiment, while attractive in theory, has utterly failed in practice and we now know from personal experience what happens when human beings start to think of themselves as gods.

If the logical argument whether to accept the atheist or the Christian religion is a draw, then the practical experience of the modern era clearly favors Christianity, not atheism.  The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in, not to keep people out.

Atheism Lacks Imagination.  McGrath writes:  “Atheism invited humanity to imagine a world without God.” (188)  John Lennon even wrote a song, Imagine—nothing left to kill or die for, on this theme before he was murdered (173). Yet, no one needed to image a world without God anymore—they need only look at the history of the Soviet Union.  And the more people learned about it, the less they liked what they saw (187).  Those with the most imagination, artists and musicians, often found themselves sent to prison camps—the gulags of Siberia. Meanwhile, Christian writers, artists, and musicians continue to flourish (1986).

Renewed Interest In The Spiritual. The fathers of atheism predicted that the world would outgrow the infantile illusions of religion, but in fact the opposite has occurred.  In no place is this more true that in the former communist nations of Eastern Europe and Russia itself (189).

The Remarkable Growth Of Pentecostalism.  The Pentecostal movement started as a revival in Los Angeles in 1906 but now accounts for about a half billion believers (193-195).  McGrath sees 2 factors accounting for the popularity of Pentecostalism:

  1. “Pentecostalism stresses the direct, immediate experience of God and avoids the dry and cerebral forms of Christianity.” and
  1. “The Movement uses a language and form of communication that enables it to bridge cultural gaps effectively.” (195).

McGrath sees Pentecostalism as the single, most significant alternative to Roman Catholicism and as the “new Marxism” of the third world.  That honor used to go to the churches of the Protestant Reformation who seemed to have lost their sense of the sacred and have become significantly secularized (195-197).  McGrath contrasts the dry rationalism of protestants—theological correctness whether left or right— to the living faith of the Pentecostals (214-215) [1].

All good things must come to an end.

McGrath ends with a lengthy account of the life and exploits of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  Madalyn is best known for her lawsuit in 1960-63 to end prayer in U.S. public schools (248).  She went on to found the society called American Atheists from which she apparently stole an enormous sum of money (253).  What is less well known is that her son, William J. Murray, on whose behalf her lawsuit was filed, grew up to become a believer, a writer, a Baptist minister and an advocate for return of prayer to public schools (248) [2].  What could be more ironic?

Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism is a wonderful book and a great read.

[1] “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV).  Also see: Jesus:  Joy in Sorrow (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Xg).

[2] McGrath writes: “How can God’s existence be doubted, when God is such a powerful reality in our lives? And how can God’s relevance be doubted, when God inspires us to care for the poor, heal the sick, and work for the dispossessed?” (216)

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_J._Murray

REFERENCES

William J. Murray. 1995. Let Us Pray: A Plea for Prayer in Our Schools. William Morrow & Company.

William J. Murray. 2000. My Life Without God: The Rest of the Story. Harvest House Publishers.

McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 3

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