Sound familiar? I've heard it many times. I've even said it a few times. And underneath the statement is a misunderstanding: if I do this for God, then He is going to do something for me. While we rarely say it so bluntly, the idea is there in the back of our minds. In fact, this mindset is often preached and taught in our churches. If we say the right things and do the right things then God has to do our bidding.
The problem comes when bad things happen to good people — when folks who have been faithful to the Lord have bad stuff happen in their lives. And the bad stuff can be really bad stuff — execution, murder, abuse, financial ruin, bad health, sickness, family troubles ...
I deeply believe that God loves us, hears our prayers, cares about us personally, and often provides protection. I also confess that I do not know how all of that works. In a broken and flawed world with broken genes, broken relationships, broken weather systems and a creation subjected to decay, how does God's providence and personal care fit into the processes? In a world where people live in rebellion to God and do evil things, why are we sometimes miraculously protected and other times vulnerable to attack? In a world where evil reins and is sometimes entrenched in political systems, why are some spared persecution and others are executed for simply handing out a copy of the Scriptures? Why does God miraculously heal some folks in response to prayer and other times the physical healing does not come?
Our quick and glib answers often do more harm than good. Righteous people can be devastated when they suffer yet have been assured their spiritual formulas guarantee God's preferred response. The struggle to understand the mysteries of unjust suffering, persecution, and disaster go back to the earliest times of human literature as the book of Job shows us. So we must be careful about simplistic answers to historically profound problems and deep, personal wounds.
Behind all of this mystery must be a humble faith admitting that true and final answers are beyond our mortal reasoning. For example, Peter is spared martyrdom and rescued from Herod's clutches while James is executed (Acts 12:1-17). Clearly God was at work in both situations, but one ends up in martyrdom and the other in deliverance from prison. How do we understand this?
Did Peter pray a better prayer, a more proper prayer, or live a better life? Absolutely not! On closer examination, the early Christians were not praying for deliverance from persecution so much as they were praying for boldness to proclaim Jesus in the face of persecution (Acts 4:1-36). This example of early believers reminds us that underneath the immediate issues of unjust suffering and persecution are two deeper issues.
First, we must recognize that God cannot and will not be manipulated by formulaic prayers or spiritual exercises that supposedly assure that the worshiper will be blessed. God is God. He is sovereign. He knows what we don't know. He is at work for deeper, Kingdom level issues on a global scale over the course of history. Persecution, martyrdom, suffering, and unexpected death are not the result of our failures to pray properly or from God's lack of love and concern. But that still leaves us with an unfathomable mystery that we cannot fully solve.
Second, God does respond to our prayers and does care for us deeply. There are times and moments when God does miraculously deliver from harm and bring healing. However, the goal of our faith is NOT to control what happens in our lives, but to offer our lives in service to God and the work of the Kingdom. If we follow the Hero who ends up being crucified unjustly and unfairly, then we too — as we follow Him — will face unfairness, loss, ridicule, persecution, and even martyrdom (Luke 9:23).
The Gospel of John ends with a simple exchange between Peter and Jesus. Jesus has just confronted Peter about his failure and restored Peter back to ministry. Then Jesus warns and challenges Peter:
"Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!"
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?"
Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me"
(John 20:18-22 TNIV).
This encounter suggests that Peter wanted to control the outcome and significance of his life in comparison to the Beloved Disciple. Jesus warned Peter that in his latter years, he would face crucifixion just as his Lord had faced crucifixion. Peter wanted to know what would happen to the beloved disciple. Jesus didn't really answer him. He simply said, "What is that to you? You must follow me."
And this must be our response to the uncertainty and the mysteries we face. The very fact that Jesus would leave heaven, live on earth, endure the cross, and surrender to death for us is a reminder of God's great love for us (John 3:16-17). Like Job of old and the apostle Peter and hundreds of thousands since them, we are challenged to trust in God's unfailing love while at the same time, surrendering our lives to God's purposes.
Jesus looks at us and still asks, "What is that to you? You must follow me."
The following questions are for your personal reflection, for sharing in a small group of friends, or for use in a home gathering. I'd also love to hear from you on my blog and see what you think about this message and these questions:
How does God's love and promise to be at work in our lives for good impact our understanding of the above discussion? (Romans 8:26-29).
What does it mean to be love God and to called according to His purpose in our lives? (Romans 8:28).
Does Jesus prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane have any implications on our understanding of this issue?
"Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will" (Mark 24:36).
Does Paul's prayer for the removal of his "thorn in my flesh" and yet God not taking it away shed any light on this subject?
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).
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Our Summer Series on the Post Resurrection Sayings of Jesus