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Plus and Minus

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Ever notice how every good thing has a flip side? I’m not talking about dualism, where every virtue has an equal and opposite vice. No, I’m talking about the flip side of positive motivation. The Bible is full of it. Look at the number of times people are told to fear God, and compare it to the times they are told to love the Lord. Love and fear are plus and minus, two sides of the same motivation.

I see it most clearly in my closest relationships. I love my wife; I fear disappointing her. I love my children; I fear what may befall them. I love God; I fear him.

My son is serving his second tour in Afghanistan. He has excellent training, and I know that his missions are well-planned and that he is well-protected. I also know that he is fighting against a remorseless enemy. There are people who will try to kill him if they can. I love my son, and I fear for his safety. Because I love him, I pray for him and support him however I can. But if love fails to motivate me, fear for him will still drive me to do the same things: I will still pray and support him.

I have heard it said that fear is wrong, that it cedes authority to the devil in my life. But I don’t find any biblical warrant for such a view. The Bible never diminishes the virtue of an appropriate fear. Only in one oft-quoted passage am I told that perfect love drives out fear. I confess; my love is not perfect. At times I need fear to help me stay on track.

As a child I loved my parents. Yet there were times when I was tempted to do things I knew I shouldn’t. At those times love seemed weak and inconsequential. The desire to do wrong was strong within me, and love alone was not sufficient to hold me back. Then fear came to my aid. For I knew that if my mom or dad found out what I was about to do, I would catch it. Fear of punishment saved me from doing risky things. In the same way, my heavenly Father threatens terrible punishments for willful disobedience to his instructions. His threats are not meant to chill my love for him; on the contrary, they are meant to strengthen my fear of him. If I fear him, perhaps I will not do what he has forbidden. If I fear him, perhaps I will do what he commands.

Love is strong. It is stronger even than fear. When love is perfect, it drives out fear because there is no longer any danger of the disobedience that leads to punishment. But as long as I am still fallen, still capable of disobedience, still willing to say, “Not your will but mine,” I need fear. Indeed, I pray for fear to keep me from stumbling when my love is cool or God seems distant. I would rather be terrified than lost.

Jesus told his followers not to fear those who can kill the body but can do no more. Instead, he said, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” This kind of fear leads to security and safety. It is mixed with reverence and awe. It is like the fear that prompts mountain climbers to go through rigorous training and invest in first-rate equipment. They know what the mountain can do to them. Other fears—fear of looking ridiculous, fear of embarrassment—become insignificant. In the same way, Jesus intends that our fear of God would sabotage every lesser fear. The great power of the first-century Christians was that they did not fear death; they feared God too much to fear anything else.

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All Things

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He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

All things.

I used to think this meant that God would give me things I want. He already gave me Jesus. He won’t withhold anything else. But if you read a little further, you find out what things Paul has in mind:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Trouble? Hardship? Persecution? Why would a loving Father give me that? But wait. He didn’t spare his own Son. Why would he spare me? Did Jesus have trouble? Check. Hardship? Check. Persecution? Check. Yet Jesus remained so secure in his Father’s love that he could face all those things. He even faced something we do not have to face: God’s rejection.

My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me? (Matt 27:46)

But to us he says:

Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you. (Heb 13:5)

So our loving Father graciously gives us all things—trouble, hardship, persecution—along with Jesus. Because it turns out that life always comes at us with trouble, doesn’t it? We have accidents. We lose jobs. Friends and loved ones die. But now we regard all these things as gifts graciously given by God, who assures us of his surpassing love by giving Jesus too.

How tempting it is to think when trouble comes that God hates us or is displeased with us or at least doesn’t care about us. Then we remember Jesus, and the sacrifice God made for us to demonstrate the incomparable greatness of his love for us. This, too, comes from (or was allowed by) my loving Father, the same Father who showed how great his love is by sending Jesus. I am sad. My soul is downcast. I grieve. And yet….

In the midst of my pain, I know he loves me. While grieving, I remember his goodness. Though I do not understand, I trust.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

All scriptures taken from Romans 8 (NIV) unless otherwise noted.

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New Problem of Pain

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Mark Tabb offers a very accessible explanation for why God allows pain and suffering in the world. Using the book of Job as well as anecdotes from his own experience as a pastor and chaplain, Tabb takes on the problem of pain and provides a defense that is compassionate, reasonable, and lucid.

The book of Job is not an easy book to understand. Written as ancient Hebrew poetry, it has troubled both translators and interpreters. Everything Job’s comforters say to him, for example, seems to come right out of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. Yet the author of Job charges them with bad comfort and—worse—misrepresenting God. Tabb does an excellent job navigating the concepts presented in Job, explaining their relevance to his theme, and making the book come alive for his readers.

Interpreting Job, however, is not Tabb’s main purpose. He wants to answer the question that forms the title of his book: How Can a Good God Let Bad Things Happen? He tells us right off that he has another question in mind, too, one that Job himself asks: Shall we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10). Tabb squarely confronts the conundrum of a good God who nevertheless permits or even causes disaster (see Isaiah 45:7).

Throughout, Tabb’s style is conversational and personal. I never had the feeling that he was talking down to me or telling me just to buck up. His use of personal anecdotes as well as liberal quoting from the Bible and C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain appeals to both heart and head. This is a book for those who have experienced pain and loss. It is also a book for those who simply want to understand. The hardest part of sharing another’s grief is that you can’t. You want to empathize, to feel with them, but you find yourself able to offer nothing more than your presence.

Tabb leads us through the shock and horror of tragic loss, through anger at God and disbelief, to acceptance and perhaps something more, perhaps to genuine comfort. To some his answers will still seem trite. Certainly the last chapter, introducing heaven and eternity as balm for the wounded soul, is the weakest. He is at his best when dealing with the here and now. But his reasoning is theologically sound and thoroughly orthodox, an excellent antidote to recent works that explain pain by diminishing God.

This book is for anyone who has ever questioned how God can be both loving and all powerful. For some, this issue is a major stumbling block preventing them from coming to faith in Christ. It may also be for someone who has experienced suffering, but I would urge caution. Those who are grieving do not need more books to read. They need your presence.

Disclosure: The publisher, NavPress, provided me a copy of this book in exchange for a review.

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