Why does God allow bad things to happen?

Why does God allow bad things to happen?

That’s a question that gets asked frequently and if I’m honest, I struggle with an appropriate answer to that question.

Why did my friend die tragically even though he followed Jesus?

Why is my friend barely hanging on to life even though he’s a pastor leading people to Jesus?

Why did that child die even though we know Jesus loves her?

I truly wish I had the ability to understand the universe as God does, to know how everything works out, ultimately for good.

But I don’t. I can’t always see it.

What I do know, through the storm, when sorrow like sea billows roll, is this:

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.

Lamentations 3:19-26 NIV

We sing songs around that part of Lamentations…probably the best known section of the lament because of that. But the lamenter continues:

For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.

Lamentations 3:31-33 NIV

Did you notice that last part? He does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. God isn’t diabolical and just eager to bring destruction on people. He doesn’t willingly bring these troubles to anyone.

I still don’t understand why we suffer, but I know that it’s not something God’s wants. He doesn’t willingly want us to suffer these afflictions and grief. And I do believe that his unfailing love brings compassion. Yes there is grief, yes there is suffering, but not every day is that way. Not every light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train. Sometimes it’s his compassion made new every morning.

Trust in the Lord. Hope in the Lord. Rest in the Lord. His mercies are new every morning, and he does not willingly bring affliction and grief.

May the Lord grant us all peace today.

Excuse me, are you a pastor?

This post originally appeared on my Facebook page and sort of went viral. I decided to post it here for my readers who don’t follow me on Facebook as well. Blessings.

“Excuse me, are you a pastor?”

That question has always bothered me, especially when it comes out of the blue. I never know the motives behind the people who ask it, and I still don’t know what prompted a random woman in the airport to ask me that question. But for some reason, in the middle of the night, in an airport, as I tried to eat my dinner, there it was.

I was feeling grouchy yesterday as a day full of excitement and weeks of planning continued to fall apart all around me. It started with a rental car getting canceled, with no options to rebook. What was supposed to be a fun drive (and anyone who knows me knows I love road trips) turned into a last minute flight paired with a friend’s kindness to pick me up and drive me to my destination.

Everything started well. I had a fine morning, visited with friends, played my favorite new guitar, and talked with my wife as she dropped me off at the airport. Terrific lunch, read a book as I waited for my flight. And then something delayed our ability to take off on time. Once we boarded we were informed that severe weather was causing us to be rerouted around the storm. Instead of an hour layover in Chicago, our new path around the storm put us on the ground 10 minutes after my connecting flight was in the sky.

No worries, the flight attendant informed us, as we had already been rebooked on a flight that would take off about an hour after we landed. Upon landing in Chicago, we learned that that flight was delayed, and we were rebooked on another flight at 5pm. Then another at 7. Then at 9. Then at 11. Then 1am. Then 3am. And finally, canceled.

Did I mention I was grouchy? As much as I wanted to ignore this stranger in the Chicago airport, something made me respond in the affirmative. Not knowing what this woman’s motives were, I was relieved somewhat when she replied, “Thank God!” and sat down at the table next to mine. Over the next 45 minutes, she unloaded a lot of baggage she had been carrying (no pun intended) and how she had been struggling with her faith since moving to Chicago. She really needed to talk to someone, and I guess I and the other random stranger sitting at our row of tables fit the bill.

I still have no idea why she asked me that question, but I was able to use my gifts to help this weary traveler make a plan to return to church this Sunday. I then proceeded to customer service and stood in the never ending line behind all the angry and sleepy people in the wee hours of the morning who would now spend their night trying to sleep in the airport.

And then it happened again. This time, a lady much younger than me, tears streaming down her face, asking what she should do. She had been estranged from her family for some time and had made arrangements to fly cross-country to visit them and make amends. And now the welcome home plans and meetings looked like they might not happen because a flight had been canceled. While waiting in line to receive complimentary blankets and tooth paste, we visited about life, canceled flights, relationships, and a few minutes later she thanked me for being “the only kind and decent human I have spoken to all week.”

Did I mention I was grouchy? Well, I had been, but not so much any more. The next was a young man trying to get home and was frustrated that he couldn’t reserve a rental car (tell me about it brother), a woman next to me on the flight to the next city who was troubled while reading about the Holocost, and then a kind stranger who invited me to cut in front of them in the breakfast line.

As I get ready to board my next flight that will arrive at my original destination 20 hours behind schedule, I wonder who God will put in my path this time.

I don’t share this story to pat myself on the back, nor to encourage air travel or rental car use (did I mention I was…nevermind). But I encourage you to be who God has called you to be in the places he has placed you. Our Christian life does not exist solely within the walls of the church building. And regardless of if we are at work, at home, in a Bible class, or trying to sleep on the world’s most uncomfortable airport seating (looking at you, O’Hare International), we’re still called to be representatives of Christ and His Kingdom wherever we go.

Now, I wonder who God will put in your path this time?

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

1 Peter 3:15-16 NIV

Tov Meod No More

Eden was a handcrafted dwelling place for both God and humans. In this perfect space, both the Creator and the created could exist together. Since God created everything tov meod (Hebrew for very good), this would include his creation of, and decision to place the tree of life and tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden. 

I have heard it taught humans should be ignorant of evil, that we should avoid knowledge of it. This seems contrary to God’s design, because he specifically put these trees in the Garden in proximity to humans. To take it a step further, Eve and Adam did have at least some knowledge of good and evil before eating from the tree. What I mean is they understood anything in the Garden was good to eat and enjoy, except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

So where did they get this basic knowledge of good and evil? From God! God never says they should have no knowlege of evil (afterall he told them what evil would be in this case). And there was nothing evil or sinful about the tree itself, after all, God deemed it tov meod. What God did, however, was govern the use and access to these trees. They are not evil, but interacting with them can only be done on God’s terms.

It seems to me that this illustration in the Garden teaches us that we should not seek to determine good and evil for ourselves. It seems God had a plan for the trees and the humans, but the desire of the humans to bypass God is the ultimate sin. Rather than submit to God’s wisdom and knowledge, functioning in their created role, they chose to usurp God by attempting to become like him. The saddest part is the humans were already like God, created in his image. Had they walked with God and obeyed him, perhaps those trees could have been used for their proper purpose. Unfortunately, we will never know this side of eternity.

It strikes me as spiritually significant that God has created tools that are useful for his purposes, and has placed these tools within our reach. But these tools can be catastrophic to us if we misuse them. Life is full of objects that can be simultaneously tov, but harmful.

Let’s use an oversimplified example. God created humans with speech abilities. God created this “tool” for humans because he wanted us to speak. But if misused, our speech can cause catastrophic damage to others and ourselves.

Scripture repeatedly calls us to gain wisdom! But wisdom by itself isn’t enough. Simply having wisdom can have catastrophic results (just look at the story of Solomon!) What is important is where we find our wisdom, and how we apply it. Sex is a beautiful gift from God, but when it occurs beyond God’s intended purpose, it no longer functions in a good way.

We must rely upon God’s wisdom and trust his leading in navigating life. If we rely on our own abilities, or lean on our own knowledge and reasoning, we too will fall victim to the sin of the Garden.

Unity of the Differents

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

Ephesians 4:3 NIV

DEVOTIONAL

While writing to a church divided along racial lines (Jew & Gentile), Paul could have easily counseled the Christians to get along on a surface level, but worship separately since their customs and world views were just too different.

But Paul didn’t do that.

Instead, he reminds them of where their source of unity comes from instead. Their unity isn’t found in their ethnicity, or identical worship styles, or political views, or socioeconomic status. Their unity comes through their shared faith. Paul goes on to remind us that even though we are very different in some ways, we are ultimately the same in what God has done for us.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV

Just because we may be from different places doesn’t mean our baptism was different. Just because we may not look the same doesn’t mean we serve a different Lord. Just because we vote differently doesn’t mean we have a different hope.

Because we place God first and above all, we share all of this in common. And it is here in our undivided commonality of faith that we find our unity.

PRAYER

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Help us remember that our baptism was an act of surrender, and allegiance to you alone. Help us listen to the unifying voice and guidance of the Spirit every day, for when we all listen to you, we will be one. Help us love one another, and truly be your children by showing the world your peace. Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

Blessed are the Peacemakers


“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”

Matthew 5:9 NET

DEVOTIONAL

This past week has shown clearly that many who claim allegiance to Christ have forgotten the way our King taught us, and instead have become like the power hungry, godless masses.

Matthew’s Gospel is clear on this. The way to true “power” is not through violence, or authoritarian means, but through service to others.

“But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:25-28 NET

Christ offers a better way. Not an easier way, but a better way.

Followers of Christ don’t seek to grow in earthly power through earthly means. Rather, we become the peacemakers in our nation, and use our means to humbly serve others.

Nowhere does Jesus teach his disciples to grasp power at all costs. Rather, we crucify the wants of our lives for the sake of Christ in order to reach our neighbors through humble service.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not about earthly power. It is about fulfilling the commission Christ has given his Church.

Preach the Gospel. Make disciples. Serve humbly. Be a peacemaker.

PRAYER 

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Help us remember that our baptism was an act of surrender, and allegiance to you alone. Help us remember that we were not purchased by the power of the donkey or the elephant, but by the blood of the Lamb. Help us love one another, and be one as you are One. Help us to truly be your children by showing the world your peace. Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

New Video Channel!

I can’t tell you how many Bible questions I receive each week. Some of these come from my sermons, or Bible classes. Most of them come from folks who have had questions about faith, life, or the Scriptures for years, and have just never asked.

To answer all of these, and to keep a video catalogue that answers these questions, I’ve started a YouTube channel to provide short video answers to your Bible questions. Drop a comment on one of the videos, send me an email, or comment on this post. I’d love to discuss your questions!

Join us on YouTube!
https://youtu.be/6aaVasQ302s

The Purpose of Spiritual Gifts

Spiritual Gifts are some of the greatest tools Christ has given his followers, and sadly one of the most misunderstood topics in the Church today.

The Debate

Of all the discussions, sermons, and Bible classes I’ve encountered, there seems to be one main focus: the ability of the gifted. These “studies” often devolve into the mechanics/prohibitions of Gifts, or cessation/continuation discussions. “Is it possible for someone to have the gift of _____ today? If not, which gifts do we have today?” This always seems to be the driving force behind these discussions, with great argument given as to why they have or have not ceased to exist in the church.

The Purpose

This completely misses the Biblical point of Spiritual Gifts. Spiritual Gifts are never about the person with the Gift, but always about how that Gift can bless the Body of Christ. This is the discussion we need to be having.

Let’s consider two different passages by Paul to two different churches related to this topic.

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.

Romas 1:11-12 NIV

Notice that in verse 12, the purpose of Gifts are clearly defined by Paul. It doesn’t matter what specific Gift Paul wants to impart, the purpose is mutual encouragement by faith.

In another passage, Paul discusses the gifts that Christ has given to the Church, his Body.

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…

Ephesians 4:11-12 NIV

Notice again that the purpose of these “gifts” are the building up of the Church.

Gifts in community

Gathering with a Body of believers is incredibly important. Spiritual Gifts aren’t for isolated personal use, but serve the purpose of building up others. To put it another way, Spiritual Gifts require interdependence among believers. There may be instances where a Spiritual Gift could be exercised in private and bring blessing to that individual, but this is like receiving a beautiful Ferrari only to keep it a garage. The purpose of the car is not to be admired in private, but rather driven in order to enjoy the journey, and get you to your intended destination.

To illustrate the need Paul places on interdependence when it comes to Spiritual Gifts, I want to look at the first two Gifts mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit,

1 Corinthians 12:7-8 NIV

Notice again that the point is not to bless an individual, but “the common good.” This is to bless the community.

Notice also that the gifts mentioned have to be shared. The Corinthians highly valued wisdom and knowledge. These qualities, so it was believed, were only held by the elite. The pursuit of wisdom and knowledge, therefore, was one of the noblest endeavors. Paul knows they value the Corinthians place here, and reminds them that this only puffs up (1 Cor. 8:1).

Instead, the Gifts Paul mentions here are not wisdom and knowledge themselves, rather it’s the sharing of this wisdom and knowledge that make the Spiritual Gift. That is to say, the gift is not wisdom, but rather the “utterance” (ESV) of wisdom. The gift is not knowledge, but rather the “utterance” of knowledge. Wisdom and knowledge kept within ourselves is not beneficial. Applying and sharing these, however, is a Spiritual Gift in the mind of Paul.

This is why it is so crucial for believers to gather together. In the age of COVID this “gathering” may look significantly different from in ages past, but we must gather nonetheless. The communal benefit/blessing of Spiritual Gifts is negated when we attempt to pursue a relationship with Christ in isolation.

Members of the Body

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:12 NIV

Together we make up the Body of Christ. If we are no longer connected to the other members, how can we be part of the Body? If my finger is detached from my body, it no longer serves my body. It is no longer part of my body. Yet many Christians feel that this is completely appropriate when it comes to their relationship with other Christians. I have met many who profess belief in Christ, but have not gathered to worship with other believers in years, even decades.

I really have to ask, is this really how Christ intended his Body to work? Is this really how Paul envisioned many parts being formed together into one body?

Lots of reasons, legitimate and not, can be given for not gathering together. But even from my couch in quarantine this week I was able to “gather” with saints at my own congregation, one in a different time zone, and one on the other side of the planet. Is this ideal? No. But it keeps me plugged into the Body until I can be there in person.

The purpose of Spiritual Gifts are to build up the Body. And even though it doesn’t feel the same coming through a computer screen, it doesn’t cannot happen at all if I separate myself from the rest of the Body.

Final Thoughts

To those in quarantine (like me), stay connected. To those who are part of the Body, search for those who have fallen away. And if you’re reading this thinking you can pursue your faith alone, in isolation, you’ve just proved my point by reading this article. It took someone else (me in this particular case) to write what you just read. For you, that required another part of the Body. For me, I receive a blessing when you read this.

The Church (which in Greek simply means “gathering/assembly”) isn’t possible in isolation. And it may just be the case that you are missing a Spiritual Gift you deeply need, and may or may not realize it.

Online or in person, it’s time to gather. It’s also time to share what God has given you with others. Satan loves to tell us we aren’t good enough to use our Gifts to bless others. Again, Spiritual Gifts are never about the person with the Gift, but always about how that Gift can bless the Body of Christ. Your song (no matter how out of tune) can cheer another. Your offering (no matter how small) can bless another. Your words (no matter how few) can encourage another.

Spiritual Gifts are never about the person with the Gift, but always about how that Gift can bless the Body of Christ. So go and bless the Body.

Peace and Quiet in the Chaos

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

1 Timothy 2:1-4 NIV

Paul writes Timothy in Ephesus who is ministering to a church that seems to be divided around ethnic and cultural lines. Men are fighting instead of praying. Women are one-upping each other in dress and allegiance. One woman is violently lashing out in some sort of teaching scenario. It’s chaotic to say the least.

Paul reminds everyone that we are to live “quiet” (ἡσύχιος) lives. Paul uses this word three times in this chapter alone. All throughout the chapter, as well as the chapters that follow, Paul advocates for peace and quiet in our lives…not silence…the Gospel is never silenced, but our attitudes towards others and towards the world is one of peacefulness and quietness in all godliness and holiness.

We don’t fight to get our way, we pray so Christ’s church can be an example of radical unity, and of godliness and holiness in the noisy and chaotic world around us.

Prayer

Father, our world is in turmoil and our nation is divided. Sadly, Father, our churches seem divided too. But Lord, you have called us to live peaceful and quiet lives, not lives of bickering and name calling. You have called us to be one as you are one.

So Father, teach us to pray for everyone in authority- our presidential and vice-presidential candidates, the leaders of other nations, our congress, our senate, our governors, our state representatives, our mayors, our city councils, our HOA boards…not so our will is done, but so that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

Help us not divide among party lines, but rather show the world a radical unity founded in our commitment to one another because of your son Jesus. And Father, when we live this way help us to reach those lost souls around us whom you want to be saved as well. Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

Unity in a Divided World

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Ephesians 4:2-6 NIV

Devotional

Paul writes Ephesians to a church that seems to be divided around ethnic and cultural lines. Gentiles coming into the faith along with Jews makes for difficult church potlucks. Paul reminds us that no matter our background, ethnicity, social status, etc., we are all saved in the same way by the same Savior sent by the same God.

For three chapters Paul reminds his readers that all the barriers that once divided these two diverse groups have been destroyed through Jesus. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…” (2:14) Paul was adamant about this diverse group of believers being unified in Christ.

Today Christ’s church finds itself divided by politics, polity, worship practice, ethnicity, and a multitude of other issues. If Paul were writing to the church in the U.S. today (or any other nation for that matter), what would he say about our unity? I believe it would sound very much like Ephesians. May we seek a unity within the body of Christ that amazes the world around us and glorifies our Father in heaven.

Prayer

Father, our world is full of proud and boastful people. Our national leaders seem to do nothing but provoke division and slander one another. Lord, help us to remember that you have called us to be different. Your Spirit inside of us should unite us above and beyond whatever could divide us. I pray that your Church will truly be one body, divided only by physical location, but never divided in purpose, mission, and fellowship. May we base our unity as one body in the common Spirit, Lord, Faith, and Baptism we share. And may our unity be a witness of your salvation to the world around us. Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

Forgiveness and the Heart of God

Prayer is less about getting God to do something we want, and more about getting ourselves in tune with who God wants us to be.

When Jesus said “When you pray, say…” I believe he meant it. There is something transformational about the commanded words that Jesus gives us within the Lord’s Prayer…but they aren’t given for us to speak in order to transform God. They are given so that by saying, reflecting, and absorbing these words into our hearts we can be transformed to where our very longings resonate with the heart of God.

Simply put, every desire of our heart cries out “Your kingdom come!”

Close to the heart of our God is forgiveness. When Yahweh draws near to Moses on Mount Sinai, he reveals himself as follows:

“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7 NET

Notice that part of God’s hesed (“loyal love”) is that he forgives iniquity and transgression and sin. This is huge! When God introduces himself and represents his character in words, it includes compassion, grace, loyal love, faithfulness, and forgiveness! What an amazing God!

But God is no push over either. When you choose to be his enemy and reject his covenant, then punishment comes. God is generous, abounding in grace and willing to forgive wrong, but he will not force his forgiveness on those who don’t want it. 

Forgive us our sins, 
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

Luke 11:4 NIV

God is willing to forgive our sins, and we should realize that our sins are many. God is willing to forgive! And God wants our hearts to be like his. The two lines of this statement are connected. We ask God to forgive because (Greek: gar) we forgive. 

We must have a forgiving heart toward those who have sinned against us in order to receive forgiveness from God. This is the way Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness. Our forgiveness depends on our willingness to adopt God’s posture of forgiveness towards others.

So if you still harbor unforgiveness towards others, now is the time to ask God to soften your heart and help you forgive as he does. It’s clear that forgiveness is important to God. Is it important to you?