Friday, January 22, 2016

Gifts From God?

            James 1:2-4:  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

            I am reading a book right now by a woman who lost her mother to cancer.  And she is struggling with the common Christian idea that all trials and tragedies are “gifts from God, meant for our good” and that we are to be thankful for them. 
            Are we supposed to accept infertility, fatal car accidents, chronically-ill children, divorce, disease, cancer, natural disasters, the death of loved ones, etc. as “gifts from God” that He has deliberately given us for our good?  Are we required to push away any pain or heartache or frustration because these are “gifts from God”? 

            I would say “No”!

            It seems to me that many Christians feel that it is the “good Christian’s” duty to thankfully accept trials and tragedies because “God made this happen for your own good.”  And we are to never get hurt, doubtful, or upset because that wouldn’t be showing faith and trust and thankfulness.  Because God obviously knows what He’s doing and He did this on purpose for our spiritual best  Right? 
            I, however, do not think this is completely accurate.
            Remember that pain, death, and decay were curses that came as a result of man’s disobedience in the Garden.  These were not part of God’s original plan for us, His best plan for us.  We brought them into the picture.  They are consequences of the fall, not “gifts from God.”  God did not create these for our best, but He did allow them as a consequence of the Fall.  The Fall that ruined His best.  (And yet from the beginning, in His wisdom and sovereignty, He knew how He would incorporate the Fall into His plans and make it into something good.)  
            Also, in the Bible, we read often of tragedies, disasters, and war as being a punishment from God or discipline to get people back on the right track.  In the Old Testament, God oftentimes set out a “blessing path” and a “curse path.”  And He says that the people are to choose which path they want to take.  Obedience will lead them down the “blessing path” and disobedience leads them down the “curse path.”  And so, many tragedies were the result of the people choosing disobedience.
            In our day, we have sexually-transmitted diseases brought on by sexual sin, broken hearts and shattered children created by divorce, devastated spouses because of affairs, financial ruin because of poor choices, unhealthy bodies because of poor eating habits, ruined lives and bodies because of irresponsibility and human evil, natural disasters and genetic problems because sin was introduced into the world and ruined God’s perfect creation, etc.  And I do not think we can rightly call these kinds of things “gifts from God.”

            While many Christians believe that God causes everything that happens for a reason, I think it is more accurate to say that He “allows” things to happen for a reason.  I know it seems like a minor distinction: cause or allow.  But to the hurting person, there is a big difference between the two, one that can drastically affect our view of God.
            (And if it does, in fact, bring you more comfort to think He causes all tragedies for a reason, keep thinking that.  I am writing this for the people who don’t find comfort in that idea, the ones whose faith struggles because of it.) 
            To say “cause” means that God deliberately makes each heartache, trial, and tragedy happen.  But this does not take into account the fall of man, the fall of God’s perfect creation, personal disobedience, bad choices, human carelessness, and Satan, the instigator of all things evil. 
            But to say “allow” reminds us that bad things happen as a result of the fall and of Satan and of sin. 
            In the book of Job, Satan asked to test Job.  And God gave Satan a boundary (such as “Do not touch Job himself”), but He allowed Satan a certain “free reign” to cause trouble within that boundary.  God allowed Satan to choose and cause these tragedies.  And while He did not specifically cause them Himself or choose which tragedies to give Job, He was aware of everything that happened and He allowed it.  And the reason He allowed these tragedies was because He knew that they would be used for His glory and that He could make something good out of them for Job’s sake and for the sake of mankind. 
            Everything that Satan wants to do to us has to get God’s consent first.  Everything that happens to us and on this earth goes through Him first.  And while He doesn’t always specifically choose which tragedies to give us, He does decide what to allow and what to not allow.  And everything that God allows He does so because He knows how He can weave it into something good in our lives and for His glory. 

            Yes, God is all-powerful and He could prevent any and every tragedy from happening.  And yes, God is all-loving and wants the best for us.  But I believe God has decided to voluntarily limit His use of power.  He will not (generally) over-ride our right to make choices.  He allows us the option to disobey, to bring pain and consequences on ourselves, because He gave us the right to choose Him or to reject Him. 
            And He gave us this right because He doesn’t want to spend eternity with robots who are forced to choose Him and love Him.  He wants to spend eternity with those who want to love Him and who voluntarily choose Him.  And any of us can understand that because we all want to be with people who want to be with us, not who are forced to be with us. 
            But unfortunately, free-will comes with painful consequences when we choose to disobey, which started at the Fall in the Garden when Satan gained a certain level of power and control over the earth, bringing with it curses against our bodies, our health, nature, and our relationship with God.
            God gave Adam and Eve the command to “not eat the fruit of the tree” and He warns all people to “choose obedience over disobedience” because He wants to spare us negative consequences, pain, and heartbreak.  I think it causes God pain, too, to see us hurt.  He never intended that this was the way it should be when He first created the world. 
            But our gracious God, however, has not abandoned us to our sin and bad choices, even if He does allow tragedies.  He will walk with us through them and bring good out of them and turn them into something eternally-good.  And we can trust Him for that!  And He offers salvation and forgiveness and wants us to grasp how great His love is for us so we can have the kind of eternity in the end that we were originally made for, even if He won’t protect us from the consequences of sin right now.

            When it comes to many of the bad things that happen in life, I think it’s more likely that God is “allowing” them, not necessarily “causing” them. 
            But if you are living a disobedient life, God may indeed cause/allow bad things to happen to get you back on track, as He did in the Old Testament.  So don’t just think it’s “bad luck.”  It may just be God disciplining you and calling you back to Him.  And if He does want to cause something “bad” to happen, He will do so, for His reasons.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility.  It is part of His sovereignty and the right to do as He pleases.  He is God, after all.
            But sometimes, accidents are accidents.  And tragedies just happen.  Not because God caused them but because they are part of the fallen world.  And God has allowed them as consequences of our personal choices and of mankind’s fall.  But if He has allowed them, we can trust that He has His reasons, that He will carry us through it, and that He will work it into something good.

            Tragedy is not a gift.  Death is not a gift.  It is an enemy.  The enemy that will be the last one to be destroyed in the end.  (Revelation 20:14)  (And yet, even though it was a curse, death is also kind of a gift.  Because if mankind was able to live forever after the Fall, we would be in a fallen state eternally.  Death is what releases us from that fallen state, bringing us into the perfect eternal state we were meant for.  If you are a believer!  Because it ushers us from the broken, fallen, decaying body to eternal life in heaven with Christ.  So there is a great blessing in death for those who trust in the Lord.)
            The “gift” isn’t the tragedies and trials; it’s the good that God creates out of the tragedies and trials and the strength that He gives us to get through them.  The “gift” isn’t the test; it’s the character development, spiritual development, and wisdom that grow from the test.  The “gift” is God walking with us through the hard times and using them to mature our faith, to grow our trust in Him, to soften our hearts to the pain of others, to make us more compassionate people, to help us sort out our priorities, to humble us at His feet, and to create a more glorious eternity for us. 
            This is what we can be thankful for.  We shouldn’t tell hurting people that the tragedies are “gifts from God.”  (That’s very insensitive to a hurting person.)  We shouldn’t scold them to “be thankful, not sad, because God did this for your own good.”  But we can encourage them that the gifts will come as God brings good out of the tragedy and as He walks with them through it.

            Romans 8:28:  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” 
            Oftentimes, the thankfulness and joy doesn’t come until after the tragedy is over.  During the tragedy, we might not be able to see or understand the blessings that can come out of it.  And we might not be able to find any joy in it.  Sometimes, during the hard times, all we can do is throw ourselves at His feet or in His arms in despair, with no strength left to face the day or to put on a brave smile or to be a “good, trusting, thankful Christian.”  And that’s okay.  God understands that we are human and that we hurt! 
            Counting the blessings and seeing the good will come later.  But you don’t have to worry about polishing up your “joyful, good-Christian mask” when you are in the midst of deep heartache.  During the pain, just fall on Him and cry and know that He can handle the doubts and anger and pain.  Know that He hurts with you and for you and that someday He will make everything right again.  Be honest with Him about your pain and keep your heart open to Him.  This is what will grow your faith and help you persevere and help you eventually say, “It is well with my soul!  Whether You give or take away, blessed be Your name!” 
            And eventually, if you continue to draw nearer to Him instead of pulling away, there will be a deep peace even in the midst of ache.  There will be a deep joy rooted in God and not in life’s circumstances, even if you are not “happy.”  And there will be a sweetness (a bittersweetness) in your soul, where you will be able to thank God for the things you learned during the painful trials.  And those will be the gifts!  Blessings in disguise!

            Psalm 86:1-6:  “Hear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. . . . Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I call to you all day long.  Bring joy to your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.  You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call on you.  Hear my prayer, O Lord; listen to my cry for mercy.”

            Psalm 34:17-18: “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.  The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” 

            Romans 8:28:  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” 

What gifts have come to you because of the pain?  How have you grown through trials?  Have you found God to be faithful and trustworthy?