For Better or For Worse
I think that one of the most annoying things in the market place is the bait and switch. Obviously businesses want to attract as many customers as possible, so they put forth a very attractive offer. The idea is that the potential customer will see the offer as to good to be passed up and they will be hooked. That is fine as long as what they offer is completely honest. But there is sometimes a bait and switch. That is, they will draw the customer with one thing but by the time they’re done, they have replaced it with something less appealing. It reminds me of the time I thought I was biting into a nice juicy grape, anticipating the sweetness, only to discover it was a black olive.
Why do I bring up this bait and switch? The church has sometimes been guilty of this. I have heard gospel presentations that have gone something like this: “Before I met Jesus, I struggled in so many areas, life was terrible. Then I became a follower of Jesus and life has been amazing. I am so happy.” That message is not completely wrong but it is not the entire truth either. What happens if we preach a gospel where God will always protect us from harm and nothing bad will happen and then they begin to suffer in some area of their life? We can’t say that we just shared the nice things because we wanted them to become Christians. If it is true that Christians will suffer in this life, then we need to tell that truth and not mislead people with false promises.
One of the things I love about the Bible is that it is painfully honest about the reality of life. There is no sugar coating things in such a way to ignore suffering. The Bible doesn’t bait and switch. It presents human existence, even as worshipers of God, in all of its messiness. One of the best examples of this is the story of Job.
The Story of Job
Many people have heard of Job, if only from the phrase, “That person has the patience of Job.” Ironically, Job wasn’t all that patient. But he was a righteous man. In fact that was the source of all his problems. He was faithful to god and generous toward people. Satan saw this and used it as an opportunity to accuse him before God. Of course Job was righteous and faithful, we was rich and had a nice large family. Anyone could be faithful when they already have everything they could possible want. Satan’s assertion was that if all of that was taken away, that Job’s devotion toward God would drop right off. It was only his prosperity and his sense of being blessed that kept Job with God. Satan accused him of being a fair weather friend.
God gave Satan permission to withdraw the blessings he enjoyed. Not only did he lose blessings, he became cursed. His entire life fell apart and he lost almost everything. It is difficult for us to imagine the grief he felt as messenger after messenger and brought more reports that added to his suffering. Satan’s plan was for this to lead directly into an abandonment of God.
But that didn’t happen. He did grieve and was intensely aware of his personal pain. This was a heart breaking experience. But he refused to give up on God. He acknowledged that all he had, had come from God. What God gave, God could take a way. Even in the midst of suffering, Job was able to praise God.
I need to make clear that this is different than the Buddhist idea of escaping suffering by not being attached. Job had attachments and it hurt when he experienced loss, but he saw God as bigger than that. There was a place in his faith for suffering, something that Satan hadn’t anticipated. In the words of common wedding vows, Job and God were together, for better or worse, for richer or poor, in sickness and health. It was a commitment that went beyond circumstances.
Jesus and Jerusalem
Today is Palm Sunday and on the surface, Job is a strange book to be looking at. What does Job have to do with passion week? It has everything to do with it as Job is a response to suffering the word passion, literally means suffering.
When Jesus entered into Jerusalem, things were looking really good. The crowds were cheering, the disciples felt on top of the world and there were some ready to crown Jesus as king. Have you ever wished that people would acknowledge your accomplishments and that you would finally get the credit due you? That is the kind of thing that was happening at the triumphal entry. In many ways, Jesus is in the same place as the early story of Job, seeming to have everything could want.
But we need to remember why Jesus was entering Jerusalem. He was coming to claim a crown of gold but a crown of thorns. In less than a week, the crowds that were shouting Hosanna would be shouting crucify him! Jesus would be arrested and killed on a cross. The prosperity would quickly be transformed into suffering.
Jesus could be completely faithful in his mission because he didn’t have a shallow faith that believed that good people prosper and bad people suffer. Jesus understood that suffering was part of what being a follower of God. This is what he taught his disciples and this is what he lived out. Suffering is not a sign that we are abandoned by God. Suffering is part of living in a fallen world.
I am no Job and I am definitely no Jesus. But I have had my share of suffering. There have been times that I have had things fall apart. There have been chapters of my life that I have felt like an unskilled boxer getting pummelled by a world champion. I was able to get through those times for a reason. There was a place in my faith for suffering. I never had expectations that following Jesus meant a life of comfort. I had a number of people describe me as having the patience of Job. They were right, I whined and complained just as much as he did.
One of the most common questions I get is about why God allows suffering. What they really mean is not why God allows suffering in general but why God is allowing them to suffer at that moment. It can be overwhelming if you assume that God is obligated to prevent your suffering. But the biblical God is one that meets us in a broken world and instead of removing suffering, enters into the suffering himself. The promise of faith is not that things will never get bad but that no matter bad things get, God is present. Let me conclude with these words of Job:
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me! (Job 19:25-27)