Transition, Difficulties, and God’s Will

After our transition plans were announced Lourene and I were overwhelmed with encouragement and loving care from our brothers and sisters. People asked us many questions we couldn’t answer: Where are you moving?  Do you have another church? Have you sold your house? Is Lourene leaving her job, too? You will both be looking for work?

Several well-meaning people reacted to our answers to the above question with a statement that went something like this: “Well, we know you are seeking God’s will so it’s all just going to fall into place. You’ll quickly find jobs and sell your house.”  As I said, these words were spoken with the good intention of encouraging us.  But I have to tell you that I think an underlying flawed understanding of discipleship may have been revealed in these otherwise sweet words of comfort.

Finally a dear friend made a statement similar to the one above. And because it was a good friend, I responded without trying to nuance my words: “You do remember Paul was shipwrecked, don’t you? Wasn’t he following the will of God?  And don’t forget, our Jesus was crucified on a cross. He was following the will of God, too.”

Where do we get that idea that if you are doing God’s will, everything will work out with minimal difficulty? Some even judge whether a person is living “in the will of God” by how few challenges or difficulties that person faces. If the person is facing difficulties, some wonder if they have “missed” the will of God.

Such reasoning, popular among some (including Job’s friends), was not accepted by either Job or the apostle Paul.

There’s a verse from Luke’s account of Paul’s mission journey that I have been chewing on for years. Paul is traveling to Rome. The section of the journey that has captured my attention involves Paul’s setting sail from Sidon. Here are two translations of Luke’s account of what happened as recorded in Acts 27:4.

“Putting out to sea from there, we encountered strong headwinds that made it difficult to keep the ship on course, so we sailed north of Cyprus between the island and the mainland” (NLT).

“From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us” (NIV).

Very strong headwinds.

The winds were against us.

I find great significance in these words. Paul was serving God with all of his heart, but the winds were against him.  Imagine how very different the story would have been if living in God’s will meant an absence of difficulties.

Very strong tailwinds.

The winds were behind us.

And as if these words about the winds were not enough to drive home the point, there is a perfect storm and shipwreck in the later verses of this chapter. And this event is just one of the many difficulties Paul faced as he lived out the will of God.  A long list of these trials is recorded in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. And then there is the whole thing of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12.

There is nothing comfortable about those days when we face “very strong headwinds.” There is nothing comfortable about spending “a night and a day in the open sea” following a shipwreck. But the truth is, those experiences in my life have been the times of greatest growth.

What about your story?  Have you ever faced very strong headwinds? How have those experiences strengthened your faith and your character?

Earthquakes, God, and Answers

Last week an earthquake devastated Haiti.

Descriptions of the earthquake event are difficult to imagine. The earth rising and falling like crashing waves. Buildings shaking and then collapsing. People screaming and crying out. Day after day we hear horrific stories from the aftermath that we find hard to grasp. Entire villages destroyed. Death tolls rising. Bodies piled in the streets. Mass graves. We hear the fears of the future even as rescue and recovery efforts are underway. Aftershocks. Outbreak of disease. Growing violence rooted in utter desperation.

Even as stories of the event’s destruction and the future’s fears are being reported, another kind of report has begun to be heard — amazing stories of hope. People being pulled out of rubble after being buried for days. Orphans being relocated to join loving families. Churches mobilizing teams to go into the affected region in the name of Jesus. Athletes and rock stars organizing fundraisers. Heroes rising to the occasion.

Sadly, some have seized the plight of the Haitians to further their own agendas by suggesting they know the reason for the earthquake.  A televangelist who has for years hinted at exerting control over hurricanes now claims to know the earthquake was caused because of a deal the Haitians made with the devil in 1791. An actor who is no stranger to making headline-grabbing claims has suggested the earthquake may have been caused by our refusal to deal with his global warming concerns in a way he feels reasonable.

I am not writing to defend or accuse the Haitians regarding their religious tendencies (although my guess is that to talk about “the beliefs of the Haitians” is about as futile as to talk about “the beliefs of Americans”). I am not writing to advance a position on global climate change. I am writing to express some frustration with the need we sometimes have to provide logical, cause-effect reasons for everything that happens, tragedies included.

Yes, I realize this is nothing new and that these explanations are not limited to the aforementioned televangelist and actor. In fact, I remember in the Bible account of tragedy striking Job how everyone either wanted or had an explanation. We see Job wrestling with questions about why troubles had come his way. We see Job’s “friends” coming forth with explanations that made perfect sense to them.  I am struck with how little things have changed and how determined we are to explain events that leave us reeling.

And yet there are some things we are never going to understand, at least not in this lifetime. I think the reason we find this so tough to accept is that it underscores our finite nature. It means I am not in complete control. I am not even completely “in-the-know.” Neither are you. And honestly, I do not like to admit my limitations of control or understanding. Do you?

So this morning I have spent some time reading through Job chapters 38-42. The first 37 chapters of Job tell the story of Job’s tragedies, Job’s search for answers, and Job’s friends offering their explanations. But beginning in chapter 38 God answers Job out of the storm. God’s answer includes question after question that seem to be designed to help Job know God in a deeper, more meaningful way. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

When tragedy strikes we often look for answers to the question, “why?” Sometime we offer our explanations. But what I want to do is seek not explanations, but seek God. Because one thing Job teaches me is that knowing God is better than knowing answers.

New College Class

Wednesday night Joel began teaching a new class at Skyline for college students who are home during the summer. The class is about God and Suffering. Joel introduced the topic last night with this video clip.

College students, please come and join the discussion which could very well help take your faith to a deeper level. And to those who can no longer claim to be college age — this class is not for you, but you can hope we can talk Joel into a repeat presentation at some point in the future!

The class meets Wednesday evenings in room 216 (the large classroom at the end of the second floor hallway).