What I Saw – Luke 6:39-49

I met Tuesday morning with a group of pastors, as usual.  Our reading came from the Moravian Daily Text.  It was Luke 6:39-40.

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At first glance, this seems like a collection of disparate teachings.  The leader of our group suggested that this was a rabbinical style “string of pearls” teaching technique (apparently the rabbis wouldn’t teach for too long on one subject but would move from one to another to keep the people engaged).  Nonetheless, I saw a similar idea in most if not all of the teachings.  I saw several other ideas as well, which I recorded in my journal.

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The big thing I heard here is that most teachings have behind them the idea of a “good” or “fully trained” man.  This in turn lead to the question, “Am I good/fully trained?”  For me, this is a difficult question, one I’ve struggled with all my life.  I “feel” and/or believe the answer to be, “No.”  For that reason, I felt very challenged by these teachings.  I felt eliminated by them, in fact, as if they disqualify me or reveal my disqualification from the community of Christ.

As I continued to contemplate these things, I realized there is actually invitation here.  I think it comes when Jesus says “The student is above his teacher”.  With that, Jesus is eliminating all need for competition and comparison.  He is telling me that there is only so far I can go in this goodness/training, that I’m certainly not going to go further than or supersede Him (the teacher in question).  That being the case, I am free to pursue goodness and training without needing to wonder how much I and/or how much more I am than anybody else.  I took this to be an encouragement.  I saw, then, that Jesus was not eliminating me here (establishing that I am not good/fully trained) but encouraging me (asking me to pursue goodness/training).

One of the pastors in the group further suggested that this is not something we can do on our own, that goodness comes into us only from God.  I think this is suggested by the “foundation” idea Jesus ends the message on.  That foundation is obviously God/the teachings of God.  The man builds on it, puts some effort into setting himself upon it.  But that effort is only effective because God is there to begin with.

The main idea I took from this reading, then, is that God is an encourager, encouraging me to growth/training in His Kingdom.  The subsequent action I took from this reading was a need to ask God to make me good, to remove the evil stirred up in my heart/the plank in my eye/my blindness so that I can be good and fully trained as He is encouraging me to be.

And that’s what I saw in Luke 6:39-49.

How vs Why

It seems I’ve been hearing the question, “Why?” a lot lately.  Bad things have been happening to people, and they have been asking me why those bad things have been happening to them.

And I understand that question.  I understand the tendency to ask that question.  I have asked it myself.  I still ask it myself.  Often.

Lately, though, I’ve come to understand something about this question, something that makes me in turn question it.  That something is somewhat summed up in the words of The Architect from The Matrix Reloaded:

Like Neo, we are irrevocably human, and thus irrelevant questions are going to be (or at least seem) pertinent to us, more pertinent than they actually are.  The irrelevancy of these questions is going to be far less obvious than it actually is.

And in many ways, the question, “Why?” is irrelevant.  A simple analogy will reveal this.  Say you have a knife wound in your shoulder; you have literally been stabbed in the back.  You might wonder why that happened.  Was it an accident?  Was it intentional?  Did a friend mistake you for someone else and strike you in error?  Or did a friend purposefully turn on you and try to take you down?  Pertinent questions, to be sure.  But not as pressing as the fact that you now have a knife sticking out of your back that needs to be removed, that you now have blood flow that needs to be stopped and a puncture that needs to be stitched.  The “how” in that situation (the removal of the knife, the stopping of the blood, the stitching of the puncture, the saving of your life and healing of your body) is obviously far more pertinent than the why.  Less emotionally pressing, maybe, but far more pertinent.

I believe it is the same in the life of faith.  How, that is, how we react to bad things, how we survive them, how we heal from them, how we overcome them, is far more pertinent to the life of faith than why they happened.  Perhaps no book of the Bible reveals this more than Job.  The first two chapters of Job give us a behind-the-scenes look at what was happening to that man; we know why bad things happened to Job perhaps better than we know why bad things happened to anybody else.  Yet when God finally appears to speak with Job about the matter, He does not give that why to Job.  He does not tell Job why these bad things happened to him, even though He and we know that why very well.  Instead, He just gives Job a lecture on how great He is, a lecture which is probably intended to teach Job to trust in Him.  Job (who as far as we know never discovered the why of the bad thing that happened to him) indeed learned the lesson of trust from that lecture, responding to it in this way:

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I wasn’t as accepting of that lesson at my first couple readings of Job.  I felt rather cheated by than answer in fact.  I thought it was a “no-answer”.  I wanted a better answer than that.  What I’ve realized in the decades since those first couple readings is that this answer is the best answer.  It is the only answer we’re likely to understand.  It is also the only answer we’re likely to accept.

Understanding is one thing.  I know we all think we’re very smart, but the fact of the matter is that we aren’t.  We aren’t able to order the universe as God has, to maintain all the parts that have to work together for life to continue.  We don’t even know what all the parts are.  Even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to conceive of them all in a working way.  And even if we did that, we wouldn’t appreciate them all.  We see a quick example of this every time we watch a science fiction/space-faring movie.  If I understand the universe correctly, most of space is full of radiation that will kill humans quite quickly.  I’ve never seen a space-faring show cover this aspect of space-faring, though, never seen one explain how the characters are faring through and sometimes living in lethal space.  I’ve rarely seen one explain how they have earth-like gravity on their spaceships, either.  The creators of these movies and shows routine miss facts like that.  They are apparently oblivious to them, or, if they aren’t oblivious to them, they can’t figure out who to tell an engaging story around them.  If we can’t do that, which is comparatively simple, how are we going to understand the far more complex matter of why bad things happen?  Even if God told us directly, we wouldn’t get.

We also wouldn’t accept it.  Understanding is one thing.  Acceptance is quite another.  And I don’t think we would accept most whys.  I don’t think we would accept most explanations of why bad things happened, even if they came from God Himself.  Imagine if God had told Job, “Hey Job, you’re about to go through several traumatic events in order to prove that people will love me even when they aren’t blessed.  In the process, you’ll become an icon of faithfulness that will inspire millennia after millennia.”  When you put it like that (which is an accurate way to put it), you can clearly seen that goodness came out of Job’s tremendous suffering.  Great and tremendous goodness, in fact.  Would Job have seen it that way, though?  I wonder.  He might have, but he might also have said, “God, are you sure there isn’t another way?”  I know one guy who said such a thing: singer Chris Isaak.  I saw Chris Isaak on The Today Show (I think) around 2001 (again, I think).  During his time there, Katie Couric (yet again, I think) mentioned that he had suffered during his lifetime.  He said he had indeed suffered.  She then said something to the affect of, “But it made you such a great songwriter.”  To this, Isaak replied, “Yeah, but sometimes I wish I was a mediocre artist and had a swinging life.”  I can’t document that exchange (I have been trying for years, but it was the pre-YouTube era and if it exists out there I can’t find it).  Nonetheless, I heard him say it.  I understand the choice he thinks about there, and I imagine most of us would think about that choice or even make that choice ourselves.  If God said to us, “This suffering will produces this good”, we would most likely answer, “Can’t we suffer less and have less good?”

That being the case, we just aren’t able to handle the answers to the question of why, and God, knowing that, doesn’t try to give that answer to us all that often.  And now that I’ve been dealing with that question via the lives of various people for a couple weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that we would be better off if we just didn’t ask.  I have come to the conclusion that we would be better off trusting God no matter what we experience.  I have come to the conclusion that we will do far better if we focus on the pragmatic question of how or even what (i.e., “How does God want me to respond to this?  What does God want me to do here?”) rather than the philosophical question of why.  I have come to the conclusion that the best response to this situations is that we find from Habakkuk who, when struggling with the question of why himself, eventually came to this answer:

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Reasons

Ok, just one more response to a comment on a Timothy Keller tweet.  I found this one while I was looking into the others and, much though I hated to do it, knew I had to write about it.

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The commenter here is suggesting that God could have created a world without evil and thus without suffering.  He further suggests that God didn’t do this because of “reasons”.  By this, he is suggesting that that God either didn’t have reasons to create the world the way He did or (more likely) no reason for God’s creating the world the way it is has been given.  I suspect it is the latter, but I don’t know for sure.  In either case, the assertion is that neither God nor His followers have/have given reasons for the evil/suffering that currently exists.  Not only so, but that assertion is made in a sarcastic and disrespectful manner (the “because whatever” formula usually implies some intellectual deficiency in creators of whatever is being critiqued).

And it is, of course, not the first time I’ve encountered this suggestion.  I have heard this before.  Perhaps the most notable time was when I came this book in a Barnes & Noble (i think that was 2009):

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I literally rubbernecked when I saw this book on an endcap display at the store.  I was walking past it, saw it out of the corner of my eye, and was one step beyond it when I realized what I had read and had to jerk myself backward for a second look.  The Bible, Ehrman suggests, fails to answer the question of why we suffer, a question he considers “the most important”.

I’ve seen this in other places as well.  Time Bandits did it almost as flippantly as the above commenter did:

I was surprised to hear the Supreme Being in the Dawn of the Croods show my daughter has been binging lately give this same answer to this same question in the episode “Themy Might Be Sky Giants”.

So I’ve seen this suggestion before, sometimes seriously, other times as flippantly as the commenter here.  And there are quite a few elements of this suggestion that I have trouble with.  Some of them are ones I’ve already covered (this is fairly close to the self-defeating “I don’t believe in God because I don’t like Him” argument; it also doesn’t offer any solution or end to the problem it is critiquing, as it seems to think it does).  A new element, though, is veracity.  What the commenter is suggesting here and what Ehrman is directly stating in the subtitle of his book and what both Time Bandits and Dawn of the Croods are having fun with is just not true or accurate.  The suggestion that no reason has been given for the evil/suffering that currently exists is patently false.  The fact of the matter is several good (that is, complete and comprehensive) reasons for the evil/suffering that currently exists have been given.

We have to go no further than the third chapter of the first book of the Bible to find the first reason.  Genesis 3 tells us in no uncertain terms that evil and suffering exist because of us, because of our actions.  God gave us a paradise, a place without evil and suffering.  He created the world the commenter wanted created.  And we messed up.  To me, this is a sufficient reason for the existence of evil.  It is well-known, too.  It even has its own Wikipedia page.  That being the case, I just can’t understand how people miss it.

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Free will is obviously another.  I’m not sure there is a biblical reference for this one, but it seems quite logical to me.  Having freewill creatures (the only creatures worth entering into relationship with) brings the risk of evil.  Even Bruce Almighty understood this.  I don’t know why so many people today don’t.

(I could only find this in another language, but Bruce is asking how to make somebody love you when they have free will, and God, if I remember correctly, says that is the big question).

Third, and I think perhaps the greatest, is the fact that there are reasons we can’t understand.  The book of Job (a very early book; some think the earliest of all the biblical books) teaches this.  Job spends the bulk of the book wishing God would tell him why he is suffering.  When God finally appears to Job, He does not do that (even though it would have been so easy to do; He could have just said, “Me and the devil had a bet, Job.  Good news: you won!”).  Instead, He just tells Job about all the wonderful things He has made.  I believe His point there is that if Job couldn’t understand physical things like snow and donkeys and ostriches, he wasn’t going to understand a complex spiritual thing like evil and suffering.  The real interesting thing about that encounter is that Job accepted it.  He believed God gave him all the answer He needed (and if he believed that, who are we to contradict him?).

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So the suggestion that there are no reasons for evil/suffering is a false suggestion.  It is not true.  What we really have here is a refusal to accept the reasons for evil/suffering.  That is what I suspect is really going on here.  I don’t know for sure; I can’t read minds and so don’t know why the commenter or Ehrman or any others make this accusation.  But it seems to be a possibility.  If there are reasons and you know there are reason and you still say there are no reasons, then the problem isn’t in the reasons.  The problem is in you.  The problem is you don’t want to accept the reasons.  And if that’s the case, well, fine.  You are free to reject these reasons if you so choose.  Just be sure to be honest about that.  Don’t depict this as something it isn’t (i.e., there are no reasons).  Depict it as what it is (i.e., you just don’t like the reasons).