WHY? 

Bryce canyon - sunriseEverything I did was honest. Righteousness covered me like a robe, and I wore justice like a turban. I served as eyes for the blind and feet for the lame. I was a father to the poor and assisted strangers who needed help. I broke the jaws of godless oppressors and plucked their victims from their teeth. I thought, “Surely I will die surrounded by my family after a long, good life.” [Job 29:14-18 (NLT)]

No one enjoys reading the book of Job; it’s difficult to read about someone who, through no fault of his own, loses family, wealth, reputation, and health in one fell swoop. Complicating matters is that, while six voices are heard, only God’s voice is completely correct and we don’t hear from Him until the end. As for the rest of the speakers, while there are nuggets of truth in every speech, much of what is said both by Job and his friends, is incorrect and based on faulty assumptions. Eliphaz, for example, is correct when he says it is a joy to be disciplined by God when we’ve done wrong, but his belief that Job’s troubles are because he’s done wrong is incorrect. Although they make different points, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu all base their arguments on the assumption that Job’s suffering is because he’s a sinner. Urging him to repent and turn back to God, Job doggedly maintains his innocence.

While Job is correct that his suffering is not because of his sinfulness, like his friends, he is operating on a retribution theology: that we get what we deserve. Because he’s been righteous, Job believes he doesn’t deserve his trials. Sure that his suffering is in error, Job is determined to speak with God to defend himself. Neither Job nor his friends have the right answer; good fortune is not necessarily because of righteousness any more than misfortune is necessarily because of sin. When Job eventually repents, he does not repent of any sin that led to his suffering because sin wasn’t the cause. Instead, Job repents of questioning God’s wisdom and falsely accusing Him of injustice.

Like Job, it is easy to question God when troubles rain down, but do we ever question God when blessings are showered upon us? Do we really think we deserve only the good and never the bad? God doesn’t owe us blessings for righteousness. Good times are undeserved and hard times often come to those who least deserve them. Just as we are unable to fathom God’s omnipotence and generosity in his blessings to us, we are incapable of comprehending why our almighty and loving Father allows evil to shatter lives. We no more deserve God’s grace and blessings than Jesus deserved to suffer on that cross!

Suffering and hardship happen because we live in a fallen world; God offers no more explanation to us or to Job. The only answer is to put our hope and faith in God, secure in the knowledge that He is in control. Evil wins only when we turn away from God in pain and confusion and stop trusting in His infinite power and wisdom.

If I ask, “Why me?” about my troubles, I would have to ask, “Why me?” about my blessings. … I take the good with the bad, and I try to face them both with as much calm and dignity as I can muster. [Arthur Ashe (tennis champion, winner of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, who died of AIDS after being infected by a blood transfusion)]

Then the Lord said to Job, “Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” Then Job replied to the Lord, “I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers? I will cover my mouth with my hand. I have said too much already. I have nothing more to say.” [Job 40:1-5 (NLT)]

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LOVE SHALL NEVER DIE

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. … Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. [Luke 6:32-35a,36 (NLT)]

One of the hymns at our Easter Eve service was Christ is Alive and we sang, “In every insult, rift and war, where color, scorn or wealth divide, Christ suffers still, yet loves the more, and lives, where even hope has died.”  I thought of how hate must be like another nail in His hands and intolerance another scourging on His skin. The text of the hymn was written by Brian Wren in April of 1968, just two weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. “I could not let Easter go by without speaking of this tragic event which was on all our minds, “ he explained. “The hymn tries to see God’s love winning over tragedy and suffering in the world.”

Little did I know while singing those words that, just a few hours later, there would be tragedy and suffering half-way around the world in Sri Lanka. Coordinated bombings at three churches and four hotels turned Easter Sunday into a blood bath leaving more than 300 people dead and 500 injured. A Sri Lankan Sunday school class at Zion Church met before the service that morning. When their teacher asked, “How many of you are willing to die for Christ?” all of the children raised their hands. As they rededicated themselves to Jesus by lighting candles, little did they know that half of them actually would die for Christ that very morning. As they crossed a courtyard to enter the sanctuary, a stranger exploded the bomb he was carrying in his backpack.

Last week, bullets ripped through a peaceful Passover service at a synagogue outside of San Diego, leaving one dead and three inured. Exactly six months earlier, 11 people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In March, at least 50 were killed and 20 injured in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In January, two suicide bombers detonated their bombs in a Catholic church in the Philippines, leaving 20 dead and more than 100 injured. Last October, a gunman attacked a Sabbath service in a Pittsburgh synagogue, leaving 11 dead. The heart of God must be filled with grief at these horrific acts of terror and hate.

We live in a fallen world—a world where war, pain, injustice, violence, anger, and prejudice abound. As we mourn the loss of innocent lives, we must resist the temptation to return hate with even more hostility. Just as we pray for their victims, we must also pray for the extremists who perpetuate these terrible attacks. The war on terror isn’t just a political battle; it’s a spiritual battle against the Prince of Darkness.

Let us remember that Christ’s message is one of love and love is more powerful than hate. As a nation, we must work to resolve the social and political issues that encourage terrorism but, as Christians, peace must begin with us. We are called to love everyone—not just the people with whom we agree. Rather than living in fear, as Christians, we must live in hope. Let us be people of prayer against the ungodly hatred and violence of our world. We must extend the hand of friendship and love to all people, not just the ones who think, look, speak, and worship like us.

“Christ is alive!” we sang at that Easter service. “The cross stands empty to the sky. Let streets and homes with praises ring. Love, drowned in death, shall never die.” Let us answer the hate of the world with His love!

At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of human sins, uncertain whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide, “I will combat it with humble love.” If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things and there is nothing like it. [Fyodor Dostoyevsky from “The Brothers Karamazov”]

You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor” and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:43-45 (NLT)]

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FEARING

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. [Romans 3:23-25 (NLT)]

I thought of Mr. Fearing in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress when a friend told me about her mother who was nearing the end of her life. Although a Christian, she believed there was something in her distant past for which she couldn’t be forgiven. Even though her family reassured her that Jesus died for her sins and God is faithful to His promises, she still seemed fearful of taking that final journey home.

In Bunyan’s tale, Mr. Fearing’s story is told by his guide to the Celestial City, Mr. Great Heart. Even though Fearing escaped the Swamp of Despondence, he seemed to carry that despondence in his mind everywhere he went. When Fearing came to the gate where it said, “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” he was afraid to knock. Sure that he was unworthy of entrance, he stood back and allowed others to take his place whenever the door opened. When he eventually had the gumption to timidly knock, Fearing fainted in unbelief when the door was opened for him.

Accompanied by Mr. Great Heart, Mr. Fearing continued on his journey. He effortlessly hiked straight up the Hill of Difficulty, showed no fear when he encountered lions, and easily walked down into the Valley of Humiliation. When the travelers had to pass through Vanity Fair (a place ruled by Beelzebub and filled with evil temptations), Mr. Fearing had no difficulty staying on the Way and, while others fell asleep in the Enchanted Ground (the land of spiritual lethargy), Fearing stayed alert. But, believing himself unworthy of God’s grace, his shame kept him from enjoying the blessings God provided on the journey and caused him to be afraid of death and the journey’s end.

Mr. Fearing wasn’t afraid of difficulties, danger, or challenges to his faith but, because he had doubts about his welcome in the Celestial City, he was terrified of death and Hell. His fear was that of his final acceptance—that God would reject him! Sure that he’d drown and never see the face of the King he’d traveled so far to meet, he was afraid to cross the River of Death: the only way to the Celestial City. Both Fearing and my friend’s mother eventually crossed that river and were welcomed because all of their sins had been forgiven.

As Good Heart related the story of Mr. Fearing to Christiana and her fellow pilgrims, they shared their fears about their own salvation—fears that many of us may share. Bunyan experienced this same fear; in his autobiography, he said that early in his conversion Satan tempted him to unbelief by declaring his sins unpardonable. Bunyan’s reply to the enemy simply was, “Well, I will pray.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to believe in God’s extravagant grace: that, as soiled and unworthy as we are, we’ve been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Let us remember—the burden of our sins fell off at the foot of the cross! God didn’t sacrifice His son for us because we deserved it; He did out of love for us! Jesus Christ died for us while we were still sinners, not saints! When we fear our welcome in God’s heavenly realm, let us do as did John Bunyan: let us pray!

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

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SATURDAYS

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. [2 Corinthians 4:8 (NLT)]

For many of us, last Saturday was probably spent preparing for Easter. We may have picked up people at the airport, done last minute shopping, purchased an Easter lily, decorated eggs, assembled Easter baskets, snacked on jelly beans, or hidden plastic eggs around the yard. Although the previous day, Good Friday, had been a somber one, we knew that the next day, Easter, would be one of joy and celebration. Knowing how the story ended, we didn’t mourn or feel abandoned. But what of the disciples on the Saturday after his crucifixion?

The Bible is strangely silent about that Saturday. We assume that, being good Jews, they observed the Sabbath day quietly, but that’s about it. Did they do any of things associated with Jewish mourning: tearing of clothes, wearing sack cloth and ashes, fasting, or prayer? As Job’s friends had done, did they gather together and sit shiva (as one would for a parent, child, sibling or spouse)? Was their seven day period of mourning interrupted when they learned of the empty tomb?

That one Saturday 2,000 years ago, everyone thought they’d never see Him again and what a dark day it was! Jesus—their leader, closest friend, and hope—was dead and gone. The agony of despair and defeat must have been unbearable. Was there regret or anger that they’d given up their homes and livelihoods for their failed Messiah? Think of their heartache and the many would’ves, could’ves, and should’ves as they wished they’d only known Thursday’s meal was the last time they’d be together! Think of their remorse for having fallen asleep while Jesus prayed, the shame of abandoning Him in the garden, and Peter’s self-reproach for denying Him. Were they also afraid of being arrested and suffering the same kind of death?

The disciples never fully understood when He’d spoken of dying. Not believing that He’d be crucified and buried, they didn’t seem to expect Jesus to return and didn’t trust the women when they said the tomb was empty. Jesus had said, “It is finished!” Not understanding what He’d finished and seeing no future, they’d lost hope.

Perhaps the gospel writers chose not to tell us about that gloomy Saturday because the disciples weren’t especially proud of it. Yet, they told about Peter’s denials, Thomas’ doubt, and James and John wanting places of honor. Perhaps there’s no mention of that Saturday because we’re not meant to dwell in the Saturdays of our lives.

I’m not talking about the day we get the chores done, take the kids to practice, or watch Saturday Night Live. I’m speaking of the times when disaster, despair, regrets, or anguish assault us and we can’t see tomorrow because of the darkness of today. The disciples’ Saturday lasted only 24-hours; unfortunately, our Saturdays often last much longer.

The disciples didn’t know that hopeless Saturday was simply a day between despair and joy, but we do. Because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, we know that we have not been abandoned. Because Jesus gave us His Holy Spirit when He ascended into heaven 40 days later, we know that we’ll never be alone. No matter how long our Saturdays are, we have no reason for despair, fear or anxiety. Whether in this world or the next, a glorious Sunday eventually will come.

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NLT)]

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:16 (NLT)]

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MAUNDY THURSDAY: THE ROOSTER CROWS

“Don’t be so sure,” Jesus said. “This very night, before the rooster crows up the dawn, you will deny me three times.” Peter protested, “Even if I had to die with you, I would never deny you.” All the others said the same thing. [Matthew 26:34-35 (MSG)]

Ballenburg roosterThere’s a therapeutic riding center across the highway from one of the churches we attend. Along with horses, barn cat, and dog, they have a rooster. No matter what the time of day we’re there, that rooster crows. Every time I hear that bird’s loud “cock-a-doodle-do!” I remember Jesus’s words to Peter and ask myself, “Have I denied my Lord today?”

I can’t say I blame Peter for his betrayal. He was there when Judas, along with Temple guards and a contingent of Roman soldiers armed with swords and clubs, arrived in Gethsemane. Peter saw them man-handle and arrest Jesus. Peter was the one who impulsively drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. Although Jesus healed the man, Peter had to be afraid as he stood around the fire with the servants and guards in the high priest’s courtyard. Would he be the next one arrested? His name may have meant “rock,” but his behavior was anything but rock-like that night.

Would I have been braver and more faithful than Peter or would I, too, have denied Christ? I’m ashamed to say that I probably wouldn’t have behaved any better than did Peter. I often deny knowing Jesus, and I’m not even afraid of being arrested. I deny Him when I ignore His call to service, remain silent when I should speak, or speak when I should remain silent. I deny Him when I hold a grudge, withhold forgiveness, judge others, and act prideful, spiteful or self-righteous. I deny Christ when I do what I know is wrong, when I don’t do what should be done, when I accept what I know He wouldn’t, and when I take credit for His gifts to me. Unfortunately, there are many ways we can deny knowing Jesus.

Lord, forgive us for the times we’ve denied being your servant. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that our denials become affirmations and our lives give testimony to your saving grace.

All this time, Peter was sitting out in the courtyard. One servant girl came up to him and said, “You were with Jesus the Galilean.” In front of everybody there, he denied it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” As he moved over toward the gate, someone else said to the people there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazarene.” Again he denied it, salting his denial with an oath: “I swear, I never laid eyes on the man.” Shortly after that, some bystanders approached Peter. “You’ve got to be one of them. Your accent gives you away.” Then he got really nervous and swore. “I don’t know the man!” Just then a rooster crowed. Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” He went out and cried and cried and cried. [Matthew 26:69-75 (MSG)]

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BITTERROOT AND BINDWEED

Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. [Hebrews 12:15 (NLT)]

bitterroot - hedge bindweedThe bitterroot plant was a staple in the Native American diet; just a few ounces of the dried root provided enough nourishment for a meal. Bitterroot could also settle an upset stomach, relieve the itch from poison ivy, and numb the pain of a sore throat. Unlike the bitterroot, however, the root of bitterness is anything but life-sustaining or healing.

With its large pink flowers, the bitterroot is lovely and welcome; the root of bitterness is not. Bitterness is more like bindweed, a wild relative of the morning-glory. Both look harmless enough at first but, before you know it, they take root. Bindweed wraps itself around every plant nearby and bitterness wraps itself around our hearts. The roots of both bindweed and bitterness can reach deep and spread wide. Gardeners often call bindweed the “zombie plant” because it’s nearly impossible to kill; the same goes for bitterness. Without continual effort to keep cutting down bindweed and cutting out bitterness, both may be here to stay.

It’s hard to avoid bindweed, and the same goes for bitterness. We’ve all had people who’ve hurt us in seemingly unforgiveable ways. When bitterness rears its ugly head, we may find ourselves wishing ill upon them or taking secret joy if adversity hits them. Their inexcusable behavior makes us feel justified in allowing this bitter root to grow. The longer bitterness and bindweed are allowed to grow, the deeper their roots go and the more they destroy the garden or life hosting them.

Forgiveness is the only way to eradicate the root of bitterness and it doesn’t come easily. A desire for justice, revenge, and retribution is the natural response to injury. While we think that someone should pay for the harm that’s been done to us, we forget that Jesus has already paid that debt. If we ask how we possibly can forgive those who’ve hurt us, we must also ask how God possibly can forgive us. When Jesus saved us from God’s condemnation, we lost any right to condemn other people; we are no less a sinner than anyone else.

It takes patience, perseverance, and determination to rid a garden of bindweed and the same goes for ridding our lives of bitterness. As with bindweed, whenever we spot bitterness sprouting in our souls, we need to prune it back to weaken its roots. Praying for our enemies kills bitterness in much the same way herbicide kills bindweed. We should improve our soil with God’s word and consider cultivating new friends—ones who won’t share our bitterness, feed our resentment, encourage our hostility, listen to our complaints, or tolerate our anger. It can take three to five years of concentrated effort to eradicate bindweed from a garden; ridding ourselves of bitterness doesn’t happen overnight either.

There is one similarity between the root of bitterness and the bitterroot plant. Bitterroot’s scientific name is Lewisii (in honor of Meriwether Lewis) and rediviva (meaning “reviving from a dry state”) because of its root’s ability to grow again after being dug up, dried whole, and stored for several months. Like the bitterroot, the root of bitterness often can find a way to revive when we think it’s dead and gone. Then again, we must remember that both bitterroot and the root of bitterness can only revive if we replant and water them.

Love keeps no record of wrongs, but bitterness keeps detailed accounts. (Craig Groeschel)

Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. [Luke 6:28 (NLT)]

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (NLT)]

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