Thursday, October 20, 2016

This week's lesson (October 15-21): God and Human Suffering

Why doesn't God do something about human suffering?

Perhaps the best answer comes from Christ's parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 
 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
If you're wondering why God doesn't do something about human suffering, in other words . . . 

The truth is, He's asking the same question about us.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

This week's lesson (October 8-14): does Job fear God for naught?

"How can you tell if someone is good?"

"Why . . . if they do good things, of course!"

"But maybe they're not good -- maybe they're just afraid to be bad. If you do bad things, after all, then you are punished."


"And if you do good things, then you are rewarded."

"Also true."

"That means some people do good things, not because they're good, but only because it pays them to be good."

"True again."

"But you it paid them to be bad, then they'd do bad things."

"Just because you do good things, in other words, doesn't necessarily mean you're a good person."

"No, you may just be sneaky!"

"So how can you tell is someone is truly good?"

"Well, if a bad person is good only when it pays to be good . . ."

"Then a good person would be good, even if it didn't pay off."

"How could you make sure of this?"

"Obvious: see to it they're punished for being good! Yes, let them be accused, tried, beaten, and killed through no fault of their own."

"And if they continue to be good, even then?"

"Then we'll know they are good all the time -- and not just when it's convenient."

Adapted from the dialogue 
between Glaucon and Socrates in Plato's Republic.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

This week's lesson (October 1-7): the Great Controversy

Think of him as a bureaucrat -- a fussy little bureaucrat in a cheap suit with scuffed shoes and a bad haircut who shuffles into your office, opens his battered briefcase, and starts asking for your receipts.

That's the literal meaning of "satan," after all; it means "auditor" -- and throughout Scripture, the Auditor continually tries to poke holes in anything good that comes along.
  • Take Eve, for instance -- as far as the Auditor's concerned, she's good only because she doesn't know what she's missing. 
  • As for Job, the Auditor's sure that he's good only because he's been bribed to follow God.
  • And with the Auditor's help, Jesus will realize there's an easier way to get what He wants than to follow God --right? 
Well, no -- though not for lack of trying.
But as Kierkegaard and C. S. Lewis have both pointed out, the Devil may be a lion in his effects -- but in his tactics, he's more of a weasel. 
Yes, he slinks, he skulks, he insinuates . . . 
He whines, he nags, he prevaricates . . . 
He points out the lemon in the lemonade, the cloud behind the silver-lining, and the bug that's floating in your half-full glass . . . 
But despite his worst efforts, it turns out that he's no match for God.
If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.
Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39, NIV).
This post first appeared on December 15, 2013

Sunday, September 25, 2016

This week's lesson (September 24-30): The End

This quarter's lessons on Job begins at the end of the book.

Which is not a bad place to start.

As the quarterly notes, the ending of Job is incomplete; it's solution to the problem of suffering is only partial. While the Book of Job is important, in other words, more is needed.

Which is true of more than just the Book of Job.

No book of the Bible says everything that needs to be said, after all -- and while some may be more relevant than others at any given time, they all have something to say.

That's why we need more than just the Book of Job to learn about suffering.

That's why we need more than just the Book of Romans to learn about salvation.

Yes, that's why we need to study the whole Bible, and not just a "mini-canon" we've compiled from a few, favorite verses.

And that's why we should always remember that our understanding of the Bible is still tentative and incomplete.

In short, our questions don't end when we study the Bible.

In fact, they're just beginning.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

This week's lesson (September 17-23): how shall we wait?

And I saw a great crowd whom no one could number, stretched out before the throne of God. And books were opened. And judgment was set.

And verily, a remnant did push their way to the front. And they did complain with great complaints, saying unto Him that sat upon the throne, “Lord, thou didst not conform unto the predictions we had made, and thou didst not arrive according to the schedules we had set. And behold, thou hast made us look like fools!”

And the Lord said, “Say what?”

And they did open their books, and they did unroll their charts, and they did set up their PowerPoint presentations . . . and they did demonstrate what manner of coming the Lord should have done.

“For there should have been a Great Time of Trouble Such as Never Was Since the World Began,” they did say, being very careful to capitalize properly. “And only after that should the end have come. But lo, the 
Great Time of Trouble Such as Never Was Since the World Began did not arrive as we had predicted – and that is why we were sore amazed at your return.”

And the Lord did scratch His head and say, “So what do you call the Twentieth Century?”

And they did reply and say, “What?”

“The Twentieth Century – you remember it, I’m sure. More people died of war, famine, and disease in that century than any other. In fact, more died of these things during that century than just about all the rest of history put together. And if that doesn’t count as a Great Et cetera, then I don’t know what does.”

And at that, the remnant did look somewhat relieved (though a little embarrassed); and its members did say, “We hope that thou dost not hold it against us, that we did not realize this was going on . . . for we did live in the United States, and we did miss out on most of the suffering during that time. In short, it would seem that this particular prophecy did not apply to us.”

“I guess not,” said the Lord. “But there is another one that does: ‘For I was hungry . . .’”

This post first appeared in 2005.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

This week's lesson (September 10-16): urban ministry in the end time

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. -- James 5:1-6, NIV
Read these verses in James, and Ellen White's counsels on agriculture begin to make sense.

She lived through one of the greatest demographic transitions in history, after all -- a time when farmers dropped from 70% of the American workforce to 27%. Yes, millions and millions of people moved to the cities . . . 

And all because life in a slum -- as hellish as it was -- was still better than life back home on a farm.

When Ellen White urged our schools to teach agriculture, in other words, she was not indulging some utopian fantasy of "back to the land"; neither was she simply urging that education be practical.

Instead, she was asking the church to make life better for poor farmers where they lived -- and if we did so, then maybe they wouldn't need to look for a better life in the tenements of New York and Chicago . . .

Or the shantytowns and favelas of Mumbai, Lagos, and Sao Paulo.

In short, Ellen White wanted to do more than just help the poor.

She wanted our church to address the structures that cause poverty -- the structures that allow the few to live "in luxury and self-indulgence," while the many suffer want.

In her day, that meant agriculture.

What would it mean in our own?

This first appeared on November  30, 2014.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

This week's lesson (September 3-9): Jesus bade them, "Follow me."

Brothers, I could not address you ask spiritual but as worldly -- mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. . . . For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not mere men? 
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe -- as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow. -- I Corinthians 3:1-7, NIV
Invite people to follow Jesus?

You're just asking for trouble.

Invite people to follow Jesus, after all, and they're likely to do just that -- to follow him, and not us.

Think what happened on Pentecost, for instance -- no sooner do the those Palestinian followers of Jesus reach out to Greek-speaking Jews, then the trouble begins.
  • Trouble over money.
  • Trouble over leadership.
  • And all kinds of trouble when those Greek-speaking Jews reach out to Greek-speaking Gentiles (cf. Acts 11:19ff).
Invite people to follow Jesus, in other words, and they'll change all kinds of things. Yes, they'll challenge the status quo. Insist on new methods. Reach out to all kinds of people we've never reached before.
And if they do that, then what will become of us?
No, much better to teach them that we follow Jesus.
And if they want to follow Jesus?
Then they need to follow us.