Issue #569 -------
March 20, 2013
Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil. The
opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.
Elie Wiesel (b. 1928)
Whether or not we have ever read the classic novel "Gone With The Wind" by Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949), or seen the movie made from that work, we are almost certainly aware of the immortal line spoken by Rhett Butler to Scarlett O'Hara: "I wish I could care what you do or where you go, but I can't. ... My dear, I don't give a damn." We have all felt the horrible pain of another's abject indifference to our own circumstances; a pain that is intensified when that apathy comes from one we believed cared about us. Jesus rebukes the lost at judgment, saying, "I was hungry and thirsty; I was sick and unclothed ... Where were you?!" (cf. Matt. 25:41f). At the risk of appearing blasphemous, I imagine that many of us, at times of great personal distress, have hurled the same question back at God. "My life was falling apart ... my child was critically ill ... I was facing ruin! Where were YOU?!" We sing the words of the chorus to the hymn "Does Jesus Care?" ("O yes, He cares; I know He cares; His heart is touched with my grief"), and in our hearts we are having trouble believing it! "If He cared, then why did my child suffer and die?" "If He really cared, then why did my fervent pleas to Him for help go unheeded?" In those dark days of doubt that come into each of our lives at times of great personal crisis, it is very easy to question God's love and concern for us, and to cry out to Him in anguish and even anger! I admit -- I have done it. "God, I'm mad at You!! How could You let this happen?! Don't You care?!" There have been times I was too angry to pray; times, when I was hurting or grieving, that I even questioned His existence. Yes, I readily admit to moments of serious doubts and frustrations in my life. I won't try to sugarcoat it -- I have been furious with God and ready to walk away from Him, convinced He had already walked away from me!
These are truly those dark seasons of the soul that most people -- even Christians -- experience now and then in their journey through life. The vast majority of God's people get through these times successfully, rising from the depths of their discouragement and despair stronger in their faith. Some, however, do not. Even those who are able to cope often continue to have nagging questions and doubts. The harsh reality of our human existence is that we will never fully perceive the mind of our God, nor will we ever fully fathom His actions (or, in some cases, inaction). This fact feeds our frustration, leaving us, at times, resentful. We want to believe He cares for our plight -- we long to believe He hears us and will step miraculously into our circumstance -- but when days, months and years pass with our plight unresolved and our prayers seemingly unanswered, we find our faith challenged and our trust tested.
Part of the problem here is the natural disconnect between the human and the divine with regard to perception and expectation. In other words, His will at times seems strange or even in opposition to our will, and we are thus left puzzled as to why He would do what He does or want what He wants. God, undoubtedly understanding our frustration at such times, declared, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways" (Isaiah 55:8). Intellectually, we can accept such a disconnect, but in our hearts we struggle with it. What we want, we typically want now. The reason is that we humans tend to live within the boundaries of our own immediate concerns, whereas God operates within the vastness of eternity, which has no boundaries of space or time. Thus, our perspective tends to be limited to our own field of vision (self-interests), whereas God perceives the "big picture." If we had the perspective of the Throne, our doubts would vanish away like the morning mist. But, since we are unable to see how our circumstance factors into the eternal scheme of things, we often find ourselves questioning God's judgment and doubting His love. In effect, our lamentations often arise from our limitations. It is simply part of the human condition ... and God understands.
You and I live within the boundaries of a temporal realm. Time matters. Urgency and immediacy are concepts with which we can relate, especially when we are facing a personal crisis. We want solutions, and we want them now. It is difficult for humans to grasp the truth that, in relation to eternity, our lives, and the particulars thereof, are but a brief blip on the vast scope of history. Our personal crisis may mean the world to us, but the world at large may never take notice. That is a humbling reality ... and a somewhat disturbing one, for it makes us wonder if anyone truly cares about our struggle. Thus, we ask: Is God so far removed from the trivia of our daily existence, and so consumed with "running the universe," that He takes little or no thought of the heartache of one little speck of a person on one small planet, one whose entire life comes and goes (in relation to eternity) in the blink of an eye? When we ponder such a comparison of the temporal and the eternal, we find ourselves asking, "What is man that You care for him?" (Psalm 144:3) and "What is man that You are mindful of him?" (Psalm 8:4).
Yet, God does care for His creation, even the smallest part of it. "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" (Matt. 6:26). If God cares for a sparrow, then He cares for you! It still boggles our minds, though. Job was convinced that God was indeed aware of his personal plight, but he still struggled to grasp why. "What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention?" (Job 7:17). Yes, God was mindful of Job and his plight, yet Job still was not getting the answers or the peace he sought. Indeed, he had doubts and concerns, and even moments of frustration where he was ready to march right into the Throne Room of the Almighty and demand some answers. Job struggled with his circumstance and with his emotions, yet he never abandoned his faith, and God never abandoned him. Things didn't always go Job's way in life; in fact, he suffered more than most of us can imagine. His prayers weren't always answered the way he would have liked, and at times he wondered if God was even listening. From the perspective of man, Job was to be pitied; from the perspective of God, he was to be praised. Much of our spiritual and emotional angst in life comes from our failure to evaluate our circumstances from the perspective of the Throne. Our vision is too narrow; too short-sighted (myopic), and we thus fail to appreciate how our situation might affect the lives of others for good. Yes, even with that awareness there is not always a relief from the suffering, but it at least provides a broader perspective that may give significance and purpose to our plight, and from such one may draw some comfort.
The apostle Paul most assuredly was not finding much personal pleasure in the many floggings, beatings and imprisonments he was called upon to endure for his faith. These had to be discouraging to him on a number of levels. Indeed, Paul writes, "We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death" (2 Cor. 1:8-9). It would be easy to wonder, at such times, where God was. Is He there? Does He care? Why doesn't He deliver me? Some years later, Paul would be led from a cell and beheaded. Nevertheless, Paul, with the help of the Spirit, was able to develop a broader spiritual perspective with regard to his situation. Looking beyond the personal loss, he was able to perceive the greater gain. "Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. ... Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the Word of God more courageously and fearlessly" (Philp. 1:12, 14). By the faithfulness of one in the face of suffering, the many were emboldened to stand firmly for the truth of God's Word, and only eternity will reveal the number of those ultimately saved by such an inspiring sacrifice. If Paul had been unable or unwilling to see beyond his own circumstance, he might easily have been defeated by despair. By looking beyond his own circumstance, however, he gained a glimpse of what God was seeing and doing, and therein lay the source of his inner joy and peace. His plight had meaning; it had purpose; it had eternal value.
Okay, so if God has already decided what He is going to do in a given situation, why pray?! What's the point? What good does it do? I have asked myself these very questions. I'm sure many of you have, too. In Luke 18:2-8 we find the Parable of the Persistent Widow, "which Jesus told His disciples to show them that they should always pray and not give up" (vs. 1). Let's face it: Scripture indicates there have been a number of times that God has chosen to relent from some course of action, or to intervene in a powerful way in some situation, because of the intercessory power of prayer. Such intervention may not always come at the time or in the manner of our choosing, but that He ACTS is without question, and often that intervention is powerful and dramatic and life-changing. Often our faith is tested by divine delay, however, which requires the persistence of faith on our part. In the above parable, Jesus says, in the application phase of the story, "Will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off?" (vs. 7). Yes, Jesus says that there are times we keep on crying out, and yet God keeps on putting us off. What?! You mean God Almighty doesn't instantly leap up and lavish blessings upon me every time I snap my fingers?! No, He doesn't. And sometimes, after persistent prayers, His answer is "No." With regard to his "thorn in the flesh," Paul pleaded with God on three different occasions to remove this affliction. God chose not to do so (2 Cor. 12:8-9). Again, however, Paul was able to see beyond his own circumstance to a greater purpose. Thus, while his affliction was not pleasant physically, it proved to be a blessing spiritually. From perspective came peace!!
The Lord wants us to persist in prayer, even when a response from Him may be delayed. Why? For a number of reasons. Persistence often pays off; God has been known to step into a situation and act positively because of the prayers of His people. He certainly has the right not to, should such intervention be contrary to His eternal plans, but He has shown He can be moved by our heartfelt petitions. Thus, we continue in prayer. Prayer also keeps us talking to God, and communication is critical to a relationship. We should also keep in mind that our prayers on behalf of another can, in themselves, be a source of great encouragement to one who is going through a difficult time. Just knowing that others care enough to approach God on your behalf is therapeutic on many levels. When Paul spoke of being "under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life" (2 Cor. 1:8), he told the Corinthian brethren, "you help us by your prayers" (vs. 11a). There are times when our situation may not be resolved the way we hoped and prayed it would, but the strength and support we receive from brethren who care enough to pray for us may very well provide the comfort and encouragement we need to persevere in the face of our affliction. Prayer, quite frankly, is far more for us than it is for God. He already knows our thoughts and needs, but we need to voice them. Again, such can be very therapeutic. This is also why I firmly believe God is neither shocked nor angered when His people, during times of great duress, vent their frustration toward Him. It is a release we sometimes desperately need. Some of the great men and women of faith in the Bible vented now and then, but then they resumed their walk with the Lord. A healthy relationship is a safe place to express one's deepest emotions without fear of reprisal. We have that safe shelter in the midst of life's storms in relationship with our God. Even Jesus, "during the days of His life on earth, offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the One who could save Him from death" (Heb. 5:7). In the garden He was "in anguish, ... praying earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground," as He asked, "Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done" (Luke 22:42-44). In spite of repeated prayers, poured forth from God's own Son, it was the will of the Father that He suffer and die. Yet, we all know the eternal benefits of that sacrifice far outweigh the personal agony and anguish the Son experienced. One died that many could live.
I can't help but think of many examples down through history of good people who suffered horribly without any relief. Anne Frank comes to mind, for example. A young girl, only in her teens, suffered the cruelty of the Nazi death camps, first in Auschwitz, then in Bergen-Belsen where she died just weeks before the camp was liberated by the Russians. In spite of their prayers, they suffered and died. Yet, as we examine the power of the example of her courage under duress, and as we read the words of her diary, we find inspiration. Indeed, millions have since been given courage to face the challenges of their own lives by the strength of faith shown by this young teen girl. I think it is safe to say that Anne Frank most likely would never have imagined her little diary would impact people the way it did. Her world was filled with daily suffering and death; with the prayers of her people seemingly unanswered as they were marched to the gas chambers. Yet, one little girl in the midst of that suffering, whose life was also snuffed out by the monsters who tormented her, has given hope to millions, and her example will continue to do so for centuries. We can't always see the "big picture" when we're in the midst of personal pain. Which is why, like Anne Frank, we must trust the One who does; having faith that, even though we may never understand, there is a purpose to our plight. This is not easy, and God understands when we cry out in our pain and frustration. He grants us that release; then He calls us again to trust Him ... to have faith. It is hard to watch a child suffer with an illness that we pray repeatedly might be healed ... and yet the child's condition grows worse. It is hard not to become angry and frustrated, and to feel God has abandoned us. These are the dark moments of doubt and despair. Seeing the circumstance only from our own perspective, we hurt and we cry out. God may or may not grant our heartfelt requests for healing, and if the latter proves to be the case, our faith will be severely tested.
There are no easy answers to the question of how to deal with the harsh reality that bad things often happen to good people. I have none in this article. But I do know that God cares, and that He has a purpose (one we may not always understand). We have a choice: we can either trust Him, or we can turn from Him. Job's wife advised the latter: "Curse God and die!" But Job replied, "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" (Job 2:9-10). "Job's wife concluded that he was suffering because God was unfair -- a popular explanation for suffering, but totally contrary to the character of God. Many people arrive at her conclusion when they consider only empirical evidence (that which we gain by observation). Unless we also consider revelational evidence (that which comes from God), we are likely to reason as Job's wife did" [The Ryrie Study Bible, p. 753]. Whether or not we survive the storms of life will depend largely on the strength of our faith, as well as our ability to perceive our circumstances from His perspective rather than our own. God is there, even during the darkest night and the fiercest storm. It is only when we take our eyes off ourselves and our plight that we perceive His presence. May God grant you that peace in the midst of your personal storm!
From a Minister/Author in California:
"The Perfecting of Love" was another excellent piece of writing from you! Thank you, brother, for your loving spiritual edification. Your last sentences are perfect: "With the help of His indwelling Spirit, we progress daily toward that perfection, and in those moments (which we pray increase in quantity and quality daily) that we love as He loves, that love within us is shown in its most complete and perfect form. Thus, Paul prayed that we would all grow and mature toward the goal of that fullness (Eph. 4:13f), for the world will truly know we are His when they see Him (and His nature = love) evidenced in our lives. 'By this all men will know that you are My disciples!' (John 13:35)." Amen, brother! It is truly by this -- LOVE!
From a Reader in Australia:
I just read your Reflections on "The Perfecting of Love." This is exactly what Matthew 5:48 is getting at: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Thanks for your article, Al.
From a Minister in Oklahoma:
I want to thank you for your article "The Perfecting of Love." This has been a major focus of mine over the past few months. I preached a couple of lessons on teleios - teleioo, and think it is a most amazing Greek word. My study started with the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said, "Be teleios as your heavenly Father is teleios." Obviously, Jesus has just preached some "you've heard ... but I say ..." lessons which only the Holy Spirit can help us fulfill. The rich young ruler was told by Jesus, "One more thing you lack, if you want to be teleios ..." And then Paul's use of the word in Philp. 3:12, and again in Philp. 3:15. It seems to me that Paul is expressing many of your thoughts in vs. 15-16. By the way, I would love for you to comment on vs. 16 if you ever have the time, as it seems your idea of the doctrine of "available light" (Reflections #158) would be supported by this verse. Anyway, I just wanted to throw some extra thoughts your way and tell you how much I respect you and love you as a brother. I'm also saddened by the comments of some who write condemning and judging you, when they themselves are far more like the Pharisees to whom Jesus said, "Woe to you!" Thanks for what you do, brother.
From a Reader in Alaska:
As for your Reflections on "The Perfecting of Love," let me offer an awkward techno-analogy. If Christians were computers, their OS (operating system) would be LOVE, as God defines love, and all spiritual applications in their life would depend on running them with the correct OS, without which their "programs," of any sort, wouldn't achieve the desired output, functionality or end result. Changing subjects, I'm always sadly amused by folks who say they don't agree with anything you write, but neglect to mention the great degree to which you quote Scripture (their professed authority). I don't think some of your detractors even understand the basics of accountability for their words. Sad, indeed! Godspeed in your ministerial responsibilities!
From a Reader in Florida:
I read every article you send, and over the years I have learned so much from you! I thank you for the freedom you've brought to my husband and me, which we have since shared with our children and grandchildren. We all now have so much joy through being free from the burden of the "rule-stressing" church we used to attend. We have found a new church home now that we know about and have experienced the grace and love of our Lord. You have truly had a positive, life-saving effect on our whole family!! We are all now striving to "spread the word" to anyone who'll listen to us. God bless you!
From a Minister in Tennessee:
Thanks for the extremely helpful exposition on "The Perfecting of Love." I was reminded of a sermon I heard many years ago on Matthew 5:48 -- "Therefore be perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect." It was observed that the immediate reference is to the perfect love of God. He used an illustration that I have since used often: God's love (which is actually infinite) was compared to a tank with the capacity of many thousands of gallons, while our love was compared to a perfume bottle holding just a few ounces. The capacity of the one is many times greater than the other. But the one may be perfectly or completely filled "just as" the other. And the beautiful thing about this is: God will then enlarge our capacity.
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