Don’t Be Surprised By the Weeds. When You Believe in God, But Everything Falls Apart Anyway.

When I was young I would often take my friends sailing on Lake Chemong near Peterborough, Ontario. In addition to the the joy of friendship, my sailboat was just large enough that a second person could help keep it from capsizing in a good breeze. Lake Chemong is famous for being very weedy. It is a terrible lake for swimming since there were many slimy, gross weeds all along the shoreline. Therefore we would sometimes drop the sails, throw out the anchor and go for a swim in the middle of the lake.

On one particular day I took a young lady sailing. No, this was not the young lady who would become my wife, that is another story! As we were sailing this one day, I had the feeling this friend of mine thought we were on a date. I did not have the heart to tell her that she was not my date, she was my ballast!

Being a gentle breeze we decided to go for a swim. Time was getting on and so I got back into the boat. My friend didn’t. She couldn’t. She tried. I tried to help. But, no. So I sailed and she swam. At least until she got tired. What now? Being the hero of this story I knew what to do. I threw a line out the back of the boat and I towed her in.

Remember all those weeds around the edge of the lake I mentioned earlier? You should have heard the screams as I towed her through the weeds. She was horrified. What has this story to do with us in our day when face a scary meltdown of our world due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Don’t be surprised by the weeds.

In Christ, we look forward to a rescue, yes. We look forward to getting through anything life will throw at us. We have been thrown a line. We will get to the shore. Consider these words from Peter:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1 Peter 3:1-5

We have been thrown a line. We will get safely to the shore. Our future is certain. However, don’t be surprised by the weeds:

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, . . . 1 Peter 3:6

There are those who assume that since God loves us and is rescuing us, there should be no more trouble in this life. God does love us, and He is rescuing us, but He has never promised that we will not face trouble. In fact, we are told that we will, and we do, face troubling times. Peter goes on:

. . . so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Peter 1:7

Troubles do test our faith. In Christ, God has reached out and taken hold of us. But how good a grip do we have as we hold on to the hope we have in God? If we are unsure, troubles will tell us. Do we really trust God? It is easy enough to say ‘yes’ when times are good. However, when we experience the weeds, reality sinks in. Thankfully, it has been my experience that even when my grip is not tight, God has never wavered in His. Still, it is better to face the weeds of life knowing that the rescue is underway, that we will get through the weeds, and that the Rescuer is trustworthy and able. It is also better to face the weeds of life knowing there is a line that can be thrown to the people around us who are floundering in the water.

Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8,9 (NRSV)

Don’t be surprised by the weeds. But don’t be surprised by the rescue either!

May God bless you as we face these weeds in our day.This reflection comes from an “online worship expression” which replaced our regular church service due to COVID-19 precautions.. This worship expression can be seen here. For a limited time, this reflection can also be heard here). Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.

Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon – Video Version.

A Bitter Beginning. A Bitter Woman. Senseless Suffering and the Book of Ruth.

 

19 So the two of them continued on their journey. When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was excited by their arrival. “Is it really Naomi?” the women asked.
20 “Don’t call me Naomi, [which means ‘pleasant’]” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara [which means ‘bitter’], for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?” Ruth 1:19-21 (NLT)

The Book of Ruth begins horribly. Naomi and their family flee their homeland to escape famine. Then Naomi’s husband and children died. Naomi’s story begins with grief upon grief. It may have helped Naomi if there were some reason for the deaths. A chain-smoking husband, a dedicated older son dying in the line of duty, a reckless younger son dying in a motorcycle accident. Naomi might then have at least made some sense of their deaths. She could connect the dots. However, there is no reason Naomi can give. All she can say is “the Lord caused me to suffer.” The dots cannot be connected. This is senseless suffering.

Perhaps you have experienced loss and grief that cannot be explained. Perhaps you have experienced senseless suffering yourself, or watched a loved one go through it. The Book of Ruth can help.

Notice first, that in the Book of Ruth, no effort is made to explain Naomi’s suffering.

The townspeople make no attempt to make sense of her loss. There are no platitudes. The writer of the book offers no theological insights at this point. We may need to the resist the desire to explain away senseless suffering.

This is true when we see others suffering. Job’s friends could not resist explaining why Job was suffering. After pages and pages of argument, we eventually discover that they were wrong. Words and arguments can lead, not to a healed heart, but to a hurting head. Our presence can be of greater comfort to someone living though senseless suffering than our words. We may need to accept that our suffering makes no sense, and may never do so.

Notice second, that Naomi holds nothing back in her lament.

Let us read it again:

20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?” Ruth 1:20-21 (NLT)

Naomi is honest in her assessment of God. She may not be correct, but she is honest. She may not be in touch with good theology, but she is in touch with her feelings. There is no effort to correct her assessment of God, or her theology. The writer of the book sees no need to defend God at this point. There is no explanation of the fallenness of humanity, the corresponding fallenness of creation, and that sometimes bad things happen. God’s goodness will be seen later, but for now, God gets the blame. For now, Naomi expresses how she really feels. We do well to make space for honest sharing. We do well to be honest in our sharing, and in our prayers. Sometimes it is best to sit with someone in their emotions, than try to correct their thinking. Sometimes we need the space to lament and experience the depths of our souls, even when our heads can’t figure it all out.

Notice third, that suffering is at the beginning of Naomi’s story.

Let us jump to the end of the book to see how it turns out:

14 Then the women of the town said to Naomi, “Praise the Lord, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel. 15 May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!” 16 Naomi took the baby and cuddled him to her breast. And she cared for him as if he were her own. 17 The neighbor women said, “Now at last Naomi has a son again!” And they named him Obed. He became the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David. Ruth 4:14-17 (NLT)

In the book of Ruth, suffering is at the beginning of Naomi’s story. There are better days ahead. We can put suffering and loss at the beginning of a new chapter in our lives, rather than the end of our stories. Better days are ahead. When we think of suffering and loss as “where we have ended up,” we can get stuck. Our lives become for us a road that has led to tragedy. When we think of suffering as the beginning of a new chapter of our lives, we put ourselves on a road which includes tragedy, but does not end there. Tragedy is part of our experience, but is not our destination.

Putting suffering at the beginning is something we can do as Christians, because all suffering, indeed your entire life, is the beginning chapter of a really long book:

18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. Romans 8:18 (NLT)

Sometimes we need to jump to the end to see how it all turns out. In Christ and by the grace of God, in being reconciled to God, it turns out well.

Notice fourth, that baby steps are taken.

Naomi returns home. Ruth, in a beautiful step of commitment and care, goes with her. There is connection. If we read ahead into chapters two and three, we will find Ruth doing what the poor people of the land did in that time and place. She followed along the reapers and gleaned the leftovers. There is connection, and there is survival. Naomi and Ruth take steps to make life work. When faced with senseless suffering, we can take the next step. We can take the next best step, however small a step that might be. We can turn the page. We can get further into this new chapter. Is there a step you need to take today?

The Book of Ruth begins with horrible and senseless suffering for Naomi and her daughter-in-laws. If you are a human being, chances are good that senseless suffering will happen in your life at some point. When it does, don’t dwell on explanations, make, or take space for honest sharing, put the suffering at the beginning a new chapter, and turn the page, taking your next best step into the future. With God, whom we may blame for the time being, the story will go on.

Compelling Evil. How Suffering Points to a Loving God.

If the Bible is correct about God, that God is, and God is love, then why is the world in a mess? Why is there suffering? Yes, the Bible teaches that God is love, but the Bible also teaches that the world is, indeed, in a mess. First of, notice that humanity’s relationship with God is destroyed by sin. Adam and Eve were free to enjoy the Garden of Eden, except that there was one thing they ought not do:

“You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—17 except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die.” Genesis 2:15-17 (NLT)

Of course they did that one thing and death became an eventuality. Sin separates us from God. However, the Bible tells us that human sin affects more than just humanity:

And to the man he said,
“Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree
whose fruit I commanded you not to eat,
the ground is cursed because of you.
Genesis 3:17 (NLT)

Adam is affected by his own sin, he will die, but so too is the ground affected. Sin messes up everything. We see this theme carried on in the very next story:

“Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? 7 You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”
8 One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him. Genesis 4:6-8 (NLT emphasis added)

Sin was “eager to control” Cain, but Abel, and Adam, and Eve, were the ones to suffer. Before there was ever a death by the natural consequence of one’s own sin, there was violent death from another’s. Sin makes a mess of everything! It still does. Consider a particularly cruel and selfish man whose attitudes and actions make life miserable for his family. He spreads the misery into his workplace like a bad virus. He then either gets fired, or his business runs down. Soon the money runs out, and the house falls into ruin also. Sin messes everything up for everyone and everything, not just the person who sins.

The Bible teaches that sin even makes a mess of creation:

For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. 20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse [as a result of the sin of humanity]. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. Romans 8:19-21 (NLT)

Creation is not waiting for God to wipe out humanity, so it can flourish on its own, but to rescue humanity. Brokenness in all creation is tied to human sinfulness. Restoration of creation is tied to the healing of humanity’s sin problem.

So if the Bible is accurate, then we should expect to live in a world where relationship with God is destroyed, where death is the expected and normal end, and where everything is messed up. This is the world we live in! There is suffering because there is evil & sin, there is sin because there is freedom, there is freedom because God is love. It turns out that the world is exactly as we would expect if God is love. Therefore the presence of evil and suffering lends support to the Bible being accurate about the way things are.

But if God is love, would we not expect God to rescue us from evil and suffering? Indeed. The Bible teaches, from Genesis through to Revelation, that God is not content to leave humanity in a mess. God continued to work with humans. He did not just walk away.

God rescued a particular people from a messy situation, then gave them the law so that they would learn to not make a big mess of everything. For example, the Israelites were forbidden from practicing child-sacrifice. If they kept that law, there would be less evil and suffering in the world, for that practice was too common in that day. The law was given to lead God’s particular people out of evil so they could be an example to the other nations. However, they kept tripping on the way out.

All of this was part of a bigger plan for a bigger rescue. God sent his Son and Spirit to rescue us from sin. The two problems of sin are solved. First, we are personally, and individually, reconciled to God. Death, and separation from God is no longer our final end. Second, when it comes to sin making a mess of everything, we are enabled to be part of Spirit-led solutions rather than part of sin-wrecked problems.

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT)

Just think of how much less suffering and evil there would be in the world if all lives were marked by these “fruit” of the Holy Spirit! As people participate in God’s great rescue, our dark world gets brighter.

God’s rescue is not limited to the possibility of individuals being reconciled to God and making less mess along the way. God will rescue all of creation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
5 And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” 6 And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. 7 All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children. Revelation 21:1-7 (NLT)

Christianity provides a reasonable accounting of why evil and suffering exist in a world created by a loving God. There is suffering because there is sin, there is sin because there is freedom, there is freedom because God is love. Our sin messes up everything. God knows, and since God is love, He has a rescue underway. Christianity speaks of God’s revealed love solution to evil and suffering in Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and a future with God. The presence of evil and suffering in the world does not prove God does not exist or does not care. It confirms what the Bible teaches. People sin, God is, and God is love.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here. All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.)