Most people (even church people) don’t know how to have real conversations with pastors. When I meet someone at a party or other social situation, I try to avoid answering the dreaded question: “So, what do you do?” I dread this question because I know that once I let the cat out of the bag, all normal conversation is over. Not only do they start apologizing for all the times they used an expletive in the previous 2 minutes (like my fragile, holy ears would break), but the revelation of my profession usually leads to 3 possible reactions. For example:
“What do you do?”
“I’m a pastor.”
Reaction #1: The Patronizer: “Oh, good for you… ” (Code for: I don’t really care because I don’t do church but I’m sort of glad people are doing such things).
Reaction #2: The Apologizer: “I haven’t been to church in years because… “ (Cue life story of woe and a series of confessions).
Reaction #3: The Religious Story-Teller: “God is so good: when I was brushing my teeth yesterday…” (Cue series of miraculous stories of God appearing in their toast. Or about how God gave them the parking spot they wanted, or a $20 bill in their pocket they forgot about).
Again, normal conversation is gone.
But every once-in-a-while I get a 4th reaction. And it’s one that usually stops me in my tracks and causes me to wrestle again and again with my own convictions, my doubts, my hopes and fears, and ultimately, my faith.
Reaction #4: Why would God let this happen? (This question usually arises from life’s deepest tragedies… Perhaps it’s a father who lost his infant daughter through a tragic accident. Or ISIS beheadings. Or traffic stop shootings, or attempted coups, or police officer shootings, or hurricanes, tornados, or Ebola outbreaks). Whatever the “this” is, it feels completely antithetical to anything God would allow. If God is love and God is good, where is God in all of this?
#1 The Answer Begins With Knowing God’s Heart
Many people believe that God is ultimately unknowable. This is primarily because they are convinced (and in a sense they are correct) that human beings cannot offer an adequate definition of God because of inescapable human bias and ignorance. We are limited in what we know. This leads many to the conclusion that most religions and philosophies are really talking about the same God, just in different ways. After all, could all those devout religious people be wrong? Isn’t the idea of self-sacrifice and love the foundation of nearly all religious belief? Isn’t it all saying basically the same thing?
Well, if the definition of God were completely up to humans, I would agree. But I believe it’s not.
When Jesus entered human history, God revealed Himself to us. Jesus made the shocking the claim to his followers, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Any human claim to know God through Jesus is not a claim of arrogance, but a claim of complete dependence: God the Father made Himself known.
Because of His heart. God wants the world to know, love, and follow Him. When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” I believe it was for relational reasons as much as it was for theological reasons. There are many we can follow, but only One will lead us to life. Like the famous Terminator line, “Come with me if you want to live.”
Think about how you give driving directions. I don’t know about you, but the quality of my directions is directly proportional to my relationship with the people asking. If some drunk dude with no shirt is yelling at me from across the street, “Hey, how do I get to the Parkway?” (I clearly live in New Jersey), my response may not be all that helpful or even very kind. “Drive west and you’ll find it.”
But, if a good friend of mine flags me down and asks the same question, I might say, “Hey, I’ll hop in my car and you can follow me to the Parkway.” What’s the difference? A relationship. And that’s what God says to the whole world, “I love you so much, I was willing to come down and lead you home Myself so there will be no confusion: I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
God’s heart reflects His unquenchable desire for life. God is the Creator of life itself. God breathed us into existence and promises to breathe into us forever if we have a relationship with Him. If I cling to this fundamental understanding of God, it helps sort out the rest. God wants to me to truly live.
#2 Once You Know God’s Heart, You Can Filter Out The Noise
When bad things happen, a natural reaction is the take it out on God (or turn away from God or convince ourselves that God must not exist). I will say this: God is not completely off the hook for the problem of suffering, pain, and Evil. More on that in a minute. That being said, I think knowing God’s Heart prevents us from being duped into believing lies about Who He is.
Common Response: God is punishing me.
I know people who have fallen ill or had tragedy effect their lives and truly believe it was their fault. “God is punishing me for all my sin.” Sorry, but from what I know about God’s Heart, that doesn’t make much sense. Sin has already been punished on the cross. Yes, there are natural consequences for our actions–but if we are following Jesus to the Father, it means we have faith. And, if we have faith, Jesus (the One who reveals God’s Heart) says we have forgiveness. Here’s the important thing to remember: just because God permits things to happen, doesn’t mean that God causes things to happen.
For example, God doesn’t have to be the cause of tornadoes—they are caused by low-pressure systems. They are part of the naturally created world. I know what you may be thinking: Okay, Jason, if God’s not the cause—then God permitted this to happen. Is that any better? How can you say God permitted such a thing and still say that God is good?
Yes, God does permit things to happen, but is that the same thing as saying God is not good or somehow is not in control or does not want us to have life?
C.S. Lewis tackled this issue in his book, Mere Christianity: “Anyone who has been in authority knows how something can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another” (p. 52). For example, a mother may say to the children, ‘I’m not going to make you clean your room. You’ve got to learn to keep it clean on your own.’ Then she goes up one night and the room is a disaster… That is against her will. She would prefer the children to clean it. But on the other hand, it is her will that has left the children free to be messy…God created us to have free will. If we are free to be good we are also free to be bad. And free will is what has made Evil possible. And it is that corruption that has damaged the world. It’s why shootings and wars and racism and other atrocities happen on God’s watch.
But make no mistake–God wants us to live. But we cannot live if we do not follow. And that choice has its consequences. I know that doesn’t explain everything–and I’m okay with that. You may not be, and I can understand. For me, that’s where faith is applied. My thought process goes something like this: I trust in Jesus Christ because He fundamentally wants to steer me towards life. So I will follow. I won’t always understand where we’re going or why we’re traveling through certain neighborhoods. After all, Jesus’ way to the Parkway is different than mine.
#3 Once You Filter Out The Noise, You Can Experience Gratitude
What the journey sometimes lacks in clarity, it offers an abundance of gratitude. I am so grateful that God has called me to follow. Otherwise I would still be out there wandering. Maybe I would know that I was lost… maybe not. But I do know that I would not be experiencing life in the way that I have for the last 22 years. I may not know everything, but I do know this: I am grateful.
The Apostle Paul said, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12-13). What’s the secret? Gratitude.
But, if it weren’t for pain and brokenness, I would never understand gratitude, grace, hope, or life. When things are going great, I don’t think about God nearly as much as when I’m going through a storm. Perhaps that is why God permits pain or suffering. But I also think God is heart-broken by it sometimes. After all, Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death (even knowing full well that He would raise him). Whatever the reason God allows it, He must think it is worth it somehow.
I have definitely discovered, however, that Jesus’ rescue, restoration, and reconciliation fuels my gratitude. And when I’m living in gratitude, I tend to live open-handed.
When we deeply appreciate the life we’ve been given, what we’ve overcome, and how God has saved us, it fills us with a desire for others to experience the same. I believe this open-handedness is what enables us to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” It helps us to let go of what’s unimportant and hold fast to what is. And when we do this, we too offer life. Think about it. After every hurricane or tornado or shooting we see churches mobilize and offer compassion, hope, comfort, and care. That’s what grateful people do. That’s how people who know how blessed they are to be able to follow Jesus behave. When was the last time you saw your local atheist group do that?
Here’s the amazing part. Jesus says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). In the New Testament, the Church is referred to as the Body of Christ. When the grateful people of God serve those in need, they act as the hands and feet of Jesus to the world. When we serve, we experience the life Jesus has always wanted for us and become part of God’s solution to a hurting and broken world.
Where is God in all of this? Just look around. He’s in the love, compassion, gratitude, and hope of His people. He is bidding a lost world to follow Him, and as He weeps over each tragedy, He leverages them to point to the answer: the way, the truth, and the life… Jesus Christ–God made flesh. God made known.
That’s all I want to tell you. Please don’t ask me what I do for a living, I want to have a real conversation with you. Just ask me how I can be so grateful no matter what is going on in my life. Because I can’t wait to tell you.