Saturday, 27 February 2010

When Bad Things Happen To Good People

Recently I was invited to speak at an Indonesian church an hour outside of Jakarta. The senior pastor was diagnosed with liver cancer a year earlier. The doctors attending to him explored the possibility of a liver transplant. After much effort, the money needed for the operation was raised and a liver donor was found. On the eve of the surgery, as the doctors were doing a final pre-op examination, they discovered that the cancer had spread throughout his body. It was now too late to do a liver transplant and the procedure was called off. The pastor and his family were devastated by this unexpected turn of events. Upon hearing the news, the assistant pastor was so grief-stricken that the next day, he suddenly collapsed in the middle of the church service and died. Forty days later, the senior pastor passed away. Without any clergy in this fledgling church, the housewifely widow of the senior pastor had to conduct the funeral service on her own. Some finger-pointing members started questioning if the untimely deaths of the top leadership were due to divine retribution, or whether the church was cursed. Over the next few months, attendance began to dwindle. As I ministered in the church, I could sense an unspoken question in the air—why do bad things happen to good people?
There are many wonderful blessings that come with belonging to the Faith/Charismatic circle: the belief in signs and wonders, divine healing and health, success and financial prosperity, living a life of influence and purpose, et cetera. However, one area that most Charismatics do not handle too well is the issue of suffering. The prevalent reasoning is that if God is a good, healing, delivering God, whose desire is only to protect and bless His children, then a Christian should not have to suffer. And if a believer does suffer, then there must be something wrong with his/her life or faith. As such, it is not uncommon to hear prominent Faith/Charismatic ministers making rhetorical statements like, “Our heavenly Father will never allow Christians to suffer. I reject sufferings and claim only God’s blessings!”
When this kind of simplistic thinking is embraced, it can make a person judgmental and mean-spirited. If one is faced with an incurable disease or experiences a tragic accident, it must be the result of an unconfessed sin, a generational curse, or that God is giving up on that person. It is a judgment from God, a divine retribution.
Years ago, one of my Bible college classmates died unexpectedly. Instead of consoling and comforting her father, who was a minister in the Assemblies of God, some Christians wrote accusatory letters condemning him of being the cause of his daughter’s untimely death. They speculated the existence of secret, unconfessed sins that had resulted in this “divine punishment.” Otherwise, it must have been his “lack of faith” that failed to raise that girl from the dead.
Shortly after Seow-How and Cecilia co-founded Heart of God Church in 1999, there was a terrible accident that took place outside of their church premises one Sunday. Two teenage members were walking across the road when a sleepy bus driver rammed into them. One of them died on the spot, the other died in the hospital hours later. It was a heart-wrenching tragedy for this very young church and its congregation. One lady from a local Charismatic church berated Seow-How and Cecilia, saying that the church had been divinely cursed. How else could they explain the unexpected death of the two teenagers? If God’s blessing was on the congregation, there should never have been any form of suffering.
In an overly simplistic view on suffering, the logic usually goes like this:
If you are good, there will be no suffering for you.
If you are bad, you will suffer.
So if there is suffering, then you must be bad, cursed and judged!
If this line of reasoning is true, then what about Jesus Christ, the apostles and all the heroes of faith? They all suffered greatly for the gospel. Obviously the “suffering-means-accursed” logic espoused by many is greatly flawed. I feel strongly that we need to re-look the whole concept of suffering, especially through the life of Job, a man who went through an unparalleled magnitude of suffering.
The Scripture introduces Job as someone who was “blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). In fact, Job’s morality was so legendary that he was listed twice as one of the three most righteous men in the Old Testament (Ezek. 14:14, 20). He was a spiritually mature man, not a novice in the things of God.
Job was blessed with seven sons and three daughters, all grown up with their own families and homes. He was incredibly wealthy with thousands of livestock. His ownership of 3,000 camels meant that he ran the largest transportation business in the region during his time. The sheer number of his sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys meant that Job also owned a lot of farmlands for the animals to graze on. Without a doubt, he “was the greatest of all the people of the East”(1:3), a man professionally respected by all.
Beyond his material success, Job was a caring father to his children. Like the patriarchs, he functioned as a priest over his family. He took his sacrificial obligation seriously, viewing it as expiation for sin. To Job this included even sins of the heart, for he made special offerings just in case his sons had secretly cursed God (1:5). Even God Himself acknowledged that there was not a better man than Job in his day (1:8). If ever there was an outstanding man, it was Job. Yet, very bad things happened to him.
In one day, severe calamities befell him and his household. Out of nowhere bandits came and pillaged all his oxen and donkeys, murdering all his farmhands in the process (1:15). Then a lightning bolt came out of the sky causing a forest fire, and all his 7,000 sheep and herdsmen were burned alive (1:16). At the same time, robbers came in three raids and took away his 3,000 camels and slew all their handlers (1:17). And before the dust could settle, a freak storm struck the house wherein his ten children were dining. The roof fell on them and they all died instantly (1:19). Within 24 hours, Job lost his entire business and family. Without anyone to help him, this 70-year-old elderly man had to bury all his children by himself.
As if what happened was not bad enough, Job now became very sick. His body was inflamed with ulcerous sores (2:7). Bible scholars believe that he had a severe case of elephantiasis, an illness that causes swelling and the disfiguration of face, causing him to be unrecognizable (2:12). He began to lose appetite and spiraled into depression (3:24-25). His body was covered with scabs oozing out pus and there were worms crawling all over him (7:5). He developed difficulty breathing (9:18), darkening of the eyelid (16:16), severe weight loss (19:20) as well as continual pain and anxiety (30:27). The high fever and blackened skin (30:30) indicated that he was probably having some form of kidney or liver failure. For the next nine months, Job was in constant delirium.
Because he was totally bankrupt, Job was now living at the city dump where they burned garbage and human excrements. He was the absolute personification of misery. The richest man in the East was reduced to nothing. He was now a social outcast—shamed, disgraced, rejected and despised by all. Very bad things happened to this very good man!
It is never easy for anyone to go through difficult times and tough situations. However, when terrible things happen to us, here are a few things we need to bear in mind:
1.Know that God is not angry with you. Job was an extremely righteous man, yet he suffered like no one else. Psalm 34:19 says, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” The apostle Paul, who himself is no stranger to suffering, says, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). You could be going through a hard time because you have been righteous and godly. So do not condemn yourself or think that God is displeased with you.
By the way, the word “afflictions” also means physical suffering and mental anguish. With all my heart, I fully believe in divine healing (Mark 16:17-18). However, I also submit to the sovereignty of God in any given situation. Like Job, many great men of faith (with strong healing ministries) have themselves been afflicted with terrible illnesses. Elisha the miracle worker died of a terminal sickness (2 Kin. 13:14). The apostle Paul was said to have had an incurable disease (2 Cor. 12:7). Epaphroditus was so sick he almost died (Phil. 2:27). Billy Graham and Yonggi Cho are both diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Reinhard Bonkke struggled with prostate cancer a few years ago. Casey Treat was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 2003. A week ago, on November 22, megachurch pastor Billy Joe Daughterty succumbed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and passed away. All these ministers are godly men of faith, with impeccable integrity, but have themselves been suffering with severe illnesses. The next time you see someone who is sick, please do not be quick to judge him/her for having little faith. We do live in a fallen world with imperfect bodies.
2.Realize that you are in a spiritual warfare. The Bible makes it very clear that the source of Job’s suffering was Satan the devil. He has come to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). Through tragedies and calamities, Satan constantly seeks to tempt us to reject God, to “curse Him to His face” (Job 1:11). When you are faced with hard times, do not get mad with God. It is not His fault.
3.Believe that God is ultimately in control. To touch Job’s possessions, family and health, Satan needed permission from God (1:12; 2:6). We can be assured of this one thing: nothing can ever happen to us without His permission. As a good God, He never enjoys seeing His people suffer. Yet sometimes, He allows bad things to happen to bring about a deeper change in us. In the case of Job, Satan may have thought that he was provoking God; but really, God was simply using Satan to complete His own perfecting work in Job.
4.Offer up the sacrifice of praise. Despite being grief-stricken, Job “fell to the ground and worshiped,” acknowledging God’s sovereignty over his life to give and take away (1:20-21). Even when he was made bankrupt and saw the irrational death of his ten children, never once did he “sin nor charge God with wrong” (1:22). Job’s trust in God’s goodness was astounding.
5.Understand that God is seeking to make you better. God is more interested in our character than our comfort. He is a very purposeful God and never arbitrary in His treatment concerning us. That is why when we do not see His hand, we must learn to trust His heart. If not, we will become confused, resentful and bitter. That is precisely why we need faith in our walk with Him. The silence of God will make you wonder if He even cares, but He does. The silence of God will make you wonder if He is even there, but He is. Faith is never for the good times, it is always for the difficult times.
One cannot appreciate Job’s love for God unless one understands Job 29, which is a description of Job’s life before the tragedies befell him. Way back then, the counsel of God was already a lamp unto his feet and a light unto his path (29:1-3; Ps. 119:105). He was walking in revelation. By Job’s own admission, he considered himself as one who had already “arrived” at advanced spiritual growth and maturity: “I was in the days of my prime” (Job 29:4). He was living with great material abundance and God’s presence (29:6).
When he spoke, everybody listened. Job was the “eyes to the blind,” the “feet to the lame,”the “father to the poor,” the provider to widows, and the defender of justice. The people loved, admired and looked up to him. He was their guide, commander and king. Really, there was nothing more for Job to achieve. He had done it all! He was living the dream!
I know that for most Christian businesspeople or “kingdom professionals,” this is the kind of life we all aspire to live—blessed with wealth, a great family life, and status in society. We desire to be the head and not the tail, above and not beneath, and at the same time, a spiritual leader that everyone looks up to in the church and community. Yet as far as God was concerned, Job was not completely mature. There were many inner struggles he had that nobody knew of. For one, Job never felt safe or secure in life in spite of all his achievements. He had a lot of restlessness and anxieties in his soul (3:25-26).
Here was a man who knew and sensed God, but never had real, deep, life-changing encounters with God. He had heard from God, but had never seen the Lord (42:5). Although he loved God with all his heart, he had not yet reached the point of total abandonment toward Him. Job is like the Christian who has not come to a place where he can say, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), or “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
Job was successful, spiritual and blameless, but he was not broken unto the Lord. He felt he had “arrived” (materially, parentally, socially, spiritually), but he was terribly deceived—a victim of his own illusion. God wanted to change that in him. In His sovereign wisdom, the only way to break Job was to take him through a period of abject suffering.
6.Develop the capacity to obediently endure. This is the key purpose of all God-ordained sufferings. James 5:11 exhorts us to experience and learn the “perseverance of Job.” Perseverance is the “capacity to endure,” which is critical to our maturity and destiny. Very often, when we are exposed to certain viral sicknesses (for example, chicken pox), our body develops immunity against it thereafter. Similarly, while suffering does not originate from God, He allows it to build in us the spiritual capacity to handle intense pain and stress, and an immunity toward discouragement and depression.
Romans 5:3-4 says that “we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.” No one in the right mind will ever wish for suffering.We do not rejoice in suffering unless we know there is something greater that God has purposed in our lives. God’s ultimate purpose of putting us through crisis, heartbreaks, misunderstanding and persecution is so that we develop perseverance (the capacity to endure), character (moral strength) and hope (a positive outlook of life).
How great a life do you want to live? Well, how much pressure are you able to take? When Job lost all his wealth and ten children, and his resentful wife blamed God, he was able to keep on worshiping Him. When his physical body was suffering from sores, swellings and multiple organ failures, and when his psychological state of mind was in severe depression, Job was able to keep trusting God. His capacity for pressure was amazing. Job said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15). Trusting God is when you do not need an explanation from Him for whatever is happening in your life.
When his three friends (Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar) turned against him and persecuted him, telling him that his predicament was a punishment from God for his sin, Job held on to his faith: “But He knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
Even Jesus Christ went through sufferings to “learn obedience” as a Son (Heb. 5:8).Obedient endurance is the crowning mark of maturity. When you can obey the will of God even in the midst of crisis, heartbreaks, misunderstanding and persecution, you have become truly mature.
Sufferings refine our faith in God like nothing else will. That is why the Scripture encourages us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2-3). As your capacity for endurance grows, and you can keep on obeying the will of God in spite of stress, hardships, criticisms and pain, you will become “perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (1:4).
7.Get ready for the double portion. Suffering is a prerequisite for sonship. Only true sons inherit the Father’s estate. Jesus was willing to suffer and become “obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11). Jesus Christ, the true Son of God, became the heir of all things and inherited His Father’s estate. It is the same for us: “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him” (2 Tim. 2:12). This is what obedient endurance does: giving us the sonship to inherit the double portion.
Ultimately, God’s purpose of Job’s suffering was to qualify him for the double portion. True enough, God doubled all his possessions. He was blessed with 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 oxen, and 1,000 donkeys (42:10-12). He was blessed with ten other children (42:13-14). God then doubled his length of days by adding another 140 years (70 x 2) to his life. Moreover, Job became God’s example of obedient perseverance for all eternity.
Like Job, it is one thing to be blameless but quite another to be broken unto the Lord. True maturity is the absolute abandonment to God and His will. When there is no capacity for obedient endurance, we are not yet ready for the double portion. If you are going through a period of intense suffering, wisely do everything you possibly can to overcome it. And having done all, hold on steady and stand before the Lord in faith (Eph. 6:13). Obediently endure through the fire, trial, pain, disappointment, sickness, financial lack and persecution by faith. God is working out something beautiful in your life.


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