The Fall Mockingbird conference is now over, and it was a DOOZY! The subject overall was grace and suffering. As is my wont, I am not going to post a critical review, or a regurgitation of content, but rather my own reflections on the material.
All the recordings for the conference are on mockingbird’s site:
C’ville Conference Recordings: Hope Amidst the Ruins
Overall, it was the deepest and most profound conference I’ve ever been to. Who in their right mind sets up a conference about suffering in the hope that big crowds will show up to be entertained? Yet, the mind of the wise is in the house of mourning (Ecclesiastes 7:4). By that standard there were a lot of wise people gathered in Charlottesville this weekend! This is part one of a few posts, because the reflection on RJ Heijman’s post ended up being a bit long. I’ll add more as I get time.
I felt RJ Heijman’s first session was profound, provocative, and convincing, but incomplete without the second session; I’m reflecting on both sessions together.
The basic idea he posits is that God really can be considered the source of our sufferings. Before you toss your computer across the room, consider these verses:
20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope
21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
(Romans 8:20, 21, NASB).
20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped.
21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.”
(Job 1:20, 21, NASB).
36 Then Jesus *came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and *said to His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
37 And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed.
38 Then He *said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.”
39 And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”
(Matthew 26:36-39, NASB).
1 And as He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth.
2 And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?”
3 Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was in order that the works of God might be displayed in him.
(John 9:1-3, NASB).
There is actually a shocking amount of biblical support for the idea that God is the source of our suffering! Furthermore, we may initially think that there is no comfort or pastoral power in believing such a thing, but Mr. Heijman posed the question: would you rather believe in a God who is powerless and impotent and removed from your suffering, or who has the situation in hand and is present in your suffering?
For my part, I remain in a state of reflection; I am uncertain that we can reduce the source of suffering to an either/or kind of equation. There is also the very sticky problem that this implies that God is the source of evil; I think Job illustrates that there is certainly room to think that God may permit suffering for His purposes but that He is not the source of them. We also have passages like the following:
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.
14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.
15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.
17 Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow.
(James 1:13-17, NASB).
I have to add that in context, the idea of temptation is not only to do a pleasurable evil, but to have a difficult circumstance and lose faith in God’s goodness. There is a world of insight in that fact, but I digress!
In the end, I think that God is present in our suffering, and orchestrates our lives in complex and mysterious ways that will hugely surprise us in the end. I think it is simplistic to say that He is actually the direct source of all suffering, but certainly He does direct some things. It is perhaps not our place to say, as we are in the same place as Job, experiencing the suffering but having no knowledge of the conversations in heaven from which the circumstances arose. We also have this:
11 I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise, nor wealth to the discerning, nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.
12 Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net, and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them.
(Ecclesiastes 9:11, 12, NASB).
This implies, BIBLICALLY, that suffering can arise from time and chance, and that neither our cleverness nor our sin nor even the wishes of God or Satan have come into the equation, but mere time and chance. Is this helpful?
The truth is always helpful. It is never a comfort to think that your comfort is based upon a myth. We do know, regardless of the source of our afflictions, that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Mr. Heijman ended up the same place I would end up pastorally, that it is no comfort to anyone to come alongside them in their grief in order to speculate about the theological source of their experience of suffering. It really does nothing to quibble over the source. As he said, Job’s friends did well until they opened their fool mouths, and we would do well to heed their example. He cited the example of Lars and the Real Girl, when the church ladies came over and brought a casserole and sat and knitted without saying a word. We have the comfort which Paul offered in many places in his letters, but my favorite is Romans 8:
28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren;
30 and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?
32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?
33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies;
34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
36 Just as it is written, “FOR THY SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.”
37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.
38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,
39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8:28-39, NASB).
Under grace, even in the worst suffering, we cannot possibly lose! Our suffering will pale in comparison to the glory that awaits us:
For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison,
(2 Corinthians 4:17, NASB).
So RJ Heijman, thank you for some excellent and thought-provoking material on an extremely important subject. I love you man!
Also, the subject of grace and suffering is something I’ve thought about quite a bit; you might want to read some of these posts: thereforenow.com/tag/suffering/