Wednesday, March 12, 2008

God, Our Divine Abuser?


It is a raw, pus-filled, seething wound that never really heals.

This week I interviewed a woman named Viviane for a book I am working on. She and her family were missionaries in Malaysia -- devoted fully to serving God whatever he asked. But they never suspected what He would eventually ask of them.

After six and half years of dynamic, devoted ministry where both Viviane and her husband experienced that complete fulfillment that comes from fully used one's gifts in service to Him, her husband went to the doctor with severe headaches. Tests revealed his brain riddled with tumors and six agonizing months later he was dead.

Seven years later, her voice still trembles as she recalls the searing memories of day after day, watching her beloved husband slowly and steadily waste away, hoping beyond all hope that God would do something to save him. Surely God could and would want to heal such a man as this. Does not God bless those who faithfully serve Him?

But then He didn't. And Viviane was left alone -- with three grieving children to raise.

In that gentle, death-scarred voice, I could sense the magnitude of loss and suffering that reached much higher on the richter scale that any earthquake that has ever shaken the planet. And I wondered how such devastation could have struck in 2001 without me even noticing it.

No spiritual pat answers can soothe the pain. They only further the questions: Where is God in this? Why did He let this happen?

In the aftermath, this woman struggled with the conflict of it all. "I tried to find my comfort in God, but I felt like the abused going to the Abuser for comfort," she said.

Viviane is not alone in her sentiment. In CS Lewis's very honest reflections during his pilgrimage through the loss of his wife, A Grief Observed, he lashed out at God calling him the "divine vivisectionist" and "cosmic sadist."

Those are honest feelings, and I believe God appreciates honesty. He remains there in the midst of our railings of grief.

If we believe Romans 3:23, that "the wages of sin is death." Then we can see death as perhaps the truest, most poignant glimpse of hell we can have while still on earth. Death is a cold and complete separation that ironically burns with a cruel and brutal vengence.

Death is separation and the death that separates us from those who are most intricately woven into who we are is more that a separation, it is a violent tearing apart. And when we are left in these shreds, we can do little more than ask, perhaps angrily, "why?"

But Pastor Arpad Horvat-Kavai, who lost his first wife and unborn child in a car accident, argues that such "why?" questions may never be answered in this life. He says there is bigger question still. The question of whether we will allow our unanswered questions to separate us from God.

In Hebrews 5:7, we see Christ's very human struggle. He, like Viviane, prayed that things could be different, and although He was heard, it did not change the outcome. The Amplified expresses it best:

"In the days of His flesh Jesus offered up definite, special petitions [for that which He not only wanted, but needed], and supplications, with strong crying and tears to Him who was [always] able to save Him (out) of death, and He was heard because of His reverence toward God -- His godly fear, His piety [that is, in that He shrank from the horrors of separation from the bright presence of the Father]."

When I hear a story like Viviane's, I shrink at simply the thought of death separating me from my husband or children. It would indeed be a "horror."

But in everyday life, I scarcely notice when I make choices that place that first wedge of separation between God and myself. And in this I begin to see that although my priorities may be in "good" places, they are certainly not in right places.

The pain of death that mars us in this life may well never heal until we reach God's presence. As beings created for eternity, we are ill-equipped to deal with it. But when our losses in this life drive us to speculate whether God might be some sort of Divine Abuser, may we take a moment to reflect on how we casually invite our sins to separate us from Him who loves us best. And perhaps we will catch a renewed glimpse of His pain -- for he too knows what death is.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

"God Has Never Answered My Prayers"

"God has never answered my prayers," said 15-year-old Robi* who lives at the orphanage in Miskolc, Hungary, "And He never will."

The other orphan teens at the Wednesday afternoon Bible study raised their eyebrows as they turned to Russell and Karesz, the leaders, for reply.

It is a statement that would raise most of our eyebrows, if not cause us to gasp in shocked offense at such blatant irreverence for God. But what was Robi really saying with this statement?

I do not know his story, but one does not end up in a Hungarian orphanage if life has been good and happy. We can rest assured that his life, thus far, has been at best, really bad; at worst, unspeakably tragic.

Last summer Robi came face to face with the Gospel and love of Christ for the first time in his life. He responded, and was baptized.

Since then, despite his everpresent proclivity for getting into trouble, he often comes to the regular Wednesday Bible study at the orphanage. Sometimes he is little more than a disruptive influence there, but still he comes. And so last week, in the midst of his disruptions, he blurted out, "God has never answered my prayers, and never will."

The words are shocking. They are irreverent. Perhaps a cry for attention. Perhaps a challenge to God. But before we write Robi off as a "tool of Satan" to wreak havoc on the Bible study and place doubts in the hearts of the struggling believers there, consider the fact that Robi's words are not so different from those penned by David, a man after God's own heart, in Psalm 22:1-2:

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent." (NIV)

Robi has not yet made it verse three in this passage, where David takes his eyes off himself and begins to recognize who God is and all that God has done through the ages, which galvanizes his faith to push forward, despite God's seeming silence.

Robi's faith is still in its infancy. He scarcely knows it what it means to be "sure of what we hope for and confident of what we do not see." (Heb. 11:1) The life in which he finds himself has left him ill-equipped to fight the battles that he faces. He is like an untrained soldier forced to the frontlines. And these Wednesday Bible studies represent his only training ground -- and he is being trained in the heat of fiercest combat.

As we see the despair, let us not overlook the hope in his words. First, clearly Robi believes in God. He knows God is out there, he merely questions God's interest in him personally. Second, "God has never answered my prayers," insinuates that Robi prays. There is some faith alive in him. And finally, the fact that he says, "God never will," insinuates that he expects to pray in the future.

Robi is distraught, longing for assurance, but he has not given up on God.

And the better news than that is: God has not given up on Robi.

If we were all a little more honest, we'd have to admit we have had Robi moments too -- those dark days when God seems so distant, "so far from the words of our groanings." (Ps 22:1) I am thankful Robi had the confidence to articulate the doubts most of us would keep hidden in our secret places.

Join with me and pray for Robi at the Miskolc orphanage, that God would bring this boy through this dark time, and make Himself known to Robi in a real and dynamic way. And that God would use Karesz, Russell, and other Christians to meet this boy where he is.

*Not his real name.