Monday, January 3, 2011

Careful How You Use Your Theology

Reading: Job 12—14  
Men at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping. (Job 12:5)
David Powlison, while not referencing this verse, describes the cure for and truth of this verse, respectively, in this statement, “Those whose lives overflow need to learn gratitude, humility, generosity—and alertness to the temptations of presumption, superiority, and pride.”1 My life has overflowed with God's bounty, and therefore I must beware of the temptation to have contempt for those whose lives are in the midst of scarcity and lack.
It is easy to piously pontificate toward those in trouble when things are going well for us. I'm talking about those times when we are quick to look for sin...not ours, but theirs. Of course, not ours, we aren't the ones in trouble, they are. So we assume they need our help. Job's counselors seem to be guilty of this. It isn't as if what they were saying was false—Job seemed to acknowledge the general truth of their counsel (Job 12:3)—it is that the application of the truth to the situation missed the point. Good prescription, but for the wrong illness.
Job's counselors seem to have a cause-and-effect view of suffering. It is as if they are saying to Job, “If you are suffering like this, it must be the result of your sin.” Yet we know from the first few chapters of Job that this is not the case. It is true that God, if He were so inclined, could find enough sin in any of us to justify any suffering we encounter... even if He forgot half of our sin (Job 11:6), but that is not why Job was suffering. They believed that if Job put away sin, then he surely would be delivered from his trouble (Job 11:14-16).
Job didn't seem to have any answers either for why he was suffering. And maybe that is one of the things we are to learn from Job: that the cause of suffering is often indiscernible. But we don't like that. When my oldest daughter was born with an unusual disease called microsia-anotia, meaning she didn't have an outer right ear, we immediately began to wonder about the cause. “Why did this happen?” is the nagging question. When my second daughter was diagnosed with a immunological disease which kept her in-and-out-of the hospital for a number of years, we kept asking the “why” questions.
Mostly, we were asking that in the sense of physical cause-and-effect. By God's grace we didn't spend a lot of time wondering about this being some form of punishment for sin. Christ bore the punishment for our sin. But after a while, even the search for physical causes still became frustrating and futile. Why do we do this? We want to assign blame for things. I think this can be easily corrupted by our sinful nature. Very often we do this on a spiritual level as well, going on a sin hunt in order to discover the cause of things.
At times that may be helpful, and we ought to do that with ourselves to some degree. But if we aren't able to discover it soon enough, it may be that there isn't a direct cause-and-effect relationship between our suffering and anything we have done. Job seemed to know that, yet what he may have missed was that he still needed to trust God. God's wisdom may not be known to us, but can be trusted.
And when we are comforting someone who is suffering, I think we should learn from Job not to always be trying to identify a cause. Sometimes we should just listen (Job 13:5). Sometimes we should just care, and pray. And we don't need to try and fix it for them, because most often, we can't. It it hard to be okay with that sometimes, but we need to be.

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

1David Powlison, from For the Fame of God's Name, Essays in Honor of John Piper, Chapter: The Pastor as Counselor.  And excellent resource.

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