God seems distant in the midst of personal loss and suffering: When suffering comes to a head, strengthen it

There are three kinds of suffering: 1. suffering we bring on ourselves and others through our own sin, and 2. sufferings through persecution for faith in Christ. 3. There is also much suffering that does not fit into these two categories; for example, accidents, “acts of God” such as earthquakes, and the most ubiquitous of all, infirmities and sickness.

Greg Koukl’s latest podcast ( 28 Aug 2013) “Same-sex marriage and Freedom of conscious, topic two responds to a caller whose wife recently died of cancer (“God seems distant in the midst of personal loss and suffering,”minute 00:33:41). The caller wanted advice on how to deal with God’s distance in times of trial. Koukl said that it is more correct to speak of the feeling of God’s distance, for God is never absent in a Christian.

Many Christians do not have emotional deliverance. They know with their head that Jesus has overcome the world but when Jesus says that they should “take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33), they falter. This is where head knowledge becomes important. We have to remind ourselves of it, says Koukl, even when the difficult pain doesn’t go away. The caller responded that this head knowledge) was something he was hanging onto. “If, says, the caller, I did not have that head knowledge I could become angry.” Koukl suggests that we should lop off (not his term) the head from “head knowledge” and refer simply to “knowledge.” I am reminded of Blaise Pascal’s “the heart has its reasons that reason does not know at all” (Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point). Pascal’s “heart” is not the “Old” Testament “heart.” In Pascal the head reasons, the heart feels; in the the “Old” Testament the heart is not merely the seat of the feelings but of thought. Whatever happened to “mind” in Deuteronomy 6:5: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃

[ve-ahavta et Adonai (YHVH) elohecha b’chol l’vavcha oovechol nafsh’cha oovechol m’odecha].

Not to worry, the Greek of the New Testament brings back the mind: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart (kardia), and with all thy soul (psyche), and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind (dianoia)… (Luke 10:27). Merci beaucoup, says Pascal. Enough of Greek, lets get back on track (revenons a nos moutons1 ).

We should try and separate the feelings from (mind) knowledge, Mind knowledge, understanding who you are in Christ, is crucial for a Christian, because without it we cannot understand the crux of Christianity – the cross. In my previous post I wrote a tongue in cheek piece on Christians who are much keener to celebrate than cerebate (use their noggins). (Songs in church: Cerebrate before you celebrate). Here I discuss how Christians should deal with suffering by applying their minds to the profound truth of the Gospel: “there is no pit so deep, where he is not deeper still” (Corrie ten Boom).

The letters of Paul are peppered with admonitions to “strengthen the inner man” and “renew the mind,” yet many Christians grow very little in their Christian knowledge; they’re happy with skinny dips and paltry sips. There is milk and there is meat. Salvation does not depend on the depth of scriptural understanding; “let the little children come unto me.” This, however, does not mean that head knowledge is not important for a Christian; indeed, it is vital. Much fear, depression and suffering in the Christian life is the result of ignorance (often wilful – “ignoring”). 

Here is a Gerald Jamposky’s (born Jewish but more of a Buddhist – a Jubu) view of how to overcome fear. In his Love, Fear and the Foundation of Inner peace: Gerald Jampolsky’s “Love is letting go of fear. 1981. Bantam Books,” he says: 

We have been given everything we need to be happy now. To look directly at this instant is to be at peace now (p. 7).” “Today there is a rapidly expanding search for a better way of going through life that is producing a new awareness and a change of consciousness. It is like a spiritual flood that is about to cleanse the earth. This transformation of consciousness is prompting us to look inward, and as we explore our inner spaces, we recognize the harmony and at-one-ment that has ALWAYS (Jampolsky’s emphasis) been there. As we look inward we also become aware of an inner intuitive voice which provides a reliable source of guidance…listen to the inner voice and surrender to it…In this silence…we can experience the joy of peace in our lives” (p. 11).

So, for Jampolsky, deep below the dark regions of discord and strife lies the treasure without price longing to find you, the real you. Transform your consciousness and you will find your true self. This “transformation of consciousness” is the “foundation for inner peace” (which is also the name of the publisher of “A course on miracles” on which Jampolsky’s book is based). The “transformation of consciousness” is, of course, also the foundation of Eastern thought systems such as Buddhism and Yoga, which has become a key ingredient in Western psychotherapy. (Hatha Yoga brings about the Unity of the mind, body and spirit). Through this practice, the body is toned, strengthened and healed so that a transformation in consciousness can occur.

Christianity is very different; the source of light does not come from within but from without (outside), from the Saviour, the Son of God. If you think that your inner man is the source of that true light, you are deceived, because this inner light is nothing but darkness. But there is more bad news; all are born blind.  It is the good news of the Saviour, Jesus the Christ, who opens the dead eye that it may see.

Hebrews 8

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

How do Christians “show their colours” (Martyn Lloyd Jones, “Privileges and responsibilities”). The Christian is involved in the cares and worries of this world but does not allow them, with God’s grace, to choke the word: “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). Christians – those who say they believe in/trust Christ – are strangers and pilgrims in this world but citizens of God’s kingdom. Christians are in the world but not of this foreign world. They are sojourners, aliens, exiles, strangers.

No person, writes Jonathan Edwards, who seeks to go on a pilgrimage to a glorious and exotic place will take up permanent residence at an inn along the way.” Succoth (feast of Tabernacles) commemorates Israel’s sojourn in the midbar wilderness (Leviticus 23:43). Succoth reminds us that we are merely sojourners on this earth (1 Peter 2:11): “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” (See Suicide of a – Christian? If YOU’RE sure then I’m not sure).

Romans 5

1 Therefore now that we have been justified through faith, let us continue at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have been allowed to enter the sphere of God’s grace, where we now stand. Let us exult in the hope of the divine Splendour that is to be ours. 3 More than this: let us even exult in our present sufferings, because we know that suffering trains us to endure, 4 and endurance brings proof that we have stood the test, and this proof is the ground of hope. 5 Such a hope is no mockery, because God’s love has flooded our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit he has given us.

The “ground” of “hope” is not divine splendour, but  being the crucible of “present sufferings”, “endurance”, and standing the “test”; in a word – the Cross; where the hope of divine splendour shines through. Through Christ Jesus, the Lord of glory.

Did you know then”, to quote Paul again, a chapter later, that “all of us  who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” (Romans 6:3). “Baptised” here is not so much the physical act of immersing your body in water, but immersing yourself in Christ’s suffering and death – and, consequently, in your own death as well. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?” (Mark 10:38).

In “The Passion of Bach: The Heart of Tragedy”, I described a well-known conductor who told of the deep effect Bach’s tragic “Passion of Christ” had on him. Not that he believed that the person being crucified was anything but a man. “You don’t, he said, have to be a Christian to feel the pain and the tragedy of such suffering.” From the Christian point of view, he didn’t understand that this Death meant much more than a human tragedy; it was a Death that brings life. I concluded that failure to grasp the meaning of this Death is what lies at the heart of tragedy.

The eternal glory that awaits far outweighs our afflictions, which seem never-ending. Though we are put to death in the body, we will come alive in the spirit, through the Holy Spirit of God. If we are truly IN Christ, which Paul, the Apostle, emphasises many times, if we have strengthened the inner man, if we dwell in Christ (Ephesians 3:16-17), if we have locked into Jesus and locked out worldliness (Jesus says “My Kingdom is not of this world” John 18:36), what does it matter if we live or die, for to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain? (Philippians 1:21).

I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. (See The “Resurrection” of the miners in Chile and the Second Death).

Charles Spurgeon, in his “The former and the latter rain,” says “there is a point in Grace as much above the ordinary Christian, as the ordinary Christian is above the worldling.” Our zombie is the worldling. Spurgeon’s point is that it is not enough to rest on the fact that your sins have been forgiven, that you have been saved. There’s much more: there’s knowing God; knowing more and more who God is, and in so doing building up the “inner man.”

The Apostle Paul prays to God the Father:

That he (Christ) would grant you (the Christians in Ephesus), according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; 17 That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; 19 And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God (Ephesians 3:16-19).

What ultimately counts on this earth is that one should not lose heart; for though the outer man is decaying, yet the inner man is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16).

I think Augustine of Hippo had it just right; Augustine’s “Confessions,” Book 10:

But what is it that I love in loving thee? Not physical beauty, nor the splendor of time, nor the radiance of the light–so pleasant to our eyes–nor the sweet melodies of the various kinds of songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and ointments and spices; not manna and honey, not the limbs embraced in physical love–it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet it is true that I love a certain kind of light and sound and fragrance and food and embrace in loving my God, who is the light and sound and fragrance and food and embracement of my inner man– where that light shines into my soul which no place can contain, where time does not snatch away the lovely sound, where no breeze disperses the sweet fragrance, where no eating diminishes the food there provided, and where there is an embrace that no satiety comes to sunder. This is what I love when I love my God.”

1 The French expression revenons à nos moutons is from La Farce de Maître Pathelin, a medieval play written by an unknown author. The eponymous protagonist of this 15th-century comedy deliberately misleads a judge by bringing two cases before him – one relating to sheep and the other to sheets. The judge is very confused and attempts to get back to the case about sheep by repeatedly saying mais revenons à nos moutons. Since then, (mais) revenons à nos moutons has meant “let’s get back on track / back to the subject at hand / back on topic.” 

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