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God is Great; God is Good?

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“Oh, My God!”

God is Great, God is Good?

Jeff Jones, Senior Pastor

March 2/4, 2007

We are in our new series, “Oh, My God!” Last week Lanier Burns was here and spoke about “the greatness and goodness of God.” It was a great message, and a great truth, the greatness and goodness of God. Even kids sometimes pray that before meals: “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” Sounds great, but has life ever made you wonder how both of those things can really be true? That God is both great, meaning he is in control of your life, and good, meaning that he has your best interest at heart. At times life makes us ask an honest question:  If God is good and great, than why does he allow to happen in the world and in your life and mine all that he does?

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Today we are not talking about the problem of evil, why God allows evil in the world. That’s a big question that God hasn’t explained. Today we are going to talk about the problem of suffering, why God allows certain things to happen in our lives. In other words, if God is good and great, than why does he allow some of the painful, hard things into our lives that he does? I’d like you to take a few minutes right now and do something for me that we don’t do often…but I want you to get in a group of 5 or so people and one person in the group share an experience in your life or in the life of someone you know that really does make you ask some hard questions about why God would allow it…that make you wonder how God could be both good and great and still allow it to happen. Take a couple of minutes and talk about it.

Those things you just talked about make you wonder, don’t they? I wonder in my life why I had to go through a time of depression…I wonder why Christy’s mom had to die when Christy was only 14…I wonder why God allowed my granddad who was a pastor for 50 faithful years to get Alzheimer’s and discover so from the pulpit as he got up to speak and couldn’t remember why he was up there…why did that have to be his last sermon?

Interesting to me is the fact that God doesn’t seem to mind us wondering. He doesn’t feel the need to explain himself either, but when you read the Psalms which he included in the Bible, many of them are songs of complaint, the psalmist wondering why.

Today we are going to talk about hard things, about a God who is good and great but allows things to come into our lives that make us doubt how both of those can be true. And what we will see today is that maybe it is not God who is out of whack, but just maybe it is our perspective that is out of whack. We have a hard time putting the words “good” and “hard” together, but maybe that is our issue.

If you think about it, our whole lives in 2007 American suburbia are built around making life as easy as possible. We are consumed with making our lives easier. Advertisers know that, and they appeal to our desire for safety, comfort, and speed. Sometimes on airplanes I get bored enough to read those Skymall catalogues, like this one.

Slide: _________________ : Skymall catalogue .jpg

They are so cool, because they have all these things designed to make life easier. I sit there thinking, “Oh, that would be great…how have I lived without that? I’ve got to get that!” It’s like this Staples Easy Button. We look for every easy button we can find.

And if we are really honest, most of the time we expect God to be one big cosmic Easy Button. Really. Our assumption goes something like this:

Slide: _________________ : If God is in control of my life, and He is good, then He will make my life easy. He will not allow hard.  

Hard is bad, and easy is good.

Yet, the Bible has a very different perspective that we need to be challenged by. Turn with me in your Bibles to Genesis 39-40, which is the story of a guy named Joseph who definitely got a bad rap in life. But much of his life sounds super, like God is really both great and good and making it obvious, like this passage

Slide: _________________ : Genesis 39:2-6

 

2 The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, 4 Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. 5 From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. 6 So he left in Joseph’s care everything he had; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate. Now Joseph was well-built and handsome…

Okay, this makes sense. God is with Joseph, which means he makes Joseph successful in all that he does. Like those “Life is Good” t-shirts and hats, God is giving Joseph a life is good experience. He is so successful that Potiphar promotes him to be the manager of everything, and Potiphar is freed up to worry about more important things, like which tee time is he going to take at the country club today…at the Chic-fil-A drive through is he getting the nuggets or the sandwich. All is good. Yet, there is this troubling little word that we kind of snuck right over:

Slide: _________________ : The Lord was with Joseph. . . and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.

Master? What is that all about? Joseph was a slave, and he was a slave because he was kidnapped, beaten up by his brothers, and sold into slavery by them. Joseph grew up as the favored son of his father, and his brothers hated him for it. One day they decided that they would tell his dad that Joseph was killed by a wild animal, and they sold him into slavery…they got rid of their brother and got some cash at the same time…a pretty good deal. Just not such a great deal for Joseph. He ends up in a foreign land as a slave, far from his family, far from all the dreams he once had for his life. He was sold into slavery, but the Bible says that the Lord was with him in slavery.

But do you know what happens next? Next on the scene is Potiphar’s wife, who has watched too many Desperate Housewives episodes and decides she wants Joseph for herself. Joseph rejects her sexual advances, but one day she comes on very strong, and he runs away leaving his cloak behind. She makes up a story that he tried to rape her, and you wonder what is going to happen. Well, if God is good, then the truth will come out. Potiphar will realize his no-good wife is lying and that Joseph who has been nothing but faithful and honest is telling the truth…but no. Joseph gets thrown in prison. But then there is this crazy phrase that gets repeated four times in the Joseph story, “the Lord was with Joseph.”

Slide: _________________ : Genesis 39:20-21

again says, But while Joseph was there in the prison, 21 the Lord was with him; Wait a minute. I thought if the Lord was with him, he wouldn’t have allowed him to go to an ancient near eastern prison, which would have been a horrible existence. Again, though his story improves:

Slide: _________________ : Genesis 39:21-23

[God] showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. 22 So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. 23 The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did. Okay, so now we are back on track. But if you know the story, you know the trouble that Joseph is going to have in prison. Someone promises to get him out but forgets about him for 2 years. For two extra years, God just leaves him there in prison.

It leaves us with some big questions. If God was truly with Joseph, then why slavery? Why prison? Why did he get the promise of freedom from prison only to be forgotten? Any of that make sense?

What we learn from the Joseph story is a challenge to our assumption we shared a few minutes ago:

Slide: _________________ : If God is in control of my life, and he is good, then he will make my life easy. He will not allow hard.

 

God was in complete control, and was with Joseph the whole time. But he was with Joseph “in the hard.” Here is the corrective from Joseph’s life, and the rest of the Bible:

Slide: _________________ : God is in the hard, and his goodness is often expressed in difficulty.

 

I may not like that, but that is how God works. God is in the hard, and his goodness is often expressed in difficulty.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich was a German pastor in the days that Hitler rose to power. What is often neglected in the Holocaust stories is the fact that thousands of Christian leaders did not sell out to Hitler, and they paid with their lives in the Nazi prison camps. Bonheoffer was one of the first to be vocal against Hitler and one of the first to be imprisoned for it. While in prison, he wrote this in a letter to his twin sister:

Slide: _________________ : It is good to learn early that suffering and God are not a contradiction but rather a unity, for the idea that God himself is suffering is one that has always been one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity. I think God is nearer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this way gives peace and rest and a strong and courageous heart.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A very different perspective on suffering.

Back in 1985, between my high school graduation and my first year in college I spent the summer in Eastern Europe, most of the time in Romania. As an 18 year old, interacting with Christians in a highly oppressive communist regime, where suffering for their faith was an every day reality, was a major reality check. I met people who had been imprisoned and tortured. I met moms whose children were taken away from them and placed in communist orphanages. I went with an attitude that in words would say something like this, “I’m so sorry you have to suffer for your faith here in Romania. I wish you could live in America like me where we have freedom and more resources so your life would not be so hard.” But their attitude toward me in words would say, “I’m so sorry that you live in America where you don’t have the same opportunity to suffer for Christ that we do. We count it an honor to suffer for Christ.” They did. They prayed for the opportunity to suffer. They knew that they were never closer to God than when they suffered for him.

They understood in a deeper way what I to that point really struggled to understand when the New Testament talks about suffering. Paul, for example, said,

Slide: _________________ : Philippians 3:10

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…(Phil 3:10). Or in

Slide: _________________ : Colossians 1:24

Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. Paul is saying that Christ has more suffering to do on behalf of his church, and that happens through our suffering. He counted a privilege to participate in the suffering of Christ. Paul called it a gift, a privilege to suffer, as in

Slide: _________________ : Philippians 1:29

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.

I used to think the Romanian Christians were nuts for praying for the opportunity to endure difficulty, to see hard as their friend more than easy…but I have changed perspective. Seeing their joy, their maturity, their focus on God’s glory showed me that if that is really what I wanted then I too would see hard as not something to avoid.

Suffering is like the Christmas fruitcake, the gift nobody really wants, the fruitcake that gets passed around for generations…no thanks. But Paul talked about suffering as a gift, as something that God honors us with. The idea is that the gift of hard is an evidence of God’s goodness. Last week in Lanier’s message, he said a sentence that caught my attention,

Slide: _________________ : Pain is my best friend.

What? How can pain and hard be good?

Let’s talk about it. First of all,

Slide: _________________ : Hard forges our character.

 

Forging something out of metal never happens without fire, and your character and mine can never be shaped without the fire. There are no shortcuts to maturity, no shortcuts to a great marriage, no shortcuts to a solid Christian life. Everyone that has ever built a solid life, solid character, solid relationships, has been forged in the fires of suffering and difficulty. There is not one exception to that, not Joseph and not even Jesus.

Joseph in the Old Testament is what theologians call a type of Christ, meaning that he is used in the Bible to point to people what Jesus will be like when he comes, he prefigures Jesus. Well, Joseph didn’t become Joseph without difficulty. Had his life stayed easy, Joseph would have stayed shallow. But God loved him too much for that. Joseph could only become the prototype Jesus Joseph through suffering.

The same is true for even Jesus. Think about it. God could have given Jesus his son an easy life here on earth, but he didn’t. A striking passage to me is the baptism of Jesus at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Two statements are made that seem contradictory. John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus, says, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.” Already, John is announcing the suffering of Jesus, that Jesus will die on the cross for the sins of the world. Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, God the Father shouts down from heaven, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” If God is well-pleased, if he loves his son, then why did he send him to be the sacrificial lamb? Because the purposes of a good God are not to make life easy…but to forge character and accomplish God’s purposes. In Hebrews, the Bible says that in his humanity, Jesus had to “learn obedience by what he suffered.” Even Jesus’ character was forged through the fires of difficulty, through the presence of hard in his life.

Because God loves us, he is not an over-protective parent who hovers over us keeping us from any harm or disappointment. Have you ever known one of those over-protected kids? Not pretty, is it, as they grow up—because they don’t really grow up.

That’s why if you talk to people who are godly, who’ve walked with God a long time, they will look back at their lives and thank God for the hard, that enabled them to know God as they do and follow God as they do. I’ve talked about Miss Helen, the very godly elderly lady that taught me what it means to know God, and once I asked her about what she would change in her life. She was probably around 80 then. She got this huge smile on her face and said, “Nothing. I’d change nothing.” I said, “How can you say that? What about your sin, how you hurt other people? What about your abusive marriage—your husband that beat you, that beat you so badly you lost your only baby in pregnancy as a result of the abuse, that abandoned you?” With the same smile, she said, “Jeff, I would have never known God without that. Without my sin, I’d never know his grace. Without my trials, I would never know his comfort. I would not have known the fellowship of his sufferings.”

That conversation has helped me, and you’ll hear me repeat it every once in a while…because I do happen to believe it is true, but I also believe that it is very rare in a trial to have that kind of perspective. She didn’t. Joseph didn’t. Later in Joseph’s life, he sees his brothers again and forgives them for what they did. He tells them, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” It took him decades, but he could actually see how God used their evil for Joseph’s good. If you are in the middle of some difficulty right now…if life is not turning out like you hoped, your marriage, your health, a tragedy, a sickness, a loss…and you are right in the thick of it…just do what Joseph did. Hang in there. Trust that somehow God is with you in the prison, in the slavery. Next week, we’ll talk about the comfort of God in our trials, but for now just know that he is in control and he is good. Go to him. Allow him to strengthen you. Allow him to grow your faith, to forge your character. The only way our character is forged is in the fire.

Slide: _________________ : Hard forces dependence.

Hard forges character, but hard also forces dependence. Most of us would never be dependent on God if our lives stayed easy. We would just live small, self-dependent lives and never learn to live life fueled by God’s power and his presence in our lives. Hard things make us weak, and in our weakness is where God’s strength can be poured out in and through our lives.

Paul knew that. Paul suffered all kinds of things, including what was probably a physical malady that he described as a thorn in the flesh. We don’t know what it was, but it was difficult and embarrassing and painful. He says this about it in

Slide: _________________ : 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Look again at what Paul is saying. He has learned to delight in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties. Why? Because when he is weak, then Christ can be strong in him. For most of us, the only way we learn to depend on God and live a life truly in God’s power is when we get to the end of ourselves.

This past week was like that for me. I have to be honest, I am just really weak right now. The last five or six weeks have been awesome. We did the 24 series, and replant weekend, and gathered our leaders in a large group, and every night for this past month I have been either in my regular meetings or meeting with all of our leaders in small groups. Every night for weeks I have been in these vision meetings with leaders, which has been great but spiritually exhausting. Last weekend when Lanier spoke, I was at an elder board retreat, but I couldn’t have spoken if I wanted to. I just had nothing left. On Sunday morning I got up before coming to the 12:00 service here at Fellowship and read email. In that tired state, I got a zinger of an email…someone who honestly just threw out a cheap shot…someone who judged my motives about a five year old staff issue and just zinged my character and motives without talking to me, without really knowing the full picture. Normally, I’d be stronger and handle that in stride. But it caught me at a weak moment, and just drug me down deep. I didn’t know what I needed to do to get stronger…time off for sure, maybe recreation like golf…but in last week’s service I realized what I really needed. I came to the 12:00 service to hear my friend and former mentor speak and to worship with my church family, and in the middle of all that it was like God spoke to me…to say, “Jeff, this is what you need. You need me. You need my strength. Here you are with my people, singing these songs and being encouraged by my word, and I am here. I am here. Meet with me. Let me encourage you. Let me strengthen you.” In the middle of all that, I realized it wasn’t primarily golf that I needed but God. Even this past week, in preparing this message, that has been my mantra with God…God, I’m done. This message is yours.” You know what, those are the good times. They don’t feel like it maybe, but they are…because it is in the times where we are weak that God shows up strong. I’m thankful for that email, because I know God’s strength in a way I never would have without the cheap shot.

Some of you here today are here hanging on by a thread. You are weak, and you are just praying like Paul did that God would change the circumstances. And God might. But in the meantime, remember that it is when we are weak that Christ can be strong in us. Give your self to him. Quit trying to figure it all out or even trying to fix it right now. Right now, just go to God in your weakness. Let him be your strength.

“God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” Do you believe that? God is great, and his goodness is often expressed not through ease but through difficulty. To repeat our main point today:

Slide: _________________ : God is in the hard, and his goodness is often expressed in difficulty.

 

Please understand, I don’t even pretend to think that this answers the why questions…why certain things have happened in your life. I only know that God promises in Romans 8 to work all these hard things in our life out for our good, and that is why people in the Bible tell us to rejoice in suffering.

Lanier Burns, the Dallas Seminary professor that taught last week, used to do something in theology classes that I will never forget. The first time it happened, it really threw all of us for a loop. Someone asked a question about God that was a big question, and I was used to seminary professor types giving easy, pat answers to really tough questions. So, this guy asks his question, and Lanier just does this (show gesture). He stays that way for a moment, and then goes back to teaching like nothing ever happened. After a few minutes, somebody raised their hand and said, “Dr. Burns, you never answered his question.” Lanier said, “Oh, yes I did. You see when I do that it means that you have me up against my boundaries. As a theologian it is my job not just to know the things about God we can know, but to know what the boundaries are…because God is so much bigger than what we can understand. So, when you ask me one of those questions that has me up against my boundaries, the only thing appropriate is to admit that and then fall on our knees and worship a God that is so much bigger than we can understand.” He then asked all of us to get down on our knees and worship that God.

At times in life you and I will go through things that we do not understand, and that God does not seem obligated to explain. At those moments when life has us up against our boundaries we have a choice…to get angry and disillusioned with a God who would allow it or to do what Joseph did, fall down on our knees and know that God is with us in the difficulty and lean on his strength to endure…to know that somehow God is using the hard for good.

Let’s pray.

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