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Crisis - Why Me?

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Crisis—Why Me?

Faith is its own reward. We cannot expect a rose garden bonus for believing. In reality, we will know many of the same problems as non-Christians and maybe some that non-Christians will never know.

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.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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. 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.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

A fine Christian woman found herself suddenly in the hospital. The doctors had discovered that she had a very serious case of cancer. An active member of her church, she soon found herself deluged with visitors. And with those visitors, she also found herself deluged with quite a myriad of different theories on why she was going through this crisis and how to cope with the crisis as a Christian.

The people who came to visit were good, well-intentioned people, just like you and I. But, she remembered five distinct categories. One was the well-meaning deacon who told her that there was a reason she was sick. Either she must have done something displeasing in her life, or at the very least there must be something that God wanted to teach her through it.

The second was a somewhat scatterbrained lady who swooped in bringing flowers and singing hymns. She was sort of a cheerleader for the sick. As they visited, every time the cancer victim brought up her illness, the woman would not let her talk. The woman simply voiced one platitude after another and then breezed out.

The third visitor was a woman who told her that healing was the answer. The visitor's message was that God doesn't want anybody to be sick—ever—and that her only hope was for God to heal her. And then the visitor said that God would definitely do just that if the woman's faith was strong enough.

Later that day, the woman remembered this visitor's words while she was lying on a cold table undergoing a cobalt treatment. So she concentrated, trying to muster up a stronger faith. But her mind stopped. Something about the situation caused her to realize what she was doing was wrong. Faith isn't like a muscle—more supple and resilient when exercised, she realized. It's just there.

Then the most "spiritual" person in her congregation visited her. "If you'll praise God in everything, everything, you'll soon be able to thank God for what has happened to you!" the man said. Suddenly, she had this grotesque image of God pop into her head: He wasn't a heavenly Father, but a gigantic troll, a monster, holding her by one foot, and squeezing her until she finally gasped, "Thank You!" She grimaced at the thought, closing her eyes in exasperation.

Finally, the pastor entered her room. He told her that God had chosen her to share in the suffering of Christ, in the koinonia of His fellowship because He knew in His infinite wisdom that she could bear this with integrity and be a blessing to others. After he left, though, she wondered, If that's so, why did He pick me? There are millions of Christians stronger than I am. Couldn't He have found someone else to be a better example?

Job's False Friend

This woman's well-wishers remind me of Job's friends. As soon as they heard about Job's troubles, they came to him. They found him sitting in the ashes, having lost everything. And what did they do? They began spouting reasons about why it all had happened. Job's friends, it seems, came not so much to comfort Job as to uncover some logical reason for his troubles.

And so do we. We can't stand the idea of not knowing why. And so we give advice, speculate, and worry. We even cajole God to explain the universe to us.

Why do bad things happen to us? Philosophers have tried to discover the answer to that question for centuries. There are scores of ponderous volumes concerning that one question. But we still don't know the answer, and it would be presumptuous to say we did.

Yet, we must consider it. Sometimes such crises are avenues for amazing spurts of growth. But sometimes they are "faith-busters."

What's the difference?

The difference seems to lie in the person—how he or she responds. Not how he or she understands.

We all know about Paul's "thorn" in the flesh, as it is called. But "thorn" may not be a strong enough word. The Greek word used here means a "stake," a great "nail," more often than it does a tiny thorn. In fact, the word was sometimes used to mean "impaled," to run someone through. It could mean the cross itself.

But Paul tells us he was "given" this thorn, this spike through his flesh. It could even be translated, "for" his flesh. And we are left to wonder what that thorn was. Some have said it was a form of malaria; others say it was some kind of hysteria or painful eye disease. And some people believe strongly that Paul had epileptic seizures. Whatever it was, we know from Paul's words that it was painful enough for him to call it a "stake" in his flesh.

What sort of cue can we take from Paul about how to respond to our own great thorns?

It's Okay to Ask Why?

First, we don't have to feel guilty about questioning, about asking God for a reason for our crisis. Very "spiritual" types may give you the idea that it is wrong to wonder why things are happening. But often, asking such a question will be the beginning of a way through, if not a way out—even if answers aren't forthcoming. So, it's okay to ask. That's what Paul did

Twice in this letter he says that God allowed him to have this "thorn" to keep him from becoming conceited from "great revelations." Evidently, from the first verses of this chapter, we can read that Paul had been given these supernatural, uplifting visions. Then, when he asked God why he had such pain, God said, "Paul, to keep you from being conceited." And then he repeats it, in case we missed it.

There are several kinds of pride. There is the pride of "face," the pride of "race," and the pride of "grace." Some of us don't have much to be proud of when it comes to the pride of "face," but quite a number of us have a kind of insidious pride of "race," feeling we are better than others.

But I believe the worst form of pride is the pride of "grace," being proud about the spiritual grace that has come into our lives—through no act of our own. And that could easily have been Paul's temptation. He needed to keep himself from conceit, from arrogance, from spiritual pride.

Paul, then, was beginning to see reasons for his crisis. But we know all too well that God doesn't normally give reasons. Most of the time He doesn't. And it can drive us crazy.

A friend of mine, a professor at a Christian college, is a wonderful Christian lady. One day a car ran a red light, plowed into her car, and almost killed her. As she rested in the hospital, coping with the pain from her awful injuries, she said that she had a whole series of visitors and everyone of them wanted to speculate about the reason why God had permitted this to happen to her.

She told me, "As I went in and out of consciousness, I simply wanted to be conscious of resting in the arms of Jesus whom I knew loved me. But all these people wanted to talk about was why would God allow this to happen to such a 'good lady' as I was. I felt so bad that I wasn't the least bit interested."

When we begin to try to put reasons into God's mouth for what happens to us, they always sound forced. I think of one young man who, when his father suddenly died, had to fit it into the grand scheme of God's design. So finally, he said, "Well, I know why God did it. With Dad's social security money, I'll be able to go to college." He hadn't given a thought to why his mother was left a widow and why his three younger brothers and sisters were deprived of a father. He wanted his suffering to make sense so bad that his efforts sounded shrill and hollow. And futile. That's usually the way it is when we grope around for answers. The only answers that won't sound hollow or narrow are the ones from God, and yet God doesn't usually give reasons as He did to Paul. Instead, what He offers is Himself.

God Spoke to Job

Look at the story of Job. That amazing book is not so much about Job's suffering as it is a book about the overwhelming presence of God. At the end of the book, after the bad advice of Job's friends, and after Job's own questions, God finally speaks. It is the longest speech that God makes in the entire Bible. Yet God doesn't give Job a single answer to any of the questions Job raised.

Speaking out of a storm, God says instead, "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man. I will question you and you will answer Me." And then He asks, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?" For four chapters, as Frederick Buechner puts it, God does not explain, God explodes. And at the end of it all, Job is left reeling. I would imagine it almost knocked him flat. God didn't give him information. Instead, He gave Job revelation—of Who He was, and is.

And how did Job respond? That answer was enough to make Job fall down and worship God. In chapter 42 Job says, "I know that you can do all things. No plan of yours can be thwarted.... Surely I spoke of things that I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know." The picture seems to be of a gracious and loving covenant between God and Job, as if God told him, in words we can relate to: "Job, you can no more understand my grand design than I could explain Einstein's theories to a clam." Job was humbled, and he worshiped.

God Spoke to Paul

Most often, then, God does not give reasons as He did for Paul, but He gives Himself as He did for Job. Maybe that is better in the long run. Why? We would do just as Paul did. We'd ask for God to remove this bad thing.

Three times Paul pleads with God to take his thorn away. There is a feeling of utter pathos in his words. Paul was an old, broken man. He knew what it was like to be stoned and left for dead, to be beaten, to float in the wreckage of a sunken ship in the Mediterranean. And yet, Paul begged God to take this hurt away. I would imagine Paul even went to his friend Dr. Luke and asked if there was anything he could do. Obviously, though, nothing could be done. And nothing was done.

Did Paul, one of the Bible's spiritual giants, have problems with the fact God would not do as he asked Him to?

I'm sure he did. The eighteenth-century agnostic philosopher David Hume summarized the problem of why God doesn't remove problems from people's lives. Hume said, in effect, "If God is able to take the hurt away, but is not willing, He is a malevolent, evil God. If God is willing, but He is not able, He is an impotent, weak God. If He is both able and willing, why doesn't He do something about it?"

Surely this is the quandary that Paul felt two thousand years ago. And it is still the one we feel today.

Elton Trueblood, that rugged Quaker philosopher, put the question most clearly for me years ago. He asked us to suppose what kind of world we would live in if God guaranteed bad things would never happen to Christians.

Suppose that a drunken driver runs a red light and careens into a vehicle being driven by a Christian. As it hits the car, though, that car miraculously sprouts wings and leaps over the drunken driver's car—only because a Christian is inside. Or let's suppose that a jet fan in a Boeing 727 shreds, but because there is a born-again Christian believer on board, the plane miraculously floats to the ground.

Or let's say a fire breaks out in the kitchen of a hotel, but because there is a Christian staying on the tenth floor, the fire miraculously goes out.

You can see how ludicrous the scenarios would be. It would literally mean that we would have a world full of "designated Christians." Think how our society would use such a fact of life. Christians would be put in every car so there would be no accidents, airlines would make sure every flight had at least one Christian aboard and would advertise, "We have a Christian on every flight." And in the big hotel chains, there would be signs that said, "Sleep peacefully with us. There is always a Christian staying in our hotel."

Warren Wiersbe, the great radio preacher, had been speaking somewhat along this vein one Sunday when a man came down to the station and violently criticized him for his belief. "Have you ever read the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, how God delivered all of those heroes of the faith? Abraham, Moses, and all the others who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, gained what was promised, shut the mouths of lions, escaped the edge of the swords. What do you say about them?" he asked Pastor Wiersbe.

Wiersbe, though, knew his Bible a little better than that. He said, "What about verse 35 of Hebrews 11? Look what happened to 'others.' Others were tortured and refused to be released. Some faced years in flogging while others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned and sawed in two, they were put to death by the sword. Faith, my friend, never comes with a guarantee."

A Bonus for Believing?

Faith is its own reward. We cannot expect a rose garden bonus for believing. In reality, we will know many of the same problems as non-Christians and maybe some that non-Christians will never know.

The question is how will we respond. My first reaction to troubles is to be somewhat stoic. Maybe that is what Paul essentially did. You know what I mean—"When the going gets tough, the tough get going" philosophy. Discipline, it says. Brace yourself.

It was a stoic philosophy that caused the captain of the Titanic to say as his ship went down, "Be British." And they all knew what he meant. Be tough, keep a stiff upper lip.

But there is a difficulty with such a philosophy. Not every one has the inner strength of a true stoic. But that's not the real flaw in the idea. The true weakness in being stoic is that stoicism brings glory to the stoic. "Look how tough he is," others will say. "Man, he can hang in there, can't he?"

Dependence on God is not part of the stoic's makeup. At first, anyway. There's always a point where the stoicism runs out—for everyone. And then it can end up in a sort of hypocrisy. The stoic puts on a good face for everyone around him, yet when he or she gets by himself he falls apart.

But Paul never said that stoicism is the answer, even though his writing tells us of his inner toughness. What did he say? In verse 9, the tense of the verb implies that God spoke with finality. It was as if God said, "Now hear this, Paul. Let this ring in your ears from now on." God said, in effect, I want you to understand the sufficiency of My grace: "My grace is sufficient for you..."

This is the secret that Christians hold over crises that nonbelievers don't know. Self-sufficient stoicism doesn't last. Crisis coped with alone is crisis that can cripple. God told Paul, in effect, "What is happening to you demonstrates the sufficiency of My grace, and if you learn nothing else you have learned that when you are on your back, the only way you can look is up."

Learn to Lean

First God taught Paul how to lean. And then, second, he told Paul of the perfection of His power. "My power is made perfect in weakness," the Bible says.

Ever notice that when human strength abounds, divine strength is overlooked? When we are strong, when things are going well and we have vast amounts of energy and determination, God's power is almost always overlooked. That's why God told Paul that His power reaches its proper maturity in our weakness.

I believe one of our fundamental mistakes in thinking when we ponder the reason behind God allowing our suffering is this: we believe God's primary desire is to make us happy.

Well, it's not true. God's primary desire is to make us holy. And sadly, many things that make us happy do not make us holy.

Paul understood that. God's aim was not muddled in Paul's mind. He realized God's aim, and he was able to say, "I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses. When I am weak then I am strong."

I haven't reached that point myself. I know very few people who have. But Paul could actually seem to see God's dynamicism hovering over him. Paul had in mind the Shekinah glory, that luminous brightness that hovered over the tabernacle, indicating the presence of God. "The weight of glory hovers over me because of this thorn in my side," Paul seemed to say.

In the words of Dr. J. W. MacGorman, Paul found that the thorn room was the way to the throne room. There was something about the glory of God discovered in suffering that he would have known in no other way.

Dr. Thomas Buford Maston knows what Paul knows. I was his pastor for five years and have been his friend for a dozen. Every clear Sunday, that 88-year-old man and his 87-year-old wife walked the short distance between their church and their home. And as they walked, they pushed a wheelchair in which sat their 60-year-old son, afflicted since birth with cerebral palsy. In those 60 years, there had never been a single night that Dr. Maston was not up six times to help his son.

When Dr. Maston was a Ph.D. student at Yale, he almost died. Through his life, he has had countless troubles. I sat by his hospital bed only a handful of years ago, as he battled for his own life. Out of this latest pain, he wrote his twenty-first book, titled Walking Like He Walked. And he would be the first to say that his wisdom is directly related to the power and the presence of God that has come to its right maturity through his own weakness.

Sometimes I wonder about our lopsided look at God's role in blessing and burdens. Think about it. When do we ask, "Why me?" When things are going well? Hardly ever. In fact, insurance companies seem to have the same viewpoint. Their policies chalk up accidents that aren't covered as "acts of God," which has always sounded to me like they're blaming God. I'd love to pick up an insurance policy sometime that had a paragraph in it that said something like "United Mutual Solid Rock Insurance Company wishes to thank God for everything good that happens to this policy holder."

But that's not our mindset. Why do we only ask God, "Why me?" when we are suffering and rarely when we are rejoicing? Paul praised God for his blessings more than he blamed God for his burdens. And therein may be the secret to his understanding and to his positive response to his suffering.

Maybe we shouldn't have the right to ask, "Why me?" when burdens come if we spend a lifetime never thinking "Why me?" when blessings come.

"When I am weak I am strong." Paul found in that truth a dimension that helped him find a way through his pain.

"The presence of God." In that truth, Job found another dimension.

God is working toward making us holy. It is not our understanding we must grapple with, it is our response. Bad things will happen. How we respond will shape how we ultimately will grow.

Growing Pains of the Soul.

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