The Best of 2012

The results are in.  The counts have been finalized.  The numbers are clear.  Here is a list of the most popular posts made to this blog in 2012.  Drum roll please!

Number 5

Beginning the list at number five is “Lessons From Job, Part 6,” published on January 10.  This was the last installment of a six-part series on truths that had impacted me greatly from the book of Job.

Number 4

Number four on the list is “Living (and Dying) in Hope,” posted September 8.  I wrote these words after receiving the news that a dear high school music teacher of mine, Gary Fiscus, had succumbed to his long battle with cancer.

Number 3

The third most popular post of 2012 is “Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting,” published December 15, written in the wake of the terror in a school in Connecticut.

Number 2

Coming in at number two is “Time for a (Real) Change,” posted on April 10.  This post delves into a realization I came to shortly after my wife and I moved to a new house.  While all my surroundings were new, it turned out I was the same ol’ guy.

Number 1

And the most popular post made to this blog in 2012 is “Shots Fired,” written and published on November 23.  This post recounts the events that took place while my wife, mom, and mother-in-law were at a mall in Omaha, NE, early in the morning on Black Friday.

There you have it, folks.  The top five posts of 2012.  May they be a blessing.  Grace and peace to you as you begin 2013.

Lessons from Job, Part 6

If you’d like to read Parts 1-5 of this series, you can do so here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5). In Part 1 you’ll find an introduction to this series as well as a summary of the book of Job. Parts 2-5 each contain lessons from Job.

Lesson 9: Job’s First, Humble Response was Much Better Than His Later, Arrogant Response
I want to walk a fine line here. On the one hand, even when suffering people say really stupid things about themselves, their situation, or God, what they don’t need is for someone to take their words and use them to beat them over the head (see lesson 7). They need grace. On the other hand, in light of God’s response to Job in chapters 38-41 and Job’s subsequent humble repentance, it is clear that there is a right way and there is a wrong way to respond to suffering.

Job’s initial response to unthinkable suffering at God’s hand was this: “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (1:21). The narrator states, “In all this, Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (1:22). After a second round of suffering, Job declared, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” And again the narrator affirms, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10). In the space of a very short time, however, Job began to call God’s actions into question and eventually accused him of being unjust. That is definitely not the right way to respond in the face of suffering.

Apart from a supernatural outpouring of God’s grace, a humble acceptance of God’s sovereign will in the face of suffering is an absolute impossibility, especially when it’s suffering on the magnitude of what Job experienced. Yet such a response is the right response. Any other response only shows man’s need to repent, just like Job had to do. And when you have to repent for responding badly in suffering, God is being gracious to you.

Lesson 10: God is the Hero in Every Story, Even in the Story of Your Suffering
Who was the hero of the book of Job? God was. It wasn’t Job. It wasn’t his friends. It wasn’t even Elihu, though I think he was on to something. God was the hero. He always is. A major theme of the book of Job and a very important lesson I think we can learn from it is that no mere mortal, no matter how upright and how just, deserves the praise that belongs only to God. No matter how much a person suffers and endures, God alone deserves the glory. Job was a good man, yet as I’ve tried to show previously, Job had some serious heart issues that rose to the surface as a result of his extreme suffering.

When you suffer, God will sustain you, but not in such a way that in the end you will be able to glory in your own strength or in your own righteousness. He will sustain you in spite of your imperfections. And he will sustain you such that he alone will be the hero. God is right and good in designing your suffering that way. He’s being good to you. Your being the hero wouldn’t satisfy the longings of your heart anyway.

Share Your Thoughts
1. What do you think caused Job’s outlook to change?
2. How have you seen God as the hero of your or another’s suffering?

Lessons from Job, Part 5

If you’d like to read Parts 1-4 of this series, you can do so here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). In Part 1 you’ll find an introduction to this series as well as a summary of the book of Job. Parts 2, 3, and 4 each contain two lessons gleaned from Job.

Lesson 7: Suffering People Need Comfort, Not Condemnation
I cannot fathom Job’s anguish. Then to add insult to injury, Job’s “friends” showed up. To their credit, they started off well. They simply sat down in the ashes where Job was and cried with him (2:11-13). Then they decided to open their fat mouths. From that point on, they condemn Job, provoke him to wrath, and accuse him of wrongdoing. Not only were their words false, they simply weren’t helpful, even had their accusations been true. And if that weren’t enough, amid their lies, they exalt themselves in light of Job’s suffering (19:5). Their argument went like this: Job was suffering because he had “obviously” committed some type of sin against God. Hidden behind such logic was their assertion that the reason that they weren’t suffering like Job was because they were much holier than Job.

In short, Job’s friends were neither nice nor helpful. Job called them horrible comforters (16:2). Hurting people don’t necessarily want or need an explanation for their suffering. They want you to love them and weep with them. Don’t be too harsh with suffering people, even when they make some pretty dangerous statements, like Job did many times. Adding salt to their wounds doesn’t aid their healing.

Lesson 8: There is Such a Thing as an Upright Sinner
You can be blameless before God and man and still not be sinless. Neither Job nor his friends could conceive of such a category of people. They were too black and white. Job’s friends’ argument went like this: “Seeing as how you’re suffering, you must have sinned. You can’t be blameless in light of all this ‘obvious’ judgment God has poured out on you. You must repent and God will take all this suffering away.” But that’s way too simplistic, and simply put, that’s not how God operates. God called Job’s friends to repent for arguing this way. Their logic and their conclusions (not always their direct statements) were wrong.

But Job’s categories were off, too. His logic was surprisingly similar. His argument was that since he was blameless, his suffering was completely uncalled for. Job overestimated his own righteousness. Job’s logic was that since a particular sin wasn’t the root cause of his suffering, his suffering was therefore completely groundless. The implication, then, was that God was capricious at best, unjust at worst. But both of those options were fallacies as well. Job’s thinking was also way too simplistic. Even if you’re blameless before God and man, that doesn’t mean that your suffering is pointless, uncalled for, or even unjust.

Elihu, who was not one of Job’s three infamous “friends,” described a third category of people in 36:7-15. He described them as righteous sinners. He said that when the righteous are bound in cords of affliction, God reveals to them their iniquity. God “delivers the afflicted by their afflictions” (36:15). What the righteous label as the disease turns out to be the cure to a much more heinous disease that they didn’t even know they had. (See lesson 6 from this series.) And in so revealing sin that it might be repented of and purified from the heart, God is good.

Share Your Thoughts
1. What are some practical ways to comfort suffering people well?
2. In the light of Jesus’ gospel, how is it that someone can be a sinner but still be counted righteous?

Lessons from Job, Part 4

If you haven’t read Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series, you can read them here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). In Part 1 you’ll find an introduction to this series as well as a summary of the book of Job. Part 2 contains the first two lessons and Part 3 the following two.

Lesson 5: “What For?” is a Better Question than “Why?” When it Comes to Suffering
For Job and for the Christian today, “What’s God’s purpose in my suffering?” is a much better question than “What caused me to suffer?” It’s better because it’s more helpful, and it’s better because it more than likely gets closer to what God is up to in your suffering. “Why?” wants to know cause. “Why?” wants to know where the suffering came from. “What for?” wants to know purpose. “What for?” wants to know where God is going with this suffering. It changes suffering from being the end to merely being a means to some greater end.

With this in mind, while God had no obligation to explain himself to Job, there are some clues as to what God was up to in light of a statement that Job made at the end of the book (and in light of the New Testament, which I will merely mention for your reference: 2 Corinthians 1:3-6 and 16:6-10, 1 Peter 4:1, and Hebrews 12:3-11). After God made it very clear to Job that God was God and that Job was not, Job said, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5). After suffering, Job knew God like he had never known him before. Job said, in essence, that his knowledge of God before his suffering was nothing compared to his knowledge of God after his suffering. And remember, Job was a very honorable, God-fearing man already. For Job and for many like him today, suffering has revealed God to them like nothing else. That’s difficult to write, but that was Job’s testimony. We would be wise to listen and beg God for grace to conclude the same when it’s our turn.

Lesson 6: It is Possible for Suffering to Reveal Sin When Sin is Not the Cause of the Suffering
Amid his horrendous suffering, Job said some things he never should have said. He basically challenged God’s righteousness. Not a good idea. Job’s words fully warranted God’s harsh response in chapters 38-41. In fact, they warranted much greater severity.

It is important, here, to understand that sin doesn’t simply appear from nowhere, nor do mere circumstances cause the human heart to sin. Sin is present within us (Romans 7:20). Circumstances merely reveal the sin that’s already there. This, I think, was what was happening with Job. He was an upright man, but he wasn’t perfect. Pride lurked in his heart somewhere. Doubt had taken hold at some deep level of Job’s inner man. He probably didn’t even know it. For sure no one around him knew it. Nevertheless, such pride and doubt is sin, and that sin was very suddenly revealed amid unimaginable suffering.

However, as I’ve argued thus far, Job’s sin was not the cause of his suffering. His sin was merely revealed by suffering. And Job repented for it. And his repentance was a very gracious gift from God. So God was not being harsh with Job in causing his suffering. He was harsh with Job only as a result of Job’s response to his suffering. But even that was grace. How? God wanted even more of Job. He wanted him purer than he was (and he was already blameless and upright!). God graciously allowing circumstances to reveal Job’s heart was the only way that Job could repent of the sin Job didn’t even know was there and thus move closer to God.

How good suffering is when it is at the hand of a God who, like a master surgeon, cuts open our chests to save our hearts.

Share Your Thoughts
1. How is thinking in of terms of God’s purpose for a particular situation more helpful than thinking of terms of what caused a particular situation?
2. How is it that God is good to us in revealing our sin through suffering?

Lessons from Job, Part 3

If you haven’t read Parts 1 and 2 of this series, you can read them here:
Lessons from Job, Part 1
Lessons from Job, Part 2
In Part 1 you’ll find an introduction to this series as well as a summary of the book of Job. Part 2 contains the first two lessons.

Lesson 3: God was Near, Loving, and Just to Job in His Suffering
Job’s suffering was for his good.  Job couldn’t see this.  He said that God was ignoring him and was distant (9:11, 16).  He called God whimsical and unjust (9:22-24).  He constantly justified himself rather than God, basically saying that God was unfair in bringing such suffering upon him (32:2).  At one point he wished God would just leave him alone (14:6).  He thought fleeing from God would end his suffering.  But God was not distant, whimsical, or unjust in his dealings with Job.  In fact, he was just the opposite.

For the Christian today, God is always for his children and never against them.  Even suffering on an unimaginable scale like that of Job is never, ever a sign that God is far away from his child, that God hates his child, or that God is unjust in what he’s doing.  He may not explain himself, but he is good and he is doing good to you—always.

How do I know this?  Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God not only designs the suffering that his children experience and then ensures they go through it (see lesson 2), God does so with a specific purpose.  Romans 8:28 reveals that his purpose in our suffering (suffering being included in the words “all things”) is our good.

If God designed the suffering you’re experiencing and actively ensured that you were placed in it, then cling to the fact that he did all that for your good.  He loves you; therefore, he caused your suffering.  The fact that God is both good and good to you even at life’s bleakest moments, Christian, must be the backbone of your understanding of suffering.

Lesson 4: God Does Not Have to Answer to Anyone as to Why He Causes a Person to Suffer
In dangerously provocative words, Job demanded that God give an account for his actions (7:17-21, 9:22-24, 9:29-35, 23:7).  Job’s three friends, Elihu, and God himself pick up on this and call Job on it.  God is simply not obligated to explain himself to anyone about anything ever.  Such a demand is both arrogant and foolish.  It is arrogant because it elevates a man above God, as if the creation had the right to demand that his Creator give an account of his actions.  It is foolish because such a demand implies that the finite creature knows more than his infinite Creator.  God’s ways are higher than our ways.  Sometimes God doesn’t explain what he’s up to.  And he doesn’t have to.  Instead of demanding an explanation, trust his goodness.  Remember lesson 3.

Instead of demanding that God give an account for his actions, do what the psalmists did.  Time after time the psalmists pour out their souls before the Lord in unabashed honesty, yet they don’t call God to explain himself.  They express the fact that God feels distant and that they feel forgotten: ” O LORD? Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1), yet there’s always a sense of humble hope despite such feelings: “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13:5-6).

So be brutally honest with God.  Tell him exactly what you’re feeling and beg for his renewed presence and for your healing.  God longs for such deep fellowship with his children.  Just make sure your heart is not demanding that God explain himself.  And if it is, tell him so in brutal, humble honesty and beg him for repentance from such an attitude.  He’ll hear you.  “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

Share Your Thoughts
1. How has God been good to you in your suffering?
2. Where else in the Bible do we see God as loving in the midst of someone’s suffering?
3. What verses encourage us that God is still good, even when we suffer?

Lessons from Job, Part 2

If you haven’t read Part 1 of this series, you can read it here: Lessons from Job, Part 1.  In Part 1 you’ll find an introduction to this series as well as a summary of the book of Job.

Lesson 1: Truly Upright and Blameless Followers of God Suffer Greatly
Both the narrator of Job and God himself affirm that Job was both blameless and upright (1:1, 1:8, 2:3).  That Job was blameless means that no one could have rightly leveled a charge against Job.  That he was upright means that he was honorable.  No one could have rightly denied his moral integrity.  Yet he suffered.  Suffering is no respecter of morals.

More surprising than that, both the narrator of Job and God himself affirm that Job was a man who feared God and who turned away from evil (1:1, 1:8, 2:3).  That Job walked closely with God is obvious.  He knew God in a very deep way, and he lived his life accordingly.  His whole life centered around God.  He did everything he was supposed to.  Yet he suffered.  Knowing God deeply and living for him in no way guarantees an easy life.  In fact, the very opposite is the case (see Acts 14:22).

What do we learn from these hard truths?  Don’t follow God to escape pain.  Jesus said that whoever does not take up his cross and follow him is not worthy of him.  “Taking up your cross” is a euphemism for crucifixion.  It is no easy thing to follow God or his Son.  Don’t start down this road if you are not willing to finish (see Luke 14:28-33).  Why do it then, you ask?  Jesus is worth it.  What I’ll gain by gaining Jesus is worth the loss of everything else I have and am, including my very life.

Paul said it this way: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8).  God followers suffer.  Follow God anyway.  God is worth it.

Lesson 2: God is the Active Agent in the Suffering of His People
Ultimately God caused Job to suffer.  To assert that Satan caused Job to suffer and God merely allowed it to happen is to ignore key parts of the biblical narrative.  First, God brought Job to Satan’s attention, not once but twice (1:8, 2:3).  Clearly God was not passive in bringing about Job’s suffering.  He designed it and ensured it was carried out accordingly.  Like a dog on a short leash, Satan is completely beneath God’s sovereign hand.  He does nothing without God’s approval.

Second, Satan is never mentioned after chapter two.  At every point thereafter, Job, Job’s three friends, Elihu, and the narrator of Job attribute Job’s suffering directly to God.  Job’s famous quote states, “The LORD gave, and the LORD [not Satan] has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (1:21).  And Job was right.

This is even harder to swallow than lesson 1, yet it is inescapable.  God took Job’s children.  God took Job’s flocks.  God took Job’s health.  Regardless of whether that seems right to you or not, it is an undeniable conclusion from this book that God is sovereign, even over the most horrific circumstances.  That, I hope, is a comfort.  Behind the most bleak circumstances stands a God who, although mysterious and often times silent, is good and loves you enough to send Jesus to die for you.

Rest assured that whatever Satan may throw at you in order to destroy you, God in his sovereign will designed that very trial for your good and is being good to you in it.  That’s how a Christian is able to count it all joy when he meets trials of various kinds (James 1:2).  When Satan does something for evil, God does not merely co-opt it for good.  He designed it for good before Satan even thought of it.  In fact, God may have given Satan the idea, like he did with Job.  He certainly had to give Satan permission.

May God’s sovereignty be sweet to you today.

Share Your Thoughts
1. How is it that God’s sovereignty over all things comforts us?
2. Where else in the Bible do you see God’s complete sovereignty over horrific situations?

Lessons from Job, Part 1

I spent the month of November with Job. It was a gloriously difficult ride. After spending the last few days wrapping up some of my conclusions, I thought I’d like to do a series of posts over the next few weeks on 10 lessons I’ve learned from his story. This first post will be a summary of the book, and every Tuesday afterwards I’m planning to post two truths I gleaned from walking with Job.

The Book In Summary
The book of Job is a literary masterpiece. It begins and ends with narration but is poetry throughout except for the narrator’s introduction of a new character, Elihu, in chapter 32. In the opening scene, both the narrator and God establish that Job is an upright man, one who fears God and turns away from evil. That is very important as it is repeated three times (1:1, 1:8, and 2:3). One day Satan presents himself before God, and God asks him if he has considered his servant Job. God allows Satan to take Job’s possessions and children. Job trusts God despite his suffering. Satan again presents himself before God, and God again brings up Job. This time Satan has permission to take his health as long as he doesn’t kill him. Again, Job trusts God despite his suffering.

Then three men come to Job—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—supposedly with the intention of comforting him. After seven days of silence, Job finally speaks beginning in chapter 3, lamenting his birth. Chapters 4 through 31 record the conversation between Job and his three friends. The author very craftily develops the story through various rounds of dialogue. Job’s friends become increasingly critical and judgmental. Job becomes increasingly defensive. His friends argue that Job must have done something wrong; otherwise, he wouldn’t be suffering this way. Job maintains he’s innocent, though his self-defense becomes progressively provocative to the point of calling God’s justice into question.

Round and round they go until a new character, Elihu, shows up in chapter 32. The narrator reveals that Elihu, after hearing Job and friends go at it to no avail, had bones to pick with both parties. He was mad at Job “because he justified himself rather than God” (32:2), and he was mad at Job’s friends because “they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong” (32:3). Elihu shows up and says that they’re all wrong. Job’s saying he’s more righteous than God, and his friends, despite all their rhetoric, simply can’t explain why this man is suffering.

Elihu reorients their focus completely. He turns their focus away from both man’s sinfulness and man’s righteousness and sets their sights on God (35:2-8). In addition, Elihu frames the discussion in a new way. While Job and his friends have been arguing as to whether Job was truly upright or not, Elihu says that even the righteous can be “bound in chains and caught in the cords of affliction” (36:7-12). And when they are, God has not taken his eyes from them (v. 7). In fact, he’s graciously commanding the righteous to return from their iniquity (v. 10). So are they righteous or sinful? The answer, Elihu shows, is yes. Truly the author of Job was not naïve as to the condition of the human heart. Elihu presents the reader with some astonishing, yet very realistic, complexities.  Even Job’s self-defense and his accusations against God were mixed with declarations of hope and trust in God despite it all (see 13:15-16 and 19:25-27).

After Elihu gets his 15 minutes, he disappears, and the real hero of the story makes his entrance: God. While never explaining himself or his actions, God reveals his wisdom, knowledge, and ability by revealing Job’s lack of wisdom, knowledge, and ability. God doesn’t like when people challenge him. In light of God’s revelation of himself to Job, Job repents and concludes, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5). So that’s what it took for Job to know God better.

God commands Job’s three friends to repent and to ask Job to pray for them. Interestingly enough he doesn’t say anything about Elihu. They do, God hears Job’s prayer, and Job is restored manifold times all that he had lost.

With this very broad overview in mind, stay tuned weekly for two new truths from Job that, Lord willing, I’ll be posting every Tuesday.

Share Your Thoughts
1. What strikes you most about the story of Job?
2. What do you do or where do you go when suffering comes upon you?
3. Share a verse that comforts you in suffering.