Last week I spoke of Jesus as infuriating. In Luke 8 His mother, His disciples, Legion, the haemorrhaging woman and Jairus come to Him with perfectly reasonable requests. If such appeals were put to the public vote, we'd all recommend that Jesus grant them. Yet He grants none of them - certainly not in the way that they are asked for.
And if you were any of these poor unfortunates, you would be - at the very least - bewildered. Probably you'd be angry, despairing and very tempted to leave the whole Jesus-caper behind.
But then, what should be said to these followers who have had their dearest hopes dashed? How can Christians be comforted when their deepest desires have been denied?
Some people's first instinct will be to put the blame on these followers. Perhaps they didn't ask right. They didn't have enough faith. Or there's a moral or spiritual failure that's 'blocking the channels of God's grace' or something.
But that's not it. The requests were fine in their own way. And Jesus' refusal is not because they didn't ask right.
So if we're not going to blame the followers, what do we tell them?
- You might invoke the raw power of the Lord. Now is the time to learn that God is God and you are not. Will you submit to His divine right to rule?
- You might notch it up to the inscrutable wisdom of God. Now is the time to learn that God's ways are not for Him to justify, they're just for you to accept.
- You might teach the Christian that, yes, God wants nice things for you but, on the other hand, He also wants your godliness. So here is some suffering to balance out the good times. Submit to the regime and you'll grow in character.
There's actually some truth to these three inter-related approaches. But that's what makes them so dangerous. Power, wisdom and suffering are essential issues to grasp in the Christian life. It's just that a theology of glory teaches one kind of power, wisdom and suffering, and a theology of the cross teaches a very different kind.
A theology of glory will teach that God's power and wisdom estrange Him from us in one direction and our suffering estranges us from God in the other. Hard times actually reinforce the distance between you and God and "godliness" means accommodating yourself to that distance. It means not getting above your station, or pulling Him down.
But a theology of the cross teaches a very different power and wisdom. Christ's power and wisdom are demonstrated as He descends into the darkness. And suffering is precisely where we find our deepest communion with Jesus. Hard times are times of presence.
That might sound ok in theory. But does that mean, once I've embraced a theology of the cross, my problems will be easier to handle? No. In many ways it makes them far harder. With a theology of the cross, it's as though we're sinking in quick-sand and we cry out to our rescuer to offer a steady hand. In response He dives into the pit and sinks without a trace. Now what??
Here's what. He grabs our foot and pulls us under with Him. His rescue does not evade, it enters the depths. Only through suffering does the rescue come. Somehow the way out is the way down.
But none of this happens at a distance. Jesus does not zap us with trials from on high and wish us well. He plunges down, drawing us to Himself.
Think of John 11. We are told explicitly that He loves Lazarus and He loves Lazarus's family (v5). AND He declines to heal him (v6). He comes into the heart of the mourning and weeps at the tomb even though it's a funeral He could have prevented. Jesus' power and love are there for all to see, yet it makes His refusal to heal all the more galling (this is exactly what the crowd murmur about, v37). He loves and He refuses to heal.
What's He up to? Well He tells Martha. He is the Resurrection and the life (v25). And this is God's glory (v4,40). Because He's the Resurrection, therefore death is the path.
It's not just that in spite of His love, He let's Lazarus die. It's because of His love, He let's it happen. Suffering is not a disproof of His love, but a sign that He is utterly and completely for us. He is relentlessly for resurrection.
But notice, He's not the Repairer, He's the Resurrection. We constantly call on Him to patch up the old world, our old life, our old bodies. But Jesus is not committed to that. He's not the Repairer, He's the Resurrection. He's not committed to clawing this old world back from the brink. He's committed to taking it down into the death it deserves and rising anew on the other side. It's a theology of glory that has Jesus at a distance, dispensing carrots and sticks to improve the "old man". In a true theology of the cross, Jesus comes very near to put the old man to death and rise up into something new.
That's what He's doing in the world, and it's what He's doing in your life. He's not partly concerned for patching up your life and partly concerned for giving you enough trials to form your character. He's not balancing your good against 'holiness' or 'godliness' etc etc. He's not inscrutably zapping you with trials that only omniscience could fathom. In a sense, what He's doing is very simple. He is single-mindedly bringing you through the death you're desperate to avoid and giving you the life which is really life.
You want a healing. He is the resurrection. Which means you'll get a death you never bargained for. But a life you never dreamed of.
A sermon on John 11: "Why is there so much suffering in the world?"