Solomon’s 2nd Dream (a Speculative Story)

In Gibeon Solomon had his first dream. As he slept, God appeaed to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon replied, “… Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”Image result for wisdom and suffering

God was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. He replied, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, not have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart.” God also promised him riches and honor. Then God added, “And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.”

Solomon rapidly grew in wisdom, not only gaining understanding of governance,  but also the ability to discern the true nature of matters that he had to deal with. And he was successful— wildly successful.   But in his personal reflections, he was confused. God granted wisdom, and he promised future wealth and honor. However, he did not promise a long life, but only said that Solomon would have this if he was obedient to God. But if one was wise, one would know that the obeying God is the key wisdom. To disobey God is to be the fool.  Could one be wise and a fool at the same time?

And Solomon dwelt on this matter a long time. One day, many years into his reign he was sitting in his palace, the only building in all the land more opulent than the Great Temple of Yahweh, he felt that he now understood the matter. He called out to God… but God did not answer. Many days he called out to God, but with no response. One night, however, close to giving up God returned to him in a dream.

God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon responded, “O Lord my God. Your humble servant has served as king over Your people. You granted me wisdom, and I have sought to lead with wisdom and discernment. Yet I find failings in me. I believe I know what I should do for the good of the people, but far too often I find that what I do is guided more by what will give me pleasure, wealth, and honor. But then I recalled when you came to me the first time that obedience to your commands is not an automatic result of wisdom. A wise man can still disobey you, and thus makes himself the fool. So as Your humble servant, I ask for strength of character, a disciplined heart and mind, to live and act wisely, not just be wise.”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon asked for this. He replied, “You have asked for something great… much greater than wisdom. It is also a much more difficult thing. A man’s character is like a boat— it moves easily as the current and the wind drive it. But to move against the wind and the water takes great labor”

God continued. “I do not gift character any more than do I make a waterfall flow upward. But if you truly desire good character, this is what I will do. I will give you suffering. I will take away what gives you pleasure, and what I leave you will not bring you satisfaction. I will give you dishonor, and grant your honor to fools.  I will scatter your wealth to those who did not earn it. It is a difficult path, and very few choose it voluntarily, but it is out of the seeds of suffering that discipline can slowly grow, and out of this growth, character  may bear fruit. Think on this.”

Solomon awoke, and meditated on his dream for many days, each day becoming more disconsolate. Finally, he called his scribe and began to speak,

“With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

 

 

 

 

Theodicy– The Questions Real People Ask

Here is a quote by Howard Stone from “The Word of God and Pastoral Care”

Over the years, while making pastoral carecaution2bagainst2bbad2badvice visits and especially hospital visits, I have sadly encountered many people whose well-meaning friends and acquaintances have responded to their why questions with theological answers that left them terribly upset and proved actually to be destructive: ‘This is God’s punishment on you and for your sins.’ ‘This is God’s will; you have to accept it.’ ‘This has happened to bring you to the Lord.’ ‘God wanted your dear one with him in heaven.’ ‘If you hadn’t skipped out on your wife, this wouldn’t have happened.’ ‘If you had stayed home with your children where God wants you to be, they wouldn’t have started taking drugs.’

More recently I have also come across another whole class of answers — more psychological than religious — to theodicy issues: ‘You are responsible for your illness.’ ‘You are sick because of your destructive thoughts.’ ‘The cancer inside you is pent up anger; you’ve got to release it to get well.’ ‘You are what you eat; if only you had cut out salt and exercised more.’ Some people are so eager to give their answers that they scarcely wait for the questions to be asked. The results are often quite grim.

When I first began pastoral care work, I would have thought such pronouncements were rare, or occurred only in the more conservative denominations. Not so! Things such as this happen everywhere, regardless of the conservative or liberal orientation. Simplistic and damaging answers flow from well-meaning people at a time when their hearers are in considerable distress, vulnerable, and unable to talk back. I raise the issue here because if ministers care only for people’s emotional pain and do not respond theologically to the issue of theodicy, parishioners will inevitably get their theological education elsewhere, and it may not be the kind we would have wished for them. In other words, if ministers will not respond, sooner or later, to the vital questions of theodicy, neighbors and friends are likely to do so, and not always in a helpful manner.                                       –page 165

 

Bad Stuff

“What is ‘I Don’t Know’?” That is the best Jeopardy answer I can give to the statement to the answer “Why bad stuff happens to good people.” Some feel this is a “cop-out,” or taking the easy way out. Frankly, I have heard a lot of easy-way-out answers to that question:

  • “God’s ways are above our ways.” That is saying “I don’t know” while pretending to be theologically profound. bad-stuff
  • “All things work together for good.” This is saying that bad stuff really isn’t bad. How is that so? Well, “I don’t know.” So this is still the “I don’t know” answer, with some bad hermeneutics thrown in.
  • “You must be being punished for something.” Job’s friends are definitely with us today. Divine karma or generational bondage may be satisfying for those who are prone to finger-point, but that view doesn’t really stand up to Scripture.

Speaking of Scripture, what does the Bible say? The answer is complex. I had a professor who argued that the aphorisms of Proverbs (the righteous are blessed and the unrighteous are cursed) pretty much summed things up in the Bible, with the sole exception of the Book of Job. I was always a bit uncomfortable with that. First of all, if there was one exception why can’t there be two or three. Second, in fact, it seemed like there were many such exceptions in the Bible. Consider Jeremiah, for example, whose life no one would envy, despite leading an apparently godly life.

This is no attempt to work on an in-depth look at theodicy. But looking at it Biblically, in a fairly cursory manner, one could say that bad things happen to people because they are:

  • Bad. Deuteronomy and Proverbs support the human instinct of justice… good happens to good people, and bad to bad— just as it ought to be.
  • Good. I Peter, for example, and much of the Gospels supports the idea that those who do good, will suffer persecution and misery because the world is in opposition to them.
  • Either or neither. Ecclesiastes and a number of the Psalms, for example, make it clear good things and bad things often occur with no apparent connection to whether the person deserves it.

So how should one respond to someone who has suffered? One could say:

“Bad things are happening to you because you are good, because you are bad, or regardless of any consideration of your moral status.”

Such vagueness may not seem satisfying, but it is fairly consistent with what Jesus said:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

                                                                                        -Luke 13:1-5

Jesus denies the “Bad things happen to bad people” explanation for the Galileans and those crushed by a tower, at least denying proportionality between their fate and their behavior.  But then he implies that those who don’t repent for sins could be punished.

Elsewhere, Jesus heals a blind man who was blind from birth. He denies that his state was tied to personal sin, or generational punishment. Jesus said that it was so that God would be glorified by his healing. While that is an interesting answer, it does not really answer the question we are discussing. It doesn’t say why he, specifically, was blind while another had sight, for example.

It seems to me that one could sum up what Jesus said with the following:

“Bad things can happen for many reasons, but it is not beneficial to speculate as to issues of divine retribution or blessing. It is much wiser to meditate on your own situation, than the situation of others.”

So in pastoral counseling, the best answer to why bad things happen to a person is, or at least starts with, “I don’t know.” However, that should be followed by helping the person to look at his or her own situation and determine what, if anything, needs to change.

Why am I mentioning this in a Missions blog? Frankly, missionaries are commonly  most among those guilty or perpetuating limited, doubtful answers as it pertains to suffering. A number of people have made the argument that the “Prosperity Gospel” in Africa (although perpetuated by its own marketers today) was first spread unwittingly by missionaries who expressed poorly and over-simplified view of theodicy, honor, and blessing, to new believers and pre-believers in the field.

Some doctrines don’t have to be fully delved into early on. We don’t necessarily have to have new believers who can describe the major views on atonement (all of the views appear to be incorrect to some extent anyway). But suffering has immediacy and importance. If this is left to be answered by sub-Christian platitudes, it is hardly surprising if it results in a sub-Biblical view of God or of faith.

 

 

Suffering and Viktor Frankl

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK
ERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/THE HOLOCAUST

I am not an expert on Theodicy, on suffering and its underlying meaning (or underlying lack of meaning). That being said, churches (especially the safe and affluent churches, but even the persecuted and vulnerable churches at times) have trouble with suffering.  It seems to me that part of the problem is that the church (we in the church) fail to deal with the complexity of this issue as presented in the Bible. There seems to be three general “strands” of thought in the Bible that are intertwined or braided into something not meant to be separated. It seems to me the church fails when it seeks to follow one strand and ignore the other two.

Strand One:  The Universality of Suffering. Genesis 3 and Ecclesiastes are the most obvious examples, but one can find it elsewhere. It is common to all, both good and bad, and as such, may have no ethical or redemptive “meaning.” Suffering Happens.

Strand Two:  Suffering is due to the Sinner. Suffering can be the result of specific sinful actions by specific sinful sinners. A person may suffer because of his own sin, or being sinned against by others. As such, God punishes the evildoer, and rewards or vindicates the righteous. Deuteronomy and Proverbs are the two strongest examples of this.

Strand Three:  Suffering is due to Faithfulness. Suffering can also be the anticipated result of faithfulness to God. Job, I Peter, and much of the Gospels support this strand.

Of course, if one embraces all three strands, there are challenging implications to the church:

  1.  When we see a person suffering, we should not be quick to judge. Perhaps we should not judge at all. But if suffering is universal/meaningless, or due to sin, or due to faithfulness, it is ill-advised to presume only one and ignore the possibility of the others.
  2. Suffering should not automatically be avoided. Jesus was described as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and calls us to suffer with him. This does not mean one necessarily should be seeking to find suffering and then to wallow in it. But I think it does mean that the paths of the righteous are likely to take us both to green pastures and still waters, and through the valley of the shadow of death. It may well be that the former is the hope, but the latter is the norm.

With this in mind, here is a sizable quote from Viktor Frankl in his work, Man’s Search for Meaning (Part One). It describes finding meaning in a German Concentration Camp in World War II. It is not Christian Theology or written by a Christian. Sadly, many who were causing the unjust suffering would describe themselves as Christians. However, he speaks of “Life” in a metaphoric fashion that in some places can seem to mean “God,” or in other places, “the path/s that God has ordained.”

Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more.” What sort of answer can one give to that?

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be of help to us. They kept us from despair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive. Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.

Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harbouring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism.

Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn out backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, “Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!”(How much suffering there is to get through!) Rilke spoke of “getting through suffering” as others would talk of “getting through work.” There was plenty of suffering for us to get through.

Therefore, it was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum. But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer. Only very few realized that. Shamefacedly some confessed occasionally that they had wept, like the comrade who answered my question of how he had gotten over his oedema, by confessing, “I have wept it out of my system.”

Fear, Anger, and Power. Part 2

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Since this is Part 2, you may want to consider reading Part 1 first. It was built around the issue of Angry, Angry Christians… and that some of it stems from Fear and Mistrust. I think that is very true, but I think there is more. I believe that some stems from what I described as “an (illicit) love affair with power.”

Jesus said that one cannot serve two masters because one will eventually favor or obey one over the other. He emphasized the two potential masters: God and Money. But money is simply a form of power… a means to extend one’s will beyond oneself to manipulate the environment around.

Power, like its subcategory money, has an addictive quality to it. The church during the 4th century felt it. As a persecuted church grew in Imperial favor in the Roman Empire, people began to flood in to become members. Bishops began to wear the clothes and other regalia of the civic leaders (and many do still to this day), as well as accepting the authority given by the emperor.

From Charlemagne and the “Holy Roman Empire” to the Crusades to the Inquisition and Colonialism, Christians have enjoyed the utilization of military and legal power to extend their control of others.

<This is not to say that other groups do better. Islam is presently being marketed as a religion, or ideology, of peace and mercy. Buddhism is often thought of as a religion of peace in the West (where they have not discovered the often harsh reality of rule by Buddhists). If one looks at founders: Jesus and the Apostles were pretty peaceful, Gautama Buddha, as well as Nanak appeared to be pretty peaceful as well. The four great imams… not so much. However, a religion is known more by its historical activities than by its founders… and most religions struggle in this area… at least those religions that gained enough strength to be able to exercise power over others.>

Religions are made of people, so they have an addiction to power because people are generally addicted to, or at least enticed by, power.

In the United States, Christianity has embraced power. While European “Christian” countries extended power with colonization, for the most part the United States has done it with hegemony, enforced by the military. For American Christians that has shown itself with the belief that that which is deemed “Anti-Christian,” such as Islamic militancy, is best handled with violence. This is a strange viewpoint. Christianity grew in the Roman Empire through moral, loving, and longsuffering behavior, not through desecration and violence.

I must note here that I am not anti-military or anti-gun. I was in the US Navy, and in no way confuse being a “peacemaker” with being a “pacifist.” Likewise, I believe guns are the great equalizer where rule of law is non-existent… ensuring that the bigger and stronger do not always hold sway. However, the fascination with guns and military projection of power has gotten out of hand.

In some ways it is benign. I have had people tell me, once they knew that I was in the military, “Thank you for your service to our country.” Always seemed so weird to me. Ignoring the whole “country thing,” I have done a lot better things for the world, working here in the Philippines than I ever did as an officer in the Navy. Frankly, my service in the military was sincere, but certainly not motivated by some great patriotic fervor.

But some gets more malignant. I had a pastor preaching in church years ago… who started a sermon something like this:

“There are some things, we as Christians, must be willing to die for. Some things that matter so much, we must be ready to die for them. We must be willing to die for the truth of the divinity of Christ. We must be willing to die for the truth of salvation by faith. We must be willing to die for the truth of the literal death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I believe we must be willing to die for the right to bear arms.”

How strange is that? Is that Biblically/theological sound Christian prophetic guidance to give from a pulpit? I have my doubts.

At Liberty University, a Christian school not that far from my home church in the US, the present head had encouraged students to get guns, get trained to use guns, and get permits for the right to wear concealed guns. The logic was to “welcome” militant Muslims who might show themselves on campus. While it is just good practice to have some form of security on any campus, encouraging 18-22 year old college students to walk around armed seems like a poor solution. As a 16 year old, I got a 12 guage shotgun for my birthday. But I got it for deer hunting… not to carry around with me at school. And talking as if the students are somehow encouraged (?) to think of “them” (as opposed to “us”) as those who should be dealt with violently is irreconcilable, I believe, with following the example of Jesus.

  1.  I would suggest that the church would be do better to lessen war metaphors in Christianity. It is not that they may not be apt… but some people confuse the image with the reality.
  2. I would suggest pastors minimize emphasis on power. in sermons. I know that goes against some. I have heard many that emphasize the word “power” (or “POWWWW-ERRrrrrrrr”) as if it is a wonderful thing. I remember hearing Oral Roberts talking about bringing out the “Holy Ghost Shotgun.” But while God is certainly described as the source of our power, we are also told to live lives of Love, Joy, Peace, Gentleness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Meekness, and Self Control. Frankly, these have more emphasis in the New Testament, I feel. It would be wonderful if preachers would give these terms as much emphasis as they do Power. Words have power too, and people tend to be driven emotionally as much or more than cognitively by words. One’s choice of words matter.
  3. I would suggest, similarly, a lessening of the language of fear and hate. I remember the anger people felt after the 9-11 incident. And that anger was heightened with the video of Palestinians cheering the deaths of so many people. Many Palestinians did not share that feeling… or later rethought things… but the damage was done. As bad as all that might be, some of the rhetoric I have heard from pulpits and FB from Christians hasn’t been better.
  4. I would suggest following the wisdom of Jesus… not the wisdom of the times. If others wish to follow their own leaders— be they good, bad, or evil… that is their call but we should know who our Lord is and follow His command and example.

For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps   I Peter 2:20-21