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Where is God when I hurt?
The passages below are taken from Max Lucado’s book “The Applause of Heaven,” first published in 1990 by W Publishing Group.
He was a child of the desert. Leathery face. Tanned skin. Clothing of animal skins. What he owned fit in a pouch. His walls were the mountains and his ceiling the stars.
But not anymore. His frontier is walled out, his horizon hidden. The stars are memories. The fresh air is all but forgotten. And the stench of the dungeon relentlessly reminds the child of the desert that he is now a captive of the king.1
In anyone’s book, John the Baptist deserves better treatment than this. After all, isn’t he the forerunner of the Christ? Isn’t he a relative of the Messiah? At the very least, isn’t his the courageous voice of repentance?
But most recently that voice, instead of opening the door of renewal, has opened the door to his own prison cell.
John’s problems began when he called a king on the carpet. On a trip to Rome, King Herod succumbed to the enticements of his brother’s wife, Herodias. Deciding Herodias was better off married to him, Herod divorced his wife and brought his sister-in-law home.
The gossip columnists were fascinated, but John the Baptist was infuriated. He pounced on Herod like a desert scorpion, denouncing the marriage for what it was---adultery.
Herod might have let him get away with it. But not Herodias. This steamy seductress wasn’t about to have her social climbing exposed. She told Herod to have John pulled off the speaking circuit and thrown into the dungeon. Herod hemmed and hawed until she whispered and wooed. Then Herod gave in.
But that wasn’t enough for this mistress. She had her daughter strut before the king and his generals at a stag party. Herod, who was as easily duped as he was aroused, promised to do anything for the pretty young thing in the G-string.
“You name it,” he drooled.
She conferred with her mother, who was waiting in the wings, then returned with her request.
“I want John the Baptist.”
“You want a date with the prophet?”
“I want his head,” replied the dancer. And then, reassured by a nod from her mother, she added, “On a silver platter, if you don’t mind.”
Herod looked at the faces around him. He knew it wasn’t fair, but he also knew everyone was looking at him. And he had promised “anything.” Though he personally had nothing against the country preacher, he valued the opinion polls much more than he valued John’s life. After all, what’s more important---to save face or to save the neck of an eccentric prophet?
The story reeks with inequity.
John dies because Herod lusts.
The good is murdered while the bad smirk.
A man of God is killed while a man of passion is winking at his niece.
Is this how God rewards his anointed? Is this how he honors his faithful? Is this how God crowns his chosen? With a dark dungeon and a shiny blade?
The inconsistency was more than John could take. Even before Herod reached his verdict, John was asking his questions. His concerns were outnumbered only by the number of times he paced his cell asking them. When he had a chance to get a message to Jesus, his inquiry was one of despair:
“When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”2
Note what motivated John’s question. It was not just the dungeon or even death. It was the problem of unmet expectations ---the fact that John was in deep trouble and Jesus was conducting business as usual.
Is this what messiahs do when trouble comes? Is this what God does when his followers are in a bind?
Jesus’ silence was enough to chisel a leak into the dam of John’s belief. “Are you the one? Or have I been following the wrong Lord?”
Had the Bible been written by a public relations agency, they would have eliminated that verse. It’s not good PR strategy to admit that one of the cabinet members has doubts about the president. You don’t let stories like that get out if you are trying to present a unified front.
But the Scriptures weren’t written by personality agents; they were inspired by an eternal God who knew that every disciple from then on would spend time in the dungeon of doubt.
Though the circumstances have changed, the questions haven’t.
They are asked anytime the faithful suffer the consequences of the faithless. Anytime a person takes a step in the right direction, only to have her feet knocked out from under her, anytime a person does a good deed but suffers evil results, anytime a person takes a stand, only to end up flat on his face . . . the questions fall like rain:
“If God is so good, why do I hurt so bad?”
“If God is really there, why am I here?”
“What did I do to deserve this?”
“Did God slip up this time?”
“Why are the righteous persecuted?”
In his book Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey quotes a letter that articulates the problem of unmet expectations in all its excruciating reality. Meg Woodson lost two children to cystic fibrosis, and her daughter’s death at age twenty-three was particularly traumatic. The following words speak of her pain and doubt as she struggled to cope with what happened:
I was sitting beside her bed a few days before her death when suddenly she began screaming. I will never forget those shrill, piercing, primal screams. . . . It’s against this background of human beings falling apart. .. that God, who could have helped, looked down on a young woman devoted to Him, quite willing to die for Him to give Him glory, and decided to sit on His hands and let her death top the horror charts for cystic fibrosis deaths.3
Does God sometimes sit on his hands? Does God sometimes choose to do nothing? Does God sometimes opt for silence even when I’m screaming my loudest?
Some time ago, I took my family to the bicycle store to purchase a bike for five-year-old Jenna. She picked out a shiny “Starlett” with a banana seat and training wheels. And Andrea, age three, decided she wanted one as well.
I explained to Andrea that she was too young. I told her she was still having trouble with a tricycle and was too small for a two-wheeler. No luck; she still wanted a bike. I explained to her that when she was a bit older, she would get a bike, too. She just stared at me. I tried to tell her that a big bike would bring her more pain than pleasure, more scrapes than thrills. She turned her head and said nothing.
Finally I sighed and said this time her daddy knew best. Her response? She screamed it loud enough for everyone in the store to hear:
“Then I want a new daddy!”
Though the words were from a child’s mouth, they carried an adult’s sentiments.
Disappointment demands a change in command. When we don’t agree with the One who calls the shots, our reaction is often the same as Andrea’s---the same as John’s. “Is he the right one for this job?” Or, as John put it, “Are you the one? Should we look for another?”
Andrea, with her three-year-old reasoning powers, couldn’t believe that a new bike would be anything less than ideal for her. From her vantage point, it would be the source of eternal bliss. And from her vantage point, the one who could grant that bliss was “sitting on his hands.”
John couldn’t believe that anything less than his release would be for the best interest of all involved, In his opinion, it was time to exercise some justice and get some action. But the One who had the power was “sitting on his hands.”
I can’t believe that God would sit in silence while a missionary is kicked out of a foreign country or a Christian loses a promotion because of his beliefs or a faithful wife is abused by an unbelieving husband. These are just three of many items that have made their way onto my prayer list---all prayers that seem to have gone unanswered.
Rule of thumb: Clouds of doubt are created when the warm, moist air of our expectations meets the cold air of God’s silence.
If you’ve heard the silence of God, if you’ve been left standing in the dungeon of doubt, then don’t put this book down until you read the next chapter. You may learn, as John did, that the problem is not as much in God’s silence as it is in your ability to hear.
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”4
This was Jesus’ answer to John’s agonized query from the dungeon of doubt: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”5
But before you study what Jesus said, note a couple of things he didn’t say.
First, he didn’t get angry. He didn’t throw up his hands in disgust. He didn’t scream, “What in the world do I have to do for John? I’ve already become flesh! I’ve already been sinless for three decades. I let him baptize me. What else does he want? Go and tell that ungrateful locust eater I am shocked at his disbelief”
He could have done that, (I would have done that.)
But Jesus didn’t. Underline that fact: God has never turned away the questions of a sincere searcher. Not Job’s nor Abraham’s nor Moses’ nor John’s nor Thomas’s nor Max’s nor yours.
But note also that Jesus didn’t save John. The One who had walked on water could have easily walked on Herod’s head, but he didn’t. The One who cast out the demons had the power to nuke the king’s castle, but he didn’t. No battle plan. No SWAT teams, No flashing swords. Just a message---a kingdom message.
“Tell John that everything is going as planned. The kingdom is being inaugurated.”
Jesus’ words are much more than a statement from Isaiah.6 They are the description of a heavenly kingdom being established.
A unique kingdom. An invisible kingdom. A kingdom with three distinct traits.
First of all, it is a kingdom where the rejected are received.
“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear. . ."
None were more shunned by their culture than the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf. They had no place. No name. No value. Canker sores on the culture. Excess baggage on the side of the road. But those whom the people called trash, Jesus called treasures.
In my closet hangs a sweater that I seldom wear. It is too small. The sleeves are too short, the shoulders too tight. Some of the buttons are missing, and the thread is frazzled. I should throw that sweater away. I have no use for it. I’ll never wear it again. Logic says I should clear out the space and get rid of the sweater.
That’s what logic says.
But love won’t let me.
Something unique about that sweater makes me keep it. What is unusual about it? For one thing, it has no label. Nowhere on the garment will you find a tag that reads, “Made in Taiwan,” or “Wash in Cold Water.” It has no tag because it wasn’t made in a factory. It has no label because it wasn’t produced on an assembly line. It isn’t the product of a nameless employee earning a living. It’s the creation of a devoted mother expressing her love.
That sweater is unique. One of a kind, It can’t be replaced. Each strand was chosen with care. Each thread was selected with affection.
And though the sweater has lost all of its use, it has lost none of its value. It is valuable not because of its function, but because of its maker.
That must have been what the psalmist had in mind when he wrote, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb,”7
Think on those words. You were knitted together. You aren’t an accident. You weren’t mass-produced. You aren’t an assembly-line product. You were deliberately planned, specifically gifted, and lovingly positioned on this earth by the Master Craftsman.
“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”8
In a society that has little room for second fiddles, that’s good news. In a culture where the door of opportunity opens only once and then slams shut, that is a revelation. In a system that ranks the value of a human by the figures of his salary or the shape of her legs.. . let me tell you something: Jesus’ plan is a reason for joy!
Jesus told John that a new kingdom was coming---a kingdom where people have value not because of what they do, but because of whose they are.
The second characteristic of the kingdom is as potent as the first: “The dead have life.” The grave has no power.
The year 1899 marked the deaths 0f two well-known men---Dwight L. Moody, the acclaimed evangelist, and Robert Ingersoll, the famous lawyer, orator, and political leader.
The two men had many similarities. Both were raised in Christian homes. Both were skilled orators. Both traveled extensively and were widely respected. Both drew immense crowds when they spoke and attracted loyal followings. But there was one striking difference between them---their view of God.
Ingersoll was an agnostic and a follower of naturalism; he had no belief in the eternal, but stressed the importance of living only in the here and now. Ingersoll made light of the Bible, stating that “free thought will give us truth.” To him the Bible was “a fable, an obscenity, a humbug, a sham and a lie.”9 He was a bold spokesman against the Christian faith. He claimed that a Christian “creed [was] the ignorant past bullying the enlightened present.”10
Ingersoll’s contemporary, Dwight L. Moody, had different convictions. He dedicated his life to presenting a resurrected King to a dying people. He embraced the Bible as the hope for humanity and the cross as the turning point of history. He left behind a legacy of written and spoken words, institutions of education, churches, and changed lives.
Two men. Both powerful speakers and influential leaders. One rejected God; the other embraced him. The impact of their decisions is seen most dearly in the way they died. Read how one biographer parallels the two deaths.
Ingersoll died suddenly. The news of his death stunned his family. His body was kept at home for several days because his wife was reluctant to part with it. It was eventually removed for the sake of the family’s health.
Ingersoll’s remains were cremated, and the public response to his passing was altogether dismal. For a man who put all his hopes on this world, death was tragic and came without the consolation of hope.
Moody’s legacy was different. On December 22, 1899, Moody awoke to his last winter dawn. Having grown increasingly weak during the night, he began to speak in slow measured words. “Earth recedes, heaven opens before me!” Son Will, who was nearby, hurried across the room to his father’s side.
“Father, you are dreaming,” he said.
“No. This is no dream, Will,” Moody said. “It is beautiful. It is like a trance. If this is death, it is sweet. God is calling me, and I must go. Don’t call me back.”
At that point, the family gathered around, and moments later the great evangelist died. It was his coronation day---a day he had looked forward to for many years. He was with his Lord.
The funeral service of Dwight L. Moody reflected that same confidence. There was no despair. Loved ones gathered to sing praise to God at a triumphant home-going service. Many remembered the words the evangelist had spoken earlier that year in New York City: “Someday you will read in the papers that Moody is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. .. . I was born of the flesh in 1837, I was born of the Spirit in 1855. That which is born of the flesh may die. That which is born of the Spirit shall live forever.”11
Jesus looked into the eyes of John’s followers and gave them this message. “Report to John . . . the dead are raised.” Jesus wasn’t oblivious to John’s imprisonment. He wasn’t blind to John’s captivity. But he was dealing with a greater dungeon than Herod’s; he was dealing with the dungeon of death.
But Jesus wasn’t through. He passed on one other message to clear the cloud of doubt out of John’s heart: “The good news is preached to the poor.”
Some months ago I was late to catch a plane out of the San Antonio airport. I wasn’t terribly late, but I was late enough to be bumped and have my seat given to a stand-by passenger.
When the ticket agent told me that I would have to miss the flight, I put to work my best persuasive powers.
“But the flight hasn’t left yet.”
“Yes, but you got here too late.”
“I got here before the plane left; is that too late?”
“The regulation says you must arrive ten minutes before the flight is scheduled to depart. That was two minutes ago.”
“But, ma’am,” I pleaded, “I’ve got to be in Houston by this evening.”
She was patient but firm, “I’m sorry, sir, but the rules say passengers must be at the gate ten minutes before scheduled departure time.”
“I know what the rules say,” I explained. “But I’m not asking for justice; I’m asking for mercy.”
She didn’t give it to me.
But God does. Even though by the “book” I’m guilty, by God’s love I get another chance. Even though by the law I’m indicted, by mercy I’m given a fresh start.
“For it is by grace you have been saved. . not by works, so that no one can boast.”12
No other world religion offers such a message. All others demand the right performance, the right sacrifice, the right chant, the right ritual, the right seance or experience. Theirs is a kingdom of trade-offs and barterdom. You do this, and God will give you that.
The result? Either arrogance or fear. Arrogance if you think you’ve achieved it, fear if you think you haven’t.
Christ’s kingdom is just the opposite. It is a kingdom for the poor. A kingdom where membership is granted, not purchased. You are placed into God’s kingdom. You are “adopted.” And this occurs not when you do enough, but when you admit you can’t do enough. You don’t earn it; you simply accept it. As a result, you serve, not out of arrogance or fear, but out of gratitude.
I recently read a story 0f a woman who for years was married to a harsh husband. Each day he would leave her a list of chores to complete before he returned at the end of the day. “Clean the yard. Stack the firewood. Wash the windows."
If she didn’t complete the tasks, she would be greeted with his explosive anger. But even if she did complete the list, he was never satisfied; he would always find inadequacies in her work.
After several years, the husband passed away. Some time later she remarried, this time to a man who lavished her with tenderness and adoration.
One day, while going through a box of old papers, the wife discovered one of her first husband’s lists. And as she read the sheet, a realization caused a tear of joy to splash on the paper.
“I’m still doing all these things, and no one has to tell me. I do it because I love him.”
That is the unique characteristic of the new kingdom. Its subjects don’t work in order to go to heaven; they work because they are going to heaven. Arrogance and fear are replaced with gratitude and joy.
That’s the kingdom Jesus proclaimed: a kingdom of acceptance, eternal life, and forgiveness.
We don’t know how John received Jesus’ message, but we can imagine. I like to think of a slight smile coming over his lips as he heard what his Master said.
“So that’s it. That is what the kingdom will be. That is what the King will do,”
For now he understood. It wasn’t that Jesus was silent; it was that John had been listening for the wrong answer. John had been listening for an answer to his earthly problems, while Jesus was busy resolving his heavenly ones.
That’s worth remembering the next time you hear the silence of God.
If you’ve asked for a mate, but are still sleeping alone, if you’ve asked for a child, but your womb stays barren. . . if you’ve asked for healing, but are still hurting.. . don’t think God isn’t listening. He is. And he is answering requests you are not even making.
Saint Teresa of Avila was insightful enough to pray, “Do not punish me by granting that which I wish or ask.”13
The apostle Paul was honest enough to write, “We do not know what we ought to pray for.”14
The fact is, John wasn’t asking too much; he was asking too little. He was asking the Father to resolve the temporary, while Jesus was busy resolving the eternal. John was asking for immediate favor, while Jesus was orchestrating the eternal solution.
Does that mean that Jesus has no regard for injustice? No. He cares about persecutions. He cares about inequities and hunger and prejudice. And he knows what it is like to be punished for something he didn’t do. He knows the meaning of the phrase, “It’s just not right.”
For it wasn’t right that people spit into the eyes that had wept for them. It wasn’t right that soldiers ripped chunks of flesh out of the back of their God. It wasn’t right that spikes pierced the hands that formed the earth. And it wasn’t right that the Son of God was forced to hear the silence of God.
It wasn’t right, but it happened.
For while Jesus was on the cross, God did sit on his hands. He did turn his back. He did ignore the screams of the innocent.
He sat in silence while the sins of the world were placed upon his Son. And he did nothing while a cry a million times bloodier than John’s echoed in the black sky: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”15
Was it right? No.
Was it fair? No.
Was it love? Yes.
In a world of injustice, God once and for all tipped the scales in the favor of hope. And he did it by sitting on his hands so that we could know the kingdom of God. (163-182)
1. Matthew 14:1—12.
2. Matthew 11:3—4
3. Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God (Grand Rapids, MI Zondervan, 1988), 158
4. Matthew 11:4—5
5. Matthew 11:3—4
6. Isaiah 35:5; 61:1
7. Psalm 139:13.
8. Ephesians 2:10.
9. George Sweeting and Donald Sweeting, “The Evangelist and the Agnostic,” Moodv Monthly, July/August 1989, 69.
10. Ibid., 67
11. Ibid., 69.
12. Ephesians 2:8—9.
13. Quoted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, 345
14. Romans 8:26.
15. Matthew 27:46.
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