My friend was not a Christian, but he was seriously considering it. He was one of my wild friends from my younger, crazier days. We used to drive from bar to bar looking for trouble.
We often talked about Jesus. I was one of those dichotomous Christians who did what he could to evangelize while neck deep in the clutches of carnality. He was an atheist and pretty determined to stand his ground. Initially, our reconnect involved uncomfortable retellings of our former days of sin along with some (compromising?) laughter about such.
But we spent the next year talking about Christ. Here we were, a decade later, having the same types of conversations during a different stage of life. He’s married with kids. I’m married with kids. He’s thinking about bigger, more profound things. I’m teaching about bigger, more profound things.
Hurdle 1 – Do’s and Don’ts
I was excited and prayerfully hopeful about what God might be doing in his life. We talked on the phone about once a week. Often, we went late into the night. During these talks, he would present his objections and questions, and I would present the possible answers. Sometimes he put his wife on speakerphone to ask her own questions and listen along.
I sent him a couple of books that really helped him overcome some of his misunderstandings concerning the nature of Christianity. Primarily, he saw Christianity as a legalistic set of “do’s and don’ts.” He had never even come in contact with the idea of grace. Our conversations culminated in his reading of Chuck Swindoll’s Grace Awakening. He was refreshed. Hurdle number one successfully jumped.
Hurdle 2 – Intellectually Naive
In the backdrop of our conversations was his perception that Christianity was naive, with no place for serious intellectual conversations. I sent him a copy of one of my favorite apologetics books (save the Openness Theology leanings), Letters to a Skeptic by Gregory Boyd. He slowly began to see that the central tenets of Christianity were not only sustainable but ultimately persuasive. Hurdle number two successfully jumped.
Through this process, his objections were slowly losing steam. It was incredible to see the slow transformation of his mind. The misinformation was corrected as intellectual conviction grew. He had only one step left: an act of the will to stand before Christ and proclaim his helpless condition and ask for mercy. We were almost there.
It was the day of my sister Angie’s funeral. He came to my parents’ house along with many other guests after I had preached at the church. He sat by the side of the house, timidly lurking about, not really knowing what to say. He knew Angie well and, like the rest of us, was devastated and confused by her passing.
When we finally talked (it was the first time that I had seen him since our reconnect), I could tell something was on his mind, some deep-seated issue that the tragic circumstances of that week had raised. We began to talk by his car. He mentioned my sermon at the funeral and seemed appreciative. We talked a bit about Angie and the many mutual friends who had shown up.
Then things turned serious.
Grief in Dialogue
“Look, Michael,” he said, as if all our conversation until this point was just a deterring prelude to something more, “I get it!”
“Get what?” I responded.
“I get it. Call me whatever you want—a believer, Christian, or whatever. . . . I get it. I believe. I believe all that stuff about Christ.”
Then there was some silence. I knew something more was coming.
“But I am scared,” he said.
“Scared of what?” I asked.
“You love Jesus and have been doing so much for him,” he said. ”Yet look at what has happened to you. Look at what happened to your sister. Look at the pain of your family. Look at your mom. Especially your mom. Your poor mom. She has always been into Jesus. She is the best example of a Christian I know of. Look at what God is doing to her. I am scared. I am scared of God.”
After another period of silence he asked the question of the hour: “Will God protect my children? Will he protect them, or is he going to do to me what he did to your mom? Because from where I sit it looks like if you follow the Lord too closely, he brings terrible things into your life. I love my children, and I am scared to death that he might hurt them or take them from me because I follow him . . . to test me or something. I don’t want that.”
Questioning God’s Intentions
My friend was no longer questioning the reality of God, Christ, the resurrection, or even his own need for a savior. He was questioning God’s plan. He was questioning God’s intentions. Simply put, he was scared of God.
This is really the broader question of suffering. But it is also particular. It is not, “Why does God allow suffering in general?” It was not even a “why” question. It was a “will” question. What will God do? What can I expect as a child of God? Is he going to require too much of me? It is a question of counting the cost of following the Lord.
How do we answer such questions? How should we answer them to avoid misinterpreting God?
Three Really Bad Answers
1. Yes, of course he will protect your children. That is one of the benefits of being a child of God. Sign on the dotted line.
I have searched throughout the Scriptures and cannot find any guarantees that when we follow the Lord, we, along with our loved ones, fall under a shield of protection that guarantees physical longevity, health, or safety. Believe me, I have searched for such promises.
My friend Trevin Wax in his book Counterfeit Gospels calls this the “therapeutic gospel.” It offers benevolent guarantees of mundane goodness. It says that once you have faith in God, you can expect physical blessings and security. About this Trevin says:
If you believe that coming to Christ will make life easier and better, then you will be disappointed when suffering comes your way. Storms destroy our homes. Cancer eats up our bodies. Economic recessions steal our jobs. If you see God as a vending machine, then you will become disillusioned when your candy bar doesn’t drop. You may get angry and want to start banging on the machine. Or maybe you will be plagued with guilt, convinced that your suffering indicates God’s disapproval of something you’ve done. When we emphasize the temporal blessings that come from following Christ, we plant the seeds for a harvest of heartbreak.
2. No, he will not protect your children. There is a good chance that God will take them from you to test your faith. It’s called “bearing your cross.”
Suffering and evil are a part of the fall and are in God’s hands. While God uses suffering to bring us closer to him and while we should not be surprised by this type of trial (1 Peter 4:12), we don’t know what God is going to do in our lives.
Matthew 5:45 says that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Suffering and pain are part of life. They are a part of everyone’s life. There is no way to know what God is going to do. While God is not in the business of making sure everyone lives as long a life as possible, he does desire Christians to live as full a life as possible.
Every Christian I know has his or her share of suffering. All people I know have their share of suffering. The major difference between the suffering of the believer and that of the non-believer is that the believers’ suffering is full of purpose. Romans 8:28 says that God is working all things together for good for those who love him. This “all things” includes suffering.
Life is going to take many terrible turns, but knowing that these things have meaning and purpose makes it bearable.
3. You’re misinterpreting things here. God was not involved in the death of my sister. God wanted my sister to live, but she decided to take her own life. God is not in control of the well-being of your children either. He has a “hands-off” policy on these types of things.
This response is often referred to as “openness theology.” It puts God in the cheerleading section of the game of life. Many people take this approach so that they can live with the reality of evil. If God could not have stopped what happened, then he’s acquitted (in their mind) of any wrongdoing. However, this is not the God of Christianity. The God of Christianity is sovereign over everything that happens. Daniel 4:34-35 is one of the great passages in all of Scripture speaking of God’s sovereignty:
“His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”
Even Satan has to come to God for permission to act (Job 1:6-12).
This teaching does not mean that evil and suffering are part of God’s perfect plan, but they are a part of his redeeming plan. Death, sin, and suffering are all evil. They were brought into the world when man fell in Eden. But God’s redeeming plan uses sin to right the wrong. “This is why God brought the greatest evil in the history of the world on his Son. What seemed to be a defeat when Christ died on the cross was a wonderful expression of God’s love, redemption, and sovereignty introduced, not by the will of man, but by the predetermined plan of God (Acts 4:27-28). God is in control of all things, even our suffering.
I don’t know if God will protect your kids in the way that you desire. I really don’t. I am sorry.
I had no guarantees for my friend. There are no prenuptial agreements that we can ask God to sign.
In John 21 (I love this story), Christ has already risen from the grave. He is talking to Peter and has some hard news. He tells Peter, in essence, that he is going to suffer and die for his faith. Peter, curious and somewhat agitated, looks at his friend John, looks back at Christ, and says, “What about him. Is he going to die too?” That is where we are. We come to Christ and say:
- What about [fill in the blank]?
- What are you going to do?
- What is in store for me if I follow you?
- Are you going to protect my children?
I suppose that the Lord’s response to Peter is the best answer we are ever going to get. Christ said to Peter, “If I want him [John] to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:22). In the Greek, this is emphatic. Adapted for my friend’s situation we can imagine Christ responding:
“You follow me. Take your eyes off the details of the future and you follow me. I have John under control. You follow me. Your children are mine and I love them. You follow me. I don’t follow you. You follow me.
We don’t come to Christ because of guarantees of health, wealth, or protection from physical danger. We come to him because he is Lord. We don’t become Christians because of fringe benefits; we become Christians because Christianity is true. We come to Christ and bow our knee knowing he loves us enough to die for us. We come to him knowing that his plan, whatever that may be, is full of love, purpose, and wisdom. We come to him because of the guarantees of the life to come, not the guarantees of this life.