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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Talking about Tough Times is Popular

We advertised at our church that three different small groups would be studying Job. I sent the email about the Job study out church-wide, and boy, am I glad I did. Eight people have expressed interest in being in one of the group. None of those eight are currently in any of the three groups involved in the study.

Why is there such interest in Job?

The first group began the first session on Job by asking the group, what guides your thinking? What I mean there is who has influenced you? I hear a lot of people swear that they base their beliefs on the Bible. If you dig into their thinking, you discover they really base their beliefs on what their pastor taught them the Bible said (which is partially but not completely accurate most of the time). Or, they base their beliefs on what their mother or grandmother taught the Bible says. That teaching from a beloved and formative figure in a person’s life is important. However, did the grandmother have any training in critical Bible study? Was the grandmother exposed to the various methods of Biblical study and the various perspective through history from which scripture is viewed? Grandma taught the best grandma could, but it’s likely her view, while valuable, is limited.

Another potential distortion is the person who claims he believes only what he reads in the Bible. But in fact, he doesn’t read the Bible so much as he tells you what Max Lucado told him the Bible said. He heard Max on TV, so he uses Max’s words to establish his faith stance. Then, he calls it Biblical. It may be Rick Warren instead of Max Lucado, or Billy Graham, Philip Yancey, or John Ortberg, or Charles Swindoll, or Andy Stanley. Each of these authors is a trustworthy preacher/teacher, but none is a Biblical scholar. Not a one, to my knowledge, has a PhD in Biblical studies.

So, what guides your thinking? A beloved pastor or parent? A Christian who has attained some fame? Your own reading of the Bible?

That began our discussion with a bang, and it took off from there. We next looked at three questions that come from Philip Yancey’s book Where is God when it hurts.
(1) Is God fair?
(2) Is God silent?
(3) Is God hidden?
People began sharing some of the struggles they’ve been through. A relative with a debilitating disease. Losing a sibling. Losing a baby. This group of affluent people, all happily married had been through some very personal, real tragedies. And they talked about it.

I have led countless Bible studies. Sometimes people get into the text enthusiastically, but just as often, people are mute. I want it to be a discussion where we dynamically engage God’s word, but people just sit quietly and wait for me to give them the right answer. That did not happen with the Job discussion. People were telling their own stories, and my task was to watch the time while still allowing everyone to share. It was a spiritually powerful night. We got to Job 1:6, and our 90 minutes was up.

Now I am sitting at my desk, thinking about the energy and the willingness of the people in that discussion group. I am thinking about eight people needing a group because they too want to enter into Job and enter into discussion about Job with their Christian friends. Job pushes the issue of suffering to the center of the table and forces believers and God to talk about it. And, in my church, a church not beset by tragedy, people yearn for this discussion. It’s popular to talk our way through tough times. It’s needed because it is cathartic and in the discussion, one sees more of God and more of himself or herself.

One can either abandon faith as a result of suffering, or grow deeper in the relationship with God. It goes both ways, and there is no guarantee.


  1. what do you mean by the last sentence?
    It goes both ways, and there is no guarantee.
    What do you mean there is no guarantee?

  2. I don't see any guarantee about what someone will do when they go through disappointment. The guy who wrote the hymn "It is Well with my Soul" lost his family in shipwreck. His children and wife died - but he kept his faith.

    The guy Philip Yancey writes about in "Disappointment with God" did not suffer tragedy of nearly such great proportions. But, he did go through some disappointments. And at the same time he struggled with a theological crisis. That combo (of disappointment and not being able to come to grips with his own thoughts about God) led him to abandon faith.

    So, one guy suffers and his faith grows. Another guy suffers and his faith dies. There is no guarantee for how it will go.

    But, there is a greater chance of faith growing through suffering if that person is constantly developing his relationship with God before suffering comes. If he is into Bible reading, prayer, worship, serving others, and fellowship with other Christians, there is a much greater chance his faith will survive a crisis.

  3. Good point, Rob. In my small group, in the last couple of months, two women have gone through very different pregnancy trials. One had a very difficult pregnancy, with two hospitalizations due to dehydration and kidney stones. The baby eventually came very early and both baby and mom were touch and go for about a week - baby was very small and not taking the bottle, mom had infection and couldn't get her fever down. She had become pregnant shortly after getting married, so this was also the newlywed season for her and her young husband - so many trials for them.

    The other woman has wanted a second child for a while, and discovered she was pregnant. Then, she had a miscarriage. It was the most painful thing she had gone through.

    Both women, though, have risen up in faith in remarkable ways. The woman who had the miscarriage has clung to the Bible and solid devotionals (Streams in the Desert, for one, which was written by a woman whose life was rife with tragedy), and her love, respect, and awe for God have grown in ways that can only be described as divine. The depth of discussion about God and prayer (the topic we're studying now) and God's goodness and sovereignty have taken our discussions to a whole new level, because these women have opted to submit to God rather than despise his "other" ways.

    But I also know people whose disappointment with God has steered them away from him. THAT is the biggest tragedy, I think, because times of disappointment with God can be the most fertile soil for growth and maturity - and JOY. Joy in the midst of incredible pain is like no other gift I know. Peace, too, and God offers those things in the midst of pain, but it requires us surrendering our god-complexes and looking UP to him - like Job.

    I think it's also important to note that Job was NOT a perfect man. He did NOT trust God perfectly. He struggled. He wrestled. He demonstrated hopelessness and despair. But he did not turn away from God. He hung in there with God through the storm, and that is the key. FIGHT for faith. PRESS IN to God. BELIEVE that he is doing something good in the midst of the storm/desert/battle.

    And Rob, you hit the nail on the head in your last paragraph of this comment: "there is a greater chance of faith growing through suffering if that person is constantly developing his relationship with God before suffering comes. If he is into Bible reading, prayer, worship, serving others, and fellowship with other Christians, there is a much greater chance his faith will survive a crisis."

    YES, and AMEN.

  4. where does energy for faith come from? so much energy is expended in the defense of faith. Seems Job's friends "wasted" their energy on finding answers about faith while Job used his energy to find God.