From the book
WHEN GOD DOESN’T MAKE SENSE #4
Perhaps the most dramatic example of our theme occurred in the life of the great patriarch, Abraham, more than 5,000 years ago. Our interest in his story focuses on the barrenness of his wife, Sarah. She remained infertile throughout her childbearing years, causing continual grief and embarrassment. But when Abraham was 75 years old, he began receiving promises from God that he would become the father of a great nation, and that in him, all the nations of the world would be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3). That was wonderful news for a man with no heir and a woman who ached to be a mother.
What followed that promise, however, was a long period of silence on the subject. Finally, the Lord visited Abraham again. He said, "All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted" (Genesis 13:15-16).
These were strange words spoken to a man whose wife had tried to have a baby for perhaps 40 years. Yet Abraham accepted the promise—and waited patiently for its fulfillment. But no child came. Years passed before the Lord reassured His servant for the third time. On this occasion, however, Abraham revealed his growing confusion on the matter by replying, "O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless?" (Genesis 15:2).
It was a valid question from the aging Abraham. The Lord responded by taking him out under the night sky and saying, '"Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your offspring be'" (Genesis 15:5).
These promises of blessing were followed by Sarah's continued infertility and yet another period of silence. What Abraham faced at this point was a classic case of "God contradicting God." The Lord did not honor His word or explain His delay. The facts didn't add up. The pieces didn't fit. Sarah had gone through menopause, effectively ending her hope of motherhood. By then, she and her husband were old, and we can assume that their sexual passion had diminished. Despite these improbabilities, however, Scripture tells us Abraham "believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6).
The rest of the account is one of the most familiar and beloved stories in the Bible. Sarah did, indeed, become pregnant when she was 90 years of age and Abraham was 100. Soon a son was born and he was named Isaac (meaning "laughter"). What a joyful moment it was for them. God had performed a mighty miracle just as He promised, and Abraham was given an heir. However, the drama wasn't over for these new but very old parents.
Some years later when Isaac had become a young man, there occurred one of the most confusing events in biblical history. God told Abraham to sacrifice the son who had been so long anticipated! What a strange and distressing message! How could the old patriarch have begun to understand what the Lord was doing? Wasn't Isaac the key to the breathtaking promises of God? If Isaac was to be sacrificed, from whom would come millions of descendants, the many kings (including the Messiah), a mighty nation through which the world would be blessed, everlasting possession of the Promised Land, and a perpetual covenant with Jehovah? All of these prophecies depended specifically on Isaac, who was soon to die.
But that was only the way things seemed through human senses. In truth, the promises given to Abraham did not depend on Isaac at all. They depended entirely on God. He is never boxed in by human limitations. And God had everything under perfect control. A divinely appointed plan was unfolding that would bear meaning for all mankind. Isaac's miraculous birth was symbolic of the coming Christ child. The command to sacrifice Isaac on the altar pointed toward "the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world" (Revelation 13:8). When Isaac carried the wood to be used for the fire which would burn his body, he foretold the time 2,000 years hence when Jesus carried His own cross to Golgotha. Isaac's willingness to be killed by his aged father was symbolic of the Messiah's submission to His Father and to His executioners. Some theologians even believe Isaac's sacrifice was to have occurred on the exact site of Jesus' crucifixion. Every component of the story had prophetic significance. Of course, Abraham understood nothing of the plan. Given his confusion and what was at stake for him, it is amazing that this godly man would have obediently carried out Isaac's sacrifice if an angel hadn't intervened.
One of my favorite Scriptures summarizes this episode from the perspective of New Testament times. This is how the Apostle Paul described Abraham nearly 2000 years later:
“Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old-—and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:19-22)
In other words, Abraham believed God even when God didn't make sense. The facts clearly said, "It is impossible for this thing to happen." The Lord had made "empty promises" for nearly 25 years, and still there was no sign of action. Unanswered questions and troubling contradictions swirled through the air. Nevertheless, Abraham "did not waver through unbelief." Why? Because he was convinced that God could transcend reason and factual evidence. And this is why he is called the "father of our faith."
Well, so much for Abraham and his wife Sarah.
What about you and me and the times in which we live? Is there a lesson for mankind in this historical event? There certainly is!
A moment will also come in your lifetime when the facts will lead to despair. Maybe that moment has already arrived. At those times God seems to contradict Himself and no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming. The particular nature of the confusion, varies from person to person, but a crisis of some dimension is inevitable. Faith never goes unchallenged for long. The question is, How will we deal with it when it comes? Will we break and run? Will we waver in disbelief? Will we "curse God and die," as Job's wife suggested? I pray not! And if we prepare now for the experience, I believe we can steel ourselves against the assault of that hour.
My friend Robert Vernon recently had to deal with his own version of that universal crisis. Bob is the former assistant chief of police, Los Angeles Police Department, where he served with distinction for 37 years. Toward the end of his tenure, however, he was unjustly and illegally pressured to resign because of his conservative Christian beliefs. After many unsuccessful attempts by the media to discredit him in the police department, Chief Vernon's critics began looking at his private life for something with which to embarrass him. They soon found it. Someone dug up a cassette recording of a speech Bob had delivered at his church 14 years earlier. On the basis of comments he made about family life, taken out of context and wildly distorted, they forced an investigation of Vernon's work at the police department. It was a clear violation of his First Amendment rights. Since when can a person be persecuted for expressing his religious views in his own church? That question is being considered now by the courts, but there is clear evidence of bias there, too.
Please understand, there was never any accusation of professional malfeasance against Chief Vernon in any official capacity. Nevertheless, a full-scale investigation was conducted to see if his religious views might have affected his work. He was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing, although his leadership was so damaged by the inquisition that he felt it necessary to resign. I know Chief Vernon personally, and I can say with certainty that he was hounded out of office simply because of his faith, despite his 37 years of unblemished service.
Chief Vernon's experience offers us an opportunity to examine a classic case of "faith under fire." His situation bears all the typical components: a very troubling event, an element of injustice or unfairness (Why me?), a silent God who could have intervened but didn't, and a million unanswered questions. Have you ever been there?
Bob was asked to speak at a recent chapel service for the employees of Focus on the Family, and he elected to discuss his own difficulties. I think you'll find his remarks helpful, especially if you're enduring your own private trial at this time.
This is what the veteran policeman said to our staff:
When it became apparent that Daryl Gates would soon resign as Chief of Police, an article appeared in a Los Angeles magazine. It said, "Those who are anxious to get rid of Gates ought to see who's standing in the wings to take his place. It's one Robert Vernon, who has very strange religious beliefs." Then they listed three things that I had reportedly said in a speech recorded 14 years earlier. I stand by what I actually said, and I'm not apologizing for it. Those concepts came from the Word of God. But the magazine perverted my actual comments and said, "First, he believes homosexuality is a sin." That's true. Second, they said, "He believes that women should submit to men." That's not true. I referred to what the Bible says about mutual submission in husband-wife relationships. Third, my critics twisted what I had said about child discipline. I was talking about a father who had not kept his promise to his son and provoked the boy to wrath. When the child became rebellious, the father said, "If you have a rebel on your hands, you have to break him—and to break him you have to beat him." I was quoting the father, not speaking for myself. I went on to say, "Who was wrong in this scenario? The father was at fault, not the son."
The magazine, however, ascribed the father's words to me, and then concluded, "Here's what Chief Vernon thinks about raising children." They edited the tape in such a way that the listener heard only my voice recommending that we beat children until they break. That edited tape was given to the news media, which released it widely. It was a very clever maneuver.
As a result, my reputation was severely damaged. I eventually had to leave the Los Angeles Police Department and have not been able to get a job in police work elsewhere. I recently applied for a position north of Denver, but they didn't even interview me. I am, you see, a religious kook. I believe weird things. I now know what Solomon meant when he said, “A good name is better than gold and silver, yea, precious stones.”
I even have Christian friends who have heard my recording on the radio and said, "We know you denied it, Bob, but we heard you say that children should be beaten until they break." I try to explain, but sometimes it's hard to make them understand. I have to confess something to you. I not only got depressed about this situation, but I also became angry at God. And that wasn 't right.
About that time I had an experience that helped clarify some things for me. My son and I decided to float down the Colorado River on a raft. It was a dramatic ride, I can assure you. We left with 18 friends from a place called Lee's Ferry. As we floated out for the eight-day journey, someone said, "Well, we're committed." We sure were. By the third day there were some who had had enough. But that was too bad. There was no way out of the canyon except down the river. That's the way the Lord works when we're faced with a time of difficulty, don 't think about ways to squirm out of trouble. Jus stay committed and you'll come through in due course.
There were some extremely turbulent places along the path of the river. At Lava Falls, for example, the raft dropped 37 vertical feet in a distance of 75 feet. Our raft-master, named Robin, would say as we approached such a place, "This is gonna be a good one." By that he meant, "We're all gonna die!" Finally, we came to Kermit Falls, which for us was the most violent spot in the river. Suddenly, Robin seemed to lose control of the raft just as we started down the rapids. It spun sideways at the worst possible moment. For an instant, I was tempted to jump overboard. I really thought we were going to die. Then I heard the big Evinrude engine roaring at peak performance behind the raft. I realized that Robin had turned sideways on purpose. Then I saw a huge, jagged rock that had tumbled down from the walls of that great canyon. It was sticking up menacingly in the center of the river. That's why Robin spun the craft. He did it so the full power of the motor could push us around the dangerous rock. If I had jumped from the raft, I'd have drowned or would have been crushed on the jagged rock.
To those of you who are plunging over the falls today, resist the temptation to jump overboard! God knows what He is doing. He has your raft sideways for a reason. Even though your reputation may have been ruined, you're depressed, and you're wondering what to do next. If you’ll listen carefully, you’ll hear the One who said to David, "Trust in Me!"
From my experience on the river, and from reading Psalm 37, I've learned not to fret. I've confessed my anger to him and said, "You know what You're doing even though my raft seems out of control. I will trust you. I delight in You. I've committed my way unto You. Now, I'm 'resting' in my circumstances." But then, I had to learn the most difficult lesson of all. As my wife and I read the other Psalms, one word kept jumping out at us. It was the word, "wait."
"No, Lord! I don't want to wait. I want relief today. Please take revenge on those who have hurt me." But He says, "Be still and know that I am God." Then He led me to the final four verses in Psalm 3 7, which tell us:
"Consider the blameless, observe the upright; there is a future for the man of peace. But all sinners will be destroyed; the future of the wicked will be cut off. The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him" (Psalm 37:37-40).1
1 You can read Bob Vernon's story in greater detail in his book: Robert L. Vernon, L.A. Justice (Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family, 1993).
Those words from Chief Vernon reflect great maturity and faith, considering the injustice and pain he and his wife, Esther, have suffered. I have shared his message here because so many of my readers have experienced similar difficulties. Are you one of them? Is your raft skidding sideways in the river today? Is it plunging down the rapids towards the rocks below, terrifying everyone on board? Have you considered jumping into the river and trying to swim to safety on your own? That is or precisely what Satan would have you do. He wants you to give up on God, who seems to have lost control of your circumstances. But I urge you not to leave the safety of His protection. The Captain knows what He is doing. There are purposes that you cannot perceive or comprehend. You may never understand—at least not in this life—but you must not let go of your faith. It is, after all, "the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1, KJV).
Before pressing on, there is another example of "faith under fire" that I think is worth considering. It occurred in the family of Dr. Jim and Sally Conway and will represent the experience of millions around the world. Whereas Chief Vernon struggled with injustice and professional embarrassment, the Conways dealt with an even more serious problem. The life of their precious daughter was threatened. I'll let Dr. Conway tell his own story, as heard on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast:
When our daughter was 15 years of age, she began having trouble with one of her knees. For a year and one-half she saw doctors, had laboratory tests and scans, and two extensive biopsies on the tumor they found. We waited for weeks for word from the many pathology labs around the United States who were studying her mysterious lump. Finally one evening our physician came to our house and gave some very distressing news. He said that Becki had a malignancy, and that it was necessary to amputate her leg. You can imagine how that devastated Sally and me. I refused to believe it. I determined to prevent this surgery by praying until God promised to heal her.
"You're not going to have your leg amputated, "I told Becki. "I believe God is going to do a miracle. He said we could come to Him in times of trouble. I'm absolutely convinced you are going to be spared this surgery."
Our church then began a 24-hour vigil of fasting and prayer. Thousands of people around the United States and overseas were praying for Becki's healing.
On the morning when the surgery was scheduled, I said to our physician, "Scott, as you go into the operating room, please verify that the cancer has been healed. God is going to come through. I'm sure."
He left and did not immediately return. Forty-five minutes went by, and still, Sally, my other two daughters, and I sat in the waiting room. An hour passed, and then two. I began to realize that a lengthy medical procedure must be in progress. Then the doctor came out and told me that they had amputated Becki's leg. I was absolutely shattered. I was crushed. I lost God! In anger, I was beating on the walls of the hospital and saying, "Where are You, God? Where are You?"
I was in a state of shock and wandered down to the morgue in the basement of the hospital. That's where I felt I belonged, surrounded by death. I was dealing with more than Becki's surgery, as terrible as that was. I struggled to handle the theological implications of what had happened. I could not understand why God permitted this to happen. You see, if I had been a plumber instead of a pastor, I could have gone out to fix pipes the next day, and my spiritual confusion would not have affected my work. But my job required me to stand before people and teach them the principles of the Bible. What could I tell them now?
If I had been a liberal pastor who didn't believe the Bible to be literally true, I could have survived by doing book reviews and talking about irrelevant stuff. But I pastored a Bible church. My style of teaching was exposition of the Word, reviewing it verse by verse and drawing out its meaning. How could I go back and tell my people that God had let my daughter lose her leg? It was a terrible moment in my life.
As I sat outside the morgue that day, a friend found me in the bowels of the hospital and came to my rescue. He was a Godsend to me! I'm not part of the Charismatic movement, but it was Dick Foth, an Assembly of God pastor, who stood by my side and cried with me and prayed for me. He said, "I'm not worried about Becki. I'm worried about you. There are a couple of thousand people in your church and thousands more elsewhere who are hanging on for you. You're going to get through this." Then he and two other guys took turns working with me. One would go for a coffee break and the others would take over. They just kept me talking—letting me spill out the frustration and the anger.
They didn't condemn me even though I was so angry at God. At one point I said, "I think He was so busy finding a parking spot for a little old lady that He didn't have time to save Becki's leg." Dick would listen and then say, "Is there anything else you need to say?" I didn 't have to worry that if I said something disturbing, maybe these guys would doubt God. I didn't worry about them giving up on me. I didn't have to hold anything in and say, "I've got to keep up the professional front because I'm a preacher. I've got to be good." They let me deal with the pain.
When a person is going through this kind of terrible depression, some believers don't know how to respond. They say, “I’ll pray for you,” which may mean, "I'm no longer really listening to you." That can be a way of ending one's responsibility to shoulder the load. In fact, when it comes to bearing one another's burdens, the secular world sometimes does that job better than we do. They know the importance of letting resentment and anger spill out, whereas Christians may feel they have to hold it inside. The Scripture tells us, "The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles" (Psalm 34:17).
It also bothered me later when people began offering simplistic explanations and flippant comments to "cheer me up." It was irritating when they quoted Romans 8:28, "all things work together for good," when they had not earned the right to brush off my pain. I wanted to say, "Tell me about it, Charlie. Tell me about it when your 16-year-old daughter's leg is amputated. Come back when you've gone through something like this, and then we'll talk again." Sometimes we get so used to the "cheer-up" mode in Christianity that we become unreal. I almost heard people saying to me in those days, "Shhhhh! Don't say those things. What if God hears them?"
As if God didn't know what I was thinking and struggling with! God knew what I was going through, and He understood my passion. My love for Becki originated with Him in the first place. So who would I be trying to fool by covering up the agony of my soul?
I remember a guy I saw in a restaurant a few days after Becki underwent surgery. He was sitting at a table, and as I walked by he reached out and grabbed my coat. He said, "Jim, I think God has allowed this to happen because it has brought about a revival in our church."
I said, "So what is God going to do to bring another revival when this one passes, chop off Becki's other leg? Then her arm and her other arm? There isn't enough of Becki to keep any church spiritually alive, if that is what it takes."
When you start reaching for puny answers like that, it dehumanizes those who suffer and insults our magnificent God who loves and cares for the oppressed. I couldn't explain why Becki had to lose her leg, but I knew the answers being given were not right.
Probably the most important thing I learned in this entire process is this: I became deeply aware that there were only two choices that I could make. One was to continue in my anger at God and follow the path of despair I was on. The other choice was to let God be God, and somehow say, "I don't know how all this fits together. I don't understand the reasons for it. I'm not even going to ask for the explanation. I've chosen to accept the fact that You are God and I'm the servant, instead of the other way around. "And there I left it.
It was in that choice that I came to cope with my situation. I frankly admit that after all these years, I still struggle with some things. I still get sick to my stomach when I see my daughter hopping on one leg. But I have come to recognize that God has a higher purpose and I just don't understand that purpose. I am prepared to wait until eternity to receive answers to my questions, if necessary. Like Job, I am now able to say, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" (Job 13-15, KJV). It's either despair, or it's the acceptance of His sovereignty. Those are the alternatives.
Let me say it again. It's either despair, or it's God. There's nothing in between. Our family has chosen to hold on to God.2
[HE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THE VERSES IN ECCLESIASTES “BUT TIME AND CHANCE HAPPEN TO ALL THEM; FOR MAN KNOWS NOT HIS TIME…..WHEN IT FALLS SUDDENLY UPON THEM” (9: 11-12). WE, MOST OF THE TIME, JUST DO NOT KNOW WHAT LIES AROUND THE CORNER FOR US OR ANYONE WE KNOW AND LOVE. SO WE HAVE TO MOVE IN CHRISTIANITY WITH THIS IN MIND - ENJOY AND APPRECIATE EVERY DAY WE HAVE THAT IS “NORMAL” - GOD DOES NOT SAY WHEN WE BECOME HIS CHILD, THAT WE AND OUR LOVED ONES WILL BE IMMUNE FROM WHAT LIFE CAN THROW AT US. IF THIS MAN HAD KNOW ALL THIS THE DIFFICULTY AND HEARTACHE WOULD HAVE BEEN MUCH EASIER TO BEAR. AS ALSO JOB SAID, “GOD GIVES AND GOD TAKES AWAY.” CHRISTIANITY IS NOT A SURE WAY OF ALWAYS HAVING A NICE ROSE GARDEN, EVEN ROSES HAVE THORNS AMONG THEIR BEAUTY. ALL NEW CHRISTIANS NEED TO BE TAUGHT THIS, THAT THE GREAT APOSTLES HAD AT TIMES, THE NOT SO NICE THINGS COME THEIR WAY; SOME MORE AND SOME LESS, SOME FEW A PRETTY SMOOTH SAILING LIKE THE APOSTLE JOHN, WHO LIVED A LONG LIFE WITH LITTLE TROUBLES FROM WHAT WE KNOW. ALL OF THIS SHOULD BE TAUGHT BY PASTORS TO THEIR FLOCK AND TO THEMSELVES - Keith Hunt]
Thank you, Dr. Jim Conway, and your wife Sally and daughter Becki, for letting us share your deepest pain. Seldom in the Christian community have we witnessed such honesty and vulnerability. I trust that God will continue to use your experience to strengthen the faith of those who sit alone today, symbolically, in the morgue. All they have believed and hoped has been assaulted by the forces of hell. The philosophical and theological foundation on which everything rests has just given way. So what do they do now?
There is only one answer, and it is the conclusion drawn by Dr. Jim Conway in his hour of crisis: Don't demand explanations. Don't lean on your ability to understand. Don't turn loose of your faith. But do choose to trust Him, by the exercise of the will He has placed within you. The only other alternative—is despair.
2 You can read Jim, Sally, and Becki's story in greater detail in their book, Becki Conway Sanders and Jim & Sally Conway, Trusting God in a Family Crisis (Downers Grove, 111 InterVarsity Press, 1989
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