Results tagged “Suffering” from Reformation21 Blog

Conflict, Comfort and the Cross

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Last week, a gunman entered First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and killed 26 people, wounding 20 others. The massacre was brutal and left what will surely be scars on all of those who survived, many of whom were young children. Usually there is some sort of grieving period that decorum allows in the aftermath of such events, but as civilization abandons any pretense at care or compassion that grieving period is quickly disappearing.

One of the nastiest things about the internet is that it allows angry and grieving people to abstract the people they are writing about from reality. People are able to speak freely even when they know what they have to say is cruel or even evil. It should be no secret in the Christian community that the world thinks that we're foolish. We acknowledge it, but sometimes we see it in ugly ways.

Perhaps the most despicable reactions came from Actor Michael McKean, who mocked the dead on Twitter and attacked those who encouraged prayer for the people in the church: "They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else." Wil Wheaton attacked one politician who expressed sympathy and prayers for those who had lost so much: "If prayers did anything, they'd still be alive."

I do not wish to judge these men as human beings. I don't know them in their everyday lives. I don't know what they've been through or what they've seen, but someone who understands the cross would never say these sorts of things. These are the responses of people who do not understand the cross.

The mockery of the unbelieving world assumes a few significant things. It assumes that God would never permit his people to die. It assumes that suffering isn't part of God's plan. It assumes that if prayer "worked" then God's people would just keep on living. And most fundamentally it assumes that God builds his church on power and strength. There's an entire worldview of assumptions that have to be true if their mockery could have any basis, but of course all of these assumptions miss the cross.

The cross was the ultimate and willing display of weakness. When many think of the cross they think, perhaps of an identifying marker, a beautiful piece of jewelry, or some elaborate symbol. But the cross was horrible, ugly, and nonsensical. It was a weapon of death, akin to the rack or the guillotine. At the core of the Christian religion is the conviction that death is the road to life and weakness is the road to strength. That's totally upside down from the rest of the world.

Paul says that "the world did not know God through wisdom" (1 Cor. 1:21). What he means is that if you were trying to dream up a way to rescue people from hell, the conclusion that reason would take you to is a show of power, a demonstration of strength. This is why the religious leaders mocked Jesus as he died: "Let him come down from the cross, and [then] we will believe in him." And in a sense that mockery is echoed in the sentiments of men like Wheaton and McKean. The cross is foolish to these men (1 Cor. 1:18-25). What else would we expect?

You see, the mockers also don't understand that Christians are called by Christ himself to carry the cross, too. If McKean, Wheaton, and their tribe don't understand the cross, then they certainly won't get what Christians are called to carry. What the saints at First Baptist Church were called to carry last week. Jesus spent a huge quantity of his earthly ministry preparing his disciples to suffer and carry the cross.

I do fear, however, that as Christians, we also forget these truths. How often do we prize earthly power, success, cultural authority, and the respect of those outside of the church? Prizing these things is a sign that we've learned to think like the world, too.

Sometimes I fear that as Christians we are far too easily embarrassed by the opinions of the watching world. The base ideas about Christ that the world works with assume the narrative of power and strength. The truth we need to remember is quite the opposite.

The truth that suffering and loss is intrinsic to the Christian religion and to our own lives as believers means that church shootings, religious persecution, and difficulty shouldn't be the exception for Christians. We should understand comfort and ease to be the real exceptions.

Cruciform Suffering

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The fact that the incarnate Son of God "learned obedience" (Heb. 5:8) is an essential aspect of Jesus' human nature and so is indispensable to sound Christology and soteriology. Apart from the cross itself, the clearest example we have of this "learning" is probably found in the Synoptic accounts of our Lord's prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22). While Jesus' obedience is of unparalleled import for our justification, his example of submitting to his Father's will and so learning obedience through suffering is also a unique model for our sanctification, the goal of which is nothing less than Christ-conformity.

The Gospel accounts of this prayer show Jesus' desire to avoid the cup of the Father's wrath against sin, but only if that can be done in accord with his Father's will. While this raises some interesting theological questions, the Synoptics give more attention to the subjective or experiential facet of Jesus' prayer. Similarly, our personal appropriation of the text merits serious reflection, not least because submitting one's will to God's when that means accepting suffering involves nothing less than putting to death the remnants of the old man (Mark 8:34-35).

Although Jesus is the supreme example of learning obedience through suffering, the Gospel accounts do not provide a detailed analysis of how this learning took place. For that reason, and because the Old Testament figure of Job exhibits both similarities and differences with respect to Jesus' example, we turn first to the Book of Job before returning to the Gospels (and to the gospel) in order to reflect on how we might imitate Christ in the way that he learned obedience.

Job is clearly a dynamic character in the book that bears his name. At the beginning and end of his suffering, Job accepted the mysterious providence of his trial, trusting firmly in God's wisdom and justice. The narrator affirms twice that at the outset of his trials Job's responses to his suffering were without sin (1:21; 2:10), and at the end of the book Job not only repents of his flawed interpretation of his suffering (and of God), but even intercedes on behalf of his friends. In doing so he demonstrates restored and even strengthened confidence in God's justice, mercy, and goodness.

But what of the bulk of the book of Job, sandwiched between the opening and closing narratives? After an unspecified period of suffering in which he did not draw into question God's goodness and justice and on the contrary affirmed them, Job eventually changes and utters a lengthy curse in chapter three. Who can doubt that over time Job's suffering, compounded by the fear that God had become his enemy (3:23), tore relentlessly at his faith? Eventually his faith wavered, and the curse-lament of Job 3 demonstrates profound differences when compared to Job's beliefs and attitudes in chapter 2. In chapter 3, Job feels that it would have been better for him not to have existed, and he draws into question God's wisdom and goodness as well as the usefulness of such immense suffering in his life. Job expresses these sentiments at several later points in the book prior to God's theophanic arrival (16:7-14; 23:1-7; 30:20-23), and his discourse culminates in a bold challenge for God to answer his accusations (31:35-37).

The differences between Job's lament (which the book does not condone) and those we find in the psalms (e.g., Pss 10; 22) are significant. Hartley notes that Job voices no affirmation of trust nor any vow to praise God after his deliverance, and omits any review of God's faithful character and past intervention on his behalf ("From Lament to Oath," 89-91). As of chapter 31 Job "is not there yet," and God's two speeches in chapters 38-42 are necessary to convey the knowledge Job needs to understand and even profit from his extreme suffering. God's words to Job affirm divine justice over against Job's accusations and highlight Job's incomplete understanding of creation and providence. God draws Job's attention to the "counsel" that Job's words have darkened in 38:2 (referring to God's governance of the world), the tension between Job's desire to affirm his righteousness over against God's in 40:8, and the reality that divine justice (at least sometimes) is brought about gradually (38:12-15). In response to this wisdom instruction, Job "repents," which in this context means that he recognizes his epistemological limitations, rejects his earlier view of God's culpable involvement in his suffering, and accepts God's self-description as good, just, and beyond his comprehension. Amazingly, this takes place before his suffering has ended.

Let's come back now to the double significance of Jesus' obedient suffering, especially as seen through the lens of his prayer in Gethsemane. On the one hand, because of our Lord's perfect obedience, obeying to the point of death on a cross, our sins are atoned for and his perfect righteousness is ours. On the other, he calls us to suffer with him and to follow Him while bearing our cross. One could almost say that these two poles constitute Christianity's unique approach to suffering (which we can define as physical, emotional, and/or spiritual pain that is not demonstrably sent as discipline for our sin). Living on this side of the cross and the empty tomb, especially when seen against the immediate backdrop of Gethsemane, our understanding of why God sends suffering into the lives of His children is significantly greater than what Job enjoyed. We see the cross followed by the resurrection as the grounds of our justification, we have received the Holy Spirit who testifies to the certainty of our eschatological adoption (Rom 8:15-17), and we await with impatience the new heavens and the new earth, "in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pet 3:13). These redemptive-historical advances demonstrate God's righteousness and grace, and address with brilliant clarity the questions that plagued Job: Where is God's justice? How can the just suffer? Why must the just suffer? Yet the difficulty of Christian suffering remains. Although the goal is nothing less than Christ-conformity, this conformity is inherently cruciformity.

As we know from experience, doubts about God's goodness or the strong conviction that another set of circumstances would better promote our Christ-conformity (or both!) are only too quick to arise in our hearts when we are faced with suffering. Before the final stage of his suffering, Jesus sinlessly petitioned his Father to remove the cup from him if it were possible, always adding that the Father's will was, in the end, also his. Thus even before the response to his prayer was clear, Jesus was ready to accept the cup from his Father's hand. His obedience was neither a perfunctory acquiescence nor something born of compulsion, but rather a sincere (if trembling) embracing of the Father's will.

Depending on our state of heart and mind, the fact that God's fatherly providence is not arbitrary can be either a source of temptation to doubt his goodness (God forbid!) or the soil in which patience, humility, and even joyful optimism can grow. Not only is conformity to Christ's death inseparable from conformity to His resurrection (what Calvin called our "true destiny," on Matt. 2:23, CDCL 45), but offering ourselves to God entails "a real gladness which arises from the love we have for Him to whom our self-offering is made" (Calvin, on Deut 7:7-10, CDCL 34). A positive response to suffering requires that we understand that since God's power and wisdom are both perfect and without limit, our current circumstances are the best way for God to develop our conformity to the image of His Son. We must remind ourselves that of all possible paths, at this moment this trial is what our heavenly Father wills for us. Even in the most extreme suffering, victory in and over suffering is guaranteed by (and cannot be separated from the experience of) the love of Him who "did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all" (Rom 8:39). Suffering believers can therefore know, with utmost certainty, that their heavenly Father is using their present, very unpleasant circumstances to conform them to the image of his Son and to teach them the profound power and glory of his love.

"Take up your cross and follow me," Jesus says; "learn obedience as I learned it." Why not another way, any other way? Scripture's answer is that only such a trial, one that cannot be understood here and now, creates a situation in which we can submit our wisdom and our will to God's ("if it be possible . . . yet not my will. . . "). In so doing we will learn that God can be trusted, loved, and honored through a trial which may never be understood this side of glory. Though God's ways are often beyond our understanding, in our suffering we can be certain that though this trial our heavenly Father is lovingly, justly, and wisely conforming us to the death and the resurrection of His Son. "Whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:35).


Daniel Timmer is the Professor of Old Testament at the Faculté de théologie évangélique (Acadia) in Montreal.

These Present Sufferings

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As I write, the United Kingdom is still reeling from the latest terrorist atrocity to be unleashed in one of our major cities. It was particularly horrific in that it was deliberately targeted at children and teenagers attending a pop concert. The grief of those affected has been broadcast widely and it is impossible not to be deeply touched by their anguish - anguish repeatedly expressed in gut-wrenching groans. No matter how much the media and its pundits try to make sense of what has happened, words are inadequate to plumb the depths of pain.

Tragically, there is nothing new in this. This same week saw another terrorist incident back in the headlines--one that took place 41 years ago in Ireland. Four decades on and no one charged for the offense and the surviving members of the victims' families still expressing the raw pain of the loss they have lived with all that time. All this but another symptom of what C.S. Lewis aptly called, The Problem of Pain.

Something in all of us (Christians included) desperately wants to say something in response to these catastrophes, but in doing so we can easily stray into saying too much, or too little. We rarely get the balance right. In light of that we can be thankful for the many places in the Bible where God's words strike just the right balance. And what God says through his servant Paul is a prime example of getting it right.

Addressing the church in Rome, he speaks about 'our present sufferings' and declares they 'are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us (Ro 8.18). Far from being a cop out by kicking the problem of pain into the long (and currently inaccessible) grass of the world to come, this actually provides the springboard for a realistic look at the world in its 'present' state and why it is in this state.

With a significant choice of words, the apostle speaks first of all about creation 'groaning' (8.22), and how 'we ourselves [Christians]...groan inwardly' (8.23), then of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for believers 'with groans that words cannot express' (8.26). Language that speaks of something deep that must be expressed, but for which no normal vocabulary exists.

This in itself would suggest we can go no further. If words are inadequate to communicate these deep sentiments, then why write any more? Except that Paul sets these groanings in a very specific context: that of a fallen world.

The 'present' in which these troubles are ours is what Paul describes more fully to the Galatians as 'this present evil age' (Ga 1.4). The age that began in the aftermath of Adam's fall into sin. An age that is marked, not merely by the inescapable propensity to sin innate in every human being, but also by the consequences and collateral damage sin leaves in its wake.

Interestingly, therefore, Paul speaks first and foremost of 'creation' itself 'groaning as in the pains of childbirth' in this context. Earlier he depicts creation as waiting 'in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed' (8.19). He is referring to the parousia and 'the restoration of all things' associated with that day (Ac 3.21). He portrays it as if the entire created order was standing on tiptoe trying to see over the horizon of time for the first sign of the arrival of that day.

Although our pets may do their fair share of 'groaning' (when they are hungry or lonely) most of creation is inanimate and incapable of expressing any sentiment. So Paul is simply personifying its non-human elements as displaying discontent over its abnormality. The world and universe in their present state are not what God intended them to be; but one day that state of affairs will be changed.

When it comes to how humans respond, however, things are different. We can articulate our thoughts and feelings, however imperfectly. For those who are not Christians and cannot reach for God's word to shed light into the darkness and confusion of our world, they do express themselves in a multitude of ways, but ways that fall short of real comfort or hope. But those 'who have the firstfruits of the Spirit' - believers (8.23) - things are different. We too still groan - indicating the many aspects of present experience we cannot now fathom - but in a way that is tempered by 'hope' (8.24-25). And this enables patience in our affliction.

Paul's last reference to groaning is the one that is most intriguing. He says that the Holy Sprit helps God's children in their weakness, but does so by interceding for us 'with groans that words cannot express' (1.26). How could it be said that the Holy Spirit was somehow lost for words? Perhaps because Paul is giving us a glimpse of the fact that as the glory of God in his being and works go beyond the limits of language to adequately express, so too sin and its consequences do the same. And nowhere is that more plainly visible than on the cross. There we are confronted simultaneously with the word-defying horror of what put Christ on that cross but also the indescribable glory of what he was doing there. And just as the shameful reality of our sin and what it deserve leaves 'every mouth silenced' before God (Ro 3.19), so too when we are confronted with the glory of the Lamb who was slain for our salvation.

The fact the Spirit condescends to 'groan' on our behalf shows there are no simplistic explanations or answers to the anguish that lies behind our groaning. This should say something to us as Christians as we try to speak into the pain that surrounds us in our world. Sometimes it is best to just 'weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn' - but do so as those 'who share in the sufferings of Christ.'

 

Rev. Mark Johnston is the pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cardiff, Wales. He is the author of Let's Study JohnLet's Study Colossians and Philemon and Let's Study 2 Peter and Jude.  You can follow him on Twitter at @revmgjohnston.

Affliction Evangelism

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"This light momentary affliction," Paul writes, "is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor. 4:17). Paul's use of the singular noun "affliction" in 2 Cor. 4:7 is intriguing. Paul doesn't say afflictions (plural), which would suggest periodic suffering in the life of the Christian. Nor, to all appearances, is he referring to some specific episode of suffering in his own life and ministry, though Paul's life and ministry certainly contained episodes of more concentrated difficulty. He seems, rather, to be making a point generic to all Christians (hence the "for us"). "This light momentary affliction," then, seems to be a reference to the entirety of the Christian's life on this side of eternity. The Christian's life in toto can be characterized as one singular "affliction." The whole thing is hard. The hardship of the Christian life doesn't preclude joy. Nor does it preclude any number of concrete pleasures in this life (family, friendships, craft beer, pillow fights, etc.). But the life of the faithful Christian will, as a whole, be difficult.

That's a hard pill for us as Americans to swallow. Our culture puts tremendous pressure on us not just to be happy -- to pursue happiness in the here and now at any cost -- but also to look happy. Hence selfies. Selfies exist, I'm convinced, not to preserve or trigger their subjects' memories of places visited, things seen, and experiences experienced, but to be posted to some form of social media in order to project a certain image of their subjects; namely, the image of fun, adventurous, and (above all) happy people. Paul's designation of life as an "affliction" invites us to abandon the very pretense our culture bids us maintain. Acknowledging life as difficult is both scary, because it pushes against the grain of cultural expectations, and liberating, because it invites us to stop pretending that everything's peachy all the time.

But why must life be so hard for Christians? Difficulty in life is typically attended by confusion on the part of those undergoing it. The question "why?" seems to follow inevitably in the train of suffering. There seems to be a logic to Paul's sequence: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair" (2 Cor. 4:8). There is, of course, the obvious response that life is hard for Christians because it's hard for everyone in consequence of the Fall. But Paul, in 2 Cor. 4:7-12, outlines a particular logic for the suffering that Christians' encounter, a logic that, if grasped, might help Christians endure in the midst of difficulty. The suffering Paul seems especially to have in mind in these verses is persecution as a result of efforts to share the Gospel. But the logic for suffering he outlines, I think, has applicability to other forms of hardship.

Christians suffer, first of all, because God delights to triumph in weakness. "We have this treasure in jars of clay," Paul writes, "to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." The treasure that Christians' possess and seek to share with the world is the Gospel and its fruits. But their efforts to share that treasure with the world generally reap trouble. Life as a clay jar ain't pretty (see 2 Cor. 4:8-9). It's not surprising, of course, that efforts to share the Gospel with others result in unpleasantness. The Gospel is an affront to those who would deny any absolute moral standard because they wish to live their lives without accountability or consequence. It's even more of an affront to those who would acknowledge an absolute moral standard, but insist upon their own ability to meet that standard. The Gospel, in other words, is offensive.

But God grows his kingdom through the means of Christian witness, however much attended by animosity from the world. There is, in fact, a correspondence between the manner in which God accomplishes salvation through the person and work of His Son and the manner in which he advances his kingdom through the application of Christ's work to elect sinners. God triumphed over sin, death, and hell through apparent weakness -- an apparently deluded man hanging on a cross, Rome's most despicable instrument of capital punishment. God brings sinners through faith into a share in Christ's kingdom through equally apparent weakness -- persecuted, perplexed, and suffering Christians, feebly testifying to the treasure that they possess and trying to share it with others. Jars of clay. Significantly for our theme, the weakness of the means (i.e., us) that God has chosen to advance his kingdom ensures that all glory and praise for the same will be returned to him in the final analysis. The "surpassing power" that brings fruition to the efforts of silly people proclaiming a silly message clearly "belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7).

But there is a further logic to suffering outlined in these verses, which is this: Suffering turns our lives into sermons. Suffering may or may not show us what we're made of (as the saying goes), but it will definitely show us and others where our hope, where our identity, and where our confidence lay. The suffering Christian, in other words, becomes a form of Gospel proclamation to the world. Feed a Christian to the lions, or give a Christian some incurable disease, and what do you discover? Someone who ultimately has more invested in the life to come than this present life. Someone who can face pain and even death with ultimate hope rather than despair. Strip a Christian of his job and livelihood and what do you discover? Someone whose identity is rooted less in a profession or job title than it is in the reality of God's love and Christ's work for him. Someone whose confidence rests in God's sovereign provision more than it does in a bank account. Soak the Christian in trouble and then wring that Christian out, and what will pour from that Christian is the Gospel in visible, lived, concrete form. What will pour from that Christian, in other words, is confidence that nothing this world throws at him/her can jeopardize his/her treasure, namely, the Gospel and all that it comprises, which is chiefly the prospect of eternity in God's presence (2 Cor. 4:17).

Paul makes it clear in the opening chapters of 2 Cor. 4 that one aspect of our calling as witnesses to Christ is to make "open statement of the truth" (i.e., open our mouths, and actually articulate the gospel to others.) In 2 Cor. 4:8-12 he makes it equally clear that "open statement of the truth" can be made with our lives in addition to our lips. "We who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you." Translation: We who are heirs of eternal life with God ("we who live") will regularly get the snot kicked out of us in life ("are always being given over to death"). But suffering has a purpose ("for Jesus' sake"). It puts our hope in Christ on full display to others. It turns our lives per se into a form of witness ("so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh").

Suffering is no fun, no matter how we gloss it. But seeing the opportunity that suffering affords to proclaim the Gospel with our lives may go some way towards helping us to "count it all joy when we encounter trials of various kinds" (James 1:2).

 

Shusaku's Silence

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Some readers may be curious about the forthcoming Martin Scorsese film, Silence. The story follows two Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who leave Portugal in order to discover the fate of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a missionary to Japan whom rumor has it had abandoned the faith. Although I have not seen the movie, I have read the book that the movie is based on. I have some spoilery reflections on the book, but since I haven't seen the movie I'm not necessarily prepared to comment on it or recommend it.

My suspicion is that the majority of Christians in the west, much like myself, have never heard about the earliest Catholic missions to Japan in the 17th Century. The Jesuits came to Japan in 1549, and while I should not (and cannot) here give a history of Christianity in Japan, it is worth admitting that the 1630s and 40s were a time of unbearable persecution. The tortures exacted on the Christians of Japan during this time are horrifying to consider.

Shusaku Endo's book Silence, a fictionalized account of these true events, was written in the 1960s by a Roman Catholic.  I speak of this book as neither a Roman Catholic, nor as someone with any special or unique knowledge of the history of Christianity in Japan. One of Endo's enduring themes is the incompatibility of Christianity (or any other religion) with the Japanese culture. One of Endo's repeating themes in this book is that Japan is a "swamp" which takes, changes, and transforms ideologies until they no longer resemble their former selves. From reading the translator's preface, one can see that there are autobiographical aspects to this argument. Endo sees a struggle within his own heart away from his Catholicism, and in one interview said that in spite of his own religious upbringing, "there was always that feeling in my heart that it was something borrowed, and I began to wonder what my real self was like. This I think is the 'mud swamp' Japanese in me." So for Endo, Christianity can never really take root in Japan unless it changes, transforms, or adapts. Of course, this is a popular modern theme, this idea that Christianity will wither and die if it does not change with the times. It seems harder to believe here in the West where most people still preserve some nominally religious veneer. It's a bit more persuasive when one considers that less than 1% of people in Japan are Christian. I do not agree with Endo that Christianity must change in order to be received, but there is a tension here in the book. On the one hand Endo seems to think that Christianity needs to change. On the other hand, he seems to fault the corruption of Christianity in Japan with the Jesuit willingness to adapt.

Father Ferreira in the book does give a speech where he points out that the type of Christianity that has taken root in Japan is nothing resembling what they knew back in Portugal. Accommodations have been made for ancestral reverence, and the gods they worshipped haven't gone away - they've simply taken a back seat to Christ in the minds of the new Japanese converts. Ferreira faults the Jesuit tendency to adapt to local superstitions and customs rather than replacing them, implementing them into their version of Christian theology, thus transforming it into something entirely different. And so there is an interesting tension in the book. Was the accommodation of the Jesuits right or wrong in Endo's mind? If it was right, then why does Ferreira find fault with it? If it was wrong, then Endo seems to think Christianity wouldn't have even taken hold in the slightest.

I found myself utterly captivated by Silence. Reading this book was a remarkable experience for me. I will try to make the case here that Christians need to be made more aware of this book. It belongs on our bookshelves next to Walker Percy's The Moviegoer and the writings of Flannery O'Connor in the sense that it asks the hard questions, pushes the reader in painful ways, and doesn't offer preachy or simple answers.

[I warn that from here on out my review contains spoilers. If you want to read the book, I recommend that you get it and read it right away, but do stop reading this review!] The novel takes place in the 1630s after a Jesuit priest in Japan named Ferreira is reported to have apostatized from the faith. Finding this impossible to believe, the Priests Rodrigues and Garpe make the dangerous journey from Portugal to Japan in order to live as missionaries among the Japanese and also to find out what the truth is of Ferreira's fate. Half of the book is the written journal of Rodrigues, while the other half of the book is either written in a third person format, or contains the letters of others associated with the narrative. Rodriguez and Garpe are eventually captured by the authorities and witness horrific circumstances as they watch the Japanese Christians laying down their lives for the faith. There is no glory in these martyrdoms, as Rodriguez had always imagined. Rather, there is a brutality and cruelty which he had never imagined. Prior to the arrival of Rodriguez, the Japanese forced the priests to renounce the faith and tortured them until they did so, with none of them recanting. However, we soon discover that the Japanese chose a different method altogether, beginning with Ferreira. They use this same technique to great effect on Rodriguez, as well. Rather than torturing the priests, they torture the Christians, telling Rodriguez that all he must do is renounce the faith in order to end their sufferings.

Some of the greatest struggle in the book takes place as Rodriguez recounts his own psychological agony. There are hard questions. It is one thing to suffer for your own faith - to endure pain and suffering for the sake of one's love for Christ. But is it self-centered to refuse to recant in order to end another's suffering? "The price for your glory is their suffering," says Inoue.

At one climactic moment in the book, Rodriguez can hear the moaning of the Christians as they hang in the pit, their cries going up and reaching his ears. These Christians have all recanted, but they will not be released until Rodriguez tramples the image of Christ himself. Suddenly, the image of Christ speaks: "Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross." Rodriguez obeys, and the Christians are released.

The title of the book, Silence refers to Rodriguez' constant lament that God is silent as his people suffer. "Why is God continually silent while those groaning voices go on?" At one point Rodriguez is praying and he says, "'Lord, I resented your silence." He receives a reply: "I was not silent. I suffered beside you." The book is Job-like in its unwillingness to offer straight answers.

As the reader you can't help but wonder if what Rodriguez did is right or wrong. The book implies that he never really gives up believing, but that he spends the remainder of his days as a secret Christian of sorts, outwardly obeying the magistrate. As long as the priests stay away and Rodriguez continues as he is, the authorities promise to leave the Christians alone.

Later in the book, Inoue speaks to Rodriguez and he says, "I've told you. This country of Japan is not suited to the teaching of Christianity. Christianity simply cannot put down roots here...you were not defeated by me...You were defeated by this swamp of Japan."

Another character in the novel who matters a great deal is the weakling Kichijiro, who is a pathetic figure, folding under persecution every time, terrified of the authorities, turning in Father Rodriguez at one point, but always returning, always repenting. At one point Rodriguez is thinking of Kichijiro and he wonders to himself: "How many of our Christians, if only they had been born in another age from this persecution would never have been confronted with the problem of apostasy or martyrdom but would have lived blessed lives of faith until the very hour of death." What stinging words! To Christians who live in the West, free of persecution, free of tortures and pain it is so easy for us to judge one such as Kichijiro, and yet constantly throughout the novel we are confronted repeatedly by his tragic and pathetic figure. I think that we as readers would be wise to see ourselves in Kichijiro.

Part of the reason why this book became so controversial in Japan upon its release was that people read the book as theology and not as literature. Endo has complained about this, because he insists his purpose was not to offer up a story for theological dissection. Though I can't resist the urge completely, as you can see, I will do my best not to follow Endo's critics into the murky theological waters that this book seems to invite. Endo's novel is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Christians need to meditate upon the nature of suffering, the pains of martyrdom, and the difficult questions that confront us in this novel. I have lamented before that Protestant writers seem to be incapable of facing painful and hard existential questions like those in this book without resorting to preachy narrative devices. Silence is the exemplification of how to do a novel tackling the subject of faith and suffering head-on while avoiding the dreadfully tacky literary pitfalls we so often see all around us.

Martin Scorsese's adaptation of this film has been recently completed and it is expected that it will begin showing in theaters in time for awards season. I really hope that Scorsese is able to faithfully translate this book into film. I have my doubts, but I do suspect that if the trailer is any indication the film may hold very close to the novel.

Any theological system worth its salt affirms that faith is a gift from God rather than the exercise of some innate power of the human soul. But that affirmation can be misleading, particularly so if one's notion of "gift" is determined by the culture of gift-giving and gift-receiving we currently inhabit. In our day, we tend to think of gifts as something we may or may not want, and may or may not actually keep. The assumption that gifts can be refused is so engrained in our modern way of life that we include "gift receipts" with gifts given in order, rather bizarrely, to facilitate their rejection on the part of those to whom we give them. The danger, then, is that in speaking of faith as a divine gift, we think of it as something analogous to those argyle socks that Aunt Gertrude sends us every Christmas. Argyle socks may be appeal to some (personally I'm a fan), but many are likely to return the socks in favor of a DVD or some fancy accessory for their smart phones.

Faith isn't that kind of a gift. Faith is the kind of gift that transforms its recipient into one who deeply values it (because he supremely values its object) and henceforth longs for more of it. Genuine, saving faith is not given or received with a "gift receipt." There are absolutely no returns on the faith that God gifts to those upon whom he has set his saving affection before the foundation of the world. Faith, in other words, is entirely unique in the genus of gifts. If anyone else has discovered another gift that by its very nature renders its recipient desirous of it, please, please, let me know -- I'd like to order whatever it is for my wife well in advance of Christmas. Because faith is unique compared to presents we might give or receive, we must define our terms very carefully when speaking of it as "gift." Fortunately, our Christian tradition is rather rich in resources for doing just that.

Three individuals/resources stand out to me for how they properly clarify faith's character as gift: Augustine, the Canons of Dort, and Francis.

Augustine on Faith as Gift

The late fourth/early fifth century Church Father Augustine unambiguously names faith as a divine gift in his work On the Predestination of the Saints: "Faith, then, as well in its beginning as in its completion, is God's gift; and let no one have any doubt whatever, unless he desires to resist the plainest sacred writings, that this gift is given to some, while to some it is not given." Augustine describes the transformative nature of this gift in numerous writings. So for instance he notes in The Gift of Perseverance that "[God] himself ... gives to ... unbelievers the gift of faith, and makes willing men out of those that were unwilling." And again in On the Predestination of the Saints he writes concerning faith: "This grace, therefore, which is hiddenly bestowed in human hearts by the Divine gift, is rejected by no hard heart, because it is given for the sake of first taking away the hardness of the heart."

The Canons of Dort on Faith as Gift

The Canons of Dort similarly identify faith as a divine and transformative gift: "Faith in Jesus Christ ... and salvation through him is a free gift of God. [...] The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decree. [...] In accordance with this decree God graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of the elect and inclines them to believe, but by a just judgment God leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen." The transformative nature of God's gift-giving to his people is re-emphasized further on in the Canons: "When God ... works true conversion [in his elect], God not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds."

Francis on Faith as Gift

With all due deference to Augustine and Dort, no individual has influenced or informed my understanding of faith's nature as gift more than Francis. Not Francis of Assissi. Not Rome's current pope. Mike Francis, senior pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church (PCA) in DeLand, Florida. Mike has influenced and informed my understanding of faith's nature as gift less by his teaching (though also certainly by that) than by the events of his own life.

My wife and I moved from Scotland to Central Florida in the summer of 2013. We began attending Immanuel Presbyterian Church the week we arrived, and were blessed to sit under Mike Francis's teaching for nearly two years. Mike is hands down the best preacher I've ever heard. He's also the most faithful shepherd of a congregation's souls that I've ever met. Until the day I die, Mike will stand out in my mind as the model of what a Christian pastor should be.

In May of 2015 Mike suffered a heart attack while cycling several miles from his house in Deland. His heart stopped beating. He was subsequently revived. Fourteen minutes elapsed between the point at which he climbed or fell off his bicycle at the side of the road and the point at which the paramedics revived him. Mike suffered an anoxic brain injury as a result of his heart attack. When he awoke from a coma and eventually spoke in the weeks after his injury, it became evident that Mike had lost much of his short-term and long-term memory. Close friends and members of his congregation -- individuals Mike had prayed for, preached to, wept and rejoiced with -- were strangers to him. When Mike first returned to the corporate worship of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, he would approach individuals after the service and introduce himself with these words: "I'm Mike. Have I already spoken to you today?" Ten seconds after the conclusion of such a conversation, Mike would have no memory of it. There was every possibility he would return to you in minutes, saying "I'm Mike. Have I already spoken to you today?"

It's a terrible thing to witness an individual's loss of memory. One realizes in such situations just how substantially memory is constitutive of friendships and identity. In a very real sense, Mike was stripped of both by his accident. He was surrounded by persons who loved (and still love) him, but the fundamental bond of human friendship -- shared (and remembered) experiences -- was broken. He knew his name, but the narrative that was his life -- the narrative that defined him to himself and others -- was lost to him.

But Mike retained one thing fully intact despite the loss of so much that defined him: his faith that Jesus Christ has lived and died for him, and so secured his inheritance of eternal life with God and with God's people. Several weeks after his accident, Mike awoke from his coma a confused man but a strong believer in Jesus Christ. I visited Mike in the hospital when he was in a semi-comatose state, and I wondered whether Mike would ever fully awake. I visited Mike in the hospital after he awoke, and I wondered if he would ever speak. Six months after his accident Mike stood up at a congregational gathering of our church and admitted to his congregation that his entire life had changed as a result of his accident. He then added, with more than a spark of the enthusiasm and passion that characterized his preaching for so many years, that one thing had not changed: His relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, a relationship founded on the saving work of God the Son incarnate for him.

Faith is a gift, and truly "the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11.29). That reality became increasingly clear to me as I witnessed Mike's life and conversation following his accident. Stripped of nearly everything that defined him, Mike still had faith. Mike still had faith because his faith was never a product of his own intellect or volition. It was God's gift to him. The reality that faith is God's gift became, in fact, one of the most powerful lessons Mike ever taught his congregation. He taught that lesson unwittingly, and with a childlike simplicity and beauty that words cannot obtain. Indeed, he's still teaching that lesson to the members of Immanuel Presbyterian Church. And I suspect that God has many more lessons yet to teach his people in Deland and beyond through Mike Francis.


Please beseech God for further healing and peace for Rev. Mike Francis, comfort and endurance for Mike's immediate family members, and wisdom for the session of Immanuel Presbyterian Church as they chart a forward course for Mike and the congregation.

Jesus, the True and Greater Gardener - from Nick Batzig

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The Scriptures tell us that the Son of God began His sufferings in a Garden and brought them to a close in a Garden. That is an absolutely amazing display of God's wisdom. After all, Jesus is the second Adam undoing what Adam did and dong what Adam failed to do (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:47-49). He is the Heavenly Bridegroom, entering into His sufferings in a Garden for the redemption of His bride, the Church (. He is the Heavenly Gardener, giving Himself to the cultivation of the souls of His people through His atoning sacrifice and continual intercession. When He hung on the cross, He spoke of Glory under the name of "Paradise"--an evident allusion to the paradise in which our first parents dwelt and the paradise from which they fell. He is the second Adam who, by the shedding of His blood, secured the New Creation. As we consider the double entendres of the fourth Gospel, we come to those specifically concerning the biblical theology of the second Adam in the Garden. Consider the theological significance of the following two Garden settings in which Christ carried out the work of redemption:

Continue on Christward Collective.

Text link - http://info.alliancenet.org/christward/jesus-the-true-and-greater-gardener

God, Politics, and Evil

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Strange things happen in the days leading up to a national election. This morning's case was courtesy of the center article at CNN.com which reads "When 'God's Will,' Rape and Pregnancy Collide" (Caution: the article contains explicit details). Whatever political hiccup has given rise to this media maelstrom, the article undoubtedly brings up a profound theological and, even more immediately, deeply personal question: Does God will unspeakable evil to occur?

Any biblical answer to this question must take into account the full scope of God's self-revelation in Scripture, bow before his transcendent wisdom, coordinate our ethical discourse to His character, confess our human finitude, acknowledge the futility of unbelief, speak of His redeeming work in history, survey His unwavering promises, hope in His final judgment, and always look to the ruling Lamb who was slain by lawless men "according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23) to the praise of His glory.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to explore these Christian imperatives nor to evaluate the article's featured comments by Rabbi Harold Kushner (which are disturbing for their sentimentality) or Father Tom Reese (whose comments pose a false disjunction between biology and sovereignty). The intent here is to respond to what may be the gut-level reaction of too many who first hear of God's will and the world's wickedness in the same sentence. The article quotes Paul Root Wolpe, the director of the Center of Ethics at Emory University, as saying that the idea of God's willing (presumably, in any sense) evil is akin to asserting that "you shouldn't pull people out of the rubble because God intended the earthquake to happen or we shouldn't try to cure disease because it's God who gave us the disease."

Of course, we who hear such statements should respond with patience and charity. But we must also remember that the Bible understands such deterministic notions (and the passivity they entail) to be wholly antithetical to its own teaching concerning the will of God and human action, including the proper response of Christians to divinely ordained evil. For starters, David's violation of Bathsheba was evil because it was first an assault on God (Ps 51:4). Assyria received her punishment because of the God who controls nations as a man would wield a club (Is 10:15-16). Similarly, Christian service has value because of the Lord who consecrates it (Col 3:23-24). Though we cannot comprehend it, these examples alone teach that human action, whether for evil or in compassion, is intelligible only because of the God whose personal presence and sovereign will makes it so, and none of that entails the sort of God-endorsement of evil or Christians' toleration of it as the media seem to be suggesting.

So friends, in the face of evil, let's be biblical. Let's be Calvinists. But, as I've heard it said, let's be Calvinists "who sweat." Even better, let's teach and model the fact that it is precisely Calvinists who sweat, and sweat the most, because of the overruling providential activity of the God who calls us to action. Whether we pull people from rubble, labor to cure disease, grieve over horrific sexual sin, weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15), or hand over some water to a little one (Matt 10:42), our work will register in heaven and on earth according to the will of the God who bled.

Princeton This Weekend

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No, not for college football! Rather, the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology is taking place - with Drs. Ligon Duncan and D.A. Carson. The topic? Suffering, Scripture, and the grace of God. In other words, an event you don't want to miss if you're in the area!

Fearless Leader

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Ligon Duncan has published a book called Fear Not, the compilation of several address he gave recently on the topic of death and dying at First Presbyterian Church, Jackson.

Sharing Christ's Sufferings

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The newest volume in Crossway's Preaching the Word commentary series is David Helm's 1 & 2 Peter and Jude.  I expect most preachers will know this series of expositional commentaries, which is edited by Kent Hughes.  David Helm is one of the founding pastors of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago -- a church-planting church plant near the University of Chicago.  David also has a central role in the Charles Simeon Trust, which promotes expository preaching nationwide.

Here is what I wrote to help promote the book:

"David Helm exercises a vibrant preaching ministry in the city of Chicago. This book of Bible expositions displays his strengths as a preacher and serves as a model for other Bible teachers. It is vigorous in its defense of spiritual truth, clear in its explanation of biblical words and their contextual meaning, vivid in its use of language and illustrations, well-structured in its exposition of particular Bible passages, and fresh in its practical application of Biblical truth to daily Christian life. It is the kind of commentary, in other words, on which preachers quickly learn to rely."