Not long ago I had dinner with an old college friend named Dave. I reconnected with him last year through the magic of social media, but until the other night it had been 25 years since the two of us had talked face to face. Dave was just as I remembered him. Older, of course, but the same essential person: a serious follower of Jesus Christ who is devoted to his family, his church and his friends. He has been in the same church and has been teaching the same Sunday school class for over 25 years.
Dave is a people person. He is someone who is energized by the crowd. He loves being part of a small group. In other words, he is pretty much everything I am not. I am energized by the crowd, but only when there is a pulpit between us. I hate small groups, for the most part. I am, as Dave told me at dinner the other evening, the same curmudgeon that I was in college.
This came as something of a shock to me. Because to tell you the truth, when I was a young man I did not see myself as a curmudgeon. In fact, I thought I was a people person: an outgoing, vivacious, life of the party sort of guy. Looking back on it, I can see that what is true of Dave is also true of me. As far as my personality goes, things have not really changed much. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Jesus hasn’t made any difference in my life. He has. My values and behavior have changed radically since I began my walk with Jesus in the early 1970’s. But being a Christian does not seem to have changed my personality, at least not fundamentally.
The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones once observed, “There is no profounder change in the universe than the change which is described as regeneration; but regeneration–the work of God in the soul by which He implants a principle of divine and spiritual life within us–does not change a man’s temperament.” In other words, what the gospel does promise to do for us is something more radical. Instead of changing our temperament, it promises to set apart what I am and have for God. The shy person does not suddenly become outgoing but learns to glorify God with his or her shyness. The surly person does not lose the capacity for surliness but will be able to subject this natural tendency to the purpose and power of God through the Holy Spirit (often with great struggle).
What I saw in my friend Dave the other night is what I see in my own life. Jesus Christ set us on a trajectory of grace and we are still following its arc. We are further along than we when we last met face to face. The intervening years have altered our appearance. But the aim is still true.
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It seems hard to comment on what has happened in Japan without somehow trivializing it. Perhaps, like Job’s three false comforters, we would be better off to remain silent. Yet as those who claim to have a word from God, we are expected to make sense of the world. This is the kind of thing that prompts people to ask for an explanation and expect us to provide it. “If a loving God is in charge of everything, as you Christians like to say,” they demand, “how do you explain this?”
Our choices are not enviable. We can opt for glibness. We can say that God is simply using this tragedy to get people’s attention, as if it were all a kind of divinely orchestrated publicity stunt. No matter that the cost in lives runs into the thousands. Advertising is expensive, especially if it is on a global scale. Or we can take refuge in mystery. God is in control. There is some good purpose in all of this. But we cannot understand it. It is a mystery. Frankly, both explanations have a hollow ring in the face of so much suffering.
Yet suffering on such a massive scale is not foreign to the Bible. The great flood, Sodom’s destruction, the fall of Jerusalem, and the collapse of the tower of Siloam are just a few that come to mind. It is not without cause that this kind of devastation is often described as being of “biblical proportion.” What is more, the Bible always explains such suffering in light of God. Jesus warned his disciples of this very thing when they asked him about signs of the end of the age and the approach of his return. Among other things, Jesus warned, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains” (Mark 13:8).
These are not glib words. Not when they are spoken by one who wept over the destruction of Jerusalem. Not when they are uttered by one who willingly bared his back to the scourge “for us and for our salvation.” They are not glib but neither are they comforting. Indeed, they were not meant to be. They were intended to be words of warning. They are Jesus’ solemn assurance that things will get worse before they get better. The collateral damage of sin–and the Bible teaches that the natural world writhes in the throes of sin’s effects as much as the human soul does–cannot be avoided. These things “must” happen but the end is not yet (Mark 13:7). The full cup must be drunk, even to the dregs. Redemption is coming. The day draws near when the earth’s groaning will cease and creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:21).
But that day is not today. Today is a day for weeping. And for silence.