It was a typical Sunday morning in our church in Fort Worth, Texas. I was standing in front of the congregation dressed in my blue jeans and T-shirt with a tie dye cross on it. I was trying to be one of the cool pastors. You know, the ones who hang out at coffee shops, and occasionally drop a Coldplay reference during the sermon. On this day, I was preaching about pain and suffering. A topic I often went to because that is where my heart has always been…with hurting people. I came up with a great illustration on this morning, and when I delivered it…I knew it landed! I got a few head nods, and that’s basically shouting in the Baptist church. Ready for the illustration? It’s good!
When you and I are going through difficult times in life we view it through the zoom lens, and blow it up. The problem overwhelms us to the point that we can’t see anything else, but when God looks down on our life He uses the wide-angled lens. And He…He my brothers and sisters can see where you’ve been, and where He is taking you. And where does God say He is taking you? Well, He says that all things…all things work together for good for those who love the Lord! Can I get an amen?
See, I told you it was good. I may have swiped it from another pastor’s sermon, but I’m fairly certain it was an original illustration. After the message I walked out into the lobby to say goodbye to everyone. And one by one I got an “atta boy preacher.” Well, that is until “Andy” walked up to me.
We all try to put on our happy face at church, but Andy was in too much pain to “fake it until he could make it.” He had just lost a wife of 30 years to cancer. A lady we all dearly loved, but she had been his soulmate. I had spoken at her funeral just two weeks prior. The former bull rider who was about 6’ 4” stood in front of me with one hand in the pocket of his wranglers, looked down at his dirty boots, and then back into my eyes and said, “I don’t think I’ll ever see anything good come out of losing her.” This is when many pastors would have said something quick, powerful, and biblical. You know, like God uses a wide-angled lens! Suddenly it doesn’t sound so clever or comforting does it?
I was probably around 40 at that time, and had never lost someone I deeply loved. I had a beautiful wife, three adorable kids, and a Ford F-150. Life was good! Let’s fast forward to today, and I can tell you there have been times in my life where I wanted to call “BS” on God having my best interest at heart. Don’t let that sentence make you uncomfortable, because God has thick skin! Well, actually He is Spirit so He doesn’t have skin at all, but that’s why we have Jesus. Let’s come back to Him in a moment. First, lets just talk about my last 5 years, and please know that I am not comparing myself to my dear friend who lost the love of his life.
From October of 2016 until today I have gone through a divorce, relocated a few times, lost an incredible job due to COVID, lost both my parents, watched my kids relocate (as they should), suffered major heart ache, depression, anxiety, bankruptcy, and as I’m writing this my frist grandson is in the NICU with RSV! Last week one of my best friends called to let me know he had stage 4 colon cancer. You think I’m done?
On a lighter note, did I mention that my son was unable to fly in for Christmas due to to an apocalyptic blizzard that shut down America? Yeah, I spent Christmas alone. And to make sure that point was not lost on me, I walked into the restaurant to have dinner on Christmas Eve and a polite server asked, “Are you looking for your family?” Before I stopped myself I said, “I am the family.”
On the way home I stopped at my local bar, and a lovely friend said, “Make sure and tell your beautiful girlfriend I said Merry Christmas.” I smiled awkwardly knowing what I was about to say would make her feel like she just kicked me in the nuts. “She broke it off” I said trying to figure out where to go next. Out the door, thats where I went next, and looked up in the sky and said out lout, “Seriously God? No, seriously?” I was waiting for that weird little angel Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to show up so I could throat punch him.
So, why is life so messy? Why did God create a universe where there is so much pain? How did a loving God create human-beings that are so hellbent on hurting each other? Well, I believe the answer to those questions are found at the very beginning of life.
Regardless of whether you believe God did or did not create the universe is irrelevant to me personally. We do know this, in the beginning we had a beautiful planet and then at some point…we showed up. And rather than arguing about how we got here let’s just look at the story of Adam and Eve for a moment, because I believe it does (at the least) teach us why the world can be so messy.
The Bible tells the story of Adam and Eve as the first two humans to walk the earth. We started with Adam, and then God said its not good for man to be alone (I can back that up), and so He created woman. And if you look at the Hebrew translation, when Adam saw Eve for the first time he basically said, “That’s what I’m talking about!” She then corrected his grammar, and gave him directions back to the garden.
As the story goes, God only gave them one rule to follow, and that was to not eat of the fruit of the tree. And it wouldn’t be long until Eve was walking in the garden and found a talking snake (Satan). The Snake convinced her that she could have more power if she’d simply eat the forbidden fruit, and she took the bait! See, here is where I think so many people miss the point, because they want to debate whether the story is true or false. The story delivers a powerful truth regardless, and if it is allegorical that does not diminish the existence of God.
The story is about mankind having free will…the ability to choose what direction we want to go. Yes, God lead Adam and Eve and even laid out the directions, but He gave them (us) the final decision. And thats not all, the huge lesson we learn is that we are all impacted by the decisions of others! Let’s keep going deeper into the story.
When God interrogates Adam about what had happened in the garden what did the first husband on the planet do? Blamed it on his wife, but thats not all. He said, God I was good…I was following the rules and (don’t miss it) the wife you gave me messed everything up. Like many of us he blamed God for the decisions of mankind. In the end, it didn’t matter who was to blame, and both Adam and Eve paid the price for a bad decision. They got booted out of paradise! You see, paradise can not exist as long as there is free will.
In my opinion, I am not sure there was a literal Adam and Eve, but I do believe God is the all powerful source of life. And by design we are not his puppets hanging by strings, but when He handed us free will…he also handed us just enough rope to hang ourselves.
I believe that when God gave us free will He chose to also limit His power. The key words in that sentence, which should help some of you resist stoning me to death is “He chose.” Please don’t think I’m saying we have a God who is absent or inattentive. In fact, I believe quite the opposite is true.
My greatest desire is to help you move away from the perceptions that may have been handed to you about God. In my opinion, most church denominations, pastors, television evangelist, and even the Old Testament have been a PR nightmare for God.
If you read the Old Testament you see some incredible stories, poems, songs, and some history. You also (in my humble opinion) get an almost mythological impression of God. He is angry and sending fire and rain…lots of rain. And at one point the Old Testament talks about “the sons of God” taking wives for themselves. In more than one place it talks about multiple gods. However, the New Testament introduces us to a radical by the name of Jesus who we are told is the “only son” of God. As the story is told, Jesus was sent to earth to build a bridge between humans and THE God of the universe.
My favorite pastor is Andy Stanley and he often says, “People unlike Jesus…liked Jesus.” Would you say that people unlike the church…like the church? As we read through the first few books of the New Testament (the Gospels) we find a Jesus who could simply take someone to lunch, and they would walk away a changed person. And not only that, they would choose to follow Him. Why? Because Jesus demonstrated the true nature of God for us.
Jesus was full of compassion, grace, and love. He had no tolerance for the religious leaders of the day who were focused on handing out rules over helping people build a relationship with God. When Jesus arrived it was no longer about the rules…it was about a relationship. The Christian faith is to be about two things, loving God and loving others.
Jesus shows us that we have a loving and compassionate God. A God who cares for us in our time of need. When a spouse cheats, a terminal illness strikes, there’s a school shooting, or a horrible car accident…that is not part of God’s plan, but He doesn’t just sit back and watch us suffer. And He isn’t looking at your life through a wide-angled lens saying, “This tragedy had to occur for me to get him to this spot” or “Her husband had to cheat to move her to the next chapter.” However, He will look down upon the tragedy, your heart ache, and your time of grief and not only will He reach down into your pain, but He’ll say, “Watch me turn this around for something good.” See the difference? He didn’t cause the pain, but He will bring you peace and even use it to do good for you and others.
My friend’s wife did not have to die of cancer for something good to happen, but there is no doubt in my mind that because of her death good things happened. It does not remove the pain from Andy’s heart, but it doesn’t allow grief and pain to get the last word. The last 5 years of my life were not orchestrated by God. It was highly orchestrated by poor choices by me and others. However, God will use it for not only His good, but for mine. And I truly hope He stops taking His time!
I hope that your takeaway after reading this post is that Jesus is where we turn to get a clear picture of God. It is through Him that the connection can be made to a God who is not full of wrath, but is full of love. A God who is busy picking up the pieces of hearts which have been broken by pain, suffering, and careless choices of mankind. And it is through Jesus we are given the gift of a Spirit that can fill us with a peace and love that surpasses all understanding. My prayer is that as you read these words you find that peace and love filling your heart and soul.
I love you,
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