Sinners in the Hands of a Merciful God

He has not dealt with us according to our sins,

Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.

As far as the east is from the west,

So far has He removed our transgressions from us.

Just as a father has compassion on his children,

So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.

For He Himself knows our frame;

He is mindful that we are but dust.

(Psalm 103:10-14)

Psalm 103:1-13 was the text today for Bishop Joshua Morai’s funeral.  He died of liver cancer at 41 years old.  He faithfully served a region that was not his home, caring for the pastors under him.  He left behind a beautiful wife, and five strong children, and many who grieve his death.

Still, plenty of people said that Bishop Joshua must have done something evil in order to be punished by God this way, ignoring the proof of all that God has blessed him with.

This kind of thinking isn’t unusual to Papua New Guinea.  We see it in the United States as well.  When we suffer, like Job, we cry out “Why did God do this to me?”

Then there is the other side of the coin – The Prosperity Gospel.  The religion of America – “God helps those who help themselves,” Ben Franklin proclaimed.  The chief agents of this message today are Rick Warren, Beth Moore, and Joel Osteen, to name a few.  They create their own lists of commandments and state boldly that if you do these things, God will reward you.

Before we went out into the mission field, I was finishing my training as a Mental Health Counselor.  Several people came into my office who had trusted in these false prophets, but could not see that they were false.  God must be false.  They did what was right, so God must not be just.  They were suffering, hurting, and angry.

But as the Psalm says “God does not deal with us according to our sins, he does not reward us according to our iniquity.”   The person that believes in God has His compassion.  He doesn’t reward the believer who sins the least with the most good stuff, and He doesn’t punish the believer who sins the most with the worst punishments.

Our reaction to suffering tends to be anger.  And it is anger because we do not have a concept of how sinful we are.

We forget that Christ promised that we would suffer because we belong to Him and instead we imagined that we would be prosperous, because we are on the winning side.  Satan wants us to be angry with God and to walk away from Him.

When you ask most people, even Christians, why they should go to heaven, the response is “because I’m basically a good person.”  I have heard this statement from child abusers, drug addicts, and adulterers.  We forget that Adam and Eve sinned against God by eating a piece of fruit.  They chose to listen to the serpent instead of God.

The punishment was that Adam and Eve, knowing good and evil, would experience pain and death.  All of their descendants, all of us, would deserve pain and death.  When Adam and Eve, the culmination of God’s creation, refused to trust God in a small thing, the whole of creation rebelled against them.  Work would be a struggle, childbirth would have pain, bodies would get sick, sons would murder each other, and death would come.  These are not punishments, but consequences.  A world with sin cannot work the way it should.

But death was not where it would end.  God was “mindful that we are but dust” and had compassion.  Adam and Eve lost their home, for their own good.  God clothed them and still caused the rain to fall and food to grow.  Most of all, He promised Christ, who would take on their punishment, because they could not.  He even tried to be gentle with Cain and gave Him a lifetime to repent.  But Cain would not trust God, he only feared his fate and blamed God.

“God does not deal with us according to our sins, He does not reward us according to our iniquity.”  When we are suffering, we tend to forget the good things we still have.  As the meaning to The First Article says:

…He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.

He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have.  He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.

He defends me from all danger and guards me from all evil.

All this he does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.  For all this, it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.

But how easy to get angry when when one or some of these things are taken away, as if they were not gifts, but entitlements.  We lose a job – “God has abandoned me.”   Our child gets sick — “How dare God allow this to happen!”  A spouse cheats on us–“God must hate me.”

There is one other reaction to suffering, or to lack of suffering.  There is the person who believes they are so evil that they don’t deserve God’s good gifts.  They look at their lives and feel condemned by the fact that they have good things because they had been so bad.  They think “God couldn’t possibly ignore those things.  He couldn’t possibly REALLY forgive me without somehow taking it out on me.”  That person tortures themselves with these thoughts.  They still struggle with certain sins.  How could God ignore that and be good to them?

But this chapter gives them comfort, too.  God doesn’t deal with us according to our sin. He doesn’t reward us according to our iniquity.  He has lovingkindness toward us and compassion.  He removes those sins as far as the East is from the West, as far as the Heavens are from the earth.

He did this by putting them into His Son and letting Jesus take the full brunt of this punishment that we deserved. Jesus, being God and man, and being sinless, took it, surrendered to it, and defeated it so now it is truly gone.

The compassion that the psalmist talks about is shown clearly with Jesus when He became a man and lived among us.  Those who were suffering with blindness, tortured by leprosy, and terrorized by demons, He blessed them.  He forgave their sins.  He healed them.  He had no problem with eating with sinners to lead them to repentance, and to honor that repentance.   He was infinitely patient with the men who witnessed everything when they still forgot what they had seen or misunderstood what they had heard.

Look at how He responded to Peter – when Peter started to sink on the water when he looked away from Christ, Christ reached out and grabbed a hold of Peter; when Peter denied Him three times, He restored Peter, three times.  The only time He was truly stern with Peter, was when Peter confessed that Christ was God, and then turned right around and insisted that Christ must not die.

When Thomas refused to hear the witness of ten or more of his brethren, and insisted that he would not believe that Jesus was alive unless he could put actually touch his wounds, Christ came, and using Thomas’s very words, allowed him to do what he needed in order to believe.

When Lazarus died, He wept.  He knew Lazarus would be coming out of the tomb, but He was brought to tears.

“He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.”

God knows what we are made of and He has compassion on us as we suffer.  He knows it is hard.  He knows it hurts.  He knows we sin and are full of iniquity.  But He removes that from us and loves us.  He blesses us richly, still, in the midst of our suffering, even when it is hard for us to see.  He is with us through it.  “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. for as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.”

And when Bishop Joshua met God face to face, He was not accused of His sins, but was welcomed in to heaven, being told “Well done, good and faithful servant (Matthew 25:21),” as will we.

Words of Comfort — Miscarriage

I wrote this post six years ago on my other blog, The Rebellious Pastor’s Wife.  I have participated in several discussions lately regarding miscarriage, and I thought I would repost.

Words of Comfort

I meant to write this a couple of weeks ago, but there hasn’t been time, so I apologize that this is an unusual writing for Easter, but in some ways it still fits.

Between my son and my daughter, are three children who are in Heaven.

There was Mara – we don’t know if she was a girl, but we had a boy in our arms, for some reason, it was easier to consider her a girl — whether because we wanted one, or because it was too painful to relate it to the idea of losing Chris. Mara means bitterness. Naomi had chosen it for herself when her own name, meaning “pleasant” could no longer apply to a woman who has lost her husband and two sons, and all she had.

We were in in the emergency room until 3 a.m. the night before my husband’s ordination, and the process of losing her took weeks. It was probably an ectopic pregnancy that “resolved itself,” they never could find the embryo…just an empty sac in my uterus, and a blip near my ovary. The HCG slowly went up for several weeks, and then slowly started going down.

Then came Jessica. We lost her at six weeks, on Ash Wednesday. It hadn’t been a week since we’d found out about her existence. I cried through the contractions while holding and nursing my one year old while my husband was at church conducting the service. There had been a little spotting, enough for me to stay home that evening, but nothing to indicate that miscarriage was imminent. By the time he came home, everything was done, and my toddler was sleeping calmly. I haven’t been to church on Ash Wednesday since.

Noah we lost at 19 weeks. The midwife couldn’t find his heartbeat, but we didn’t believe anything could be wrong until we saw the face of the ultrasound technician who wouldn’t let us see the screen. After all, we’d made it past the “dangerous time.” But she just sent us back out again and told us that our doctor would be calling. The doctor wanted to send me to an abortionist to get a D&E, because they were expert at the procedure that most OBs never have to perform. I wouldn’t let a murderer chop up and suck out my baby. My doctor then checked me into the hospital, induced labor, and continually checked on me through the night. We held him in our hands, wept over him, had him cremated, and gave him a memorial service with my inlaws in attendance. God bless them.

The congregation didn’t know about the first miscarriage. We didn’t know them well enough to let them know what was going on. I cannot begin to express the pain of enduring the other two losses in the public eye, putting on a brave face while people assured me “it was God’s will” or “you could always have another,” or worse “At least you have Chris.” Those are statements made to people who do not realize that the children lost were real. They stabbed my heart.

There were two words that brought me comfort. Words directly from the Bible…words that usually only seem to draw attention for their smallness…the shortest verse in the Bible. “Jesus wept.”

Jesus wept outside of Lazarus’s tomb, knowing full well that He would be raising him from the dead in just a few moments….knowing alsol that he would soon conquer death. Jesus wept because it was NOT His will that any of us should ever have to face death. Jesus knew so completely the eternal horror we would face because of our sinfulness. We often glibly dismiss what to him was so tragic that He Himself took on flesh and endured our punishment and conquered it so that we would not be utterly consumed by it.

A few weeks ago, these words rang in my ears again because they were the gospel text, and hearing them brought to mind that it was near that time again. Nine years ago, these words brought comfort to my heart because Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead was the gospel reading near the week that would’ve been Noah’s due date. As far as I am concerned, it is one of the richest texts in the Bible (and it blows me away that it isn’t even in the One Year Series)– showing Thomas’s loyalty to His Lord, allowing the much maligned Martha to be the one to run to her Lord and utter the clearest confession of faith in the resurrection of the dead that is in the Bible…..and to show so clearly how tragic death is…that death even brings the Lord of Life to tears.

It was not God’s will that my children died. I will see them again in Heaven, but to know that Christ wept with me over their deaths even though He is victorious over death brought so much more comfort than “it was God’s will.” That didn’t ring true. God never made man to die — He didn’t want us to know what evil was. He wanted us to eat from the Tree of Life. Satan and man conspired to bring to bring death and evil into the world. It was not God’s will that Adam and Eve should die, or that Lazarus should’ve died (twice), or that as we age our bodies should break down and turn on us, or that the babies that He creates to live should die before even taking a breath…His tears show that, as does His own death and resurrection.

He is risen, He is risen indeed, and because He rose from the dead, I know that I shall rise also, and I know with confidence that my children are safe with Him. My heart misses them and will always grieve that I was not allowed to hold them, know them, be with them….. because that is what we grieve when we lose those precious to us. We don’t lose that grief even when we have the comfort of their salvation. But they are at the feast that I was at today at the communion rail and someday I shall look upon them and know them….because He is risen.

Baptism and Pain — A Counselor’s Perspective

baptism“Baptism doesn’t come up much in a counseling session,” I remember a colleague stating in a meeting.

I was surprised.  I was still in my internship as a Mental Health Counselor, in the last year of my Master’s program.  I didn’t have years of experience behind me, but in my own sessions, it came up ALL the time.

In seeking out a Lutheran counselor, whatever situations bring my clients through my door, their issues are accompanied by a profound struggle with faith.

“How do I know God loves me?” they ask with pain in their eyes.  “I don’t think He does.”

“Are you baptized?”  I would ask.

Sometimes the answer would be a simple “yes,”  often followed by  “but I was a baby and I don’t remember it.”  Other times, a dam would break, and all the doubts and pain would gush out.  I would let them go ahead with whatever they needed to say, because  it takes a lot of courage for a Christian to even speak their doubts, fears, and anger.  Having these negative thoughts and feelings makes them afraid.  They are afraid that God will turn their back on them and they are afraid I will turn my back on them.  They are afraid of rejection, and that rejection could bring their faltering faith closer to dying.   When I don’t condemn them, their relief is palpable.

Thus would begin a discussion about all the beauties of baptism, because in many ways, baptism is an answer to whatever doubts that person has with their relationship with God.  In baptism, they were adopted by God.  By God’s promise and through no accomplishment of their own, they have become entitled to His love and attention (Romans 6 and 8).  They were made one in Christ’s death and resurrection, and given new life (Romans 6:3-7; Colossians 2:12).  They have been set free from the bonds of sin (Romans 6:8-11) and given salvation (1 Peter 3:21, Mark 16:16).  They received the gift of the Holy Spirit, The Comforter, who gives faith, strengthens faith, and, well, comforts.

God does all of this for each one of us.  Why would He do that if He didn’t love us?

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not more valuable than they?”  Matthew 6:26 ESV

We have been promised that, as Christians, we will suffer — but it is sin that causes the suffering, not God.  We sin and people sin against us, and it hurts like crazy.  Sin nailed Jesus to the cross.  Christ knows our pain and He promises to carry us through it.  He is there because He promised to be there.  He gave us His Holy Spirit at our baptism, to be with us always.  Our baptism is a fixed point in each of our lives where our Lord, our loving Father,  gave these promises to each one of us, calling us individually by our names, each precious child.

Baptism ImagePointing to this Sacrament is useful precisely because it is so real.  Whether the person remembers being bBaptism Imageaptized, they know they were.  They’ve heard their parents tell them about it, they’ve seen the certificate, and they’ve watched others be baptized.  The promises that are tied to their baptism are what they have forgotten and what they need to hear.  This is where you were washed of your sin.  This is where you were born into Christ.  This is where you became a child of God.  This is where you become tied to the death and resurrection of Jesus.  This is where you become a member of the Body of Believers – His Church.  This is where you have tangible, witnessed proof that God loves you with everything He is.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if my clients are dealing with crisis, loneliness, and/or mental illness.  Through baptism, they are my brothers and sisters in Christ.  We will find ways to deal with false thinking, diagnosis, how to heal, practical coping mechanisms, etc.  But this is the first thing and often the very thing that they are most hungry to hear.  As their sister in Christ, and a fellow layman, I am not there to hear their confession or grant absolution, but I am there to give the encouragement that a fellow Christian can give and is supposed to give.   Being a Christian counselor, thankfully, I am not just limited to the psychological tools that I do believe have value; but I can also point to the Means of Grace (Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, the Proclamation of the Word) as the places that God has promised us that we can find His grace and His comfort.