“…[B]ut…we know that we’re not supposed to question God.” I’m surprised whenever someone turns from expressing anguish to attempting self-restraint by means of this platitude. As a rookie chaplain, I was surprised the first time I heard it, and I still am by how frequently it comes up.
Granted, it carries a pious hint of submitting to God’s will. The problem I have with such truthiness is how hurtful it can be: namely, that when tragedy strikes, be careful how you react or you’ll get punished. God descends to the lowly company of parents who threaten, “If you don’t stop crying I’ll really give you something to cry about!” How do good Christians get such a bad idea?
Our week’s focus and texts on a “life of praise” in the midst of The Refiner’s Fire might be some of the culprits. Mind you, I hate to accuse Philippians 4:4, because it is a personal favorite-lovely, memorable, and worthy of deep reflection. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (NIV). Always rejoice. Beautiful, yes. Inspiring, yes. Doable, I’m not sure. When a school shooter kills? As an injustice occurs? While the tornado shreds your neighborhood?
I’ve encountered Christians who believe they cannot mourn when a spouse dies, but must display rejoicing. To do so affirms that God is in control, that we have the hope of eternal life, that God will not test us beyond our endurance, that we trust God even when we cannot understand, that everything is God’s and not ours. The Lord giveth and Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
Some may feel that the difficulty of the challenge is the key, that God asks us to rejoice precisely because doing so is unreasonable or unnatural. This line of thought sees us sacrificing ourselves in order to honor God. It envisions us rejoicing to demonstrate how much God needs to change us so that we can, indeed, rejoice always.
These claims are impossible to counter if one remains at the proof-text level. “Rejoice always; the Lord said it and I believe it,” they assert. Acceptance of this perspective runs the risk of producing Pollyanaism, pretense, and denial. Nor am I comfortable with the belief that we can change unacceptable emotions of ours by acting their opposites. However, my major objection to such understandings, boils down to their underlying falsehood that God does not desire our honesty. I simply can’t accept that suggestion. I don’t believe that God expects us to stifle our heart’s pain and soul’s tormented questions in times of agony. There is simply too much honesty in the Scriptures to believe that he does.
In recent years, Adventists have come a long way from simple proof-texting, recognizing how malleable the Bible proves in support of any pretext when parts are decontextualised. Context is crucial, always. Paul’s exhortation exists within a corpus that takes human suffering for what it is-bad. God doesn’t belittle our negative experiences with a “don’t worry, be happy” slap.
Consider that laments make up half of the Psalms. In these, David is nothing but painfully honest telling God about his misery. Jesus Christ, the sinless one, quotes Psalm 22 in his heart-wrenching cry of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27; Mark 15 NIV). Within this same letter, Paul says that he sends Epaphroditus back to Philippi so that he will gladden the church that has been distressed over his illness, and that Paul himself will have “less anxiety” (2:26-28 NIV).
Once we’ve swept away the cobwebs of unhelpful expectations, we can see that, mindfully and humbly done, a life of praise is, indeed, possible.
- We praise God by taking our needs to him. David’s robust questioning of God underlines his profound belief that God has the compassion to care about David’s misery and power to do something about it. That is praise. Apprehension that God is too small to handle our true feelings is not praise. Neither is fear that God, too, does not suffer with us. We don’t pound on doors we are convinced will not open.
- A life of praise blooms when we stop to remember and thank God for the blessings present in our lives, even while we’re living through affliction. When we’re in distress, our pain looms huge and covers the horizon. We fail to notice the new mercies every morning (Lam. 3:22-24 NJKV). In truth, we always have good reasons for praise.
- We can praise God’s redemptive power that can bring new life when we see only loss, and God’s love that wills the very best for us when we may not even be able to imagine it.
- A life of praise results from asking for what God desires of us in good and bad times. There always are lessons to be learned, growing in goodness, increasing gratitude, and deepening of love for God and each other.
- We praise God by seeking contentment. Buddhism gets the popular credit for nonattachment, but Paul is my hero (Phil. 4:2 NIV). He’s learned the secret, he says, in not always struggling to change his circumstances or wanting things to be different. Paul’s contentment wasn’t complacent or passive, or he wouldn’t be the Paul who changed the world for Christ. His needs became the need for God, and that need is always met. Praise him!
Carmen Seibold is a chaplain who writes from Worthington, Ohio.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/149