Imagine with me for a moment a universe in which this story occurs. Three Hebrew young men are standing in a plain with a large statue before them. They are told in no uncertain terms that if they do not worship this image they will be killed. They refuse to do so and, when questioned, they make their stand clear. “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” The king in his anger has the furnace heated to seven times hotter than usual. The boys are thrown in – and they die.
As Christians we live in this terrible and yet oddly comforting tension. We have this strong faith that says that an ever-loving God loves us, cares for us, and can miraculously intercede on our behalf. What makes this terrible is that God does not always move on our behalf. We tell the story of the three Hebrew boys because of their faith and God’s willingness to honor that faith with a miraculous intervention. But what do we do when the miraculous intervention doesn’t happen?
I have a friend who has stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. One of the things we talk about on occasion is how to live with the tension of unrealized faith. She believes she will be healed. But she also knows that she may not be. She lives in a perpetual state of “But even if He does not…” The problem for her (it’s not her problem, but it is a problem) is that so many of us who love her refuse to recognize the possibility that God may not miraculously intervene on her behalf. The only outcome our faith will allow us to consider is seeing Someone in the form of the Son of God walking with her in her fiery furnace. It’s almost a shame to say this, but I think she worries about us almost as much as we worry about her. I think it’s because she doesn’t want to see anyone’s faith shaken because God doesn’t move in the way we pray He would.
Unfortunately (and I said this to her the last time we spoke) there is no simple answer to this concern. We are in essence wrestling with the age old question of theodicy – why do bad things happen to good people? For a long time (and still) people believed in the idea of symbolic retribution. The belief that your good or bad deeds determined what happened to you in life. And while that may be true on a transactional level (the Bible certainly says that you reap what you sow), I think Job and Jesus present the idea that symbolic retribution may not be consistent on a cosmic level.
So what answers do we have? I think we have two. The first is in the words of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5 Jesus says, “…for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” What hope do we have in that? The knowledge that your pain is not necessarily about you. For the good or the ill, “time and chance happen to [us] all.” We will all experience joy and pain in this life. It is a function of living. My friend’s rain is hers, mine belongs to me, and yours belongs to you. Even in the midst of that, even in this time where it seems like the rain won’t let up, we’ve seen the sun shine in her life. The cycle still comes and goes, even as she adjusts to this new reality. The way she has been able to see blessings in the midst of her challenges is an inspiration to us all.
The second can be found in the words of Paul. Philippians 4:13 is one of the most famous verses in scripture. We quote it ad nauseum and usually out of context. As I have grown I’ve come to love the verses right before it. “11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.” How does Paul know that he can do all things through Christ? He knows because of his experience. God was there - in the sunshine and the rain, in times of need and times of abundance, strengthening Paul through his failures and his successes. So I ask – What is more important? To know how God is going to resolve the tension? Or to know that either way, God will be there?
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/jason-hines
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