Reflecting on Trials and Tribulations

Our perception of the silence of God in the midst of tragedy can at times deafen us to any other ‘evidence’ for the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this reality in recent days. And so, for this week’s blog I have decided to provide an excerpt from chapter 3 of my book When God Doesn’t Look Like God: A Christian Confrontation with Cancer and Other Evils.

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When God Doesn’t Look Like God: A Christian Confrontation with Cancer and Other Evils

By: J. Thomas Johnson, B.A., M.Div., Rev.

The following excerpt is from chapter 3: Living amidst the Waters

Cancer once again thrust me into the shadow of the cross.  In the midst of my diagnosis and chemotherapy treatments, I cried out to a God who, in my immediate experience, did not look like God at all.  He seemed either unwilling or unable to deliver me from my circumstances, and I felt the doubt not only in His goodness, but in His existence rise up in me.  I felt for the first time in my young life a small inkling of what the witnesses of the crucifixion must have experienced—the deafening silence of a God who had at one time seemed so near, so real, and so powerful, now helpless to deliver them.

It was in those moments that Luke’s record of the faith of one of the criminals who was crucified with Jesus began to challenge me in a completely new way.

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”[1]

I never considered how radical the faith of this criminal had been until I found myself standing in the shadow of the cross.  How was it that he looked at that dying man on a cross and saw a king about to inherit a kingdom?  The faith of the criminal, at least in the moment in which he made his request of Jesus, was counter-intuitive.  Somehow he believed that this apparently helpless man was the Anointed One of God.  For me, this was the greatest act of faith and trust displayed in any of the Gospel narratives, and when I read that story from the perspective of an angry cancer patient, I felt ashamed.

Rather than allowing the perils of this world to reveal the truthfulness of the Gospel and my own need for God, I had permitted my vulnerability to cancer to drive me away from the truth.  To extend the metaphor, the weakness of the cross caused me to turn my face away from Jesus in disgust.  I needed a powerful God, a protector who would defend me and bless me.  I did not need or want God to join me in my suffering nor did I want Him to use my suffering.  I wanted deliverance from my fear and pain, and if God would not give me those things, I was becoming convinced that there may not be a God at all.  Moreover, even if there was a God, He certainly was not the God of the prophets and apostles.

Then, I encountered this criminal, who, like me, was facing both death and a choice of faith.  He believed when I could not believe.  When he looked at Jesus he saw something that I could not see.  I was looking for the God of the Exodus, not God on the cross.  He trusted God’s move while I trusted only my opinion of what God should do.

Somehow he knew what I could not accept, and that is that this life was never meant to be the fulfillment of my dreams.  This life has been and always will be a persistent test of human character—a furnace in which we are refined; a road which we must travel; a means and not an end. . . .

God has promised blessing and a future of inconceivable wonder, but we must persevere until the time in which God is ready to deliver on His promise.  Part of God’s promised future and our hope is that there will come a time in which we will no longer live amidst the waters.  In the final book of the canon—the book of Revelation—the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth has been described in the following way:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.[4]

The observation that the “sea was no more,” may seem at first strange until it is situated in the context of Hebrew cosmology.  The new heaven and the new earth will no longer be situated between the waters.  Our journey through the wilderness, our life of vulnerability and risk, will have come to an end.  Therefore, the hope of no sea can be followed by promises of peace and safety:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”[5]

Returning then again to the cross, the thief who placed his faith in Jesus appears to have accepted something that I, in my confrontation with cancer, had tried to avoid considering.  Unless Jesus returns in my lifetime, I will die.  It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when and how.  For all except those who are alive at the moment Jesus returns, death is where the road which is this world terminates.  The book of Hebrews argues just this in chapter 9, verses 27-28:

And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

The prophetic and apostolic witness assures me that I will face death, whether now or later, whether by cancer or something else.  The glory of the Gospel is not that I will not die nor is it that my death will be peaceful and timely (whatever that means).  The glory of the Gospel is that death cannot hold the people of God.

The glory of the Gospel is that death cannot hold the people of God. Click To Tweet

It is the resurrection of Christ that secures the hope of those who believe.  Somehow this criminal was able to look past the cross and embrace a promise that was yet to come.  He saw the end of the road and a life out of the midst of the waters, and he both displayed faith and discovered hope.

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The full text of the book can be purchased HERE.

~ J. Thomas

[1] Luke 23:39-43.

[2] See Paul’s metaphor for the Christian life in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, and notice the way in which Paul transitions from that analogy into a discussion of the Israelites crossing both through the Sea of Reeds and through the wilderness in 10:1-5.

[3] I believe this image is consistent with Paul’s teaching in Romans 6:1-14.  Paul does argue that our union with Christ in baptism has freed us from bondage to sin and death already, in this life, but even from that assertion in 6:1-4, Paul moves to the language of a future hope that transforms our present in 6:5-11.  This overlap of what is often termed “the now and the not-yet” (sometimes labeled, inaugurated eschatology) is essential to understanding the road of maturation and righteousness that the Christian embraces in baptism.  More specifically, because of Christ’s death, we are already new creatures—a transformation which brings with it new ways of life through the Holy Spirit.  But additionally, in light of Christ’s journey to death and His requirement that we follow Him, we, too, must walk the trail He has blazed in order to be remade in His image.  To say it another way, in baptism, as the apostles before us, we leave our nets at the water’s edge and follow Jesus.  In doing that we move from a path of death to a path of life, and that decision alone is a transforming one in the Holy Spirit.  However, unlike Judas, we must follow that road to its termination—we must persevere to the end—and in that walk amidst the waters we experience the process of Christian maturation and growth in Christlikeness.

[4] Revelation 21:1.

[5] Revelation 21:3-4.