The New Testament Picture of God

(5 of 9 in a series on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)

When you picture God in your mind, what image do you see?  Because God is so unique, so holy, so multi-faceted in His attributes, there are a variety of images that could come to mind.  Think now about the New Testament image of God.  In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus gives us a picture of God as a compassionate father; looking, longing, running, kissing, embracing, forgiving, and celebrating his son’s return.  The apostle John highlights in his letters the love of God as the very essence of His character.  And the apostle Paul refers over 200 times to God or Christ living inside us.  Let this New Testament picture sink in and realize that it is largely the opposite of the common view of God as distant, vengeful, and unfeeling.

Let’s not miss the point.  In the Old Testament, God clearly carried a big stick, often punishing sin right on the spot.  His ways were also clouded in mystery.  His answer to Job’s suffering was not an explanation of “why”, but a description of “who”.  God’s point?  “Where were you when I set this world in motion and now keep it going with My incredible power?  You have very little insight into My ways.”  Throughout the Old Testament, the summary of our understanding of God is, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:9).

But that all changed at the coming of Christ.  It is easy to get hung up on the word change.  We fear that change implies that God is not the same yesterday, today, and forever.  But this is not the case.  God did not change at the coming of the new covenant.  But two important things regarding our understanding of God did change: God’s revelation about Himself and God’s arrangement with man.

Concerning His revelation about Himself, the New Testament explodes with new revelation about God, largely through the appearance of His Son, Jesus Christ.  In the upper room, Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).  God’s revelation about Himself as “tender Father” describes our relationship to Him in the present age of grace.  So our new arrangement is not as distant subjects of a distant King, but as children who address the sovereign of the universe as “Abba Father”.

Jesus continues the father analogy in Matthew chapter 7.  “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened.  Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone?  Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he?  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Mt 7:7-11).

So getting back to the topic of God’s discipline, God is not in the business of giving His children a “stone” or a “snake” or anything evil.  His gifts will always be good and I think that is one reason we can expect to understand where God is taking us in His training program.  In fact, is it too much of a stretch to say that because we have the mind of Christ, the Spirit of Christ, the righteousness of Christ, that God’s ways are no longer “higher than ours” and beyond our understanding?  Something to think about.

But, of course, we often cannot make sense of the bad things happening to us and to those we love.  So if we expect God’s ways to make sense in our renewed mind and to always be good, but keep running up against this angst about the bad things that happen to us, what gives?  We will answer that question next time.

Our Response to God’s Training Program

(4 of 9 in a series on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)

When the author of the book of Hebrews lays out the reasoning behind God’s training program for us, it is designed to help us not “lose heart”.  But, at least in the Hebrews passage, our response to the pain that comes with it is not clearly explained.  But reasoning through the analogy with our earthly father’s discipline gives us some insights that I think are largely ignored in our understanding of suffering.

God’s overarching attribute in His dealings with His children in the present age is love.  Put simply, the New Testament description of God is, “God is love.”  Even God’s discipline is motivated by His love, “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines” (Heb 12:6).  And of course Jesus, who exemplified love in word and deed, is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Heb 1:3).  When we see Jesus, we see the flesh and blood representation of the Father.  Simply stated, “Jesus is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).

The upshot of this is that the discipline of God should always be understood through His love and the character of His Son, Jesus.  Because of this, we know that His discipline will never be capricious, never be random, never be mean, never be beyond understanding.  Why?  Think about our analogy in Hebrews 12.  Every good father disciplines with the goal clearly explained to the child.  In fact, before we discipline or correct our youngsters, we go out of our way to make sure they understand what behavior is expected.  We go out of our way to make sure they understand why they are being disciplined.  We make clear to the child what they did wrong.  They know what behavior needs to change.  A good parent never disciplines in a random, unexpected, surprising, or capricious manner.  And we would not expect our heavenly Father to do so either.

So when we experience suffering or setbacks that don’t make sense, our response is not limited to a Job-like resignation that “God’s ways are higher than ours” and we will never know the why.  No, I think God disciplines us in ways that we can know what is going on and I will explain next time.

God’s Training Program

(3 of 9 in a series on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)

In Hebrews chapter 12 we are introduced to God’s training program for His children.  The author begins the chapter with the example of Jesus “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).  Jesus endured incredible pain to accomplish what God set out for Him to do.  In verse 3, the focus shifts from Jesus, our example in suffering, to us, God’s children.  “For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:3).  The author then goes on to explain God’s training program in verse 5 and following as an encouragement to not “lose heart”.

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline [training program] of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.  It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb 12:5-7).  God’s training program for His children flows from His love for us and is as natural and expected as being trained by our earthly fathers.

“But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.  Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we much not rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?  For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness” (Heb 12:8-10).  If we are true children of God, we will all experience His training regimen.  Just as we respected our fathers who disciplined us for earthly goals, should we not more so worship and respect our heavenly Father who disciplines us for “our good and to share in His holiness”?  Our good and our holiness is the desired outcome of the training program of God.

And just as Christ “endured the cross for the joy set before Him”, so we too will experience the pain of discipline on our way to the joy and peace of righteousness that it produces.  “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb 12:11).  The goal of God’s training program is not only our good and our holiness, but also joy and a peaceful fruit of righteousness.

Now the beauty of this journey and what may set this apart from what you have heard in the past about God’s discipline is that God’s training program does not take place in a mysterious and unknown vacuum.  I think we teach and accept too often the idea that God somehow wants to keep us in the dark regarding the pain we go through.  Does this fit the character and actions of the God we see in the New Testament, especially as revealed in Jesus, His Son?  We will explore this next time.

Three Answers from the Bible

(2 of 9 in a series on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)

The Bible gives three broad reasons for why bad things happen to good people.  First is the law of consequence.  Poor choices in life lead to bad outcomes.  Second is the training program of God.  God may send uncomfortable – I hate to use the word bad in describing God’s interaction with His children – situations to stretch us and grow us and mature us.  Third is the idea that we and God have a dark enemy, Satan, who is working in this world, including in the lives of believers, with ill-will toward us on both large and small scales.  While Satan has no power to possess us in the classic sense, he can make our lives trying and worse.  Let’s look at these three reasons one at a time.

The law of consequence basically describes the book of Proverbs in the Bible.  It is also the easiest way to understand bad outcomes because it fits our human understanding; it fits what we can readily observe.  If a life-long smoker develops lung cancer, or a couple living beyond their means goes into financial distress, or an obnoxious person has trouble keeping friendships, we can understand it.  It makes sense.  If a current challenge you are facing is easily explained by poor choices, it is time to change your choices and see where God takes you next in fixing the problem.  Bad outcomes due to poor choices is fairly easy to understand and in a sense is not exactly the crux of our question.  We are more interested in the bad outcomes we cannot understand and so we move on to reason two.

Reason two for bad things happening to us is that God has a training program for believers that may include pain.  This idea is developed in Hebrews chapter 12.  “And you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives’ ” (Heb 12:5-6).

The Greek word translated discipline in this passage carries the idea of a training program such as for athletes.  God has us, you and me, on a training program.  With that in mind Hebrews 12:5-6 could be read, “My son, do not regard lightly the training program of the Lord.  And do not give up when you are corrected by Him.  The Lord puts those He loves through this training program.  And the program may involve pain”  Just like an athlete may experience pain in his training to win, so we too may experience pain while on God’s training program.

Reason three for bad things happening to us is a direct attack by Satan himself.  And honestly, this gets a little tricky.  We don’t want to scare up an image of Satan behind every tree or attribute God-equal power to him, but based on the Bible’s descriptions of the character and activities of God and Satan, ascribing the evil we see in the world and our own circumstances to Satan makes a lot of sense.  When your child suffers a stroke, when you are long-term unemployed for no apparent reason, when a serious relationship suddenly ends, what is going on?  Or more specifically, “Is God to blame?”

Scripture teaches us that the influence of Satan in the bad things that happen to us is at least something we should consider.  Let me visit just two of the several examples in Scripture that suggest this.  First, consider the woman Jesus healed in Luke 13.  She had been sick, bent double and unable to straighten up, for eighteen years.  Jesus healed her, but was immediately criticized for doing so on the Sabbath.  Jesus responds with an answer that ends with, “And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16).  In this case, the woman’s illness was a direct result of Satan.

Another example comes from Revelation chapter 2.  Jesus, speaking to the church at Smyrna, says, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.  Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days” (Rev 2:10).  Again, Satan himself is the instigator of the believer’s upcoming suffering.

So, in summary, I believe the Bible describes three broad reasons bad things happen to good people.  First, good people sometimes make mistakes that lead to painful consequences for their actions.  Second, God has a training program for believers that can involve pain.  Third, we have an enemy with the desire and ability to do us harm.  But God has not left us in limbo regarding how these processes work and we will visit what the book of Hebrews says about God’s training program next time.

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

(1 of 9 in a series on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)

Another topic addressed in the book of Hebrews is the philosophical conundrum, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The Hebrew believers were facing severe persecution for their faith.  It would be natural for them to wonder why this is happening; why adversity seemed to be the reward for following Christ.  Maybe it would be better to shrink back from such a dangerous faith to the comforts of the Judaism they had known in the past.

By God’s goodness, grace, and revelation we have answers in Scripture to the big issues of life including this one.  But first, let’s start with what the answer is not.  There is a certain brand of theology that, rather than answering the question outright, takes us a step farther back by suggesting that there are no “good” people.  In essence, they are dodging the question by lumping all of us together as “bad” folks.  The implication is that since all of us, believer and unbeliever alike, are poor wretched sinners, we are essentially getting what we deserve.  Whether on purpose or unintended, they are really setting the question aside as irrelevant when inquiring minds want to know, “Does God have answers for this exact question:  Why do bad things happen to good people?”

So let’s start by recognizing that this is a legitimate question to ask and to support that idea let’s challenge the notion that there are no “good” people. For those outside of Christ, their capacity for good is a result of their creation in God’s image and as such they have an ability to so some good things.  For example, when unbelievers work at being unselfish in their marriage or contribute money to a worthy charity, they are in fact doing good.  But we often get so caught up in our “depravity” theology that we insist they have some ulterior motive or some sinister plot behind the scenes.  While something unseemly is always a possibility, we should not, out of hand, dismiss someone’s good works as less than altruistic.

Now for the believer the argument that we are “good” people is even stronger since we not only have a capacity for good, but actually possess a propensity for doing good.  It is our default mode by virtue of the provisions of the new covenant.  We have a new disposition toward righteousness.  So in the spirit of our original question, we are “good” people – we have the mind of Christ (I Cor 2:16), the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9), and the righteousness of Christ (II Cor 5:21) – and it is perfectly appropriate to ask, “Why do bad things happen to us?”

The Hebrew believers, and all who fall under the provisions of the new covenant, are “good” people, and thus we are back to our question of how bad things fit into the plan of a God-honoring life.  We will look at the answers from the Bible next time.