This week, after our recap, we'll finish the Suffering series, which is the seventh topic in Answering Skeptics. Previous lessons may be found in the Newsletter section of the website.
Recap: The Cruciform Life, Pt. 2
God isn't the creator of evil. Evil has no actual independent existence; it is merely the absence of good.
Perhaps influence by the world and the flesh, Christians have interpreted such passages as 1 Chronicles 4:10, Jeremiah 29:11-4, and Romans 8:28 in such a way as to minimize the cross, and the necessity of faithful perseverance.
Cruciform Pt. 3
The Cruciform Life
As we saw in Romans 8:28-29, the Lord's plan includes pain. Yet this is hardly gratuitous suffering. Rather, pain borne for Christ's sake empowers us to be conformed to the character of Christ. Of course the change isn't automatic. Just surviving pain and complaining about it won't improve your heart; it may even degrade it. The operative word is perseverance (Rom 5:3-4).
God is all about relationships: his with us, ours with him, ours with family, fellow disciples, and outsiders. All relationships entail suffering. Think about it: marriage doesn't work without forgiveness, compromise, and sacrifice. Neither does parenting. Any close friendship is characterized by emotional pain: we will hurt each other. Don't believe people who claim never to have friction or disagreements; avoidance of real differences is hardly a healthy way to grow in friendship. This process of transformation isn't solely achieved in personal relationships, but for most of us this is the central arena where character is proved -- and improved.
Another passage to consider is Phil 3:10-11. Being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18) means we will learn to love as Christ loves. He will teach us. There's no way to this goal apart from suffering. Just as he bore the cross (1 Pet 2:21-23), we too are called to carry a cross. And so cruciform (cross-shaped) living is the path of discipleship. The cruciform life is also a kind of crucible; the impurities burned off, the previous gold or silver residue remains. The cruciform life enables us to love with a minimum of self fouling up the relationship.
So how can I know whether I'm embracing the cruciform life? Jesus asked lots of questions. Sometimes a spiritual inventory sheds light on where we are (2 Cor 13:5).
Have I been misreading biblical passages on suffering? The Lord's agenda is our holiness, not our happiness.
Do I engage in relationships, despite the risk or pain and disappointment? Isolation keeps us from conforming to the character of Christ.
Do I give of my wealth even though I might prefer to use it to make my life more comfortable? Most believers live at the same standard of wealth as their neighbors.
Do I keep serving in my local church or house church, even though I may not be not entirely happy with how things are run? Staying connected despite differences of viewpoint is a true mark of unity.
Do I say no gluttony and drunkenness? Or do I eat/drink without caution or wisdom? It's not that food and wine are sinful, but over-indulgence is sin.
How is my track record vìs-a-vis relationships? Am I continually losing friends because of my selfishness (even though I want to blame them)? Have I allowed love to die -- whether in a friendship, marriage, fatherhood, or motherhood? An objective third party wouldn't gloss over our serious character flaws, but we do it all the time. An honest appraisal of our relational history will reveal how seriously we are following God's plan for our lives.
Do I consider my life worth nothing compared to knowing Christ, becoming like him in his death (Phil 3:7-10)?
Questions for the skeptic
While a skeptic criticizes God for not removing suffering from the world, he doesn't have enough information to be confident in his allegation. He has no way of knowing what God might or might not do -- and even less since he isn't experiencing the power of the Cross. Instead of being stumped, ask them a question or two:
Did you think that Christianity offers simplistic solutions? The Bible offers no cheap solution to make evil and suffering "all better." But it does speak of a place where God meets us in our suffering, demonstrating that he understands fully. That place is the cross. (Study the cross with your friend, or perhaps read a medical account of the Crucifixion.)
Have you met "cotton candy" Christians, whose conviction seems to be that we should smile our way through life without authentic interaction? Are you really any different from them, or are you the same, though perhaps without the smile?
What are you doing to alleviate suffering in others' lives? We are either part of the solution, or we're part of the problem.
In the next bulletin we move on to Miracles, often ruled out of bounds by skeptics. What points can we make to counter their objections and help them to move towards faith? Till next week...
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