Monday, March 31, 2008

More about Suffering and Divine Justice

Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 3B
Genesis 18:25b
Bob Rakestraw

In my previous posting I introduced the topic of human suffering, and whether or not we are able to reconcile the enormity—both quantitatively and qualitatively—of suffering with the Christian teaching that God is a loving, caring and just God. Concerning the justice of God, which is our specific focus here, I indicated that the most helpful thought to me on this whole matter—for some forty years or more of questioning—has been Genesis 18:25. Here Abraham asks one of the most important questions anyone can ever ask: “Shall not the Judge [or Ruler] of all the earth do what is just?”

The biblical context is essential for our understanding of these words. Chapters 11-25 of the book of Genesis contain the fascinating story of Abraham. He was a man with flaws, like you and me, but he was a faithful servant of God. A valuable theological commentary on the Genesis account of Abraham’s life is found in Acts 7:2-8; Romans 4:1-25; and Hebrews 11:8-19. In these three accounts we learn from a medical doctor (Luke, the author of Acts), a Jewish Rabbi (Paul, the author of Romans), and the unknown author of Hebrews (someone very well educated in the Old Testament scriptures and the Greek language). All three affirm the remarkable character of Abraham, and his powerful example to us of trust in God.

The Genesis account tells of a visitation from God to Abraham. What looked like three men came to him, and Abraham and his wife, Sarah, displayed lavish middle-eastern hospitality toward them (Gen. 18:1-8). Reading on, we discover that the three were actually two angels and the Lord himself in human form (Gen. 18:33-19:1).

The reasons for these three strangers’ coming into Abraham’s life were to announce the forthcoming pregnancy of Sarah (Gen.18:9-15) and to consider what to do about the wickedness of Sodom, Gomorrah and the other “Cities of the Plain” (Gen. 18:16-19:29). It is this latter issue that concerns us here.

While the Lord did not say initially that he was considering destroying Sodom and the other cities, he obviously did come to the region with this in mind. The Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know” (Gen. 18:20-21).

Abraham then begins to intercede with the Lord for Sodom. He was distressed over the thought of Sodom being destroyed, and the reason for his turmoil was because his nephew Lot, Lot’s wife, and their two daughters, lived in Sodom. If God destroyed Sodom, Abraham’s loved ones would be killed.

Abraham had a very close relationship with the Lord. In fact, he is called the “friend of God” three times in the Bible (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). But in the latter half of Genesis 18 Abraham is clearly upset at the prospect of what might happen to his loved ones in Sodom.

Then Abraham came near [to the Lord] and said, Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?

Here we come to the crux of the story and the heart of the issue of suffering: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” While we will not examine here the fascinating interchange between God and Abraham, we look ahead and see that Sodom and the other cities were destroyed (Gen. 19:13, 24-29; 2 Pet. 2:6-10; Jude 7). Lot, his wife, and their daughters were first rescued from the city (Gen. 19:16). “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew these cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground” (Gen. 19:24-25).

Abraham, sensing this was going to happen, was concerned not only for his loved ones but also with the issue of divine justice in general. Should so many people be killed in the coming devastation? How can this be reconciled with the righteous character of God? The very point in the Genesis account of Abraham’s turmoil is that God will not do what is unjust! Abraham knew this. “Far be it from you” to do anything unrighteous, he says twice to God. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). Abraham’s relationship with God was so close that, even though there was much he did not understand about the ways of God, he knew that God was just in everything he did.

Throughout my life I too have struggled, as Abraham did, with the problem of evil and suffering and God’s dealings with these matters. One of the four areas of study for my comprehensive Ph.D. exams—necessary to do well on in order to qualify to write the dissertation—was the problem of evil. I have examined many angles and aspects of the topic, and studied numerous treatments of the issues, but I do not claim to have found “the answer.” It is a major challenge just to formulate the questions well!

The primary question before us concerns God’s justice, or righteousness, not his love, mercy, or power. While these other qualities of God are essential to a full discussion of the problems of suffering and evil, we are here considering how Abraham’s confidence in God may help us live in the face of our questions and sufferings.

Although my conclusion in this essay may not sound very profound, it is to me one of the most satisfying ways to respond to the issues of suffering. I say this not (I trust) as a way of boasting, but as an expression of deep gratitude to my Lord for his teaching and comforting ministry to me over the years. Whatever insights I have gained are from the Spirit of the Lord working through the written Word of the Lord, through life experiences, and through choice servants of the Lord instructing me by their lives, their writings, and their prayers.

Essentially, I trust in the justice and righteousness of the Lord for two reasons.

(1) I have found that the biblical teachings on this topic—taken as a whole—are both coherent and comforting when I try to study them with an open mind and an acknowledgement of my inability to grasp fully the mysteries of God’s ways.

(2) I have found that the total Christian message, proclaimed and lived by loyal followers of Christ around the world, is intellectually, psychologically and spiritually satisfying. I know of no other theological/religious system that even comes close to offering me a solid cognitive basis, a compelling testimony of many faithful, justice-oriented believers, and clear reasons for hope in this present world and the world to come.

In summary, if I find true biblical Christianity to be valid and life-giving, as I do, then I hold to the justice of God in the face of suffering, even though I live with mystery and sometimes confusion in these matters. I find the example of Abraham, as given in the New Testament scriptures above as well as in the Old Testament, to be most informative and encouraging. Abraham’s strong affirmation, presented in the form of a rhetorical question, has strengthened me mightily ever since I first studied it in the fall of 1963. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

This article is one of a series presenting my all-time favorite Bible passages. My criterion for selecting these texts—one for each month of 2008—is the practical benefit/nourishment/help I have received from God through these scriptures over the four and one-half decades of my Christian life. I am who I am today because of some key people and because of the truths in these twelve scripture texts. There are many other Bible verses that could fit well in this series. The Word of God is a well-stocked gold mine of truth.
If you wish, start your own list, and share some of your stories on this blog—to help us all live well, help us all to serve others, and help us all to prepare well for the remainder of this life and for the next.

Note: I may use more than one posting to consider some Bible texts, but I will try to keep the related postings within the same month.


Rosemary said...

Your wisdom and insight into human suffering has been a tremendous help and blessing to me. God has given you a special gift and we benefit from it. Thanks, Bob. Love, Rosemary

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

Hi Rosemary,

It's great to hear from you in this format. Thank you for your affirmation. My greatest desire for this blog is to be an instrument through which the grace of God will flow to others. If I have a "special gift," I want to use it well. I am seeking God about how to improve this blog, and I appreciate your prayers.

Blessings always,