I love singing praises to the Lord. It is a fundamental truth of humanity: Music stirs the soul. Scripture is replete with commands to “sing joyfully to the Lord!” An longest book of the Bible is the national (inspired!) hymnbook for Israel. There is great joy to be found in exuberant songs of praise penned by men such as David and the sons of Korah. There is great truth proclaimed by Asaph. The Psalms span the entire spectrum of human emotion and human responses to the work of God–whether it be weeping over Psalm 51’s statement, “Against You, You only, I have sinned (v4),” or comfort found in the tenderness of “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
While we don’t sing the Psalms any more, our songs serve a great purpose. They drive us to our knees in repentance, remind us of the greatness of our God, and provide comfort in aflficition. But recently, I’ve been noticing another genre of song. Songs which border on insanity. Take, for example, this verse from Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,
Let goods and kindred go
This mortal life also
The body they may kill
God’s Truth abideth still
His kingdom is forever.
This verse is scary. It is something I don’t want to see lived out. I have no desire to be martyred tomorrow, even though I posess the assurance that after this life stands heaven. How about this song, Jesus I My Cross Have Taken,
Jesus, I my cross have taken, All to leave and follow Thee
Destitute, despised, forsaken, Thou from hence my all shall be
Perish ev’ry fond ambition, All I’ve sought or hoped or known
Yet how rich is my condition, God and heaven are still my own
Later in the same song, a line reads,
Foes may hate, and friends disown me, Show Thy face and all is bright
“Foes may hate” causes no stir. It is only natural for those who are my adversaries to hate me as a person, especially for the sake of the gospel. But “friends disown me?” The more I read the revealed Word of God, the more I am convinced in the radical nature of true biblical ministry. These songs embody exactly what Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:19, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” Why is it that we can joyfully sing about trials coming and proclaim blessed be the name of the Lord? It is because the only trials which can touch us will create within us a spirit which will some day be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” It is because of the horrors we have been called from and the joys we have been called to which makes “let goods and kindred go” a resounding, fully rational thought. Everyone who has placed their joy in Christ has seen the Lord give and take away. Regardless of what has been taken, it is merely a reclamation of gifts which have been given to us. This is why we sing “blessed be the name of the Lord.”
I must give a note of thanks to Gunner Gundersen who contributed to the ideas contained in this post.
Yesterday, I went with a group of friends to the Getty Art Museum. Their current special exhibit was a large collection of Byzantine art usually housed at Saint Cathrine Monestary in Sinai Peninsula. There were probably forty or so icons on display at the Getty—paintings of the life of Christ, His death, and the lives of the saints, all dating from as early as 400 through the fifteenth century.
It was a display chronicling the growth of the church from the times of the healthy churches in Acts and the subsequent straying from the truth. The tragedy which was depicted on the wooden panels outlined the theological infidelity of the church to stand for Scripture and Scripture alone. The icons represent a church which had grown to worship its own traditions, and like Israel had left the true and living God to worship the symbols of that God. Jeremiah broke up the bronze serpent of Moses when he witnessed the idol worship of his countrymen. For him, worshipping the instrument used by God to save thousands was not enough. He worshipped the LORD. But, despite that very explicit example of icon worship in the Scriptures, the early church did the same.
Christ Jesus became inaccessible in their eyes and they elevated the virgin Mary as the intercessor to the Intercessor. Instead of worshipping the true God, they worshipped likenesses of Him, assumed these likenesses to be bringers of good luck. Christ Jesus is not a lucky rabbit’s foot. So many people believed themselves to be going to heaven for their faith in Christ, but were disappointed, as their faith was not in the Christ Himself, but in the objects used in their worship of Him. How tragic! To believe you are worshipping God rightly, but instead have been deceived by Satan.
This served once again to remind me of the need for godly leaders in the church. Sunday, Scott Ardavanis preached on Titus 1:9. An elder in the church–a man who is called by God to defend the Word of God and to teach the Word of God–must be a man who whole-heartedly is committed to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture. The Evangelical Church today has moved on from the dangerous mantra of “doctrine divides” to the inexcusable belief of “doctrine doesn’t matter.” The Lord has no use for those who care so little about the truth that everything becomes negotiable. Pick your hills to die on, yes, but stand ready to die on certain hills! It is only through raising up men as leaders, and women as helpers, that the cherished institutions of our days will remain committed to the truth. The Master’s College, Grace Community Church, Southern Baptist Seminary will all fall to the corrosive nature of error without future leaders being raised up now, committed to the Word of God.
I’m beginning to realize that whatever I do in life, bad things await. Quite a morbid thought. But true. There is so great a presence of natural evil in this world that I will not remain untouched forever. Hurricanes hurt people. Bad men ram airplanes filled with hostages into office buildings. Tires shred at the wrong time and cars go flipping out of control into telephone poles and other vehicles. Cancer cells multiply and take over the body. Sooner or later, I will be touched by one of these disasters, whether in my own person, or by the injury or death of a friend/loved one. Natural evil exists, and it hurts people. Why? This is a very painful question to answer for someone who is suffering. I think one reason natural evil exists is because we as people do not see the dreadfulness of sin. We fail to see our need for a Savior, for help from outside the system. We are blind. But even a blind man could not ignore Hurricane Katrina. People are frightened by things outside of their control. No man can control tsunamis, no man can control tornadoes. No man could have stopped the terrorists on September Eleventh without knowing what the terrorists were going to do.
Hearts become fertile when touched by the acknowledgement of their own insecurity. How many millions of people over the years have been saved because of great trials afflicting others? Some people say natural evil is a form of punishment, that New Orleans was destroyed because of its great sin, like a modern day Sodom. This may be true–I don’t know the mind of God. But unlike Sodom, there were a lot of godly people who perished in their attics. God’s people suffer from natural evil just as the rest of the population. But it is in these moments that suffering Christians provide the greatest light to a hurting, darkened world. In times of greatest sorrow, come the greatest joys.
People in my church know about suffering. Reggie and his wife Sue had just moved to the area about six months ago. Reggie is now dead due to brain cancer. He died quickly, and now our church is grieving with Sue. Reggie is in heaven, the greatest joy any family member of any Christian will ever know. Yet death is sad. The greatest joys come with great heartache. Mark has been battling stomach cancer for six months. He will die soon. But unlike Reggie, he has suffered greatly from pain. He has lost 80 pounds during these months. He has a 30 year old mentally disabled son who was just admitted to a care facility in Texas where he lives as a rancher. Mark’s very elderly parents were just moved to the area so he could care for them. Now his family has the burden of caring for him as well. And his parents get to watch their son die.
I think of the Pharisees’ question to Jesus in John 9:1-3, “Who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he might be born blind?” Jesus responded, “Neither…but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” That man suffered as a cripple for thirty years before Jesus healed him. We are called lights in the darkness. But the world does not know it languishes in that darkness! People–believers and unbelievers–suffer so that God might show His goodness and his holiness to a blind world.