Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Is God Thinning the Herd?

A couple of days ago I was listening to the Glen Beck show on the way home from work and he was talking about the coming Swine Flu pandemic. He was trying to make sense of why such diseases occur in our modern scientific world. At one point he sarcastically surmised that there is nothing we can do about these pandemics because they are, “God’s way of thinning the herd.” And, by “herd” he wasn’t referring to pigs! What he was trying to say was that pandemics are normal cycles of disease that sweep through mankind, wiping out large portions of the population. And there is nothing we can do to stop them. The Black Plague of the Middle Ages and the Small Pox epidemic that nearly exterminated the American Indian, were of such a nature. Is God going to thin the human herd with the Swine Flu? And then, after you ask that question you have to ask, why does a good and all powerful God allow such suffering? At one point during the 15th century in American history many of the Puritan colonies experienced a wave of suffering. Storms were sinking ships going back and forth from England . Indians were attacking the settlements. Disease and dissension were also taking a toll on the communities. It was appearing to the colonial ministers that the “Kingdom of God on Earth” was coming apart at the seams. It was so serious that the ministers held a meeting amongst themselves to draft up “Ministerial Jeremiads”. Like the Prophet Jeremiah, who cried out to God on behalf of the sinful people of Israel, the ministers of the Puritan colonies cried out for God’s mercy and drafted up a list of sins that the colonists were committing. They believed that the pattern of Sabbath breaking and a whole host of growing “sinful” practices among the Christians were causing God to bring his disciplining wrath upon them. A call for repentance went out to the communities. Can we know if God is thinning the herd? If he is, can we know the reason he is thinning the herd? There is an entire book in the Bible devoted to the subject of why we suffer. Not only is this the only book in the Bible entirely devoted to the subject, but it is the only place in the Bible that provides the only “sure” response to suffering. It is the book of Job. The book describes Job experiencing some of the most horrific suffering known to mankind. Any normal person would be broken under the circumstances that he endured. Loss of children, loss of all his wealth, and loss of physical health. In our current economic downturn we have seen that loss of wealth alone has brought many a CEO to the point of suicide. In his suffering Job’s wife, friends, and even a theologian, all assure him that they know the reason he is suffering; it is his fault. Job, wisely did not agree with any of them, but sought out an interview with God himself for an answer. Finally, toward the end of the book, God gives Job a hearing. If you, as the reader, didn’t already know how the story was going to end, you would be on the edge of your seat awaiting God’s answer to Job. Indeed, God’s answer is the answer we all want and we are just as eager as Job to know why we suffer! During Job’s hearing with God in the final five chapters of the book, God does one thing. He tells Job the story of creation. These chapters read as a meditation on the greatness of God’s creative work in light of the relative insignificance of mankind. In effect, God says to Job, “I am the Creator and you are the Creature. That is all you need to know, Job. So, trust me.” Job submits to this answer and through his obedience he finds restoration. So, the answer to the question of suffering is that we don’t know why. And, no one knows! One likely response to God’s answer in the book of Job is "anticlimax". The reader built up for this great answer to why we suffer and then he is left at the end in the same place he began. However, another response, which is what the writer wants, is for the reader to be OK with not knowing why. Sweet resignation! We don’t need to know after all, because God is in control and that is enough. Sure, suffering could be the result of personal sin, or a period of God’s just judgment of sinners, or God’s discipline of His children, or God’s desire to teach some lesson. There are lots of possible reasons, but no one really knows. And, if anyone says they do, they probably are trying to scam you.

I am currently working on a construction project at a Hospice. It is occupied with a number of dying people and the turn over rate is constant. One weekend seven people died all at once. When I came in on Monday the hospice staff euphemistically said to me, “The bus came over the weekend.” Glen Beck might have said, “The herd was thinned over the weekend.” I am living among the dying and will be for months while the project is in process. Death is in my face, but because of it, so is God. Because, you see, suffering brings me to the book of Job and the book of Job brings me to who God is, the Creator. "I am the Creator and you are the Creature, Joe." So my response is, my mouth is shut and my heart is at peace.


downtownpastor said...

Hey Brother,
Your boss was wise to put on on that job site. Your writing has been a real blessing, Joe!

Joe Staub said...

Ken, I appreciate your encouraging words! I'll see you Sunday.


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