Wineskins Archive

January 9, 2014

Enduring Life in the Mystery of God’s Goodness (Jul – Aug 2009)

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by K. Rex Butts
July – August, 2009

“God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good!” I’ve heard it and even repeated it many times. I believe God is good but my understanding of why has changed since I first repeated that confession.

Praying to a Good God

Having been raised in a Christian culture, prayer was common place. There were bible studies on the role of prayer and these studies reinforced a broad understanding of prayer with many merits. Prayer was an avenue for praise, thanksgiving, confession, and petition. We even learned the helpful acronym A.C.T.S. (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication). For certain, prayer was about God and so we would pray “Dear God… in accordance with your will…” Yet subconsciously there seemed to be an assumption that our will was aligned with God’s and so we certainly did not pray anticipating a different outcome.

Unknowingly, though not surprising now, our practice of prayer became a very influential instructor of theology. Our prayers began in praise followed by thanksgiving and confession leading to our petitions for the various names of those sick or having other struggles.

I believe our theology teacher (prayer) was a sound one for the most part. Yet there was something missing. What was missing was that aspect of faith that wrestled with the reality that our prayers would not all end with the joyous outcome we expected as we prayed. I never remember any prayers that acknowledged the possibility that God may not bring healing for the sick. I never remember any prayers asking for the faith and strength to endure when God’s answer to our deepest pleas is a loud, resounding “N0!” I never remember because we were taught to pray with an assumption and though we would never admit it, the assumption was that God would answer as we prayed for. Perhaps this is a reason why there is little space for lament – the biblical response of faith in the face of suffering.

So during the Christmas season of 2001/2002 my wife and I began praying to God with a specific and sincere request: that the child my wife was carrying in her womb would be born healthy and grow up to be a mighty servant of God. That was our prayer, neither selfish nor frivolous. Our ultimate desire was that whatever vocation our child would become, that he would live out that vocation in service and witness to God whether it led him across the street or half way around the world. Later that year our son Kenneth James, “Kenny” as we called him, was born on July 31, 2002. Without warning, Kenny died three days later. After all of those honest pleas, after all those prayers… now Kenny was dead. Why?

Why did God not answer our prayers? I am tired of people who try to assure us that God did answer our prayers and we have just not realized it yet…by no stretch of the imagination, was our son’s death ever a part of our prayer or a means to some greater good that we were unknowingly praying for. At the time of Kenny’s death, another couple at our church gave birth to a son who swallowed his meconium which seriously threatened his life. Just as with our son, the church began praying for this new born child and thankfully this child survived. The question of “why” kept getting louder and louder. Why did God spare this child but not ours?

Though initially I clung even tighter to my faith in God, eventually the loss of Kenny and the realization that our prayer was denied began to destroy my faith in God and his goodness. I questioned, did God not hear our prayer? No, God hears prayer. Was God unable to grant our son good health? No, God is certainly capable of granting health. Then, if God is capable and did not, he must just not care. God is good? At last, my faith was crushed and I was unable (and unwilling) to pray to God anymore because I did not believe prayer mattered anymore. Either God was unable or just did not care. Whatever the case, the mantra “God is good…” became hollow words. Prayer made no more difference because the necessary faith that gives life to prayer was wounded and dying too.

Finding the Goodness of God Again

It would be nearly a year before I was able to pray again. Though pursuing a graduate education in theology, inside my faith in God was slowly dying. It was not until I approached a professor of mine who had shared similar disappointments with what was going on that I would find the path to redemption. It was suggested to me that I go home and read Romans over and over, which I did. In the middle of chapter eight, the apostle Paul writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). This is a verse that at has been badly abused in a well-intended yet ill-fated attempt to comfort the grieving. It brought me no comfort! Prior to this engagement with God through the words of Apostle Paul, I did not understand the story this verse is imbedded in and so this verse only angered me. Yet when I heard the story from beginning to end as told by Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, I began to see what the “good” is all about.

Even though the Apostle wrote to address a specific problem, he lays out God’s unfolding plan of redemption to save both Jew and Gentile. Elsewhere in scripture, this global salvation is described as “the mystery” (Ephesians 3:6). The mystery of God is that he actually redeems us, saves us from our sin and death, restoring us into community with him and each other. In Romans, Paul speaks of the means by which God accomplishes this task. The story begins with Abraham and finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who suffers on the cross. God’s work is not finished in the cross. God’s work continues by raising us into the resurrected life of Jesus Christ in our baptism. So the task is accomplished? Not so fast. Despite all of this marvelous redemptive work, we still have this struggle that wages on between the Spirit and the flesh and for most of us, the flesh seems to win out more than we would like. But Paul’s promise is that God has not undertaken all of this redemptive work only to see it fail on account of our weakness, so Paul begins the eighth chapter of Romans declaring that in Christ there is no condemnation and ending the chapter with a climatic proclamation: we are more than conquerors.

It is within this context where Paul declares that in everything God is working for our good. That good is our redemption. Something that is both present and future. If we want to know what that is, we only need to look at Christ. For in the resurrected Christ, our future hope is present to us. Realizing this was like a weight being lifted from my shoulders. No longer did I need to understand why our prayers for a healthy child were not answered. I understood that God was interested in my redemption, our redemption, was and is working for that cause, and will see it to its goal.

Learning to Live In Hope – The Goodness of God

There is still not a day that goes by without thinking of my son Kenny, whom I miss dearly and whom I still wish was here. Since his death, I have become more aware of how much pain really exists in our world. Part of it is because I have experienced the suffering first hand but part of it is because I think from a minister’s perspective also. I am called into people’s lives at many times, many of which involve stories of pain and suffering and so I know how much pain others live with as well. How do we learn to live with hope? How do we all travel the road from suffering to hope together as one Christian community?

The answer to this question is found in our openness to journey down the path of suffering. For some, this will not be a choice. They will travel this path against their will. For others, there travels on the path of suffering will be a choice – the choice of journeying with those who have no choice. The problem is that in the Christian assembly, where hope is to be proclaimed, there is hardly any room for talking about and experiencing the suffering that some are facing. Worship, it seems, is only a time for praise. I recently heard someone say “we have praise teams but we certainly do not have any lament teams.”

The journey down the road of suffering evokes many questions, questions for which we will never receive any acceptable answers too. Renée Altson asks of herself whether she can trust in God when God will not give an answer for the problem of suffering. This is a question that can ultimately only be answered as we journey down the path of suffering, either in our personal experience or as co-sojourners with those who do suffer. Though I do not think there is anything we can do ourselves that will adequately prepare us for suffering, I do believe we would be better served if we learned to pray with an awareness that God might respond with the word “no” With such an awareness we might be better prepared to embrace the journey in healthy, faithful ways. One of these ways is lament. Biblical lament first validates the feelings of disappointment, anger, and sheer wonder that suffering evokes. When we journey together in lament, over time the narrative of our worship and fellowship is opened in unspeakable ways to the promise of hope, to the promise of future, to live in the vision of The Voice from the throne who says “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5).New Wineskins

K. Rex ButtsK. Rex Butts, M.Div, until recently served as Minister of the Kandiyohi Church of Christ, Kandiyohi, MN. He and his family recently completed a move to Brighton, CO, near Denver. He expresses a convinction that the Lord has been leading them – and continues to lead them. He blogs at [] and you can reach him at [].

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