The week 4 readings are from the Book of Job. I think this is where the introductory comments in the Chronological Bible fail the reader.
The comments throughout Job readings focus on the suffering, but ignore the critical issue, namely a human’s righteousness before God. Yet look at the textual hints about the righteousness of the one who suffers throughout the book. Here are a few:
Job 4:17 (Eliphaz asks: “Can a mortal be righteous before God?”) Eliphaz identifies the right question/issue behind the suffering The again in 5:8 Eliphaz the right solution (Eliphaz: “However, if I were you, I would appeal to God”)
Even more clearly in Job 6:29-30 Job responds: “my righteousness is still the issue.”
And in Job 7:21 Job speaks: “Why not forgive my sin and pardon my iniquity?”
Again in Job 9:2 Job speaks: “Yes, I know what you’ve said is true, but how can a person be justified before God?”
Finally, in Job 9:33-35, Job admits: “There is no mediator between us, to lay his hand on both of us. Let him take his rod away from me so his terror will no longer frighten me. Then I would speak and not fear him. But that is not the case; I am on my own.”
So suffering is certainly an issue that Job faced. But behind it is the question about the righteousness of the one who suffers. Ultimately that is resolved in chapters 38-42, most pointedly in God’s questioning of Job. Even after ch. 38-39, Job still does not get it. God ultimately asks:
40: 8 God asks: “Would you really challenge my justice?
Would you declare me guilty to justify yourself?”
With such a critical issue, it seems that the comments could have helped the reader to at least watch for something so significant with regard to the ultimate revelation in chap. 40 and 42.
Every person in the church would do well to read what each of these people write. To see the devastating effects of abuse. To grapple with the hidden costs of abuse. To realize that reintegration into a church can be threatening to say the least. To come to grips with how pervasive, soul destroying abuse can be.
The Heresy behind Abuse
Another layer of recognizing what is going on is to realize that many abusers and their defenders have used what seemingly provides a theological/Biblical basis for “handling abusers.” That is, a seeming “confession of sins” by abuser is offered (ala Matt. 18:15-20), then a quick absolution, and even quicker turn around to begin another ministry. As if that solves the problems.
It gets even worse. Many of them claim that the only solution is for the abused person to meet face-to-face with the abuser, so that forgiveness can happen. By such a practice, this ensures that the abuser does not face consequences because he (I am using male pronoun, because most often it is a man) is in the position of power, hence the abuse is multiplied. Little wonder that those abused refuse to be put into that position.
Added to this dilemma, such an approach short-circuits the role of the congregation in the process (18:17). And the witnesses are not to be advocates for the one who sinned (the abuser), rather as witnesses that the process of confronting the abuser with what has happened. But another disaster has entered the process. The abuser seemingly can suggest his own punishment, even determining if something is too difficult to endure.
That process almost sounds Biblical. But they are using Biblical words with a different meaning, and therefore twist it to support the abuser. In the process, words like “confession of sin,” “repentance,” “forgiveness of sins,” etc. are detached from their biblical context and meaning. Thus, if questioned the abuser/defender can claim that the process of Matthew 18:15-20 has been followed.
Sadly according to this misuse, a word like “restoration” automatically means as soon as forgiveness is declared, then the person can resume that same position or similar one in another church. That process does not reflect Biblical confession, absolution, or restoration. And that is the heresy.
Is heresy too strong a word to use in this context? I think not. Words of the church and by the Church have been torn from their Biblical context and meaning—coopted to support the abuser. Even church, pastor, authority, forgiveness, reconciliation have been twisted from what Jesus instituted for the Church. In the process these heretics are wanting Christianity as a whole to change in order to accept their perverted understanding of those words. And that is heresy.
In the 4th century at the Council of Nicea (AD 325) a bishop named Arius was trying to change a teaching regarding Christ. Interestingly the difference between orthodoxy (straight doctrine, hence praise) and heresy (false doctrine publicly defended as true doctrine) was one letter, the Greek letter iota (ι).
The council recognized the widely spread deception of Arius, and condemned the teaching. Heresy could not be tolerated. Even more, the use of words by Arius to promote and defend the heresy had to be challenged. The church would not be the true church if it allowed the false acquisition of Christian/Biblical words by heretics.
In the era of abuse of today, false teachers are using slipshod definitions and use of words like sin, confession, forgiveness, restoration, reconciliation to circumvent the Biblical process of dealing with public sin. That is, the abusers, their supporters, and all others connected with the abuse need to restudy those words, so that these words can be taken as originally intended and not as a means of sidestepping what happened.
This does NOT mean a one hour study session with quickly re-written new policy. Rather, it means taking a long (year or years?) serious look at all the Bible has to say about sin, confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. Do NOT jump immediately to “forgiveness of sin,” because that will derail the purpose of the study. Confronting sin has to include not only the specific sin, but the larger consequences of the sin, the affect on family, the church, other spiritual leaders, etc. Over the years I have heard pastors who have abused a member claim that “I have been out of ministry for six months; now I am ready to begin serving again.” The reality is that he probably has not even dealt with the sin in its entirety, nor with the affect on other people.
Notice, too, that in the Matthew 18:15-20 passage, the one guilty of sin, does not determine the forgiveness, nor the consequences, nor the restoration, if any. In other words, he has no role in that whole process, regardless of how “fit” he might demonstrate at the moment. His only role is to confess the sin. He is not to be applauded, nor “rescued to serve again.” Sin has much greater consequences than his inconvenience. The church determines steps forward, and restoration to a former position is certainly not automatic, nor to be demanded.
The Way Forward
It is encouraging to see people and churches take stands against abuse. But it is indeed sad that abuses have lived in a subculture that thrives on heresy. This is a call for all pastors, teachers, and Christians in general to seriously study the critical words in their Biblical context. Don’t settle for a shortcut that seems to cut off the abuser in the immediate situation, but may open to other abuse and other heresies.
I don’t have all the answers. Here is a suggestion for a beginning of this study, which gets to at least a couple items. Most critical I think is addressing the heresy that undergirds the abuse has to be identified, dealt with, and put away from the abuser, defenders, and the church. I would say a deep study of Galatians (what is the foundation of faith), Ephesians (what does it mean to be “in Christ” and in relation to one another), 2 Corinthians (how to deal with trouble in church), 1 John (what does Christ’s love mean for the Church, fierce love that Jesus demonstrated).
Study words such as sin, confession, forgiveness (in that order)
2 Samuel 12; Psalm 51
3-4 When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away Through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.
5-6 I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; And You forgave the guilt of my sin.
From Jesus’ instruction Matthew 18:15-20
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
May we as the Church root out this heresy and remove that as a foundation for abuse.
Psalm 122:1 “I rejoiced with those who said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’”
What an interesting insight the psalmist gives to worship. He rejoices to go to Yahweh’s (the LORD’s) house! Is that true today? Perhaps some of us quietly admit that worship is less than thrilling, less than exciting. In fact, it might be a rare occasion when we could admit that we rejoiced about worshiping. An interesting parallel with basketball will help us better understand what happens in liturgy, and why we can join the Psalmist.
For a basketball game people gather to be ready for the game. They (usually!) stand for the national anthem. So at worship we gather together standing for the opening hymn in worship.
At the basketball game, the players are introduced. So, too, in worship. One side in this game is: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit = God” and the other side is: “I, a poor, miserable sinner = us sinners.” At this point, God stops the game and declares, “You can’t play in My game. I am pure, holy, and righteous. You are sinners, deserving my full punishment.”
Then comes the surprise. Like in basketball, the jump ball starts the game. Usually the taller player can tip the ball to his or her team. In worship, this is a game between God and us. Who will the tipoff? Even the tallest basketball players are not able to compete with God. So to start the game, God wins the tip off.
In worship, since it is God’s game, He grabs the ball first and rushes down the court to tell us of His love and forgiveness. God says, “I forgive you all your sins for the sake of My Son, who is the Star of the game.” With that, we are invited to play in God’s game with God’s rules— with God’s victory already assured! We rush down the other way, scoring with our praise. We don’t shout “Yeah, God,” but we use appropriate terms such as “Praise the Lord!” or “Hallelujah.”
You keep track of who has the liturgical ball by watching the pastor. When he faces the congregation, God has the ball, speaking to the people. When the pastor faces the altar, the people have the ball—they are speaking/singing to God.
As in a basketball game with four quarters, in worship we have four quarters. When the basketball game is on the line, everyone stands in anticipation of victory. So, too, in worship, when the Gospel is read, we stand, because in effect, God says, “Right here, this is My Star, and this is how He won the game.”
When the pastor says, “The Lord be with you,” that marks a quarter break.
First quarter: Invocation, confession/absolution, and praise.
Second quarter: Scripture readings, sermon, and creed.
Third quarter: Lord’s Supper (Christ’s body and blood for you).
Fourth quarter: Final prayer and benediction/blessing.
In a basketball game, each player can commit five fouls (in high school and college) before leaving the game. But in worship, five times we hear the words “your sins are forgiven.” God doesn’t want anyone to foul out of the game! Notice the focus of each declaration:
1) Confession/Absolution (general),
2) Scripture readings (how God achieved forgiveness),
3) Sermon (application),
4) Creed (joining the Church Catholic everywhere at all times proclaiming forgiveness of sins),
5) Lord’s Supper (forgiveness of sins —specifically “for you individually”).
Years ago on Monday night football, Don Meredith had a way of signaling the essential end of the football game. He would sing, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over…” Many people think that the benediction/blessing at the end of the service functions the same way: “It’s over, finally.” But not so!
Notice throughout the liturgy, God provides the words through His Word. He gifts the Church with musicians and servants to help in worship, Our highest form of worship is receiving His gifts and praising Him with His words. Music and art enhance our worship, not to entertain us, but to point to Jesus and His saving work.
To this game God invites the bruised, broken, abandoned, abused, forgotten to gather together, to join with others. After all, if we are honest, we fit one or more of those descriptions as well. There is only one star—Jesus
The star and center of worship is Jesus: who invites you!
Unlike a basketball game in which the thrill of victory fades, in worship God declares that the victory celebrated during worship will continue with us during the week — daily. Therefore, we leave not looking for a let down, but having been built up by playing in God’s game according God’s rules—winning with Him. In other words, the benediction declares that what God has done for us continues to be for us, in us, with us, and through us.
Guess what? Next week the game is repeated. Basketball fans do not complain that “we have to go to the game next week!” Nor as worshippers do we complain about worshipping next week. What an exciting event! Ultimately we look forward to the greatest day — when we will be with the Lord forever, rejoicing at the final victory won and celebrated permanently in heaven. Therefore, we join the psalmist and say,
“I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go up to the house of the LORD.’ ”
As Christians we cherish the Old and New Testaments for many reasons. They teach us about God’s salvation through Jesus Christ. The prophecies and promises of His coming in the OT, and the revelation of Him through the Gospels, and then expanded teachings in the NT letters.
There are many texts in the OT that you can read that point ahead to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Here are just a few (look up their fulfillment in the NT):
As part of our new relationship with God (saved, not condemned), God invites us to approach Him in prayer.
Jesus invites the hearers/readers/listeners to believe on Him and be saved. This includes forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, etc., and to approach God in prayer and to do so with confidence. In fact, we see in both testaments the encouragement to pray, the models for praying. Reading the Psalms can be great sources of praying, and learning about prayer.
For centuries Christians have grown in their prayer lives as they are influenced, guided, and directed by the Bible.
Praying can be hard
As we live in this world that is scarred by sin, it doesn’t take us long to hit the brick wall of difficult prayers. I don’t mean simple prayers, but those prayers that are so agonizing that we can’t even express ourselves. Words seem to fail us.
Having lived through decades of agony, fear, inability to change circumstances, I can’t even count how many times I was flat on the bed, floor, ground, crying out loud, “How long!?!” One Psalm captures that extreme sense of loss, abandonment, despair.
God does not leave us in that condition. And it is a good thing. Perhaps the pain of what is happening is monumental,and we stutter, frozen in a failure to even pray. God promises that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in that exact spot:
At the same time the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we don’t know how to pray for what we need. But the Spirit intercedes along with our groans that cannot be expressed in words. The one who searches our hearts knows what the Spirit has in mind. The Spirit intercedes for God’s people the way God wants him to.(Romans 8:26-27 GW)
What a comfort that God helps form our prayers even in those difficult, trying times.
Praying the Un-prayable
But now we come to the most difficult part. Trying to pray the un-prayable. This is the extreme condition when praying even seems unspeakable. When the pain is beyond description. To even say words at that point would mean that even God would be offended!
Psalm 137 comes to mind. It begins with a lament.
So far, this seems like a normal lament. But notice how this ends:
That is startling!! A few years ago I read one commentator who wrote strongly that this is “sub-Christian” and should never be uttered by anyone! Or in the words of this subheading: Praying the un-prayable.
I would offer that this prayer is precisely a Christian prayer, a faithful prayer. For the Jew writing this, the agony of seeing Jerusalem and the temple destroyed was overwhelming. The agony of deportation to other lands (not just Babylon, but also Egypt). The death of many family members and friends boils in the backdrop of the mind. The Psalm is not written with a “peaceful, pretty, gentle” background. The raw emotions of the Jewish people comes through very clearly.
But God… and this is key… But the Psalmist who utters this prayer brings the full brunt of the desperation before God. Notice, however, that the Psalmist does not act on this violence, namely “smashing babies against the rocks.” Rather the Psalmist is praying in faith before God. And that faith is such that God can handle the anger, the frustration, the hopelessness. The worst of all imaginable words, yet the Psalmist brings those emotions, hurts, losses, and now even words before God.
A word about justice:
The Psalmist does not take matters into his own hands. His heart is open about what he wanted to do—before God. But justice was not in his hands. God raised up others (namely, the Persians) who conquered Babylon. Was it instantaneous justice? No, but it was far better than one person trying to take on personal vengeance.
In the case of the sexual abuse scandal at MSU, USAG, and OSOC, God raised up people to address not one abuse incident—remember that many were not aware how extensive it was—but the larger scheme. Therefore, God raised up Rachael, Morgan, Makayla, and many others to become the voice that shouted “no more!”
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina in the courtroom allowed those many voices to be heard. The voice was no longer one lonely, fearful voice, but a combination of hundreds of voices, angry voices of women who were finally being heard. The Psalmist of 137 gave way to God’s greater justice. And now that same process is being played out. Justice is being served.
And the voices of others who have been abused are now catching worldwide attention: Abby Honold and the law named after her in Minnesota. Sammy Woodhouse who survived the Rotherham abuse ring is telling the story through her book and personal appearances.
Hope in Praying the Un-prayable
In praying this way, we are not offending God by our words. Rather we are actually trusting Him to hear, and respond in His perfect way. Not our way, not the expedient way, not the way we planned, not in the time we demand, but in His perfect way and perfect timing. We do so, knowing His promises to hear and to act.
Over the years when the ongoing turmoil was moving beyond 30 years, and part of it was our one son was missing for 18 years, life was beyond messy—it felt like the Babylonian captivity. It was what I described privately as “hell on earth.” That was the strongest way to describe it. Was God offended? No, he welcomes the prayers that are un-prayable. My heart was broken into a million pieces, my words inadequate. But, God listened.
My prayer of lament, the un-prayable prayer, was answered in a dramatic fashion two years ago. What I struggled to utter during those decades was answered in a way I didn’t think possible. But God…
prayers for them and with them
As I think about those who have been (and are being) abused, I think of Psalm 137. We can pray their un-prayable prayers for them and with them. We can open our mouths before God to say the difficult words, express the hurt, anger, rage, frustration. And we know that God can handle it.
That is one reason I began the daily prayer on Facebook and Twitter for #PrayerSurvivorsConquerors who suffered (and still do) under the abuse by Larry Nassar, MSU, and USAG, USOC, etc.
But now, we can expand that to pray for the many who have suffered abuse in so many ways. I think of Madeleine Black, Abby Honold, Lori Ann Thompson, Sandy Beach, Mary DeMuth, and so many others. And prayers for those who care for and minister to those who have been abused.
When we pray for them, we do not in any way minimize or diminish what has happened, what they are experiencing, the anguish, despair, sense of being forgotten. Rather, we pray in light of all that, we pray that God brings what we cannot.
Let’s storm God’s throne of mercy with un-prayable prayers, for the sake of our sisters and brothers.
1 Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before Him as a tender plant
and as a root out of a dry ground.
He has no form or majesty that we should look upon him
nor appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected of men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from him;
he was despised, and we did not esteem him.
4 Surely he has borne our grief
and carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
the chastisement of our peace was upon him,
and by his stripes we are healed.
6 All of us like sheep have gone astray;
each of us has turned to his own way,
but the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
he was brought as a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away,
and who shall declare his generation?
For he was cut off out of the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was struck.
9 His grave was assigned with the wicked,
yet with the rich in his death,
because he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him;
He has put him to grief.
If he made himself as an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days,
and the good pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the anguish of his soul and be satisfied.
By his knowledge My righteous servant shall justify the many,
for he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore, I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death,
and he was numbered with the transgressors,
thus he bore the sin of many
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Today we begin the Lenten journey to Jesus’ death on the cross and to His resurrection from the dead.
Our Lenten journey takes us to the Places of the Passion:
Feb. 21 The Upper room
Feb. 28 Gethsemane
Mar. 7 Court of the High Priest
Mar. 14 Court of Pontius Pilate
Mar. 21 Way of Sorrows
Tonight for Ash Wednesday we are introduced to our Guide: The Good Shepherd (John 10:1-18).
While the observance of Ash Wednesday is not required, it has a long history in the Christian Church. But further back in history we can see two links in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament):
I set my face to the Lord God, to seek by prayer and petitions, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. (Daniel 9:3)
But even earlier, after Adam and Eve sinned, God spoke judgment upon them for their sin:
[God said to Adam:] “By the sweat of your face will you eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19)
Those words are often spoken by the pastor as he applies the ashes to the forehead.
So there is Biblical support for Ash Wednesday practice, but there is no requirement that is must be done. The marking of the forehead is not a “sign of spirituality” for the person receiving the ashes for others to see. Rather, it reflects the person’s acknowledgment of sin and its affect on the person. Ashes in the form of a cross also remind the person that Jesus fulfilled the demands of the Law for living and satisfies the demand of death for sinning. The cross of ashes then reminds us of the great debt of sin and the greater payment of that debt by Jesus.
This coming Sunday is the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, according to the Three year series. Here is the Old Testament reading.
These are just preliminary thoughts about how to approach the text. Isaiah speaks to a people who have become downcast, discouraged, and from their perspective all seems lost, no evidence that God is in control. Thus, we find the refrain: “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?” (v. 21 and v. 28).
In both cases, Isaiah begins the answer with “God is…” and “The eternal God…” specifying first God’s strength/power and then His character. Then God provides the ultimate comfort in vv. 29-31
29 He gives strength to those who grow tired
and increases the strength of those who are weak.
30 Even young people grow tired and become weary,
and young men will stumble and fall.
31 Yet, the strength of those who wait with hope in the LORD will be renewed.
They will soar on wings like eagles.
They will run and won’t become weary.
They will walk and won’t grow tired.
When Jesus Christ fulfills all things, it includes these promises of God. If you are tired, then God strengthens you, sometimes in surprising ways, sometimes unseen. This who wait with hope in the Lord—they will be renewed. May this comfort, encourage, and strengthen as we live in this time.