Saturday, November 14, 2015

By Dr. Joshua Chatraw

As I write this, less then 24 hours after the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris, I am still processing the events. In the aftermath of this shocking evil, many of you are no doubt also still processing. The ocean standing between France and us makes no difference; our attention has been captured. You might be tempted to turn your head away to escape to the upcoming holidays, football games, and finals. Heed the words of Ecclesiastes, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (7:2).

Since so many of us are still processing, I thought I might reflect out loud in hopes that we might grieve and grow together.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announces what should sound like a strange statement for us: “Blessed are those who mourn.” The danger is that these words have become little more than a religious platitude, and we have not felt their counter cultural weight. Not blessed are those who don’t have a care in the world. Not blessed are those who have numbed themselves to the problems of the world through the comforts of a western “safe” society. Blessed are those who mourn!

But why mourn? That answer, on days like today, seems embarrassingly obvious to most, both the religious and the irreligious: this world is messed up. Deep within us we know this is not how it should be. But if there is no God and all we consist of is material elements, this intuitive sadness, and even outrage, is little more than kicking against the goads of the normal brutality of nature. In other words, without God, I don’t see how death, terrorists, evil, or good have any real meaning.

And yet none of us—the religious or the irreligious—are really buying it. We still mourn. Evil is no mere illusion or some naïve label for things that we simply don’t prefer. Events like last night remind us of a moral code that is deeply imbedded in all of us (Romans 2:15).

So we mourn. It is right to do so. And wrong not to. Yet, Christians should mourn differently.

I’d suggest there is a correlation between this blessing (“blessed are those who mourn”) and Jesus’ expectation for us to love his good creation, to love our neighbors as ourselves.

It doesn’t take a pastor to see how we all naturally love, worship, and serve ourselves.

The postmodern writer David Foster Wallace has made the point that basic human default mode is self-centeredness rather than a love for others:

. . . everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

But something happens when the Son sets you free. We are freed from the idol of self in order to love Him and his image bearers. This freedom to love also means deep sorrow when what we deeply love, God’s creatures, are cruelly destroyed.

This is why as we engage in our calling to love and serve the world, we will have many sorrows: We are deeply invested.

As the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorf wrote as he lamented his son’s death,

The Stoics of antiquity said: Be calm. Disengage yourself. Neither laugh nor weep. Jesus says: Be open to the wounds of the world. Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s mourning, be wounded by humanity’s wounds, be in agony over humanity’s agony. But do so in good cheer that a day of peace is coming.

It has been said that evil and suffering, like what we’ve seen in Paris, is one of the greatest challenges to Christianity. And yet, for me, the Gospel only rings truer on days like today.

I am not saying that there is not a mystery to the “why” questions about suffering that a few short pages in a theology book can explain. Job has a thing or two to teach us about glib answers and the mystery of suffering. God never promises us a God’s eye view. As he cries out to God, Job wants this view; he wants a full explanation. But something else happens through his experience:

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees you;

therefore I despise myself,

and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:5-6)

Here is a man who has had everything taken away, but he bows the knee because through his experience of suffering he has seen God.  He hasn’t had all his “why” questions answered, but he has seen God, and God has used the suffering to change Job. He comes through the experience, thinking less of self and more of God. God has not given Job everything he asked for, but he reminds Job of why he can be trusted. This is true for us today.

The New Testament teaches that God entered the world and suffered alongside his people (John 1:1–2, 14; Philippians 2:5–7; Hebrews 4:14–15). So, no matter the trial, the suffering, or the evil facing Christians, the cross tells us that we must never assume God doesn’t care. Alvin Plantinga explains,

It would be easy to see God as remote and detached, permitting all these evils, himself untouched, in order to achieve ends that are no doubt exalted but have little to do with us, and little power to assuage our griefs. It would be easy to see him as cold and unfeeling—or if loving, then such that his love for us has little to do with our perception of our own welfare. But God, as Christians see him, is neither remote nor detached. His aims and goals may be beyond our ken and may require our suffering, but he is himself prepared to accept much greater suffering in the pursuit of those ends.

The beauty of the Gospel is that God took the creation–destroying sin on himself when he died on the cross. And then, he walked out of a tomb and declared a new day is coming.

So we mourn for Paris, because we are deeply invested in this world. But, we mourn with hope. A better day is coming. Our tears will be wiped away. Our weeping will turn to laughter!

Come, Lord Jesus!