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When God lets you down

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 8:1-17

Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist, has news which may be bad or good, depending on your point of view. He compared the overall happiness and well-being of the billionaires and millionaires on the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, and the Maasai herdsmen in East Africa, and found no significant difference. It seems that $40,000 a year is the threshold. Once you’re making that amount, no increase in income will increase your happiness. Life is more than green paper.

By any standard, our congregation and community would be considered affluent. But let me ask you: where has life disappointed you recently? Where was money not enough? Where are you dealing with unhappiness, discouragement, frustration and pain today? Why has God allowed you to hurt?

Our text tells us that God heals and helps his people. Our problem is, why doesn’t he always? What do we do when he lets us down? You’re Terry Schiavo’s parents keeping vigil outside her hospice, praying for intervention which does not come. Why not? I think of my father’s death; dear friends in our church who were not healed; difficulties and pain along the way. I prayed, but God didn’t work as I wanted him to. Why not? What do we do then? Why be committed daily to a God who lets us down?

Wrong answers

Limit God’s power.

The first character in today’s story is a leper. There were several skin diseases classified as “leprosy” in the ancient world. The most common was Hansen’s disease, a disorder which affects the skin and nervous system. Over time the person loses the ability to feel his fingers or toes. He wears them off, bloodies them, infects them. And they simply rot and die.

The disease was incurable until the late 1940s, certainly an impossible disease to treat in the first century. At least, for everyone but Jesus. He touched this untouchable man and healed him. If he could heal leprosy, he can heal any disease, anybody, any problem. The wrong answer is to limit God’s power.

Limit God’s love.

Our second character in the story is an even more unlikely candidate for a miracle from a Jewish rabbi. He was a Gentile, considered by the Jews to exist only so there would be firewood in hell. And he was a “centurion,” a Roman military officer in charge of 100 soldiers. Part of the force occupying and enslaving their land. Part of the army which forced them to pay exorbitant taxes to Rome, and subjected them to pagan, idolatrous oppression.

Imagine an impoverished Jewish rabbi helping a Gestapo officer, and you’ll have the picture. But Jesus answers his prayer and heals his servant, to the shock of the incredulous crowd of hostile Jews. The wrong answer is to limit God’s love.

Blame the person suffering.

Now a third person enters the story. Peter’s mother-in-law is so sick that she cannot get out of bed. But Jesus heals her so fully that her strength is instantly restored and she makes them all a meal.

There is no indication of any sin on her part, anything wrong which she has done. We live in a fallen world, where disease and disaster are inevitable. Some suffering is our fault, as with an alcoholic with liver disease. But the wrong answer is always to blame the persons suffering. We often make their pain worse.

Blame the will of God.

Now the demoniacs take their places in the story. As best we can tell, Satan and his demons are fallen angels. They steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), seeking to devour (1 Peter 5:8). They are looking for people they can control and malice they can cause.

And we have the freedom to let them. God created us to love him; love is a choice before it is anything else; if we misuse our choice, sin and suffering result. These demoniacs in some way participated in their plight, gave control of themselves to evil. And now they are paying a horrible price.

So we discover a fourth wrong answer to suffering: it is always the perfect will of God. The Lord is sovereign, so everything that happens must occur by his will. It is therefore his will, his choice, his fault that you must endure this pain, heartbreak, setback. It must be part of his will for this to occur. We blame the coach when he calls the wrong play and our team loses. We blame the boss when his business plan fails. So we’re entitled to blame God whenever bad things come our way.

But not everything that happens occurs by the perfect will of God. He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9); he wants all of us to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). And yet not all are saved. Some misuse their freedom and choose to reject the saving love of the Father. When this occurs, they experience not his perfect will but his permissive will. All that happens comes by his permission, but not all by his perfect plan. We are fallen people in this fallen world. It is a wrong solution to blame always the will of God.

Right approaches

So what are we to do when it doesn’t seem that God has answered the prayer we prayed, that he didn’t heal when we asked his help, when our leprosy did not get better, the servant did not recover, the mother-in-law died, the demoniacs were not healed?

Judge the dark by the light.

The leper and the centurion both called Jesus “Lord,” as they should. The word translates “kurios,” and was used of Caesar, kings, owners, those in control. Jesus is Lord. And he didn’t change when my father died, or my friend committed suicide, or my hero was fired. He is still on his throne. He is still Lord.

What do we know about God? He is love; he is the creator of the universe; he does not want any of us to perish; he gave his Son to die for us. Remember what Jesus has already done for you. Think about the ways he has already proven his love for you. His Son endured crucifixion, a form of execution so horrific it is outlawed all over the world today, just for you. He has forgiven every failure you have ever confessed to him, and will continue to do so. He knows every sin you’ve ever committed, and what’s more, he sees every sin you will ever commit in the future. But he loves you anyway. He likes you. He finds joy in you even as you read these words.

Think of all the ways he has already blessed you. Does your family love you? So many are trapped in loveless, abusive homes. Has he provided for your material needs through physical abilities and vocational opportunities? So many are trapped in endless poverty. Has he given you the privilege of life in America’s freedom? Who of us earned the right to be born in this country and not in Iraq or North Korea?

Remember his grace in your life, and judge the dark by the light. I’ll never forget a seminary student of mine named Walter. The year his wife and several children died, his pastor called every day to say, “Walter, God is still on his throne.” Then Walter told our class, “God is still on his throne.” Judge the dark by the light.

Understand that his ways are higher than ours.

The leper has it right: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” But God’s will and ways are not always clear to us: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8, 9).

Joseph didn’t understand why he was enslaved in Egypt. Moses didn’t understand why he had to spend 40 years in the desert. Joshua didn’t understand the flooded Jordan River and fortified city of Jericho; Daniel didn’t understand the lion’s den, or Paul his thorn in the flesh, or John his Patmos prison. But we do.

Trust God to give you what you ask or something better.

Here we come to one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. When we prayed for something God did not grant, we can know that it was best that he acted as he did. Even when we do not understand why. The person did not get well. The house burned down; the divorce became final; the car wreck happened. It’s not a question of timing, for the worst has already occurred. And we do not understand why God did not grant us our prayer.

A very dear friend in our congregation suffered from cancer for many months. I prayed every day for her healing. When she died at a young age, I was deeply distraught. Her healing would have brought such glory to God and good to her family. I didn’t understand, and still don’t.

Dr. E. K. Bailey was the Senior Pastor of Concord Missionary Baptist Church here in Dallas, and one of the finest ministers of the gospel I have ever known. Our friendship was priceless to my soul. His preaching at Park Cities will be remembered always. Several times, God healed my dear friend of cancer. Then he did not. I still don’t understand why.

I must assume that it was not best for them to be healed. They are both with the Father in glory, in a paradise we cannot begin to imagine. One second on the other side of death, they were glad they were in glory. In the providence of God, their contribution to his Kingdom on earth must have been completed, their reward prepared, their eternity made ready. Even though I don’t understand or like it.

That’s the faith assumption I must make when God does not grant what I ask–he is doing something even better. Though my finite, fallen mind cannot begin to imagine how that could be so, I must trust his love and compassion enough to accept it by faith. Not until I became a father did I understand some of the things my father said and did. Not until we are in glory will we understand completely our Father’s will and ways (1 Corinthians 13:12). When we cannot see his hand, we can trust his heart.

Conclusion

Sometimes Jesus heals us physically. But sometimes he works an even greater miracle–he heals us spiritually. He gives us the strength and spirit and courage to bear up under life’s sufferings. Sometimes he removes the pain, and sometimes he does the even greater work of giving us the strength to endure it. Either is a miracle of the Lord.

In such times, God’s greater miracle is to enable us to withstand such horrific pain and loss. He can heal our bodies, and what’s more, he can heal our souls. Which do you need him to do for you today?

Consider the example of Larry Nixon, a veteran Baptist pastor who suffered from chronic heart disease. He finally died from his illness in October of 1996. Larry struggled to reconcile his call to ministry with the limitations placed on him by his damaged heart. He trusted the will of God, even when he did not understand it. He trusted the promises and protection of God, even when they seemed to fail him. And he found the answer to his dilemma in a poem he often quoted:

When God wants to drill a man,

And thrill a man,

And skill a man,

When God wants to mold a man

To play the noblest part;

When he yearns with all His heart

To create so great and bold a man

That all the world shall be amazed,

Watch His methods, watch His ways!

How He ruthlessly perfects

Whom He royally elects!

How He hammers him and hurts him

And with mighty blows converts him

Into trial shapes of clay

Which only God understands;

While his tortured heart is crying

And he lifts beseeching hands!

How he bends but never breaks

When His good he undertakes.

How He uses whom He chooses,

And with every purpose fuses him;

By every act induces him

To try His splendor out.

God knows what He is about.

And that is enough.