Our God

Last night, one of my favorite shows depicted a heroic character preparing for battle. That character had been resurrected from the dead earlier in the season. At one point, he approaches a priest to discuss his uncertainty about whether he will win the battle, and he asks what kind of God would resurrect him only to have him die again. The priest responds, “The God we have.”

Earlier this week I read Genesis 39 and 40, and prepared to address the prevalent problem of what happens when we try to fit God into our own parameters rather than learning about the God we have in the Bible.

You can read the full text here, but this is a summary of Genesis 39: Pharaoh’s chief officer, Potiphar, buys Joseph from the slavers who took him in chapter 37. Joseph lives in the officer’s house and behaves so well that the officer eventually gives him command over almost every element of the home (Gen. 39:1-6). Potiphar’s wife then propositions Joseph, and when Joseph chooses the honorable route and denies the wife, she then finds another way to trap him and remove his garment. When Joseph runs out of the house naked, the wife accuses him of pursuing her (v. 7-18). The officer throws Joseph in prison, where Joseph again behaves very well and eventually takes over almost every element of the institution (v. 19-23).

So we have a rich kid-turned-slave who enters a house and chooses to act honorably. His faithfulness then pays off for a short while, as he gains some authority and respect within the household. And then we watch it all fall apart. 

Joseph ends up in prison, and all we know is that “While he was in jail, the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. He caused the jail’s commander to think highly of Joseph” (v. 20-21). That’s it.

This is Jacob’s most beloved son, the one who had already been humbled for having grandiose dreams; it seems like his situation is improving, and then he ends up in prison after doing his best to act honorably. In these situations, it’s easy to ask, “What sort of God would allow this?”

I have heard many different pastoral responses to those “Why?” questions. In the religious world, we call them questions of “theodicy.”

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, many patients watched their TVs as pastors in the Prosperity Movement encouraged them to pray in a certain way for health and wealth. They suggested that if people only read their Bible enough, prayed correctly, and gave of their finances, then God would heal their suffering. 

But Joseph was righteous. He was faithful and honorable in his work, and we know that God was already with him. God didn’t send him to prison; Potiphar did. God made no requests for Joseph to change, and he also didn’t keep him out of prison or get him out of there promptly. God simply dwelt with Joseph and influenced the jail’s commander.

I have heard other, more progressive pastors reflect on suffering, and draw the conclusion that we cannot pray The Lord’s Prayer’s, “Give us this day our daily bread” if there are still people in our world who only eat every three days. Instead, we should move away from texts and prayers that don’t fix all of the suffering that we see in the world.

But God never promised to fix all of our suffering. He desires a more complex relationship than that, which means that bad things can happen, and He stays with us through them, and works with us to find a way to make things better. If praying, “Give us this day our daily bread” inspires us to find a way to get food to people abroad, or even to help a local ministry get food to underfunded families on weekends, that prayer was not in vain. And in the situations of the worst and most heartbreaking suffering, such as those who starve and never find the nourishment they need, there is no “best possible outcome.” Things simply end horribly and we are left grieving, but we know that God sits there and grieves alongside us.

The God who Christians have, the One we see in the Old Testament and the New, is a God who does not keep people from facing suffering. Rather, He promises to stay with us, and to “work all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28) in the midst of suffering. 

This is the God who heard the cries of Israel in the wilderness, and chose to offer manna, rather than scoop them up and drop them into the Promised Land (Exodus 16). This is also the God who was with Paul and Silas as men beat and imprisoned them, and then used their circumstances to save the jailer, rather than preventing them from suffering in the first place (Acts 16).

The lesson we learn from Joseph in Genesis 39 and 40 isn’t difficult to follow, and yet we can miss it when we try to make sense of suffering without looking at the Bible. In Joseph’s case, God doesn’t cause suffering, but He stays with him in it, and tries to work out the best possible outcome alongside him. 

At the end of Genesis, after Joseph endures a number of trials and receives the honor he originally envisioned, his brothers approach him to repent for their actions against him. Joseph responds, “You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today” (Gen. 50:20). God takes the difficult circumstances that Joseph faces, and manages to save the lives of the surrounding Gentile world through him.

May we feel encouraged today that God stays with us in the midst of suffering. May we turn to the Bible, where we most clearly learn about the God we worship, in order to find perspective on the roles He plays throughout our lives, and specifically during our most difficult moments. And may we honor the questions we ask about suffering, and at the end of the day, know that the God we have will stay faithfully at our side throughout every season of weeping and every season of joy.

Covenant and Calling

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Do you remember the first time you felt belonging with God? That feeling that God is with you, listening to you, and knowing you very deeply? When I was ten years old I remember laying under the stars and feeling for the first time that I could talk with God, that He would eagerly listen, and that I belonged with him.

Starting in Genesis 12, we see Abram belonging with God. God makes grand promises, leads Abram and Sarai to a variety of lands, and communes with Hagar in the desert. Then, when we arrive at chapter 17, Abram and God establish an even closer and deeper relationship through covenant.

After we leave chapter 16, we know that thirteen years pass before we pick up with chapter 17. We learn that Abram is 99 years old when God calls to him, explains that He will make a covenant with Abram, and that Abram will have innumerable descendants. God changes Abram’s name from Abram (avram), meaning “exalted father,” to Abraham (avraham), meaning “father of a multitude.” God also changes the name of Sarai (saray), meaning “princess,” to Sarah (sarah), meaning “noblewoman.”

In creating the covenant, we see an identity transformation occur. The Exalted Father becomes the Father of a Multitude; the Princess becomes a Noblewoman. Belonging to and with God changes who Abram and Sarai are, and what they represent to the world.

After that transformation occurs, God then promises Abraham that Sarah will birth a child for him, despite her being 99 years old. Abraham experienced such disbelief as to laugh at God, which then inspired his son’s name, Isaac (yitsaq), meaning “he laughs.” God promises that Isaac will carry on the covenant and become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

So once God transforms Abraham and Sarah, establishing a covenantal relationship with them, God then begins expanding it. He establishes that they belong to Him, and then He paints a picture of how their covenant will grow to impact the whole world. He instructs Abraham to circumcise all of the males in the household, and gives him other key directives about what needs to happen in order for them to maintain their covenant relationship. And with those instructions, God then shows Abraham all of the powerful ways He will use their relationship.

Finding a sense of belonging with God is such a special and sacred moment. We must savor our feelings of being found, known, and loved, and we must remind ourselves of that deep and endless relationship constantly. And after we have found our belonging in God, we must then open our ears to listen to what He has in store for us.

God can use us to transform the world, or at least the worlds of those around us. If we listen to His directions, and take the steps to continue following Him, we can watch the transformation of lives take place. This was never meant to be an insular relationship, one in which God changes us and we merely sit with Him for the rest of our days. Rather, God wants to use us as His hands and feet in the world. And if we allow Him to do that, we will create greater change than we ever could have dreamed before.

Let’s be found in Him today. And then open our hearts and hands, stand up, and follow Him.

Finding Eve Among Cain And Abel

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Genesis 4 could be a Lifetime movie. Often we refer to that chapter as “The Story of Cain and Abel.” But if we look at the broader narrative, we see a whole family experiencing jealousy, guilt, murder, grief, loss, and estrangement. If we read the story from the perspective of Cain (which is easy, since he’s arguably the main character), we see what appears to be a vengeful and murderous villain, with so little compassion that he’s willing to kill his own brother.

If we read the story from the perspective of Eve, though, we see a mother who God fills with hope and joy at the birth of her sons; and then we see that hope and joy violently torn away from her in two of the most heartbreaking stories.

We left off yesterday discussing the importance of names. They remain equally important in this story:

So in verse 1, Eve possesses/creates (canah) a son with the help of God. Can you hear what that Hebrew word sounds like? Eve names her son “Cain,” meaning “possession,” because she canah-ed (possessed/created) him with God. In the following verse, she gives birth to Abel (hevel), which means “breath.” This one seems a bit confusing since (spoiler alert), Cain kills Abel very soon. As I researched, though, my brilliant husband pointed out that hevel shows up again in Ecclesiastes 1, but we don’t translate it “breath.”

Ecclesiastes 1:2 states, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever…” The chapter goes on to emphasize repeatedly the fleetingness of life. That word “vanity,” which the biblical translators note can mean, “mist,” “vapor,” or “mere breath,” is the word hevel, or Abel. In context, then, reading Abel’s name shouldn’t make us necessarily think about a physical breath; it’s actually foreshadowing how fleeting his life would be. Just as a vapor or mist disappears as soon as it appears, so too would Abel quickly disappear from the scene.

As the story progresses, we see Cain working the ground and bringing God an offering of fruit, and Abel tending to a flock and bringing God one of the firstborns, along with some extra fat. God looks at Abel’s gift, but snubs Cain’s, which leads to Cain becoming upset and killing his brother (Gen. 4:3-8). 

What follows is a throwback to God meeting Adam and Eve in the garden shortly after they ate of the tree. 

God meets Cain and asks him where his brother is (in Genesis 3 God calls out to inquire where Adam and Eve are). After some back and forth conversation, God realizes what has happened, stating, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth… Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen. 4:10-12;16).

We know that Cain’s vocation is to work the ground; God points out that he has now spilled his brother’s blood on that same ground, and states that the blood has cried out to him. Just as in Genesis 3, a series of punishments follow, but they’re so much worse than what Adam and Eve faced.

One of my posts on Genesis 3 focused on how God never cursed Adam and Eve. After Cain murders his brother, however, God curses (arar) Cain. The mark of a curse is that something about the entity’s being changes; in this case, the mark of Cain’s curse is that he no longer dwells in the presence of the Lord.

God punished Adam by filling the land with thistles and weeds and making it especially difficult to till; in the punishment, the land will still produce for Adam, and Adam remains outside of Eden but very much grounded in the presence of God. When God curses Cain, He makes the ground entirely infertile and sends him out from His presence entirely.

At this point, it’s easy to focus solely on what Cain then faced going into the wilderness, away from his family and from God. But I want to draw our attention back home. 

Over the course of this story, Eve, who experienced estrangement from Eden, but then received overwhelming joy upon birthing Cain and Abel, her “possession” and her “breath,” lost Abel at the hands of Cain, but also lost Cain himself. The amount of loss and pain that sweet mother experiences in this story is heart-wrenching.

And this is the sort of thing that happens over and over again in the biblical text and in our lives — the main characters who have the most going on, the most drama around them, get the attention, while there are quiet sufferers sitting on the sidelines. I got a call from a friend yesterday, whose family members continue to make decision after decision that cause frustration and pain for those around them. And my sweet friend watches them, listens to them, and pleads for them to do otherwise.

Those often are the overlooked heroes of the story. The ones who beg for the best out of those who often deny them their best. The ones who continue to love and to strive to provide strength and peace to their beloved family and friends. So may we recognize them today. May we not read over the Eve’s of our lives; let us honor them today, and give them the attention, the care, and love that they have always craved and always deserved.