We Owe the IRS. What’s Your Story?
Julie and I just got our tax information. We were hoping to get money back this year but due to some stupidity on our part and bad advice we owe $5136. The real challenge is not coming up with $5136. The real challenge is not letting the bad news sink us in a pit of despair. What did we do wrong to bring all this on ourselves? Why can’t we live on easy street like other people? Is God punishing us?
These are foolish questions. The truth is that no one lives on easy street. Everyone, without exception, struggles. Many deal with problems far worse than ours: cancer, divorce, car accidents, addictions, loneliness, abusive parents, depression… Pick any person. Dig deep enough and you’ll find pain. From a distance, others may appear to live a charmed life but up close, the illusion vanishes. In fact, I don’t feel like I really know a person until I know their pain.
If you’re reading this and think you have been left out, just hang on. Life may be rocking along pleasantly at the moment but you’ll get your turn to suffer soon enough. We all do.
The Cold Hard Facts
We are born with an expiration date. We might make a big splash or a little in this world one but either way the ripples of your life quickly disappear. We do our best to hide our eyes and plug our ears to this but there is no escaping it. Life is a limited time offer.
The strange thing is that in the face of overwhelming evidence that our lives are meaningless, nearly everyone lives as if there is hope. In the grand scheme of the universe we are specks too small to measure. The fleeting years of our lives are a flash too small to see. Still, we go around as if it is all matters. Why?
When people face tragedy we hold them in our arms and say “It’s gonna be alright.” This makes no sense. The one think we can say with certainty is that it will not be alright. Maybe things will get better for a little while, then they will die. How is that “alright?” And then, when they die we say, “They are in a better place” even as we throw dirt on their dead, rotting corpses. What is wrong with us?
Maybe nothing. We say and do these things because of something we do not see but definitely feel: hope. Along with the depressing facts that lead to the conclusion that our lives don’t matter, there is something inside of us that says they do. Intuitively, we feel that our struggle is important, that there is a point to our lives.
Jesus gave a name to hope. He called it the Kingdom of God and claimed it was more real, more solid, more permanent than anything. What we see is not all there is, not by a long shot, and the end of our lives is not the final chapter in our story. Our dying world opens up on a brighter and better one in which God is making all things new.
The Theme of the Story: Redeeming Love
Jesus was a teacher who filled people’s hearts with hope. This was not the usual religious mumbo-jumbo. When Jesus described the Kingdom of God, the heavens were parted and people experienced the unseen. The crowds’ reaction at the end of the Sermon on the Mount is typical.
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law. (Matthew 7:28-29)
The word “amazed” means “overwhelmed,” or “astounded.” Jesus wasn’t just a good teacher. When he spoke of the age to come, people were undone. They believed saw it. They believed him. He spoke with certainty, like a person with firsthand experience.
But Jesus did more than teach about the Kingdom of God. He lived it. He loved everyone. He was as welcoming to a prostitute as a Pharisee. Those who encountered him were forced to face the truth about themselves. We got a sneak peak at the end of the human story in the way Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, forgave s ins, and welcomed everyone to God’s table. People didn’t just hear about the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ words. They saw it in his actions. He was living proof. No wonder that those who followed him began to refer to him not only as “Teacher” but also as “Lord.”
But even more than teaching and revealing the Kingdom of God, Jesus entered it. His suffering and death proved that God is with us in our darkest hours. We see how far God will go to love us, forgive us, and make us new. His resurrection showe d that even the most extreme and absurd suffering will be transformed into glory. The old hymn Crown Him with Many Crowns describes this well:
Crown him the Lord of love
Behold his hands and side
Rich wounds yet visible above
In beauty glorified
No wonder his followers went beyond calling him “Teacher” and “Lord” and started to call him “Savior.” God is using this groaning world to bring his daughters and sons to glory. There is hope for everyone.
How to Deal with Suffering: Accentuate the Positive?
Probably there are certain areas of your life in which you feel blessed: You’re smart. You’re good looking. You have loving parents. You’re in good health. You like your job. You have great kids. You have lots of money. You have straight teeth. We can all find things to be grateful for if we look.
But that’s not the end of the story. As much as you may like to paint your life all roses, there are thorns mixed in too. Your parents were abusive. You get bad grades. You have cancer. You’re up to your eyeballs in debt. Your kids make your life a living hell. Your teeth are falling out.
Life is a mixed bag. What shall we do? The best advice this world can offer is,
You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
Focus on the positive. See you glass as half-full rather than half empty. This is good practical advice. Focusing on positive things will make you happier than focusing on the negative. But this solution is not what Jesus suggested. If anything, Jesus urged his followers to focus on the negative, or at least not to duck it. Jesus’ solution is not to gouge one eye out and look at only half of life. His solution is to redeem it all, the positive, the negative, and Mr. In-Between.
Your Story of Suffering and Hope
Satisfying stories are about untangling knots, making things right, fixing something that has fallen apart. Everything was once okay. Then thing fell apart. The story is about how those things are put back together.
But now here is the really satisfying thing about a good story: In the end, things are not just back to the way they were. They are better. Far better. By taking the journey, the hero is transformed. We call it character development. Stories without character development put us to sleep and character development always involves pain.
Until I know your struggle I don’t know your story. Until I know your story I don’t know you. Struggle is at the core of humanity, central to ever person’s identity.
When I present myself as having it all together, people keep me at arm’s length. When I share my pain and struggle, I discover an instant bond. This is not because people are sadists. It’s because they understand that struggle is what our lives are all about. It’s what makes us human. When we hide this we become one dimensional stick figures, a movie with no plot. The prodigal who never wanders can never come home. The elder son, who never leaves the Father’s side, has no story of redemption. He knows nothing of the Father’s love.
Your story, my story, everyone’s story, is a story of redemption, a story of God’s love bringing us home, not just so that things can be like they were before. So that they can be far better.
Why Is Life So &%! Hard?
Why does life have to hurt? Why is it so hard? If God is good and God is all-powerful, why doesn’t God do something to smooth things out?
This is not just a question. That is the question. When you dig deep enough in any religion or philosophy this is the issue you will find. Why are our lives both a heavenly glory and a living hell?
One very old, perfectly logical explanation is that there are good and bad gods behind this world. They are at war in heaven. Our world is a reflection of their battle. This does a great job of explaining why things are the way they are but it doesn’t explain why there is hope.
Another answer is that there is only one God but that this God is a mixture of good and evil. In the Calvinist view, for example, one side of God is love. He graciously forgives and redeems certain people. The others side of God is wrath so he tortures others in hell. The trick is to get on God’s good side.
Another answer is that in order to make human beings in his image, God had no choice but to give them free will. Evil isn’t God’s fault, it’s ours. We reap what we sow. But how does this explain suffering that has nothing to do with choice? Children born with birth defects, for example? Tsunamis? Also, if God has taken his hand off of this world what hope can there be? On a personal level, I find the idea that God is forced to let me have my own way and never intervene to be terrifying.
A better answer that is more true to the Bible is to realize that God is a Shepherd.
One or Two Kinds of People in the End?
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis said.
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”
This is a brilliant and concise way of summing up the “free will” explanation for evil. But perhaps Lewis has mistaken the middle of the story for the end. At present, we are rightly be described as being for or against God or, more likely, a mixture of both. But is this hideous division our our world and our selves the end of God’s story? Paul doesn’t think so.
For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. (Colossians 1:19-20)
There is no denying the battle between good and evil. But maybe the battle is a necessary part of the story, not the end of it.
Maybe in the end there is only one kind of person: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.”
In other words, the goal of creation is a people to whom God gives freedom. He says, “Thy will be done.” And what is our will ? We joyfully respond, “Thy will be done!’ We love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength. We are moving toward a final reconciliation, not a permanent division.
Many people assume that our journey ends at death but there is nothing in the Bible to indicate this. The term “final judgment” never appears. Instead, the coming age is described as a great unmasking. Things will be seen for what they really are. This results in both reward and punishment.
How the story of redemption continues from here is not spelled out. Maybe everything will be redeemed in a flash. As John put it, “When we see Him, we will be like Him.” (1 John 3:2) Maybe it will take more chapters, even countless ages.
However it happens, the Great Shepherd cannot declare victory by annihilating half of his sheep, let alone throwing them in a pit to suffer eternally. The only victory can be the return of every wandering sheep to the fold, each with a song of praise and a story of redemption.
How can we be sure things will end this way? Because God is eternal and love never fails. God allows us to taste the bitterness of wandering, so that we will see our rebellious lives for what they are. We may wander far from home, but like the prodigal son one day we will wake to find that we are living with the pigs, eating their slop. We will pack our bags and go home. There, we we will find a seat with our name on it and a table prepared for us.
I do not understand why things happen the way they do. I do know that our struggle is being used by God to produce a far more wonderful result than if the prodigal had never left home. I do not understand why some people have to suffer more than others but I do know that Jesus promised that these people are not cursed. They are, in fact, especially blessed. They have a special place in the heart of the Lamb that was slain.
Suffering is a mysterious but necessary part of bringing us to glory. Like the hero in the story, we must go through pain to become what we were meant to be. This is not an aberration. It is not a departure from the script. It is the way God brings many daughters and sons to glory. We don’t gouge out one eye and try to see only half of the glass. Like our Lord, we drink our cup to the dregs. We swallow pain as well as joy as essential elements in our story of redemption.
This attitude about suffering was common among those who first followed Jesus. They did not fear a difficult life. They expected it. For example, when the disciples were beaten, here is their response:
The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. (Acts 5:41)
After sharing the good news in Galatia, Paul told the followers of Jesus there,
We must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)
When our lives seem pointless, when we can’t understand what God is doing, when we feel God-forsaken, we must remember the cross. If it weren’t for the cross, we could accuse God of being a mad scientist, experimenting on the human race from heaven, torturing lab rats for his own purposes.
But when life takes a horrible turn that makes no sense and we shake our fist at God, we discover a God who is not watching the human story unfold from a sky box in heaven. God is part of it, suffering by our side. We lower our fists and drop our jaws.
Jesus did not suffer for his sins—he had none. Neither was Jesus’ death a human sacrifice to appease an angry God. Jesus suffered because he was human. To be human is to suffer. But as Jesus’ life shows, suffering is not the end. It opens the door to eternal life.
The Chapters of Your Story
How does the human story play out? we experience it as four great chapters:
Brokenness > Trust > Hope > Love
Our life with God begins when we wake up and realize we’ve been living with the pigs. We face our broken lives and this broken world. We stop running.
We trust Jesus and take his hand. He leads us to a cross.
Death does not have the final word, God does. We discover hope in a coming age, the Kingdom of God. We find strength to face anything life may throw our way. This is well said in the hymn, For All the Saints.
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Our hope is not the pathetic attempt to arrange the pieces of Adams world into paradise. We have learned our lesson: every human paradise is a paradise lost. Life is filled with ups and downs. Our hope is not in the “ups:” a pay raise, or a vacation, an upcoming marriage. Our hope contains those things but is bigger than any of them. Hope has a place for the “downs” of life too. God is working in all thing for good.
We do not understand the twists and turns of our story but we know that a God of love will bring our story to a conclusion that will make us stand and shout. What a story we will have to tell! At the center of this story will be the God who sought us when we went astray and gave his life to bring us home.
Romans 7-8 describes of the four chapters.
Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:24)
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
We follow our Lord in suffering.
We ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves. (Romans 8:23)
But know that this suffering is not pointless.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 1:18)
Because of this, we are filled with hope.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? (Romans 8:31)
We live in victory because we know the love of God cannot fail.
In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)
The third habit of wholeness is to hope in God. This does not mean you run around with an idiotic grin on your face. There is a place in the Kingdom of God for both laughter and tears. In all things there is hope. Your life is not a story without a plot.
God is no a monster who loves some and hates others. Neither is he passively watching from heaven, bound by an oath not to interfere. He is a great Shepherd, guiding us all home, preparing us for that great day when he says to us,
“Thy will be done.”
And we respond in joy,
“Thy will be done!”
We can be sure of this outcome because God is love and God is eternal. The only question is how long you want to live with the pigs.
P.S. Other Descriptions of the Kingdom
From Genesis to Revelation, redeeming love is what the story has always been about. This is described in various ways. Israel struggled, sinned, and spent many years in exile. But one way or another, God alway brought her through. Ultimately, according to Paul, “all Israel will be saved.” This matches the visions of the prophets of a world in which God would…
…give to the nations purified lips,
That all of them may call on the name of the Lord,
To serve Him shoulder to shoulder.
This vision is described with different language in different places. The picture above lists some of the main ones.
- The Kingdom of this World vs. The Kingdom of God
- Earth vs. Heaven
- This Age vs. The Age to Come
- Flesh vs. Spirit
- Destruction vs. Eternal Life
- Condemnation vs. Salvation