Thursday, September 23, 2010

Last Sunday morning's Bible study lesson was on prayer. Specifically, praying for those who are sick. A difficult topic, since many in our group have lost loved ones to cancer and other cruel, debilitating illnesses.

We pondered the whys and why nots of God's methods of healing - complete recovery on this side of heaven, complete recovery on that side. Of course, we say this to spin it in such a way that God says, "Yes" to our request for healing. It makes it a little more comfortable, however placating, answer of hope for believers in Christ. But, the truth is, the latter is a "No" answer. And human nature being what it is, we don't like to hear, "No."

I've always heard that God answers every prayer: "Yes" "No" or "Wait." That may be true. While we make out like waiting is the hardest of the answers, I think we're only fooling ourselves. "No" is the answer we simply don't want, because it may not have rationale to follow. At least with "Wait" we can usually see why in hindsight or gain a glimpse of the steps that had to be taken to bring the circumstances to bear. But "No" is so final. So "because I said so." So uncontrollable.

It's the "No"s that trip us up. They cause us to question God's goodness of character, the depth of his love, his dependability and/or his rightful place as sovereign Lord. But a God who won't say "No" is no more authoritative than a parent or employer who won't, and a God who can't say "No" is not really in control to begin with, so why should we bother to ask him to work at all? God knows it's a risk to say "No" to us; we may reject him altogether. That's a risk he is (and many parents and employers should be) willing to take.

The thing that always bothered me was that Jesus didn't know what it was like. I mean, every time he prayed, the answer was "Yes." He prayed for people to be healed...boom...a blind man could see. He prayed for the dead to be raised...boom...a little girl sits up from her bed, hungry. He prayed for food to be multiplied...boom...5000+ people are eating fish sandwiches on a hillside. He prayed for the agony of the cross to pass from him (Mark 14:36)..............and it didn't.

The answer was "No." Jesus did get a "No" from God. And his "No" wasn't "for his own good." (That's a reason I hear all the time. "God said, 'No' because he knew you didn't need that; it wouldn't be good for you." Sometimes that's just baloney.) God's "No" to Jesus had nothing to do with him, personally. It certainly wasn't because there was sin in his life. (That's another reason I hear: "God said, 'No' because you need to suffer the consequences for something you did once." Thanks, that's so helpful.) God's "No" to Jesus' plea had eternal, world-wide ramifications. If he'd said "Yes" what hope would you or I have for salvation?

Now, I'm not implying that every "No" we hear from God will result in someone's salvation or change the course of history as we know it. But it is helpful to know he has a reason, even if we don't like it. And his reasons can't make him mean or uncaring, because to be unkind is impossible for him. He is defined by love, the very fruit of his Spirit's nature is joy, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness (to name a few).

So when God says "No" to healing on this side of heaven, it might make us feel better to believe he really said, "Yes" to healing over there, but it helps me more to know Jesus knows the pain of hearing "No," too. And I believe, in his humanity, he didn't like that answer any more than I do.

Later on Sunday, a woman privately asked me a difficult and unanswerable question: Since there is complete healing in heaven for those who have received Christ's atoning sacrifice in forgiveness of their sins (based on Rev. 21:4), does it necessarily follow that those who die from a debilitating disease and chose to reject Christ's atoning sacrifice will endure that suffering in hell for eternity? In other words, if a Christ-follower dies of cancer and is thereby healed in heaven, does a non-Christ-follower who dies from cancer endure its effects forever in hell?

I'm going to do everything I can to make sure no one has to find out first-hand.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The One Who Came Back

My devotional this morning led me to read Luke 17:11-19, where Jesus heals the 10 lepers and only one returns to express his gratitude. Of course, the point of the devotional was to be grateful for the things God has done in your life and I honestly went into it thinking, "I know: yada;yada"), but as only He can, God brought some other things to my attention this time.

Luke takes great pains to point out all ten lepers were healed as they walked away from Jesus toward the priests (v.14). Numerous sermons have been preached about the amount of faith these men had to turn away and begin walking before healing took place. I don't deny that's a great likelihood. But, I also wonder, as people in a position of great desperation, was He simply their last hope? I mean, what's the worst Jesus could say when they ask for mercy? "No"? They won't be any worse off than they are already. Instead, Jesus tells them to do something marginally ridiculous. He doesn't say hello, wish them God's grace, or even touch their decaying bodies. He tells them to go show themselves to the priests.

Now, they didn't say anything apparently (which is a credit to them, because I would have looked at Jesus like he was crazy, followed by a snide, "Seriously?"), but at least one of them had to have been thinking: "Um, Jesus, we know you're a nice guy and all, and seem to know a lot about God and stuff, but...we've already done that." The laws–see Leviticus 13 for full details–gave instruction to present oneself to the priest to be declared unclean. (I guess priests back then also went to med school?) Presumably, all ten of these men had done that. So, why, before they were healed, was Jesus sending them back to the priests? Jesus, of course, knew that Leviticus 14 instructs lepers who believe they've been healed to return to the priests for verification, sacrifices of offerings and reestablishment in the community. But you go to the priest for this confirmation after healing has occurred. Jesus is sending them before "doing" anything. He doesn't wave a magic wand or speak words of power over them. I wonder if they walked away, not in faithful assurance of healing, but rather in confusion, dejection, or even apathy, thinking: "It was a nice try. At least worth a shot." I wish Luke had recorded their real thoughts and the fervor with which they did or did not walk away from Christ.

He did, however, record an important fact: one of the lepers (the grateful one) was a Samaritan. Remember, these are the people Hebrews would walk miles to avoid. Funny how crisis draws enemies together. When they were all afflicted with leprosy, he was welcome in the unsightly family. But, now, following their healing, would he be welcome? Would the Jewish priests even look at him? Would the other nine still invite him to dine at their family tables, or would getting better make him an outcast once again?

Jesus says to him in verse 19, "Your faith has saved you." I think He's offering the former leper and Samaritan a place of belonging. He is saved. He is rescued. Not only from a terminal illness, but from isolation, loneliness and exclusion.

I suspicion that's why Luke alone tells this story and Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. He knew what it was like to be an outsider. According to tradition, Luke was of Greek heritage, not a Hebrew (like Matthew, Mark and John). He wrote so non-Jews might know there was hope for them in this Messiah, this Christ. Jesus offered promise for a future for all humanity who found faith in Him. I also suspect that as a doctor (which tradition also tells us he was), Luke had an interest in diseases–especially when they were healed!

Though he'd cried out from a distance as a diseased outcast (v.12), the Samaritan surrendered his pride in front of a Jewish rabbi and humbly and gratefully came back, came near, falling at the feet of the One who cleansed his life (v16). He didn't deny the truth or gravity of his previous condition like we sometimes do. Imagine if he'd said, "Thanks Jesus, but you know, my leprosy wasn't as bad as Bob's." ????? How ludicrous! Yet that's what we sound like when we delude ourselves into believing our sin wasn't that bad. "I'm a good person, overall." No, we're people in need of cleansing, even if only a little. And we are insufficient to cleanse ourselves. The Samaritan had already known he needed mercy (v.13), but he willingly received it. And, he recognized the power of God as the source for the change (v.15).

Jesus is clearly delighted by this man. I imagine a broad grin spread across His face as he looked down at the man and invited him to stand (v.19). Though he'd been humbled by mercy, Jesus reminds the Samaritan that his dignity is restored. He is not a "thing" to feared and run from any longer. He is whole. He is well. The one who came back now belongs.