Those Whose Best Life Isn’t Now

To mourn is to protest. It is to say that this should not be. 

We mourn when we lose a friend in a car accident. We mourn when we lose a child in pregnancy. We mourn when an earthquake collapses buildings upon untold hundreds of lives we never knew. We mourn when a husband walks out his wife and children. We mourn when a son turns away from his mother and father. We mourn when an economy that enables greed leads powerful people to exploit the powerless. We mourn when disease destroys a life in its prime, when an addiction takes down a life that had so much promise. These and more are occasions when we mourn, when we protest, when from the depths of soul we cry out, “This is not supposed to happen!”

And we’re right. To mourn is to protest. And to protest is to give witness to a better reality. It is a sign in our souls that we are in on God’s secret: all is not as God intends. This isn’t quite the world God made. All is not the way it should be. Sin is at work. Evil has infected the cosmos. Just as Israel was kicked out of the promise land because of their rebellion against Yahweh, the whole universe is in exile because of humanity’s rebellion against Creator-God in the garden. And as Israel mourned so the whole world mourns, lamenting the brokenness. In mourning, we protest the infection of evil, crying out that this is not how it should be. And in protesting, we give witness to a better reality, an unfallen creation. Perhaps there is a faint memory of Eden in our hearts. We have been wandering in exile for so long it’s hard to know.

We can see and taste and feel the evidence of a good creation infected by evil. But what of God? What does He think? Here things take a surprising twist. God is not watching from a distance, waiting to make the earth dissolve like snow and start over. We know that God, right from the Garden of Eden, began looking for Adam after his rebellion. God in the garden was working within His newly fallen creation. God in the garden. God the Gardener

Then, in the fullness of time, God became flesh. Jesus entered our suffering, joined in our mourning, and continued working from within His fallen creation. One of the stories He told was of a tree that had yet to bear fruit and was about to be cut down. But the gardener told the master not to cut it down yet. “Let me surround it with manure and work with it for another year,” the gardener said. Always patient. Always working. God the gardener.

Toward the end of Jesus’ time on earth, God was in a garden again, agonizingly at work within His fallen creation. Jesus, praying, surrendering, blood dripping from His forehead under the weight of what He was about to do. Jesus, at the cross, took the full weight of evil on Himself. He drank the poison that had infected the universe. Like the scene from The Count of Monte Cristo, it was as if on the cross, Jesus said, “Do your worst, and when you are done, I will do mine.” And He did. He rose from the grave, conquering death and hell, signifying that death would not reign forever. Jesus was more than the Messiah who brought comfort to a mourning Israel, suffering in prolonged exile. He was the one who rescued all creation from exile. By rising from the grave, Jesus announced to the world that it would not always be this way. As Paul explained to the Corinthian church, because Christ has been raised from the dead “He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.”  (1 Cor. 15:20 NLT) God in the garden, sowed the seed of His life for a harvest of new creation.

Shortly after Jesus had risen, Mary Magdelene wept at the empty tomb thinking His body had been taken away. Jesus stood before her but she mistook Him for a gardener. Not a bad mistake. The Gardner is at work in His garden, and the garden itself longs for the work to be complete:

“For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.  Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope,  the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.  For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Rom. 8:19-22, NLT)

By taking the full weight of humanity’s rebellion and the full force of evil, Jesus entered our mourning and defeated evil at its root. He sowed His life and rose again as the first fruit of a coming harvest, a day when heaven and earth will be made new. The cross was a decisive moment of victory over evil; the resurrection a sign of what is to come. God the Gardener is at work within the garden of His fallen creation, working to rescue and redeem. 

But sometimes all we see is manure…

You are blessed not for your mourning but for the comfort that is coming. You are not lucky for your tears but for the laughter that is coming.

So. In a world of suffering and pain, we mourn. But in the midst of our mourning, we realize that God mourns with us, and we remember that Jesus has triumphed over evil and so death will one day end. Moreover we carry this hope to others who mourn. We "comfort those in trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Cor. 1:4). Jesus the Messiah carries a comfort deeper than anything we have ever known. We who were mourning are lucky, for this comfort has come to us. Now we who have received this comfort carry it to those who mourn.

 [This is an excerpt from "Lucky: How the Kingdom Comes to Unlikely People", which just released on March 1, 2011. This is taken from Chapter 5, "Those Whose Best Life Isn't Now."]

Purchase LUCKY.

 Copyright Glenn Packiam. All rights reserved.

Toward a Better Theology of Healing, Pt. 2

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Read the previous post, “Toward a Better Theology of Healing, Pt. 1”, for introductory remarks and points 1-3.]

4. The fruit of what was gained for us through Jesus has begun and is manifesting in us here and now; but it will not culminate in its fullness until He returns.
The Kingdom of God has come, but it’s full and ultimate reign is not yet. The favorite theological phrase is “already, but not yet.” It doesn’t appear to make much sense, but the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” is seen throughout the New Testament. Salvation itself is described as something that has happened, something that is happening, and something that has yet to occur. Traditionally, these “tenses” of salvation have been described as “justification”, “sanctification”, and “glorification”. Consider Paul’s letter the Ephesian church. In Eph 1:3, Paul says God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” But a few verse later he says that “his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ” will “be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” (Eph. 1:9b-10). Again in verses 13-14, he writes that we “also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.”

We have the deposit. Moreover, we have the guarantee. But the culmination will be when “the times have reached their fulfillment”.  This is an idea that modern Americans struggle with. How could you make the down payment for something and not enjoy it fully now? We make a down payment on a house and expect to move in right away. Not so in the ancient world. A deposit guarantees that it is yours. But it is not fully yours yet. It’s not to dissimilar from buying a gift for your child and placing it under the tree as a sort of guarantee that it is his, and yet asking him to wait until Christmas morning to open it. Here is the point some Charismatics can’t grasp: just because a thing is paid for doesn’t mean you will have it all now. 

If we didn’t believe this, that what’s coming is better than what is, that the fullness of what Jesus paid for will culminate later at the end of time, then we should not stop by claiming healing for cancer. We should take authority over baldness and weak joints and shortness of breath after exercise. We should not expect to die at all. After all, what Jesus paid for was more than healing: it was the ultimate restoration of all things: no more bodies that age and break down, no more injustice no more tears, no more suffering of any kind. If we want it all now, we should never have another believer die. Instead, we ought to remember, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, that Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die again. In other words, the best, the fullness of what Jesus paid for is not all to be enjoyed here and now. Those who insist otherwise are not being consistent in their behavior…neither is the universe, for that matter, for people age and die. And, what’s more troubling to that point of view is the fact that none of the apostles– not Peter who quotes Isaiah 53, not Paul, not James who tells us to lay hands on the sick, not John who outlives all the apostles– taught the no believer should get sick or suffer disease if they had enough faith. Furthermore, to my best knowledge of church history (and though I am no scholar, I am a student of church history), no one has taught that theology of healing– that all should be healed if there is no sin and enough faith.

5.  We Can Enjoy the Firstfruits (i.e. Healing and Miracles) Here and Now
This may challenge some who believe that healings and miracles were only for an age but are not for now. While it is true that what is coming is better than what is, it doesn’t mean there is nothing to enjoy now. There is the “foretaste of glory divine”, the beginnings of what is coming in fullness. To put it plainly, we can enjoy healing and miracles here and now. That is not to say we ought to demand it or simply claim it. But it does mean we should pray for it and believe. We can receive the foretaste of God’s ultimate “restoration of all things” here and now. This is what Jesus meant we He announced, “the Kingdom of God has come.” It is here. That explains why when He sent out the 70 (or 72) he simply told them to heal the sick. He reaffirms this in the Great Commission, telling them that for “those who believe” (i.e. disciples), they will “lay hands on sick people, and they will get well”. (Mk. 16:18) 

Throughout the Christian centuries, there are instances of healings and miracles that take place at the hands of certain devout men and women. Gregory Thuamaturgus (the “Wonderworker”) is an example in the early centuries. But the list continues through the saints. And since there is no indication that it was merely for an age, I would contest that it continues through followers of Christ today.

So, what are we to conclude? Chiefly that God is good. That His ultimate plan for us is total and complete healing. And that He has suffered and paid for it on through Jesus. And based on His goodness and His ultimate plan for us, we should pray and ask for healing here and now. But above all, we have hope: for what is coming is better than what is.

Toward a Better Theology of Healing, Pt. 1

Labels can be useful, but they can often be misleading. So telling you that I am a Charismatic may not be helpful—to you or to me!—because the term can denote views that I don’t hold. When we talk about healing, labels can sound more like accusations than theological dispositions. So, in talking about healing, I’ll try to describe points of view rather than labels or denominations.

Let me say up front that I believe in the work of the Holy Spirit through the Church today. In certain streams of the Charismatic movement, the view of healing is as follows:

Because (a) God is a good God and, (b) healing is always His will, and (c) healing has been paid for in the cross, therefore, (d) our faith or sin is the only remaining barrier to having healing here and now.

We have enough decades behind us now to sensibly say that such teaching is problematic at best. What are we to make of the multitude of Christians—including popular faith preachers and pastors—who have died from illness and disease? Should we suggest they didn’t have enough faith? And if that is our conclusion, how much faith is enough? Didn’t Jesus say faith the size of a mustard seed is enough? But how do you measure faith anyway?

To be fair, when this teaching arose, there was a broad view of God as a cold, indifferent Being who sometimes sent sickness and suffering according to “His good pleasure”. The Christian was left no choice but to quietly acquiesce, and to view their condition as their divinely appointed lot in life. Such a view has more to do with the fatalism present in Buddhism than the teachings of Christ. Passive acceptance of suffering as the will of the supreme Force of the universe is not what Jesus ever told a sick person.

I suspect it was a reaction to this view of God as a distant, unsympathetic Being assigning diseases to people in His sovereign will that led many to revolt. Where some may have tried to simply teach that God is good and that sickness and disease is not His wish for any of us, others took it a step further by claiming that we should never pray “God, heal me if it’s your will” for it is always God’s will to heal. Working themselves into a logical loop knot, such healing preachers have had little choice but to claim that if any person remained un-healed, it was no fault of God’s; there must have been some sin or a lack of faith that prevented them from receiving what was rightfully theirs.

I suggest a view of God and healing that the Church has held for centuries prior, one that presents God neither as a cold school master who refuses questions nor a sugar daddy who is good only as we understand the word. Let’s begin.

1. Sickness was not God’s original design.
Adam and Eve’s bodies were not made to break down, grow weary and weak, or be susceptible to diseases and pain. Heck, they weren’t even supposed to sweat prior to the Fall. Adam and Eve were never made to grow old or bald or wrinkle or die.

2. Sickness is not God’s final outcome.
There would be not point in saying that in heaven every tear would be wiped away if there would only be more tears to come. No, when God bring the restoration of all things, there will be no more sickness, disease, injustice, or suffering of any kind. Such is the picture that John’s revelation and the heavenly and apocalyptic visions from Isaiah, Daniel and others provide (Rev. 21:1-5).

3. Jesus entered into our suffering, took it upon Himself, and, in His death and resurrection, made the way for the restoration—full healing—of all things.
Having set the original intent and the final outcome, we must ask how it is possible that will reverse the cures on the earth and humankind. How did God undo the suffering of humanity? In short, by entering it. By the incarnation, Jesus entered into our human suffering. He knows what it feels like to be abused, abandoned, beaten, bone-weary; He knows what it’s like to witness the death of a friend, or to watch a companion self-destruct in suicide. He knows what it’s like to ask the Father for a cup to pass and yet to surrender to the Father’s will above His own.

But because of His resurrection, He did more than enter it; He conquered it (Jn. 16:33). Jesus became the “firstborn from among the dead” (Col. 1: 18) so that now we have hope for the restoration of all things. As N.T. Wright, the preeminent New Testament scholar of our day, says, “God will do for the universe what He has done for Christ Jesus.”

When Isaiah wrote that the Messiah would suffer for our transgressions and that by His wounds we would be healed (Is. 53), we must see a wider picture than simply physical healing. Isaiah’s Messianic vision is of one who would end wars, bring healing to the division of God’s people, and, in short, right all that is wrong with the world. When Peter quotes Isaiah (1 Pet. 2:23-24), he is talking about right relationship with God, and then right relationships between one another. Right before quoting Isaiah, Peter describes the unjust suffering that slaves experience under the hand of the masters. He encourages their patience and forgiveness for Christ suffered unjustly too. Moreover, Christ’s suffering paid for our healing: of wounded relationships, of all injustice…and yes, of physical suffering too.

Thus far, it seems we have done little to offend. But, Part 2 is coming. 🙂 [HERE is PART 2]