Wednesday, October 6, 2010

the good and beautiful god

For the past three weeks I have been attending a study group at my church entitled The Good and Beautiful God. We have been using the companion book by the same name written by James Bryan Smith and each chapter focuses on a different narrative people generally use when thinking of God. The book challenges the reader to adopt Jesus' narrative instead of the narratives we grew up adopting, whether in the church or in the world. For example: Our natural response to becoming more like Christ would be our Moral Formation (focusing on the self to make changes) when in actuality it should be a Spiritual Formation (focusing on the Spirit to make changes). We may tend to believe that God withholds love for us when we fail instead of realizing that God loves us even in our sin, we depend on our willfulness as opposed to our willingness, that in order to become more like Christ we believe it takes an external behavior change instead of an inner transformation, and so on and so forth.

Each chapter includes an exercise, called a Soul-Training, that should be practiced, as well as discussion questions to reflect on before meeting with the group to discuss and share. The first week's Soul-Training exercise focused on the discipline of sleep, challenging the reader to get a consistent amount of sleep each night and falling asleep at the same time every night. The second week's exercise was to spend at least five minutes a day in silence with as clear a mind as possible in order to open one's self up to what the Holy Spirit may be trying to communicate during silent time as well as taking time in nature and learning to appreciate God in His creation.

This past week's chapter, entitled God Is Good, focused on the ancient narrative of The Angry God ("God is an angry judge. If you do well, you will be blessed. If you sin, you will be punished") and how Jesus' narrative of God is quite the opposite ("In all of his stories, Jesus describes a God who seems altogether good and is always out for our good, even if we cannot understand it.") And what's more is that "it rains on the righteous, too". Matthew 5:45 says, "He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous". 
To further explain this verse's meaning, Smith adds, "Jesus is telling us an obvious truth: just as sunshine and rain are given equally to saints and sinners with no distinction, so God gives blessings to all without regard to their behavior. Terrible things happen to wonderful people. Wonderful things happen to awful people. We cannot look around the world we live in and build a case that sinners are punished and righteous people are blessed. Reality simply does not bear this out."

I was unfortunate enough to not find a chance to read this past week's chapter until the day of our group meeting due to the stress this past week and a half has presented to myself and my family. The past ten or so days have been the most challenging days my family, as a unit, has experienced in quite some time and although we have dealt with many issues and gone through many trials over the years, it never gets easy. The irony in all this is that if I had taken the time to read the chapter in the beginning of the week and done the Soul-Training exercises, it would have been extremely beneficial for me during the week. But alas, I can still learn a great deal from the chapter after the fact and I certainly did. 

There were two particular parts of this chapter that spoke to me and resonated within my heart and within this current trial I am facing. The first revelation was "The Good Only The Good Knows". While quoting Augustine of Hippo, Smith explains,
"...Even so, Augustine still continues to believe that God possesses the 'highest virtue and...wisdom and...justice,' and that God is neither weak nor rash nor unfair. He concludes by saying that it is not 'beneficial' to spend our time worrying about why good or bad things happen. It is not worthwhile because we simply cannot know. And more importantly, it will keep us from focusing on the right things. Augustine concludes, 'Rather we must seek out the good things peculiar to the good, and give the widest birth to the evils peculiar to evil men.'
We should focus our attention on 'the good things peculiar to the good'. What does that mean? It refers to the blessings given only to those who strive to do good. That is the only justice, in a sense, we can count on...
Conversely, Augustine says that we should also 'give the widest berth to the evils peculiar to evil men'. Those who are selfish and spiteful and mean are intimately acquainted with guilt, loneliness, remorse and self-hatred. They know what it feels like to have darkness surround and overtake them. This does not solve the problem entirely, but it gives us a glimpse into the goodness of God. God promises that those who love and serve, and are honest and faithful, will know a kind of joy and peace that those who are evil never will."
The second part of the chapter that resonated with me pertains to trials, which as I said before, I am currently struggling through. Smith goes on to say in the section entitled In This World You Will Have Trouble,
"So much now seems clear to me in regard to the nature of God. God's goodness is not something I get to decide upon. I am a human being with limited understanding, and as I grow and mature in my walk of faith I increasingly see how little I understand. In the end, I have the testimony of Jesus to stand on. My own experiences of disappointment with God say more about me and my expectations than they do about God. The goodness of God, I now see with greater clarity, is vast and consuming. Jesus never promises that our lives will be free of struggle. In fact, he said quite the opposite: 'In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world' (John 16:33 KJV).
We should expect to go through heartache and pain, suffering and loss, because they are a part of what if means to be human, and they can be useful in our development. As James said, 'My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have it's full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing' (James 1:2-4).
I have grown much more through my trials than I have through my successes. I do not ask for trials, and I am not as deep in God's kingdom as was James, so I don't consider trials 'nothing but joy,' but I am learning to trust God in the midst of them."

I find such comfort and such peace in this wisdom and I am so thankful that God has brought me to the place in my life to be able to receive and digest it with an open heart.
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