Google+ What Happens When Christianity Doesn't Work by Michael Horton - White Horse Inn

What Happens When Christianity Doesn't Work
A Funeral Sermon for Dr. Timothy Brewer
by Michael S. Horton
© 1995, White Horse Inn

The story of Job has come down to us as the catch-all for moments like this one, with spin-off phrases such as, "the patience of Job," "Job's counselors," and the like. And yet, we come to this moment and to this place because we are scandalized by the suffering that brought Tim Brewer--husband, father, pastor and friend--to the end of his rope. We find ourselves filled with a variety of emotions: pity, sorrow, rage, puzzlement, resentment and despair, and we wonder how things could possibly have ended this way. We wonder how someone who believed and preached the sufficiency of God's Word and his grace in the face of all trials of life could leave us this afternoon wondering, If it was not sufficient for him, is it indeed sufficient for me? What happens when Christianity doesn't work?

Our culture has come to value only things that are practical, things that work. Every idea or conviction is judged by its utility: Will it help me raise my kids, build a successful marriage, and live a healthy life? So when an idea or conviction doesn't come through, we find it easy to move on to another product. So often, when people come to Christ, they are promised "victory in Jesus." Smiling, happy people tell about how they once were unhappy, and now they are filled with bouyant exultation. Broken marriages are fixed, wayward children are returned to the straight and narrow, and depression is banished to the old life. But, of course, those of you who knew Tim and his preaching are fully aware that this was not his message. He did not see Christianity as the solution to every earthly problem, nor did he worship Jesus as Mr. Fix-It, but as the Friend of Sinners, Redeemer and Shepherd of his sheep. He knew that there was a greater problem that we as fallen creatures faced, though he did not dismiss as irrelevant or trivial earthly challenges, but he placed them in their proper eternal perspective.

But even if Christianity does not answer every problem we have in this life, surely that eternal perspective helps us cope with them, so why, we wonder, did our father, brother, husband, friend and pastor cut his life short?

Job was a man who was deeply devoted to God and his Word. So zealous was he for his family that whenever they left after the many homecomings they enjoyed, Job would offer a sacrifice on behalf of his children on their journey. Satan chided God for Job's faithfulness. Why wouldn't he be faithful?, Satan asked. After all, he lives a charmed life. He's wealthy, happy, his family is healthy and carefree. So God allowed Satan to test Job.

The next day, disaster followed disaster and over-night Job lost nearly everything precious to him. And yet, Job responded, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised." Job refused to charge God with wrongdoing. Satan came to God again and declared, "But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face." Job's body became wracked with sores and pain until his own wife begged, "Curse God and die!" But Job still replied, "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?"

In walked Job's famous counselors. At first, they responded well, spending a week simply sitting with him, refusing to say anything because they saw his pain. What he needed was friendship, not a steady flow of sermonizing. But after the week passed, they began to express their opinions about what was going on in Job's life. It began with Job's cry of despair, cursing the day of his birth. A deep, dark cloud of depression fell over Job and he could only wish that he had never been born. It is after this lamentation that the counselors begin to offer their perspectives.

Eliphaz leads off by telling Job, "Think how you have instructed many, how you have strengthened feeble hands. Your words have supported those who stumbled; you have strengthened faltering knees. But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged; it strikes you and you are dismayed. Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope?" This is the religion of the natural man. By nature, we believe that we are basically good people who occasionally do rotten things. In the end, the good outweighs the bad and people get what's coming to them. This is how our natural reason assesses things. A few years back, Rabbi Harold Kushner, after losing his son, wrote When Bad Things Happen To Good People, the assumption, of course, being that most of us deserve better than we get because we are basically good. Eliphaz adds, "Consider this: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it." Eliphaz's sermon appears to have been interupted by a sudden revelation from God that everything he has said until now is askew: "A word was secretly brought to me...amid disquieting dreams in the night...A form stood before my eyes, and I heard a hushed voice: 'Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can a man be more pure than his Maker? If God places no trust in his servants, if he charges his angels with error, how much more those who live in houses of clay!" This part of the sermon flatly contradicts the earlier part. Suddenly Eliphaz realizes that even righteous Job cannot place his confidence in his own piety or rely on his own faithfulness to God. As Scripture would later declare, "There is no one righteous, no not one. There is no one who does good. Our righteousness is like filthy rags."

But Eliphaz is quick to return to his folly, encouraging Job to accept God's discipline with the confidence that it will all work out well. The riches would be restored, health would return, and Job and his friends would laugh about it in years to come. Answers come easily, too easily, for many of us at a time like this.

Job's reply was honest: "What prospects do I have, that I should be patient? Do I have the strength of stone? Is my flesh made of bronze?" Job loathed his body, filled with disease: "I prefer strangling and death, rather than this body of mine," he cried. Turning to God, Job begged for answers: "Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant? If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of men? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins?" The natural assumption in the face of such suffering is that somehow God is punishing us for our sins. But we, in the audience of this play, know from the prologue that this test had another source. Like Job, we make conclusions based on limited information, trying to figure out why things are happening to us. We don't have access to God's filing cabinet, to his inner chamber, and he does not directly tell us why bad things are happening, but that doesn't keep us from drawing conclusions anyway.

Enter Bildad the Shuhite. Repeating the same errors as Eliphaz, Bildad cautions Job to refrain from such despair. "If you are pure and upright, and plead with the Lord, he will make everything better," he tells his suffering friend. "Your beginnings will seem humble, so prosperous will your future be," he promises, like a modern-day "name-it-claim-it" prosperity evangelist. Bildad meant well, but he too suffered from bad theology.

Once more, Job replied with sound doctrine: "But how can a mortal be righteous before God?" God doesn't bargain with us, Job retorts, as if to say, "If you do your best, I'll make your life prosperous." He declares, "Who can reply to God? I could only plead with my Judge for mercy....If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty! If it is a matter of justice, who will summon him to court? Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me; if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty." Job concludes that if God destroyed both the pious and the wicked alike, he would be justified in his actions, for no one is righteous. Bad things happen to bad people, good things happen to bad people, but there is no such thing as bad things happening to to good people. There is no one good, no not one. Job therefore concludes, "Since I am already found guilty, why should I struggle in vain? He is not a man like me that we might confront each other in court. If only there were someone to arbitrate between us, to lay his hand upon us both, someone to remove God's rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more. Then I would speak up without fear of him, but as it now stands with me, I cannot." So Job begs God, "Turn away from me so I can have a moment's joy." It is normal in such trials even for God's children to turn away from God: "If he were a good God and all-powerful, surely he could stop my suffering in one moment," we reason. For Job, this theological question had to be settled before he could turn to God. This is why he cried out for some kind of go-between, a defense attorney, someone to intervene, to plead his case before the Judge. If he had that, Job says, he could turn to God. He could embrace him in the midst of this suffering, but as it stands, he cannot and he wishes that God himself would turn away from him.

Zophar steps up to the plate, to offer his advice. He begins, "Are all these words [of Job] to go unanswered? Is this talker to be vindicated?...Will no one rebuke you when you mock?" But, of course, Job was not mocking. He was telling the truth about his situation, something that pious folks are sometimes prone to mistake for mocking. "Know this," says Zophar, "God has forgotten some of your sin." "Yet if you devote your heart to him and stretch out your hands to him, if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then you will life up your face without shame. Life will be brighter than noonday, and darkness will become like morning." It's the sort of platitudinous moralism that one often finds in some Christian circles these days, but it is as old as the Fall in the Garden of Eden. We dress ourselves with fig-leaves, believing that our shame is covered by the shelter of our own righteousness. Platitudes are offered instead of promises, and Job's response is understandably sarcastic: "Doubtless you are the people, and wisdom will die with you! But I have a mind as well as you; who does not know all of these things?...Your maxims are proverbs of ashes; your defenses are made of clay. Keep silent and let me speak; then let come to me what may....Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him." Nevertheless, Job is overwhelmed with grief and pain. When he lays these complaints out to God, Eliphaz launches another sermon: "You even undermine piety," he tells Job, "and hinder devotion to God." Job replies, "I have heard many things like these; miserable comforters are you all! Will your long-winded speeches never end?" More importantly, Job does not know what to make of God's comfort in his suffering: "Surely, O God, you have worn me out." And yet, in the midst of his pain, Job once again searches for a go-between, someone who could mediate this dispute and cause God to relent: "Even now my witness is in heaven," he declares, "my advocate is on high. My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as a man pleads for his friend." Even as he pours out his lament for his earthly torment, Job is able to find his way to the window where he spies his hope. It is not the sight of renewed health, recovered wealth or rediscovered happiness, but is rather the sight of something altogether more precious in the midst of his suffering: "I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh will I see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes--I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!"

Elihu begins to understand something of Job's comfort in the midst of his great burden as he declares, "Yet if there is an angel on his side as a mediator, one out of thousand, to tell a man what is right for him, to be gracious to him and say, 'Spare him from going down to the pit; I have found a ransom for him'--then his flesh is renewed like a child's; it is restored as in the days of his youth. He prays to God and finds favor with him, he sees God's face and shouts for joy; he is restored by God to his righteous state. Then he comes to men and says, 'I sinned, and perverted what was right, but I did not get what I deserved. He redeemed my soul from going down to the pit, and I will live to enjoy the light."

After Job and the friends finish their sermons, God finally speaks up and preaches for himself. Out of the whirlwind, he answers Job: "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand." After listing a litany of divine actions that illustrate his wisdom and power over the universe, God shuts the mouths of Job and his well-meaning friends. For they all had assumed that they had access to the divine filing cabinet. They all operated under the assumption that they could discern the mind of God. How easily we attempt this when suffering strikes us or our loved-ones! We immediately strike out to rationalize the purpose behind it all. But God refuses to be "figured out" in these matters and his counsel is hidden to mortals. God asks them all, "Can you make a pet of [me] like a bird or put [me] on a leash for your girls? Any hope of subduing [me] is false; the mere sight of [me] is overpowering. Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me."

After God's defense, Job is left without excuse. In spite of his superior theology, his experience had led him to question God's sovereignty and goodness. Because he could not comprehend how this could be reconciled with his view of God, he concluded that there was no answer. But God reminded him, as he reminds all of us, that just because we don't have the answers does not mean that there are no answers. Job's friends had all of the answers: Job's suffering was the effect of his sin or his failure to claim victory over his circumstances. Refusing to buy into their works-righteousness and hallow platitudes, Job became an existentialist, preferring no answers to wrong answers. Much like Jean-Paul Sartre, after the despair of two savage world wars, Job concluded that suicide might be preferable to enduring his suffering. Again and again he cries out to God for an end to his life.

For those who are tied to the high masts of suffering, there is often a fear that is greater than the fear of death. It is the fear of life. It is the fear of the next morning, and the morning after that. In the face of deep despair, the temptation is great to either turn away from God because the suffering is somehow credited to his wrath toward personal sins, or to turn toward him because one knows that he or she is at peace with God. This is why Job said that he would be able to turn toward God in this situation if only he had a go-between, an advocate. Gradually, he comes to a greater confidence in this mediator: "Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high. My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as a man pleads for his friend."

Whatever was wrong in Tim's life, he had an unshakable conviction that his witness is in heaven. He knew that Jesus Christ was his intercessor, a friend to whom he could pour out tears to God and he knew that Jesus Christ, his Elder Brother, was pleading on his behalf with God as a man pleads for his friend. Tim knew the meaning of Paul's despair over his ongoing sinfulness, in Romans chapter 7, where the Apostle laments, "The good that I want to do I do not do and the very thing that I do not want to do, that is what I do. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" But also like the Apostle Paul, Tim knew the answer to that question: "Thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ! For there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

So why didn't this confidence keep our brother from ending his life? We cannot answer that question any better perhaps than Job's friends could resolve the riddle of their friend's suffering. But I can say this: Even if we are too weak to hang on to Christ, he is strong enough to hang on to us. Even though we may not be able to face tomorrow, Christ has already passed through death to the other side and has taken away death's sting for us. Like Job, who knew that his Redeemer lives and that he would see him in the very body that was at present covered with bloody and painful sores, the Apostle Paul declared, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith...If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men." Christianity is not true because it works. In many cases, it does not work. That is to say, it does not solve all of the problems that we think it should solve. Those who become Christians because they were told it would fix their marriages, only to find themselves in divorce court, might well give up on Christianity. Those who expected to be free of sinful habits and desires after a conversion in which "sudden victory" was promised may find themselves disillusioned with God altogether soon thereafter, when they realize that they are still sinners saved by grace. And there are, no doubt, many in this city and in other places who will say, "If Christianity didn't work for someone like Dr. Timothy Brewer, how can it work for me?" It is an honest question, an understandable question. But it assumes that Christianity fixes everything. It doesn't fix everything, not at least here and now. It does promise that everything will be fixed at the end of history, but in this wilderness experience, we are on pilgrimage to the holy city. Some pilgrims will find the journey much more difficult than remaining back in Egypt, in unbelief. Tim was not one of those pilgrims who turned back to Egypt. Others will bear their lot in life as best they can, and Tim and Beth Brewer were towers of strength to me in my own pilgrimage, as I watched them meet successive disasters by turning again and again to God and his gracious promise. But Tim was a pilgrim for whom the hike to that eternal city had become so heavy that he looked for a way out. With Beth, he was longing for a better city, but was unwilling to wait.

We are not called here this afternoon to judge God. God didn't promise any of us health, wealth and happiness. In fact, he tells us that we who expect to share in Christ's glory will also participate in his suffering. Christianity is true, not because it works for people in that pragmatic, utilitarian way, but because nearly 2,000 years ago, outside of the center-city of Jerusalem, the Son of God was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification. This historical event may not fix our marriages, our relationships or our messed-up lives the way we would like, and in the timing we would like, but it saves us from the wrath of God to come. And surely in view of this, all else pales not into insignificance, but into secondary importance to that great issue. "For it is appointed for a man once to die, and then the judgment." We are not here to judge God today. But neither are we here to judge Tim Brewer. No one can justify his action, but Tim Brewer is justified before God. You see, being accepted before God is not a matter of what we have done or left undone, or we would all be lost. It is a matter of trusting in that which Christ has done, for he has finished the work of our redemption, he has paid the ransom for our sins and satisfied the justice that our guilt required.

The perfect righteousness that God requires of us was possessed by only one man who ever lived, the Redeemer to whom Job and Paul and every other saint has looked for shelter from death and hell. The moment we trust in Christ and renounce our own claims to holiness and acceptability, stripping away the fig-leaves of our own making, God clothes us in the robe of Christ's righteousness. Because of Christ's life of obedience, his sacrificial death and his triumphant resurrection, we are accepted by the Father and made his heirs, given the Holy Spirit and promised the resurrection of our own mortal flesh. This means, it is safe to look up to God again. As Job said that if only he had an advocate, a mediator, he could lift his eyes up to God in his suffering, so all of us can cry on our Father's shoulder this afternoon because we have nothing to fear. It is not his wrath that has sent us pain and suffering if we belong to him, for he intercepts Satan's designs and fashions even sin and evil into messengers of grace.

With Job and with Paul, Tim knew his Redeemer lived, even though he himself did not think he could go on living here below. There will be no death, no suffering, no pain, no disease or disappointment. Even now, Tim is awaiting his new body as he is already enjoying the immediate presence of God. If God's grace is greater than all our sin, even this sin of suicide, then surely every one of us is warmly invited by the Risen Christ, "Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened down, and I will give you rest." And with Job and with Paul, he will reign with Christ because his Redeemer lives. Because Christ's tomb is empty, Tim's grave will also be empty on the last day. With Job, Tim can say, "I will see him in my flesh," in the very body that, at 18 years old, fell 75 feet while rock-climbing, leaving him with a broken back and reconstructed feet; in that body that witnessed the death of his brother by leukemia and his father's death while Tim was in college.

It is in that body that, together with Beth, held two children with severe learning disabilities as gifts from God, and in the body that just four months ago was struck by a train, that Tim will see God. It will be a body reconstructed not by the skilfull hands of doctors below, but by the hand of his Creator, the Great Physician, that Tim's body will be perfectly mended and free of pain. On that day, Scripture assures us, "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." Until then, he is in God's presence without his body, awaiting that triumphal entry of God's liberated captives arriving in triumphal procession together through the gates of the eternal city after a long, hard winter through the wilderness. Indeed, Christianity does "work" after all, for all of us who believe, just where and when we needed it most. Perhaps some of you here, like Job, have thought, "Since I am already found guilty, why should I struggle in vain? He is not a man like me that we might confront each other in court. If only there were someone to arbitrate between us, to lay his hand upon us both, someone to remove God's rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more. Then I would speak up without fear of him." Tim would want to remind all of us that we have this aribrator, this mediator who has removed God's rod from us, so that his terror frightens us no more. Now we can speak up without fear of him because he calls us children instead of enemies.

To Beth and the rest of the family, I know you have lost your husband, son, father and brother. Although I myself have lost one of my closest friends, I cannot begin to know your suffering, but God knows what this is like. For he too lost his Son. He committed his Son to dreadful suffering and a cruel death because through it he could save people who hated him and make them his own sons and daughters. You can turn to him as your Father not only because he knows how you feel, but because his loss secured your adoption into his family and made Tim a joint-heir with Christ. And for all of us here who are afraid of death, or of life, the good news is that this man is still at God's right hand, this advocate who pleads our case. His name is Jesus Christ and if your faith is in this Rock of Ages and in this Mighty Fortress, he will be your friend, in this world and in the world to come.

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