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Recently I came across news that four translators working with Wycliffe Bible Translations were brutally killed somewhere in the Middle East. Tracing the story back to the Wycliffe website, I read the article and came across the following words:

“Two workers died of gunshot wounds. Two other workers laid on top of the lead translator—saved his life—and died deflecting bludgeoning blows from the radicals’ spent weapons.

We praise the Lord that He protected the computer hard drives containing the translation work for eight language projects.”

These paragraphs brought forth an almost physical sense of indignation and outrage. Not at the murderers (because that goes without saying), but at the poor choice of wording and the deeper, underlying conflict of faith that the words elicited. Namely, the text says that the Lord protected the computer hard drives but, I want to ask, He didn’t protect the people? So, while the two translators were being beaten to death by weapons and the lead translator lay underneath them, God did nothing, but when it came time to destroying the computers, then he stepped in and said, “Hey, that’s enough.”?

The Christian response to this seeming contradiction and many others like it is to ascribe all the good to God, and all the bad to chance, evil, “the way things are,” depravity, the inevitable outcome of God’s gift of free choice, etc. I’ve generally accepted this view in the past, but here, with this unfortunate juxtaposition of chance against the direct intervention of God, it becomes really difficult. If God chose to protect the computer, he could have intervened and prevented the nightmarish death of the four translators, who were clearly doing his will in a dangerous setting. Since he did not protect them, my only conclusion must be that he did not intervene with the computers either. To avoid a capricious, irrational and masochistic god, I have to believe in one that is not directly involved.

Cases like this abound. When at church we pray for the healing of two individuals from a terminal illness and one heals and the other doesn’t, what are we to think? That God looked favorably on one, answering our prayers, and was just absent for the other? Inaction is also a choice, and thinking rationally, we cannot help but ascribe it to God. As a result, here too we are forced to think that it wasn’t God that saved the healed person, but that random chance just dealt him a luckier hand.

When I ask God to provide safety for my children, I am immediately affronted with the truth that there are many children whose safety God doesn’t provide. And what makes my prayers different from those of the mothers whose children die of cancer, are hungry, are lost, are perishing? The more I ponder this, the more I am unable to look at “acts of miracle” enthusiastically because, here too, an involved God ends up bearing the responsibility for all of the miracles he left undone, the millions of people he left unsaved, unhealed, unprotected.

One probable, though difficult, explanation is that God isn’t necessarily concerned with mitigating our suffering. He is concerned with gaining us. He wants us to draw closer to him, by whatever means necessary. Since ultimately our suffering will end, this very temporary discomfort is worth the closeness we will acquire with him as we lean heavily on him, pray to him, experience his love through the care of others…assuming that others are expressing their care and we have a God to reach out to. If we don’t, we just suffer, and then we’re back at square one.

No, sometimes I cannot believe in a God that acts directly, out of heaven, in and on our lives, though I very much want to. Yes, he mourns with those who mourn, yes, he rejoices with those who rejoice. But the only miracles in this world are those done by people, through the acts of their spirits which are moved by the spirit of God. If there is another explanation that makes sense out of my quandary, I do welcome it.

The Wycliffe article goes on to say that the survivors decided to stay after the attacks and continue with the work of translating the Bible. To me, that is the real miracle here, and I don’t know how much of it can be ascribed to God and how much to those courageous translators. Or maybe the two are not so easily distinguishable…

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Often I marvel at the profound intuition that Jesus exhibited when talking and teaching. Why should it be so surprising that he knew the needs and quirks of the human soul, after all, He created us. But what continues to strike me is that by and large, we seem to have gotten the purpose behind the message wrong. In his teachings, Jesus instructs us to treat other people in a certain way, and we naturally think that this is done for the good of those other people. However, we are mistaken. It is, first and foremost, done for the good of us.

One of the most prominent teachings Jesus offers is that of forgiveness. We are to forgive when others do wrong against us, whether they ask for forgiveness or not; regardless of what is in their hearts, we are to let go. And for good reason: the internal anger that is the opposite of forgiveness is terribly destructive. On a physical level, it keeps us grinding our teeth to a pulp, our faces are taught, our jaw muscles hurt. We do not take deep breaths and our brains are short of oxygen. No wonder we cannot think clearly. Countless papers testify to the negative physiological effects of anger. In terms of our intangible inner life, anger keeps us emotionally constipated. We cannot move forward. Dwelling and mulling become our pastime, productivity and creativity dwindle. Also, without forgiveness we continue feeling like the victim, helpless and bitter, and live our lives accordingly. So it turns out that letting go is first and foremost beneficial for the one doing the forgiving.

A closely related topic is that of humility. With word and action, Jesus taught his followers to think of others better than of themselves, to be humble, to let go of pride. Granted, everyone benefits when the haughty become the meek, the world would be a better place with less arrogant people. But here too, I find that the person that benefits most from this abandon of pride is the one that lets it go. While you are busy preserving your self image, that frail ego inside that shudders with every threat, you could be out joyfully trying new things, falling on your face and getting up again, interacting with people you wouldn’t normally come in contact with…We fear that if we let go of our pride, our whole being will whisp out of existence. At least I fear this. But what I discover is that with every bit of that perceived “self” that you give up, you are actually gaining psychological leg room. You can think freer, plus you have more energy to do so, since you are not wasting it on preserving the dignity of the self. And, incidentally, letting go of pride leads to less cases of that pride being hurt or offended, which helps with not getting angry and having to forgive those who “sin against you”.

Through all of New Testament scripture we are reminded to pray for those close to us. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes it a step further and instructs his followers to pray for those who persecute them. Prayer, in my mind, has always been an exercise that you do for the benefit of other people. Please heal my child from his pneumonia. Please strengthen my grandparents in their time of need. Please be with that individual who yelled hurtful things at me…Surely, this kind of petitioning with prayer is done for the sake of the recipient of the asked-for blessing.  Surely, but actually, not really.  When I pray, work is being done within me. As I pray “for my enemy”, I am inevitably forced to think of them not in terms of what they’ve done to me, but in terms of what they might need prayer for. This in turn forces me to see them as a person, not a source of my pain. Prayer gives way to empathy, which in turn brings about healing. Through prayer, you realize that we’re all in this together, not very different from each other, all needing forgiveness sometimes; all needing love.

Love. Yes, this is the glue that holds it all. The two most important commandments are to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. If you think about it, why would the Lord, who is perfect love and who, within the Trinity, already gives and receives his love, need ours? From the first glance this seems to be the case: love God because he needs it, love others because they need it too.  But actually I think there is another, perhaps most important component: love because you need to love. You were designed to love, and you are realized as a human being through sharing this love.  Not surprisingly, close relationships between people are a key characteristic both of the so-called “Blue Zones”, pockets of communities with the most centenarians, and of the countries with the most happy people overall. When we live surrounded by love and expressing love, we live longer, happier lives.

This is why I think Jesus was a talented therapist: by following his instructions and focusing on doing good to others, we are in fact healing and transforming ourselves.

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