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GOD IN PAIN / PART ONE CHAPTERS 1.1 - 1.7

No words can express how much the world owes to sorrow. Most of the Psalms were born in the wilderness. Most of the epistles were written in a prison. The greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers have all passed through fire. The greatest poets have “learned in suffering what they taught in song.” In bonds Bunyan lived the allegory that he afterwords wrote, and we may thank Bedford Jail for The Pilgrim’s Progress. Take comfort, afflicted Christian! When God is about to make preeminent use of a person, He puts them in the fire. George MacDonald


PART ONE / PROLOGUE

The book you hold in your hands endeavors, perhaps ambitiously, to meaningfully address three subjects: the suffering Christian, the suffering Christ, and the origin and end of evil. It is divided into two parts. The first deals specifically with suffering—the Christian’s and the Christ’s. The second deals with the question of evil itself: how did it start, who’s to blame, why hasn’t God ended it as yet, and how will He when He does? The reader will notice that Part One tends to be more pastoral in nature, and Part Two, more theological and philosophical. This is by design. The first half could fairly be summarized by the word resting, as in learning to rest in God’s fatherly care, particularly in the midst of life’s sundry pains and trials. The second half might be summarized by the word wrestling, as in we will wrestle with some of faith’s thornier, more challenging issues, namely the origination, nature, and obsolescence of evil. So, resting and wrestling. Truth be told, this almost became the title of the book, but alas the publisher did not like it much—not “catchy enough,” as I recall. I am happy, though, to announce that I now agree with the assessment and, with him, find God in Pain to be a better, more representative title. It can’t hurt that it’s more “catchy” too. The point of writing books, I suppose, is for people to read them. At least that seems to be the case. The book’s two parts essentially stand on their own and thus could be read in reverse order; however, I am persuaded the book is stronger and somewhat more logical in flow as presented. I leave it to you to decide which part you will read first. Furthermore, because both parts of the book are essentially complete within themselves, there is some repetition of material. As the book began to take its shape, it became clear that there was no easy way to avoid this overlap of some material, so I stopped fighting it and just let the book develop in a way that felt natural and, I hope, logical. It is my perspective, now that the

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book is finished, that this was the right choice, as the modest overlap of material seems to strengthen the book’s flow and overall impact. In Part One, my premise is simple, yet, I believe, profound. And it is this: we cannot adequately understand or frame the suffering Christian without first laboring to understand and value the suffering Christ. Our Lord was a suffering Lord, and Jesus informed us that we should not be surprised if our experience is similar to His own; what befell the One, He says, will befall the other. “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:8). “It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household?” (Matt. 10:25). Jesus Christ has borne the bruising brunt of suffering’s sword. And in so doing He has significantly dulled its wounding edge. For the believer, that edge is dulled in this incalculably important truth: His suffering—and resultant victory—gives us meaning and hope in our own suffering. Put negatively, apart from His suffering, we have no real hope of meaning or ultimate purpose in our own. Preliminarily, let us consider Jesus’ suffering. Firstly, and most importantly, we note that Jesus Christ’s suffering was substantively different from our own. He suffered (suffers—in the present tense—would be better, but that will be addressed in Part Two) as no one else ever has. Or could. His suffering is unique in at least this sense: He is the only being who has ever suffered both as man and as God. Humanity has suffered; God has suffered. But until the Incarnation, the suffering of humanity and the suffering of God were experientially mutually exclusive. God as God did not know what it was to suffer as a human, and no human knows what it is to suffer as God suffers. But Jesus knows both.

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He drank suffering’s bitter cup—both humanity’s and divinity’s—to the very dregs. His suffering, then, is not merely quantitatively unique—for who could suffer more than God?—it is qualitatively unique in terms of its essential character. He is the God-man, both a “man of sorrows” and yet verily God. This truth forms the cornerstone and bedrock of the Christian faith. So what preliminary solace can we draw, then, even now at this inceptive point in our study? It is this: though suffering’s refining fire may burn hot for the Christian (and every other member of the human family), it burned hotter still for the Christ, the Refiner Himself. He is no aloof deity separated from the trials and vicissitudes of this messy, painful, and yet wonderfully glorious thing we call life. He is not closeted in some inaccessible precinct of the vast, cavernous universe. No, He is Emmanuel—God with us. With us in joy. And with us in pain. He is our Brother in suffering’s ignoble, ever-inconvenient crucible. Poets and theologians alike have portrayed suffering as a kind of refiner’s fire. This metaphor is entirely fitting, suggesting as it does that someone is overseeing the whole operation and, by extension, that there is some purpose in it. And for most of us this—the hope that some larger purpose is being served—is essential for enduring and even, perhaps, embracing suffering’s grinding ways. And so we commence with this essential, scriptural perspective in view: the refiner’s fire is just that—it is the Refiner’s. It is His. He owns it. He knows it, for He has been there before us. Are you scared? The Refiner knows what it is to be scared.

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Are you lonely? The Refiner knows what it is to be lonely. Have you been betrayed? The Refiner knows what it is to be betrayed. Are you in the throes of wrestling with the will of God? The Refiner knows what it is to wrestle with the will of God. Are you in pain? The Refiner knows what it is to be in pain. Are you suffering? The Refiner knows what it is to suffer. In Part Two, we undertake to step back and look at the big picture. If God is allpowerful and all-loving, as Scripture uniformly declares, why is there so much evil in the world? Where did evil come from? Why did God allow it at all? And why hasn’t He put an end to it long ere this? Who, even among the most ardent and unswerving of believers, hasn’t wrestled with these and similar questions? With what is classically, if too often unaffectedly, simply called “the problem of evil.” Especially when that innocuously named “problem” comes to nest suddenly in one’s own living room? For many—no, most—evil and pain are not mere “problems” but burning, aching, stinging, crushing, despair-inducing realities. Problem is a far too modest word, calling to mind fourth grade math’s never-ending “story problems.” We are not, after all, dealing with the per-fruit price of Sally’s “3 for $2.00” avocados after the 15 percent club-member discount and 7 percent sales tax has been applied. No, we are dealing with evil. And with pain. And with real people in various kinds of real pain. Ambitious? I believe so. Necessary? I think so. Successful? I hope so. My attempt at theodicy will not convince everyone; in fact it may not convince

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anyone.1 The presence of evil is and probably always has been the preeminent objection to religious faith. Even the faithful can be tempted toward faithlessness by evil’s unspeakable cruelty, utter ubiquity, and seemingly unlimited quantity. Accordingly, theologian Norman Gulley correctly observes that, “No other problem has generated more thinking and writing than the problem of evil.”2 So why all the ink and think? Simple: evil is anything but simple. Author David Berlinksi writes of those “whose faith is sincere but whose doubts are significant.”3 Evil has dissolved more than its share of faith, yes, but it has also fostered its share of faith. The academic, philosophic jury is still out on whether evil entails God or ends God. (But the academic, philosophic jury is still out on basically everything, so no surprise there.) As for me, I am thoroughly convinced that it’s the former. Indeed it is at least half the reason I have written this book. One certainly need not be a philosophically committed Christian to struggle with evil and its ontological implications. “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?” asked Epicurus penetratingly in the third century BCE. “Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” These are great, hard questions. Furthermore, they are questions that cry out for answers—especially, of course, for the philosophically committed Christian. And I unapologetically am one of those. So, Part Two addresses and, gulp!, attempts to begin to answer these and similar age-old, yet maddeningly modern, questions. It is my heartfelt prayer that God will use this book. May it hearten you in hope, temper you in trust, and fasten you in faith. And may it prepare you. For though there may be no tears today, it is sure as the sun that they are not far off. For this is the lot of humankind, just as it was for the Son of Man—thus, “Jesus wept.” And so we walk.

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And cry. And hope. And wait, even if impatiently, for that day when God Himself “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev. 21:4). Alas, until that day, may we be found drying one another’s tears in the name of Him who knows what it is to suffer, to be in pain, and to weep. This book contains my studied, sincere desire to do that very thing. May God grant it success in His hand. DAVID ASSCHERICK

Sonora, CA, 2009

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1.1 JUST PASSING THROUGH

GOD IN PAIN / PART ONE / CHAPTER ONE

The brook would lose its song if you removed the stones. Henry Martyn


GOD IN PAIN

God in Pain. What a strange name for a book. I admit that. But since arriving at the title I just can’t escape its imagery and accuracy. The Christian picture of God is just that: the picture of God in pain. In pain as a man and in pain, even, as God. We’ll be exploring this central biblical truth from a variety of angles, passages, and perspectives. And we will, I think, find just how central and compelling this picture of God is. Perhaps no other passage in all of sacred Scripture has been summoned in the name of solace and in the face of pain more than the twenty-third chapter of the Psalms. Even today, after three millennia, it possesses an inimitable ability to successfully kindle faith and hope in the trembling soul, often in the worst of environs. I am persuaded there is no better place than this psalm to begin a book on evil, suffering, and pain. So, let’s follow the Shepherd (the Lord) through the shepherd’s (David’s) psalm. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever. JUST PASSING THROUGH / GOD IS ENOUGH

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” The word want can have two connotations in this context. It can mean want as in desire—I want a milkshake. Or it can mean want as in lack—the old car is in want of maintenance. The English

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word want actually derives from the Old Norse vant, which meant lacking. This original sense of lack eventually broadened into the second sense of desire. This transition is easy to imagine; after all, do we not often desire what we lack? Both of these definitional senses—desire and lack—are meaningful here, so let’s consider them each in context. The Lord is my Shepherd; I have all I could ever want. This would be a way of rendering our verse according to the first definition of want—that of desire. God satisfies all of my desires. God is all of my desires. He is the Creator of every good thing, the Creator, then, even of my own desires. This truth has been well hidden both to and by many who’ve taken the name Christian. But why should this be? Is not God, of all people, for our happiness? After all, who better to satisfy the longing desires of the human heart than He who made the heart to desire? I can think of no one. God knows even better than you how to fulfill your wants, your desires, your pleasures, your hopes, and your deepest longings. He is, Scripture avers, “the desire of all nations” (Hag. 2:7).4 I share C. S. Lewis’s incredulity at the misguided notion that God’s hope for us is anything other than our utter happiness and the complete satisfaction of our God-made desires: If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot

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imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.5 No one wants your happiness more than God. Not even you. The second sense of want conveys the idea of lacking something. We could render our verse, then, as, The Lord is my Shepherd; I do not lack. And this is precisely how the Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible renders it. David says with decidedly un-modern contentment: I lack nothing. And this is not because David is swimming in stuff or drowning in high-APR debt. Plastic is not David’s panacea. Is it yours? He lacks nothing because he has God and God is enough. Furthermore, Yahweh is the great provider, and as such He provides for saint and sinner alike. His sun warms and gladdens the righteous as well as the unrighteous. His rain waters the fields of the faithful and the faithless. His air equally fills the lungs of those who curse and those who bless. And yet, is there not a special sense in which God is the provider for the believer? In another place, Psalm 37:25, David writes, “I was young, and am old; but I have never seen the righteous forsaken, or his descendants begging bread.” True, the unbeliever receives of God’s sun and rain and air, but they do not acknowledge the Source of these things. Unbelievers ascribe no honor, credit, or thanks to God. For them, these things (indeed, all things) are arbitrary, even capricious. Consequently, and from my perspective, terrifyingly, they cannot have any anchored hope in their continuance. The believer, however, knows that “every good gift . . . is from above” (James 1:17), that is, from God. In certain seasons, when the rains wane and the fields’ reluctance are on full display, the believer may rest in the knowledge that God is still on the universe’s throne; He is still what He has ever been, the great provider. In less prosperous, even ailing, times the believer looks more earnestly still for the

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Lord’s face and for His lessons also. Tough times are temporary, for God is on the side of His children. He provides for their needs—not always their pleasures—but certainly always for their needs, says David. Our most basic need, in fact, is not shelter, food, water, or even air—but salvation. And this is never in short supply with Yahweh. He is, Scripture encourages, “able to save to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25). If He supplies salvation at such considerable expense—the expense of His own Son’s death and humiliation— surely He will be munificently forthcoming with all lesser gifts. This is Paul’s exact line of reasoning in Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” Or recall Jesus’ enduring words in Matthew 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” So, lesson one from the shepherd’s psalm: when we have God, we have more than enough. No one can take God from you. Or you from God. JUST PASSING THROUGH / WHO’S GOT YOUR BACK?

Returning to Psalm 23, we find that the Shepherd both guides from the front and pursues from the back. And this is a gloriously heartening truth indeed. I have two children, both boys: Landon, eight, and Jabel, seven. They are apparently, and by all accounts, resourced with boundless reserves of energy, forever running, forever adventuring, forever exploring, and, consequently, forever breaking things. They have little discernible fear. Now, my wife, Violeta, and I are traveling, outdoorsy, active types, so from their earliest years, our boys have been dragged all over the world—Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, Australia, the South Pacific, Asia, and beyond. We have learned by trial and error (mostly error!) that the best way to keep track of our bounding boys, whether in a busy

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airport, a consumer-filled mall, or a dense, dangerous African jungle, is for one of us to be in front of the lads and the other to be, you guessed it, behind them. This way they cannot (theoretically, at least) fall behind the rearguard or outpace the scout. This system keeps them reasonably safe and close enough to call to in times of potential trouble, emergency, or separation. The Shepherd’s program is similar. He allows His sheep enough freedom to frolic and explore, yet He hems them in with His perceptive, guiding watch from the lead and His protecting, pursuing care from the rear. It’s right there in verses 2 and 3 where David pens that God leads him—“He leads me beside the still waters . . . He leads me in the paths of righteousness”; and in verse 6, he states that “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”6 So we are both led and followed by the Shepherd. Like Landon and Jabel. Think of that: goodness following, mercy following. Who alone is good? Jesus told the rich young ruler that “no one is good but One”—God (Matt. 19:17). And who alone is perfectly merciful? God. So when David says with poetic confidence that goodness and mercy will ever follow him, he is saying simply and profoundly, God Himself has got my back. Furthermore, the Hebrew word rendered follows in the English contains the element of pursuit. Thus, God’s care is active, intentional, and protective. The Shepherd, then, leads so we don’t run ahead and follows so we don’t lag behind. So, lesson two from the shepherd’s psalm: God has got our back. Why the tight security? Because moving on from verses 1 to 3, the Shepherd heads for some sketchy locales. Every one of us knows by experience that

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life is not always green pastures and quiet waters. The Shepherd leads there, yes, and yet verses 4 and 5 make it equally clear that He leads to less friendly regions—“the valley of the shadow of death” and even enemy territory. And when you stop to think of it, it makes perfect sense doesn’t it? For consider this: where is a leader more needful—in peaceful, serene pastures or valleys of darkness, difficulty, and death? To ask the question is to answer it. JUST PASSING THROUGH / THE NAP AFTER THE PICNIC

David does not cower before death’s icy stare. It is, he knows, but a sleep, a repose. Many dying saints have clung happily and courageously to David’s immortal words as they slipped breathlessly into death’s cold arms. C. H. Spurgeon remarked that “death is not the house but the porch.”7 Who better to walk you to death’s curtain than the divine Shepherd? Dr. Herbert Lockyer collected and catalogued the last, dying words of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of persons—actors, authors, children, preachers, missionaries, infidels, kings, saints, and more.8 His book on the subject should be in your library. Read it and you will, like me, be deeply moved by the contrast between the poise, courage, and dignity of dying believers and the uncertainty, cowardice, and despair that characterized so many unbelievers’ deaths. Settle this in your mind right now: you are going to die. (I hope I’m not the first person to tell you this.) I know that you’re holding out hope against hope that you’ll be number 143,999, just sneaking into the 144,000.9 It’s a great ambition. One that millions of believers before you have had. They’re asleep now. Who knows, perhaps the Second Coming will happen in your generation—I sure hope so!—after all, it does have to happen in some generation. I’m not here to burst your balloon. I have, I think, a nobler purpose: to get you thinking about dying,

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whether you’re eighteen or eighty. Because chances are, you will die. How do you want to die? With courage? Or cowardice? How about this: Die like David—the author of the shepherd’s psalm. For David died like a man. In fact, on his deathbed he was telling his son Solomon to be a man! “I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he said, “Be strong, and show yourself a man” (1 Kings 2:2, ESV). He died with the words and will of God on his lips and in his heart. How’d he do it? Simple: he had been preparing his whole life to die. He could die without fear because he knew the Shepherd was with him—“For you are with me” (Ps. 23:4). Death is no picnic, true. It’s the nap after the picnic. Lesson three from the shepherd’s psalm: death is not the house, but the porch. JUST PASSING THROUGH / TO AND THROUGH

And this brings us splendidly to our next point: while it is true that the Shepherd leads to dangerous and deathly places, it is equally true—and even more important—that He leads through them, that is, past them. Note verse 4: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.”10 Why no fear? “For You are with me”—before and behind. “Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Who can disarm the divine Shepherd? Who will

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overtake His rod? Shall demons or demon-inspired people? Indeed not, at least not ultimately. The shepherd’s rod protected his prize and thwarted his assailants. The sheep are safe when the shepherd wields His rod. Which is quite a good thing, considering our next stop. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (v. 5). In other words, in enemy territory. If David’s enemies are the Shepherd’s enemies, there can be no warrant for fear. But this does seem to raise an important question: why lead here? Indeed, why does the Shepherd lead His sheep to such unfriendly venues? The answer is thrilling. It is because He is leading them to a very specific place via a very specific route, and that place is revealed in verse 6, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The house of the Lord—namely, the Shepherd’s own home! Can you think of a better destination? Is it worth it to pass provisionally through enemy territory? Verily. But here is a twist: the house of the Lord is not only, or even primarily, a geographical location, one that could be plotted, say, on a GPS. Heaven is more than a place. It is intimate communion with the Shepherd. This is why the apostle Paul could rapturously exclaim that believers can be even now “in Heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3, 20). God help us: heaven is about so much more than geography. It is less a place than it is a Person. More precisely, the “house of the Lord” is both a place to live and a preparedness to live with a Person. The Shepherd sees that there are some, to put it mildly, rough edges in our characters—rough edges that need to be smoothed, rough edges that

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would militate against our eternal happiness in His unveiled presence. Life’s sundry experiences, and particularly life’s trying experiences—under the Shepherd’s keen watch and in His capable hands—have a way of exposing and whittling these rough edges. Does this mean every trial is God-caused? No. But every trial is God-used. Yes, “green pastures” and “still waters” are more desirable than, say, “the valley of the shadow of death” or enemy territory, but the “house of Lord” is more desirable than either “green pastures” or “still waters,” and the path to the Shepherd’s home goes headlong through both the valley and the enemy’s land. So, you in? Me too. Sublime and serene are wonderful, but the wise Shepherd knows that there are lessons that simply cannot be learned there. So He leads where we need. He knows that the journey to heaven is as much a journey to heavenly mindedness as it is to a location, and that it is more about a process than a place, more about an experience than an end. From this present perspective (the biblical perspective found in Psalm 23), life’s trials, pains, and vicissitudes can be viewed not so much as obstacles and inconveniences to be avoided at all costs, but as helpful, even essential, stops on the journey. For this is no ordinary journey. It is not a mere line or series of lines from A to B and beyond. No, it is a journey with the Shepherd to the Shepherd.

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GOD IN PAIN

Because the Shepherd’s own heart is our home. One day I caught myself praying a frightening prayer. My ears couldn’t believe what my mouth was saying. In fact, they still don’t believe it. My mouth, probably feeling rather pious and poetic, said something like this: “God, I love you so much; I just want to meet you face to face and to spend eternity with you and your other children. In fact, God, I love you so much that I hereby give you permission to do whatever it takes to save me.” I stopped. Then terror set in. Did my mouth really just say that? My ears sat there quiet, saying nothing, as ears tend to do. Now, in my more academic or social moments, I might heartily affirm this very notion. But when you’re alone with God and speaking from your heart of hearts, it can be a different story. I mean, do I mean that? Really? Whatever it takes? I’d like to think I’d say, “Oh yeah, of course, no problem, bring it on.” But I’m trying really hard to be honest in this book because I think God is going to read it when I’m done. So here is what I can say: I’m willing to be willing. “The valley of the shadow of death,” enemy territory? I freely admit that I’m frightened. If you’re not, hey good for you; I’m genuinely happy for you. Do I love God that much? Probably not. But I know this: that He loves me that much! So, come what may, I’m sticking with the Shepherd. He wants me more than I want me. And I want me pretty bad, let me tell you.

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GOD IN PAIN

So if He’s leading, I’m following. And He is. So I am. Lesson four from the shepherd’s psalm: He leads where we need, not always where we want. And wouldn’t you know it, those places that the Shepherd indicates we need to go, though often painful at the time, turn out be some of the very things that prepare us for residence in His home. That is, what readies us for the hereafter may not always be pleasurable in the here-and-now, but thankfully, God loves us too much to abandon us to our own misguided notions of what constitutes happiness. His version of your happiness is better than your own version of your happiness. Remember Lewis, “it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak . . . we are far too easily pleased.” In fact, possibly the surest way not to find lasting happiness is to go looking for it. Just ask the prodigal son in Luke 15. Or even a modern-day prodigal son: speaking of his own conversion to Christ from a life of fame, money-driven pleasure, and legendary carousing, English media-personality and author Malcolm Muggeridge wrote these words, Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful, with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained. In other words, if it ever were to be possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo jumbo . . . the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make

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it too banal or trivial to be endurable. This of course is what the cross signifies, and it is the cross more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.11 Did you get that? The “desolating and painful” experiences were among his most satisfying! I would hazard a guess that his experience is not anomalous, but ordinary in this regard. God-likeness is more often learned in affliction’s furnace rather than leisure’s La-Z-Boy. The Shepherd can lead safely to danger and death, because He Himself has been led there. He knows the way. It wasn’t easy for Him, and it won’t be easy for you. Remember, though, that His was not “the valley of the shadow of death,” but the valley of death itself. His was the substance so yours could be but a shadow. O Shepherd divine, I know Thou art mine, Thy search in the night was for me. This bleak world is cold, but warm is Thy fold, My Shepherd I follow Thee. O Shepherd divine, I know Thou art mine, Thy great heart was broken for me. Thy grace and Thy law I picture in awe, They kissed upon Calvary.12

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God In Pain  

God in Pain looks to answer the age-old question, “If God is so good, why is the world so bad?” David seeks to answer this question by provi...