Redemption as Imitation
Well, I apologize for the lack of activity here over the last couple of weeks. The infrequency of my posting is due to the fact that we are out in Alberta and Saskatchewan visiting family and friends. We’ve been out here for just over a week now, and so far we’ve been having a very enjoyable time.
We just arrived back in Lethbridge from Saskatchewan this morning after a fairly hectic few days. Saturday afternoon we drove up to Edmonton from Lethbridge as I was preaching at Lendrum MB Church on Sunday morning. After an enjoyable afternoon spent with some new acquaintances in Edmonton, we headed off to Saskatchewan to see my brother and his family for a whirlwind visit—a visit that was cut even shorter by the fact that our car’s air conditioning died halfway there! We ended up driving back to Alberta through the night last night to avoid the sweltering heat and to allow the kids to sleep through yet another long drive.
The message I shared in Edmonton was one I have preached on several occasions in the past, and it seems to generate the same type of response wherever I go. The message is part biography, part reflection, part biblical discussion, and is based loosely on an article I wrote six years ago. It is based on Ephesians 5:1-2, and asks the question of how exactly we are to imitate God as we are exhorted to do in 5:1. In the message I use a combination of personal experience, contemporary examples where people have salvaged good from seemingly hopeless situations, and reflection upon the “redemptive trajectory” of the biblical narrative. The basic claim is that we worship a redeeming God, and to the extent that we attempt to “redeem” the evils that we or those around us are faced with, we imitate God.
I am always encouraged by the discussions I have after I offer this reflection. Invariably, people will come up to me after the service wanting to discuss some horrendous situation that they or someone close to them has gone through. I have heard stories of people whose relatives have committed suicide, been diagnosed with inoperable tumours, endured debilitating injuries, or had painful experiences of infertility. In each of the cases, a number of people’s lives were shattered. Faith was rendered more difficult (if not impossible!), once healthy relationships were damaged or destroyed entirely, and, in many cases, life became more of a burden than a joy.
Sadly, many of the people who share this pain with me have also come across those who have either assured them that their suffering was sovereignly ordained by God in order to accomplish a specific purpose, or that their suffering represented a battleground between God and the devil and that God was depending on them responding appropriately. More often than not, these kinds of comments simply piled one more impossible burden on to an already fragile, confused, and reeling human being. Not infrequently, there is an anger detectable even as people recount these kinds of insensitive comments to me – even when they took place many years ago. These people have no problem believing that God can bring good out of evil; however they cannot accept that what they have endured happened so that good could come out of it.
I believe that one of the primary characteristics of God—one that is eminently worthy of our imitation—is redemption. The only justification a Christian has for hope is the belief that God is right now in the process of righting a world that has gone badly wrong. When we participate in this—when we do our part, through forgiveness, reconciliation, peacemaking, promoting justice, caring for the world etc—we imitate God and work with him in reclaiming a damaged world. The more I deliver this sermon, and the more I hear people’s response to it, the more I am convinced that those who suffer know this truth more fully than the rest of us.
They know this simply because they have no alternative. Suffering has a way of making our theological options starkly clear. It is, I think, virtually impossible to live a life with a healthy and robust faith believing, for example, that God has sovereignly orchestrated the suicide of your grand daughter. It is difficult to watch a family member waste away due to Alzheimer’s disease while retaining the conviction that the very disease that is gradually stealing your loved one from you has been specifically sent from the hand of a loving God. Bad things happen because the world is not as it ought to be, not because God is off somewhere calculating which evils are up to the task of producing the results that he desires. Perhaps some people can live believing that this is the case, but I cannot, and my interaction with folks in Edmonton this weekend has led me to believe that I am not in the minority.
For whatever reason, God has allowed human beings the freedom to inflict a good deal of damage on the world. Yet he has also created human beings in his image, and I believe that one of the major ways in which we “image” our Maker is in our capacity to recognize evil as the bitter reality that it is, and to play our part in God’s reclamation of a fallen world. My experience in sharing this sermon with others over the years has convinced me that people find it much easier to love and worship a God who hurts with them, redeems suffering, and brings goodness out of evil.