The past twenty-four hours have been pretty weird. Here’s a look.
Suffering, Sin, and Beauty in God’s Kingdom
A Lengthy Introduction before My Day
When it comes to talking about the Christian life, three themes I find myself coming back to repeatedly are suffering, sin, and beauty. This life consists of all three. Sometimes we see examples of each in apparently independent events; sometimes we see them intertwine, appear to dissolve into one another, and even spring from one another.
Theologians call this dance the “already/not yet” aspect of the Kingdom of God. Much has been written regarding this Kingdom, but a helpful summary is to understand God’s Kingdom is God’s sovereign rule over God’s people in God’s place. From Eden to the tabernacle, Israel to the nations, the Father’s sovereign will is now being administered by the Son on his throne and manifested through the power of his Spirit through his people. This Kingdom is “now,” that is, God is reigning over the universe and working out his will on earth, in our lives, and throughout history. Jesus began his ministry by declaring, “The time has come, the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). Three years later, the King humiliatingly rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and was nailed to a cross in order to uproot the dark kingdom. He rose from the dead, and ascended to his cosmic throne to rule over the universe. We see evidence of his kingdom throughout the world as the gospel transforms lives and creates communities of Jesus-followers where there was only rebellion.
But this Kingdom is also “not yet.” The Kingdom is true—it is, in fact, the truest kingdom—but it has not been fully realized in history. When fully realized, this world will know nothing but peace. Now, however, we still face suffering and sin. Though rebels’ hearts have beaten their swords into plowshares, there is still sin. There are snapshots of beauty, but they are printed on the negatives of suffering.
Thus is the Christian life, lived in the paradox of the already, but not yet.
In the last twenty-four hours, I have seen each of these three themes in three different ways.
Suffering is a reality in this in-between life. Suffering is ultimately a result of sin, but even in this we must be careful. Suffering is a result of personal sin, but not always. Often, its the result of living in a sinful world. All too often, its the result of someone else’s sin. We can, in these last two instances, talk about innocent suffering. Some will want to take me to task for potential theological imprecision, and I see their point, but true theology will make sense of both Scripture and the world. Scripture and experience are not, in the end, enemies. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of Job’s friends, or those who might have judged the man blind since birth (John 9).
Just around twenty-four hours ago I heard the news that Dallas Willard was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Today I found that he had passed away. Willard has written, provocatively at times, largely about spiritual formation and the Kingdom of God. What I’ve read of his has been extremely impactful, but even more so, I have been impacted and shaped by people who have been greatly impacted and shaped by Dallas. I owe him much, just as I owe much to those who have stood in the middle between us.
The suffering of cancer is unimaginable, and it spreads its roots wide. Certainly, those without cancer have no idea what it is like to have it, yet they have a suffering of an altogether different sort—the suffering of seeing the life and vitality of those they love drain until suddenly there is only emptiness. I did not know Dallas, but in recent hours I have heard the voices of many who did.
Hours after hearing that Dallas Willard was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer I heard the shocking news that Tim Lambesis, vocalist for the metal band As I Lay Dying, had been arrested for allegedly trying to hire a hit-man to kill his estranged wife. As I Lay Dying, named after the Faulkner novel, was one of the first metal bands that I listened to after becoming a Christian. They, along with several others, were highly influential to me as I tried to figure out what my new life would be like (did I really have to listen to nothing but Hillsongs and K-Love?).
Certainly, as a confessing believer, Lambesis’ alleged actions produced quite the cognitive dissonance.
I’ve been doing ministry long enough to know that I should never be surprised at sin. And, honestly, I’m not surprised. I am shocked. Its shocking because his public character appeared to match his confession. I’m not surprised, at the same time, because the root of sin runs deep within all of us. The old saying of John Bradford rings true,
There, but for the grace of God, [go I]. At the same time, where God’s grace does not constrain, we are not with excuse. If1 the allegations are true, then justice is demanded. My prayer for Lambesis is that horizontal justice would prevail in Caesar’s kingdom, even if that means justice must fall on Tim. Furthermore, however, I pray that the vertical justice of God’s kingdom has legitimately fallen on Christ in Tim’s place. The gracious declaration of “not guilty” in God’s kingdom does not mean an escape from “guilty” in Caesar’s.
Beauty is a funny term. When dealing with aesthetics, we often use the term freely though many would find it difficult to define it if asked. The same is true when we remove the term from the arena of aesthetics and art, and import it into other areas of life. The bombing of the Boston Marathon is anything but beautiful, yet as the smoke cleared, beauty arose in the faces, hands, and feet of heroes. Cancer destroys life, but there’s beauty in the fact that Dallas Willard now knows true life and is able to look into the face of the One he wrote so much about. In the darkness of the allegations against Tim Lambesis, beauty has yet to sprout—but beauty, like life, “finds a way” (to quote Dr. Ian Malcolm).
Amidst the suffering and sin of the last twenty-four hours, I also got to witness beauty first-hand. Tonight I was given the gift of seeing one of my best friends, Mark Minnery, installed as the newest pastor at Sojourn Community Church. Words cannot do justice to what Mark means to me as a friend and role model. And, theological imprecision be damned, I cannot think of anyone else I know more deserving of the title and office of elder than Mark—particularly in his modeling of Jesus to both myself and our church.
There is no one, other than my wife, who knows me more fully than Mark: my strengths and weaknesses, my sins and my triumphs. That’s how I know that Mark understands grace. He shows it to me. But more than that, I see a deep understanding of grace in Mark as husband, and as father; as a businessman and a counselor. I owe much to who I am today to Mark. That’s not to say that Mark is perfect—as he knows me, I know him far too well to even entertain that idea. And that’s how I also know that Mark gets the gospel.
Mark has been pastoring long before tonight. But it was beautiful to see the church recognizing officially what so many of us have individually recognized already.
Suffering, sin, and beauty. I’ve seen all three in the last twenty-four hours, and it’s been a long, strange trip. I can only wonder what the next twenty-four have in store? And the next…
ifis important; Despite how the media handles allegations of crimes, our justice system demands the accused to be seen as innocent until proven otherwise. ↩