Sunday, May 25, 2014

Not God's Problem: The Bible Does Answer the Question of Suffering in Lamentations

No one should be happy that Bart Ehrman gets a job teaching the Bible and religion on a state campus. Everyone should ask why it is that it must be someone like him the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill employs.  Ehrman was a Moody Bible style confessing evangelical who apostatized at the latest iteration of his education at Princeton. Ehrman repackages fairly old liberal theology and writes it in a popular style for a more average reader.  In 2009 HarperCollins published his book, God's Problem:  How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer.

I first leafed through Ehrman's book at a Barnes and Noble right after it first came out, while I was waiting for a meal reservation. Everyone suffers, and when they do, they and their loved ones are most often at their worst.  Ehrman preys on the most vulnerable in society to turn them against God.

Right now on Wednesday nights I'm preaching through the book of Lamentations.  I had never taught the Old Testament book, and when I'm finished, I will have taught at one time or another every book, every word, of the Bible in some fashion or another.  A major point of Lamentations, if not the point of Lamentations, is to answer the question, why we suffer.  It is a primer on suffering.

There is a preview of God's Problem at google books, so I did a search with the word "Lamentations," and the word doesn't appear there.  That's a problem.  Don't say the Bible fails to answer 'why we suffer,' and not deal with an entire book on suffering in the Bible.  Perhaps I'm to assume that Ehrman is not familiar with Lamentations, that he wrote his book without interacting at all.  "Fails to answer" is big talk.  There should have been at least a chapter proving how that Lamentations fails to answer his question.  Without having done so, his book is a lie.  If you leave that out, you've failed.  What is true, however, is that Lamentations blows Ehrman's thesis away. Lamentations says that suffering is Not God's Problem and answers some of the most basic, most fundamental questions about suffering.

Ehrman says that God doesn't answer the question.  More accurately, Ehrman doesn't like the answer.  God answers.  Oh yes.  And God is God.  Someone may not like the answer, but it is still the answer and it is still coming from the Creator.   You don't get to send God back to the drawing board to get it right.  You conform to what He said.  Not Ehrman.  The arrogance, the rebellion, drips off of him.

The English reader may not know that Lamentations has amazing structure in the Hebrew.  Each line of the book is an acrostic using the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  That's why the chapters have 22 verses each, except for the third, which has 66.  The middle chapter, the apex of the book in a chiastic structure, has 22 triads, with each line of each triad starting with the next letter of the alphabet.  Much more could be said about the structure, but I want to park on the third lament to deal with the "problem" of suffering.

Jeremiah wrote Lamentations over the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.  You could argue that this was most horrific point in Israel's history.  The people of Israel went through a very, very difficult time.  I think the best representation of it lies in the event of women debating which child they're going to eat, because of rampant starvation.

To reduce the answer to the question of sufffering, Lamentations gives two perspectives.  They suffer because of their own sinfulness.   They would suffer even more if not for the mercies of God.  Both aspects answering the question of suffering focus on the attributes of God.

Chapter 2 says that God is angry.   He deserves to be.  Anger explains what occurs.  From the human perspective we get Lamentations 3:39, "Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?"  Anyone who is suffering is alive, a living man.  Should any living human be complaining about suffering, when he knows what he deserves for the punishment for sins?  That's what connects to 3:22, "It is of the LORD'S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not."  Grace is getting what we don't deserve, and mercy is not getting what we do deserve.   If you are thinking about your suffering, then you are getting less than you deserve.

Why are men not consumed?  The mercies of God (3:22a, chesed, His lovingkindness), the compassion of God (3:22b), the faithfulness of God (3:23), and the goodness of God (3:25-27).  Several of the verses of chapter 3 offer a primer on how to take suffering.  God has a way He wants it, probably best characterized by being silent and taking your medicine.

Sometimes when you suffer, everything else is taken away except God.  That's fine, because, 3:24, the Lord is your portion.  The Lord said the same to the Levites when He apportioned their share of the promised land.  The Lord would be their portion.  God wants us to be satisfied with Him.  I think of Paul in Philippians when he said that the high calling of God was in Christ Jesus.  We are complete in Him.  Jesus is good enough.

Bart Ehrman for sure is not satisfied.  And since he still has trouble with suffering, he won't ever be, because it's only going to get worse for him from here.  He's the lost man of the great tribulation, sticking his fist up at God.  He can only do it because God gave him a fist and the energy and time to shake it at Him.

What about those who cause the suffering?   You can't avoid the fact that God allows it (3:32), but again, this is less than what we deserve, whatever it is that we get.  We shouldn't complain.  But just because he allows men to cause suffering doesn't mean that He approves.  You read three infinitives of 3:34-36 --

To crush under his feet all the prisoners of the earth,
To turn aside the right of a man before the face of the most High,
To subvert a man in his cause,
the Lord approveth not.

and the answer:  the Lord approveth not.  Assyria didn't make it.  Babylon didn't make it.  God didn't approve.   The Hebrew word translated "approveth" in the KJV is the word for "see" or "perceive."  God isn't just going to look at what they've done.  He doesn't approve of it.  He's going to do something about it. That's a clear message through scripture.

If you're an agnostic or atheist like Ehrman, mass murderers get away with the suffering they cause.  Pol Pot. Mao.  Hitler.  All agnostics like Ehrman.   That encourages suffering, because without God, nothing matters. The idea of Ehrman is that you don't get a sufficient answer from the Bible for suffering, which is a big enough problem to reject the Bible and God.  But without a God, what difference does suffering make, one way or another?  That Ehrman even argues means he can't logically conclude that he's only a chemical reaction spewing at us.   In a quest for human evolution, people might be encouraged to cause suffering, and have no reason to stop it. Shouldn't that be trouble for him?  No.  Everyone can get away with anything and everything, which explains why it is that you haven't seen much charity from agnostics.  Ehrman noticed that too, so johnny-come-lately started up a blog that he makes you pay to read to raise proceeds to stop poverty.  He makes us pay to alleviate poverty if we wish to read the drivel he writes.  It does him a favor, because he can now point to it when that argument is made.  That's an agnostic's idea of care.  Troubling.

The Bible does answer the question of suffering.  It's not a problem for God.  Never has been.


Anonymous said...

Very well written article and biblically accurate sense of the scriptures on why men suffer. To say that the bible does not answer the question is to be willfully ignorant or just a plain "intellectual" fool in the case of Ehrman.

KJB1611 said...

Dear Pastor Brandenburg,

We rejoice that you will have preached through every book of Scripture. So when are the sermons after 2011 going to get posted on the web so that we can listen to them? I would much rather listen to you and the brethren at Bethel preach expository messages than listen to neo-evangelicals, and I have hours each week at work where I can listen to preaching while on tour doing my security job.



Joe Cassada said...

Good thoughts on Lamentation. Perhaps I will read Ehrman's book to see how he jumps over the plain answers to the question of suffering in the Bible.

I had heard that Ehrman said that one of the reasons he jumped ship was over the issue of suffering. I was amazed that such an educated teacher of the Bible had never read the book Of Job.

Gary Webb said...

For any who might be interested in a over 2 hour beat-down of Ehrman in a debate on this subject, look up his debate with Michael Brown. Brown is a charismatic but has taught at some Evangelical seminaries. He does a masterful job of using the Scriptures to destroy Ehrman. It is difficult to listen to Ehrman in his haughty statements, but it rewarding to watch him become agitated as Brown manifests a kind spirit while destroying Ehrman with the Scriptures. I did not watch it all the way through, but the first hour is tremendous. I believe the debate was held at Notre Dame.

Tyler Robbins said...

Bro. Webb:

That debate with Brown and Ehrman is indeed outstanding. Brown is a premillennial, charasmatic, Arminian, Messianic Jew. He is very conservative and is a very loud voice for Biblical clarity in the current "gay Christian" debate. His daily podcast is interesting; just have a filter on!

That debate is excellent. Ehrman's objections are laughable and simplistic.