Sunday, August 25, 2013

TorahBytes: We Are in this Together (Nizzavim & Va-Yelekh)

In all their affliction he was afflicted (Isaiah 63:9; ESV)

A common reason given by atheists for their rejection of God (at least of the God of the Bible) is the problem of evil. "How can a good God allow suffering?" they say. This indeed is a difficult question and one that the Bible itself asks in the books of Job and Habakkuk in particular as well as several of the Psalms. For many Jewish people today, the Holocaust was final and absolute proof that God is a myth. I would guess that those who are embittered against the biblical God would not find most of the Bible's handling of this issue intellectually satisfying. One reason for that is the Bible doesn't provide us with a logical, philosophical treatise of the problem of evil.

Instead of an intellectual answer, the Bible gives us something a whole lot better: a relational one. Our short quote from the prophet Isaiah is a good example: "In all their affliction he was afflicted" (Isaiah 63:9; ESV). God through the prophet asserts that he himself suffered as Israel suffered. This is something far more than a sentimental thought about a supreme being who empathizes from afar as if a realization that God "understands" should somehow make us feel better about tragedy, injustice, and suffering. God really does feel our pain.

But then why doesn't he do something about it? He is the all-powerful God, isn't he? I will try to answer that question. But first, there is a misguided common assumption about God and his power that gets in the way of the truth of the matter. Many of us, even the atheists among us, expect God to behave like a superhero. Most superhero characters and stories are rather flat. I know their personalities and adventures can be complex. But at its core, their stories are very simple. People are in crisis; the superheroes save the day. It's always the same: evil threat is eventually thwarted until the next evil threat rears its head.

This is how we tend to expect God to resolve evil. But because he doesn't, we reject his existence. Why doesn't he behave like a typical superhero? If the God of the Bible is real, he should make Superman and friends look like wimps. Shouldn't a real God outclass the fake ones?

But if God dealt with evil according to these expectations, he would break the universe. This type of intervention wouldn't resolve the problem of evil, it would undermine life altogether.

Life as created by God is more complex and wonderful than anything we can imagine. This is one of the reasons why evil and suffering are as bad as they are. The depths of the problem of evil are not as simple as the threat of some supervillan trying to take over or destroy the world. The Bible teaches that the curse that was a result of our first parents' disobedience to God, pervades the whole creation through and through. The resolution of this, the greatest of all problems, requires God himself to experience firsthand the effects of that curse in order to undo it.

The greatest expression of "In all their affliction he was afflicted" was experienced by God in the person of the Messiah when Yeshua took on the curse's effects by his unjust execution. Isaiah's words suggest that this was not the only time God shared our sufferings. In ways we don't understand, he was intimately affected by his people's plight. We need to realize that we are not in this alone. He who designed life with all its complexities, suffers with us. We are in this together.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

TorahBytes: What Is Love? (Ki Teze)

But the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam; instead the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 23:5; ESV)

I was almost hit by a car the other day. I was getting out of my vehicle, when a red sports car in the same lane I was parked was speeding right toward me trying to (illegally) pass a car in the outside lane. I pressed myself against the side of my vehicle as closely as I could as the sports car found a narrow opening between me and the car he was passing. I was in a bit of shock as I thought about what almost was. "Just a few more inches and he would have plowed right into me," played over and over again in my mind. Then I remembered the other "almosts" of my life: I almost died of the croup at 6 months, I almost died of dehydration at 11 years. Then there was the time a friend stopped to give me a ride. As I was putting something in their trunk, another car was slowly coming up behind with lots of time to stop, but for some reason I can't remember, I moved out of the way as the vehicle slammed into the rear end of the car I had been standing behind. I still shutter at the thought of my legs almost being sandwiched between those two cars. Almost.

Some of you reading or listening to this may respond differently to such happenings. You perhaps would think about how wonderful it is that these almosts didn't happen. I understand. I know I should be so grateful for all the things that haven't happened to me. I am grateful, but for some reason I tend to focus more on the horrible things that almost happened than the actual good outcomes.

I don't want to get into the psychology of why I am this way, not this week at least. Rather, I want to look at how I should be thinking. This week's Torah portion refers to an almost that happened to Israel during their years in the wilderness. The King of Moab hired a sorcerer named Bilaam (or Balaam) to curse Israel in his desire to undermine them (see Bemidbar / Number 22-24). It didn't work. Every time Bilaam attempted to curse Israel, blessing came from his mouth. Why? God's love. Because the Master of the Universe loves Israel, he stopped the bad thing from happening. More than that, he caused good to happen instead.

I, like many others, have often wondered what love is. It seems to me what most people today mean by it is "desirous affection." The word "love" is most often used as a very intense form of "like" usually with the intent of wanting, having, or keeping the stated object, whether it be human or something else. The focus of love is usually not the one being loved, but the lover and his or her own desires.

But this is not the meaning of love as we find it in our portion. Love here is best described in one of the ways my wife tries to explain her love for me. As I mentioned my tendency with my almosts has been to focus on the negative things that theoretically could have happened instead of the positive actual outcomes. Similarly, I have also tended to interpret intentions of others towards me as negative. This has caused me to interpret motives, including of those closest to me, incorrectly. To counter this my wife has told me countless times, "I am for you." That's true love - the wanting and the doing good to and for another person. That's what God's love is. It is not some warm fuzzy feeling on God's part. Nor is it a way of saying he likes us a lot. To know God's love is to know that he is for us. He is out for our good and works things out for our good as he did for Israel regarding Bilaam.

Now, of course, the circumstances of life are not always good. Babies die of the croup and people are killed or severely injured in car accidents. It can be a challenge to hold on to the assurance of God's love in the midst of real tragedy. But if you are like me, before we can ever look beyond hardships and trust in God's love when life is truly hard, we need to first come to the place where we stop thinking of all the things that might have happened and start accepting how much God really loves us through all the good he regularly does on our behalf.

Monday, August 05, 2013

TorahBytes: The Nature of Fear (Shofetim)

And the officers shall speak further to the people, and say, "Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own." (Devarim / Deuteronomy 20:8; ESV)

I am so grateful for how God has helped me in the area of fear. A long time ago, when I was about 19 years old, I was having terrible and regular panic attacks. It was then that I first heard about Yeshua being the Messiah. After being shown how the prophesies in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) clearly point to him (see, I asked God to forgive my sins and welcomed Yeshua into my heart and life. The panic attacks stopped.

It was quite disconcerting when, several months later, I found myself facing again debilitating fear. I originally had been given a false promise that faith in Yeshua was a guarantee of continual happiness, but now old fears rose up to intimidate me. I was due to go away on a trip. The excitement of anticipation prevented me from sleeping much, and my upbringing misinformed me that any attempt to function after such a night was futile. Should I dare to travel, sickness or death was assured (when I talk like this, I am aware that those familiar with this kind of fear completely understand and sympathize, while those who are not, don't. Oh well, that's the way it was, and whoever you are, if you stick with me, you might be surprised to see where this is going).

As I lay in bed, terrified of the prospects before me, the thought came to me, if I don't go on this trip, I'll never go anywhere again. I don't know how accurate a prediction that was, but you get the point. So I went. The long travel day was difficult due to the oppressive nature of the anxiety, and I didn't sleep the next night either. But then everything changed, and I had the time of my life. I don't have time here to go into the details, but I had such a sense of God's presence for the remainder of the time away such as I had never experienced before (but have experienced many times since).

It was the first time in my life I pushed through fear, something I have had to do many times since. Almost every time I do, when I look back, I feel foolish for whatever it was that was spawning my anxiety. I wish my battle with fear would cease, but until then I will continue to be grateful to God for helping me to live in spite of it.

The verse I read at the beginning may seem to undermine my experience as if the presence of fear is reason enough not to engage whatever it is we are afraid of. Sounds like Moses is saying, when facing a battle, if you are afraid, don't push through, go home, lest you discourage the others.

But what is the nature of the fear that Moses is addressing? Is he saying that feelings of anxiety automatically disqualify someone? Is it better, therefore, to accept the weakness of my heart and stay away from those things that intimidate me?

I have come to see that fear is not fundamentally an emotion. It's an attitude and an action that may or may not manifest itself emotionally. A truly fearful person may not feel afraid at all. Their decision not to engage the things they are afraid of may be made long before any feelings of fear kick in. People who are truly afraid can sound very calm and reasonable as they cause the hearts of other to melt, to use Moses' words. On the other hand, we might have all sorts of feelings about life's challenges, but we don't have to be afraid of them. Instead, we can press through, choosing not to discourage others with our fears, but rather trust God.