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A Theology of Suffering: Mark Talbot Lectures

April 10, 2018 Leave a comment

From last fall’s free special from Reformed Resources, a series done a few years ago by Mark Talbot is very helpful, a five-part series on Trusting God When We Suffer.  These lectures look at what suffering is, within the plan of God: a divine, though unsought gift.  Yes, we do not seek suffering – but it is still a gift from God.  So much information is presented, and presented clearly with the challenge for us to really think hard about it, to think through it.

Talbot mentioned a book he was working on, not yet published; this book is apparently still unpublished, but one free book resource from John Piper includes a chapter from Talbot: Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.

Talbot responds to apostate agnostic Bart Ehrman, who has claimed that the Bible has nothing to say about the reality of suffering by believers; according to Ehrman, the Bible depicts a loving God who rescues His people and does not allow suffering, but instead provides good and prosperity not only in the life to come, but in this life also.  By contrast, scriptural examples of suffering (many to pick from) include the stories of Naomi (Ruth 1), Job, and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20).  Profound suffering sometimes involves the person coming to have false beliefs about God, such as Jeremiah in chapter 20; in other cases such as Naomi, the person maintains their basic belief in the goodness of God, while seeing no possibility of any further good in their own life.

Suffering includes physical and mental, and sometimes both, as well as many levels and degrees. It is person-relative, such that the particular suffering one person endures, would not necessarily affect another – an adolescent being bullied online versus an adult’s more mature response, for example.  An overall definition of suffering:  from the sufferer’s standpoint, all suffering involves something disrupting his/her life’s pleasantness, to the point where that disruption feels disagreeable enough that he/she wants it to end.  Suffering can be considered on a sliding scale, from minor (such as Talbot’s wife, who dislikes Wagner and Opera, having to listen to it) through more intense, chronic, or other types of suffering.   For scriptural support, Hebrews 12:1-13 deals with this in the abstract, the definition. For experience of it, we can turn to many places in the Bible, including the Psalms – such as Psalm 126, which contrasts positive and negative events.

A solid theology of suffering includes application from the many Bible accounts of actual suffering, “breathing” the promises of God, and a robust understanding of God’s sovereignty over everything – including our next breath, and even our thoughts.  How many times in everyday life do we start to say something and then realize we don’t know the words to express it, or forget what we were about to say?  God is sovereign over our thoughts.  Theological anthropology is another term, the biblical understanding of what it means to be human—and applied to suffering.

Talbot references studies that conclude that most people are happy most of the time – when accounting for all other factors such as age, gender, and economic situation – as long as a few basic physical and social needs are met.  Thus we find that poor people in third world countries are happier than some wealthy, successful people in developed countries.  Again we can return to biblical proof:  Acts 14, Paul’s speech to the people who attempted to offer sacrifices to him and Barnabas (as Hermes and Zeus); verse 17,  “Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

We view life within the bookends of scripture, the first two and the last two chapters of God’s word.  Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22 both describe a time – past and future – of undisturbed peace and pleasantness.  Everything in between these two times will be a mixture of pleasant and painful experiences.

Another area where people get tripped up is in their view of God as our Father.  Viewing this from a bottom-up expansion, of how good human fathers are and thus how much more God is this way, sufferers have trouble with Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7-11.  Instead we need to see God as Father from a “top-down” view:  God is the starting point, all goodness is in Him; when we happen to see some goodness in human fathers, that is a derivative or shadow of the reality in God.  Further analysis also brings out the reality of even human parenting: children cannot see the future, long-term good of certain things done by their parents – who have long-term goals for their children such as a good education and life-skills.  Mark Talbot as a child could not understand the value of the restriction his mother placed on him, requiring him to read for a certain amount of time every day before going out to play; the child who wants to have the same “popular” shoes as every other kid cannot appreciate the value of a different, higher quality shoe.

This series is very helpful, with a lot of information to think through – and held up to a second round of listening a few weeks later.  For further study of the theology of suffering, the above-mentioned book by John Piper looks interesting.  The Tabletalk issue from April 2007 (the same calendar year as 2018) also featured a study on Grief, with several articles on suffering and grief.  A good quote from one of the articles, ‘From Grief to Glory’:

God will birth His glory in us as we allow ourselves to honestly and passionately face our most terrible losses. To live honestly is to admit the pain and sadness of the loss. There is no reason to live in denial — Jesus did not die on the cross so we can pretend. … We must embrace God and the mystery of His provision and His sovereignty in the midst of our suffering. Through the pain, God is birthing a child who depends upon Him more and knows that He is good even in the most difficult of times.

All of us will experience loss. We will either withdraw from our loss with creative repressive strategies, or we will embrace our loss with faith in God. God is continually birthing renewed, revitalized, and dependent believers, but the road to hope often navigates through despair.

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William Perkins and the Puritans

July 24, 2017 Leave a comment

From the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary comes this recent conference — about the life and works of William Perkins.  This set of five messages, including one from Sinclair Ferguson and another from Joel Beeke, considers Perkins’ life, writings, and the great influence he had on the English Puritan era.

Perkins’ life was relatively short – died at age 44, apparently from kidney stones – yet spanned the years of the Elizabethan age (1558 – 1602) as a transition between the 16th century Reformation on the European continent and the later English Puritan era.  The conference lectures consider the historical period, including Perkins’ own life – a rather rough person in his youth, similar to the young John Bunyan, but then saved and greatly used of God – and the chain/link of believers who were influences on Perkins, then to Perkins’ students and down to the next generation.  Perkins, a late 16th century supralapsarian English theologian and Cambridge scholar, wrote many early Puritan writings, which have recently been published in electronic format.  Several volumes are available now in Kindle format on Amazon; earlier this year, Challies’ Kindle deals  listed the first volume on special sale, and so I have this volume in my queue for future reading.  Sinclair Ferguson noted the relative scarcity of Perkins’ works in the late 20th century, as he described his trip to South Korea in 1990, meeting believers there — and his amazement at finding Perkins’ books available there but not to be found in Great Britain.

I previously learned of William Perkins from a J.I. Packer series on the Puritans which I listened to a few years ago.  These five conference lectures provide much more information, to build on that summary overview from Packer.  Perkins’ works include his perhaps best-known “golden chain,” as well as “a case of conscience” about the believer’s assurance, and “The Art of Prophesying” (the term used in the sense of preaching, the proclamation of the Word of God).  Conference lectures even include a “15 reasons for why you should read William Perkins.”  He especially influenced the Puritans, and is worth our reading as well.  A 2015 article from the Australia Gospel Coalition even lists William Perkins among the “Five Theologians You Should Know.”

 

 

Christian Worldview Conference: Worldview of Human Identity (David Murray)

September 20, 2016 1 comment

From my recent podcast feed, an interesting audio series:  the annual Puritan Conference held at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, a series of 11 lectures on the theme of the Christian Worldview, with each message titled “A Christian Worldview of (topic)”.  The speakers include faculty staff, including one on the Worldview of the Old Testament from author Michael Barrett (see previous post about him here).  So far I’ve listened to the first five, which include some basic overview including the doctrine of the Trinity and its significance in relationships.  I especially like the fourth lecture, from David Murray of the Head, Heart, and Hand Blog, on the Christian Worldview of Human Identity.  His Scottish accent takes some getting used to, but the message is a good one, on a theme that comes up often at his blog, the issue of counseling and depression.  The following is a summary of it.

Murray suggests making a list of words that describe yourself.  As for example, words such as Christian, sinner, wife, computer programmer, introvert, learner, blogger, insecure, anxious, and so forth.  Then come eight steps to recover and rebuild our true Christian identity.

  1. Reset Priorities

First, my spiritual condition: am I a Christian or not?  Next, my spiritual character: what graces have I received from the Lord.  The third priority is our relationships with others; work and other social relationships in our daily lives comes here, after the higher priorities.

  1. Expand what is incomplete: Expand on number 1 above– what scriptures says about us: justified, forgiven, sanctified, and so forth.  Ephesians 1 is especially good here.
  2. Fill in the gaps – admit our weaknesses, such as being pessimistic, depressed, discouraged. Here reference 1 Cor. 15:9-10, Paul’s description of himself pre- and post- conversion.  Filling in the gaps also means acknowledging our strengths – as gifts from God.
  3. Prosecute falsehoods—“hunt down” and prosecute, and put an end to the lies, things we tell ourselves that aren’t true.  Murray’s example of this was his years of recent illness; now he is better, but was still depressed about it and thinking of himself as really old and ill.
  4. Add balance: I am a sinner.  Also to the other side, that we are now dead to sin. Here reference 2 Cor. 6:9-10.
  5. Re-frame failure, with a gold frame. God sovereignly overrules our failures and brings good about.
  6. Accept change. Our identity is not static. We change; our circumstances, and God’s providence for our lives, change—God-ordained changes. Stop being envious of others.
  7. Anticipate the future.  Instead of thinking about the supposed “glory days” of the past, remember that for us Christians, our best days are ahead.  Reference 1 John 3:1-2.