There are times when a book ends so terribly that I have to make up a new ending in my mind. They either don’t pull all the loose ends together or it ends in an improbable way. Though I thoroughly despise an ending that really isn’t an ending, I am equally unsatisfied with an ending that is a bit too happy. Something rings false in a story that doesn’t jive with reality. While a certain part of us might appreciate the lack of suffering, the story will have no lasting impact because we know that is not how it really works. And though we’d hate to admit it, a certain amount of loss is necessary to make the result valuable. This is because we know intrinsically that in life there are costs for things–even good things.
I have recently been reading through the book of Acts and came across the powerful description of Peter’s deliverance from jail. It starts off with tragedy though:
About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. (Acts 12: 1-5)
A Miraculous Intervention
This is when the miraculous happens. In the middle of the night, Peter is led out of prison into freedom. His escape is made even more dramatic by the incredulous response to those praying so sincerely.
And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. (Acts 12: 13-16)
A Horrible Turning Point
Finally, he is able to come in the house, and he tells his story of being led out by two angels. Everyone is excited and rejoicing. Peter then leaves to tell others of what has happened. Unfortunately, the story does not end here:
Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. (Acts 12:18)
I don’t think I had ever noticed this terrible detail before. It appears that Peter’s pardon is another man’s death sentence.
We might be tempted now to question God about this. These men were innocent–how could He allow them to be punished for something out of their hands? And also what about James the brother of John who was also put to death. Why wasn’t he rescued? Was he not as valuable?
All of these are reasonable questions, and, I can bet, ones that niggle at the hearts of many believers. We are often afraid to wrestle with these thoughts; after all, our hope depends on the goodness of God. If He is not good, then we are all doomed.
I cannot say that I have the answer to these questions. I have a beginning though. Many of us have seen Bruce Almighty starring Jim Carrey. In this movie, he too was frustrated with the way God was running things. Bruce rants and rails at God and finally God, in the form of Morgan Freeman, shows up. He tells Jim Carrey’s character, Bruce, that he can have a chance to try being God since he was so confident he could do better. The rest of the movie, in true Jim Carrey style, is a humorous depiction of Bruce’s struggles and subsequent lesson in humility. One scene I find particularly amusing is Bruce’s attempt to answer prayers. Sitting at a computer, he receives millions of prayers in the form of e-mails. At first he starts going through them one by one trying to decide how to answer them. Finally, annoyed and frustrated, he just answers yes to all of them. The result however is very telling. For example, a large number of people win the lottery. But because there are so many, each of their earnings is very little. Everyone’s “yes” is not the blessing one would expect.
Why is that? It’s because we don’t really understand how tied together all our lives are. We think that a blessing for us won’t cost anyone anything. But we can’t know that. The early church praying for Peter’s release couldn’t imagine this was a death sentence for others. I’m reminded of the butterfly effect theory where the beat of the wings of a butterfly on the other side of the world can cause a monsoon here. While this thought is a bit intimidating, we must remember that we cannot hope to be responsible for all these possibilities. We just have to trust the one who is. The only person in the entire universe able to handle the delicate fine tuning of the universe and of human will is God alone.
This is seen very clearly in the book of Job. He too is questioning God’s management abilities. And though Job, to us, seems to have all the right in the world to scrutinize God’s unfathomable ways and to hold Him to account, the book ends in a surprising way. After a multitude of chapters of Job defending himself against the attacks of his friends, God shows up.
His words are powerful: “Dress for action like a man; I will question, and you will make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know!” (38:3-5) The rest of the conversation goes very similarly. God has patiently let Job make his accusations and now Job must stand before God’s questioning.
Finally, Job humbly responds: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (42: 3-6)
Humbled Before God
While there are many who would be offended by a pronouncement like this, I think we would all do well with a little humility. God’s reminder that Job cannot possibly understand the many workings of the universe helps Job gain the perspective he needs to view the circumstances of his life.
Our point of faith simply comes down to whether or not we trust God to be good. If we do not, we are free to reject Him and His ways. If we do, however, believe He is good, that He has demonstrated His sacrificial love on the cross, then we must use this faith to trust His word and his actions. We must choose to obey Him even when it doesn’t make sense to us. We must give HIm the freedom to move in our lives in ways that are confusing, even painful.
Here is the crux of faith and obedience. And while we might long for the manufactured happiness of Hallmark stories to be enjoyed and forgotten, we are instead offered the multidimensional impact of an epic to be told throughout the generations. We cannot imagine the story that God is writing with our lives, but we can be confident that the ending is going to make it all worth it.
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