The following question was emailed to our “Ask a Bible Teacher” column this week. Since it’s such an important question, I’m responding in our feature article format so as to provide greater detail. This will also allow more people to see it, because it’s a question we’ve all asked.
Q. I have recently discovered your website and have found it to be very informative. I have learned a great deal about many of the issues discussed.
However, there are still a number of things I do not understand. About two years ago, I discovered God, His Plan of Salvation, and the many wonderful promises that He has made to us. I read in Romans of how He causes all things to come to the good for them that believe in Him. I read in the Gospels about how two or more believers praying for a common thing would have their prayers answered. I read of how believers should ask of the Father and it shall be given unto them.
Imagine how I felt in the summer when my partner was diagnosed with cancer, and after a short battle, was called home in August. I know that many people, including myself, prayed for her recovery, but in vain. I find it impossible to reconcile the circumstances which have prevailed in my personal life to those promises that God has made to us and which I have made mention of above.
Can you help me to bridge this gap in my understanding?
A. Who among us has not had prayers of this sort seemingly go unanswered and wondered at the conflict that it creates between the Bible’s promises and our experiences?
Life After Death
In the death of a believer we have to understand two things. The first is that we’re all infected with a terminal disease. It’s not a case of if we’ll die but when. No one dies a natural death because it’s not natural for eternal beings to die. Death came into the world as a result of sin.
And the second is that for a believer, death is the ultimate healing. Death brings the life we were always intended to live, and would already be living if not for our sin nature. For the “dead” believer, all of this life’s problems, pains, and sorrows are over and a glorious eternal life of blessing and abundance awaits.
The more we know about the life after death the less we cling to the life before. And since only God knows the end from the beginning, only He can know the pain and suffering He’s prevented in calling someone home early. The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil.(Isaiah 57:1)
So what about the surviving friends and family? How can the death of a loved one bring good to the survivors? First is the obvious knowledge that the separation is only temporary for believers and a glorious reunion will follow. We have the benefit of an eternal perspective. And for non-believers it presents an opportunity to be saved from the 2nd death, the permanent one, and be reunited forever with departed loved ones.
But then our faith comes into play. If we believe God’s promises, then there has to be a more direct and beneficial cause and effect relationship between the death of a loved one and the life of the survivor. Our job is to look for it. We’re told to walk by faith not by sight, but our enemy will try to keep us focused on what we see, the absence of our loved one, causing our faith to falter and hindering us from experiencing the good that can come. God’s promises are more real than our reality, So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor. 4:18)
By far the most heart wrenching experience of this sort I’ve ever encountered was the case of a mom and dad I know. While walking along on the city sidewalk with their 2 year old son, a delivery truck jumped the curb, fatally striking the toddler. The driver was drunk, and in fact had a history of drunkenness on the job. In the lawsuit that followed the court awarded a substantial settlement to the devastated parents. They took the money and founded a Christian pre-school in their son’s name that soon expanded into a private Christian school for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade on a beautiful safe campus.
Several thousand children have since benefited from a quality, affordable Christian primary education and this couple has helped dozens of grief stricken parents cope with similar losses along the way. It’s an example of 2 Cor. 1:3-4that all who know them feel privileged to have observed. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. They took these verses seriously based on their belief that for all of us, our life is a ministry and our sorrows are our credentials. In other words, each of us is uniquely qualified to minister to someone experiencing similar tragedies to those we have faced.
They had every right to become angry, bitter victims, and to yell and scream at God for allowing this to happen to them. But they chose a more excellent way. They understand that God didn’t kill their son. That was the work of the evil that pervades this dark place. We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. (1 John 5:19)
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28)
God never promised us that nothing bad would happen to us. In fact, He promised the opposite. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) What He did promise is that He could make even the bad things that happen work for good. It’s up to us to believe that promise and look for its fulfillment. For my friends, the school keeps the memory of their son alive in their hearts while their faith tells them that soon they’ll be reunited forever. The blessing they’ve provided for thousands of others through this tragedy is obvious.
Where our prayers are concerned there are also a couple of things to keep in mind. The first is that God reserves for Himself the right to choose both the timing and the means by which He answers prayers. We have to understand that His ways are not our ways and His timing is always perfect. We neither lose time by waiting nor gain time by trying to force His hand. He answered Abraham’s prayer for a son, but waited 25 years before doing so. The world is paying a huge price today for Abraham and Sarah’s refusal to wait upon the Lord.
Just because we don’t get something when we want it and in the exact way we want it doesn’t mean that God has stopped answering our prayers or keeping His promises. There may be some other things we have to take care of first, or God may choose another way to answer the prayer that we don’t see, a better way.
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)
God has promised Israel a Kingdom and a King who will bring them peace. They’ve been praying for Him to keep that promise for thousands of years. The world, even much of the Christian world, laughs at them and tells them that God has forgotten them. It’s never going to happen, they say.
God is faithful, and He fully intends to answer their prayers and keep His promise. But there’s something they have to do first, and until they do it He has to wait. They have to recognize who their King is and restore their relationship with Him. Then God will act.
Union And Fellowship
So it is with us, and this is the second thing to keep in mind. This may not sound familiar to those of you who’ve been taught “Christianity Lite” but there are two components to a believer’s relationship with God. One is called Union. It’s concerns our eternity and is irrevocable, guaranteeing our place in His Kingdom. (Ephesians 1:13-14) Union happens at the moment we hear the Gospel and believe it, and God seals His Holy Spirit within us.
The other is called Fellowship and it comes with Union. But Fellowship affects our life here on Earth and is subject to suspension. (1 John 1:8-9) When we fail to confess our sins, we temporarily suspend our relationship with God, because He can’t dwell in the presence of sin. We can’t lose our salvation (Union), but during those times when we’re out of Fellowship we don’t have the right to ask God for anything except forgiveness. And what’s more, we’ve stepped out of His protection and are fair game for the enemy’s mischief.
The Book of Job is an example of the difference between Union and Fellowship. Job’s righteousness made him proud, a sin in God’s eyes. When Satan asked to torment him, God had to agree in spite of the fact that Job was one of the most righteous men on Earth, because he hadn’t confessed his sin. As long as Job relied on his own righteousness he was vulnerable to attack, and none of his complaints could change that, even though he remained a child of God. When he confessed, God put a stop to the torment and restored him. The lesson Job learned through his ordeal (and that we’re supposed to learn as well according to Romans 15:4) is that when we justify ourselves, we condemn God. Whenever we start thinking that we don’t deserve something bad that’s happening to us, we in effect accuse God of being unjust. It’s part of our human nature to look outside of ourselves for the blame, but it delays our reconciliation with God.
For a New Testament example, read the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15:11-32) The prodigal never stopped being his father’s son, but while he was living a sinful life he was out of fellowship, deprived of his father’s blessings. When he came to his senses and confessed, he was restored. All Christians have Union with God and are guaranteed a place in His Kingdom, but many live their whole lives out of Fellowship because of their unconfessed sins and miss out on untold blessings, stacking up mountains of unanswered prayers.
Because of the cross, maintaining our Fellowship is as easy as invoking 1 John 1:8-9. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
God is just and righteous and cannot lie. He has a 6000 year track record of unblemished performance. Whenever it seems like His promises aren’t coming true, you can bet that it’s due to our lack of understanding, not His lack of integrity.
Thank you Peter, for submitting this question we’ve all asked.