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-Complaints or Contentment?

Does God owe us a perfect world? Your answer to that question will determine your ability to be content in this life.

Complaints or Contentment?

Gregory Koukl

Does God owe us a perfect world? Your answer to that question will determine your ability to be content in this life. Greg discusses how two different responses to the untimely death of a teenager reveals two contrasting views prevalent the Christian world today…and which of them more closely reflects the biblical perspective.

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Some of you might have heard of a tragedy here on the West Coast recently. A teenager snow-boarding in the Angeles Crest Mountains was lost for ten days. When they found Jeff Thornton over a week ago he was alive–shaken and frostbitten, some broken bones, but alive–and apparently in good shape.

It was a great victory, front page news. Search parties had tracked him in the snow over difficult terrain and finally found him. They got him to the hospital and all seemed well. A week later, though, Jeff Thornton was dead.

Thornton was from a small, religious farm community here in California named Brawley. While the boy was lost, the town prayed, as is often the case when tragedy strikes.

By the way, have you noticed that nobody ever raises any questions about separation of church and state in cases like these? Classrooms are filled with prayer when personal tragedy strikes with no hint of impropriety. You’ll even see appeals to pray on the evening news. “Please pray,” news anchors say, or “Our prayers are with you.” This happens with every major catastrophe we’ve faced as a country. It’s interesting that nobody balks at this.

In this particular case, the community was alive with prayer. Sure enough, the prayers were answered when the young boy was found. But then there was a turn-around. A week or so later, as a result of complications of gangrene, frostbite, exposure, shock, and broken bones, the young man died.

[As an aside, isn’t it interesting that when a young person dies like this we use the term “untimely” to describe it? It was an “untimely” death at an “untimely” age. We use the word because we believe the person died before his time. To put it more precisely, he died before his appointed time. Isn’t this a tacit admission that their life had purpose, a purpose that was beyond what that individual intended–a grander purpose, a transcendent purpose which was not fulfilled because he was cut down early in life? Responses like this are spontaneous, bearing testimony to something we know deep down inside–there is a God, and He has established a purpose for each individual, a purpose that is not fulfilled when someone is struck down “before his time.”]

This morning I read the headlines in the LA Times : “Stunned Town Mourns Snow-Boarder’s Death.” Fifteen hundred people attended the memorial service for Jeff that was held at the high school.

The main thing that struck me about this account was the different ways people responded to this tragedy. Some were thankful to God that they had been given ten extra days with Jeff Thornton. Others were angry at God because He gave the boy back just to take him away again. God was either gracious or cruel, depending on who you asked.

His mother, choking back the tears, thanked her son’s friends for their prayers and thanked the members of the search-and-rescue team that refused to give up the search. Then she told the crowd, “Imagine my joy when my baby was found alive. We shared precious moments, but I didn’t know those moments wouldn’t last. I want to thank God for giving me back my son, if just for a short time.”

The pastor, Reverend Scott Peterson, agreed: “Through the grace of God, the prayers of his friends, and the hard work of the search-and-rescue team, Jeff was brought back alive to his mother.”

Tuesday night at a private service, members of the football team other students reflected on the death of their friend, Jeff Thornton. One 15-year-old coed had a different take on the tragedy. “It’s just not fair. Not fair! That God gave him back to us and then took him away again. A lot of kids don’t understand it at all.”

Isn’t it interesting, the contrast here? Each response represents two fundamentally different views of God’s role in the world. Both had the boy for just a short period of time, returned to them back from the dead, as it were. Jeff’s mother thanked God for giving her son back to her for ten more days. The 15-year-old coed said God was unfair to give Jeff back for a short time and then take him home again.

These two contrasting responses show us two different expectations about God. Maybe the young lady’s response was just a function of grief. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it goes much deeper than that. Could the co-ed’s grief have been greater than Jeff’s mom’s? Something else is going on.

This 15-year-old student seemed to have the view that I hear echoed even by what many consider to be mature Christians. When hard times hit they say, “What happened? Why did God allow this?” They are not just expressing emotion or grief. They are genuinely stunned that God would allow evil to touch their lives like this. God hasn’t kept His part of the bargain.

Each reaction betrays a particular view of God. One view is that God aids us as we maneuver through the contingencies of a fallen world. When He helps us as we navigate through life we thank Him for His grace. We consider anything God might do on our behalf an added benefit to us–a gracious, unmerited favor.

Jeff Thornton’s mom was like this. Though her son was eventually going to die, the fact that he was able to spend a week with his family– talking with his mother, sharing his last moments with his friends– was seen by her as a gift of God, a special work of grace in the midst of tragedy.

The second view–the co-ed’s–is that God owes us something like a perfect world. We have a divine right to happiness, fulfillment, and prosperity. If we don’t get them, God has not fulfilled His end of the bargain. If God lets us have something good for a moment and then takes it away, it’s “not fair” because, on this view, we deserved the good thing to begin with. We deserved the best. We deserve heaven on earth, and we’ve been cheated.

A lot of Christians think this way. It’s one of the serious flaws of the so-called faith/prosperity movement. They’re looking for heaven’s rewards and heaven’s perfection right here on earth. They’re expecting God to protect them, as a divine obligation, from the contingencies of living in a fallen world.

When God gives them something wonderful, that’s par for the course. When everything is going smoothly, that’s the way it ought to be. It’s owed them. People like this are not excessively thankful for things, and they complain when they don’t get what they want.

Two completely different ways of viewing things. I guess you can guess which one I think is biblical. It’s the first one. This is why we’re not just encouraged but commanded to give thanks in all things. It emphasizes the fact that everything we have, “every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (James 1:17)

This is why, in humility, we give thanks for whatever joys we are given in this fallen world. It explains why we give thanks when we get a son back before his ultimate homecoming– if only for a couple of days– instead of blaming God for not letting him stay longer.

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