Suffering, Deformity, and Curse

Thoughts about dealing with suffering, physical deformity, and the curse that were shared in a July 2011 email newsletter.

Publication: July 2011

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Five weeks, four meetings, three events, two people, one quote, and no failure - a rough summary of this letter. The quote comes from D. A. Carson's review of J. Ramsey Michaels' commentary on the Gospel of John. "When my students ask if we really need yet another commentary on such-and-such a biblical book, I sometimes tell them that, even if we do not need another commentary, we can always do with more commentary writers." I sympathize with the sentiment of Carson's students. What difference would writing a commentary make? There are so many good commentaries already out there just on the Gospel of Matthew, and Biblical studies is not alone. Philosophy? Inundated with its own commentary and analysis. Intelligent Design? An already burgeoned cloud. I feel like the author for Ecclesiastes. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look, there is something new"? It was here already, long ago, the Teacher says. It was here before our time. Why write, then, I might ask with Carson's students. Why write?

I'll come back to that question, but for now, on to someone from Korea, and another from China. A Korean PhD student called me over to watch Sung-bung Choi, a Korean youth who lived much of his life in abject poverty, but recently had stunned viewers of Korea's Got Talent with the voice a Pavarotti, a voice that may catapult him to a better life. The same day I watched the video of Sung-bung's appearance on TV, Chris knocked on the outside window, wanting help. At home, there is a proverb for Chris. I once complained about having no shoes, it says, until I met a man who had no feet. Chris has feet, but he has no fingers, at least as we know them. For one hand, there is a fleshly effigy of a petit croissant, and two stubbily inept pinchers for the other, both positively alien in appearance. Unlike Sung-bung Choi, there will be no golden voice to catapult him from the menial milieu of Macau, China.

It is dangerous, I think, to cheapen the experience of suffering with words, as if words, whether as sounds or symbols on paper, could really convey what a person goes through. But while words might unintentionally mock the experience of suffering, mere silence, or the sympathetic bemoaning of how hard life must be for Chris, or those in pain, presents its own danger. The danger is in thinking that our experience of suffering is not affected by our view of reality, and that therefore the ability of words to convey a new understanding of reality is irrelevant to helping those in pain. Two men may go through the same ordeal, with only one bearing it in peace and hope, and the difference is because of his faith in the goodness of a God who allows this trial temporarily, but who will one day usher him into an eternal rest. I cannot give Chris new fingers, but it would be wrong to simplistically assume that books and paper upon which so much time has been spent are of no use to him, as if the scholar has nothing to do with the slum, nor the vendor of words with a heart of compassion.

Perhaps I should spend time in poverty relief; God knows we certainly need more people helping the poor. But to use this reasoning, the appeal of emotion for those in physical need, as an unrelenting argument to abandon academic aspiration for the alleviation of physical poverty, inevitably condemns man to a crass materialism in which his primary good rises or falls on the health and beauty of his body, the wealth at his command, and the extent of his material comforts. If that is so, if anthropology can be reduced to a function of man's material position, then what place is there for God, the one who with a command can remove all physical hardship, what place except for the throne of an evil overlord? And what then is my life? My youth I can only lose. My health, my body, and whatever measure of beauty I have, they shall decay. Who will save me from this body of death? Chris is not impoverished, and I unburdened. We both groan in a creation and a body that decays. It is to this that Jesus speaks. Do not worry about what you will eat or drink, or what you will wear, he says. Why? Because life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Man, in essence, is not only his body, his voice, or deformations for what normally are hands. There is a part of him that decay, that disfigurement cannot touch. More, there is something that lives beyond the sting of death. This is hope. But hope for what? A second life more deformed than the first? A reincarnation as a lower form? The shadowy spirits of Hades? Who knows? Ah, but someone does know. God knows, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus the climax of the biblical story, a story begun in Adam whose end is now made clear: Not shadowy spirits, not a deformed body. The end is a resurrected body, and man in relationship with a God whose love endured suffering and death on man's behalf. This too shall pass. Those are the words for Chris, if to Jesus Christ he commits himself.

This is the message upheld by the commentator, the philosopher, the intelligent design theorist. But it is so simple a message. Must all my study really be undertaken to uphold its truth? Probably not. But who is to draw the line? How is one to know when one piece or another of evidence is a brick in the foundation of the gospel, and the rest only filigree? Could reason foresee that the Greek culture of Tarsus would have prepared a Pharisaic persecutor to be perhaps the greatest apostle to the Gentiles in history? But suppose the scholar goes on, past the pale of usefulness to the gospel. What then? Scolding? A rebuke? If he then puts down his book, and relieves a man of his poverty, we may rejoice, but to what is that man relieved? When God declares that a man will work on six days, but rest on the sabbath, to what is he freed from his labor? To worship. He is freed to worship, and that is only genuine when it is a response to God. God creates the mountain, and we awe. He gives food, and is thanked. And for the layman, as well as the scholar, he acts in history, inspiring in his word, leading the people out of Egypt, raising Jesus from the dead. If we commend the poor man whose worship is a response to God's revelation of himself in nature, friends, and provision, are we not also to commend the scholar whose worship is a response to God's revelation of himself in ancient history and his word? All the scholar's work may not be useful to the gospel, but the gospel is the scholar's delight in his work. Why write? That was the question. Because even writing can be an act of worship.

One quote, two people, and now three events. Worship springs from friends, and from God's acts in history. In July, I will have occasion to enjoy friends and study history. On July 4-8, the Society of Biblical Literature's international meeting will be held primarily at King's College London. On July 8-14, I will take part in a Cambridge Scholars Network event, much of which will be held at Sidney Sussex College of Cambridge University. And on July 18-22, there will be an intelligent design summer school, featuring, among others, Guillermo Gonzalez, co-author of The Privileged Planet, and Jonathan Wells, author of The Myth of Junk DNA and of Icons of Evolution: Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong. These will be opportunities for me to network with others and further my knowledge of important fields.

Five weeks. In the period from around July 27 to around September 3, somewhat over five weeks, I will arrive back in the US, deliver some resurrection lecture material and do a Gospel of Luke presentation at a church in Pennsylvania, have some family vacation time, fly back to Scotland, and then do a Gospel of Luke presentation and deliver some resurrection lecture material, and possibly some evangelistic message(s), in Edinburgh, and attend the British New Testament Conference on September 1-3, an event at which both of my supervisors will be giving a presentation. Oh, plus there is more work to be done on my PhD thesis and more language work on German, French, Greek, and Hebrew. Please pray for me in this period of preparation and during that period. Four meetings. Mom and Dad would be willing to host three gatherings for donors and friends at which I would do some teaching, update people on my life and thinking, and ask for additional financial support. A staff member of Harvest Bible Chapel has also indicated that he and his wife would be willing to host a gathering at his home; at this point, details for that have not been finalized. Please ask God that things would go well. Finally, may God be praised, I did not fail my PhD review board. I passed. Now the main thing between me and Dr. Larson is finishing my thesis and successfully defending it. Please pray for that also. God is good, even when we do not see or acknowledge it.

Sincerely,

Paul Larson

Keywords: Pain Suffering and Evil, The Goodness of God, Social Justice, Hope, Gospel, Meaning of Life, Worship, Academic Study, Death

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