L'Abri Newsletter, May 2014
May 1, 2014
Dear L’Abri Praying Family,
All of Korea mourns the series of tragedies that have swept the country in recent weeks. As if the continuous nuclear threat from the North were not enough, the ferry Sewol, carrying over four hundred passengers, sank and took over three hundred lives. Only a few days later, two subway trains collided in Seoul, injuring over two hundred people. A series of other high-profile accidents and fires have followed suit. The sinking of Sewol, in particular, turned out to be so unexpectedly deadly, and the government’s rescue efforts so utterly ineffective, that many Koreans are both dismayed and very angry about the whole affair.
Psychologically, not only the people directly involved in the disaster but also our entire nation is shaking with disappointment and anger. Physically, hundreds of precious souls—mostly high school students on a field trip to Jeju Island—have been lost. Even the economy is faltering due to reduced consumer confidence following the accident. Environmentally, the beautiful seascape of Jindo has been gained notoriety as “the sea of lamentation.” Spiritually, the catastrophe deprived us of joy and laughter, so much so that Easter was almost forgotten. It was also a national embarrassment that the government and the Coast Guard demonstrated their incompetence in such a dramatically deplorable way.
I expect a comprehensive analysis of the cause of the Sewol disaster to come out in due time, as well as a thorough examination of the irresponsible and illegal actions of the ferry’s captain, crew, and owners. Likewise in order is a full review of all regulations and practices concerning disaster response and crisis management in Korea. I also hope that the wounded and enraged people will soon be able to rediscover their strength and rise on their feet.
Going through these sudden afflictions, however, also raises some deep questions. The first is a fundamental philosophical question, “Why do we suffer?” This is followed by “Why does God allow suffering?” These are the same questions that Job asked in the Old Testament, who lost all his fortune and ten children in the blink of an eye. It is strange how we in 2014 face the same cruel doubts as Job did millennia ago.
“Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” (Job 21:6-13, NIV) “He would crush me with a storm and multiply my wounds for no reason. He would not let me catch my breath but would overwhelm me with misery.” (Job 9:17-18) Job asks two questions here: one concerning the disorderliness of the world, and the other about the viciousness of God.
In response to these inquiries, Job received several false consolations and answers. 1) Empiricism: “Do as I do” (Eliphaz); 2) Traditionalism: “Learn from your ancestors and predecessors” (Bildad); 3) Legalism: “See if you are flawless before the law” (Zophar); 4) Rationalism: “You cannot escape my logic” (Elihu); 5) Subjectivism: “I want to assert my own opinions” (Job). If these answers were false, what would be the true consolation and answer that the Book of Job provides us with? I have discovered five answers.
First, we should be careful of what we say, since there may be God’s providence behind every little thing. Job had asked about the disorderliness of the world, that is, why evil people prosper and the good suffer. The Bible replies that “there is God’s profound plan (echa)” Echa is a word meaning “design” and “plan.” Since God operates the world with plans that are far greater than any human mind could fathom, we should not be puzzled that He appears to permit so much disorder in the world for the time being.
The Book of Job tells us that all creation was made according to God’s plans. “Who is this that obscures my plans (echa) with words without knowledge?” (28:2) The way He runs the world is also beyond any human’s cognitive capacity to understand. We may have fragmental knowledge of the origin of the world (38:4-15), the providence of the universe (38:16-40:2), and the lives of animals (38:39-39:30), but we cannot know all.
Hence rises the need to distinguish when to open our mouth from when not to. Job, too, made mistakes at first. Not realizing God’s amazing plans, he was careless to declare and curse, and quick to make even narcissistic statements. “I too will have my say; I too will tell what I know.” (32:17) Underlying this statement is the idea that “I am an expert on this field too, so I’ll say what I want to say”— an arrogance without limit.
But Job holds his tongue when he finally realizes God’s profound plans and intentions. “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer — twice, but I will say no more.” (40:4-5) Not only did he cover his mouth but he also decided not to open it again. If we cannot stop asserting our own opinions about why we are suffering, without knowing God’s deep and great providence, we only display our ignorance to the world.
Second, however, we should not remain once we have witnessed God’s glory and overwhelming wisdom. Thinking that God allowed suffering for no reason, Job once treated Him as a “criminal.” (40:8-12) Job must have felt that God was an evil entity that delighted in humans’ suffering, or even the very creator of evil. God’s answer to this was, by contrast, His justice and majesty (mishpat).
“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? ... Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of it is overpowering. No one is fierce enough to rouse it. Who then is able to stand against me?” (41:1-11) Using the example of Leviathan, God overwhelms Job with his immense power and providence over nature.
A teaspoonful of consolation may be able to heal those who tasted a tiny bit of suffering, but only a consolation as wide and deep as the oceans can heal those engulfed by a massive tragedy. Job himself did not even blink when God approached him gently, but he submitted himself when God finally introduced Behemoth and Leviathan and spoke that He was the sole being that could control such terrors. (40:15-24; 41:1-34) The reason God took such a dramatic measure was not to parade His powers, but to console and provide true answers to the wounded and conceited humans, by making them realize not only His goodness but also His majesty.
After learning of such magnificence and majesty, Job confesses that “Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge? Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”(42:3) Job now comes to see that God is neither immoral nor devilish, but omnipotent and omnibenevolent, the Sovereign of the world order, and enforcer of justice. Though Job had previously said that he would not open his mouth again, he now praises and exalts God and confesses His overwhelming glory, mystery, and providence. We may not understand everything, but upon witnessing God’s greatness, let us not hesitate to proclaim it as loudly as we can.
Third, it is okay to let the wounded cry, get angry, and swear sometimes. In the face of recent tragedies, we in Korea shed many tears, became indignant to the degree of outrage, and let out a shower of abuse. We swore especially at the captain of Sewol, who was shockingly the first to escape his ship and abandon his passengers; at the Coast Guard, whose rescue efforts were at best mediocre; and at the President, who in principle is responsible for all the lax regulations that led to the tragedy. We lamented as we walked the streets, as we sat before our dinner tables, and as we went around meeting friends and strangers. After all, that is how we, humans, respond to tragedies. Crying helps us cope with recover from our grief. So we should not scold people for crying or getting angry when they have plenty of reason to. Why not let them cry to their hearts’ content? Jesus once said that “Blessed are they who mourn.” (Matthew 5:4)
Abuses and swearwords contain various meanings. As the singer-songwriter Gil-Seung Lee said, they are “the secret codes of love, blessing, and friendship” that can be used candidly between close friends and family. They are also mirrors that reflect a society’s morality and the spirit of the age. They are sighs of frustration released out of failed expectations. But the abuses and swearwords we poured out this time were also signals of distress. They were the last SOS distress calls that cry out “I need consolation,” “Please help me,” “Please listen to me.”
C.S. Lewis once called God a “vivisectionist” when he lost his beloved wife. Job too once called God a “cruel God” and “criminal.” (3:23-26; 6:1-3, 7:11-21; 10:1-22; 13:17-28; 16:6-17; 19:1-12; 30:1-31; 40:8-12) They may have been ignorant words, but they could very well also have been genuine distress signals. Let me introduce a few vulgar highlights from Job’s mouth.
“You, however, smear me with lies; you are worthless physicians, all of you!” (13:4)
“You are miserable comforters, all of you!” (16:2)
“But now they mock me, men younger than I, whose fathers I would have disdained to put with my sheep dogs.” (30:1)
“A base and nameless brood, they were driven out of the land.” (30:8)
Fourth, the harder the times are, the harder we should try to have an honest discussions rather than to enforce our own opinions. We are self-assertive and talkative. The amount of individual opinions on the Sewol disaster—flooding through text messages, SNS, news, interviews, emergency committees, protests against the government, and so on—were truly mind-boggling. It is even said that the actual rescue was at times delayed due to unyielding opinions.
Self-assertiveness prevents us from listening to others. Job said that “I too will have my say; I too will tell what I know.” (32:17) Excessive self-assertiveness often drives us to ignore other people’s opinions or even treat them as lies. Job called “falsehood” many grains of wisdom that his friends offered him, such as “evil men always fall.” (21:34)
It is easy to fall into the illusion that only our own opinions are right. Since God tells three of Job’s friends, “You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has,” (42:7-8) it seems that Job’s opinions did have a certain degree of correctness. Yet not all his opinions were correct. Relative correctness is different from absolute correctness. We must always remind ourselves that we, just like others, can be wrong.
Self-assertive people are also more prone to make mistakes than those who are not. Notice that God does not acknowledge that Job was right: the passage “Then I myself will admit to you that your own right hand can save you” (40:14) indicates that “If you repent, I will admit.”
It also takes longer for self-assertive people to realize that their problems cannot be solved without God. This is because they are under the illusion that they are themselves transcendent beings. Fortunately, Job knew that unless he meets an “honest advocate,” he would never be able to solve his ultimate problem. (23:7) Therefore it is essential to train ourselves, especially in times of dismay and confusion, so that we can listen to others, debate honestly, and persuade them, without endlessly insisting on our own views.
Lastly, let us not throw stones too easily at others. Let us not be deceived by words like “they need to pay for their sins” and “they must never be forgiven.” Job’s friends claimed that suffering is retribution for one’s sins. That idea gives me shudders. The apostle Paul said, “So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” We should remember that although we need to pay for our sins, not all suffering is caused by our sins. If we had to be punished according to our sins, who would manage to survive?
As D. J. A. Clines rightly points out, the Book of Job tells us that what is wrong is not the principle of retribution itself but the way in which we too often apply it to ourselves and others. In other words, while the principle of retribution and the principle of causality are universal laws without doubt, we should be careful not to apply them too mechanically.
There are two reasons for this: 1) Since God is not only holy but also loving, He does not apply the principle of retribution mechanically or indiscriminately; 2) Behind the principle of retribution lies the great plan of God, the divine morality that works alongside God’s justice. The principle of retribution thus needs to be balanced with love. When we talk of sin and retribution, we should also consider God’s love, His plans, and His ultimate justice.
In fact, if we were to pay the price for all our sins, even death will not suffice. It is because of God’s love, plans, and justice that we must forgive and be forgiven. Especially in times when we are tempted to condemn, castigate, and ask for public retribution, we need to remind ourselves of Jesus’ saying: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” (John 8:7)
It may appear as if God is absent, silent, or hiding out of our sight when we suffer. Yet with us He is always; in our moments of pain He stands beside us. At times we may feel overpowered by the sheer amount of suffering and apparent injustice that the world throws upon us, but let us not remain shaking and jittering. Like Jesus who leads us from the front, let us tighten our belts, strengthen our grips, and get down on our knees before God—who will, in the end, help us back on our feet.
Please also keep praying for the students and guests who come to L’Abri, and for the workers who so busily try to give them consolation.
Translated by Haejin Sung
Edited by Kijin Sung