When my two oldest children were in elementary school, they sidled up to my recliner and asked if they could cuss. I formed a dreadful, serious look on my face. Set my coffee cup down.
“Sure.” I turned back to the newspaper.
They were speechless. Stood staring.
“They’re just words,” I said, cutting the tension. “Words only carry the power we give them. If you call someone a hotdog and you mean it as demeaning, it will be. Hotdog will become a curse word.”
Ah—father psychology! My son informed me later he was so disappointed in me giving him permission to cuss he never did. Still doesn’t much.
But I was wrong. Words carry more than the power we invest in them. Sometimes they tote intrinsic weight. And when words are God-breathed! They live, their meaning not static but layered and complex and powerful! And as the Hebrew writer says, God-breathed words cut us like a surgeon, meat from gristle, truth from pretext.
This is the story of one such God-breathed word. A word that is God’s best tool for spiritual formation and life transformation.
A Decision Gone Bad
In 1990 The Redheaded-Wildflower and I made a catastrophic decision. I was a freshly minted seminary grad. She a young mother of two recently minted humans. I had accepted a position as associate pastor in a Presbyterian church in Illinois. With hope soaring we moved from heaven—close family, life-long friends, and a great church in Colorado—to hell.
About two months in, I learned something everyone else in the church was well aware of: the senior pastor was a serial adulterer. He not only used his massive small town pastoral power to seduce women, he used it to control, manipulate, and abuse anyone who threatened him.
Everyone feared him. Even the local newspaper.
The wounds from the abuse we endured in those endless two years are like a purple bruises on our souls. The unanswered questions myriad.
We prayed for wisdom before agreeing to move.
Why did God and the church allow the pastor to prosper in his sin? Why did God bathe us in mercy but withhold his vengeance?
For years I have wondered what life would have been like had God spoken and we turned that job down.
Is there an event or decision that has scarred your life and since festered?
We often wished we had made a wiser decision, or we’ve tried to forget those years and linger in other, better memories, or we’ve plastered over the memory and pretended it never happened.
But no matter our strategy, like an inflated beach ball held underwater, the regret has exploded to the surface and swamped us emotionally.
As with Job, God’s answer has been slow in coming and hard to fathom. But the answer has come.
God Answers Not With Regret, Nor Retribution, Nor Restoration but Redemption!
What is redemption, though, but a fancy theological word? In the Old Testament God is often called Redeemer.
“My Redeemer lives,” Job declares in his moment of desperate hope. Technically redeemer is one who buys another out of slavery and into freedom. But as a God-breathed word, redemption has sliced into me deeper than a dictionary can.
The name Redeemer is also often combined with Almighty, God’s sovereign name of power. This is strange. Redeemer is a relational name picturing a God coming along side the oppressed. To me that seemed not powerful. Maybe even wimpy, a bespectacled do-gooder hanging out in the hood.
But the two names combined describe a God who is a muscle-bound friend. God can flex his guns. Yet, despite God’s powerful physique, as a Redeemer God seldom uses his unlimited power to stop or fix pain or evil. God rareley busts the chops of the bully kicking sand.
This was hard for me to hear. I want a God who controls evil with an iron fist, who, like Superman, wins all battles. But that is not how God has operated in my life, nor the rest of the world.
But redemption also means evil does not have a free hand nor the last word. Instead God uses his omnipotent power relationally to transform pain and evil into beauty and holiness.
Expanding Lamont’s baseball metaphor, Grace comes to bat last in the final inning and redeems the game by slamming a walk-off home run. Redemption does not taunt the other team, nor erase the third inning error that could have cost the game. Redemption incorporates the error!
This is what has happened for us in the thirty years after our really bad decision. God wove our pain and disappointment into a new truth. God is not a controller but someone far better, a Redeemer.
The Purpose of PainOur pain does not have a purpose; God gives our pain purpose.
We fled from Illinois to Tulsa, where our youngest daughter was born in 1993. There also my oldest daughter met her future husband and now we have five glorious grandchildren. I cannot see how any of that could have come about without traveling the rocky, potholed road through Illinois with a God who can redeem suffering.
But it’s more than that.
God transformed me into a different kind of pastor, a different man. Not better. Not perfect. Less dependent on my own faulty wisdom. More open to mystery and faith. Ready to listen for God’s voice in pain.
We became a family yearning for grace and truth. We had other problems but we knew God was with us and was working whether everything looked and felt good. These things are intangible. But none the less true.
I’ve also learned life is not rusted antique truck God is going to restore to what it looked like the day it rolled off the line. This would have meant the pain we went through being remedied or righted. That never happened. Even when the pastor was finally defrocked for yet another affair. Something far more powerful happened however: redemption. Redemption painted pain into the landscape of our health and spiritual formation.
God Never Wastes PainWithout God, without redemption, our suffering is wasted.
Otherwise the past pain—and glory—of our lives is wasted. God didn’t waste our pain; he turned it into hope and faith and grace and help for others. There must be shades of the past and present in the coming world or this life is of no purpose.
Many of us have rightly questioned why God allowed corona virus to scour the world, to take lives and livelihoods. But no matter how sad, how hard, the answer is the same. Because God’s name is Redeemer not Controller. (Read more about the myth of control here.) Control leaves life static. Redemption transforms it!
God is asking us to trust that he will take this fearsome virus and form something entirely new, something previously unimagined (by us) out of it. None of us want to return to normal after this pandemic. We want God to transform normal into something unimaginably beautiful. And only God can do this. Like the artists who heal broken Japanese pottery, through what’s called Kintsugi, an art form where an artist mends broken pots with gold as the glue. In so doing the cracks are transformed from faults to tellers of the story of a redeemed creation.
God too heals the cracks, fissures, and flaws of our lives. Not by eliminating them but by glueing them together with grace and thus transfiguring them.
The final demonstration of redemption comes in the Crucifixion. The Cross of Christ is no longer a torture device, but a symbol of life not death, faith not fear, hope not despair. By Christ’s sacrifice, the cross was transformed into a work of salvation art.
This transformation is all the work of one God-breathed word: Redemption! Sidle up to the Father and ask if you can use it!
In the comments or in your own journal, tell a story of yours God is waiting to redeem?
Or one God has.
Or one you are praying and waiting for.
What kind of transformation are you praying for in this pandemic?