In a discussion based on his book When God's Ways Make No Sense, psychologist Dr. Larry Crabb explores the topic of suffering in both the Bible and through personal stories, and offers encouragement through the re-assurance that God cares for us and is trust-worthy, even when circumstances seem to dictate otherwise. (Part 2 of 2)
Larry Crabb: And that verse that all things work together for good, the question is how does God define good? It may be a little different than how I define good.
John Fuller: What an insightful question from author and speaker, Dr. Larry Crabb, as he helps us to make sense of some of the painful things that we endure in life. Dr. Crabb was our guest last time on Focus on the Family and we'll continue that conversation with him. Your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly, and I'm John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, what a powerful conversation we had with Dr. Crabb as he helped us to think about some critical questions about God and suffering - perhaps one of the most difficult areas of the Christian faith. Is God good when He allows pain in our lives? The answer is, of course, yes. Maybe the question is why does He allow those who love him to go through such difficult things in life? All valid questions and God's heart is open to helping you understand them.
Larry has thought about these things for a very long time and he has battled with cancer, the loss of his brother through a plane crash. He's seen friends and family members go through various trials. So he has lived it as a Christian leader. But through it all, he continues to learn that God is a loving God, and He is present in all these times of trouble for us. And he brings tremendous wisdom to this discussion.
John: He does, and he's written a great book about this topic. It's called . Stop by focusonthefamily.com/radio to get your copy.
And as we pick up the conversation, Dr. Crabb is talking about some of the inspiration behind that book, including the Bible story of Jonah, and then he'll turn to another prophet in the Old Testament, Habakkuk, who trusted God in spite of some really tough times.
Larry: You know, the whole theme of the book that got me writing it was - was Jonah. God comes to Jonah. And after he had come to Jonah earlier and saying, "I want - as my prophet, I want you to tell Israel that they're in for good times." And that made Jonah a very popular prophet.
Larry: And then when Israel now is doing very well, they only have one problem left, and that's that Syria, the capital of which is Nineveh, a murderous nation. And God comes to Jonah and says give them a chance to repent. I don't want to destroy them. That made no sense to Jonah. Aren't you committed to your people, to making life go well for your people? I want you to destroy Nineveh. So God, I'm gonna resist you. I'm gonna run away from you. I'm gonna resign my role as prophet. The Dickens with this ministry of following you. Resist and run was Jonah. And that got me thinking about, when God's ways make no sense, do I tend to resist and run?
And then you have Saul, before he became Paul - not King Saul - but Paul before he met Jesus. And as Saul, he was trained by Gamaliel, leading Pharisee of the day - brilliant man obviously - as a younger man, very brilliant - studied the Old Testament. And what did he come up with? He didn't come up with the Gospel. He didn't read Isaiah 53 correctly. He didn't see that the offerings of Leviticus are all about the Jesus person who had already been around, and he distorted the message of the Bible and the Old Testament to fit his predilections, to fit his own culture, to fit his own prejudices. And he denied the parts of the scripture that contradicted his worldview. When God made no sense to him, by saying that there's gonna be a messiah who's going to suffer, and it's gonna be extended to the gentiles, and Paul said, "You got to be kidding me. Messiahs don't suffer, and the Jews are your people. What's your problem God?" So he distorted the truth of God and denied it.
But then Habakkuk, he, um, he was prophet in a very difficult time in Judah, and he saw all this sin. And he came to God. And he said, "God, you're confusing me. Why aren't you doing more about this mess?" I mean, I feel that way when I watch the news. God, why aren't you doing more about this mess? You're this almighty God. And one of my favorite verses - Colossians 1:11 where "I want you to know," Paul says, "I want you to be strengthened by the almighty power of God, which will strengthen you to endure and be patient." And my thought is no, I want the almighty power of God to change my life so I can be happy all the time.
Larry: He said, "No - to endure and be patient." Well, he comes to Habakkuk. And Habakkuk was saying, "God, you're making no sense. Why aren't you straightening out your sinful people?" And, uh, God says, "Well, here's my plan - I'm gonna use Babylon to destroy Judah. And Habakkuk said, "No, you're more - making me more confused than ever. This is not a good idea, God." But what did Habakkuk do when God's ways made no sense? And this is the theme of the whole book really. What does Habakkuk do when God's ways made no sense? He didn't resist and run. He didn't say, "I'm done with you, God," which some Christians do.
Recently, I've met a number of people who've become atheists, who formerly were declaring themselves to be believers. And they're - because God has been so disappointing: "I can't believe there's a good God if He allows all this stuff." But Habakkuk didn't resist and run. He didn't distort the Gospel and find some way to make it more comfortable. He closed his mouth after reminding himself of what he knew about the character of God. "I know you don't put up with sin, and I know you're faithful to your promises. And because I believe in the core message of what I know about you, God, I'm gonna sit in your presence and wait to learn from you." And when Habakkuk heard God make it very clear, a more sinful nation than Judah, Babylon, is gonna destroy Judah, Habakkuk's response in chapter - the last chapter - it's the best part of the entire book. Without this last part, I wouldn't like the book at all. "I trembled in the presence of what God is doing that didn't fit my agenda for my smaller story, but I trusted that even if everything goes wrong - there's no more cattle, there's no more crops, all the - everything is taken from my life - I will trust that You know what you're doing and a larger story is being told that is coming from your good heart. And I can trust your good heart, even as I tremble." And that, to me, is the - what got me to write this book. When God's ways make no sense, can I tremble when a doctor says, "You have cancer"? Can I tremble when, years ago, my son said, "My wife is leaving me"? Can I tremble, when my brother was killed in an airplane crash? Can I tremble when God has, from my smaller story perspective, let me down so often? Can I tremble but trust that, no, there's a larger story, and it's unfolding right now? I - it's so hard to get your mind around this, because I want my smaller story to work. And I...
Jim: I want my smaller story to be the bigger story.
Jim: That's really it.
Larry: God, why don't you cooperate with my agenda?
Jim: In fact, Dr. Crabb, in Christian culture today, how do we most often twist theology to meet our needs? Give us some practical handles here. How do we - what are the greatest mistakes that we make in the Christian community when we twist theology to bend toward our comfort and leisure?
Larry: I think our culture has mastered that art, um, that we really have twisted theology. Um, and I suppose the - one of the major twists is that what God sees as our worst problem is very different than what I see as my worst problem. What I see as my worst problem is the struggle of life, the suffering of life, the pain in life. God sees my worst problem to be my self-centered spirit of entitlement - that everything is supposed to revolve around me. But what I - what I understand that - that our theology can easily be twisted into, um, into the attitude that God's glory is secondary to my pleasure. God's glory is secondary to my fulfillment as opposed to realizing when I live for God's glory, that becomes my joy, that becomes my fulfillment. Now that is a very very hard sell, and it's a twisting that we have done on a rather routine basis. And I think we, you know, we can find the Bible to support whatever twist we want to support.
I've often thought about Deuteronomy 29:9 where - where um, God says through Moses, "If you carefully keep the terms of the covenant, everything you do will prosper." I read that and I go, "I'm gonna keep the terms of this covenant. I'll have devotions every morning. I'll never miss church. I'll witness to my neighbor. I'll tithe. I'll do all these good things. Now God, are we clear? I've done my part, your turn." Now that's twisted theology. And the reason that verse is true, but we've twisted it, nobody carefully keeps the terms of this covenant. The whole point of the covenant was to expose the fact that we need a Savior, not a helper, to get it right so life works.
Larry: That's the twisted theology in its major form. But the other twist that I think that has come into our - our culture, which has gotten a little more mystical, with the movement of spiritual direction - which I'm very supportive of - I think we've come to believe that the Christian life is supposed to be nothing more than a deep experience of God's presence 24/7. And if that's the case, I'm missing out. Do I experience his presence? Yes. 24/7? No. So, what sustains me more in my journey to follow Christ is not my experience of God, it's my thirst for God. “As the deer pants after the water brook, so my heart pants after you, oh, Lord.” And do I realize that God really is my greatest good? The Trinity is a very happy community. And they've invited me into the dance of their relationship. And when I understand that God is my greatest good, then perhaps, I'll be able to realize that demanding that God cooperate with my agenda for my - for my life that I feel, what I want to feel out of every moment, that really isn't the point. It's a thirst for God, until I get to heaven, where it will be 24/7 if in a timeless eternity, if there's such a thing as 24/7. I'm not sure.
Jim: Larry, I've got to ask you right at the end here, maybe tens of thousands of people who are listening, they're living in that bad place, in that place of despair.
Jim: They've had horrible things happen to them, and they've got their fist waving in the face of God. And my first point would be God can take that.
Jim: Come at him.
Larry: No, He still loves you.
Jim: He doesn't mind that.
Larry: No, he loves them.
Jim: But what advice, beyond that, do you have for that wounded person, who doesn't see God's bigger story? They're living in their smaller story of misery right now - maybe understandably. What can they do to say, "Okay, Lord, I'm gonna trust you, I'm gonna tremble"? How do they get moving in that direction emotionally, spiritually?
Larry: Here's where my mind very quickly goes to the word, church. And when I use the word church, I'm not thinking centrally of the Sunday morning sermon, as vital as that is and as legitimate and as powerful as God ordained that sermon - Sunday sermon is, but I'm suggesting that the person who's living in profound darkness and living in despair, until they're able to, number one, I said earlier, embrace all of that, pretend about nothing - and somebody might say, "That's what I'm doing. How do I get beyond embracing all the darkness in my soul and the despair that I feel?" I don't know that there’s anything more powerful for a person in that situation than being able to find someone whose soul is quiet, whose soul knows what it means to trust God in the middle of agony and to share their story with that person.
My favorite existential psychiatrist, not a believer, a man named Irvin Yalom, says the greatest tragedy he's experienced in all his years of psychiatry, he calls it the tragedy of an unobserved life. And when I'm in my darkest moments, I have a couple of people: one is my wife. But I think it's important to go beyond. And I have a guy that knows me at my worst, knows me at my deepest struggles. And here's what can initiate the change, here's where the momentum can develop into a right direction to tremble and trust - am I willing to look as bad as I really might be in despair, maybe in anger, maybe seeing my fist, maybe feeling my darkness, maybe wondering if this Christianity thing is even worth looking at? Can I be who I am with a profound authenticity in the presence of somebody who still delights in me? Because that's a picture of the Gospel. I call it looking bad in the presence of love. When you have a relationship with someone who can provide that, you're on your way to finding the narrow road that leads to the abundant life of becoming like Jesus for the glory of God and for your own joy.
Jim: Well, and here's the tough question - I appreciate that. And I think that's absolutely it, and it fills the two greatest commandments you talked about earlier. But are we training within the body of Christ? Are we training one another to have that kind of attitude? Are we falling short there, back to Paul's example where you mentioned he pursued the wrong things, because he truly didn't know the word of God? Are we missing that in some ways today when we don't have a sense of peace that God's in control no matter what the election outcome is, no matter what is happening? My point is obvious. I think we're missing it at times, that we're feeding our flesh, rather than our spirit, with some of the attitudes that we foster within each other, that we don't feel the freedom to be vulnerable with a friend, because we feel we could be judged. And therefore, we don't have authenticity within the church.
Larry: Do we have another hour?
Larry: Because I think that one of the - one of the greatest sadnesses and the - one of the burdens of my own ministry is to see community develop in a way that is very rare in the Christian world and Christian community in the church. I fear that we put on our personas. And even last Sunday, as I preached at a very fine church with the leadership of the church, I'm very taken with, a good friend of mine is the pastor - and I don't want to sound this as negative as it might. But so often, in churches, we say at the beginning of it, now, greet one another, and say hello - hello to each other. And that's - nothing's wrong with doing that. But we don't meet each other, you know. “How you doing?” “Fine. Just had a fight with my wife. I don't want to tell you about that."
Larry: And can we acknowledge that nothing's wrong with some congeniality - nice to meet you, how are you today? I'm not opposed to that, of course. But can the person behind the pulpit acknowledge - not - not acknowledging every sordid miserable thing in his soul - but can he be authentic from the pulpit? And can he let people know that I struggle in a way that Jesus has met me there, and I would like each of you in the church that I pastor to be aware that, at your deepest struggle, there's a way that the Lord can meet you, but it's gonna happen most powerfully in community?
I preached on this last Sunday, and a lot of people were responding very favorably. One man came to me, and he said, rather angrily, he said, "I never tell people about the struggles I have." And, I said, "You're making a very big mistake, Sir." He said, "I am not!" and walked off. It wasn't one of my happier moments after a sermon.
Jim: He sounds like a - a, you know, pleasure to be with.
Larry: No, that wasn't exactly the case.
Larry: Um, I think...
Jim: But what was he struggling with?
Larry: I think we're missing...
Jim: What's that attitude? I mean, where's that coming from?
Larry: Sheer pride. It's sheer pride. It's a question of I want to look good, as opposed to be who I am. And is the church missing it to some degree? I don't want to be a church-basher 'cause I'm not. But I sure do believe that it'd be a very, very good if we recognized, in our church structure, how easy it is to nourish and reinforce an entitlement attitude that says it's God's job to keep my soul blessed. And when - you know, if my next book sells a whole lot, and I make a lot of money, and then I say to somebody, "Isn't God good?" - I hope they slap me in the face.
Larry: I hope they say, "If your book sold two copies, would He still be good? And if you went broke and had to declare bankruptcy, would He still be good?" Well, no, that isn't my theology. Then, I have a bad theology.
Larry: And so, I want, uh, I want people to understand that the church is not there to make everything go well in life. The church is there to help me become the husband, the dad, the wife, the mother, the friend, the whatever - the grandparent in my case. I want to be the kind of grandparent that knows the Lord in a way that arouses my children's thirst for God.
Jim: Larry, that is so good and so right. You know, I'm thinking of the encounter with Jesus and Pontius Pilate, where there was a bit of discussion about the mission of Jesus. You know, Jesus said, “I came to testify to the truth.”
Jim: And we started at this place where you mentioned the healthy person is a person who knows the truth...
Jim: ...That is living in the moment...
Jim: ...Of that truth. And isn't that a great challenge for all of us to be honest with God? Don't be what you want to be. Don't be who you wish to be. Just be who you are, and let Jesus start there.
Larry: And that's how the book of Job ends. After everything he went through - and it wasn't just suffering, it was unexplained suffering. All he knew was life doesn't make sense at all. But at the end of it, look at Chapter 42, and God said a sentence that my father pointed out to me that I wouldn't have seen otherwise. He's talking to the - his bad spiritual directors. And he says, "My servant Job has spoken truthfully." Well, Job was, you know, saying a lot of hard things.
Larry: But he was being authentic about where he was in the middle of it. And God said, "You're my man. I'm doing good work in you, pal." And that's what God wants to do with me.
Jim: God honors that. Dr. Crabb, this has been fantastic - great things to think about profound things to think about, and trusting God no matter what the circumstances...
Jim: ...Are. I've tried to do that in my life - in my life, you know, as an orphan kid trying to say my circumstances don't dictate my joy. It's my relationship...
Jim: ...In Christ...
Jim: ...That makes all the difference.
Larry: And the mistake we made - we say we trust God. And I always say, "For what"?
Larry: Am I trusting God for all the second things, which He may or may not give me? When He does, rejoice. Praise the Lord for them. I got all kinds of blessings in my life. I like them.
Larry: And I'm grateful for them.
Jim: ...say rejoice.
Larry: Yes, always rejoice.
Jim: I love that.
Larry: But I want to trust the Lord for what He's up to in my soul.
John: Dr. Larry Crabb on Focus on the Family, and at the close of the recording, Dr. Crabb took a moment for some questions from our audience and we'll share one of those right now.
Dave Osterhus: Hi, I'm Dave Osterhus. And Dr. Crabb, I'm curious, do you think a lot of what we struggle with, as it relates to God's plan versus ours, relates back to the conditioning we've had in school and in the workplace? And what I mean by that is we spend so much of our lives identifying problems, coming up with a solution and then working, either individually, or as a team, towards a result. And so, whether that's happened in school or in the workplace, there's usually a reward that's attached to that. So do you think part of our issue with challenging God, I guess, is the way to put it, is just because of how we've been conditioned in that way?
Larry: I think how we've been conditioned has shaped what we came into the world with. And let me explain what I mean by that. I was sitting in South Africa with a man named David Broughton Knox, who was considered, at that time, to be the finest theological mind alive. He was a brilliant man, principal of a major theological school in Sydney. And he and I had a chance for a long conversation and - or to sit together for a time. And I said to him, "Dr. Knox, let me just ask you a very simple question to ask, but I don't know the answer. I'm a psychologist. I've talked to people with all the struggles. I look in a mirror, I see struggles. What's wrong with people? What's our problem? What's wrong?" And I was waiting for a two-hour lecture from a brilliant theologian. He paused about two seconds, and he said, "Self-centeredness" and stopped. And I thought, what are you talking about? And that - that shifted my entire perspective. I mean, David said that in sin that my mother conceived me. He's not talking about the sin of intercourse, between husband and wife. He's talking about the sin nature that is in each of us. So I think we come into the world with this entitlement spirit, with this it's all about me and God owes me whatever I want. And then I think your point is very well-taken that the work environment, the school environment basically nourishes that self-centered attitude that basically says my greatest good has nothing to do with God's person. It has everything to do with I'm a Christian, with God's provision - not provision for my sin problem but provision for my struggles with life.
And so, prayer then becomes negotiation as opposed to surrender. And we live as entitled selves, not surrendered souls. And I think that that's very much encouraged in school, and certainly in the workplace. And when I got my graduate degree in psychology, the mood was now go out and knock them dead. Get your practice. Market this way. Get people to come see you. Larry, you might have some talent here. You're gonna have a successful practice. And then when I began speaking, and I enjoyed speaking, and people said let me invite you to do more speaking, my thought was, I think I'm getting it together now. And God wasn't the center at all. And that was phase three that we talked about with Jim a little earlier. Phase three was I lived a blessed life. Everything was going fine. And I was encouraged to believe that that was the whole point of existence. And it wasn't until I got a little more years under me that I thought, that isn't the point of existence. So I think your point is well-taken - that we really are nourishing without intending to and sometimes in church as well, not just school and work. And that's very sad to say. We're encouraging the mood we come into the world with - that, basically, it's all about me, and what defines my value is some form of success. And that cannot define my value.
Jim: There's an example I'll give quickly. The - the 21 men that were beheaded in Libya, do you remember that, by ISIS? That night, I was driving home from the office in Colorado Springs, and I remember this, in the news clip, they said the men had gone to raise money to send home so the families could be in proper housing. So we have an office in Cairo. I don't know if you know that. For those of us that support the ministry, you help support an office in Cairo. And Sami Yacoub is our man there, doing wonderful work in the Middle East. We're doing abstinence education in Muslim schools with Christian trainers. Think of that. And, anyway, I called Sami the next morning said, "Find out how much it would cost to finish the homes." And it was $247,000 - fastest fundraising. I think it took 15 minutes, five phone calls to raise that money. And we did it. And it took about a year to complete the homes. And I was talking to Sami, and I was kind of in my western MBA mode - accounting for the dollars. Tell me what has been spent. Has it all been accounted for? And Sami says, "Well, Jim, the - you know, the families are weeping." I said, "Sami, of course, they're weeping." He said, "No, Jim, they're weeping with joy that they were found worthy to suffer for the name of Christ, through the loss of their loved one." And I thought how contrary that is to - at least for me - kind of the Western thought of winning, victory, zero-sum game, we win, you lose. And there they were in tears weeping with joy that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ. Those are our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. And it just - for me, it's a challenge to live in this pleasant culture with all its rewards and try to hold on to a faith like that.
Larry: And to maintain the balance that it's a wonderful thing to raise a couple hundred thousand dollars to get some homes going.
Jim: Oh yeah.
Larry: And we want to do the good things. Social justice has a place. But it can't be first.
Larry: And - and that is the difficulty. And I certainly don't want to argue with anybody that - how wrong of you to be successful in your business, I'm not saying that at all.
Jim: Oh, yeah.
Larry: But I certainly...
Jim: It's the balance of everything.
Larry: But the balance of everything - that that cannot be your identity; it cannot be your purpose. And, the Lord, in his kindness, sometimes shatters our dreams, in order for us to discover what our deepest dream really is.
John: Dr. Larry Crabb was our guest today on Focus on the Family. And Jim and I had traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina where we met Dr. Crabb, and he now lives there. It was certainly a rich time of learning for us and for the audience that was assembled there for that morning recording.
Jim: It was, John, and I love his reminder about the two things that are most important in life. Let me repeat them so we capture them, that is love God and to love others - the very thing Jesus said, and that sums up his teachings. As I've said before, this is a hard subject, suffering, but Larry has really helped us better understand it today. And I hope you will get a copy of his book so that you can go deeper not only for yourself, which is important to be healthy in this area, but also to counsel others around you when they're going through difficulty.
John: Yeah, and as you said earlier, Jim, the valleys will come, I mean that came out in these broadcasts, and when they do, this is the kind of book you're gonna want to have read and referred to again. This is not a one-and-done kind of book. You're gonna go back to it time and again.
Jim: It's not, and let me just give you a scriptural reference. I believe it's there in the Psalms where it says, "He is close to the broken-hearted and saves those crushed in spirit." And I would simply ask if that's the case, let's run to it. Lord, break me of my flesh and help me in my spirit.
John: Well certainly, Dr. Crabb's book, will help you in those tough times. We've got it here at Focus on the Family. Make a donation, and we'll send a copy to you. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY, 800-232-6459, or you can donate and get the book at focusonthefamily.com/radio.
As I said, make a generous contribution to the work here of Focus on the Family, a gift of any amount, and our way of saying thank you for joining the support team here is by sending a copy of Dr. Crabb's book.
Well thanks for listening today. Next time on this broadcast, how you and your spouse can take your marriage to the next level.
Closing Voice Track:Greg Smalley: I think the best question that we ask in our marriage is how can I be a better spouse?
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Dr. Larry CrabbView Bio
Dr. Larry Crabb is a well-known psychologist, public speaker, Bible teacher, author, and the founder and director of NewWay Ministries. He is currently Scholar in Residence at Colorado Christian University, and serves as Spiritual Director for the American Association of Christian Counselors. Dr. Crabb has authored numerous books including Understanding People, The Marriage Builder and Fully Alive. He and his wife, Rachael, reside in the Denver, Colorado area.