Monday, October 27, 2008

Isaiah chapter 12 - something to sing about

A young English woman is gunned down in Afghanistan by two young thugs on a motorcycle armed with an AK47. She has been 'spreading Christianity' by helping handicapped children.

Does that make you angry?

A 25-year old man killed his 16-month-old daughter by snapping her spine in a "chilling and brutal attack" following months of abuse.

Are you angry at that?

In Orissa, India, a nun was attacked and gang-raped by 40 men during anti-Christian attacks. Police are believed to be shielding her attackers.

How about that? Has that made your blood boil?

In Worcester, England, a gay Member of Parliament was attacked by a gang of youths as he delivered balloons to his parents for their 50th wedding anniversary. He was a bit battered and bruised with facial injuries and a black eye, but no broken bones.

How do you feel about that? Do you feel more sympathetic towards the attackers? They just roughed him up a bit. No real harm done. What do you expect, some middle aged gay guy camping it up with balloons? Don't you think he was asking for it? Sure, they went a bit far, but boys will be boys.

I have taken these examples from the newspapers over the past week to illustrate a couple of points. First, it is right to get angry about wickedness. We are not meant to pass by on the other side.

Isaiah Chapter 12 is a song that celebrates and summarizes the first section of the prophesy. Harking back to chapter 6 and Isaiah's appreciation of the holiness of God, we see that God is righteously angry with the wickedness of sin. We can sympathize with that - especially in the first three examples that I gave - but perhaps when it comes to gay-bashing some of us will tend to make allowances for the perpetrators. If not for them then certainly for others: perhaps members of a political party that we support who have been a little free with public money or been a bit underhand in how they have raised their funds; perhaps supporters of our favorite football club who have committed minor acts of vandalism; perhaps members of our armed services who under extreme provocation have caused what is euphemistically called 'collateral damage'.

This is my second point. God is angry with all sin. Because he is a merciful God we tend to think that He winks at some sin; that all sin does not really offend Him. Just as we might look for extenuating circumstances to forgive an offense, especially one committed by a person we like, so we imagine a God who is soft and easy on sin.

This is a very great mistake and it traduces the character of God. The Bible tells us that 'all have sinned'. There is no such thing as a big sin and a little sin. Sin is a technical term from archery - it means that your arrow falls short of the target. It doesn't matter how far short it falls - a miss is as good as a mile. Remember the movie "The Dam Busters"? Some bombers failed to release their bombs, some fell short, some overshot. It was only the bomb that hit the target in precisely the right place that destroyed the dam. For all that some of the bombers got mighty close, had not the one bomb hit exactly right, the other planes need not have bothered flying over Germany at all.

We don't get marks from God for a 'good try' at keeping his Laws. Attila the Hun and Mother Teresa are in the same basket - human beings who fell short of God's standards. Don't misunderstand me. I am sure that Mother Teresa was a much nicer person to know than Atilla. In general terms she left the world in a much better state than he did. But in this way only, in terms of who has satisfied God's standards, they both stand in the group labelled 'failed' along with Peter, Paul, John and all the Apostles, Moses, David, Abraham and Noah.

It is not until we see ourselves in that light that we have any use for a Savior at all.

In verse 1 of the song we have: In that day you will say: "I will praise you, O LORD. Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me."

What day is that? It refers back to verse 10 in the previous chapter: In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious. Who or what is the root of Jesse?

In verse 1 we have: "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit." This is the Messiah, the Christ. So, in the day of the Christ God's anger is turned away and He comforts us. How does the Christ turn away God's anger? By taking it upon himself.

God's anger is very real. Justly so. Those who sin deserve the strongest punishment. The book I am reading at the moment describes the court of Henry VIII. When a plot is discovered the conspirators are questioned. It is taken as a matter of fact that they will be tortured. The torturers are good at their jobs. Indeed they enjoy their work. They positively drool at the prospect of the rack. One character contemplates the prospect of boiling alive a cook who is suspected of poisoning his master. You can feel how he enjoys the prospect.

Richard Dawkins pictures the Christian god as a sadistic tyrant who tortures his own son. To think like that betrays a woeful ignorance of the nature of the Trinity. Punishment is just. There is but one God. Our recipe of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the best we can do to represent the three persons of the Trinity. Whole volumes have been written on how there is only one God yet three persons and I could not begin to explain the Trinity to you. The Athenasian creed was formulated to guard us against the error of thinking that there are three gods while safeguarding the divinity of Christ. Let me just say that whenever we see God in human form - Jesus Christ or the theophanies of the Old Testament, that is the second person of the Trinity.

Thus when God the just must punish human sin, God the son receives the punishment in human form. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked; there is no sadism here. Nor does the Son hurry to the cross with relish as some sort of weird and perverse masochistic treat. "If it be thy will let this cup pass from me." said Jesus.

Picture it like this: a house in on fire. The flames have taken hold. The heat is tremendous. The neighbors hold back even though they know that trapped within the house is a small child. She might still be alive, for within the house is an airtight room and if the door has not yet burnt down she could yet have survived. Several have attempted to save her, but the intense heat has driven them back. One had even wrapped himself in soaking wet towels, but as he ventured inside the water in the towels had turned to steam and he had to wrench then from his face to save himself from scalding. Then comes the fireman. He really doesn't want to go inside the building. He knows that if he does there is little chance that he will come out alive. Yet there is a just a chance he can save the child. He walks into the house. The heat is unbearable. The plastic on his uniform is melting. His face is hurting. He can hardly breathe. His eyebrows singe. His hair catches fire, yet he reaches the sealed room. He opens the door and sees the little girl cowering there. She is crying and she's terrified. Without pausing he snatches her up and wraps her in his uniform coat, shielding her from the flames. He runs for the exit. The flames seem even hotter. The skin has burnt from his face now, exposing his bare skull. His vision has gone. He runs towards where he hears the crowd shouting and as he stumbles over the threshold, spilling the girl safe into the hands of her parents, he slumps to the ground, spent and dying.

Now imagine that within that sealed room was not an innocent child but the most black-hearted villain imaginable. Imagine it was a predatory paedophile; a wife-beating rapist; a recruiter of suicide bombers; an evil-hearted arms dealer. Jesus ventured all, even for them.

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.

Do you agree? When you are going through it, when everything seems against you, when your health is failing, your investments are sinking, your friends are all sickening and dying; when your marriage has hit the rocks, your house is being repossessed, your job has been downsized, you can't pay your debts; when the doctor tells you you have cancer; when your children reject you; when all men speak ill of you; where can you turn? Who can you trust?

Come and trust me - I will sort out your finances; I will heal your marriage; I will cut out your cancer; I will build you a house; I will rewire it; I will repair your car; trust me.

You'd be a fool if you did. If you want advice on CLL, perhaps, but I have no track record in marriage guidance or financial advice or housebuilding. Although I have a paper qualification in surgery, the only operation I completed by myself had the patient punching me on the nose when he recovered.

Who can you trust in times of distress? Trust someone with a proven track record. Who made you? Who knows every atom of your body? Who rescued Israel from the Egyptians? Who parted the Red Sea? Who brought water from a rock in a dry and parched land? Who fed 5000 with a few loaves and fishes? Who turned water into wine? Who made cripples walk, the blind to see, the dead to live? Who so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life? Who is the way, the truth and the life?

He will not only save you, he will strengthen you. This Trinity business is very confusing. God in His person of creator, first cause, initiator and general bloke in charge of the Universe we can just about understand. God the Son - divinity in human form who suffered for our sins and rose from the dead - at least we have some vision of. What about the third part of the Trinity. Unless I return to the Father I cannot send the comforter, said Jesus. 'Comfort' has lost its strength since the seventeenth century. We think of someone patting us on the back and saying, "There, there." You know what a fort is. A stronghold, safe against the enemy. 'Con' just means 'with'. The comforter is the strengthener. The Holy Spirit is called the 'paraclete', a Greek word that means 'the one who stands alongside'. Like in the cop shows where the attorney stands alongside the accused and says, "My clients declines to answer that question." Only this advocate presents and impassioned plea for the defence that convinces the jury, and Perry Mason-like exposes the real criminal. Wouldn't you like Perry Mason on your side? The Holy Spirit is better than that.

Now that's something to sing about.


Anonymous said...

Dear Terry,
An excellent article. Righteous anger contrasted with self-righteousness. Yet we all sin and fall short of the mark, how true. But there are ‘degrees of sin’ are there not, just as there are degrees of ‘light’? Your prose seems to indicate not? I think it important to distinguish situation ethics with code ethics.

I struggle thinking about the pain endured by the victims of brutality and the apparent injustice, especially where a life is lost. The innocent child whose spine was broken, she was punished. For what sin? She had committed none. An act of pure evil caused her death. How do the victims fit into the scenario? Anger does not change the situational horror nor does forgiveness. Anger, yes, I feel it. Rage, I feel. But also I feel deep sadness for the victims. Empathy and despair too for their suffering, the avoidable, needless suffering that they were forced to endure. Are the perpetrators victims too? It seems so, yet what of their consciousness that illuminates right from wrong? What of their decision making? Christ was innocent and redeemed us all through His grace. Yet what redemptive suffering occurred by the death of that young child? Or indeed from the other examples you mention?

“Vengeance is mine” saith the Lord. Our responses must be measured despite our anger.

Do not doctors ration healthcare by judging the occupant in the medical room according to age or some other criteria? I think so, despite their training to be objective and to make medical judgements only. How do they judge ‘quality of life’ and with what degree of thought? Are they so unlike the fireman, expected to save life? They treated the Glasgow terrorist, with life threatening burns, according to his needs as indeed they should have done. He died anyway but not of neglect. Making a medical judgement would be to judge righteously and making a prejudicial one to judge unrighteously. Judgement is called for, time and time again and are we not all instructed to judge righteous judgement? Are not our failures here sinful too? Indeed.

Had a psychopath snapped your child’s spine how would you have recovered from the aftermath? What steps would you take to let go of your anger and guilt and live free from the consequences of that degree of evil meted out to you? Is healing of emotional suffering ultimately a choice you make, unlike physical healing which depends on the condition? What of your ability to cope? Is that a gift?

Terry Hamblin said...

The father who murdered his daughter is now in prison serving 22 years. He has a chance to repent or his suffereing will last a lot longer and be rather hotter. I believe his daughter is now in heaven enjoying the bliss of communion with God.

We have to see all this life's contumely in the perspective of eternity. There are many millions of innocent children murdered before they draw breath.

A doctor's responsibility is to try to save the life in front of him. The judgement he has to make is whether the treatment is worse than the disease. In treating acute leukemia in teh elderly I often erred in my younger days. I inflicted futile treatment on patients causing them to suffer more than they would have done untreated without even the excuse of prolonging their lives.

I have been spared much of teh suffering that my friends and colleagues have had to bear. No-one in my immediate circle has been murdered, let alone a close relative. How could anyone bear it? Yet somehow they do with God's grace.

goodydogs said...


goodydogs said...

Dr. Hamblin - I hope you'll visit my new blog
Have a great day!
Bonnie Goodhart

Anonymous said...

This is a very thought provoking piece.

Through more than 30 years of practicing medicine and caring for the rich and the poor, the wise and the ignorant and the the grateful and the ungrateful I have felt blessed to have been able to have touched so many lives.

As a physician I have been in a unique position to help people as well as to observe the entire gamut of human foibles, failures and tragedies.

Many years ago as an intern in a large county hospital I had the opportunity to deal with many unfortunate souls. What made that experience so worthwhile was the fact that those people usually had no choice about where or how to obtain their care, while those caring for them (the interns and residents) were a "privledged class" and I must admit that amongst ourselves there was no lack of hubris. We clearly felt superior (though I now realize that in so many ways we were not) and often joked about treating the "trolls" (a local derogatory term used to describe these unfortunate souls in our care) and competed in a way not only to "cure" their ills, but to get them out of hospital (to "street' them in our local parlance) as quickly as possible.

I learned so much about life and about human nature during this time and continued to do learn and to grow as a person through all of my years of practice, getting better and better all of the time, though clearly never reaching perfection.

My personal relationships with others and with my God have grown through this time and my own beliefs about what is right and about what is important to do have evolved. I realize that there is no true "justice" (as we mortals would deem it so) on this earth, but we must all strive to be the best people that we can be.