Why Good People Suffer – Stavesacre (2002, (stāvz’ā’kər))

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Hot Topics series continues with a hard rock look at a tough question that all of us ask: why do good people suffer?

Stavesacre has been storming the scene of rock and roll since the mid-90’s and their sound has always been a shining gold star among the Christian attempts at loud music.  Their self-titled (or pronounciation-titled?) album was one of their most critically acclaimed and within it, they tackled this subject head on.  “Why Good People Suffer” is an honest and humble dialogue about what this perplexing question should cause us to really think about, listen:

i tell you what i want to
never more than what is safe
i show you what i want to
and the rest i hide away
sometimes i can feel myself leaning
towards the basest of things
am i just a liar? or a killer? or a beast?

should i sit in judgement?
do i have to judge me?

(chorus)
i couldn’t tell you why good people suffer
i couldn’t tell you why the bad ones run free
God showers blessings
on the righteous and the wicked
i only know that that covers me

do i feel like screaming
when the weak fall to the strong?
would i trade my freedom for a cheap thrill?
right for wrong?
and if i could just rid the world of all the evil within
would that include me?
i guess that would depend

who am i?

When you write a song about such a difficult issue it is important to set a tone.  Stavesacre is clearly out to answer a big question with another important question: Is there anyone out there who is really good?  Smartly, he points the finger at himself first.  There is an empathy for those who burn with the flame of injustice.  But the overarching theme to this song is that none of us are “good” enough to judge who should suffer and who should be blessed.

What does the Bible say about this question?

Psalmists write several times about similar questions that they have for God:  God, why do my enemies flourish while I am dying?  God, why have you abandoned me?  God, why is my righteousness not rewarded?  But in each case, the psalmist praises God despite still having unanswered “why” questions.  Job stands in the position of first-in-line, in terms of people who deserve to ask God these kinds of questions.  Yet, his summary of these things is to say, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21b)

How does Job get to this conclusion and is it the right one?  Let’s allow Apostle Paul to help answer this from Romans 9:

14 Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! 15 For God said to Moses, “I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”

16 So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.  17 For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” 18 So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.

19 Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”

20 No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? 22 In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. 23 He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory.

Heavy words to go with a heavy song and a heavy question.  The summary of it all is this:  Why does God allow good people to suffer?  First, none of us are good on our own – not good enough at least to have the right to even ask God this question (see verse 20).  Second, all of us deserve to be called “vessels of wrath”, BUT God has chosen out of His love and mercy to show us His grace.

He shows His grace to the entire world every day by holding back the full potential of evil and destruction.  Things could and should be a lot worse.  He also shows His complete grace to those who believe in His Son.  He promises to all true believers an eternal future of perfect joy and a pain-free, tear-free life with Him in paradise.

These answers don’t necessarily make us feel better about today’s troubles.  Sometimes, we even feel like shouting back at God and saying, “Hey!  I need more from You!  More answers and more help!”  Feeling this way is OK.  The Psalmists and Job and others obviously did the same thing.  Acting upon those feelings is a different story.

Just remember one thing: at the end of the day, God is more merciful than we could ever imagine.  He is not cruel, He is holy.  You and I wouldn’t really want a God who didn’t stand up for Himself.  Today, people suffer (good people and bad people alike).  Tomorrow, the heavens will open wide and Jesus will call home His own.  That is a real hope to cling to, no matter how many “why” questions are left unanswered.

What Matters More – Derek Webb (2009, Stockholm Syndrome)

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Today’s post marks the beginning of a new series (throughout the month of May) for Truth In Tunes entitled: Hot Topic Songs.  The goal will be to explore music that covers important social/spiritual issues of today.  And our first entry comes out of the gate firing on all cylinders – even addressing two hot topics at once: cursing & homosexuality.

A brief reintroduction of the artist – Derek Webb (who I’ve blogged about before) is a pioneer among Christian artists today.  He continues his involvement in the popular band, Caedmon’s Call.  His work with Noisetrade is also worth mentioning, as it serves as one of the best ways for artists and listeners to connect directly and appropriately.  He has been writing music for a long time, including solo projects for the last decade.

“Stockholm Syndrome” was indeed a controversial album, both in content and style.  Webb explored a more techno-based sound, which was a departure from his folk music orientation. But the real “Daniel” moment came when he included a song on the album that was so polarizing, the record label took it off the album.

The song includes what I would consider some mild curse words, so use your own discretion as you read/listen to “What Matters More” by Derek Webb:

you say you always treat people like you’d like to be
i guess you love being hated for your sexuality
you love when people put words in your mouth
about what you believe
make you sound like a freak

‘cause if you really believed what you say you believe
you wouldn’t be so damned reckless with the words you speak
you wouldn’t silently consent when the liars speak
denying all the dying of the remedy

tell me, brother what matters more to you
tell me, sister what matters more to you

if i can see what’s in your heart by what comes out of your mouth
then it sure looks to me like being straight is all it’s about
yeah it looks like being hated for all the wrong things
like chasing the wind while the pendulum swings

‘cause we can talk and debate till we’re blue in the face
about the language and tradition that he’s coming to save
and meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a shit about
fifty thousand people who are dying today

There is much to say here about this song and the topic of homosexuality, so please bear with me.  First, about Derek Webb and the song, here is a helpful interview that he did explaining the song and the album.  It would be important to consider his own words before making any judgments.  The bottom line is that Webb felt strongly about saying something to the Christian community about how many of us have been treating the gay/lesbian community in recent times.  The song is a challenge to ask ourselves what we value more: being right or being Christ-like?  As Webb has stated many times, he is not commenting on the morality/theology of the issue of homosexuality, but rather he is expressing his frustration with the lack of compassion and love that homosexual people have received from the Christian community.

The response to his song from the Christian world proved his perception on the matter.  The blogosphere ripped him for using curse words in a “Christian” song.  Christian leaders criticized him for not clearly stating the biblical stance on homosexuality being a sin.  Meanwhile, the last verse of “What Matters More” proves itself over and over again by the general response the Christian world gave to Webb’s controversial tune.

Here we are, only three or four years later, and the state of affairs in Christianity (particularly in America) as it regards homosexuality has only gotten worse.  One of our most prominent preachers, Rick Warren, has gently but clearly taken a stand against homosexuality.  Recently, when his mentally-ill son committed suicide, some members of the gay-lesbian and liberal communities lashed out against Warren with cruel criticism and heartless words amidst his time of grief and loss.

When our country passes new laws giving rights to gays, the social media outlets are flooded with Christian one-liners condemning homosexuality and people declaring that our nation is heading to hell.  Not once, have I read a Christian tweet or status offer any sort of balanced perspective on the issues with a tone of kindness and respect.

Sports stars are starting to reveal their gay status publicly and when one sports analyst simply stated the balanced, appropriate Christian response to homosexuality he was labeled as intolerant and ESPN was forced to apologize for him.

Are these examples of how evil the world is and how Christians are hated because we represent Christ and truth?  That is a difficult question to answer.  In one sense, the Bible says it will be this way for true believers, but I do not feel that this represents the whole story of what we are seeing today.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that the main reason why Christians who stand against homosexuality in America are hated so much is because we hated homosexuals first.  Maybe Rick Warren and ESPN analyst Chris Broussard aren’t personally represented in that statement, but the general Christian community certainly is and all of us have caught the fury of the world’s outcry against our lack of love.

Back to our song of the week: here is an artist expressing his frustration with his brothers and sisters in Christ for not loving sinners better and here we are, simply missing the message and continuing to draw battle lines with a dying world – as if the time to love like Christ is over and Armageddon is upon us.  The simple truth is we need to ask ourselves whether or not each of us is balancing the volume of our Christian messages of truth, love, grace and holiness.  Some voices have been too loud for too long, while other voices have only been whispers at best.

There is a big difference between denying biblical truth about sexual sins and reaching out to sinners with the grace of God without condemning them first.  It is NOT loving to just tell someone he/she is broken and condemned while we keep our distance, never learning what it is like to step into their shoes and feel their struggles.

So, did Derek Webb cross the line with this tune?  If Derek Webb were an established local church, then yah, perhaps he did.  But Webb is just a person, an artist, and one brother in Christ speaking out to the rest of us with a tone that, frankly, we needed to hear.  The real question is whether or not you and I listen to this song and become more bothered by our own lack of compassion to homosexuals rather than the song itself.  Do we care more about him saying “shit” in a song or about our own heart attitude towards that gay coworker, neighbor and relative?

The real question for all of us is: what matters more?  Who did Jesus condemn and yell at? Religious leaders.  Who did Jesus eat with, teach, heal and love into the truth of His Gospel? Sinners, of which we, brothers and sisters, are foremost – even now.

Conclusion: Yes, of course, the Bible clearly teaches that homosexuality, along with any other sexual sin, is wrong.  Anyone who says that the Bible teaches differently is simply missing the truth.  And, yes, it’s OK for Christians to make absolute statements like that, because it is our core doctrine that the Bible is the only source of ultimate truth and wisdom.  HOWEVER, (please, please listen to this part) the WHOLE truth goes on to embrace the love and grace of Jesus who calls us to reach out to all people in relationship and mercy.

I am grateful to Webb for shaking me up in my own complacency and insensitivity towards gay-lesbian people and I pray that my brothers and sisters will also be convicted to adjust the volume of our message to better reflect the harmony of holiness and grace.

We have been too harsh for too long and it is time to ask ourselves: What matters more?

White As Snow – The Modern Post (2012, Grace Alone)

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The phrase “pillars of the faith” comes to mind first as I begin to reflect upon this modern gem of a song.  There are several reasons for using this term, but first, allow me to introduce to you The Modern Post.

Actually, if you’ve been following this blog for at least a couple of months, you’ll recognize that I am drawing from the old well in at least three different ways: first, the song was written and first recorded by Jon Foreman (who I wrote about last fall) in 2006; second, the lead singer of The Modern Post is Dustin Kensrue (who I used last Christmas); and finally, this band is another product of the Mars Hill Worship network (who I covered via Future of Forestry last November).

There are several other good music products coming out of Mars Hill these days that I may get to over the course of time, but you can check them all out for yourself, if you like.  The Modern Post is exactly what the title states: modern.  They are self-described as “upbeat, synth-laden and bass-heavy sound that leads the congregation to praise the creator with freedom and joy.”  So if you’re ready to get your happy-grunge-worship on, then have a listen to “White As Snow.”  If the music is not to your liking, still consider the words, for they have quickly become as memorable, anchorable and central as some of the greatest hymns of all time.

Have mercy on me, oh God
According to Your unfailing love
According to Your great compassion
Blot out my transgressions

Would you create in me a clean heart, oh God
Restore in me the joy of Your salvation

Wash me white as snow
And I will be made whole

The sacrifices of our God are a broken and a contrite heart
Against You and You alone have I sinned

OK, back to the “pillars of the faith” part.  There are a few quintessential truths and patterns that the Christian faith stand upon.  If you removed even one of the them, the entire structure would collapse.  Deity of Christ, Trinity, the resurrection, and grace alone would be a few examples of these pillars (head coverings and dancing would not).  Another one that rises up out of this tune is the authentic repentance of the believer in Christ – both in the beginning of our faith journey and continually moving forward.

“White As Snow” is lyrically a direct quotation of Psalm 51, which captures the heart of David after he is finally convicted of his sin with Bathsheba.  Thus, it is a Scriptural example of what it looks like to be genuinely contrite and repentant towards God.  It’s as simple as this: the real grace of God always produces a desire for real purity before God.  Because He has incredibly gifted us with His righteousness; therefore, we are intended and designed to respond with humility and passion for His holiness.  “Wash me white as snow!” is our heart cry as a people consumed with the saturated grace of the cross.

If you have moved towards the Gospel by just mentally assenting its validity or accepting it as a license to live life however you want to, since you believe you have your fire insurance, then you’ve missed what Jesus really meant for you to gain and you have a shaky pillar underneath your feet.  You haven’t swam to the deep end of the pool yet, my friend.

Examine the Bible and see that each time grace is mentioned, that it is coupled with an intense, direct command to live your life in light of the light of God and the pattern that He has set for us through Christ.  The brilliance of God’s expectations of us is that He offers His Spirit to us in order to accomplish this perfect response to His mercy.  David doesn’t say to God, “I will wash my own heart white as snow for you, God.”  No.  He asks God to do it for him.

Our attempt to live out a Christian life must be paramountly focused on a daily, even hourly, dependence upon His strength.  We do this by living in constant meditation upon His grace for us through Christ and letting that beautiful gift naturally bleed into a heart that wants to and is capable of being more and more like Jesus.

A song like this is like a daily multi-vitamin for me that reminds me to keep this focus, to stand upon the pillar of responding correctly to proper grace.  Confess my sins – because I don’t love them anymore – for I love the God who has and is making me whiter than snow!  What does God expect of us?  What can we give to the almighty Being of the universe?  According to His love letter to us (the Bible) it is a repentant heart.  Let your daily playlist reflect songs such as this one that emulates what God is so excited to see from us – constant restoration of the Joy of our salvation!

Grace Hurts Harder – Gorilla Poets (2012, ?)

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We move from the #1 bestselling album (at least this week),  the Les Miserable movie soundtrack, to an obscure band with only a single song to their name that most of us have never even heard of.  We also swing the pendulum from the classical, theater-style sound of our fathers to a modern, laid-back tune from our youth.

Gorilla Poets are brand new (they don’t even have a website yet).  In fact, they haven’t even really arrived yet.  Nevertheless, a little background on these guys is definitely worth considering.  See if you can follow this: First, we have the slightly well-known author, N. D. Wilson, who is known best for his exiting, fantasy-based young adult novels.  He has also written a couple of nonfiction works, one of which plays into our song selection for today.  Next, you have Aaron Rench, who spearheads a not-so-well-known writing/filming enterprise entitled “Gorilla Poets.”  These two guys came together to write the music and lyrics for our song, which was then performed by the actual band members (names appear on the song link), who have no notoriety (at least, none that I could google).  Finally, the song is intended to be a single release in anticipation of a future album that will serve as a companion to the nonfiction book to be release by Wilson this coming May entitled, “Death By Living: Life is Meant to Be Spent“.  So, did you follow all of that?

Well, whatever the case may be, this song captivated me instantly – both in lyric and style.  The sound of Gorilla Poets is probably best described as a cross between The National and Guggenheim Grotto.  If you don’t know those names, then don’t bother figuring it out.  Just put into that general folk-guitar category and you’re good to go.

The lyrics, however, are unmistakably heart-piercing and truth-shouting (I’m a little obsessed with hyphens today, sorry).  Fair warning, you are gonna want to read/listen to this more than once in order to really get it:

Took a drive in the car to visit the house of sorrows
But the woman at the door said maybe come back tomorrow
Rustle some feathers, shake up the weather
Turn up the trouble, make it a double

In the middle of the flood a dove
In the fires there was a yell
Drink the shame but taste the love
Only grace hurts harder than hell

Took a ladder up a tree just to claim my grief
But the man with the nails, he called me a thief
The curtain was torn, you’re asleep till you’re born
Now there’s mud on your eyes, blood on your lies

In the middle of the flood a dove
In the fires there was a yell
Drink the shame but taste the love
Only grace hurts harder than hell

If you’re still lost and wonder what the intended meaning of these lines are, rest easy.  This is a biblical reflection on the power of God’s grace versus man’s depravity.  Theologically speaking, the Gospel is the propitiation (redirection) of God’s righteous wrath that we (mankind) deserve, but was instead put on God’s Son – Jesus Christ when He died on the cross.  In essence, we earned punishment and damnation, but God trumped our sentence with His own grace.  Grace is more powerful than any other force in existence.  So why does grace hurt harder?

This question can be answered a number of ways – all of which are beautiful and God-glorifying.  For one, grace hurt the power of sin and hell in a permanent and absolute way.  And that is saying something extraordinary!  Hell is an unstoppable, righteous force that God should and could rightly put on each and every one of us sinners.  Nothing can undo the necessity of a Holy God’s plan to appease His unchangeable holy nature – nothing except His unchangeable nature that includes the even mightier power of grace.  In Christ, it is not as though God said to the redeemed one, “Oh, you don’t have to pay that silly price for your sins.”  No.  It is that the redeemed one is (by definition) bought and paid for by Christ’s blood and sinless life, so that both holiness and grace are equally preserved, exalted and glorified.

And so grace hurts harder, additionally, because when the believer is saved by Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice we are awakened to the cosmic reality of how badly we have hurt God with our rebellion.  “Took a ladder up a tree just to claim my grief; but the man with the nails called me a thief.”  Think that through for a moment.  We strive and toil all our lives to win God’s favor, but all of our efforts only result in worsening our position against a perfect Being.  The “man with the nails” is Christ and He is hanging there in agony on your behalf, crying out, “You are the thief (sinner), but I’m dying for you anyway, because I love you!”

When we meditate on these truths and let them sink deeper and deeper into our black, corroded souls it becomes more and more shameful to see.  And yet that grace is still there – unending and unrelentingly pulling us back up to the face of a smiling, forgiving God who says, “Call me, Abba!”

Ephesians 2 says, “Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world.  He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and He loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, He gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For He raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of His grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all He has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”

Only grace can do these things.  Only grace can hurt the powers of sin and hell for the one who embraces Christ.  Only grace can make us feel our true shame and sorrow for what we really are apart from the blood of Jesus – and then turn right around and make us hurt (or ache) for the future that has been bought for us in Heaven with our perfectly gracious God!  Grace hurts harder, my friends.  Keep your eyes and ears honed in for these guys…I can’t wait for more.