I fleetingly read the title of the news story published by Christianity Today – “Crossway: Why J.I. Packer’s Ministry Has Ended.” My first thought was, “What has he done?” Upon reading the article I found out that the article was saying that J.I. Packer has gone blind. Ten years ago, the nonagenarian (89 years old) Packer has lost sight in his left eye due to macular degeneration and now his right has the same disease and he no longer can read, travel, or speak at conferences or churches.
Some of the readers of this column may remember a previous article in which I compared the calling that Leon Panetta had as a politician and the calling that J.I. Packer had as a theologian. Packer, as could be surmised from that article, had a great impact on my life. I took a course from him while in seminary, I read most of his books, recommended many of them, and I will always be appreciative that he wrote the forward for Can Evangelicals be Orthodox?, for which I was one of several contributing authors.
After reading the article, I reminded God (as though He did not know) that J.I. Packer was one of his brightest theologians. Somehow, if this is how He takes care of his best soldiers, He does not do such a great job! My wrestling with God reminded me of the wrestling that Jacob had in Genesis. I did the same wrestling with God when I heard that New Testament scholar Gordon Fee had to stop working as the editor of the New Testament Commentary Series due to the fact that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010.
To a degree this wrestling is exceedingly dangerous, but there is enough evidence in the Bible that I am not the only one wrestling with God. I found comfort in Moses’s wrestling with God when God wanted to destroy the nation of Israel. He considered them a bunch of rebels and wanted to create a new people from the Moses and his lineage. So Moses prays this way, “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Overlook the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin. Otherwise, the country from which you brought us will say: because the Lord was not able to able to take them into the land he promised them and because he hated them, he brought them out to put them to death in the desert. But they are your people, your inheritance that you brought out by your great power and your outstretched arm.” (Deut. 9:27-29) God relents in His anger and continues to travel with His people Israel until they are settled in the land of Canaan.
Job wrestles with God in the midst of his suffering. Even though God compliments him that in comparison with his comforting buddies, he was so much better, He starts his dialogue with Job with these words, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man: I will question you and you shall answer me.” (Job 38:2-3) Most of the Old Testament scholars agree that God has not completely answered Job’s questions, but He lifted him up to see the universal intricacies of the sovereignty of God.
In my wrestling with difficult questions, I hear the wisdom of those who have gone before me. I hear the words of my mentor from Wellesley Baptist Church. One afternoon after I preached in three nursing homes, I was ready to give up on the ministry because all the people who were listening to me were waiting for their death. Wisely, he listened to me and then said, “George, I think the main issue is not your concern with their dying but because their dying make you think for the first time that you will die also. This is the first time when you are facing the finality of your life.” It was in that moment that I learned to cherish the words of Paul: Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
I also hear the words of my mother. When I first wrestled with deep issues and she could not explain things to me, she made me memorize Deuteronomy 29:29. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children that we may follow all the words of this law.”
Thus, I continued to wrestle with God over issues of life and death, riches and poverty, justice and injustice, oppression and freedom. Somehow in my mind I argued with God that He should not have given the Parkinson’s disease to Billy Graham, Alzheimer’s disease to Gordon Fee and macular degeneration to J.I. Packer. Is there a possibility that I have created an exceptional clause that those who are saved, should also be spared from earthly diseases and sicknesses? Yet, in my wrestling I have come to see that He who called us to become His disciples did not make these promises. He gave us eternal life, promised that He will never leave nor forsake us, but somehow the shalom of God will not be ours until the full restoration of this planet when there will be no more sickness or disease, but a perfect world redeemed by God.