When I released my first book, A Taste of Jesus, my friend and fellow pastor Myisha “Uni” Cunningham was kind enough to write the foreword. Now I’ve been given the chance to return the favor by writing the foreword for her new book, Wrestling With God: The Messy Battle, which was just released on Kindle. She’s given me permission to share that foreword here on my blog, so here it is!
The passage that the Bible itself quotes more than any other is Exodus 34:6-7, which says “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
This is a powerful verse as it speaks volumes to the amazing character of God. Even the terrifying second part of the passage about God not clearing the guilty is ultimately a beautiful statement about how God cares about justice and will deal with the oppression that we’ve endured at the hands of others. (It’s also an important reminder that he will deal with the oppression we ourselves commit.)
But despite the popularity of this verse, many have to admit that they often struggle with this description of God. There are times where our experience of God has not exactly felt merciful or gracious. There have even been times where God has not exactly felt faithful. And perhaps most of all, there have been times where it feels like God has not held the guilty accountable to their sin. That’s why people often ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people?”
Job is a book that’s willing to wrestle with that question. Job’s life goes from very good to very bad, very quickly. He loses everything and his friends lean into the Exodus 34:6-7 view to explain why this must have happened. “You know the deal Job,” they say. “God cares about justice and makes bad things happen to bad people. So what did you do to deserve this? What are you hiding?” Jesus’ own disciples will lean into the same premise when they say, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
But Job holds fast to the fact that he’s done nothing deserving of his new mess, no matter how much his friends insist otherwise. It seems to Job that there is a flaw in the system—that despite what we know of God’s character and his great concern for justice, sometimes we find ourselves in a mess that we know doesn’t line up with who God is. Sometimes that mess comes about from our own doing. Sometimes it’s put on us by the doing of others. Sometimes it’s the doing of spiritual beings, like it was for Job. And sometimes it’s a mess that God calls us into for the sake of serving him, like when Jesus took on the cross or Paul went to prison.
But God’s character stays true despite the different kinds of messes we go through. God is always merciful, gracious, slow to anger, loving, faithful, forgiving, and just. And despite the mess he was in, Job knew all of that to be true. And so he boldly and emotionally called God to explain why everything had gone wrong for him. If God is a just God, then why all this injustice?
Surely Job was surprised when God showed up in a whirlwind with an intense response. But perhaps even more surprising was that God ultimately sided with Job’s perspective and rebuked Job’s friends and called them to repent. In the same way, Jesus recognized that the blind man’s mess was not inflicted upon him because of some form of righteous justice as the disciples surmised. No, the blind man’s mess was present so that God could bring about a powerful miracle by healing him.
God did not envision a world of messiness, but just the opposite! He envisioned a world where we, the imagers of God, spread out from his sacred space of Eden and filled the whole world with imagers that conformed the rest of the planet to become sacred space as well. That was the world God hoped for and the world we will fully reach in the resurrection of the new heaven and new earth. But in the age we currently live, the infection of sin runs rampant, spiraling us into mess after mess. Messes are unavoidable—even more so for some.
For example, the mess of a human trafficking victim is a mess brought upon them purely by someone else—and it is a deeply disturbing mess to reflect upon. Their’s is the kind of mess where one especially cries out, “God where are you? Are you even real? If you are, why is this happening to me? Do you not care about justice at all?” And those are questions I believe God wants us to ask, because he does not want us to associate such messes with him. Indeed, the very reason God feels so absent in great sin is because sin is the antithesis of who he is.
And yet at the same time, God shows up to these victims and reassures them that despite the pain they’re enduring, he’s always there. For he is a God who doesn’t just stay in the glories of Heaven, but puts on broken skin and descends to a broken earth, before going even deeper into the underworld of Hades itself. There is no mess we can descend into that is deeper than the mess Jesus has already descended into—no pain we can feel that God has not already taken upon himself on the cross—no greater absence of God that we can experience than what Jesus himself already experienced when he asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Yes, even when God himself is faced with the sin of the world, he wonders where God is—just like Job; just like the blind man; just like Uni.
It was only a few years ago that I pulled up to Uni’s house and invited her family to join our church—an invitation that would create a deep new friendship and an eventual ministerial partnership. Within a few short years she would go from an active volunteer, to our associate pastor, where she did a wonderful job and challenged me to do things outside of my comfort zone for the glory of the Kingdom of God.
Since then God has called her to plant a recovery church right here in Jackson, Michigan, where it’s desperately needed. It’s there that God has taken the mess of her own life and redeemed it to be used to coach people out of their own messes. It’s there that the redeeming power of Jesus is proclaimed and the Spirit convicts and conforms.
As I led worship for her community just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but smile as I looked out at the congregation. I find that messy churches that make Christians too uncomfortable to attend is right where God is especially present—and Raven-brook Recovery Church is just that. There the Spirit moves and there lives are changed. Not because a woman became a pastor and swept her mess under the rug—but because she threw the rug away so that God could turn her mess into beautiful, abstract junk art. For “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
In this short book, Uni bares it all. She does what few pastors are willing to do and is vulnerable enough to put the warts out there, right alongside the victories. I’m proud of her for her bravery and the person she has become as the Spirit has worked in her.