Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

“Suffering is a part of the plan”: meditation on Genesis 25:22

June 17, 2019

Genesis 25:22: “The children struggled together within her, and she said, ‘If it is thus, why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord.”

“Why is this happening to me?” Like the rest of us, Rebekah believes that answering God’s call and fulfilling his plan for her life is supposed to be easy—or at least easier than any alternative—if we are doing it right. Indeed, this seductive idea is at the root of Satan’s question to Jesus in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God, you are entitled to a far easier life than this! Surely your Father doesn’t want you to starve out here! Use your power to transform these stones into bread.” (See Matthew 4:3)

We who are adopted as “sons” (both men and women) of God through faith should expect no better treatment from Satan. When we suffer, his temptations will be along the same lines: “You are a ‘son’ of God, adopted into God’s family, made holy with Christ’s holiness, as highly favored as God’s only begotten Son, and loved by your Father exactly as much. Why is this happening to you? You deserve better. Or maybe you’re not who you think you are. Maybe God doesn’t love you as much as you think.” And resentment and fear soon follow.

Don’t listen to the devil!

Suffering is a part of God’s plan for our lives. Rebekah should have said—not, “If it is thus, why is this happening”—but, “Because it is thus, here’s why it’s happening.” “Because I am answering God’s call, this is one reason why life is incredibly difficult right now. Because I am doing his will, this is one reason why life is a struggle.”

Here comes the hard part: Trusting that God, who is big and powerful enough to prevent suffering, is also big and powerful enough to allow it for reasons we finite, sinful humans can’t understand. Trusting that God has a better blessing than we can imagine on the other side of suffering. And trusting that he has perfectly equipped us through his Spirit to handle it.

“If we starve, he will be our everlasting, life-giving bread”

November 14, 2017

I’ve never been tempted to believe the prosperity gospel. I suspect that if I did believe it (and to be clear: I don’t!), I would hold fast to Jesus’ promise in the Sermon on the Mount about God’s faithful provision in Matthew 6:31-33:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Of course, the moment I write this, I’m reminded that Jesus has just said that we should not lay up for ourselves “treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (vv. 19-20).

But still… Matthew 6:31-33 is the word of our Lord Jesus. It’s true. At the same time, however, we have Jesus warning his disciples that they will face persecution and even death on account of their faithfulness to him (e.g., Matthew 5:11-12; Luke 6:22; Luke 21:16-18; John 16:33, among others). We see in the Book of Acts and throughout the apostles’ letters examples of great suffering and death among the saints. Paul himself writes, in Romans 8:35, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”

Presumably, each of these troubles will come to Christians at least sometimes. Paul himself describes ways in which he experienced nearly every one of them in 2 Corinthians 12:16-33.

So how do we reconcile Jesus’ promises in Matthew 6 about the Father always providing for us with the expectation that disciples will experience trouble—even to the point of hunger, nakedness, and death?

John Piper explains this with eloquence in his book Don’t Waste Your Life.

What, then, does Jesus mean, “All these things—all your food and clothing—will be added to you when you seek the kingdom of God first”? He means the same thing he meant when he said, “Some of you they will put to death… But not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 16:16-18). He meant that you will have everything you need to do his will and be eternally and supremely happy in him.

How much food and clothing are necessary? Necessary for what? we must ask. Necessary to be comfortable? No, Jesus did not promise comfort. Necessary to avoid shame? No, Jesus called us to bear shame for his name with joy. Necessary to stay alive? No, he did not promise to spare us death—of any kind. Persecution and plague consume the saints. Christians die on the scaffold, and Christians die of disease. That’s why Paul wrote, “We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).

What Jesus meant was that our Father in heaven would never let us be tested beyond what we are able (1 Corinthians 10:13). If there is one scrap of bread that you need, as God’s child, in order to keep your faith in the dungeon of starvation, you will have it. God does not promise enough food for comfort or life—he promises enough so that you can trust him and do his will.

When Paul promised, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus,” he had just said, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13, 19).

“All things” means “I can suffer hunger through him who strengthens me. I can be destitute of food and clothing through him who strengthens me.” That is what Jesus promises. He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). If we starve, he will be our everlasting, life-giving bread. If we are shamed with nakedness, he will be our perfect, all-righteous apparel. If we are tortured and made to scream in our dying pain, he will keep us from cursing his name and will restore our beaten body to everlasting beauty.[1]

Do you see the radical God-centeredness of this perspective? I never encountered this in any seminary class or United Methodist-oriented Bible study. Why not? What’s wrong with us? Don’t we believe this is true?

Jesus’ great promise of the Father’s provision in Matthew 6:31-33 isn’t mostly about us; it’s about us in relation to our Father: our Father will give us whatever we need in order to continue to glorify him in whatever circumstance in which he places us. That’s all Jesus promises—yet that’s everything we need.

1. John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 94-5.

Is it “just not true” that suffering is God’s will?

July 9, 2015

I hate to let good writing go to waste…

A colleague preached a sermon on suffering last Sunday. (Read it and see what you think.) While I could take issue with many of his points, I made the following comment on Facebook. It summarizes many things I’ve discussed on this blog. Is my response adequate? Would you add or correct anything? Am I missing something?

You write: “We want a reason for everything, and we have this tendency to say that because God is in control, all things that happen, even suffering, are God’s will. And it’s just not true.”

I understand the impulse behind saying this, because God is not the author of evil. But I disagree for two reasons. First, in Arminian theology there is an understanding of God’s “antecedent will” (what God would want in a world without sin, before the Fall) and God’s “consequent will” (what God wants, given that we live in this fallen world of sin, suffering, and death). Events that happen in this world represent God’s consequent will.

But I’m sure you’re not convinced, so consider this thought experiment: If we believe that God can answer prayer—more accurately, that God will, even occasionally, grant our prayer petitions—then what are we to make of those times when God doesn’t grant our petitions?

There are three alternatives, as far as I can see:

1) God heard our request but doesn’t have the power grant our petition.
2) God heard our request and has the power, but whether he does or doesn’t is completely arbitrary. In other words, God is capricious.
3) God heard our request, but chose not to grant our petition for good reasons that may only be known to him. After all, God has foreknowledge. Only God can foresee all possible, even eternal, consequences of granting one petition and not another.

Is there another alternative for those of us who believe in the Christian God? I can’t think of one. Clearly, #3 is the only one that makes sense.

And if that’s the case, then it’s no exaggeration to say that “everything happens for a reason”—even when that reason is to prevent something worse from happening that we can’t foresee.

I would also challenge you to consider the difference between God’s “allowing” something to happen and God’s “causing” something to happen. We often draw a sharp distinction between the two—perhaps in an effort to “let God off the hook for suffering”—but is this distinction really so great? Surely Job would disagree, among others!

Or what about Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians? He describes it as both a messenger from Satan and something that comes from God, to be used for his own spiritual growth. This is not a contradiction. As Joseph said in Genesis, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”

Besides, in your own experience, isn’t suffering often good for you? In my experience it certainly is! This is why a (mostly secular) book like psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” has proven so helpful for 50 years. Frankl was literally a Dachau and Auschwitz survivor. No modern person has stood on higher moral high ground when he says that when we suffer, we always have a choice: to let suffering harm or destroy our souls or to use it as an opportunity for spiritual growth. By all means, in his experience, he usually saw suffering destroy people’s soul, but not always. And he argues that it never needs to—for anyone.

In one moving scene in the book, he talks about a particularly difficult season of suffering and death in the concentration camp. Suicides among the prisoners were very common (they could easily run into the electrified and die instantly). He huddles his fellow prisoners together and says, “I know many of you want to kill yourselves because you no longer expect anything out of life. But life still expects something from you!”—even if, he says, it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high. He quotes Dostoyevsky, who said his biggest fear wasn’t suffering; it was that he wouldn’t prove worthy of his suffering.

Frankl, a Jew, isn’t speaking from a Christian perspective (interestingly, while his wife died in a separate concentration camp, he married a Catholic woman after the war), but his words are very consistent with Paul’s words, for instance, when he tells us to rejoice in the Lord always—words written when Paul himself was languishing under a very harsh imprisonment, yet seeing God’s providential hand at work all around him.

So I’d recommend your reading Frankl’s book. But also Lewis’s profoundly good Problem of Pain and Tim Keller’s recent masterpiece, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

All that to say, I find it immensely comforting to know that God has a reason for whatever I’m going through. I like being able to pray, “God, what are you trying to show me? How are you using this? Why is this happening now?” In fact, far from the ivory tower of mainline Protestant seminary, most people I know do as well.