(First published on: mountainhomecompanion.com/blogspot.com Dec. 4, 2009)
So many hurting people and a faith tradition that I don’t believe answers sufficiently the trials and troubles we face in this life. How is it that our expectations became so distant from the truth of scripture? I have had people tell me that God will step in, that he will heal, that he will change the circumstance, that he will lift us out of trouble. I have puzzled over that for years.
The Bible that I read says that Stephen was stoned, that sometimes a prophet was beaten, imprisoned, stoned, one was sawn in pieces. Most of the apostles were martyred, many of the first century Christians as well–Nero was known for using Christians as torches. Every one that I can think of who was mightily used of God led lives of suffering. Not everyone mentioned in Scripture, but the mighty ones.
How does this mesh with our belief that God is in the business of making our lives okay? Even when our theology disagrees with this belief, our internals are set (at least here in America) for rescue, earthly reward, etc. We buy into the beliefs that all we have to do is work hard, live cleanly, go to church, watch our tongues and try to clean up the behavior of society and our lives will go well. Our careers will flourish, our bank accounts increase and our later years will be easy.
We struggle when people have problems. We struggle when their children go astray, and we find all the reasons why, usually things that blame the parents and make us feel better because, since we are doing everything right, our children will not fall into the same things. We struggle when someone suffers from cancer, or when a friend becomes a young widow and we comfort with the lamest offerings we have–God means it for the best, and God has better things for you, or just look at what God will teach you! We don’t suffer with them, we recoil from their trouble. It messes with our safety. If we acknowledge that these things aren’t the result of their individual failings, or that they aren’t some wonderful path they are on, then we acknowledge that we may have to suffer as well.
We turn from the family who is underemployed when they have to turn to social services for help. Well, they shouldn’t have to go to social services for help. They should be taken care of by the church! The early church did just that. “And there were no needy persons among them.” Read Acts 4.
The thing is, we were promised suffering. We were promised the difficult path. The Joel Osteen’s of the world want you to believe that there is something wrong in that. They deny what scripture teaches and their words make me want to puke! Seriously. They are a vile distortion of scripture.
We are promised suffering. We are promised trials. Not, ohmygosh, I couldn’t find a decent parking space at the mall today kind of trials, but real soul-wrenching, faith-stretching difficulties.
Some of us will have God step in and rearrange the circumstances. He provides some with miraculous healings, some with that tremendous job at just the right time. He provides those Lifetime Movie moments for some. But sometimes (and for me it seems more often than not) he does not intervene. God allows the bad thing. He allows the failures, the loss, the discouragement, the cruelty of others. He allows the loss of possession, the failure of the family or the church, the financial devastation, the job loss, the humiliation of government or charitable assistance. He allows the loss of a precious daughter, that special friend, the husband and provider. He allows a man to walk out on his wife for another woman or for a man. He allows a mother to walk out on her children. He allows parents to abuse their children and children to torment their parents. So very often he does not step in. What then?
Seriously, what then?
If you are a reasonably serious student of scripture I think these things should not surprise us. We should not be surprised by trials of various description. We were promised them. We were promised that the testing of our faith would produce endurance. We were promised the endurance would complete the work. We are promised that we will suffer many things for Christ’s sake.
That’s not what we want. Heck, it’s not what I want. So often I look at others and see God rescue them when he is not rescuing me and I wonder, “why?” It’s not a mildly curious question, it is a gut-wrenching, depth-of-my-soul question.
I used to beat myself up for those questions, and for asking God to deliver me out of my trials when it appeared he wanted me to walk through them. Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane asked to be rescued from his upcoming suffering. He asked over and over in a torment that we are told made him sweat as it were drops of blood. That’s some serious torment. That’s some serious praying. We are told that after hours of this praying–alone, because his friends couldn’t be bothered to stay awake while he is suffering so–he says, ‘nevertheless, not my will but yours.’
And that’s the key. I do not understand suffering. I can’t explain it. I still prefer the miraculous saves. I know God could have stepped in and healed 18-year-old Alyssa even at the moment of her death. He did not. Why? I don’t know. But I know my faith is tested through it.
My faith is not tested when God steps in and does the miraculous Lifetime Movie Moment save. It’s joyous and I celebrate his goodness with everyone else, but God is good when he doesn’t step in, just as he is when he does. God’s love is no less when he elects to allow our suffering than when he elects to lift us out of it.
I need to remember this. My faith is useless unless it can deal with the bad things. It is useless to me and useless to others.
When Uncle Robb was dying of pancreatic cancer, he had been suffering for a long time, but really doing much better than I expected. I visited him one day in one of those moments where I just knew I was supposed to go right then. Things were falling apart. It was a cold snap and the window guys were there replacing the old, drafty windows. He seemed rattled. We were standing in his kitchen. The power snapped off in half of his house (I still don’t understand this one) and it was the half with the furnace. At that moment, he crumpled. I don’t know how I saw it, because his outward posture didn’t change, but I saw it anyway. He said, “I’ve lost hope.” I knew what he meant, and for a change I had the right words.
I reached out and wrapped my arms around him, after all, I knew he was dying from the moment I heard his diagnosis. Don’t ask me how, but I felt that this time God wasn’t stepping in. And there were signs along the way that told me to prepare for his death. Anyway, with my arms around him, I smiled and said, “You haven’t lost hope. You’ve only lost hope for healing in this world. You still have every hope for healing in the next.” Robb died fairly peacefully. He was in hospice around two weeks, and in that time was cheerful and sweet and unfailingly appreciative of everything people did to care for him. He was precious.
I miss him and may never stop missing him. I cannot explain his suffering away. I will not try to. I accept that this was an awful thing. Horrible. Terrible. Many things in life are. I have two friends my age and younger who are suffering from cancer. My neighbor back home is just finishing up her final round of chemo from this bout of cancer (it’s her second.) Alyssa went home to be with the Lord a short time ago, and God has allowed us to lose our house. I cannot explain these things. I cannot explain away or put a happy face on the suffering that my friends are going through.
What I cling to and come back to is that God says he loves us. He says he is good. If I believe anything it is that he is who he says he is and that my understanding of that does not change it. If I need evidence, the cross should be all the evidence I need, but I am weak and sometimes (okay, usually) require more. God being God, there is no shortage of evidence of his might, his power, his glory and his love.
When I get messed up is when I expect God to step in and stop people from doing terrible things to each other. I get messed up when I assume that we are supposed to live a financially successful, disease-free and trouble-free life, or that because God can do something means that he is required to do it–for me.
Let me never try to encourage someone by telling them that God will rescue them. From experience I know that God can and sometimes does rescue us. From experience I also know that sometimes he does not. May I never tell someone that they just need to believe, as if their faith is the issue, not God’s will. When I give false promises, when I tell people that, I am stealing the faith and hope that is real. I deny the truth of scripture.
I hear such nonsense and I want to spit. Ptuey! I was once told that our car breaking down was not “the abundant life that God promised” and that if I had faith it would not happen. “Don’t you believe God loves you?” the prayer line lady asked. I thought of Stephen at that moment. I mean gimme a break. Was Stephen stoned because of a lack of faith? Was it because God did not love him enough? Was Jesus crucified because he wasn’t grasping hold of the abundant life? Or is that faith sad and weak and useless for the reality of life?
Your life and my life will have trials. God may miraculously carry you out of yours. Excellent! God may not. Praise him anyway. He is worthy of praise, not just because of what he does for us day by day, but because of who he is! God may part the Red Sea, or dry the river Jordan, or he may hold us in the midst of the flood. He may rescue us or walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. He may heal or he may not. Nevertheless, not my will, but his. It was good enough for Jesus.