Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Matthew 10:28-30
No matter how developed our theology of suffering, its really hard for us to shake off the notion that life “happens” to us and around us or even, most arrogantly, because of us. Good stuff seems to be just happening here and bad stuff seems to just happen more there. Stay here, better chance of good stuff. Go there, higher chance of bad stuff. That word chance, while perhaps not conscious, is equally informing how we view the circumstances of our lives. Its like a perfect storm of unbiblical theology: that we can avoid all suffering by our self-righteous doing and choosing and the bad stuff is either our failure to live “rightly” or a product of bad luck, wrong place at the wrong time. Once again, conspicuously missing: the person and work of Jesus and how the entire Story is directed by and toward Him.
Just a few Biblical examples: Joseph, who was treated wickedly by his brothers followed by false accusations and imprisonment, explained, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Gen. 50:20 What looked simply like meanness was in fact part of God’s plan to save the lives of His people. Their actions were indeed called wicked, but were a crucial part of God’s redemptive story…and a bit of a foreshadowing of the wickedness toward Jesus that was absolutely necessary for the redemption of the world. “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” Acts 2:23
Job, after great suffering, realized how small his understanding of God had been before the suffering. His suffering was despite his own righteousness but was to draw him deeper into his knowledge of God, dependence upon God and trust in God’s purposes and control of all things. I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. Job 42:2
See, here is what I really think most of the time: God intends for me to be safe and happy so when my safety is threatened or my happiness is out of reach, something is thwarting God’s plan. To say otherwise would be to believe in a mean God or one who is distant and unloving. I am left with a God who is either not all powerful or not all loving. Because, I assume, the greatest love would be for God to move me from birth to death without ever feeling any pain, enduring any hardship or experiencing struggle of any kind? You can’t even grow a physical muscle this way, least to say a heart that looks anything like God’s.
My heart would be so entangled in my kingdom of me that I would have no genuine love for others, only the self-serving demands to use others (and God) for my own pleasures. I need to be rescued from my own inclination to be my own god, serving my own reign and glory above all else. This is God’s story of redemption for His whole creation.
Once God begins to tune my heart to sing His praise, to seek His face, to know Him more truly and fully, my circumstances become something different altogether. No longer are they are an end in themselves, a collection of random “happenings” that I am to endure, survive or at times enjoy as I wait to be with Him after death. Suddenly, they are the classroom in which I see Him more clearly, believe His goodness, love, presence and sovereignty more genuinely.
That fiery furnace isn’t what consumes me but His secure and trustworthy presence with me in it and His control over its physical effect on me. The stinky fish belly isn’t the point of the story, but how even when my physical safety is threatened, my heart can be changed and His will which I wanted to refuse is not thwarted by my sin and His grace is communicated to others. The prison doesn’t prove or disprove my faithfulness but is another arena in which to see the truth of His righteousness, His faithfulness and to communicate His freedom. The most abusive path to the cross, the greatest disrespect and hatred heaped on a person followed by an excruciating death no longer becomes an excuse to question God’s goodness, love and presence but a place to see that no evil can thwart His plans, man’s greatest wickedness cannot overpower God’s redemption and renewal of all things.
His redemptive purposes behind every single circumstance give us confidence to hope in our groaning. We can call the suffering bad, even wicked, all the while knowing God intends it for good. (We can weep at the tomb of Lazarus because brokenness should be grieved and mourned!) I can also trust that no suffering just happens because I am in the wrong place at the wrong time or because I could have avoided it with a better decision. The suffering that I can connect directly to my sin and the suffering that I can attribute to a broken and fallen world is no longer a final word of condemnation and doom but a redemptive part of conforming my heart more into His image and making my heart less absorbed with my own.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 1 Peter 4:12-13 (The sufferings of Jesus are both His undeserved suffering and the payment for my sin which I did deserve but He endured on my behalf. There is no suffering which does not fall under this redemptive paradigm.)
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Romans 5:1-4
Oh that I may have confidence to sob on His shoulder outside of Lazarus’ tomb because I am genuinely comforted by believing and trusting that something as seemingly insignifant as a single sparrow falling to the ground cannot “happen” unless it is the will of the Father.
This post dedicated with a shout out to my friend B, an embodiment of the grace given us.