Lately, I’ve been overwhelmed with stories of horrible tragedy, immense suffering, loss of hope, shattered happiness, and painful wounds. I mean the sort which, once heard, you are left without a crumb of earthly wisdom to bring consolation for. There are just some things that happen in our lives which, upon further reflection, only confirm that there are no words to say which can restore hope and healing. Many of us even die before getting any satisfactory answers, if we did not already realize before then. I here speak of the stories I’ve heard on media news, from friends, close family, and even my own life. Yes, I’m not ashamed to say that I do suffer. My suffering might be considerably less than others, and even far less than the generations which have preceded me, but the fact of the matter is this: we all suffer. If you have not suffered yet, just you wait. As one Christian speaker once said, life will kick your teeth in good like 6 or 7 times. If it has not happened already, you just need to live a little more, and it will happen. One way or the other. Some of us get our teeth back, and others never get a single tooth back. These losses can be physical, material, or spiritual. In fact, I have a number of very close family members who are suffering immensely as we speak. Even so, if I had to speak for myself, it is in the spiritual realm that I suffer the greatest. I also know many close friends whose ongoing conversation consists in defining their spiritual suffering, even if implicitly. They may not even know that I can hear it in them.
So, what to do ?
Where is God in all of this?
We call God Father, don’t we? We pray to Him for things, right? Did not our Lord say something like “what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matt 7:9-11). This was said in the famous Sermon of Jesus called the Sermon on the Mount, and goes on from chapter 5 to 7 in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. I always thought of this Sermon to be the basic theology of God the Father which Jesus wanted His disciples to know. I’ve read the New Testament so many times by now that I commit grave violations by reading so quickly through the Sermon on the Mount without reading more slow and praying to God to reveal His face to me in the words of our Lord. Well, by the grace of God, this one day I did just this. And I realized, Jesus teaches in the above citation that we are to view God as a far better Dad than all of the best earthly dads on earth. The reasoning is pretty undeniable. What good dad in the world would give his son or daughter a deadly and poisonous snake or a life-less stone when they ask for bread? The rhetorical question is clear. There are no such dads who are good. We know this from experience. Our Lord knows that we know this from experience. And yet, here is the Lord of Glory Himself, arguing from human experience to convey the heights of God’s character toward us.
But, it is not good enough, do you see?
You see, if some of us were listening to the Lord Jesus back then, we would have, in no uncertain tone, shot back with, “In fact, I believe it is precisely this God and Father of yours who has given us snakes, stones, and every last painful ache in our souls and bodies!“. I confess there have been more times than I could count where this was my very own heart. I have seen a certain depth to the despair which could be had in this life which has been enough to drive me there. And the times where I have been here, I think of the feeling as a man who is buried 400 feet deep into the ground. Where I could have tried to imagine light ahead through the dark tunnel, or where I myself could have been a light at the end of the tunnel for someone else, I was an anchor for hopelessness. Lord, have mercy.
If your reading this, and can comprehend what I’m saying, then I don’t have to tell you that physical possessions, wealth, health, prosperity, and good ole’ motivational philosophy simply melt down, as one man said, like a wax figurine before a blast furnace when confronted with the aching of the soul which requires something far more. Infinitely more.
What is the answer? To the question, “Why, God?”, I can give you some of the standard answers that we hear from the Christian apologists of old and of today, such as God’s intention to bring out a greater good through permitted evil things. But, sometimes, even this is not sufficient. So I will say to you that I don’t have an answer to this question, but I might have something to say which will help you anyway. It is very simple. Our Lord Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, walked this earth and, as the inspired St. Luke tells us, went around “doing good” (Acts 10:38). He healed paralytics, lepers, the painfully ill, and the dying. Wouldn’t that be great if we saw all of that? I recall moments in my life where I used to ask myself, “Wouldn’t it be so much easier to believe in Jesus if we were eyewitnesses to all the miraculous things that Jesus did? Doesn’t that make the Apostles, in a sense, put into a more privileged place than those who do not? Doesn’t it put them in a place where it is easier, and less difficult, to believe?”. Yes, and no. St. Luke records the following:
“Then He turned to His disciples and said privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see; for I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see what you see, and have not seen it, and to hear what you hear, and have not heard it”‘” (Luke 10:23-24)
So we know that they were more blessed. And yet, our Lord says : “‘Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’” (John 20:29). No doubt, then, that this greater blessing was upon the suffering Diaspora Christians that St. Peter wrote to. In the opening of the epistle, he writes:
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:6-9)
Would you look at this? These people “greatly rejoice” while they are “grieved by various trials”, have their faith “tested by fire”, and yet have never seen the Lord Jesus. What did these folks have that we don’t? St. Peter tells us: Genuine faith. The trials test our faith, to prove that it is either genuine or fake. And it dawned on me just this day, while I’ve meditated on Holy Scripture, that it is not so much the fact that faith is tested by suffering in order to prove it genuine that provides hope for us, but it is the fact that there are people who have had such faith and have gone to be with the Lord! We have all these questions about why does evil exist? Why does God do this? Allow that? Put us through this? All these questions are old questions. Ancient questions. They can go back to the Garden of Eden. Why the Serpent? Why did death come in right from the get-go? Why did Abel innocently lose his life? Why did God destroy the world with water in the big flood? Why did Israel spend over four centuries in the confines of Egypt, the latter part of which consisted of harsh slavery and arduous work? Why did Israel remain lost, even after this, for forty years in the desert? Why did Israel go into exile, after all? Why was the temple destroyed? Why did wicked and evil kings rise to power and thrive with long lives? Why did the early Christians have to suffer so great of martyrdom? Most of all, why were mindless creatures allowed to rise up , hang and kill God while nailing Him to the Cross, and leaving Him there like some unclean?
The answers to these questions might be none, or they might not fully satisfy. There is a mystery to all of this sovereign providence, and we can, if God allow, relish in the fact that all is for His own glory and purpose. But what seems to more concrete for me, at this time, is to know that there were always men and woman, throughout this coarse history of mankind, who responded to all of this with joyful praise in God while they persevered in patience, lived lives marked by sanctity, and offered up their lives as a sweet smelling aroma to God. Some were killed (Abel), betrayed and abandoned (Joseph), victims of adultery (Hosea), loss literally everything (Job), or were stoned (Habakkuk, Jeremiah, St. Stephen the ProtoMartyr), etc,etc. And yet they were marked by unwavering joy in God, and patiently endured what this world had coming to them.
Look, to believe in Jesus is to believe in His power. This is what Jesus saw in those He healed. He often said, “Your faith has saved you”. Faith in what? Faith in the power of God is what saved them. Thus, to believe in Jesus is to believe in His power. If we are at a point where we are hard-pressed to get on our knees and seek Christ with our whole heart for the grace to patiently endure and persevere all that the world has to throw at us, including especially the shots which come from inside the household of God, the it is a good sign that we have lost faith in the power of Jesus Christ. And, like I said, to believe in Jesus is to believe in His power. To deny or ignore His power is to deny Him.
My message here is this: Instead of finding power in getting all of your questions answered, seeing all the objections resolved, or watching your problems go away, seek power where it is chiefly displayed in the life of those who have gone before us (or people you know today), who were able to live lives of immense joy and patience despite all the madness and unknown. In fact, the power it would take to answer your objections and/or to see yourself be healed is a far less power than that power which can sustain you when you, as almost unable to lift your eyes to heaven anymore, you can, once again, by the testimony of so many witnesses, our Lord Himself the Captain, open yourself to the power of Jesus in making you a vessel to show His strength when we are weak. This is what our Lord meant when, after hearing the prayers of St. Paul to be healed of the thorn in his side, responded with “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:8-10). Whoa! What? You mean to tell me that that God is not in the business of making His strength known in our strength? Yes, that is right. And that is our problem. We want to be strong. The solution? Embrace your weakness! Learn to live with your weakness! Love your weakness! Proclaim your weakness! Cherish your weakness! Boast in the fact that you don’t know why God has done as He has done!! For by it, the strength of our God is made perfect!
Now, I won’t finish here before I let you know that my sinister self still has a further objection (do they ever end?). Surely it was easier for folks like St. Paul, the Apostles, Abraham, David, Noah, Abel the righteous, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc,etc. They actually encountered the miraculous face to face! Wouldn’t it be far easier to have just that much more assurance of things, to make things a bit more manageable? The answer is simple. They were far more blessed to have seen God, but with closer proximity to God comes far greater testing. And we see that borne out. But even so, there is a certain sense that those who have been farther away from direct encounters are put under a greater challenge to believe. I can’t help but get this from our Lord who said, as cited above, that the man who believes but has not seen is far more blessed than he who believes because he has seen. This is because faith is not so much what you have seen with your eyes as much as it is what is going on in your heart, soul, mind, and inner self. Do you really love God? This is why faith is probably the most difficult thing in the world to have. Don’t play with it. Give yourself to God, and together with the Apostles, cry out “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Pretty soon, I’m sure that your heart can be so converted that, instead of shooting back at Jesus by saying that God the Father gives us serpents, you will see that He always gives us what we most absolutely need for our good. Why, is it not the Lord Jesus Himself, the eternal Son of God, who came forth from the eternal bosom of the Father, who is the cherished abode of the fire of God’s love, who was perfectly sinless, but who nevertheless was a man with no place to lay his dead, stricken and afflicted, and hated by all? What did this eternal Son see in the heavenly Father? I believe it was said when He was told by his disciples, “Rabbi, eat“, to which He responded, ““I have food to eat of which you do not know….My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work” (John 4:32-34). The Lord knew that as the eternal Son, the Father would give Him the perfect food when He asked for it. What was that food? It was the Cross. Is that our food? If it isn’t, then we are dining at a different table than our Lord. And what does that mean?
I leave you with the most succinct passage of Scripture which encapsulates all of my message to you. Most importantly, keep your finger on joy, for it is the hope of future glory, and not the answer to all of our questions, nor the healing of our bodies, which will give us this joy that Jesus had on the diet of a bloody-Cross:
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:1-2)