28 August 2007

What? Purpose in Suffering?

The last time I taught ladies' Bible study, I taught from the story of Job - it was so neat to see ladies who had never heard his story before - to watch their reactions and responses to some of the incredible things recounted in the book of Job. But it left me thinking much about suffering and why so many people do suffer. I believe the story of Job clearly teaches that God not only allowed Job's testing and suffering, but that He had specifically chosen Job for those difficult circumstances... and in so doing, He demonstrated His love. How?

  • Throughout history, the story had encouraged many facing difficult and incomprehensible situations in their lives;
  • It also helps us understand that suffering in our lives is not automatically or even necessarily the result of chastisement or of a slip of God's attention toward us;
  • It shows us that if God ordains suffering in my life, it is because He loves me and part of His plan in suffering is to draw me closer to Him, to make me more like Him, and so that when others see Him working through me and changing me, His name is glorified and renowned.
  • This being the case, I have needed to change my perspective some - on the value of suffering in my life and in the lives of those I love. People suffer all over the world. It doesn't matter whether they are rich or poor, tall or short, intelligent or not. We can't reliably predict who will face difficult circumstances or when, but most of us face them at some point in our lives. Sometimes suffering is the consequence of our sinful actions or poor choices; but often it seems to fall on those who are, like Job, above reproach in the eyes of men. Ift often seems like there is no rhyme nor reason.

    Then, we have the enemy who likes to take truth and subtly turn it - we know that God created a perfect world, a world became a mere shadow of what God intended when Adam and Eve chose sin. We know that suffering, sadness, tears and death are a consequence of sin, and part and parcel of living in this fallen world. But somewhere, we've fixed the idea in our heads and hearts that if God really loved us, He'd protect us suffering... perhaps because that is what we would choose to do for our own children.

    Luke 11:11-12

    If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?

    We have a tendancy to ask God for blessings and what we see to be "good" things. We look at suffering the same way we'd look at a parent who handed us a stone instead of bread, a serpent instead of fish, a scorpion instead of an egg. But slowly, God is teaching me that in the eternal scheme of things, suffering is nowhere near the equivalent of a stone, a serpent or a scorpion...

    Recently, I came across two quotes that deal precisely with this subject: "God actually gives us a great gift in suffering, because that's the closest we can come to agape-loving God, loving God without receiving the blessing we long for...." - Merry Marinello

    The other quote I didn't take the time to write down at the time, and I can't remember who wrote it or where I found it - so this is somewhat of a paraphrase. It has also provoked much meditation and prayer in my life during the past few weeks: "Our lives on earth will be the only opportunities we will have to worship God while in the midst of suffering and as such will be the best opportunity we have to live out our devotion. We will have an eternity to enjoy His infinite blessings."

    One of the first things I remember learning about God, and one of the first things I've taught my own children is that man's chief aim is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Enmeshed within times of suffering are incredible opportunities to bring glory to His name. And one day, as we enter into His rest, we'll know that we have reached the time of enjoying Him forever.

    Psalm 31:7

    "I will be glad and rejoice in thy mercy: for thou hast considered my trouble; thou hast known my soul in adversities-"

    In this verse, I see that David chooses to rejoice (present tense) in God's love because God already had seen and knew (past tense) ... and most definitely not because He removed affliction, immediately blessed David, or lightened the anguish he was feeling.

    John 6:16-21

    "When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed three or three and a half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified. But he said to them, 'It is I; don't be afraid.' Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading." (NIV)

    Do you ever feel like you are in that boat, and you see Jesus in the process of doing something, something amazing and incredible, miraculous even - but you really aren't sure what His plans are, where He is taking you in your particular situation, and it terrifies you? Lately, I've been feeling like I'm in that boat - there are things going on that frighten me. Yet at the same time, I'm hearing those words whispered in my heart, "It is I; don't be afraid." It is not necessarily a discouraging place to be, but it is unsettling... and leaves me feeling, for lack of a better words, a bit vulnerable and fragile.

    What do I notice in these few verses? First, I see that the disciples saw Jesus - they knew it was Him. They were seeing Him through the turmoil of their present situation: wind, rain, waves, the unsteady and shifting deck of their boat, a boat filled with others who were also terrified. They recognized Him - but most definitely had no clue as to what He was doing except that they'd not seen it before, they'd never experienced it, and they couldn't understand it ...thus their resulting terror.

    What does Jesus do? He approaches and He speaks to them. He reassures them that He is, that He is in control and that they don't need to fear because He is in control and they already know Him, His love and care for them. In fact, He commands them to not be afraid. You know what? That is really hard - to choose to not be afraid in obedience to the voice of the Lord, even when the present situation is overwhelmingly scary?

    At that point that they are willing to bring Him into the boat with them - they decide to choose to trust Him. That word "willing" means "to determine, as an active option instead of a subjective impulse." I wonder if their impulsive response would have been to turn tail and run like mad (or row, as the case may be). I think it might have been mine. Instead, they chose to accept His entry into the boat; they "took Him up" into the boat (literally grabbed Him and pulled Him up and into the boat with them), ready to continue along His path, and the work that He was doing.

    So there you have the general idea of what I shared with the ladies this time - many of whom are presently suffering terribly. Several of the women are widows and live day to day, a continual search for food. One of these ladies is also responsible for three granddaughters as her daughter died in childbirth just a year ago... If you think of it, please pray for the youngest granddaughter - she is severely malnourished as she never has much more to eat than the equivalent of noodles, water and whatever goats' milk her grandmother can beg for her....

    On a totally different note...

    One rather humorous thing did happen during the course of this Bible study, however. One of older widow ladies -everyone in the church just calls her "Mama"- heard one of the "traveling pharmacies" (a man carrying on his head a small table piled sky high with pharmaceuticals) passing by. So she stopped our study for several minutes to call him into the courtyard, to purchase some aceteminophin and amoxicylline (including bargaining over the price) which she promptly tossed into her mouth, chewed up, swallowed and then washed down with a gulp of water. At that point, the pastor's wife looked at me and nodded for me to continue with the study. And I thought the chickens, goats and children were distracting...

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