theology of suffering, Theology of waiting

Making Sense of Suffering

I have just returned from a trip to another country in the Middle East where a group of fellow believers and I had the privilege to meet with members of the persecuted church. Hearing their stories and their perspective on hardships and suffering made me think long and hard about my own theology of suffering and waiting and hoping. Some of the stories we heard were so encouraging and the believers we met were so faithful to the Lord, others however were stories of just surviving and of seeing no point to the many sufferings that they had endured at the hands of ISIS. It was clear though that everyone had suffered to one degree or another but it was also clear that the severity of their suffering was in no way linked to their current levels of faith and hope. If anything I would almost argue that those who had suffered the most had the most hope.

Suffering is not confined to persecuted Christians, around the world hundreds of millions of people live in unspeakable circumstances and suffer a lack of food, clean water, security, a place to sleep at night, a job to go to in the day or perhaps a person to love them. Suffering comes to most of us in one way or another. But it has become clearer to me that it is not suffering that is the problem, it is what we do with it. After all Jesus himself said, ‘in the world you will have trouble, but take heart for I have overcome the world’.

There are many things in life that we have to do or endure that will not feel good about. For example I don’t like cooking for one all the time, I don’t like eating alone, I don’t enjoy planning holidays alone, or thinking about what feels less lonely; a holiday alone or one with all my married siblings and their kids. I grieve not having had my own children. I feel sad when I see families together out in the mall as I so wanted that myself. When I gave my life to Christ I thought that soon after I would meet that great Christian guy, get married and have a family, but nearly 20 years later that has still not happened. I also know that I am far from the only person feeling like this, something that provides me both comfort and sadness at the same time. In life we don’t know what lies ahead of us, sometimes things that we think should happen quickly take a lot longer, while something that should take a long time happen in a series of suddenlys. It can sometimes feel like those things we most desire are the ones that seem to take the longest and those that we wish to avoid that happen suddenly.

Christians born or raised in the West tend to think that we can make things happen. We think that we can find a job through the right application or people or education, and we think we can do well in this job through our hard work and commitment. We also think we can find our spouse through our own efforts too, by going to church or to a bar or maybe online, but we tell ourselves that as long as we keep working at it we can do it. We believe we can heal ourselves, through finding the best doctor, using the best medicine and going to the best hospital. Western individualism tells us that we can have whatever we want as long as we work hard enough at it and that the success of otherwise of our lives all depend on us, God is reduced to the silent cherry on top.

As Western Christians we say we are believing and trusting God, but mostly what we mean is that we are believing that if we work hard enough and long enough and do all the right things then God will bless that. If I am honest and think how much do I really depend on God to meet my needs and how much do I depend on my own efforts and machinations then it is more me than I would like. I think that is why when things don’t work out how I planned it can all feel so discouraging, after all I tried my best and I still failed.

When things don’t work out as we planned despite all our best efforts and our prayers to bless those efforts we often don’t know what to do. Simply because there comes a time to stop doing. The Bible says we should ‘stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today’, and ‘having done all, to stand’, and we are encouraged to stand on the promises of God. In the Old Testament we read countless stories of God telling his people to do nothing, to say nothing and just to stand and let him save them. And mostly they did, mostly I think because they had no other options, pretty much like me. The only time that things went bad was when they were suffering and trying to fix things themselves, running to Egypt for help, or seeking out soothsayers, to name a few examples and it was only in these cases that God reprimanded them for not looking to and trusting in Him, even if that meant doing nothing in the natural.

When we are lonely, depressed, anxious, discouraged, sick, poor or experiencing any other hardship we just want the suffering to stop. We want it to go away. But too often we try to make it go away in our strength with our own schemes like Sarah and Abraham. Rather than wait for Sarah to get pregnant they became impatient and Abraham slept with Hagar. As a result she conceived Ishmael and until this day we see the enmity between the descendants of Ishmael and those of Isaac. The result of taking matters into our own hands.

It is easy to rationalize our own efforts to end our pain, but so much harder to sit and wait for the Lord. We tell ourselves ‘I know he isn’t a Christian but I will pray for him and I am sure in the future he will give his life, after all I love him, God must have a plan for this’, or ‘It is only one date, what does it matter that he isn’t divorced yet, we are just friends and I am lonely and a night out is what I need’, or ‘If I sleep with him before we get married, it isn’t great but once we are married it won’t matter’. So many excuses and justifications to end the pain in our hearts of being alone, or to end whatever it is that is tormenting us, but when the temptation comes we need to remember to stand still! We need to remember in the words of Winnie the Pooh, that ‘sometimes doing nothing leads to the very best something’.

But it is scary doing nothing, taking our hands off the wheel, going against the American dream, against the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality. The you can have it all message of the media, and the you should have it all messages that we are bombarded with daily. We don’t hear very much about suffering. Not in the secular world and not so much in church either. We certainly don’t hear much about it when it is still going on. We prefer to hear the happy ending, not the continuation of what seems so unfair, so wrong.

For myself it has been through listening to stories from Voice of the Martyrs and Open Doors, stories of the persecuted church and believers who live in constant hardship that has helped me to understand the bigger picture and see that suffering does not mean I am doing something wrong or that God has forgotten me. When I read stories of how these believers face threats of imprisonment, torture, starvation, beatings and yet do not speak of their hardships but instead of the joy of knowing the Lord and continue to share their faith and the love of Christ that with others in spite of all this, I feel humbled and ashamed that my biggest complaint is not being married.

In China you are not even considered a true Christian unless you have been to prison, in Iran they have the fastest growing church in the world, despite dire persecution and constant imprisonment and killings. All most of these believers know is suffering, the loss of loved ones, persecution, job loss, illness and even mental breakdowns from torture, but still they consider it nothing as Paul wrote in comparison to knowing Christ crucified and sharing His love with those around Him.

And here I break down. What is a meal or hundreds of meals alone in comparison to that? What is the loneliness of not holding a child or not meeting a husband compared to this? But what I realise most is that if I live my life only hoping to have an easy life as a Christian with a good job, loving husband, wonderful kids and regular holidays then I have failed in the mission that God has assigned for me. If however despite crippling loneliness or lack or sickness or anything else I say ‘Jesus knowing you is the most important thing I will ever know and sharing you is the most important thing I will ever do’ then none of my suffering is wasted. But if I don’t then my life was truly pointless and all for nothing, and I am, as Paul wrote, among all men most to be pitied.

I had a call with a Christian friend tonight who told me that he didn’t believe in an ‘interventionist God’. He said that God just lets us all do whatever we want and feels really bad about the bad things that we do to each other. When I asked what about the good things that people do he said that that is just because humans are good and we mostly do good things but neither good not bad comes from God, God gave us free will and we do what we want. He said this is the only way he can explain why God doesn’t stop all the bad things in the world from happening. Apparently, in his views, God has to stop everything bad from happening in order to prove that He does care and He does help people and He does bless us with good things. My friend said otherwise it is illogical. I think what he really means is it is incomprehensible. There is an assumption that we know as much as God, that if we don’t understand why something happens then it can’t be right or correct. That God thinks like us. Which is totally ridiculous philosophically. After all if we accept that there is a God and that He created us, then we have to accept that we are the inferior being, as the created being always less than the created. The pot and the potter analogy in life. The Bible says that He is the potter and we are the clay and the clay has no way of knowing what it will one day become. For every untimely death, I believe there is a divine purpose far bigger and more complex than we can imagine. For every atrocity committed an accounting to be required, for every suffering endured, a reward of a crown. But only if we have surrendered our lives to Christ. Outside of that my friend is right, God doesn’t intervene, not because he doesn’t want to or because he can’t but because he isn’t wanted. In the case of Christian persecution we can trust that even if something inexplicably awful happens that God will work it for the ultimate good, even if we cannot see any good at all.

Last week I listened to a podcast on VOM radio of a woman whose husband and two children were killed in Kabul after serving as missionaries there for over a decade. There is definitely no logic to what happened, but this lady said I don’t know why I was left behind, but I have to keep doing the work of the Lord and one day we will be reunited in heaven and they will ask what took me so long to get here.

You see we will all go through suffering, some of which we will never understand, but we have hope not just that we will see loved ones again but that we will be safe in the arms of Jesus, our Heavenly Father and the Holy spirit. Jesus said in this world you will have suffering but take heart because I have overcome the world. Because of His suffering, we have eternal life. If we believe we live forever then what happens to us on earth is ultimately of little consequence but what we do with our time here will have eternal ramifications. It is this eternal perspective that makes all the difference to how we view suffering and it is our understanding of the Lord and our ability to trust him even when we do not understand why bad things happen that will decide whether we thrive in life on earth and whether we will fulfill our purpose here to bring as many people home that we can.

Christians who complain about the unfairness of things, or think God is distant and remote, someone who just sits back and watches His creation suffer, with His hands tied, have missed the point of their lives, of all our lives. We were not born on this earth to live comfortable lives, problem free and devoid of suffering, we were born to take the Kingdom, we were born to do our Father’s work, we were born to bring the message of eternal life, of hope and joy with our Father for all eternity to every person we can. We may not get to live a life full of everything we always wanted, but a life lived for Jesus will be full of things we always needed, and a life full of contentment and joy that no-one can ever take away from us. There is a freedom in Christ that is unprecedented, it is a freedom that so many never know, it is not dependent on physical circumstances, on money, on relationships, on anything except the love of God and His faithfulness to us. We are never alone, never without a friend, never without help. Even in the darkest night, we can have hope, because we know that this is not the end and in the end it will be ok. Because in the end we spend eternity with our Father, the One who knew us, loved us and planned for us since the beginning of time!

God bless you today!

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