Suffering


One of the reasons I like reading Christian blogs is because it makes me think about issues which I would never normally think  about, but which could very well be a part of my life in future. Children or lack thereof is one of these things. Here, Russell  Moore talks eloquently about infertility, miscarriages, and adoption in the context of his new book, Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families & Churches, and how writing it affected he and his wife:

“You know, the book helped us to learn gratitude to God, and not just for the happiness adoption has brought to our home. We grappled for years with infertility and miscarriages. Those are horrible things, aspects of the curse of Eden, and they left us battered. But God works all things to good-even horrible things-and that’s just what he did here.

Our Father knew that I wasn’t able to be a godly Christian father. Sure, I would have loved my children, read to them, prayed with them, done family devotions, evangelized them. But I would have taken my children for granted. I would have seen them as the “natural” part of the next step of my “life stage.” I would not have received my children as gift.  I would have assumed, “Well, we’re ready to have children and here they are.” And that’s pitiful.

The Lord-as he always does for his children-disciplined me. He made me hunger, that I might know that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, and man doesn’t have children to whom to give bread except by the blessing and mercy of God.

Now, that’s not the case for everybody’s who is infertile, but it is the case that God in his wisdom knows what is best, and he is up to something, even in the most painful of circumstances.”

Read the full article

And so from the beginning, from the very first story told in Scripture, God presents life, as it is, without escape, with only Himself to cling to.

via Communiqué: An Online Literary & Arts Journal.

I recently finished reading  Brokenness by Lon Solomon. In this book, Lon Solomon details something which he calls brokenness, which he defines as “the process by which God dislodges our self-life and teaches us to rely upon him alone in every facet of our lives”, a term he uses as a sort of loose synonym for what other people would probably call the process of sanctification. Solomon takes a specific aspect of sanctification – that of sanctification through trials – and addresses it, terming it a necessary and central part of the Christian life. He is not wrong in this, but where he does go wrong is in assuming on the one hand that this is the full answer(he mistakes a part for the whole) and on the other hand stopping short of the full implications of his topic and failing to discuss the purpose, the end result of this process of “brokenness”. The end result of brokenness is not brokenness itself, though by portraying it as a state of humility and godly blessings Solomon attempts to reconcile it as such, e.g. when he says after Moses’ time in the desert “Moses is not a fully broken man, but the shattering blow has been delivered and the rest of Moses’s life now becomes a chronicle of God’s deepening and maturing this man’s brokenness”.  The only purpose which he presents, right at the end of the novel, is for an individual’s usefulness for God to be increased.  I would say, rather, that Moses’ story, and all brokenness, is a chronicle of God’s deepening his people’s holiness. A more precise view of the matter would be that the end result is not brokenness but holiness – by the gradual and never-ceasing work of sanctification by the Spirit in our lives, we are granted an ever-increasing holiness. Brokenness, otherwise known as a series a similarly never-ceasing trials, struggles, and problems, is merely a facet of this work of sanctification; clearly, God doesn’t need to bring us to misery every time before he can bless us spiritually! And of course one by-product of holiness is an increased usefulness for God. But that’s not the main purpose of the trials we’re put through here on this earth – God desires worshipers above all else, not servants – he desires faithfulness and love more than works or service, though the latter certainly spring naturally and inevitably from the former.

In summary: Solomon is certainly right in highlighting the purifying through trials and misery which God works in our lives – he simply takes too narrow a look at it, without putting it in the broader Christian perspective.  Overall, I probably would recommend this book.

Some quotes:

“Not every broken follower of Christ will be another Finney or Moody. Such ministries belong exclusively to the sovereign will and plan of God. But any Christ-follower who will allow God to break them will see a new intimacy with God, a new level of relationship with people, and a new power for service in their lives. God will give those believers greater fruitfulness for Jesus than they’ve ever known or dreamed possible.”

“Through brokenness, God replaces:
-our self-sufficiency with a dependence on the sufficiency of God;
-our self-reliance with a reliance on God alone;
-our self-wisdom with a wisdom rooted in the ways and word of God; and
-our self-will with a surrender to the will and timing and plan of God, tempering our human zeal with a deep waiting upon God.”

“Many of us were told to read our Bible, pray, witness and fellowship and God will make our life smooth sailing. So we do all we’ve been told to do and, instead, our life falls apart. We go to our knees and begin searching for sin in our lives, but we find no areas of open, defiant disobedience to God. We search harder and still nothing shows up. At this point, we often become victims of our ignorance about brokenness and trouble sets in. Rather than submitting to the process, we head off in other directions that work against what God is trying to do in breaking us. These other directions generally fall into one of two broad categories: anger and false guilt”

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Ultimately, I think, the only answer to both suffering and how to deal with suffering is the character of God Himself – who He is. Yes, we know rationally that suffering exists and happens because sin entered the world, because Adam exercised his free will and thus condemned the entire human race to enter a fallen state, but ultimately that doesn’t really help us when in the midst of suffering, because of course then we wonder “couldn’t God have come up with another way”? Why did he let Adam sin, why let the human race take this course, and why is suffering necessary? And we don’t know – we have no answer for the will of God in this instance. The Bible says nothing about why God chose this route over another. Of course God could have created a different future for the human race. But he chose not to, and so as Murray pointed out in Behind a Frowning Providence, it’s pointless for us to conjecture why – the important thing is that he did not, that suffering is what we have to deal with in our reality.

Ultimately, then, the only answer to suffering is the being of God. The only way we as Christians can get through the suffering we face is not by an understanding of why this is happenning, something we will rarely have, but rather by a knowledge of the character of God – a knowledge built up through years of studying Him and pursuing Him in the Word, prayer, and in life. Because if we know God, we will know that He is good, and this blind reliance on our knowledge of His goodness will be the only thing that can sustain us through dark times. We can’t say that of anything or anyone else in the world – of no one else is it true that their character, their being is in and of itself an answer, and answer enough.  But when we reach out, when we come in contact with Yahweh, this infinitely vast and complex and loving being, we are convinced, in that interaction, that He is enough – Him, and Him alone. We don’t know his will or his plans or the logic behind much of what happens in our lives – so much of it seems irrational, pointless, made up of futile suffering. We can only know God – “this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” John 17:3, and in knowing Him, know His love, and let that love be our answer to all our suffering, let it become ever more and more our surety as we come to know it more. Knowing God – having knowledge of his character, his being, and how he interacts with both the human race and his people – is the only thing which can really sustain us through suffering. In C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, Orual, the princess who is tormented by the gods all her life and eventually loses her sister to them, seeks them out at the end and faces them, demanding to know why. They give her no answer, only reveal to her a little of their glory and their presence, and when they ask her “Are you answered?” she replied “I am answered”. Job had much the same response. We can never know. Never know exaclty why or for what purpose suffering exists, and our individual suffering in particular. We have to live, not knowing. To know God should be enough.

Suffering is a topic which has grown increasingly to interest/trouble me over the past few years. Why suffering, and why Christian suffering? I want to know why there’s so much suffering in the world, and also why Christians suffer, so much. I know some of the answers already, theoretically. But it’s not enough – I need to confront this, and face it and wrestle with it until I’ve wrested out some peace, or at least a more grounded faith about it.

Hence I asked for two books about it for Christmas – C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, and John J. Murray’s Behind a Frowning Providence. Two very different books, and authors – one from a Christian apologist whom I’m hoping at least deals with suffering as an overall problem faced by the world(within a Christian context of course) and one from a well-known writer who deals with things from a strictly Biblical standpoint. The former hasn’t arrived yet, so I’ve begun the latter and am finding it both satisfying and lacking. Murray deals with suffering in a straightfoward, pratical, Biblically-focused way; and this is at once his strength and his weakness. Strength, because his points and arguments derive directly from the Bible and are therefore both convincing and clearly truthful.  Weakness, because there’s none of the eloquence or rhetoric or wide vision characteristisc of C.S. Lewis in his other book, A Grief Observed.  But Murray is answering some of my questions, and this little booklet will definitely need to be read and studied over more. Beginning in, I was plagued by a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, and then I realized that it’s because I was subconsciously hoping/expecting that he would deal with suffering on a wider level – but why should he? He is dealing with it as it applies to Christians, and that’s enough for him. For now, it’s enough for me too. After all, it’s probably the fundamental question I’m asking, even as I wonder about the fate/state of the world.

Excerpts:

“Providence is that marvellous working of God by which all the events and happennings in His universe accomplish the purpose He has in mind.”

“People are looking for a problem-free Christianity.”

“C.S. Lewis once referred to sufferings as ‘blockades on the road to hell’. The same sun the melts the ice also hardens the clay. Says Andrew Fuller, ‘Afflictions refine some, they consume others’. The test of a person’s Christianity is what happens in the storm, when the house is battered in the winds of affliction.”

“I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace
Might more of His salvation know
And seek more earnestly His face

2. Twas He who taught me thus to pray
And He I trust has answered prayer
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair

3. I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He’d answer my request
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest

4. Instead of this He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part”

-from John Newton’s hymn “I Asked the Lord”

“We might be tempted to ask whether God can build character without suffering. That is a hypothetical question. He has not chosen to do so. ”

“I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When sorrow walked with me.”

-Robert Browning Hamilton

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“God has institued prayer so as to confer upon his creatures the dignity of being causes.” – Blaise Pascal