It’s amazing where your mind goes in the midst of suffering. When bad things happen, most of us will look for someone to blame. It’s my fault. It’s your fault. It’s God’s fault. We shake our fists at the sky and cry out, like Job, “I’m innocent! This shouldn’t be happening to me!” Or when everyone turns against us, we complain like Jeremiah, “I know that you’re righteous, God, but your justice leaves a lot to be desired!” Why is this happening to me? I’m one of the good guys! I’m on your side! Like David, we lament our own condition and look with envy upon the “wicked,” for whom nothing ever seems to go wrong.
My wife and I have certainly run the gamut when it comes to this kind of thinking. For a while, I thought that Zeke’s disease was God’s punishment for my sin. In my more self-righteous moments I would scream at him, “Why are you doing this to me?! What have I done to deserve this?!” We also went through a period where we thought that his disease was a result of spiritual attack. At this point, we’ve accepted that his disease is simply the result of living in a world that is broken.
I’ve discovered just how important it is to maintain a healthy perspective of my suffering and trials while in the midst of them. If my mind is not right, my emotions quickly follow. Believing “holy lies” like God is in control, God causes all things, or God will never give you more than you can handle is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually destructive. When suffering strikes, it’s easy to believe these lies because we are desperate to believe that someone (God, for instance) is controlling or sending all the chaos, evil, and pain. It may be comforting, but it’s not true because God is not the author of evil. I can’t stress this point enough. God is not the author of evil.
In order to find a healthy perspective in the midst of overwhelming hardship, I’ve had to understand that there are four primary reasons for suffering: discipleship, discipline, disengagement, and disaster. The four disses. (See what I did there?) While I typically hate alliteration, this scheme seemed to work pretty well, so against my better judgment I’m sticking with it!
The New Testament promises suffering. The verses are too numerous to recount here, but the authors of the New Testament seemed to assume that suffering and discipleship go hand-in-hand. The question for us is how to discern which suffering is intended for discipleship.
I believe that all suffering, appropriately understood and faithfully persevered through, will make us more like Jesus. In that sense, all suffering creates the opportunity for discipleship. But there is a certain kind of suffering that is specifically intended as an act of discipleship. This is the suffering that comes from persecution on account of our faith in Jesus.
This is the paradigm of suffering found in the early church. Sure, people suffered then like we do today (in disease, loss of loved ones, etc.), but the defining trial of their faith was the persecution they would have experienced on account of following Jesus. This type of suffering would force them to choose between Jesus and the world, and stories abound of the faithfulness of the early Christians who chose Jesus despite all kinds of torture. The Church is built upon the blood of the early martyrs. Persecution is pretty straightforward, and the appropriate response is obvious, so I won’t spend any more time on this.
There is another kind of suffering that can enter a believer’s life, but this is not to prove the genuineness of his faith. Rather, it refines him by way of discipline. Hebrews 12:6 reminds us that God disciplines those he loves, and the verse that follows exhorts us to “endure hardship as discipline.”
But there is a more punitive form of suffering that can happen in a believer’s life, and that is when we suffer for committing sin. Discipline of this kind could look like the loss of a position of leadership in the church, or even expulsion from the congregation itself. This sort of suffering is the direct result of our sin, and it’s redemptive purpose is to lead us to repentance, which can then result in restoration.
Unless we are blinded by our own self-righteousness or sense of victimization, we will know when we are being disciplined by God because we will have lost our place in the faith community. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul commands the church to “expel the immoral brother.” In Matthew 18, Jesus tells the disciples to treat an unrepentant member of the church as though they did not belong to the church. The point of this is restoration, but that must be preceded by repentance. If you are under God’s discipline, pray that you would have the humility to see past your self-righteousness or sense of victimization so that you can repent of your sin.
While all suffering can function to make us more like Jesus (discipleship), not all suffering is the result of punitive discipline. This is important to grasp, because as I said above, in the midst of a difficult trial we often search for someone to blame, and that often means blaming ourselves. Like Job’s so-called friends, we convince ourselves that our sin has brought about this suffering. But this is not true. If you have not lost your place in the faith community, then your suffering is not a result of God’s punitive discipline.
Zeke’s disease is not God’s punishment for my or Breena’s sin. The punishment for our sin has already been paid. 9/11 was not God’s punishment on America for the sin of the people. The punishment for their sin has already been paid. God does not discipline us by killing others or inflicting our loved ones with diseases. Zeke is not dying for my sins; Jesus already did that. To call this form of suffering “discipline” or “punishment for sin” is to say that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was insufficient to pay for the sins of humanity.
Suffering may also befall us when we stubbornly pursue our own path and God has finally had enough, sighing sadly, “Fine then. Have it your way.” It is divine disengagement. Romans 1 tells of how God gives people over to the desires of their hearts, thereby removing any divine protection they might otherwise enjoy. This is what happens when we demand life on our terms, refusing to accept any of God’s attempts at discipline or calls for repentance.
Think of all the suffering in this world caused by our collective stubborn refusal to, for example, rein in our sexual desires. The physical damage caused by STDs can be devastating. The emotional (and sometimes physical) trauma of abortion is criminally underreported in our media. Divorce caused by adultery has devastated millions of adults and their children.
Sadly, this type of suffering is largely avoidable. Adultery is not inevitable; it is a choice. The same is true of drug abuse and other types of addiction. You could even look at the recent economic troubles in the US as suffering because of divine disengagement. We stubbornly pursued what our greedy hearts desired, and the bubble burst with catastrophic results for many.
This last kind of suffering is probably the most common, and doesn’t really have an explanation. Horrible things just happen in this world. Tsunamis. Wars. Cancer. Batten disease. This is just the crap of life, and any attempt to make God responsible (whether through a faithful appeal to God’s sovereignty or a skeptical appeal to God’s weakness/wickedness) rings hollow. We may not like it, but more often than not, there’s no one that we can hold accountable for the suffering of our lives. Disaster happens.
When disaster strikes, our first instinct is to ask, “Who is at fault?” But we need to train ourselves to ask two different questions first: “How is God redeeming (or going to redeem) this?”, and “How am I going to respond to this?”
God loves to work in the midst of disaster, redeeming it in ways that we could have never imagined. This redemption, however, is often contingent on the softness of our own hearts and our willingness to come alongside his redemptive work in the midst of our suffering. Knowing that God is present in your suffering, working to redeem it, will help you to keep a soft heart and a humble attitude toward him. Rather than sinking into playing the blame game, train your eyes to see God at work and throw yourself into that.
Our little Zekey is probably going to die at a very young age, but I’m not going to blame God for this. He didn’t create Batten disease. But he is redeeming it, and in ways that I could have never imagined. I have resolved to be a vehicle for God’s redemption of Zeke’s disease. Not only is that what’s best for me and God’s kingdom, it’s what’s best for Zeke. Imagine what his life would be like if his father was relentlessly bitter of this lot in life. Bitterness undermines God’s incredible work of redeeming disaster. I will never see the work of God in my life or in Zeke’s if I live angrily and embittered; but the stories of God’s faithfulness belong to those who persevere through suffering and come alongside God’s redemptive activity.
My hope is that having these categories for suffering will help you to keep a healthy perspective in the midst of your own trials and hardships. I’d like to add one final thought: Suffering is not something to be avoided, but rather an overwhelming opportunity to get close to God.
I haven’t read a book like this before. N.D. Wilson’s Death by Living is prose you experience rather than read. The cover image of breaking waves is an apt metaphor, not only for the content of the book, but also of the style. It breaks over the reader, engulfing him in words and narrative and life.
The story is the story of Wilson’s life. Or, more accurately, the lives that led to his life and how those lives continue to impact his life. It’s a family memoir and reflection on the mortality of human existence. It’s the story of people you’ve never heard of, but who have lived fully enough to deserve their own biopic on PBS. It’s the story of how stories get passed from generation to generation to generation, and how those stories guide the paths of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
One of the most beautiful contributions of the book is Wilson’s insight about how people he will never know and can never thank gave up their lives so that others–including his grandparents–could live. He exists because someone seventy years ago died for a stranger, a brother-in-arms, who went on to get married and have kids who had kids who went on to write books and teach English and have kids of their own.
This book is the antidote to cynicism. It is profound and beautiful, and will give you a sense of awe for the little things, the forgotten things, the things overlooked and passed over in the busyness of life. It won’t solve your problems or even give you a plan of action, but it will change your perspective on the world.
BookSneeze® provided me with a complimentary copy of this book.
Zeke has fallen off a cliff.
For those who haven’t read my wife’s account of what has happened to our son Ezekiel in the past few days, you can read it here. He has significantly regressed since getting his feeding tube, and death seems far more imminent today than it did just two weeks ago. His body is constantly twitching and jerking in large, involuntary movements that steal his ability to rest or be comfortable. These movements are not the result of seizure activity, but of something much deeper, much more insidious, going on within his brain. The Batten Disease from which he is dying seems to be accelerating. Most children with his form of the neurological disorder die between the ages of 8 and 12. We suspect he’ll be gone within the next six months.
Breena and I have been faithfully praying for Zeke’s healing for over a year now. I know that many of those who read this blog, and my wife’s as well, are joining us in this prayer. As are other friends, family, friends of friends, and complete strangers. There are, quite literally, thousands of people all over the world that are praying for Zeke and for us. Our new church family, Grace Church in Toledo, has also been persistent in prayer for Zeke. After the service yesterday, Breena and I took Zeke forward for prayer. As Ralph, one of the elders, was praying for him, many others joined in and engulfed us in their prayers and tears. It was a very emotional moment for both Breena and me.
But despite all these prayers, Zeke’s condition has worsened. The picture on the left was taken less than a month ago, but the Zeke you see there is nothing like the Zeke that is shaking in Breena’s arms right now. This has been a source of deep frustration for me. After all, Jesus said in John 14:13-14, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” I have asked in his name, and yet he has not done it. Thousands have asked in his name, but still he has not done it. In fact, the silence we have heard from heaven regarding Zeke’s healing has been unbearable. We pray, and…nothing. No word from the Lord. No sense from heaven. No comfort of the soul or warming of the heart. Not even a sense that he’s going to die.
To make matters worse, we recently started praying that God would have mercy on Zeke, and if that meant taking him home, then we could accept that. Just please don’t drag out his suffering. Shortly after we started praying this way he took this major turn for the worse. It seems as though God has been ignoring all of our prayers for his healing, but he jumped all over our prayer for a merciful death. What am I supposed to make of this?
Whether God’s mercy is responsible for Zeke’s downturn or not I don’t know, but I do believe in the goodness of God, and in his kindness. God is not killing Zeke. In fact, I believe it is God’s will that Zeke be healed, but I also know that God’s will is not always done here on earth. (Why else would Jesus tell us to pray that it would be done here just like in heaven?) But why this unbearable silence? I can hear him speak to me about other things, but not about my son. Is there something wrong with me? Do I lack faith? Is my prayer closet inappropriately adorned? Or could there be something much deeper going on here?
Matthew 26:36-46 tells the story of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. It was the night before he was to be crucified, and he was in deep distress. He told his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” His instinct is to pray, so he does. Three times he asks his Father to let this “cup,” meaning his crucifixion and all that goes with it, pass by him. Let there be some other way! What was the Father’s reply? We don’t know. So far as we know, the Father said nothing, because nothing is recorded in Scripture. Another unbearable silence.
Many years later, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to a church in Philippi, in which he wrote “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” Did you catch that? Paul wanted to participate in the sufferings of Jesus so that he could become like him in his death and then be like him in his resurrection. The core suffering that Jesus experienced wasn’t the physical pain of being crucified, though I imagine the pain of that was overwhelming. No, the worst of Jesus’ suffering was the cosmic reality behind his anguished cry, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!”
The Father and the Son [and the Spirit], together as one beyond time, were here, at the cross, torn asunder as Jesus became the sacrifice for human sin and the object of God’s wrath against that sin. The Trinity was broken. This is the suffering of Jesus, and it is a depth of suffering that you and I can never fathom or experience. But we catch glimpses of it. We feel the bee-sting prick of the sword-slash of Godforsakenness when we suffer and God is silent. This is when we begin to know Jesus in suffering.
To know Jesus in suffering. Have you ever longed for that? Probably not. I know I haven’t. I’ve always wanted to skip the whole crucifixion part and just go straight to the resurrection section. But there can be no resurrection without crucifixion. If suffering is central to who Jesus is–and Paul seemed to think that it was–then we must participate in the suffering of Jesus in order to know him. That, of course, doesn’t require us to be literally crucified. But it does mean that there will come times in our lives when God is distant, silent, or seems to have rejected us when we need him most. It is in those moments that we participate in the suffering of Jesus. These are the depths of sharing in the suffering of Jesus, becoming like him in his Godforsaken death, that lead to the heights of knowing the power of his resurrection.
My heart is broken for Zeke, but I’m not afraid for him. I know what, and who, awaits him. Though I pray and experience the silence of God, I can rely on the hope that I have learned from God’s voice over the past 30 years of my life. I know that resurrection awaits both me and Zeke, and that before either of us gets there, we’ll have known Jesus in suffering in our own unique ways. Maybe it’s all too ironic, but in this way, the unbearable silence of God is making room for the comforting word of God.
The subject of God’s will has come up quite a bit around here lately. Given Zeke’s condition, Breena and I both have many questions about the subject. What is God’s will regarding Zeke? Is it to heal him? Is it to let him suffer and die?
Perhaps you have similar questions about the difficult situations facing you. Was it God’s will that your parents got divorced? Was it God’s will that you lost your job? Is it God’s will to make an absolute laughingstock of the Cleveland Browns organization and the city of Cleveland in general? (I believe that all true Browns’ fans would answer that last question with a resounding Yes!)
So what are we talking about when we talk about God’s will? Most of us, I believe, think of God’s will in terms of his plan or purpose for our life, our church, the world, etc. God’s will is what God wants to happen in a given situation. For example, when faced with a major life decision like choosing a career path, most of us tend to believe that there is one path that corresponds to God’s will, and all the other paths lie outside of his will. So we pray in hopes of hearing which path it is he wants us to take.
The issue gets a little more complex, of course, when we move from talking about the choices we make to the circumstances that are thrust upon us. So I want to pose the question as bluntly as possible: Is it God’s will that my son Ezekiel have Batten Disease, and that he suffer every minute of every day over several years before he ultimately dies? Is that what God wants? Is that his plan for Zeke’s life and for ours?
Perhaps I could pose the question a bit differently. Does everything happen according to God’s will? In other words, is every event that occurs on earth God’s will? Or are there things that happen on earth that are outside of the will of God?
There are many Scriptures that would help illuminate this question, but I want to turn to one that is so familiar it often gets forgotten. It is Matthew 6:10, from the Lord’s Prayer. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s will would be done here on earth just as it is always done in heaven. If everything that happens is God’s will, why would Jesus teach us to pray this prayer? You only pray for what you do not have. Clearly, in Jesus’ mind at least, God’s will is not always done on earth. In fact, let me be so bold as to say that God’s will rarely happens in this world.
So, what then, is God’s will? I believe that God’s will is a vector. A vector is a quantity that has both direction and magnitude. The magnitude of God’s will is salvation, and the direction of God’s will is the new heavens and new earth. When Jesus and the authors of the New Testament talk about God’s will, they almost always talk about it in the context of salvation. And the aim of God’s will, or what he is up to here on the earth, is directed toward the end, when he will make all things new, and fully and finally dwell with humanity.
If that is true, then what is God’s will for Zeke? First of all, I believe it is God’s will for Zeke to be saved and to live with him forever. Secondly, I believe that it is God’s will for Zeke to be healed here on the earth. However, and here’s where it can get difficult, just because it is God’s will for something to happen does not mean that it is going to happen. 2 Peter 3:9 says that God wants everyone to come to repentance, but clearly that has not happened and will not happen. So it is with many other things. I don’t think that God wants any child to die, and yet thousands of kids die all over the world each day. Part of the horror and mystery of living in a fallen world is that God’s will is not always done here as it is in heaven. Which is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
You might say that this makes God weak. Perhaps. But, in the light of the cross, who are we to say that weakness is such a bad thing, particularly when compared with what the world considers strength? The world wants a God who is in control, and skeptics refuse to believe in God because the evil and suffering of the world testify that God is not in control. But I believe that God does not want to be in control. The direction of God’s will is not to create sinless puppets who are easily manipulated, but to purify a bride fit for his Son and raise up a kingdom of priests who are fully qualified, by the nature of their character and the testimony of what they have overcome in the power of the Spirit, to reign over creation. God is out to make us more human, not less.
Which is to say, it’s all a mystery. Or at least the middle part is. Which is why we live by, and are saved through, faith. In the end, all will be revealed and we will live by sight, seeing God face-to-face in a new world where his will is always done by everyone and everything. But until then, we plod through the muddled middle, now suffering, now weeping, now praying: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”