By Cheri Lynn Cowell
We’ve all experienced or witnessed pain and suffering. We hear the phrase from well-meaning Christians, “God never gives us more than we can handle,” or they say, “God must have something great planned for you if he allows this much suffering in your life.” Although these are meant to comfort, I find them anything but. I am also troubled by the theology these statements represent, for they do not square with the God I know.
When the World Trade Center towers fell on September 11, 2001, some well-meaning Christians pointed fingers. During my church’s prayer service that week, my minister said many people asked him, “Where was God when those towers fell?” He responded by saying God was with every single person. God was in each stairwell, inside each plane, and under each desk. Then as tears streamed down his face he told us, “It was God’s heart that was the first to break that morning.” Those words pierced my soul and resonated within my spirit, for this is the God I know.
To understand God’s response to our suffering we need look no further than Jesus. Jesus is often referred to as the image of God, “the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3). When Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus responded, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). If Jesus responds a certain way to our suffering, we can be certain it is how the Father is also responding. Let’s look at how Jesus responded to the sufferings he encountered.
Jesus Heals a Leper
One of the most dramatic and telling events in the Bible is the healing of a man who had leprosy. Lepers were social and physical outcasts. Leprosy was a disease that ate away at the flesh, leaving gaping and oozing holes in the skin. In Jesus’ day, those who contracted this terrible skin disease were banned from society. Even the leper’s family was forced to forsake him.
To add insult to injury, if anyone came near, lepers were required to shout, “Unclean, unclean,” because by simply touching a leper a person would be declared unclean. According to Jewish laws, these unclean Jews were unable to partake of the temple rituals, and therefore, God’s blessings.
On this day, Jesus had been traveling the hillsides of Galilee preaching and healing when a man with leprosy approached. He had heard about Jesus’ healing powers and fell on his knees before him pleading, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40).
The next sentence is a startling one. A literal reading of the original Greek text tells us Jesus looked on the man and his situation, and his bowels turned. The word has been translated compassion or pity, but such translations appear to miss the mark. Jesus didn’t simply have pity. His heart didn’t just “go out” to the man with leprosy, as we would say today. No, Jesus had a visceral reaction. His bowels churned—not at the man or the open sores covering his body, but at the condition he was forced to be in. This was not what God had intended for his children.
This suffering was so far outside of his will that Jesus reacted physically at the sight. Then Jesus turned to the man and touched him. It’s hard to imagine Jesus could have done anything more compassionate than touch a man who had been untouched, unloved, and in a sense, unseen. Jesus said, “I am willing, be clean” (v. 41).
I can imagine the tenderness of that touch. I can see tears welling in Jesus’ eyes as he said those words. And I can feel the mixture of shock, awe, and horror in the hearts of the crowd. They must have been asking themselves, “Hasn’t this man sinned? Isn’t this the life God willed for this leper? Who is Jesus to invalidate God’s punishment?” If such questions were asked, Jesus ignored them and focused on the man and his needs.
Jesus Heals a Blind Man
In the book of John we see Jesus again traveling with his disciples, when they come upon a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Teacher, why was this man born blind? Was it because he or his parents sinned?” (John 9:2, CEV).
Jesus knew this was the wrong question, so he reoriented the conversation to the proper view. “No, it wasn’t,” Jesus answered. “But because of his blindness, you will see God work a miracle for him” (9:3).
Jesus emphatically denied this man or his parents were to blame for his blindness. After this stern denial, Jesus turned to the real need—to heal the man—and he used the healing as an opportunity to show God’s glory.
Habakkuk, a prophet and the author of one of the last books of the Old Testament, asked questions—a lot of questions. He looked around and saw situations similar to those you and I see today. He saw injustice and suffering, and he wanted answers. He believed God was a good and just God, but Habakkuk had trouble squaring what he saw with who he knew God to be. His words still ring true for us today.
“How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:2, 3a, NIV).
God answered Habakkuk’s questions. He told Habakkuk to write his answer plainly so that all would see and understand. What did Habakkuk write? God told Habakkuk that he understood his need to ask questions. And, although it may appear that evil had the upper hand, eventually, and at the appointed time, evil would be conquered.
After the Lord said his piece, Habakkuk offered his prayer of thanksgiving for a God who answers questions, who can be completely trusted, and who, in final victory, will vindicate the sufferings of his people. God did not explain the whys and hows of suffering, but he did promise that in the end evil would be conquered.
Habakkuk completed his prayer with this truth: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:1-18).
The apostle Paul had undoubtedly read these words from Habakkuk. From his prison cell he might have recalled them as words of comfort. As he wrote his letter to the Corinthians, Habakkuk’s prayer may have been in Paul’s heart: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV, 1984).
The truth is, one day we will be complete, our journey will end, and suffering will be no more. One day we will be returned to the glory for which we were formed. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
God’s Response and Ours
How does God respond to our sufferings? He is present with us. And like Jesus with the leper, God is displeased with the injustice he sees and he reaches out to touch us where we most need it. Then, when others want to point and ask, “Who sinned?” Jesus emphatically says “No! Wrong question.”
As followers of Christ we are invited to go and do likewise. We are to be present with those who suffer, our bowels ought to churn at the injustice we see, and when well-meaning people point fingers and ask, “Who sinned?” we should join Jesus in saying, “Wrong question.”
Then, like Habakkuk, we wait expectantly for the day when God will vindicate the sufferings of his people. Because this is the God we know. This is the God we follow.
Excerpted from Direction: Discernment for the Decisions of Your Life by Cheri Cowell (Beacon Hill, 2007). Cheri Lynn Cowell is a freelance writer in Oviedo, Florida.
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