Let me start off by saying, I am at the very beginning of discovery what I believe to be my theology of suffering. In 23 years of life, I have already seen and experienced enough to know that everyone has a theology of suffering wether they are aware of it or not. We all have feelings about God once s!*t hits the fan. We all want someone to blame. We all want to know why there is so much hurt in the world. We all want to know what God has to do with our suffering. Our ideas about God when we are experiencing pain is our theology of suffering. I think its important for people to explore and decide on purpose what their views are. Here is the beginning of mine-
I think so often, the American church confuses the provision and the promise. We see someone being blessed and highly favored and assume they did something to please God. We see someone suffering and assume they did something wrong. We associate our own struggle with our inability to appease God and figure out how to crack the code locked around his treasure box. If we are in God's will there must be automatic blessing, right? If we could just break free...If we could just figure out the way.....If we could just be better, it should be quick and easy, right?
So, what about the persecuted church? Our brothers and sisters in Christ being tortured and killed all around the world for believing in the good news of Jesus Christ. What about the mother who lost her child to miscarriage? What about the young girl struggling with her mental health? What about the faithful pastor's wife who finds out she has stage 4 cancer? Are they all of out of the will of God? Did they do something wrong, say something wrong, believe something wrong to will themselves into the position of suffering they find themselves in? Did God leave them?
If your Gospel doesn't work everywhere, it's not the Gospel.
There must be something more. Our measuring stick must change. Is God in the provision? What happens when the provision seems to come to a halt? What happens when the provision isn't coming fast enough? What if it isn't coming in the way we had expected?
In Exodus, we see the Israelites struggling with the same tension we so often do. When the Israelite people were under the rule of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Exodus 1:11 says he "set task makers over them to afflict them with heavy burdens." So God appointed Moses to be his messenger to the Israelites and Egyptians both proclaiming the promise of freedom for his chosen people. God heard the cries of his people and spoke his promise to them through Moses saying, "Today....you are going out. And when the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hitties, the Amorites, the Hives, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this service in this month( Exodus 13:4-5)." The Lord promised them freedom. He promised them legacy. He promised them a home. A place to root and establish themselves for the sake of being a testimony to God's faithfulness to provide what He promised.
Even before God promised a land of milk and honey, He left a promise with Abraham saying that his descendants (the Isrealite nation) would be fruitful until they were "as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore" Genesis 22:18. When Exodus 1 describes the affliction of the Israelites, we see that the Lord was fulfilling His original promise in the midst of such hardship. Even in the middle of ruthless turmoil, the Israelites continued to multiply and grow stronger. They were bearing fruit in the midst of their suffering.
At the appointed time, the Lord was faithful to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into freedom. But God did not lead them in the way they expected. He led them straight through the wilderness, and they grumbled. (Their is so much detail to these 17 chapters that tell the narrative of God fulfilling his promise to the Israelites, you should check it for yourself! Exodus 1-17). God knew what he was doing by leading his people the long way round. They were finally free, yet they were full of grumbling and complaining.
I can just imagine the Israelites, now a freed nation, walking about the wilderness delirious and bitter from the scorching sun. They started to question God's goodness.
So He led them by cloud and fire, never leaving them. He split the sea for them to walk through unharmed by the Egyptian army, He destroyed their enemies before their very eyes. He turned the bitter water of Marah sweet for them to drink. He fed them mana from the sky to sustain them for 40 years. He split a rock to provide fresh water for the people. And still they grumbled time and time again. This wasn't the land of milk and honey they were promised. Where was THAT provision?
I see myself in every single one of these chapters, lacking so much perspective. I forget that God is in the provision AND the promise. I forget that God IS the promise. In our suffering, we can so often miss the little ways that God is sustaining us and moving us along to the ultimate place He has promised to take us- home to himself.
We were never promised an easy-go-lucky life. When freeing the Israelites from Egypt, God never said it would be easy. He said He would bring them home. And He has promised the same thing to us. In fact, Jesus Christ promised suffering. But He also promised a friend- Holy Spirit. He promised justice. He promised to keep his hands in the dirt of our lives until its been tilled, watered and harvested into a garden. As followers of Jesus Christ, those who have entered into a transformative life free from condemnation and embraced by grace unexplainable, we have access to a different set of measurements. We have a new way to know if we are going the right way- the fruits of the Spirit. Are you being fruitful in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentlest, and self control in the midst of your hardship? Is your garden growing? Are you learning to persevere? Are you learning to be still while the Lord fights for you? Are you learning to rely on his character before his hand?
I'm not saying God brings about suffering to teach us lessons in virtue. But God transforms every broken and harmful thing into something good. Because of Jesus- suffering doesn't automatically equal being out of God's good graces anymore. Because of Jesus- something beautiful can now come from suffering. Because of Jesus- there is now redemption offered to every situation.
Is your garden growing? Do you find yourself leaning on the Holy Spirit often (maybe even grieving with him)? Then you know that something beautiful CAN come from your ashes. He is leading you home. He is taking you to a place to root yourself as a testimony of his faithfulness. He is making all things new. Don't mistake God taking you the long way around (through the wilderness) as him abandoning you. His presence is the mark of his promise. The cloud and the pillar. The rock broken open. The mana from heaven, only enough to sustain you today. Attune your eyes to see the way He is walking you through your own suffering. He is taking you to the other side. He is taking you home.
"The Lord said to Moses, "Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to GO FORWARD."