More often than not I need to hear a message multiple times before it sinks in, or at least before I think it sinks in. But I also know there are times when I believe something has sunk in, only to find that I had forgotten the lesson and returned, as scripture says, like a dog to his vomit. This may be one such lesson.
I was recently listening to a sermon where the pastor cooly said how wonderful persecution for Christ’s sake was and how every believer should joyfully embrace it. By the time we got to the end of his direct and harsh sermon I had one question: if we are to joyfully embrace suffering, shouldn’t he have presented his sermon with a bit more love and compassion?
With that sermon still in my mind the next day, I happened across a picture of someone who had “Romans 8:18” tattooed on their arm. Not readily recognizing the verse, I opened my Bible and found the passage to say, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
I had nearly forgotten those two events when a few days later I was reading Psalm 94 and the words “Blessed is the man whom you discipline O Lord” jumped off the page, quickly reminding me of the sermon and the tattoo.
Why, I wonder, must this life be full of pain, unfulfilled longings, and suffering?
Why, I wonder, is suffering a good thing?
Why, I wonder, does God discipline his people?
I ask “why” questions like these all the time, but rarely expect the sort of answer I really want. I mean, what I want is for God to unveil all of the reasons why I have been chosen to bear the particular cross which I bear. And I don’t think I’m alone with this question, I think we all want an answer. Furthermore, I think we all want to know why we have to carry a cross at all.
I think that somewhere deep down in my heart I want Joel Osteen to be correct. I want a God who wants me to live my best life NOW. I want a God who says to me that all will be better and the deep hurts I feel and the pains I trudge through will go away NOW. I want a God who will wave his magic wand and change the very fiber of my being and the core of my heart so that I will only ever long for the correct things. In fact, I often think I want him to make my life like the candy room in Willy Wonka’s factory where every little boy gets exactly what he wants and lives happily ever after. I could be wrong, but I think we all want something like that, however, given the world in which we live, none of that is even remotely close to reality.
We live in a world where bad things happen all the time. We live in a world full of pain and suffering. And we live in a world where we sit in the pregnant pause following our “why” questions and often hear only silence. But even in the silence, if we listen long enough, we can hear an answer, albeit not the answer we probably want.
Psalm 94 contrasts God’s chosen people against the wicked people who always seem to be causing trouble. But the contrast isn’t about their nature so much as it is their destiny. Quite simply, the psalmist declares that the wicked will be wiped out by the Lord while God’s chosen people, although run through the ringer, will see justice, be given freedom, and live life with God eternally. Given all the complexity of life, he says there are really only two possible destinies awaiting us: destruction or life. Pretty simple, isn’t it?
But, if that is the case why do we need to go through the painful middle full of suffering and despair? Why can’t we just get to the good stuff?
I think part I know part of the answer to that question. I know that pain is God’s way of making us more like him. I know pain is, as C.S. Lewis said, God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” I also know suffering is his way of knocking down the rough edges of our lives to produce smooth gems out of these craggy rocks we call ourselves. And I know, given the alternative, I would rather have the immediate life of pain and suffering than an afterlife of destruction. But these answers when given to someone who is in the midst of pain and suffering will always seem insufficient and cold, somewhat like the sermon I heard a short time ago.
But if I allow myself to read a bit further in Psalm 94 I will see the following words in verse 18 which seem to offer another part of the answer: “When I thought, ‘My foot slips,’ your steadfast love , O Lord, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” Maybe life isn’t all suffering: maybe there is love. Maybe love is the other side of suffering offering us the choice of life instead of the destiny of destruction which we all deserve. Maybe this love allows us to endure suffering so that even the wicked can see and finally choose God. And maybe the pastor only offered part of the answer when he said we embrace suffering because it is the path God has chosen for us. Maybe he should have reminded us that we also embrace suffering because the very arms of God which bring suffering are the same arms which lovingly hold us in the midst of that suffering.