“Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!” (Lamentations 3:40).
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain).
In the midst of Advent and the “joy of the season,” we cannot ignore the reality of human suffering. In fact, the holiday season often magnifies pain and suffering. The world and the church call us to celebrate Christmas: there are gifts to buy, cards to write, parties to attend, extra worship services at church, etc. Yet, ordinary life’s hardships do not recognize holidays. This season, people close to me have been affected by house fires, death, illness, financial strain, the threat of losing their homes, etc. These trials can happen at any time during the year, yet the Advent/Christmas season demands our extra attention and prohibits us from devoting ourselves to the challenges of everyday life; not only that, but we are expected to feel joyful and happy despite our circumstances.
Pain and suffering are a central part of our earthly existence. Sometimes, it seems unfair, as if God Himself is unjust. We try to make sense of suffering, but it does not always work: When the 9/11 attacks occurred in 2001, many Christians sought a biblical rationale. Perhaps God was using these events to judge American materialism and hubris. But, why did some godly people have to die? If God was judging America’s sins, was He also judging the first responders who raced into the building to rescue total strangers?
The answers are rarely obvious or simple. Jeremiah wrote the book Lamentations around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, in 586 BC. A godly prophet, from a priestly family, he had suffered for many years. He was persecuted by his countrymen for warning them that this day would come. Now, he suffered with them. It seemed as if his nation was destroyed, doomed to become a footnote on the pages of history. The covenant and promises of God seemed forgotten. Through it all, Jeremiah wept and mourned over the city he loved.
In near the middle of his lamentations, Jeremiah wrote the words at the top of this post: “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!” He had warned that the nation of Judah would suffer for its unfaithfulness to God. Even when all seemed lost, he believed there was still hope. God had not changed. No matter how bad things seemed, God still loved His people:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22–23).
God’s love never ceases. Even when things look bleak, He loves us. At times, bad times come to draw us back to Him. God may be shouting to us, as C. S. Lewis wrote.
What is He trying to say? Often, bad things happen to us as a direct result of our sin. Unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are the natural consequences of sex outside of marriage. If you run into financial problems, the answer may not be to “rebuke the devouring spirit”: you may be spending your money irresponsibly and selfishly.
Let me emphasize that this is frequently, but not always, the case. Sometimes, we suffer the fallout of other people’s mistakes or other circumstances affect us negatively. However, when we face such suffering, we would be wise to examine our ways. Spend some time in prayer, and ask God:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalms 139:23–24).
Ask honestly, “Is there anything I did to contribute to this situation? Is there anything I can learn from this?” It is true that you may be an innocent victim of circumstances. Or, perhaps, you contributed at least partially to it. Perhaps hardship is entirely the result of your mistakes or sins. Admit it to God (confession), ask for His forgiveness, and seek His wisdom and power to live a better life (repentance).
Many people today say that “All things happen for a reason.” However, God’s reasons are never unreasonable, irrational, or capricious. He has a redemptive purpose when bad things happen to us. He is not seeking to destroy us, but rather, to heal us.
This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.