Where is God in Our Suffering?

This past Sunday at St. Paul’s Leaskdale, we enjoyed a Family Service, where our whole church body came together for worship, rather than having children’s ministry during the service. It was a beautiful time where we looked at different ways we “experience” God in prayer, and specifically prayed for healing for many different individuals. While a few oral prayers may have been uttered, the basis of the service was to experience prayer through art or other physical media that we can utilize when words elude us.

One of the highlights was seeing eighty-year-olds, sitting on the floor next to four-year-old kids, colouring prayers to the Lord, expressing their prayers for healing in wordless sighs/groans. But something struck me in this service, an often-cried plea from believers and unbelievers alike.

All of these people were gathered praying prayers of healing, but what about the times when it seems like our prayers go unanswered? What about the times when it seems like our prayers fall on deaf ears? I don’t think this more profoundly affects people anywhere than in prayers of healing.

I do not think for a second that those who find healing are somehow better Christians, or prayed the right words, or had stronger faith than those who don’t find healing. I have seen God radically heal people through prayer, and others pass away despite prayer. The problem of suffering is a timeless dilemma. When we ask questions like these we deal with God’s providence and presence uniquely amid human suffering. And I don’t think there is a “right” answer to how God answers prayer.

But human responses to this question sometimes seek to control suffering and fail to address a complex, omnipotent, all-loving God.

In the Old Testament, in the book of Job, we meet Job, who was a righteous man who followed God in his very being, and yet was afflicted with horrific things. His friends come around him as his life literally crumbles around him (losing his family, his livelihood, and even his own health), and question what he had done that caused the calamity. Job replies that he did not do anything to cause it; which indeed is correct!

But that is unfortunately an all-to-common notion, even today, that God brings problems into peoples lives for a reason, to teach them, or because “they sinned.” But as Christians this is not helpful nor correct. In the book of Job, it was not God bringing these struggles into his life, but rather a story of Job being tested by evil. It used to be the common belief in the Old Testament that if a person sinned they would be punished accordingly. But we receive something very different from Jesus in the New Testament. Suffering happens despite Job’s faith and righteousness. And sometimes healing and restoration occur, and other times they do not.

Another take on the problem of suffering is in the Gospels, where Jesus meets a man who is blind since birth. The people test Jesus asking if it was the man’s sin, or the sin of his parents that caused his blindness. Jesus replies to them, “Neither.” He goes on to say that the man is blind, but that the miraculous thing is him receiving his sight back. And the miracle is to and for the glory of God. This New Testament angle of God’s providence in a challenging situation, and the meaning behind human suffering is likely where more people today find themselves.

But I think there is a further answer to suffering and elusive healing, and that comes in the theology of the cross. Now, you may not agree with this theology entirely, but the essence of it is that God suffers with us. God is not absent in our suffering, or punishing us for wrong-doing, but rather God, in Christ, suffers with us.

Furthermore, when God suffered in the person of Christ dying on the cross, he experienced the fullness of human suffering. He died because of our sins, the sins of the world, and bore the immensity of that burden. This theology is called theology of the cross for this very reason: Christ suffers on our behalf, but he also suffers with us.

Even when God does not bring physical healing in the way or the timing that we want or see fit, God is still there in the midst. I love the story of Lazarus. Jesus gets there too late; Lazarus is gone, and Mary and Martha are wailing, and blaming, and bargaining. And before he does anything to remedy the situation, Jesus weeps. Christ weeps. God weeps with us. (*Photo Jesus Wept, by Joann Lee Kim).

We are never alone in our suffering because we have a God who loves us so deeply that He weeps with us. This doesn’t answer all of the problems of suffering, but I know I can stand firm in the promise—that “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The answer to the question, “where is God in the suffering?” is simply, Emmanuel—God with us.

What about you…Where do you find God in the suffering? Why do you think our prayers sometimes appear to go unanswered?
Journal Questions:

  1. What area of your life do you need healing in?
  2. Have there been times in your life when God answered your prayers and brought healing? Describe them.
  3. Have there been times in your life when God didn’t seem to answer your prayers the way you wanted? Describe them.
  4. One way we believe God works in the world is through believers in the local church. How can you come alongside someone right now in their suffering?

*Joann Lee Kim is an incredible artist who often does live art during sermons and services. This piece is a reflection of a church service at Bothell United Methodist Church near Seattle, Washington. Follow the link to see more of her art or visit her facebook page.

*For further reading on this topic I would highly recommend C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain.

Teach Me How To Pray: Thanksgiving

Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Well put, Einstein! In life, you come across both kinds of people day-to-day—those who live graciously, and those who are never happy with anything! For pessimists (who of course consider ourselves realists), prayers of thanksgiving might not come naturally. But prayers of thanksgiving are crucial because they reorient our lives and correctly attune our hearts toward God.

Some of us, though, do not even remember our many blessings. As soon as we receive a gift, we say thank you, then promptly forget our heart of gratitude. The Israelites were an excellent example of this.

In the book of Exodus, they finally get out from under the reign of Pharaoh, and they start complaining to Moses that they live in the wilderness. Then they get past that complaint, and complain about their lack of water. When God gives them water, they complain about their lack of food. When God gives them food, they complain about their lack of dietary diversity. But isn’t that exactly what we do so often without realizing it?!

We must first remember everything that God has done for us…write it down! Then we must consciously thank God for our blessings. The Psalms are ripe with prayers of thanksgiving. Psalms 65, 103, and 138 are classic examples of prayers of thanksgiving. Psalm 105 is a helpful example of how we ought to remember and be grateful for what God has done. Try reading them in multiple translations/paraphrases. The NIV tends to be the most readable, but The Message paraphrase packs some powerful prose, especially in Psalm 103.

Ultimately, when you begin to pray prayers of thanksgiving regularly, you begin to cultivate a lifestyle of thanksgiving. The apostle Paul, in the New Testament, illustrates this well. He starts most of his letters, to the churches he helped plant, with a message of thanksgiving. Romans 1:8 (NIV): “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.”

And Paul did not live a comfortable life! He was repeatedly beaten for his faith, he was shipwrecked, attacked, persecuted, and barely had his basic needs met. And yet, he writes to the church in Philippi, thanking them for their gracious support of him in his ministry, but making clear he is not asking for more: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12-13, NIV). Paul knew what it was to have a lifestyle of thanksgiving—to consciously be grateful for the little things.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” Chesterton understood and lived a lifestyle of thanksgiving.

A lifestyle of thanksgiving considers the myriad of “miracles” in the everyday.

A helpful reminder of this that has caught me off guard in recent years, is when I complain to my sister, she often gives me the look, rolls her eyes and says in a tone of mild superiority, “First world problem!” It checks my gut real fast. We often take for granted the many things in life that enrich us, the little “miracles” all around us. We also take for granted the many gifts that we have simply grown accustomed to as a way of life (hot water, electricity, cell phone data, high-speed internet, clean drinking water, clothing, food, etc).

I spent a couple of months in Guatemala back in 2010 living and working at an orphanage with babies and toddlers and teaching English at a school. During that time, I learned gratitude…and slowly forgot it since. Each day I spent about two minutes in a cold shower before the crack of dawn, in a lightly cockroach infested bathroom, before heading to work with twenty babies and toddlers for the day. During the kid’s nap time, I would normally spend a couple of hours reading, and after I finished all 8 books I had access to, I spent time writing on recycled scrap paper that I found in the orphanage office. A very simple life, where nothing could be taken for granted.

We ate three meals a day, which was an overwhelming extravagance for the staff and kids on site. Breakfast consisted of atole almost daily (a beverage somewhere in between cream-of-wheat and soupy oatmeal). Lunch was normally rice and refried black beans, sometimes a small portion of meat, and Monday, Wednesday, Friday tortillas as well. And dinner was normally rice and refried black beans again. On special days of harvest, we would also get a vegetable fritter of some sort for lunch. Those were the days I looked forward to!

About a month into my time there, a nearby hotdog factory had cases and cases of unsold product that were about to expire that they graciously donated to us. So, for a week or so, hotdogs were served with every meal. It wasn’t until my time there was drawing to a close, that another orphanage traded some of their nearly-expired donated yogurt, with our nearly-expired donated hotdogs. That truly was a luxury!

My point is that by third world standards, we had it good at the orphanage…really good! We had food on the table and purified water to drink. We had clothing, education, and general safety (a premium in Guatemala), and we even had vegetables on occasion.

But everyone around me knew how good they had it, and they cultivated a lifestyle of gratitude.

I met a fifteen-year-old mother there, who had an 18-month-old son, who was conceived neither out of love, nor choice. But every morning she brought him to the baby house; and when she picked him up, she poured forth colourful praise and gratitude to all the woman who cared for her son so that she could go to school. That little girl, despite the horrific circumstances of her childhood, lived a lifestyle of gratitude.

Those who travel to “help” people often come back with much more than they give…If I learned nothing else in my time there, it was to cultivate a lifestyle of gratitude toward God. We have been given much!

Journal Questions:

  1. Read Psalms 65, 103, 105, and 138. What similarities and differences do you see in these Psalms? What emotions do you feel when you read these?
  2. Do you currently live a lifestyle of gratitude? If not, what steps would you need to take to get there?
  3. Write out a prayer of thanksgiving. (Be sure to include the people, things, and intangibles that you are grateful for).
  4. Try praying a prayer of thanksgiving right when you get up in the morning every day this week. How does it change your outlook on the day?

Teach Me How to Pray: Confession

What does it mean to confess our “sins” to God? What if we forget a “sin”? What if we die before we confess all our sins? Will we still be forgiven? These are all questions I have heard on the topic of confession. But something in me was stirred this past week as I sat in a discussion with other Christians on the troubling topic of confession. And what became even more apparent is that people who don’t consider themselves Christian are probably even more troubled by traditions surrounding confession.

So, while we are on the topic of “Teach Me How to Pray,” I thought that a post on prayers of confession might be due.

As I grappled with confession this week, several things came to mind. First, what is sin? The historic understanding and interpretation of sin is “transgression”—simply doing something wrong. But I think that limits our perception of sin, and perhaps even undergirds a problematic mentality of sin. If sin is doing something wrong, then as long as we avoid doing those things, we are good to go, and have no need of Christ or salvation because we can do it on our own.

In Matthew 19:16-26 a rich young man confronts Jesus and asks how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus lists off a few commandments for him, and he says, “I have done all these since my youth.” Then Jesus says, “Go, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and then come follow me.” The man is deeply distressed by this because he has so much, and he goes away grieving. Jesus then tells his disciples that it is nearly impossible for the rich to be saved, and they inquire, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

I think in this story, we see a man who did everything right, but still couldn’t attain salvation on his own. He still needed Jesus, even though he followed all the Jewish laws. For this reason, I prefer to define sin as “brokenness,” or as a broken state that we are in as humans. In this way sin covers a multitude of motivations of the heart that we often live out of that are not whole or holy ways of living and being.

When Jesus came into the world, and offered up His life as a once for all atoning sacrifice, it formed a new covenant between God and God’s people. 1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” Similarly, Romans 6:10 says, “The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” In this we no longer need to go to the priest with a sacrifice for each transgression (as the Israelites did according to Hebrew law), but rather can look to Jesus for forgiveness and learn to live repentant lives.

Repentance is simply a turning away from one way of life toward a better way of life. God desires our wholeness and to be able to live in relationship to us. That is what repentance is about, a turning toward God.

So, what should confession look like today? Confession should focus on repentance (turning back toward God), or as my husband says, “leaning in to Jesus.” When we lean in to Jesus wholeheartedly, we can share everything with him—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Being vulnerable with Jesus in prayer means putting it all out there. Often when we pray we give sanitized versions of what we really mean, but God knows our hearts, so this attempt to sugar-coat is both futile and inauthentic.

Being vulnerable with Jesus means opening up about our brokenness: not just listing off the things we have done wrong, but getting at the root of our brokenness. Talking about sin as transgression misses that we need healing from the ways we have been victimized and the ways we have victimized others. It misses that we need healing from the ways we have tried to get there on our own by being good. It misses that we need healing from the ways that our motivations were wrong, as well as from the things that we didn’t do that we should have done. But talking about sin as living in a broken state, resonates with the reality of life on this planet.

Most people are comfortable being just a little bit vulnerable. A friend of mine refers to this type of vulnerability as being slightly “wind-blown.” Maybe your hair is a bit tousled. But abandoned vulnerability before Jesus is equivalent to ugly-crying. Abandoned vulnerability looks like the woman in Luke 7, who weeps at the feet of Jesus, seeking forgiveness. When we let Jesus into those deep places of brokenness, we open ourselves to healing in new ways. We create the opportunity for repentant hearts and repentant lives when we recognize that we are very imperfect, and yet perfectly loved as children of God.

So what should confession look like today? I think confession has more to do with identifying the ways we are not living in the right direction—toward God, and asking God to be involved in correcting that. I don’t think there is some magical prayer we can say to make our sins vanish. I think it has more to do with having repentant hearts and desiring to turn back toward God.

But very simply, a prayer of confession would include asking God to show you the ways that you have failed to love others and to follow Him well. It would include asking for forgiveness, and should also include asking God to help you to live “toward Him.”

A basic template would be: Jesus, Open my eyes to the ways I am not following you. Forgive me for the way I have failed to love you and others well. Teach me to live “leaning in” to you. Amen.

Journal Questions:

  1. Read the following prayers of confession from the Bible. (Psalm 39, Psalm 51, Nehemiah 1:4-11, Matthew 23:32-43, Luke 7:36-50) What resonates with you?
  2. Do you notice a difference in the prayers of confession from the Old Testament to the New Testament?
  3. Read Luke 7:36-50. What does this tell you about Jesus? What can you learn from the woman and how she seeks forgiveness?
  4. Write your own prayer of confession. You can use the “template” above to work from or try something totally different.

 

*For further reading on prayer, and prayers of confession, I would recommend Too Busy Not to Pray, by Bill Hybels.