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What I Learned in Church Today: God Suffers Our Pain With Us

Today in church (as I write this), Pastor preached on Acts 27:1-12 and Paul’s rather “stormy” trip toward his final destination (in more ways than one) Rome. What I found most useful in today’s sermon were the notes at the conclusion. Normally, this part of the sermon doesn’t “float my boat” since these notes are usually an attempt to take ancient events, spiritualize them, and anachronistically apply them to everyday life in 21st century America.

But this time, I decided to see if these notes could be applied to my life. There are three of them.

Do you believe that God is sovereign over all the storms in your life?

As opposed to what? No, really. As an abstract concept believing what I believe about God, my immediate answer has to be “yes,” but it’s more complicated than that. It’s one thing to say that “God is in control” and that “we win in the end,” and another thing entirely to receive a diagnosis of cancer (no, I don’t have cancer) or that your child was in a serious car accident and is in ICU (don’t worry, my kids are all fine).

Then, no matter how much you “think” God is sovereign over every single detail of your existence, suddenly the pit of your stomach drops out and at least momentarily, panic sets in with the vengeance of a really angry Grizzly Bear. Sure, given enough time, you can regain your emotional equilibrium and refocus on God, but for those first few seconds or minutes (or longer), unless you are a terrifically spiritual person and always totally in tune with God, you’re going to lose it.

Here’s the first thing I wrote down in my notes when Pastor asked the question:

Yes, but that doesn’t mean I still won’t drown.

Here’s the second thing I wrote down.

We don’t have an absolute view into God’s plans for us as individuals.

God can be absolutely sovereign over the storms in our lives and we can still lose a leg in a car crash. We can still end up with a child in intensive care. We can still die a long, lingering, painful death.

God’s sovereignty contains no guarantee at all that our lives won’t be painful and end tragically. When we think of God being “in control,” we really mean that God would never let anything bad happen to us. But just look at Paul’s life. God let everything bad happen to Paul.

But the key is, no matter what happened, Paul still served God faithfully, with an almost supernatural focus (I’m being slightly tongue-in-cheek here) on Yeshua (Jesus) as the author of his faith and the “perfecter” of his existence, both in this world and the one beyond.

Which brings us to Pastor’s second question:

What are you doing to learn to trust God in the storms of life?

I remember a scene from the film Finding Nemo (2003). Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) and Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) are inside of a whale, basically hitching a ride to Sydney, Australia. The water inside the whale starts to drain. As usual, Marlin senses disaster while Dory is willing to trust. Marlin is hanging onto some part of the whale’s insides to keep from falling back into the throat. Dory translates the message from the whale.

It’s time to let go.

praying at the kotelI think that’s what trusting God is about, but it’s best to learn to trust him before your life turns to dog poop. While you still have the time, pray with an especially focused Kavanah for an encounter with God. Strive to draw nearer to Him and plead that He reveals Himself to you before you need Him. I promise that if you don’t do this now, you will be doing it once you need God’s help more than anything you’ve ever needed in your life.

Last question:

Do you realize that God is able to use the storms in your life to give guidance to others?

As first, I didn’t read the to give guidance to others part and just saw the question as asking if I realized God could use the storms in my life. Then I realized what was really going on.

Had they trusted in God and followed Moshe, the entire nation would have gone into Eretz Israel led by him. The Holy Temple would have been built, never to be destroyed; the people would have sat, every man under his grape vine and under his fig tree, never to be exiled; and the still longed for, final redemption under God’s chosen anointed would have come. But they didn’t trust and they didn’t obey. So the exodus from Egypt remained eternal, but the entry into the Land was to be transitory.

-Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz
Megillas Eichach (Lamentations), pg 34

If all of the twelve spies Moses sent into Canaan (Numbers 13, 14) had given a positive report instead of just two, obeyed Moses, and obeyed God, the history of Israel would have been written quite differently.

But they didn’t and history unfolded as it did.

The same is true of Israel in the days of Jesus:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’”

Matthew 23:17-39 (NASB)

If Israel had repented in the days of Herod’s Temple, Yeshua would have initiated the Messianic Kingdom immediately, the Romans would have been defeated, the Temple would have been preserved, there would have been no exile, and King Messiah’s reign of peace, mercy, and justice over all of the world would have started and be with us to this very day.

But they didn’t, and untold suffering has resulted.

In the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) gave this sage piece of advice to Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley):

How you face death is at least as important as how you face life.

Regardless of how God provides and what God allows and how God disciplines, your circumstances are less important than how you respond to them. Consider how Israel is responding, not to just all of the rockets Hamas keeps throwing at her, but how the rest of the world is mistreating Israel, believing she is disproportionately responding to these terrorist acts simply by defending herself.

The whole world is watching Israel and waiting for her to blink. So it is true when anyone who professes faith in Christ, especially when we are under duress.

Fortunately, Pastor said that he’s hardly perfect in this area and that there have been plenty of occasions when he’s been stressed and yet taken it out on his family rather than having greater trust in God. There’s a sort of myth, both inside the Church and outside of it, that says when a Christian is having a particularly tough time of it, he or she should be completely calm if their faith in Jesus is solid. Only a failure of faith results in a Christian who cries or yells or begs.

Like I said, it’s a myth.

Father, if you’re willing, take this cup from me…

Luke 22:42 (NASB)

This is Jesus at Gethsemane pleading with God the Father to take away the cup of his crucifixion, his agony, his desperate suffering from him.

This is Jesus saying this. This is Jesus not wanting to suffer. This is Jesus acting just like the rest of us. But the second half of the sentence tells the tale.

…yet not my will but Yours be done.

But he still begged. Flesh and blood, human right down to his DNA Jesus still begged that the cup be taken from him.

There’s no shame in anguish as long as there’s also trust.

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

2 Corinthians 12:7-9 (NASB)

If Jesus wasn’t immune, certainly Paul wasn’t either. How many of his Psalms did David dedicate to his own pain and suffering, withering before a Holy God with his flesh melting and his bones turning to dust?

Save me, O God,
For the waters have threatened my life.
I have sunk in deep mire, and there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and a flood overflows me.
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched;
My eyes fail while I wait for my God.
Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head;
Those who would destroy me are powerful, being wrongfully my enemies;
What I did not steal, I then have to restore.

Psalm 69:1-4 (NASB)

We struggle all our lives between our faith and our humanity, between Divine glory and human weakness. The spirit is willing but flesh…oh the flesh is very weak. Even the best of us, when put to the test, are like a snow cone in a blast furnace.

anguishTo know that God is sovereign and to trust in Him in adversity doesn’t mean you have to be superhuman and it doesn’t mean you don’t get scared. It means when 99% of you is in full panic mode, some tiny voice in the back of your consciousness is still crying out to God, not in terror but in faith, that even if you should drown or be incinerated in the next half-second, if you are not supposed to live (in this life) with God, then you will certainly die in His Presence and live with Him in the resurrection.

Living with God in suffering is like being a terminally ill child. You know you are going to die and you know your Mom and Dad love you very much. But you also know they can’t save your life. You’re still scared and you still don’t want to be away from them, but you know as long as they love you, you’re not alone.

God’s sovereignty in our lives when we suffer doesn’t (necessarily) mean God will stop the suffering. It means He will never abandon us as we are suffering and in some sense, He suffers, too.

The night when hope was enveloped in darkness was about to begin, so God came to Jacob ‘in the visions of the night’ to show him that Jews might be exiled from their land, but they could never be exiled from their God.

-R. Zlotowitz, pp 46-7

When they were exiled to Babylon, the Divine Presence was with them.

-Megillah 29a

And so He is with us.

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12 thoughts on “What I Learned in Church Today: God Suffers Our Pain With Us”

  1. True words, James.

    Several times in my life things have not gone as I thought they would. In each instance the pain and panic and heartbreak were very real. But God always reminded me that He would never leave me in the darkness.

    I think of the 3 Israeli teens who were kidnapped and killed. I cannot imagine the pain their parents are experiencing. But I also know that their deaths have revealed a planned massive attack on Israel.

    Could He have done it differently? He can do anything He wants. But His wisdom is so far above ours. As hard as it is for this strong-willed child to sometimes say, Father knows best.

    In my darkest hours that understanding, along with His promise to never leave me, gets me through. Panic is there, terror sometimes too, but as you pointed out, it’s the second half of the statement that proves the heart – not my will but yours.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2. “To know that God is sovereign and to trust in Him in adversity doesn’t mean you have to be superhuman and it doesn’t mean you don’t get scared. It means when 99% of you is in full panic mode…”

    Lol, and this is when I’ve experienced God most profoundly, in full-on “panic mode”, white knuckles and all. Especially regarding my kids’ welfare, which is always more of a concern to me than my own. This post has me reminiscing on those times I’ve cried out for His rescue (for them). Thankfully, He’s never not shown up in the midst of trusting Him.

  3. This ministered to me greatly today, as the storms of my life have been so monumental and more recently, converging at the same time. after days of weeping and crying out to Elohim, was I directed to Google Plus and your post. Baruch HaShem Adonai.

    May YHVH bless you in your obedience to Him.

  4. @Ruth: I know what you mean.

    @Keith: You’re welcome.

    @Marie: I was just thinking of you yesterday and prayed for you in church. Yes, He is still there. He’s always there. It is our own humanity that sometimes gets in the way and makes it seem God has gone silent.

  5. I went to the article at the Aish link you have in this meditation. Good article, obviously. I have been seeing Dore Gold (among others) in the news I watch [two cable channels that I’m pretty sure you don’t watch]. There are quite a number of representatives for Israel in these settings, while CNN, as is their habit in any topic they grab onto, do more ongoing coverage at all hours every day. On “Meet the Press” Sunday, there was a Palestinian representative interviewed by the main host, as well as an Israeli one in a similar interview. (I’ll try to get their names, or at least the Israeli’s name. It might be better not to name the Palestinian as he was said to be a “moderate” voice, and thereby I think attention to him could be dangerous for him… although he already speaks publicly.) The Israeli guest, who followed upon the other, pointed out two things that stuck with me (that I didn’t already pretty much know): 1) a few people were executed in Gaza a few days ago for speaking out against Hamas [proof the people don’t have free speech with the Jihadist militants there (who are like the extremists plowing through Iraq now and who we see in other places)]; 2) the guest who preceded him has to go back to Gaza, and therefore has to watch what he says. The preceding guest was not denigrated. His choice of wording was put in the light that he isn’t just someone else talking to talk; he lives there.

    Wherever I have seen Dore Gold speak, he has pointed out that many (even most) Arab nations actually prefer (quietly) Israel to Hamas and don’t like the Hamas sort of inclination at all. So, those who align with Hamas are on the fringe and outcast.

  6. That representative of Israel was Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. Rather than “a few,” he said specifically five people.

    I have been somewhat frustrated with CNN reporting on the ground sometimes getting things demonstrably off. Part of the summation after Netanyahu spoke last weekend was that the IDF would be pulling out, although that’s not what was said (anyone listening to the real-time translator could tell). [Nevertheless, it seems that’s what they’ve now done.] MSNBC, on this particularly, was more accurately reporting he’d said “regroup” or “redeploy” [as also at least two or three Israeli representatives I saw said… while Wolf Blitzer got an Israeli representative to confirm his own take of pulling out, after a bit of stammering, “essentially yes”]. MSNBC is generally (besides particularly) capable of more nuance too, and their reporters on the ground don’t just act like the Palestinians are one side/voice.

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