Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Course Correction on Suffering

Devotion: Jonah 2:1-3

There is a current in the church that goes something like this: "If I am suffering, it is because I am not loved by God, maybe because of something I did or maybe because God is not loving." As a pastor I rarely hear this idea expressed quite so starkly, but I do hear it in the tone and desires of those I talk with in discipleship and shepherding. On the surface the idea is initially attractive because it gives the sufferer either control or excuse. To explore this, let's take some examples from the Book of Job.
On the one hand, the sufferer could claim that the pain is brought on by his actions, words, attitudes or thoughts. To end suffering means changing behavior under this false idea. The sufferer corrects the wayward actions, word, thought or attitude, bringing himself back into line with God through faith and the suffering ends as he is restored to the love of God. Further, this bankrupt thought has a built-in defense mechanism, namely, if suffering does not end it must mean that further alignment still needs to take place. The sufferer is given false-control over his circumstances and can fall back on blaming himself when suffering does not end. What's worse, the love of God becomes a fee-for-service, meaning it is earned by right behavior and not a gracious gift. This idea is found in Scripture being taught by Job's companions (see Job 11 for example)--and it is damned as heresy by God (Job 42:7-9). Job, for his part, rejects false-control and even proclaims, "Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face" (Job 13:15).
On the other hand, the sufferer could claim that God is unjust and/or unloving. There is no way to end suffering in this false way of thinking, but it does give the sufferer an excuse. In essence, the sufferer can say to himself, "I am good person and do not deserve what is happening to me. Since God is in control, I am a victim of His capricious actions. Woe is me." Here the sufferer does not so much seek to be restored to the love/justice of God (like Job), but rather rejects that God is loving and/or just at all. This is the attitude of Job's wife when she tells him, "Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die" (Job 2:9). Job, for his part, will not give in to his wife's bleak outlook on the Almighty. Though the Lord is responsible for his suffering, Job will not acquiesce to his wife's despair. Instead, Job asserts, "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!" (Job 19:25-27). Job will not give up on God's love and justice, but believes that even if it should mean his death, he will be resurrected at the coming of a Redeemer and will know the love and justice of God anew.
And this brings us to our passage in Jonah. Jonah has fled God's call, been captured by God in his storm, thrown overboard and consumed by the giant fish. Chapter 2 is set in the belly of the fish and there we read:
"Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me." -Jonah 2:1-3 ESV
Jonah views his life as forfeit. In the belly of the fish, being kept alive by supernatural means, Jonah thinks it must be like being dead. So Jonah does the only sensible thing a man in his position can do--he cries out to the God who put him there in the first place. This is where the modern thinker on suffering goes astray so often. In either trying to cease control or make excuse, the sufferer fails to turn to the God who brought on the suffering. Gone from the modern thinker is the notion that suffering can (though not always) be productive.
Jonah's suffering is just (he fled God's call) and loving (God is bringing him back to his call). The suffering of Jonah in the belly of the fish is a course correction, to bring him back to God's will. While I cannot say that all suffering is meant for that purpose, I think as Christians we would do much better to consider that possibility first than resorting to the inadequate explanations/solutions discussed out above. Jonah recognizes that his suffering comes from the love and justice of God and serves God's purpose. We would do well to consider the same.

This is Wendell Kimbrough's rendition of Psalm 69.

News for You:

  • The new youth director position is ready for applicants. If you know of anyone who is qualified for the position, please contact the church.
  • For the month of April, we will be doing a diaper drive for Care Net. Please bring in size three diapers if possible, thank you!
  • CPC is looking for a part-time nursery attendant while Emily Gonzalez is on maternity leave. If you, or anyone you know is interested, please contact church staff.
  • All men are welcome to join the Men’s Bible Study on Mondays at noon, they will be reading from Judges!

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