Food For Thought
Warning! This post may not be exactly what you’re looking for. If you looking to make perfect sense of the tough situations you’ve faced or are currently facing, this is not the post for you. If you’re looking for a “three-easy-steps” guide to make your situation go away, sorry, look somewhere else. Instead, this post will remind you of stories in the Bible of people who faced extreme tragedy, heartwrenching pain, and heavy disappointment. I will try demonstrate how people, somehow, found comfort in the midst of pain, and I will look to find God’s perfect place, plan or timing in these stories. I believe these stories are the word of God and are equipped with all the power they need to work in us.
What is the one thing you want when you feel like God doesn’t make sense? Comfort, right? You want to feel comforted by anyone, anything, especially God. The history of the word “comfort” shows the ever-changing way I see God’s work in our pain. The word is made from two Latin word parts, com-, which loosely means “together with,” and fortis, which means “strong or strength.” Later, the Latin word confortare came to mean, “to strengthen much.” Eventually, an Old French word, conforter, adds words like “solace” and “help” to the definition. In the 14th century, another French word, conforten, is defined as, “to cheer up, console.” Finally, by the 17th century, the English version of the word implies the sense of physical ease that we understand today. (Definitions from Oxford Languages).
When I think of comfort, I think of fluffy pillows, duck-down duvets, a hug from wife, an encouraging word from a friend or colleagues and a “at-a-boy” from my father. I even think about that pair of shows I wear again and again or a hairstyle you always stick too . In about a millennia, this word went from meaning, “together-strength,” to meaning “pain-barrier.” It changed from understanding God’s comfort as His company, to understanding it as His intervention. When something terrible happens and I don’t see God intervene, I wonder whether He’s really there at all. But, I’m not alone. Before the “comfort” word morphed, King David experienced many times when God seemed inattentive. Read his letters to God and try to keep pace with his seemingly varying take on God’s place in his struggle.
For the director of music. A psalm of David.
1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Notice how in Psalm 13, King David is questioning and doubting God’s presence. He asks if God has forgotten him. See how sorrowful he is feeling? I’ve been there too many times to count or mention!
And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.
1 Thessalonians 2:13
God’s word is 100% true. We can and must accept it as such. It may be a difficult read sometimes because there are many stories of war, famine, lamentations, doubt and so on – but remember, His Word, His plan, is always for your own good. We accept His as His Word and not anyone else’s.
1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
6 The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.
7 He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:
8 The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
15 The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
17 But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children—
18 with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.
19 The Lord has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.
20 Praise the Lord, you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
who obey his word.
21 Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts,
you his servants who do his will.
22 Praise the Lord, all his works
everywhere in his dominion.
Praise the Lord, my soul
Now look at Psalm 103. What a turn around! If you ever read a Psalm or sang a song in praise and worship of the goodness, dominion, power, companionship and comfort God brings – this is one prime example!
Is God my Savior?
Today, it’s 13° outside – a family of five in the middle of township is without power, has no running water and is struggling just to keep warm or prepare a meal. Been South Africa, that same family most likely only has one income earner, so the little they have has to go a long way. They’ll be lucky to get a slice of bread or two each for the day. 1000s of people, families in South Africa are sleeping in the street with a cardboard box to keep them warm, if they lucky. Today, a family in Europe will tragically lose a child to an unexpected disease. In the next 24 hours, in other impoverished regions of the world, thousands of children are expected to die due to a lack of food, clean water, no food and diseases.
Then, by now, you would know how the pandemic, COVID-19, has brought the world to a standstill. People are scared of catching it, locked up in their homes, unsure about vaccines and living in fear of a disease.
Maybe today, but almost definitely this year, natural disasters will strike and suddenly kill thousands.
Coming back to South Africa, over the last week, the country has been brought to its knees by riots, looting and untimely deaths as a result.
If God’s existence was determined by His prevention of our world’s pain, then He’d be gone with the next strong wind that blew across the earth.
I’m not the first one to let difficulty cause me to doubt whether or not God is who He says He is. John The Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, is famous for preaching about the coming of Jesus and proclaiming that he wasn’t even worthy of lacing up Jesus’ dirty sandals. Later, John ended up wrongly imprisoned after spending his whole life for God. In fact, he was put in prison for preaching God’s truth. John had moments where he had second thoughts when from prison he wrote to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” John wanted to be sure that Jesus was truly the Savior that he’d made him out to be. But maybe John was also wondering if Jesus would be the one to come to his prison cell and break him out?
Then, Jesus, who basically called John the Baptist the greatest human to ever live, responded by pointing to some of the miracles He had done, and finished with, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” It’s as if Jesus said, “Look, John, I’m the Savior, but don’t blow your blessing by getting ticked off at me for not saving you from prison.”
In short, Jesus thought John was a stellar servant of God. Jesus essentially said, “Yes, I am the Savior, and I do saving works.” Then, He didn’t save John from prison, or from getting his head chopped off. What can we take away from this story? Whether or not God diverts your struggle does not determine whether or not He is God. And, proof of how God feels about you might not be happening to you today, but it happened to Jesus 2,000 years ago, on the cross.
We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” – CS Lewis
I think about the worst situation I have been through and survived to tell the tale. There are some very painful lessons and truths I’ve learned but I realise now that God was doing what was best for me. It hurt coming to this realisation!
Remember earlier what I spoke about the word “comfort” as “together-strength.” If God’s comfort is found in His strong company, then a difficult situation can be something we face with the powerful and loving comfort of God’s presence. It can be very hard to see it this way, but the situation itself could at times be God’s strength for us. Read that last sentence again until it hits you.
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:
Trials and Temptations
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
9 Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.
12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
The dangerous and bad theology comes in to the picture if I was to describe every trial and difficulty I face as something God is intending to use to make me grow or learn something. It’s equally dangerous theology to assume that God never puts me through any struggles to strengthen me. The knowledge that His strength is with me, and that I can come out stronger, holds in it the power to separate me from my need to know, “God, how could you let this happen?” It’s okay when God doesn’t make sense. It should be enough to know He’s Immanuel, God With Us, and He has the power to turn what’s hard for me into what’s good for me. In the passage above, notice how much emphasis is placed on perseverance! Enough said.
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
Be Ready To Listen
Has this happened to you before. You in the middle of the road with no petrol in your car. The warning light was flashing, I could almost hear the engine praying for more petrol and I know the fuel consumption is not great but I continued to push through and see how far. The issue was obvious, but I tried to live with it. Holding down the accelerater a little less, just don’t overrev and you’ll be fine. What first was inconveniently noticeable becomes conveniently a problem, the dreaded moment happened, I found myself at the mercy of a nearby petrol station to bring me a few litres of petrol in a water can. My car raised its voice to get my attention and I ignored it.
There’s a Bible story like this. Eli was a good man who gave his life to serve our God. He was a high priest and judge over Israel – the middle-man between God and His people. Eli was God’s listener and God’s voice to communicate any vision, law, or prophecy the people needed to hear. He also oversaw the temple which made people able to submit their offerings and requests to God. A woman named Hannah—who was painfully unable to bear children—made the trek to Eli’s temple each year to plead for a child. Despite God’s lack of cooperation, she remained faithful. One year she told God that if He gave her a son, she’d give him back to serve the Lord.
1 Samuel 3:1 NLT says … In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions. … Despite God’s direct words being rare, in the second chapter of 1 Samuel, a man of God came to Eli with a flashing “petrol light” from God. Eli’s sons were sinning against God and His people by robbing the temple offerings and seducing women at the temple gates. Eli knew, but just scolded his sons and allowed them to remain in their temple roles. His car was chugging along, but he just added some more laid off the accelerator a little.
Meanwhile, Hannah miraculously gave birth, weaned her son Samuel, and brought him back to Eli’s temple to serve God just as she promised. If Hannah had a car, she’d have probably fill up with petrol even before the meter reached half way.
I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him.
1 Samuel 1:27
As Eli’s temple helper, Samuel heard a voice call his name three times one night. Despite his role as God’s listener, it took Eli three times of Samuel coming to him before he realised the voice might be coming from God. Finally, Eli seemingly remembered something he had once learned. “Next time you hear the voice, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”’ God spoke to Samuel the fourth time. Sadly, the message he received was doom for Eli’s family.
By the time Eli remembered how to hear, he was in the middle of the road, hazard lights on, walking annoying to a petrol station to find help. Eli’s career was to listen to God. With Jesus as our High Priest, God’s Word as our guide, and the Holy Spirit as our helper, we no longer need an intermediary. We are both Hannah and Eli. We get to hear from God directly and follow Him devotedly. But, when God doesn’t make sense and seems uncooperative, are we like Hannah who remained faithful, or like Eli who became a selective listeners?
In Good Company
There is a difference between people like Eli from earlier, who experience pain because they haven’t been listening, and people like the Apostle Paul, who experience pain despite their devotion and steady requests to God. However, while the people may be different, the pain feels the same. It hurts and leaves us asking, “Why, God?”
Have you ever grabbed a rose assuming the thorns had been removed? The result is a needles poke into your fingers followed by a bone-throbbing reminder of your mistake. Yet, the thorn Paul describes in our reading today from 2 Corinthians chapter 12 is different. Paul describes a thorn that remains in his flesh.
…I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Paul wants the Corinthians to know about his thorn because the thorn causes him to rely on God, and he hopes the Church of Corinth will rely on God, too. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. If Paul stopped there, this concept would be a little easier. We could envision a God who swoops in and picks us up when we’re too weak to go on or get out of bed.
It gets a little trickier. These verses suggest that Paul’s thorn—which he also describes as a messenger of Satan—was not a seldom occurrence of weakness but rather a steady companion. Harder still, Paul explains this thorn was given to him as a strategy to poke a hole in his ego. Suffering so that God’s work could not be claimed as Paul’s work. Paul calls his perpetual pain a gift that reveals God’s true comfort for man. In other words, pain reveals God’s “together-strength” that transforms our failure into His perfection.
When God seemed inattentive to Paul’s pain, he could have assumed God was either absent or abusive. Instead, he recognised that pain put him in good company.
What are some thorns you need to see for their roses? How does your pain provide you opportunities to partner with God in ways you couldn’t if He took it away?
Who else received thorns as a strategy to unveil God’s perfect strength for our persistent weakness? Jesus.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5
If you’ve lived at least a couple of decades, you’ve most likely experienced death. No matter who I have lost or how I felt losing them, death is arguably the most difficult thing I have faced. Maybe it’s the seeming finality of death that is so hard. In comparison, every other pain I experience seems treatable, preventable, repairable, or at least tolerable.
For many followers of Christ, the moment I realised a loved one is really gone is when I experience our deepest doubts of God. Streaming thoughts turn into silent prayers, “God, how could You let this happen?”and, “You even listening?”, “Do you care?”, “Are you even there at all?” Basically, we accuse God of being either an imposing fake or an absent bystander.
Read: John 11
When close friends and followers of Jesus—Mary and Martha—told him their brother Lazarus was sick and dying, Jesus did not come. Even though He was only a day’s walk away, Jesus let Lazarus die, then let Mary and Martha grieve alone before finally coming. When He did arrive, Lazarus was already decaying in a sealed grave. Mary stayed home, and Martha let Jesus know that He was late. Then, Jesus called for Mary, who came weeping. Jesus’ responses to Mary and Martha are some of the most powerful scriptures in the Bible. When Martha told Jesus he could have kept Lazarus from death, Jesus responded, “… I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die … ” Then, when Mary wept, Jesus wept.
Jesus’ tears paint a picture of a God who hurts when we hurt, but also a God who hurts because we hurt. He is not the origin of death and separation. Sin is. He is the very one who looked death in the eye and conquered it for us. He understands, better than we, the true effects of death in the world and life He created for us. So, just because He doesn’t stop pain from happening to us, doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt Him too.
If you finish the story, you know Jesus wept right before he brought Lazarus back to life. He also knows that for whoever believes in Him—including people we love—death is not permanent, and life with Him is eternal. Does it still hurt when people die? Yes. Does God hurt with us? Yes.
The Same Jesus
The same Jesus who called Lazarus back from the grave is calling me to abundant life. I may be lonely; He is with me always. I may be anxious; He cares for me. I may be tired; He is my rest. I may be lost; He is my way. I may be angry; He is love. I may be broken; He was wounded to heal me. I may be addicted; He is freedom. I may be in darkness; He is a great light. I may be dying; He is the resurrection and the life.
When God seems inattentive, uncooperative, and late, these are the moments when I get to decide what I really believe about Him. Do I believe the Bible stories I read? Even when I decide to believe the Bible is true, I may still sometimes feel like God doesn’t make sense. Yet, I can be sure the same Jesus still hears my cries, shares my pain, and saves my lives. He is my “together-strength.”
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