And it we are honest enough with ourselves to recognize that some of the most powerful and most important miracles ever performed by God are of the quiet, subtle kind, then we begin to understand prayer in a very different way. You see, every single prayer is a petition that God do something, and everything that God does is miraculous. That’s the only way that God works.
And if that’s so, then we should be able to see the miracle in every healthy baby, every happy marriage, and every safe journey — that is, in every single answered prayer.
Ah, but this line of thought quickly leads to some very hard questions, and Christians should never be afraid of the hard questions. Here’s one: Why does my hip hurt so much? Why do I need back surgery? Why have two of my best friends lost children in childbirth? Why have I had friends lose children who were teenagers? Why do bad things happen to good people?
These are not easy questions, especially in a world in which God answers prayer. If we believe that God can and sometimes does answer prayer, why do these terrible things happen?
We all know people who’ve lost their faith because they suffered a terrible tragedy. And we know people whose faith has survived terrible tragedies, indeed, whose faith carried them through some truly horrible circumstances. How does that even make sense?
I’m no great philosopher, and this is just one Sunday school lesson, but maybe I can make a dent in the problem. There are some key principles to remember.
1. God never promised us a bed of roses.
You see, there’s this brand of Christianity, sold in the Bible book stores, that takes verses such as —
(Isa 40:31 ESV) they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
— and pastes them onto placards to be placed over doors and on refrigerators. Christianity is thus sold as a religion that protects us from all harm and suffering. And it’s just not.
I mean, where’s the wood carving that says —
(Rom 5:3 ESV) 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance … .
(Rom 8:16-17 ESV) 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
I guess suffering doesn’t sell like flying on eagles’ wings. But Paul quite plainly sees suffering as an essential element of the Christian experience.
Nonetheless, we have preachers and teachers and merchandisers who sell a brand of Christianity that’s supposedly immune from suffering. And as a result, when we are called on to suffer, rather than expecting that result, we are shocked and hurt and feel betrayed by God for breaching his end of the bargain.
And it’s just a lie. God never promises us a life free from suffering. Obviously Joseph and his father and even his brothers received a fair share of misery — famine, slavery, prison, bereavement, etc.
Well, at least Jacob and his sons suffered for the sake of God’s master plan, for the story to unfold as God willed it. But sometimes it’s hard to see why God has a need for children to die and good people to be in pain.
2. Not all suffering is the will of God.
Sometimes, when something terrible happens, well-meaning people say things like, “Well, it’s surely all part of God’s plan!” Poppycock! Not all suffering is part of God’s plan.
(Rom 8:20-21 ESV) 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
The creation itself has been corrupted and subjected to futility by sin. And it’s not that person A suffers because person A sinned. Rather, because we all sin, the world is not the way it was meant to be, and therefore we all suffer.
In fact, as Christians become more servant hearted, we should become more sympathetic to the sufferings of others — and so we should suffer more with those who suffer.
(Rom 12:15 ESV) 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
And that means the life of the Christian should be filled with both the rejoicing of others and the weeping of others.
Paul actually sees suffering as cause for joy —
(Col 1:24 ESV) 24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church … .
— because to suffer for the sake of others is to become like Jesus.
(Rom 8:35-37 ESV) 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
We are “more than conquerors” because we enjoy the love of Jesus. But that means we cannot be separated from that love by such sufferings as “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword.” It’s not that we’re protected from such suffering, but that Jesus’ love exceeds and overwhelms such sufferings, sufferings that are expected.
3. The retirement plan isn’t all that great, but the death benefits are out of this world!
We Americans live in a wonderful land, filled with economic opportunity, optimism, and opulence. And we are terribly spoiled. We have no idea what most of the world has to deal with, and we rarely see — much less feel — the suffering that our brothers and sisters in other lands often must endure.
I’ll spare you the speech. I’m the wrong person to give it, anyway. I live a remarkably blessed life myself.
But we were not promised any of this. If we are fortunate enough to have a decent quality of life, we should thank God for it, but we should not ever feel entitled to it. We just aren’t. We’re just fortunate. That’s all. And there’s no guaranty that it will last just because we’ve confessed our faith and been baptized. That’s just not the deal.
Rather, the hope that we have comes later.
(Rom 8:28-34 ESV) 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
When are these promises fulfilled? Well, at the Second Coming. It happens when heaven comes down and God walks among his children once again. At that point, the curse will be removed, sin will be defeated, and the Creation will be purified from the corruption of sin. Until then, we wait and we serve.
I like the old hymn —
— because it evokes two important themes.
First, the “land of rest” comes later. We aren’t baptized into an early retirement. In fact, I don’t think we even get to retire at all. Rather —
Second, “we work ’til Jesus comes.” Our calling is to serve, not to be served. Our calling is to submit, serve, sacrifice, and even suffer — because this is the nature of Jesus — until Jesus returns. Then we can rest.
4. God does miracles, but he doesn’t promise miracles. And he chooses what miracles to do based on what glorifies God, not what will make me happy.
Jesus did not heal every blind man on earth, or even every blind man in Jerusalem. Jesus did not restore strength to the legs of every lame man at the pool of Bethesda.
I have no idea how God decides whom to heal and whom not to heal. As the saying goes, “That’s above my pay grade.” I just don’t know, and I long ago gave up trying to figure it out. God plays at a level beyond my understanding, and trying to understand it doesn’t do me or anyone else any good.
But God does heal.
And yet even Paul was denied a miracle —
(2Co 12:7-10 ESV) 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
It’s a hard lesson to learn; a harder lesson to live. But if God chose not to heal Paul, then there aren’t many of us who’ve earned a better deal than Paul. Not a one of us has a right to complain.
Certainly, sometimes God smiles on others in ways that seem unfair. Some people enjoy good health even though they are really not good people at all. Some people have riches and happiness they just don’t deserve. And yet we should all realize that not a one of us deserves any of the blessings that we have. No one is treated fairly, because all of us get better than we deserve — if we’ve been saved. And how can we balance the joy of our salvation against money or health?
You see, we cheapen Jesus’ death when we imagine that being saved doesn’t balance the ledger — doesn’t mean that God’s grace is sufficient for us. When a home with God for all eternity does not make up for the sufferings of this life, well, if that’s how we think, our faith is weak and our hope is even weaker — and Jesus’ death does not mean to us what it should.
Consider these words from Job —
(Job 19:17-27 ESV) 17 My breath is strange to my wife, and I am a stench to the children of my own mother. 18 Even young children despise me; when I rise they talk against me. 19 All my intimate friends abhor me, and those whom I loved have turned against me. 20 My bones stick to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth. … 25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.26 And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, 27 whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!
Despite his suffering, Job finds hope in knowing that his Redeemer lives and that, at the end, he will see God.
I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.
And though worms destroy this body,
yet in my flesh shall I see God. (Job 19:25-26)
For now is Christ risen from the dead,
the first fruits of them that sleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20)