In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
Right now it is Florida. Before that it was Texas. And before that ... and before that. Wind. Rain. Floods. Fire. Disease. Injury. Illness. The sights and sounds of human suffering come at us from all sides. Sometimes we are the ones watching and listening. Sometimes we are the ones crying out.
In the midst of it all, I am reminded of an observation made by one of my seminary professors (now bishop) C. Fitzsimons Allison. He said that in the face of real pain, it is quite possible to reach one of two conclusions — God is good and he is not God, or God is God and he is not good.
In the first we contemplate a God who made a wonderful creation but one which is so vast and complex and powerful that, although he has the best intentions, he can no longer control. In the second, we have a God who can do anything he wants, but either doesn’t care about our suffering or, worse, is amused by it.
If those are the only options, then I have no alternative but to join with those who want nothing to do with God. That leaves me and everyone else on our own to fashion a brave new world. Then I look around and ask myself "How that is working out?" The answer comes with the wind and rain and floods and fire and disease and injury and illness whereupon I can throw my hands up in despair, flee as best I can, or resolve to become the toughest and most cynical guy in the room.
But what if there was a third possibility? What if God is God and he is good and, while we don’t understand everything, we can understand enough to trust him? In church circles, we often hear that human beings were created to love God. That is true. But, more importantly, God created human beings so that he could love us.
Parents understand this. We don’t have children so that we can have little beings who adore us. We have children so that we can pour our love into them in ways that help them become good, mature adults. Scripture calls us children of God for a reason. We are, by nature, not only inheritors of incredible potential, but are also rebellious and self-centered beings who exert our free wills in the midst of a fallen world in some terrible and destructive ways.
Like little children, if we are to ever grow up, our heavenly Father has to teach us how to love. The only way that can happen is for the lover to allow the beloved freedom to respond however they will. This loving is risky business. We who are loved by God can choose to reject his love because we flat-out don’t trust him. Or we can respond in love the best we can, knowing in advance that we will too often do so poorly because we have much to learn and because we still don’t fully trust him.
What this means is that pain is an unavoidable part of life. Parents take their children to a playground knowing this truth. Little Johnny will hurt himself trying to master the jungle gym and the swings. He will bonk a playmate over the head because he wants what he has. Or the playmate will bonk him over the head for the same reason. As long as everything is going well, Johnny doesn’t give much thought to mom and dad. But let him get hurt and all that changes. His parent’s role is to bind up his wounds and make sure that Johnny learns from the pain he receives or delivers. To teach him that they can be trusted to be there when he needs them. In short, to love him.
Life is no playground and the suffering we have both seen in others and experienced for ourselves is all too real. But the playground principles still apply. Your heavenly Father knows your name, loves you more than you can imagine, and wants you to be with him forever. He put you here in this fallen world filled with imperfect people just like you so that he could love you into a relationship with himself and others.
Love only grows when there is trust. And trust only grows when it is tested. God is not cruel. He doesn’t toss pain at us to toy with us. But he will use pain to deepen our relationship with him. As long as things are going well, the truth is we may believe in him, but he is often relegated in our minds to the role of parent on the edge of the playground. It is when we are hurting that we discover that he is right by our side, suffering with us even as he binds up our wounds and holds us in his arms. And resting there our trust deepens. And our love grows. He has, after all, conquered sin and death through Jesus — for us.
St. Paul says it best in his letter to the Christians in Rome.
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” (Romans 5:3-5)
You see, we don’t understand everything, but we know that because God is God and he loves us, in the end, no matter what we have gone through, all will be well.
The Rev. Mike Hesse, former senior pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church, is now retired and living in Destin.