Suffering – Love and Risk

You wrote:

>>So when you state that we need to have faith in the truths and promises of God and I read  passages like Mt. 6:26-30 or Mt.7:7-11 and hear that God will take care of us, of me, and that if I ask I will receive.  To be honest I struggle to believe this as I mentioned in our last discussion.  I can’t help think of people who are not taken care of physically and who don’t get what they ask for.  I guess I have been affected by the health and wealth theology because I focus on the physical when I think of God taking care of us.  I know He does this for us spiritually but I struggle to see how God does this in our physical world.<<

To begin with, over the last months I have become impressed with the fact that when God chooses us to be partners with Him, He really, really means it.  Yet that requires risk.  When one has a child and wants to give that child a responsibility, the parent cannot keep jumping in to “rescue” the situation.  If you want to empower a person, you have to allow him to make a decision, and yet there are always consequences.  Unfortunately, the decision almost always affects others in some way.

So what would you like God to do?  Prevent us from having any responsibility and therefore no ability to choose?  Then there would be no partnership, other than that of a robot merely doing its master’s wish.  Would this be the existence that you, as a human, want?  And would this really be love on God’s part or simply lifeless control (or bold manipulation by making you think that you are choosing when you really are not – a sort of “Matrix” movie scenario)?  Does God really need robots?

I don’t think that allowing humans to make a choice is callous, yet it can mean that one must “bite the lip” in allowing whatever the outcome may result; nor is it turning a deaf ear either to the person with responsibility nor to the victims.  But it certainly does highlight the dilemma that God has placed Himself into.  I don’t think that it was a casual decision for Him to make to allow humans to choose, instead it was one that really does come from His heart, despite the risks that it entails.

Yes, there is suffering, and yet what would you like God to do?  One cannot be locked down on the suffering alone, but also must deal with the larger picture – if there is no ability to choose, then there is no ability to love, because love is something that must be freely given.  In order to have no suffering, then do you want to have no love?  Love itself creates suffering, as when the parent is rejected by a child (Prodigal son parable; and Adam and Eve’s fall) – if the parent didn’t care, then there would be no suffering –; or when the Father watches His Son give His life in order to save “outsiders” (as when the parent watches the son go off to war to rescue those in the clutches of cruelty).  Unfortunately but realistically they are linked: to remove the potential for suffering, then you must also remove love.

You are concerned about the innocent suffering, which is valuable.  So also is God concerned.  Do you not believe that He suffers when He must watch the bad and the terrible choices which humans make, which means that victims suffer – especially all of which He knows in far more detail than we?  Humanity is what He personally hand-crafted!  If indeed He loves, then He must suffer; yet if indeed He loves, then He must also allow the choices which cause His own heart to suffer, and ultimately that He does suffer on the Cross.  Our inclination is to go in and force people to do what is right.  Our inclination is to take away the ability to choose.  But that is not truly loving them, because ultimately then, our objective is simply to make ourselves feel more comfortable by making them into puppets.

God’s love has set the parameters of who and what we are.  We are to reflect Him (“the Image of God”).  He chose to love, His love is freely given, and because of that, His love is creative – that’s how we came into existence to begin with.  How then are we to reflect Him, if we are not allowed to love, to choose to love or to not love?

We see this conflict when God pleads with – not just casually mentions to – His People:

Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.  For why should you die, O house of Israel?  [Ezekiel 18:31]

Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.  Turn, turn from your evil ways!  For why should you die, O house of Israel?’   [Ezekiel 33:11]

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!  [Matthew 23:37]

Over and over, God pleads – and threatens – His People and their leadership to care about the victims, the widows and fatherless, those who have been sold into slavery because of debt.  How utterly frustrating it must be to Him when even with the people closest to themselves they cannot choose to love, much less with anyone else in the world.

Therefore the word of Jehovah came to Jeremiah from Jehovah, saying,

“Thus says Jehovah, the God of Israel: ‘I made a Covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying, “At the end of seven years let every man set free his Hebrew brother, who has been sold to him; and when he has served you six years, you shall let him go free from you.”  But your fathers did not obey Me nor incline their ear.

Then you recently turned and did what was right in My sight – every man proclaiming liberty to his neighbor; and you made a Covenant before Me in the house which is called by My Name.

‘Then you turned around and profaned My Name, and every one of you brought back his male and female slaves, whom you had set at liberty to their delight, and brought them back into subjection, to be your male and female slaves.’

Therefore thus says Jehovah: ‘You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and every one to his neighbor.  Behold, I proclaim liberty to you,’ says Jehovah – ‘to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine!  And I will deliver you to trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth.  [Jeremiah 34:8-17]

What stays God’s hand for millenia?  Why has He wasted so much time pleading with – begging – His People, when He could have just sailed in and made them incapable of rebelling?  On the other hand, why has He kept hanging on to them, when He has every right to eject them into nothingness?  How long would it take before your patience would wear out?  Here again, this is love at work.  His commitment to love – and to have love in return –  is that serious and that enduring.  He would even die in order to renew our freedom to choose.  We, on the other hand, tend to be fickle – we will dismiss someone who does not return our love (or worse); and we “fall out of love.”

But He dies for His enemies, even those who will go to their grave in defiance of Him.  If you are really concerned about the suffering of the innocent, then have you also really looked at the suffering of the Cross, the suffering which was chosen, the suffering which is caused by love, the suffering which we caused?  You want to know that God is truly a loving God, and yet I suspect that you are skipping too lightly over the Cross.  Not that I think you are being merely careless about it, yet I also wonder if you have actually confronted that it was love that compelled every dragged step to that event.  Have you really answered why He would do that?   He was determined to see His love through, then and now, until finally one day He will call the demonstration to a close; He was determined that we should love and therefore should choose.

However, on the other side, the risks were calculated into His decision to love – He fully understood what it would cost – cost Him as well as the humanity He was about to create.  But He also has the wisdom to make those risks have their place within this intent to love.
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Remember this and consider, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all My purpose,’  [Isaiah 64:8-10]

“My purpose” – that has to be understood in light of John 3:14-16 and I John 2:1-2, and the Cross.

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  [John 3:14-16 – note the repetition and the context of each instance]

My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin.  And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins – not for ours only but also for the whole world.  [I John 2:1-2]

Both passages indicate that He is not selective about His love (“whoever” and “the world”), and the Cross indicates that it is not a commitment that He takes lightly.  The “whoever” indicates that the individual has to be noticed.  If He does not, then dying on the Cross as an act of love is senseless.  Then it becomes a bland, over-the-shoulder “whoever … whatever …,” which is the description of indifference, not of love.  Such apathy is not something that would compel Jesus to take the steps to the Cross when in Gethsemane we see the revulsion He had toward what He faced.

Although Gethsemane demonstrated the wrestling that Jesus had as He faced His death, it also was His choice.  Remember how available was the opportunity to bail out at anytime: “Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?” [Matthew 26:53]; and His answer to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If My Kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but My Kingdom is not from here” [John 18:36].

What is striking about the whole sequence to the Cross is that in every step of the way, Jesus had to assist the progress to the crucifixion – look at the force of His presence in His “capture,” His instructing His captors [John 18:3-9] and even healing “an enemy”’s ear [Luke 22:50-51]; He had to give the Jews the ability to charge Him [Matthew 26:60-66] (imagine what would have happened if He just kept silent!); before Pilate, He would not defend Himself to save Himself, which He easily could done (with miracles, no less!) [Matthew 27:11-14].

The permission to crucify our Lord did not as much come from the Father, as much as it came from Jesus Himself, which is a contrast to what we see in Gethsemane.  That is why the Cross is the definition of love, not only of the Father’s love, sending His Son (as the parent “sends” his son off to war), but also in Jesus choosing to trudge the path to Golgotha – and beyond.

It is that “beyond” that must catch our attention.  What makes all this hard for us is that we cannot see the end from the beginning – we just don’t know how the circumstances we see will all turn out, both in the big picture as well in the small.  We don’t know how all of the different elements interact.  We are attempting to do a task for which only God has the capacity.

Although speaking of eternal things may seem to be a cop-out, yet we have no choice because this world is not the sum total of existence.  On the other hand, no, this is not to provide an excuse to merely allow anything to go in this world – still we must include eternity into all considerations.  You are right about the “health, wealth, and happiness gospel” which refuses that “bigger picture.”  The difficulty they face is the expectation that love should always be pleasant and stand for pleasant things, to which the Cross is a big defining barrier against that kind of an interpretation of love.

Imagine, Paul says that he would rather suffer!

Lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.  Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.  And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [II Corinthians 12:7-10]

Realize that his suffering was not his choice but has been “forced” upon him, he is talking as a victim himself.  Not only did he not ask for the suffering, but he also had asked to be relieved from it.  Yet he was subsequently told that the picture is greater than just that of the suffering – that it is only a piece to the picture and also that the suffering is not merely for the sake of suffering.  As with Job, that picture may not be fully visible from our vantage point, and even if it was, would we be able to comprehend it?  However, both Paul and Job declare that the suffering, and being victim, does have an ultimate purpose and place.

The question is whether one would want the real-world love that Paul prefers, in spite of – and because of – the suffering that is encountered, or whether it is to be the insipid “love” that runs from suffering and condemns as in some way defective those who suffer.

However, suffering also does not release us from expressing love either.  How many times did Jesus pass by those who were crucified (since the Romans always crucified on the major thoroughfares into a city), hearing their cries, their moans, their suffering, all the while knowing when and where that that would be Him one day.  Probably, if it were us instead of Jesus, how long would have taken for us to “pull up stakes and  go home”?  How well Satan knew his target in his temptations of Jesus, offering Him the easy way to be “the Lord,” “the King” and “the Messiah”!

Yet Jesus chose the suffering, He chose to love.  The coming agony in no wise diminished His “Glory” – His goodness, Covenant, grace, mercy, steadfast love, faithfulness, forgiveness and justice.  It did not diminish reaching out to those victims in need, whether victim of sickness, of sin, of death, of Satan, or of fellow man.  It did not diminish “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” [Isaiah 53:4].

Again, the partnership we have with God, reflecting His Image in this world, means that we are not to stand in judgment of God, but rather as we see the suffering around us, it calls us to love because He has loved us [I John 4:19 RSV] and because we have been made in His “Soul-Likeness” [Genesis 1:26].  God has never withdrawn His intention that we are to have a participation in His work, a participation in His heart, and a participation in His suffering [Romans 8:17].  Again He waits, as it were, “with bit-lip” the choices that we will make; again He allows the consequences of our decisions; again He wants us to be at work by His side in this universe.

We are not God, though.  It is frustrating to see the vast extent of the need around us and how limited we are as humans.  However, we also do not know who else is to answer His call to compassion – Whom He wills to touch others in their suffering and according to what timetable that may be required.  He never intended that we be all things to all people – that’s His job.  But He does call on us, His partner, to be His representative to individuals that we may meet.  He deals with humanity one person at a time, and we can do nothing greater than that.  But He also does tell us that He will equip us, especially through the Holy Spirit, and that whatever we do, whether we see it or not, will never be in vain  [I Corinthians 15:57-58].

It means then, that when we see suffering, asking “why?” really is not helpful.  This is not meant to cut off this kind of discussion, because it is productive; but rather would not the better course of action be to ask, “OK, Lord, what do you want me to do as Your representative?”  It may be that His response will be, “No, this is not your task – I am calling someone else into action – I must give them the chance to choose.”  It may be that He simply wants you to support the work someone else is doing, providing the validation that they need that they are on the right track.  Or He may have something in mind for you, something specific, and not always something that you may understand fully right now.  If you are the one who sees the need, what then is He calling you to do about it?

No, this is not always satisfying.  Allowing love, allowing choices, will not be a magic cure-all, nor will results always be immediate.  Nor will those results always be what you really want to see, just as there are times when it is the same with the broken heart of our Lord:

Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.”   [Luke 19:41-42]

Of such is love and its choices.

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