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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Surprised by Suffering

Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    

 Oxford don and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis spent most of his days as a contented bachelor.


At the age of 57, however, he got the surprise of his life.  He married the American writer Joy Davidman.  The title of his spiritual memoir, Surprised By Joy, thus took on a wonderful second meaning.


Joy was in remission from cancer on their wedding day.  But her cancer returned.  Four years later she was gone, just 45 years old.  Lewis, who had been deeply touched by the gift of her love and companionship, was now crushed by the suddenness of her departure.  It rocked his faith. 


“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God,” he wrote.  “The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.  The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God’s really like.’” 


Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, must be wondering if they have seriously misjudged Jesus.  Their brother became seriously ill.  They begged Jesus to come.  Yet he didn’t.  And Lazarus died.


Why in the world did they have to lose their brother?  It seemed so needless – so out of character for the Jesus they knew and loved.


Author and pastor Tim Keller, who lost his own battle with cancer last spring, often suggested that modern Western people are probably the least capable of “suffering well” in all of human history.  We seem flabbergasted by the sudden arrival of pain – traumatized when things go wrong. 


Keller writes in God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life, “We have too much faith in technology and our democratic institutions, and we are conditioned by our secular, materialistic culture to seek most of our happiness in fragile things like good looks, wealth, and pleasure… Often most of the painful emotions people experience during adversity are actually the shock and surprise that they are suffering at all.”


American followers of Jesus have apparently come to the conclusion that God won’t let awful things happen to us.  He is somehow obligated to answer our heartfelt prayers for rescue. 


Ironically, the person who most dispels this illusion is Jesus himself. 


Jesus, though innocent, experiences extraordinary suffering.  He suffers despite his anguished prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane for a way of escape – prayers which go unanswered.  “Not my will, but yours be done,” he finally says to his Father. 


Before we dive into Jesus’ memorable exchange with Mary and Martha, let’s take one more detour.  What exactly do we mean by the will of God? 

“God’s will” has become a kind of catch-all term for at least four different ways of looking at reality. 

First, theologians speak of God’s Original Will.  That’s a way of describing what God always wanted this world to be.  According to God’s original will, things like heartbreak, betrayal, genocide, and despair would never have been part of the human experience.  Ancient Hebrew poets and prophets proclaimed that this is now a fallen world – fractured in all respects because human beings have abused God’s precious gift of freedom.  In other words, astonishingly, God’s original will has been subverted by our will. 


Therefore we must pay close attention, secondly, to God’s Prescriptive Will, which is an expression of God’s stated intentions for men and women who live in this fallen world.


God’s prescriptive will is closely aligned to everyday issues of right and wrong.  For instance, is it God’s will that I pad my resume with phony academic achievements, lie to my spouse about what websites I’ve been visiting, or steal cash from someone’s wallet?  We can answer those questions with confidence: No.  The consequences of such behavior generate experiences of suffering which we can avoid by choosing to be honest.


Our third category is what theologians call God’s Ultimate Will.  Followers of Jesus believe that certain things are going to happen, and there’s no way they are not going to happen.  It is God’s ultimate will that justice shall be done.  Wrong shall be made right.  The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.  Every promise made to Abraham in Genesis shall be fulfilled.  The world and all of its pain shall be healed. 


Ephesians 1:9 speaks about the “mystery of God’s will.”  For the apostle Paul, a “mystery” had nothing to do with Agatha Christie whodunits.  It was often equated with “an open secret” – something that was hidden for generations, but which had now been brought into the light.  Paul appears to be saying that it was always God’s intention to heal this broken world through Jesus.  That news has finally gone public, and it’s just a matter of time before the whole world hears the message.


To put it another way: God’s original will has not been lost.  It will ultimately be fulfilled.  And everything God originally designed for this world will be on display in the new heavens and new earth.


So where does that leave us in the meantime? 

Every day we live within the fourth reality, known as God’s Permissive Will, or what Leslie Weatherhead called “God’s Circumstantial Will” in his celebrated book The Will of God.  On our way to the world’s deep healing, God permits countless things that are clearly at odds with his stated will – whether original, prescriptive, or ultimate. 


Why does God allow so much pain - especially the kind of suffering that seems to have nothing to do with the choices we make?  This is where our convictions concerning God’s goodness and God’s power may be severely tested. 


How can we ever say that sexual abuse, cataclysmic earthquakes, mass shootings, or the death of a beloved brother are “God’s will”?  How can God bear such things?


Pat answers will never do. 


Therefore Christians point to history’s most unexpected moment:  God did bear such things.  On the cross.  The worst thing that could ever have happened to Jesus of Nazareth – the violence that ended his life – was simultaneously the best thing that could ever have happened to us. 

As Paul says in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”


In the midst of our own pain and suffering, there’s always more than meets the eye. 


God is at work.  Even when we can’t imagine how. 


After being surprised by suffering, Martha and Mary are surprised by what Jesus says and does next. 

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