Resting: Suffering as an Invitation, Pt 3
Suffering is never something we’d ask for but it comes our way nonetheless. From what we see in Scripture, it is inevitable because we live in a fallen world and it is also the way that the Lord graciously loosens the grip we have on the things of this world. In an amazing display of grace, He uses the inevitable to produce what we find incredibly difficult to choose on our own. Indeed, we frequently find ourselves unaware of idols and sinful patterns that need releasing. Suffering opens our eyes and, if we let it, opens our hands.
Because God never coerces or forces us, in our sufferings we are given the invitation to release. In the account of Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4, we see first that Jesus receives the invitation to listen to God’s voice rather than take things into His own hands.
Next, Jesus confronts a second temptation: “Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you.’”
Satan uses Scripture in an attempt to create a sense of entitled expectation. The statement that He will command his angels is a quote from Psalm 91 in which God is described as keeping safe those who are His. However, it is not a license to presume God will come running at our bidding. God is the one who does the commanding. We do not command Him or His angels.
What does this have to do with suffering and the potential temptations therein?
When we are in the midst of suffering, we want to make sense of things. Our flesh often cries out with the question, “What did I do wrong?” Or, “What could I have done differently to prevent what is happening to me?” Or, “What can I do now to fix it?” Reflective questions like these can be helpful in some situations but they can also be used in unhealthy ways to try to alleviate our pain and re-establish our sense of peace and well-being. Essentially, these are “shame” questions. They all assume that if suffering occurs, it is because I did something wrong.
Shame is the internal experience of saying, “There is something wrong with me.” Abuse survivors often feel shame, supposing there is something wrong with them that led to the abuse, when that is the furthest thing from the truth. Children of divorce report feeling that if they had only done something better or been a better child, their parents would still be together. For those who deal with shame, engaging in behaviors that give a sense of control can be soothing because shame can make one feel completely out of control.
When we feel that sense of shame, we look for anything to make us feel better … to make us feel loved and cared for. This often leads to trying to fill ourselves with approval from others as we seek to look good in the eyes of others, perform, or even strive for acceptance. Or perhaps, we isolate and protect ourselves from others so that our sense of shame can’t be reinforced.
In suffering, shame surfaces and so can our sense of what God should or shouldn’t do to affirm us and care for us. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tempted Eve by calling into question God’s goodness. The reasoning was that if God was good then “He wouldn’t keep this beautiful piece of fruit from you.” When we suffer, we can begin to believe that if God loved us He wouldn’t let something bad happen and He certainly wouldn’t deprive us of something. So, if something bad happens, He must not love us. Shame is a weapon that the enemy wields to keep us away from trusting a loving Father.
The temptation for Jesus was to alleviate the pain of suffering through doing something extraordinary that would encourage the crowds to laud Him rather than resting in His belovedness that transcends circumstance. It can be easy to believe we are loved and cared for when the circumstances of life are rosy. Sufferings offers an opportunity to receive His love in the depths of who we are … beyond the vicissitudes of life.
In response to the temptation, in Matthew 4, Jesus says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” In other words, Jesus was saying: “nothing needs to happen for me to rest in my Father’s love for me.” The invitation here is to rest in the Father’s love as we trust that He doesn’t need to do anything to prove His love for us.
So, the temptation in the midst of suffering is to question God’s love. We may find ourselves tempted to test His love as we ask for signs or pray in ways that suggest His love is not valid unless He removes or transforms the suffering.
The reality is that God allows us to encounter suffering not in spite of His love but precisely because of His love. There are things that cannot happen if we don’t encounter suffering. Namely, experiencing His love and care as actualities rather than theories. Further, as we grow in deepening intimacy with God, we share in His sufferings because of love (Philippians 3:10).
Romans 5:1-5 encourages us in this way:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, wehave peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.More than that, 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 through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
This beautiful passage describes the reality that we rejoice in sufferings because they lead us to living in hope, the hope that we are being transformed into the likeness of God, His glory. And that hope does not lead us to shame (thinking we did something wrong or that God doesn’t love us), but we are lead to resting in God’s love which is already in our hearts. Suffering releases our grip on things that don’t matter so that we can live from our hearts where we rest in His love.
One way to visualize this is to see ourselves out in the water. When we fight and grasp for something to hold, we miss out on the power of the water to hold us. When we release the grasping and allow our bodies to rest, we are able to float on the water. Indeed, the water of God’s love is enough to hold us and we rest in its power to hold us when we cease striving.
So, we don’t test God’s love but we rest in God’s love.
How might God be leading you to rest in His love in the midst of suffering?