On Disease and Suffering Pt. V - God Begins to Speak
Updated: Nov 15, 2018
Reflections on the age old question of how a good God can allow disease and suffering in this world. This will be part IV in however many posts it takes for me to write about how God has responded to my questions over the last few years.
While those instances of blessing and answered prayers were happening one after another, God also began to "speak" to me and reveal some insights that would begin to provoke in me some new thoughts and perspectives.
I had mentioned in my last post how the "start" of this new season began with some meaningful words and prayers about God's "Mother" heart over me and the imagery of a Mama Bird. As we began to experience God's provision for our son's allergy needs, the theme of a Mama Bird continued to pop up in the most unexpected moments. I wasn't looking for it, so it was weird that it seemed to be following me everywhere.
Of all the insights along the way, perhaps the most meaningful was when we stumbled across the passage on worry and anxiety in the Book of Matthew. It was a familiar passage, one that we had read a million times over. Yet during that time, God began to speak to me about it in a completely new way:
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?... 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." Matthew 6:25-34
The birds of the air that are fed by our heavenly Father. Nothing new there. Same passage that I've always read. But what God began to give me insight about what was behind this, which completely changed the meaning for me.
I had previously always interpreted this passage of the birds being entirely happy and worry-free, living a blissfully carefree life. Yet, as my husband and I were discussing this, God highlighted to us the example of the bird on our back patio, and all the other mama birds we had seen before. And it dawned on us that our previous interpretation wasn't exactly accurate - and that in fact, these birds are working extremely hard. In fact, it's a well-known characteristic of birds as being hard at work, always up and out the earliest, gathering food for their little ones; the mama bird we had seen was a case in point, being especially persistent and determined to be able to provide a home for her babies.
It was one ah-ha moment for me because it made the passage more practical and real. It seemed completely un-relatable before, one I never really grasped, as it almost seemed to glorify a reckless way of living or could be taken to imply that we should relinquish any sense of personal responsibility and God would take care of it. It never sat well with me because of that. But this new insight gave me pause. Because it was still about doing our part. Working hard. Giving our all. And resting in that knowledge that when we are doing the best that we can, we could trust that where we ended, God would begin.
It was certainly a thought for me to wrestle with. With my personality, I had a tendency to push myself as hard as possible to reach a desired outcome. It was so difficult to come to grips with the idea that there were things beyond my control. But this revelation, coupled with the favor and kindness that was being shown to us in ways that were completely outside of me, began to minister to my heart - as if God was trying to show me that He was walking with me and indeed had my back.
As I continued to meditate on this passage, a more powerful insight soon came. And it was that Jesus wasn't promising that life would be perfect. While that may seem obvious, I'm not sure it really was to me. "Do not worry" always made me think, well, then that would mean everything was going to be just fine and dandy and perfect, especially since it implied that we'd be fed and clothed. I had interpreted it almost as a promise that if I let go, God would make everything OK.
But as I dug into this more, I discovered the larger context behind these words. While the passage does refer to physical needs, in the parallel passage in the Book of Luke, it is preceded by a passage on not being afraid of those who can kill the body:
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." Luke 12:4-7
Woah. That was a little different. Do not be afraid...of death? Of those who can and maybe will kill you? How could Jesus possibly say that?...
...unless...death wasn't something to be afraid of...
It dawned on me for the first time that "do not worry" might be referring to a much larger picture of life. That somehow, Jesus' overarching message meant that we did not have to worry about death any longer. That death wasn't the end, and as such, we had nothing to fear. How could that possibly be?
As I pored into it more, I began to discover afresh what Jesus had been saying all along. That death was only something to fear if we are apart from God. That death wasn't a threat or punishment of God's anger looming over us, but rather a natural consequence from our actions that God desperately wanted to rescue us from. That we didn't need to fear now, because with Jesus, God was with us again and we no longer had to be separated from God. That the entire purpose of Jesus coming was in fact to save us, to die for us, and suffer the penalty on our behalf - which would eliminate the fate of eternal separation from God and render death a complete non-issue. That was why Jesus could say those things. Because death was no longer the end.
It was never just about this life. It was always about eternity.
I discovered that passage after passage in the Bible reaffirmed this. I'm not sure where this notion I seemed to grow up with of a perfect, easy life if we followed God came from. In fact, the Bible constantly talks about "enduring" our trials, finding the joy in our suffering, fixing our eyes on what's ahead and what's above. Yes, it does also promise blessing in our faithfulness and obedience - but the idea of blessing may not always be a physical one. That our blessing ultimately comes from the joy of truly grasping just how deeply loved we are by our Father, which allows us to be able to fully trust Him and rest in His presence.
That presence was what we had for today. That was another thing - I had been troubled by why the suffering didn't all just go away after Jesus came. Yet during this time, those Biblical passages that referred to the "not yet" began to make more sense. Jesus came and healed while He was on this Earth - but it was a glimpse. The old hasn't yet passed, and the new isn't quite here yet. We are still here, in this life, on this Earth. But as Jesus made clear, we weren't alone anymore. That was the whole idea behind one of his names being Emmanuel, which meant "God with us". What we now had was his presence with us - even in our suffering. I saw in several passages this being manifested when Jesus was physically on this Earth, as he wept with those who had lost loved ones. His heart breaks for what we have to endure.
And I was also reminded what Jesus himself endured. The unjust beating, flogging, and torture. The humiliation and abandonment, even from those closest to him. And ultimately, his crucifixion and death on the cross. Not what anyone would expect from any hero or savior. Certainly not what his followers in his day expected. Can you imagine? We think our political climate is bad; it wasn't anything compared to the cruel and unjust government back then. His followers almost certainly believed Jesus came to lead a political revolution. They were stunned when it wasn't one, many even turning away or turning him in. Because Jesus' way was always about our hearts. All about our spirits. And again, about where we would spend eternity.
This wasn't an easy notion to stomach. Basically, contrary to what I was hoping to learn or hear, I didn't find anything that said God would keep my son from dying of his food allergies. That's what I thought "do not worry" would've meant - what I wanted it to mean - to know that my son was going to be OK. Instead, what God was saying to me was that in fact, my son may die. We all will one day. But that we didn't have to worry, because death was a non-issue. This is all temporary, a blink of an eye, a "breath", and in the context of eternity, it was going to be OK.
At the same time, it wasn't all doom and gloom for the present. With all that was practically going on in my life, God was also showing me that He was at work now. It was as if He was trying to impart this challenging lesson in the context of simultaneously showing me His heart. That in the midst of our suffering, which may not go away in this lifetime, we were still covered with His love, care, and provision in the now. He consistently came through. And most of the time, because it was right in the nick of time and in ways that were completely unexpected, it helped me see that God was the one who was moving.
It was around this time that I also finally found a therapist. The timing was fortuitous, as there was so much to process through. And though I was softening up and appreciative that God was helping me in the moment, many of these insights were largely intellectual. There was still a heart blockage, due to some deeper, more fundamental questions I couldn't reconcile about disease and why all this happened in the first place.
To be continued:
Part VI: Some Emerging Theology on Disease
Part VII: Some Conclusions (Though Always An Ongoing Work-In-Progress)
Part II: Life In Constant Threat
Part IV: The Start of a New Narrative
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