In life, some people seem to have a knack of getting on that path of success, but pitifully, many others feel that they are thrown on the pathway of life. Have we ever asked, "Why?" I wouldn't be surprised if we have, for "whys" have echoed through the halls of human history, as well as through the depths of human suffering. And as humans, we have a need to respond to the "whys" of this world. This is the wisdom of this world; there is an answer to everything. For every situation, for every problem, the world seems to have an answer, a theory, a postulate, a hypothesis.
When we were children, we often took things at face value. And why shouldn't we? As children we had no need to look any further. Babies come from Mom's belly. The sun is just there. Mom doesn't want us to have a certain toy "just because." And a small child cries in a starving poverty-stricken third-world nation because "this is the way things are." When we were children, we didn't need all the answers. But now we are no longer children, and we do need answers. But more often than not, a harsh reality greets us, and we must suddenly acknowledge that we don't have all the answers. And the theories we may have learned in school, the philosophy courses we may have taken just don't satisfy us anymore. So we curse at something seemingly bigger than ourselves; we curse at life itself. "That's life," we hear people say; yet inwardly, we are screaming, "That's my life! It's easy for you to say, 'That's life.'" And so humanity often puts on an ugly mask. We look for someone or something to blame. Some focus their anger on God, some on their spouse; some just choose to exit.
But does humanity have to wear this ugly mask? It is not what we really are. Few people wish to wear this face of despair and frustration. It is foreign to us; yet it is also such an intricate part of our lives. So exactly what relationship does a Christian possess with suffering? Is it a special relationship? Or a non-existent one? Inasmuch as Christians are supposed to be under the umbrella of God's blessing, many Christians undergoing trials and tribulations still ask, "Where's God when I need Him most?" The Lord's reply from the famous story "Footprints" rarely registers.
I believe we often fail to understand our suffering as Christians because we fail to understand our relationship with God. The Lord never said that our life here on earth would be free of suffering; rather, "I will not leave you nor forsake you" (Josh 1:5; see also Deut 31:6, 8; Heb 13:5). Though spoken to those who sought the promised land, this word still applies to us today. It is only when we decide to follow the path of God and strive to dwell in His grace that we can begin to taste God's promises. But we need to first ask ourselves, "Where am I heading for? My dream of God's promised land or the promised land of God?"
It never crossed my mind that I would one day write an article on human suffering, for I am not really qualified to do so. But I felt compelled to write this article for the Lord Jesus in light of a recent experience with human suffering. While, in my mind, I have always known the Lord guides and directs my life, in my heart, I have often forgotten. Too many times I have felt that God's guidance was insignificant in my life, for I have often thought, "I never really see God doing anything, so what does the Lord of the Universe really care about?" Sadly, I held this view because I believed, as people nowadays often do, that events are ordered more by human will rather than divine will. But there are often moments in our lives when we feel the Lord's guiding hand more strongly, and during these moments we can no longer question God's care. And so I would like to share with you a time when my blind eyes were just a little more receptive to God's smiling face.
Not too long ago I faced a low point in my life, a point at which I felt hopeless and depressed in the face of all my problems. Moreover, I knew that my faith was weak. God was someone who lived a million miles away. Most likely, there was a point in your life when you too felt hopeless, a point at which you were too weak to stay awake and face reality. Perhaps there was a time when God lived a million miles away. I have seen enough faces to know that loneliness, depression, and scars mar the lives of many brothers and sisters. Well, this particular point in my life was not much different from those many faces of humanity we can often see, if we choose to look. We have our low points in life as part and the parcel of the human experience. We have our personal demons to face. And as Christians, we know, or ought to know, that God never said we wouldn't suffer. Yet during times of hardship, we often point the finger at God. We ask, "Why, God? Why me?!" And at that particular period of my life, I too joined the chorus of an embittered humanity; I too wanted to point the finger at God in my suffering.
The realm of suffering is a unique world in which we feel isolated from the community and yet reach out for sympathy. I remember I was sitting alone at my desk one night thinking about my problems and becoming more and more depressed by the minute; problems have a way of circulating in your head if you let them. So reaching out, I decided to turn to the Bible. I wanted to read the Shema (i.e. "hear" in Hebrew), recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. I turned to these verses and read them staring at the page, but the message didn't seem to register with my head. I was still wallowing in my problems. I was thinking, "Why doesn't God speak to me anymore? Why doesn't God tell me what to do?" Just as I was thinking, I turned the page and started to read Deuteronomy chapter 8.
As I started, tears began to stream down my face. And at that moment, I learned something about my relationship with the Lord Jesus. It suddenly struck me that God does play a significant role in our lives, though we often forget. Our Lord does see us and speak to us (Jn 9:37). I realized that our Lord Jesus never abandons us, but He often teaches us by our life experiences and through His spirit. Jesus was always there and He is there; I just never stopped to open the eyes and ears of my heart (see Jn 14:18).
I offer this testimony as an encouragement to those who may be suffering as Christians, who may be asking exactly the same things I asked. I share this with those who may feel abandoned by God, those who need answers. What you are looking for is not as far away as you might think; rather, it is very near to you. It's as close to you as God's heart is towards you. If you but open the eyes and ears of your heart, you will see God's guidance and you will hear God's voice. It is the same in every age for those who seek the Promised Land: "I will not leave you nor forsake you."
Jeremiah 29:11 reads, "For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope." But upon reading further we should also note: "Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer 29:12-13). Chapter 29 of the book of Jeremiah speaks of a letter sent to the Jewish captives, taken to Babylon in 597 B.C. (2 Chr 36:5-8).
Jeremiah's letter reminds us that it is when we feel like God has handed us over to the den of lions, when we feel like God no longer cares, that we fail to realize that God's thoughts are still towards us, for our peace and not for evil. We should never forget that God's heart is always towards us. Even in our moments of captivity, the lowest moments of our lives, God's heart is still towards us.
Having said all this, I would like to briefly share some reflections upon reading Deuteronomy chapter 8. The chapter begins with Moses' exhortation to Israel that they should be careful to observe the Lord's commands. This exhortation is vital to the life of a Christian; we should always live a life of self-examination. I would venture to say that all followers of Jesus will have to face suffering at some point in their lives, and that suffering is not without purpose. While we cannot always say that suffering is due to sin (Jn 9:3), we can connect suffering with something meaningful (Acts 14:22). Oftentimes, sufferings and trials force us to reexamine who we are and what we are doing (1 Kgs 19:1-18). It forces us to reexamine whether we live in the Lord's commands. Sufferings and trials are, as stated previously, part of the human experience, but more than just that, they are part of the spiritual learning and growth process (Rom 5:3-5; Jas 1:2-4).
If an Israelite were to ask, "Lord, why did you make me suffer all those years in the wilderness?" what would God's answer be? It would probably correspond to this: "To humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep [My] commandments or not" (Deut 8:2). The Lord allows us to suffer, He allows us to hunger, but the Lord God also allows us His unfailing grace.
Manna came down from heaven for a purpose: "that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord" (Deut 8:3). We often suffer in mundane ways because God wants to teach us to open our eyes to the spiritual. When Jesus was being tempted to turn stones into bread He quoted Deuteronomy 8:3 to Satan (see Mt 4:1-4); for the moment we shift our focus from the spiritual into the material, we have already lost the battle against Satan.
Today, we know we live in a time where there are spiritual voids crying out for fulfillment. There are gaps within the lives of millions of people. No material wealth or abundance alone can resolve them. Who then will fill these gaps? If we, as God's covenant people, are unwilling to open our eyes to the spiritual, then we will always have gaps that need to be filled. And some, like the Israelites in the wilderness, can only look back to Egypt (Ex 14:11-12; 16:3; 17:3; Num 11:4-6; 14:3; see Lk 9:57-62). We need eyes that can see beyond the physical.
"Know in your heart that as a man chastens his son, so the Lord your God chastens you" (Deut 8:5; see Heb 12:5-11). God's grace keeps us on our journey (Deut 8:4), but we still often stray from the path. We often wish to go our own way; we want to pave our own future. We live by this creed because we feel that God has an insignificant role in our lives. And it's not surprising that most of us live according to our own likes and dislikes. We often want what we want. It is in some ways self-centered, in others, self-defeating, self-centered because we only consider ourselves, self-defeating because we become depressed when expectations are not met.
We often look at God when we face hardships but fail to see ourselves. If God chastens us, we must be grateful that God still considers us His children. If you are undergoing sufferings, you should take a careful look at your life, not in an attempt to find sins that aren't there, but in an attempt to find God's purpose for you in your suffering. This is the hardest step to take, but it is the step that God often looks for. God's purpose for you to undergo sufferings may be to illuminate you to your sins, but God may also want to teach you something. Once you begin to recognize God's purpose, it is often the beginning of a better understanding of your relationship with God and of your journey to the Promised Land.
Israel was being brought into "a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, that flow out of valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley…" (Deut 8:7-9). We often paint the Promised Land in such a way that nobody in their right mind would refuse, but we often fail to mention that the journey to the Promised Land required a lot of faith on the part of the Israelites. It was God who told the Israelites where to go, not the Israelites themselves (Num 9:15-23). And if we look in Deuteronomy 11:10-11, we read, "For the land which you go to possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and watered it by foot, as a vegetable garden; but the land which you cross over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water from the rain of heaven."
In Egypt, the river Nile flooded yearly and precisely every summer; there was no second-guessing and no need for the unpredictability of heaven. But in Canaan, the fertility of the land was in the hands of heaven. Like the Israelites, we often want to live in an Egypt where we can use our own methods, walk our own way, use our own feet, be our own boss. But our feet are no longer our own. We are journeying to a promised land now, a land where the Lord alone sends rain from heaven. The predictability of the Nile's alluvial deposits no longer applies. The question is: "Are you willing to wait for the grace from heaven?"
The grace that we receive, we receive from heaven. "For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned" (Heb 6:7-8). We often feel helpless and manipulated by the "hand of God." But if we can once again open our eyes and ears, we will see that God's grace is not holding us captive. Most likely, we have much to learn and many things to go through in our lives. God gives us the grace to suffer, but He also gives us the grace to grow. Hopefully, we will never forget that grace, for I know firsthand how easily we can forget (see Deut 8:11-20).
I end by relating something Jesus said before His crucifixion. If we were to ever be able to empathize with true sorrow, then I believe we could begin to understand how sad Jesus felt before His hour of trial (Jn 16:32). Jesus told His disciples, "Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you" (Jn 16:20-22). "Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, 'Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven"' (Mt 18:2-3). May all the glory and honor be to our Lord Jesus. Amen.
O my God, my soul is cast down within me; therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan, and from the heights of Hermon, from the Hill Mizar. Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; all your waves and billows have gone over me. The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me-a prayer to the God of my life. (Ps 42:6-8)