Posted May 20, 2014
John H. Hampsch, cmf
I smile every time I hear the clever epigram attributed to Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going!” I’m not sure if he meant, “Hang in there!” or “Don’t get bogged down in that horrific location.”
“Going through hell” is a transmogrified description of enduring a really horrendous tragedy—something that most people will experience at least once in their lifetime. It may be a house-destroying earthquake, tornado, flood or fire. It may be a physical or mental affliction like Alzheimer’s, or an untimely death of a child or spouse. Being arrested or jailed is devastating, as is a mortgage foreclosure or financial disaster that could threaten homelessness.
Such a calamity, more than the worrisome every-day annoying “crosses” common to everyone, provides an event that makes it difficult—but extremely meritorious—to sustain one’s belief in Paul’s words of Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (i.e., his providential plan). But all true believers—but not the typical half-hearted Christian—will find that basic truth ultimately confirmed in countless ways, often before their fleeting earthly “vale of tears” fades into eternity. The challenge is to persevere, with God’s grace, in boundless trust in the Lord, whether or not he responds to our frantic pleadings in unnerving disasters.
As a corollary of the above-cited biblical passage, Proverbs 16:4 says: “The Lord works out everything for his own ends.” That wide-ranging principle of God’s Providence is repeatedly affirmed in Scripture from various perspectives; for instance, in Proverbs 3:5, Solomon counsels: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” That doesn’t mean necessarily that he will lift the suffering from us, but he will “straighten our path” by making more direct and less dissipating our trudging efforts toward holiness and our ultimate heavenly reward.
As in the case of the saintly Job (see Chapter 42), it is often only after an incredibly hurtful disaster—or series of disasters—that we are shown the purpose of God’s mysterious plan for us. Sometimes it is only after our death that God provides that insight, but more often in this life, for persons with deeper spiritual perspicacity. Being able to see clearly the “mystery of misery” in this life depends on God’s sovereign will—something we pray for often without really being aware of the depth of meaning in our ritualized and mechanical recitation of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done…” Most petition prayers are geared to mean, “My will be done.”
All distress can be subjectively ameliorated by cultivating an acute awareness of God’s infinite and inestimably tender love for us, even when that divine love is camouflaged by causing or permitting hurtful situations. Unfortunately, there are countless spiritually shallow souls who never react to a tragedy or disaster—physical, financial, social, or whatever—with a prayer for divine support, but only with a pleading for relief (which is acceptable as a petition, but it’s often infected with a kind of resentment against God). Some react with even with a blasphemous and bitter insolence against the Creator for having caused or permitted the calamity that so deeply disturbed their pattern of living. They may “give up on God” or quit church attendance because God doesn’t arrange his providence to suit their expectations or demands. Rancor against the positive or permissive will of God is less than even elementary spirituality. Moreover, it serves to increase, not decrease one’s level of stress in distress. Suffering serves to make such petty souls bitter, not better.
Those who humbly and lovingly acquiesce to the providentially planned disruption in their life will find an inner peace that others find beyond their reach. And they find that their prayer power—more needed at times of cataclysmic disasters than in mere daily discomforts—is vastly enhanced by loving surrender to God’s inscrutable but merciful Providence. These persons eventually come to experience, not just believe, that all things do work together for good—but only for persons fulfilling the two conditions stated by Paul: first, they must truly love God—not just claim they do; and secondly, they must fully acquiesce to his will, when “called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). The Lord “calls” for their gracious acceptance of his purpose, and they respond to that “call.”
Of course those rare persons who truly love God in a deep and personal way are by that very fact already unconditionally open to his will, which they recognize as being the providentially and personally custom-designed plan for them in the mind of God. They embrace it with boundless and unquestioning trust as lovingly planned for them by God, from his beginningless eternity, for their maximum benefit. They know it has been “on film” in the mind of God for all centuries past, and is now being “projected” onto the theatre screen of their life as scheduled by God’s supreme wisdom, effected and controlled by his awesome sovereignty, and motivated by his incalculably tender and compassionate love. They embrace Jeremiah’s insight in Lamentations 3:33: “Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly [spitefully] bring affliction to the children of men.”
Obviously, such theological considerations (ultimately spiritual insights) are not easily recognized or accepted when one is writhing emotionally in the anguish of a tragedy like an unexpected death in the family, or a severe pain-racking affliction, or a family-shattering divorce, or the frantic and unnerving insecurity of being suddenly unemployed and debt-ridden with a family to support while facing the fearsome and worrisome threat of ever-mounting medical bills. Even tolerating such hurt is difficult; embracing it lovingly is heroic.
Stating this obvious fact, the author of Hebrews says, (12:11), “No discipline seems pleasant at the time”; but he hastens to add that “later on, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.” However, he qualifies these beautiful effects of undergoing hurtful situations: these blessings from tribulation are enjoyed only by those who allow themselves “to be trained” by such adversities. Only those who are heroically submissive to God-sent or God-permitted trials can benefit from them. Those who complain of their hardships will never know the peace that flows from full righteousness, and of course, their resistance to God’s loving providence is a resistance to God’s desire to “train” them for a much higher level of holiness with its resultant reward. That’s the tragic tragedy of “wasted suffering.”