Sometimes God feels horribly silent. Distant. Absent. Our prayers feel like they vanish into doubt even before you utter the words. Is God really faithful? Sometimes we feel like John the Baptist who while rotting in prison waiting desperately for Christ to rescue him, finally sends a message to Jesus asking, "are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Matthew 11:3 HCSB). When life happens, it is easy to cry out in despair like Gregory of Nazianzen did with the words: "Christ is sleeping."
In our dark moments we can lose hope and doubt our faith in a sovereign, in-control God. Instead, we complain and vent that had God come sooner to our aid we would not have lost our child to, say, a violent death for example. Had God spoken to the heart of our mate, they would not have left us for someone more understanding. Had God really appreciated all the years of selfless work we did teaching His truth, we would not have come down with this dreaded disease that is slowly eating up our insides. It is so easy to say with words that we believe in a God who knows what He is doing and who looks after us because He loves us as much as He loves Himself, but we cannot and will not trust Him when He acts.
The truth is that we like our Christianity to be neat and fuzzy -- like an impressionist painting. God is a decorative paper icon we glue on a stone, not the burning bush of consuming fire we dare not look upon. Except, it seems that when we are thrust in the middle of the battle of life, everything seems to fall apart. It's almost as if we believe so that everything will be safe and sound for us. Remember what Satan said to God about Job: "No one ever had it so good! You pamper him like a pet, make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions, bless everything he does-he can't lose! But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He'd curse you right to your face" (Job 1:9-11 MSG). Our faith needs to be more than a candy-machine belief in a God who is there at our whim to serve us.
Is it any wonder then that we have got it all wrong, that we don't have the slightest understanding of why we live on this earth? God doesn't want domesticated Christians that are simply content living a Christianity of avoiding certain movies or spending "quality family time" at amusement parks. This life for the Christian is not about working endless hours to retire early to a life of golf and cruises. Christ did not die a vicious death because He felt we were in dire need of longer vacations.
When Paul was on his mission trip to Asia, things were so brutally hard that he "despaired even of life." Yet Paul understood that sometimes that is what it takes for us to abandon our hope and security in our big houses, our suburban utopias, and ourselves. If we want God to love us, then He will test us with difficulties, abandon us with failure, and purge us with adversity that will at times feel beyond our strength to bear.
C.S. Lewis when struggling with the sudden illness and death of his new wife writes in A Grief Observed that "God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn't ... He always knew my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize that fact was to knock it down."
So in case you haven't noticed, life is not fair. Justice doesn't always happen and bad things happen even to people that are not really bad. But haven't we been told that life for Christians is supposed to be better? Aren't we supposed to be protected from all the things that happen to everyone else?
Well, yes and no.
Jesus came to bring a sword between this world and us, which is "under the power and control of the evil one" (1 John 5:19 NLT). This life is the biggest battle of your life, for your life. That is why so much of the imagery in Scriptures relates to war. The human story right from the very beginning is riddled with tragedy, suffering and horror. There is not a single part of the Bible that is laced with beauty only. Those of us in the church point to the 'Fall' when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, as the beginning of the end. We point to their pride as the reason why evil exists and suffering entered this life.
But we really need to go back further. The entire universe is at war. The Fall is the result of an event that took place way before the world was even created. All existence is doomed to fall because Lucifer, having chosen a path of opposition to the goodness of God will wage war against everything God does. The devil is out only "to steal and kill and destroy" (John 10:10 NLT).
It is not God's will that a child be snatched from its parents and brutally murdered. It is not God's will that disease wreak havoc on the body of a young mother that will leave her children orphaned. And it is not God's will that decent Christian parents be tormented emotionally as they watch helplessly as their son wastes away in a drugged orgy sleeping under bridges. TIt is the devil's will and it is the devil's battle to devour and destroy you by first bringing you down into the depths of sin and then threatening your hope in God's love and forgiveness.
The heroes of the Bible are all people whose lives were marked by relentless suffering and injustice. This is why Gregory of Nyssa wrote: 'It is impossible for one to live without tears, who considers things exactly as they are." This life is filled with suffering, interspersed with moments of joy.
And yet our God, the God we believe in, is not some distant, indifferent being or the frail Christ of Hollywood. He is a sovereign God. He is not the stoic marble statue of ancient times, but an intimate Father involved with every minutiae of our lives. God is not a carefully arranged icon peering out to us on Sunday morning, but an emotional God who grieves with our suffering condition. When we understand that this whole world cries out in distress and pain, then we will stop looking at suffering as an external force and finally see it as an integral part of our very existence. No matter how we try, this life will not satisfy. Knowing this won't always make the pain, the tears, and the doubt go away, but it will help you get through the dark periods.
Our suffering is not an option, but an essential part of our salvation. This is something difficult to hear. But our suffering is what builds up our trust and faith in God: "To this were you called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps" (1 Peter 2:21 NIV). Warren H. Carroll observed in A History of Christendom, that "one of the greatest paradoxes of the spiritual condition of humanity -- and an essential element in the mystery of the cross -- is that prosperity of any kind tends to draw men away from God ... Martyrdom builds the faith, oppression strengthens it, while to be 'at ease in Zion' opens the gates to every kind of temptation."
We don't know the rhyme or reason for the suffering that we go through. And knowing that suffering produces the character of God does not make the suffering easier. In order to get to the point where we can say, "If I live, it will be for Christ, and if I die, I will gain even more" (Philippians 1:21 CEV), we need to understand that we are sojourners in this world, strangers in a strange land, whose purpose is to live like Christ, to be imitators of Him. If we're honest, we will admit that none of us likes the part of "sharing" in Christ's suffering and death. But there will be times in your life when "the Spirit will drive you out into the wilderness" of suffering because it is there that we become like Christ.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn in describing the character of another prisoner wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: "formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. And you praised people with equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your uncategorical judgments. You have come to realize your own weaknesses and you can therefore understand the weaknesses of others ... Your soul which formerly was dry now ripens from suffering."
This is how we become like Christ. Suffering for the Christian is never a question of 'if' but 'when' it will inevitably hit home. It will smash us or build up our trust in God. Remember what Joseph said when he finally meets his brothers after they sold him into slavery: "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good," (Genesis 50:20 NASB) because God "causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them" (Romans 8:28 NLT).
Being a Christian doesn't make us automatic heroes. I think that is why every story in the Bible is messy, with the characters flawed, succumbing to some form of weakness. When we read passages like St. Paul telling us to count it all joy when we go through difficult times, we expect the paralyzed person lying on their backs on a bed for twenty years to always feel happy praising God for their condition. It won't happen. Though our difficult periods can build in us courage, faith, patience, and compassion for others, it will inevitably be accompanied by loneliness, pain, and hopelessness in grief. Our life in Christ is Christ's life of anguish in us. Mother Maria of Skobtsova writes.
"If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person, he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery ... he comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God's incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him-one that will demand his most dedicated efforts ... He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil ... and he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image."
Remember John the Baptist at the beginning of our story? Eventually, Jesus does send word back to him: "Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news" (Matthew 11:4-5 HCSB). John was ultimately beheaded, but his faith and hope were now firmly based on things unseen because "if we have hope in Christ only for this life, we are the most miserable people in the world" (1 Corinthians 15:19 NLT). If our belief in God is built on some romantic fountain of goodness for this life only, then we will not last. John was ready to suffer the loss of all things because with Christ, there was now the possibility to share in the resurrection of Christ. The chance for our own resurrection is what will get us through the battle of this life, even when bad things aren't supposed to happen.
John Kapsalis has an M.T.S from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.