When Faith Suffers

December 11, 2021

What did Joseph pray from the pit, while his brothers planned to murder him? Was his prayer answered when the plot went from murder to selling him into slavery? How did he feel when he stood falsely accused of attempted rape? What prayers do you pray when days in prison stretch into weeks, and weeks into months, and months into years?

Did Joseph have a glimmer of hope when he interpreted the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker? Did the words “remember me” echo in the prison the day the chief cupbearer was released? Yet days passed into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. Two years passed before Joseph interprets the dream of Pharaoh—an opportunity that changed his life and the lives of his family.

When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers after two decades of separation, he encourages them with these words: “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5, NIV). At their father’s death, Joseph must again reassure his brothers. He says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20, NIV).

I suspect that Joseph provides a commentary on Paul’s words. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, NIV). Joseph suffered. He really suffered. The problems didn’t go away quickly. He may have wondered, “Why me?” Yet, Joseph maintains his faith, and he reaches a point in his life where he recognizes that although others have intended harm, God has worked for good.

Romans 8:28 is not a Band-Aid that when applied takes all the pain away. Coming from the lips of the non-sufferer at the wrong moment, it may even sting the person who is in pain. Yet Joseph’s story and Paul’s statement remind us that when faith suffers, it does not suffer alone. The God of history is there. The God who understands the cross and the tomb is there. The God who works for good is there. When faith suffers, God has the final word, and the word is “good.”

–Russ Holden


Why Not Me?

July 13, 2018

A tragedy or calamity can be difficult to take. In my own case, that difficulty has been the diagnosis of multiple myeloma. Admittedly, there is stress and adjustment that must come. And with it comes a very human question: why me?

But I’ve not allowed myself to dwell on this question. I have felt it one that should be immediately dismissed. The problem with the question is that it is unanswerable, and it leads to self-pity. The question presupposes that calamities should not come into the life of the questioner.

Dismissing the question has meant reflecting on the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. Proverbs 3:16 says this about wisdom:

Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. (Proverbs 3:16, ESV)

The Book of Proverbs presents general truths. In other words, a person who lives according to God’s wisdom is more likely to live longer, be able to take care of material needs, and have a good reputation. Yet we all know that good people die young, that natural calamities can destroy wealth, and that evil people can steal and slander good people. The rest of the wisdom literature helps us nuance these general truths.

The Book of Job lets us know that the righteous person may suffer. Job suffers from the acts of lawless Sabeans, natural calamities, bereavement, and illness. The conflict in the book surrounds Job’s friends’ attempts to convince him that his troubles are the consequence of his own wickedness. The Book of Job confirms that the good person may suffer. But the end of the book doesn’t so much answer our questions as say God knows how to run the creation. Trust him.

Ecclesiastes has its characteristic lament: vanity of vanities. The Hebrew word is hevel which means breath or vapor. The phrase emphasizes that life for all of us is transitory, and it suggests that it can be enigmatic — vapor, think of the fog in a morning, can obscure things from our view. We do not have God’s viewpoint.

Ecclesiastes also reminds us we don’t know why good things come to some and miss others.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11, ESV)

We don’t know why certain people are in the wrong place at the wrong time. “But time and chance happen to them all.” In Ecclesiastes 8:14, we find that sometimes the righteous seem to get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked receive what we think the righteous should get. Ecclesiastes in the end asks us to trust God: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, ESV).

For the Christian, the problem of this life is that we live in between the perfection of the Garden of Eden and the perfection of the New Jerusalem when God will wipe away all tears and make everything new. In this in-between time, death, disease, calamities, accidents, and evil deeds happen. And they can happen to all kinds of people: both the good and the bad.

In ministry I’ve been with people as they experienced the most terrible struggles of their lives. I’ve seen people of great faith face the challenges of this in-between time. I’ve witnessed their faith and hope. The interesting thing about difficulties is that people of God often find within these difficulties God’s providential care. So, as I face my own challenges, I’ve come to realize that “Why me?” is the wrong question. Rather the challenge must be faced with faith and hope. If it can happen to the people of faith I know, why not me?

In Herod’s Jail

May 31, 2013

I wonder what John the Baptist pondered in Herod’s jail. It doesn’t seem quite fair. If anyone had ever lived a self-sacrificing, dedicated life, it was John. God set him apart even before birth. He was not to drink wine or strong drink possibly suggesting a perpetual Nazarite vow (Luke 1:15, on Nazarite vows see Numbers 6). His life was at best ascetic. His clothes remind us of Elijah – camel’s hair clothing and a leather belt (Mark 1:6, 2 Kings 1:8). His food was locusts and wild honey. Even Jesus referenced his austerity: “What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses” (Matthew 11:8, ESV).

It was from prison that John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another” (Matthew 11:3, ESV )? We long for Jesus just to say “yes”. Instead, he answers about the blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the dead raised, and the poor hearing good news. To this he adds, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6, ESV). The first century world had many who claimed to be the One. False “messianic” uprisings had led some astray. Rather than an easily offered “yes,” Jesus recounted evidence to one in prison who may have been struggling with the purposes of God in the world. Was John’s subtext something like this? If you are the coming King, will you make things right soon… like getting me out of prison?

After John’s disciples left, Jesus acknowledged the greatness of John. John was the “Elijah to come” the fulfillment of Malachi chapter four, “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11). John prepared the way for the coming King and his Kingdom, yet he would die before the day arrived. Beheading at a tyrant’s whim doesn’t seem quite fair. Like Moses, John the Baptist could only look at the promised from afar.

Life can be disorienting. Pondering God’s ways can leave us questioning. Real life doesn’t always work out the way we think it should. But John the Baptist’s case is also paradoxical. It is in his suffering, sacrifice, and even death that we see the depth of his faith. It is his worst of times that provides us the greatest instruction.

Life can be disorienting, and our questions perplexing. But faith can anchor us to the God who is there, even when life doesn’t work the way we think it should. God’s ways are not our ways, yet it is He who has promised someday to wipe away all tears. I wonder what John the Baptist pondered in Herod’s jail.

I Still Pray

September 22, 2011

He had received a death sentence; at least the kind doctors deliver with estimates of how many months he had to live. There are no glib answers with that kind of visit, so I listened. He did not want to die. He had many things he still wanted to do and felt like he should do. He prayed for a cure. He said, “I believe God is able to cure me, but I know that He often chooses not to cure.” We prayed, and later, I conducted his funeral.

I do not believe in some kind of “Christian deism” – God acted to get things going in the church, and then after the first century A.D. withdrew from His world to no longer act. No, I don’t expect the signs of the apostles (2 Corinthians 12:12), they were unique to those special messengers. Yet, I still believe in the providence of God. J. D. Thomas defined providence as “God’s interposing in man’s affairs or influencing man’s life in ways different from the ordinary workings of natural law and other than through the written word.”1 God is still intimately involved in this world and in the lives of His people.

Prayer changes me, but I believe that it also changes the world too. Jesus teaches us that we have a Father who sees in secret and rewards. We have a Father who knows how to give good gifts, better even than our earthly fathers who would not even dream of giving snakes for fish or stones for bread. Yet prayer is not magic. God is not the cosmic vending machine – insert prayer, press the right button, and requests dispensed.

I believe that cures sometimes happen in answer to prayer, yet I wonder why God doesn’t wipe away every tear now. Why do good people suffer and die? I suppose my questions begin to sound like Job’s. After all of Job’s laments, God appears and asks him all kinds of questions about the creation that Job could not answer. I suspect it is God’s way of telling us that we don’t have enough wisdom to run the universe. How do you balance free will and intervention?

I suspect that God doesn’t answer all of our prayers the way we wish, because He desires a world in which we seek after Him in faith. I suppose that if prayer did seem like magic, our faith would actually be sight. Who could resist such evidence? But God seeks to woo us not compel us to love Him.

A paradox of faith is that Christians may give the strongest testimony by their suffering and death. Grace, faith, patience, and love in the midst of suffering make an indelible impression. Metals refined by the fire and character tested in the crucible of suffering are precious. After all, we follow the One who suffered.

The ultimate answers are in the Age to Come. God will reverse the curse of sin and death for those in Christ. He will wipe away every tear. But in the meantime, I still pray.

1J. D. Thomas, The Spirit and Spirituality, p. 27.