*Warning: this is an excessively long post. If you intend to read it, best set aside a chunk of time.*
It’s funny how when we allow ourselves to question God, He starts providing answers. Maybe there are tons of things He wants to show us, and He’s only waiting for us to start searching.
There’s something that I’ve been struggling with for the past two years. How can a God of infinite, unfathomable love intentionally lead people into painful situations, and how can we honestly say and believe that He does it for our ultimate good? I’ve had a lot of painful growing experiences in my walk with God, and every time they happen, I try to satisfy myself by reminding myself that God knows what is best for me, and He loves me; He would never do anything to hurt me. But how do we reconcile those two pictures? How can we put together the God who would take my place to keep me from death with the God who led the Israelites into captivity and desert places? I’ve often wondered, “If God can do anything, couldn’t He have found a way to grow me in a way that is not so painful?”
For a long time, I had confined these questions to the recesses of my mind. Somehow I would always come up with a feeble attempt at an answer to satisfy myself enough to keep trusting God, but there was always a lingering uncertainty. Recently, the questions have forced themselves forward again and demanded an answer once and for all. And wonder of all wonders, God has been bombarding me with what I believe to be answers that will truly satisfy my questioning soul.
I was mulling over my questions this past Sabbath, when a song that I haven’t listened to in ages popped into my head. Relient K sings a song called “Let It All Out,” and the lyrics are relevant to this topic—especially the chorus:
And You said, I know that this will hurt
But if I don’t break your heart,
Then things will just get worse.
When the burden seems too much to bear,
Remember, the end will justify the pain it took to get us there.
I continued to listen to the sermon while attempting to wrestle my thoughts away. The pastor was preaching on the Holy Spirit, and he was just beginning to talk about Jesus’ words to his disciples about leaving them. Here are some things that really hit me hard:
“But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” [John 16:7] My first thought when I heard this was, “It must have been painful for Jesus to have to leave behind all the ones he loved most dearly. And he must have known how much it would hurt them to have him leave.” But Jesus went to the Father anyway; despite the pain it would cause the disciples, He knew it was the only way for humanity to have a closer connection with God. How, you ask?
Listen to what Ellen White has to say in Desire of Ages:
“The Holy Spirit is Christ's representative, but divested of the personality of humanity, and independent thereof. Cumbered with humanity, Christ could not be in every place personally. Therefore it was for their interest that He should go to the Father, and send the Spirit to be His successor on earth. No one could then have any advantage because of his location or his personal contact with Christ. By the Spirit the Saviour would be accessible to all. In this sense He would be nearer to them than if He had not ascended on high.” [DA 669.2, emphasis supplied]
Then, in John 14:18, Jesus says, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” Even though Jesus was leaving the disciples and he knew that it would cause them pain, he left them with a promise of hope and love. God never abandons, even in the painful hours.
Saturday’s sermon gave me some food for thought. But God was not done with me. I had another thought that came out of the blue. I was thinking about times in my life when I really felt that God was leading me, and it seemed like He led me right into a brier patch. Immediately, I thought of times when God led people in the Bible. My first thought was, “God led Jesus to Gethsemane.” Ouch. What a thought. God led his one and only Son, a part of Himself, into the darkest, most excruciating hour of history. How could a God of love do that? Because He is the God of love.
God led Paul to Jerusalem. God led the Israelites to the desert. God led Joseph to abandonment and slavery in Egypt. God led John the Baptist to his ministry and death. God led Jesus, like a lamb to the slaughter, to Golgotha. Each of these and many others were led by God into painful situations. Why? Because God is willing to play out this Great Controversy, to put Himself and the ones He loves through heart-wrenching agony so that we can experience a oneness with God beyond our comprehension.
But why does He have to lead us through the painful places to get there? Why can’t He find another way?
There’s a verse in Hosea that revisits my thoughts at random. It’s Hosea 2:14 where the Lord says, “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her.” I’ve always thought that this verse seemed slightly paradoxical to me. Generally, the words “allure” and “desert” don’t exactly seem to be adjacent puzzle pieces. Why does God have to have to lead Israel to a desert to woo her? Because Israel chose to be self-sufficient. God had to take Israel to a place of famine and drought to teach her dependence on Him and to ultimately make the connection with Him stronger. Here’s another thought that hadn’t occurred to me before: When God’s loved ones (all of us) hurt, He hurts too. Then the implication of this desert calling is that God loved Israel so much that He was willing to put Israel, and therefore Himself, through the agony of painful famine.
The final spiritual blow for me came today when I began to read a book that I bought on a divinely appointed whim. I was in the ABC and found a book on sale that looked somewhat interesting. I bought it, and began to read it today. It’s called “Wrestling with Angels: In the Grip of Jacob’s God” by Larry L. Lichtenwalter.
In the introduction, Lichtenwalter talks about how Jacob lived a life of wrestling matches—against his brother, against his uncle Laban, and eventually against God Himself. He says it better than I can:
“Ultimately, Jacob is the story of the conquest of self . . . Interestingly, with God, when we lose, we win. Hosea tells us Jacob beat God. In spite of the limp and the surrender, he won! When Jacob surrendered and God threw him, he won. Jacob took the gold because God took the heart. Whenever we give in to the grip of Jacob’s God we too, will win . . . When through life’s inner struggles and painful turns you find yourself in the grip of Jacob’s God, may you too no longer wrestle.”
Jacob may have won, but don’t think that he didn’t come out with some painful battle scars; Jacob retained his limp throughout the rest of his life. Sometimes, maybe even oftentimes, our walk with God and our growth in Him is painful, and we retain the scars of those painful encounters.
I think that part of the reason God sometimes has to take us through painful paths and dry deserts is because in order to win our hearts, He has to break our selves. Note the word “break.” Breaking hurts. But that only accounts for some painful situations. What about the times when we are willingly following God, holding His hand all the way, and we still end up in the brier patch? Well, I guess I still don’t have the answer to that. All I can do is point back to some of the examples I mentioned before. God is willing to do whatever it takes; He is willing to put Himself and each of the ones He loves through whatever pain is necessary to reach the end goal of love and unity with Him. But I would be willing to bet that God doesn’t ever needlessly put us through pain, because it hurts Him so badly to see His loved ones suffer.
“Remember, the end will justify the pain it took to get us there.”