“Do not be surprised by the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in that you share Christ’s sufferings.” 1 Peter 4:12-13
A few brief GraceWaves are not sufficient to address completely the subject of acceptance, but I want to draw this little series to a close this week by focusing on the biggest objection to the idea of acceptance, i.e. suffering.
Mention acceptance and the first response is liable to be something along the lines of an objection that we can’t just sit around and accept suffering. I agree. Our faith should be both vigorous and consistent. Perseverance and endurance are two great words in the New Testament, and neither implies sitting around waiting for the next blow.
The fact is, acceptance is not an either/or proposition. It’s not as if we either have to lie down as sheep or implacably fight as lions in the face of the unfairness of life. Acceptance doesn’t describe resignation. It’s a spiritual attitude toward a very clear fact of life.
Take a look at suffering from God’s point of view. The first challenge you must deal with is reconciling the idea of an omnipotent God with the suffering of the world. Put simply, if God is all-powerful then when does He allow pain and suffering?
The clearest answer is in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection. God obviously didn’t accept suffering mutely or passively. He waded right into the middle of it, not as a traditional conquering king, but as something far greater. God didn’t set out merely to defeat evil and suffering, but to enter into it and thereby to transform it.
Think of the rhythm of this time of year when we remember the cross and resurrection. The cross represents and reminds us of unspeakable evil and suffering. Surely if God can enter that extreme evil by actually being nailed to it, then certainly nothing we face will put us beyond His love, regard, and care.
Then we have the resurrection. I hope you’re still reading because I want you to stay with me for what I believe is a very important distinction. Most Christians regard the cross as victory, and in many ways it can be viewed that way. Victory over death, evil, suffering, etc.
But I believe vindication better describes the empty tomb. Jesus took a risk of total reliance on the Father, living a sacrificial and vulnerable life. He even doubted the wisdom of His choice when He prayed for deliverance from it. But after concluding the plea for the removal of this cup with a simple trust in and commitment to God’s will, Jesus willingly went to the cross.
By every indication that Passover evening, Jesus was wrong. His disciples thought so. He was dead and buried. Even though He had predicted His death AND resurrection on three occasions, no one was at the tomb the first Easter Sunday morning to welcome Him. They thought He had lost and that all was lost.
But by the most unlikely turn of events, God raised Jesus to life. This was vindication. The resurrection was vindication that the way Jesus chose to live, the trust He had placed in God, the terrible risk He had taken, in all these things He was right. God can be trusted. God never leaves us. God never allows evil to have the final word.
The empty tomb looks like the clearest demonstration of God’s power. It looks like victory. But I say the cross was the victory. Going to the very apex where trust and suffering meet is where you face the greatest test and find God most clearly. It is there, in that weakness, that His power is made perfect.
This is why the Bible has so many puzzling passages about suffering. Start with Peter who wrote that we should “rejoice” in sufferings. That sounds outrageous unless we read and understand the next phrase about entering into Christ’s suffering. Because God entered into the world’s suffering, to the ultimate extreme of the cross, in our suffering we enter in His life. That is joy.
James sounds equally ludicrous with his “count it all joy when you meet various trials” (1:2). Frankly, that sounds offensive, and I wouldn’t recommend you toss it out to someone who is in the middle of terrible suffering. But the sufferer, in order to experience the transformation of trouble, must in their own way and time come to this understanding.
The Bible simply does not focus on the eradication of evil and suffering except in the last book. Until the misty, final times of Revelation become a reality we live in a world that has both wheat and tares. Acceptance means acknowledging life as it is, and yet living with trust, hope, and yes, joy.
Where is God when you’re hurting? Right there with you, completely empathetic. “For because He Himself suffered He is able to help us” (Heb. 2:18). He never left you and He never will. I’ll go so far as to say He can’t leave you because of His very nature. God simply doesn’t turn away from hurting people. He draws near to them, and we can sense His presence if we seek Him in prayer and meditation.
Thus the Bible, and the saints, can speak of the “gift” of suffering because in suffering we lose the flimsy veneer of self-reliance and self-confidence. Pushed beyond our feeble limits we find, through faith, not ashes and dust, but a smiling God who bears the marks of love and offers to sit with us and then lead us through the dark valley of the shadow of death.
A dear friend of mine cared for her husband during a very long illness that eventually took the life of that vibrant man. I stepped into the shadows of that difficult time with her and shared her tears and grief. But I was also immeasurably heartened to watch her faith and even her joy. It was during those days she shared with me the following poem that I think sums up the hopeful promise of acceptance very nicely.
I walked a while with pleasure, she chattered all the way
But left me none the wiser, for all she had to say.
I walked a while with Sorrow, and ne’er a word said she,
But O the things I learned from her, when Sorrow walked with me.
Dr. Terry Ellis
March 19. 2017