Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Year of Suffering

This photo expresses 2020
Does God cause suffering? Or does He just look the other way? Why does He wait so long to stop it? Why do we have to suffer? 

2020 has been a year of suffering. We’re experienced political unrest, disease, racial division, cultural polarization, riots, murder, hurricanes, and wild fires. We’ve lost jobs, businesses, savings, homes, special events, holidays, public figures, close friends and family members. We’ve been isolated, depressed, afraid, angry, and confused. 

As the year drew to a close, there was renewed optimism. We have a vaccine, a new president, a new year. Certainly 2021 will be better. But will it be? Will all the negative aspects of 2020 somehow be trashed along with our old paper calendars? That would be nice! 

Sadly it does not work that way. The troubles of December will creep into January. When will it end? How will it end? 

For the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land, they knew how long their suffering was going to last. God had told them 40 years. That’s a good long time. So it is no wonder they were impatient and frustrated. It was towards the end of their journey that this story is recorded: 

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient, depressed, and much discouraged because of the trials on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” 

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 

For the Israelites things went from bad to worse. In this case we know, because scripture tells us, who caused the suffering. It was God. He sent the snakes. Why was He making a bad thing worse? It is easy to blame God but let’s look again. The reason why the people are wandering 40 years is because in year two, they refused to enter the Promised Land when God led them there the first time (See Numbers 13). Here again they are rebelling against God and against Moses, the leader God has appointed to lead them. This is not the first rebellion. This is repeated theme all through the book of Numbers. So God, reminiscent of our own parents when frustrated with our misbehavior (“You want to cry? I’ll give you something to cry about!”), He intensifies their pain and demonstrated His power. His goal? To have them return to Him. And they do. 

The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” 

So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, attentively, expectantly, with a steady and absorbing gaze, they lived. The Israelites moved on and camped at Oboth. (Numbers 21:4-10) 

God forgives them immediately when they turn to Him. He also gives them an immediate way out. A snake on a pole. It does not make sense until Jesus Himself references it again in John 4:14-15, and then we see a foreshadowing to eternal healing, eternal salvation, eternal elimination of suffering through Jesus’ death on a cross. Unbelief was their sin. They did not trust that God saw their suffering, that He cared about them, that He was able to sustain them. They did not ask God to help them. They tried to fix it themselves by complaining to Moses. 

Unbelief is the big sin that interrupts God’s power on their behalf. He does not force Himself on anyone; they must turn to Him. Belief was what returned them to health, as they demonstrated their faith by looking at the bronze snake on the pole. Like the Israelites, God desires a relationship with us but He never forces us. We need to participate in the relationship by expectant faith. We must look to Him and trust He can heal us, our bodies, our country. That is our part of the relationship. And God’s part is to show Himself faithful. 

We are not used to suffering because life has been good to us and we are taught by our culture to expect life to be all up and to the right. We believe we alone have the power to make a perfect world. But that is a lie. 2020 has reminded us life is hard, unpredictable, and out of our control. Our efforts to fix our problems often have caused other troubles and made matters worse. Like in this Biblical account, trials come, and they certainly came for us in 2020. 

Like the Israelites, we will get bit. Suffering is part of life we can’t avoid and cannot fix ourselves. But there is hope because Jesus has come. He has been raised up on a pole so that all who look to Him attentively, expectantly, with a steady and absorbing gaze, will be healed. Then we will live and travel on. 

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:14-18) 

So did God cause our suffering in 2020? In this life, we may never know. Will God heal our bodies and our nation in 2021? We may not know that quickly either. Let us not forget that none of us make it out of this world alive. While Jesus did heal many when He was with us and He continues to heal to this day, He has a bigger goal than a physical one or than a political one. Jesus has come so we can be reconciled to God, and with that, we can be reconciled to each other. In this way, He brings His Kingdom, and His peace, to our earth. 

We can be sure that when we turn to Jesus in trust, Him will heal our hearts and make a better 2021.

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