↑Is there meaning in suffering?
Finding meaning in Covid-19 suffering; and God’s incredible desire for us all ⇔
April 2020. Michael Krigline. wp.krigline.com ⇔
Respected pastor/author John Piper has produced a free book called Coronavirus and Christ (see bottom for link/info). In a sense, I write this to encourage you to read or listen to his insightful little book.
Whether you are reading this during the Covid-19 pandemic, or long after it passed into history, you are likely here because of intense suffering in your life right now, and you want to know “WHY?” Read on—there is an answer.
As I write, Covid-19 is forcing suffering on us in many ways: lock-down, social distancing, unexpected homeschooling responsibilities, job-loss, disruption of things we love, temporary loss of church/sports/celebrations/parties, lines and shortages in stores (if open), and to some, sickness or death in themselves, a patient, or a loved one. Such suffering is getting people to ask questions “of God” like such situations always do. There’s a reason CS Lewis famously said: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
What does calamity MEAN, for me?
I deal with the “WHY-question” from one angle at length in a piece called “Where is God when bad things happen”, but here are a few pointed thoughts as we face a worldwide pandemic, unlike anything in my 60 years of life.
First, we gain insight directly from Jesus, who deals with this in Luke 13. People asked Him about two specific instances of suffering: one disaster was caused by human wickedness (or at least, government decision), and the other was apparently caused by an accident or earthquake. The people asked WHY these things happened. They wanted to know the meaning, for the victims. Jesus surprises us by drawing meaning from this suffering for everyone, not just the ones who suffered. The people wanted to “blame” someone: was it the victim’s sin, or the government’s fault? Jesus responds, twice (Luke 13:3&5), that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
In other words, there’s a merciful message in all disasters. Jesus was saying that when “unjust” suffering comes, “let’s not talk about the dead; let’s talk about you; their suffering is real, but all sin—your sin—will bring even more suffering, so repent because God wants something incredible for you.”
“Repent” simply means to acknowledge that you have been wrong, and sincerely promise to turn around. And we all have a “wrong” (or at least “incomplete”) understanding about sin. The part we “get right” is that sin is breaking a law, like the Ten Commandments: Do not kill, Do not steal…. But that’s just the beginning. Sin is also knowing what to do but not doing it (James 4:17). The Greek word for sin meant to “miss the mark” not just to “break the law.” While those two definitions are enough to make us all guilty as sinners, most importantly of all, the biggest sin is breaking God’s biggest commandment: to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matt 22:37). As John Piper puts it: “In other words, the most fundamental change of heart and mind that repentance calls for is to treasure God with all that you are and to treasure Jesus more than all other relations.”
Piper continues: “The reason Jesus said that we all likewise would perish if we don’t repent is that we all have exchanged the treasure that God is for lesser things we love more (Rom 1:22-23), and we all have treated Jesus as less desirable than money and entertainment and friends and family. The reason all of us deserve to perish is not a list of rules we have broken, but an infinite value we have scorned—the infinite value of all that God is for us in Jesus Christ.” [John Piper; Coronavirus and Christ, 2020, p81)
CS Lewis writes: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” [CS Lewis; The Weight of Glory, 1949)
To put it as simply as I can, this world’s Creator and King allows suffering and devastation because we are hard to reach, and yet He LOVES us too much to let us push ourselves away from His eternal Goodness. God longs for us to stop rebelling against standards announced to us for our own good, and to turn around to embrace His intense love, finding everlasting joy in Himself. That’s right; our earthly lives (long or short) are a mere doorway to the joy-filled forever the King wants to share with those “made in His image,” if they’ll just receive the love and responsibility that come with being princes and princesses. Those old enough to have anguished over a grown child, slowly killing him/herself with reckless choices, know how God feels. Each wayward act pushes him/her away from your love, and you’d do anything to stop the downward spiral.
Why settle for less, when God offers us Himself?
So, the “merciful message” in this and every disaster is something like: “Wake up! You are really missing out by trying to keep God out of your life and your society.”
The New English Bible translates 2 Peter 1:4 this way: “Through this might and splendour He has given us His promises, great beyond all price, and through them you may escape the corruption with which lust has infected the world, and come to share in the very being of God.” Author/publisher Bob Benson unpacks this in his classic book Come Share the Being; one of my favorite parts (chapter 8) explains it through the example of an old-fashioned church picnic. Imagine that you forget about this picnic until the last minute, and the only thing you have in the house is the makings of a stale sandwich. You arrive and “spread out” your baloney sandwich at a table next to a ‘mama’ who prepared food all day…
…She has fried chicken, and baked beans, and potato salad, and homemade rolls, and sliced tomatoes, and pickles, and olives, and celery, and topped it off with two big homemade chocolate pies.
And they spread it all out beside you and there you were with your baloney sandwich.
But they said to you, “Why don’t we just share?”
“No, I couldn’t do that, I just couldn’t even think of it,” you murmured embarrassedly.
“Oh, come on, there’s plenty…plenty of everything—and we just love baloney sandwiches. Let’s just put it all together.”
And so you did, and there you sat—eating like a king when you came like a pauper.
Benson concludes that when he thinks about himself “sharing” in the being of God, with how little he has to bring, and how much God invites him to “share,” he knows he should be shouting to the housetops—as should we all!
Writers, musicians and artists have celebrated all that God offers for millennia, but here are two Bible verses that touch on how much God offers in both life and death: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you” (Ps. 63:3). “You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).
Piper says that “to repent” is “to experience a change of heart and mind that treasures God in Christ more than life.” (p86) And what a treasure Jesus is! He loves us so much that He left heaven, lived among us, took on Himself our sin/shame/infirmity, taught us unparalleled Truth, washed His students’ feet as an example, and loved with tear-filled passion. Then He rose from the dead and returned to heaven to prepare a place for us, that we could be together forever. If I hope to “go to heaven” without longing to be united with Jesus, then somewhere along the way I have missed the core of the Gospel: God is giving us Himself! A heart that grasps the treasure of God in Christ is called “to overcome self-pity and fear, and with courageous joy, to do the good works of love that glorify God.” (Piper p87) I think Benson would say that repentance is akin to letting go of that baloney sandwich, giving all you are to God, being filled with Himself, and then spilling it out to those around you.
Suffering gets our attention, and we need this because the stakes are very high! We can grasp our short life (our baloney sandwich), or we can release it in exchange for God’s gift of eternal joy, as well as His gift of a more meaningful life here and now. We must choose, day by day, whether to “grasp” or “share”—whether to “grasp” whatever we can grasp in hope that we’ll be happy while we live, or “share” all we have and are with an infinite, wise, loving, self-sacrificing God who offers us Himself for eternity. (Suffering, like COVID-19, shows how little we really control, which should make it easier to “release” our lives to God.)
I’ll end the way Bob Benson ended his book:
“When we share with Him—
We are always more — never less
Always better — never worse
He doesn’t come to divide or subtract —
He always adds and multiplies
so that whatever it was that we were going to be —
with Him it will exceed our fondest dreams
‘to come to share in the very being of God.’”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
[I commend both books to you, but Benson is out of print while Piper’s book (which prompted these thoughts) is available for free download at https://www.desiringgod.org/books/coronavirus-and-christ]
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