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by Miguel RuizIf I hear this one more time, I swear I’m gonna snap. “God has a plan.” Wonderful. And I almost thought that, maybe for just a moment, there was a lapse in omnipotence. Of course He has everything under control! That’s the problem: I’m hurting right now, and He’s sitting on His hands. I don’t like His plan right now, and reminding me that what’s going on in my life was, at the very least, passively allowed by the cosmic micromanager, that don’t cheer me up. Oh, but his plan is “not to do me harm,” eh? You’re not listening. I just said that I’m hurting right now. Somebody or something is doing me harm, so make up your mind: Is this a part of God’s plan, or did He delegate it to somebody else?
God is the one who crushes us. The problems in your life, right now, are His lovely little “gifts,” and anybody who thinks 1 Corinthians 10:13 means we can handle them all hasn’t spent enough time at the end of their rope. Broken bones, the Psalmist says, trembling loins and searing pain. “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.” …but don’t worry, I can do all things, right?
“God works all things for good.” It’s nice to consider that at the end of the trial there could be some positive outcomes. But you don’t know that. Sometimes things don’t get better. Sometimes we stay sick. Sometimes we don’t overcome our addictions, emotional issues, or relational problems. Sometimes we walk through loss of loved ones, divorce, or an endless dark night of the soul. Sometimes our life is brutally and violently taken from us. Any good coming from this is most certainly of precious little benefit or comfort to me.
I appreciate you trying. I can feel your good intentions trying to cheer me up. It’s just that what you’re saying has the exact opposite effect. Even if I knew for a fact that things would have a pleasant resolution (we never can), it brings me little relief to think that right now, in the middle of my suffering, God seems absent. How long, oh Lord?
Jesus knew what it was to suffer. He also knew God’s plan. Would you walk up to Him as He is being crucified and offer the same sentiment? “Don’t worry, it’s just three days, you’ll be back and it’ll all be better.” Somehow, I just don’t think that makes the pain of Calvary any less significant. Jesus knew He was rising again. He still felt forsaken. By God. He cried out in anguish. “Hang in there, Jesus!” Uh-huh.
Ultimately, God’s “wonderful plan” is for you to die. Every single person. That and taxes are inevitable, but one is promised you by God Himself, along with trials. Comforting, ain’t it? “Oh, but then there’s heaven, and every tear will be dried from your eyes!” Ah, yes. The celestial white picket fence. But cancer still hurts. Betrayal still stings. Hard things remain yet before us, and God does not offer us a way around them or an escape from them. We must endure.
Let’s be honest about what that looks like. There may be seven levels of hell before the promised paradise. That hope is easily lost amidst the throes of agony, especially when we begin to wonder why a God who promises such eternal bliss can’t just skip to the happy ending.
…and don’t tell me about the character God is supposedly building in me, James. I didn’t sign up for this terminal self-improvement program. That is a back-handed insult, implying that if I were more godly and spiritual already, God wouldn’t have to put me through this in order to make me grow up. You might as well say with Eliphaz, “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (The correct answer: Jesus.)
You see, when pointing a person who is suffering to God’s “plan,” you are appealing to His sovereignty for good news at a time when it seems most responsible for bad news. This is what Lutherans call a “theology of glory.” God is good, God is all powerful, cling to this and know that His benevolence will win out in the end. However, pointing to God’s sovereignty as a source of comfort places His goodness on trial. He allowed this into my life. The world is cursed by Him because of sin.
A theology of glory almost always, inevitably, comes down to something YOU can do to help improve your situation. “God’s got a plan” nearly always segues into, “…and you just need to…” Pray more. Believe more strongly. Learn to accept it. Focus on others. Be more satisfied with God. I propose that we do not have as much influence over our life as we often like to think. Sometimes a solution may come from our own striving and the assistance of others, as with cases of addiction. But when the cure is beyond the reach of human effort, were only hurting people to point them there, because now their ongoing pain is also a consequence of their failure. Let’s add some guilt to the equation, shall we?
What then can we say? How do we comfort the broken? I suggest that the encouragement Christians give be something that can only come from Christian faith. I’m talking about the“theology of the cross.”
Martin Luther, in the Heidleburg Disputation, said: “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” A potentially benevolent Almighty is simply not a Christian encouragement. A Muslim could say that. It is Christ-less, it is cross-less.
When the troubles of life threaten to undo us, Christians can cling with hope to the cross of Christ. Here, and here alone, we see who God truly is for us. And this sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, God-forsaken man is Emmanuel: God with us.That is the Christian comfort. In your agony, Jesus suffers with you. When we cry, He shares our tears. When we bleed, He shares our scars. When our life is spent, He says “you are safe in my death.” Though we are healed by His wounds, it is not a completely vicarious healing: we are united to Him in His death, and share with Him in His suffering. God is not twiddling His thumbs while we writhe, waiting for the perfect time to enact His maneuver. He is by your side, walking with you through fire.
Luther goes on to say, “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is.” Suffering is bad. It is not a means to some higher end, as if whatever didn’t kill you would make you stronger. It will kill you, eventually. We are not called to carry our cross like little spiritual stoics. Sometimes trusting God will include some very dark emotions. We are called to walk with Christ through the valley of the shadow of death, that He might be our light and our life. Let us look to Him in our trials; not to the Father’s power and foresight, which judges the world through the curse, but to the Son, whose promise and presence is the one true balm for every woe. In the cross of Christ we see not a God of “the plan” pulling the strings of the universe, but a God of compassion, who delights in showing mercy.
I understand that for many, a pat on the back and a reminder that God is bigger than their problems is all the encouragement they need to soldier on. But if these problems don’t then go away soon, the silent sovereignty of God looms over them like a threat. It is not in His power (glory) that God comes to save us: It is His weakness (the cross) – where He identifies with our frailty and mortality – that is our salvation, strength, and comfort. We cannot truly see the goodness of God and His love for us apart from the cross, and our hope must not be set on any pretense of positive payoff in this life. Christ does not promise us the instant resolution answers we so often seek; rather, by His death He has won for all believers forgiveness, life, and salvation; a peace that the world cannot give or understand. May these be ever with us as we plod through this vale of tears.
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
- John 16:33