Pain, Patience and Providence

Recently I was visiting with a friend who was once a pastor. His marriage is broken—already into years of separation with no restoration in sight—yet he longs to be together with his wife again. In our conversation he touched on the promise of Romans 8:28—”for those who love God all thing work together for good”—as a confusing text. His frank prayer is familiar to many of us, even if our circumstances may differ: “My God, how can anything good come out of this?!” 

I won’t try to offer an answer here but I do want to probe the question he raised. To begin let me confess that I never feel so limited as in moments when a tender word or some wise counsel might soothe, heal, and restore. I tend, instead, to share the lessons of a professor and lecturer. By now I know that is not what is needed! So I sit silently, pondering the problem, aching with and for my friends. And I pray. 

So allow me to think aloud, still pondering our conversation. Maybe there’s a counselor who will read this and be stirred to help this dear couple, or others like them. This post will be very brief and simply suggestive. Other thoughts are invited by readers. 

I started my reflections by considering the broadest biblical frame possible—looking to the accounts in Genesis and in Revelation as the beginning and the end of the present age. In both books sin and pain are paired realities. Before the fall there was no pain or death. There was no distrust. There was no rejection or fear. Pain began with sin. Even ordinary illnesses—or any form of physical suffering—are linked in the Bible to Adam’s fall. Earthly catastrophes including cyclones, fires, earthquakes, and tsunamis, are all linked in the Bible to the fall: as the groaning of a cursed cosmos, cursed to a slow death because of Adam’s sin. Yet in the end, at the conclusion of the book of Revelation, we find that every tear will be dried. The curse will be lifted. Suffering and sorrow will flee away. A new heaven and earth will replace the old. 

Huge amounts are written in the balance of the Bible on the collective issues of pain, suffering, and God’s providence. Providence is the common label for the theme of Romans 8:28—addressing God’s successful oversight and interventions in a world filled with sin and pain. 

In the broadest consideration we turn to the hope of eternity: the answer offered by God’s final judgments and the restoration that Revelation promises us. A clear application of this answer is offered in the faith chapter of Hebrews, in 11:39-40. 

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. 

The point here, in a context of those whose lives ended badly yet without their faith being lost—some killed, sawn in two, some destitute, some afflicted—seems to be that the fabric of God’s overall tapestry has yet to be completed, so the happy final viewing must wait until others, ourselves included, are woven into the whole and thus bring it to completion. What is assumed throughout is that for all who live by faith there is a happy ending that will make sense at last: the “promise” will be finally received. 

Another insight, using a narrower frame of reference, is that God is not as interested in our stability, security, and comfort as we are. As we live in the capsized, upside-down world of Adam’s fall, we are not meant to feel at home. But we are assured that God never fails to use sin as an unintended (by Satan, that is) source of benefit for his followers. The story of Joseph in Genesis is remarkable in that respect. Two lines of narrative run in tandem: God’s blessings and Joseph’s miseries! Read it and see. God gives Joseph dreams of a wonderful future and, as a result, his brothers hate him and consider how best to be rid of him. He becomes a slave to Potiphar. He is falsely charged of attempted rape and sent to prison. Years go by. And, with these misadventures the alternate narrative continues to report that “God blessed him in all he did”. Our impulse is to shout at the text, “Well, then, God, get him out of there!” In the end God does intervene, but only after more than a decade has gone by. Joseph, in the end, was satisfied with God’s care and able to separate the two narratives when he spoke to his brothers afterwards: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). 

The same sort of double dimensions are found in the stories of Job and the man born blind in John’s gospel (chapter 9). Both Job and the blind man are forced to endure some very, very difficult experiences in life. Yet in both cases we discover the forces of good and evil are being distinguished in the process: Satan and the “friends” in Job are linked; and the skeptical leaders who harangued the newly-healed blind man in John 9, are exposed and diminished in the stories.  Job and the blind man are seen as faithful.

At other times we see God allowing the people he loves to experience harsh judgments in order for them to feel the weight of their sin—the book of Habakkuk is a gritty summary of God’s willingness to allow the sinful attitudes and activities of one group (the Chaldeans) to crush another group of sinful people (the people of Judah). The ultimate outcome is that, after the Babylonian exile, the persistent habit of whoring after foreign idols ended for God’s people after they were restored. This theme of moral repair is also captured in the New Testament: “whom the Lord loves, he disciplines.” 

I will end here. The triad of our title for this post—”pain, patience, and providence”—is as much as I can bring into some sort of focus for now. We suffer, but we need to be patient. Why? Because God is providentially ruling over all our circumstances so that, for those of us who are with him—”who love him”—everything is sure to be explained in ways that make sense. Even those things that are clearly wrong, broken, painful, and difficult to live with. That’s what it is to live by faith and not by sight. But, you can be sure, I’ll be more than curious when we get to heaven to see that final tapestry!

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6 Comments

  1. Leanne

    I feel completely inadequate to address this, especially because I’ve never been married myself, but one thing that really stuck out to me that you mentioned your friend was pondering was the application of Romans 8:28.

    Because this is pretty much THE verse I point out when speaking about the way God wooed me, I am always interested in hearing what it looks like for others, this “all things working for the good of those who love Him.”

    Forgive me if this comes across as preaching or if I’m being too simple in my understanding, but I’ve always thought this verse has been too narrowly accepted. I often think we get our focus skewed when looking at Romans 8:28 and somehow think that the “good” is supposed to be OUR good.

    As you mentioned, good and faithful people often suffer much in this life and I believe you when you say that sometimes their reward never manifests itself this side of heaven,

    but…………

    could there also be another piece of “good” we overlook? Might this “good” work in the lives of others, even if it’s at our own expense?

    Instead of thinking that our reward has been delayed or that we’ll not receive it until we see Jesus face to face, maybe the REAL good is our response to what we perceive as “bad”?

    In the case of your friend, it seems his grief and longing are very hard to bear, yet, bear it he does. Not knowing the situation and not even needing to, I would hazard to guess that despite the separation and pain he feels, good WILL come of it, even if it doesn’t look the way we all pray it will.

    What if your friend is able to witness to others by thankfully praising God for this “cross”? What if, because of this separation, he or his wife find themselves in places they might not have been, meeting people they never would have as a couple?

    Not that I think separation or divorce is a good thing, but, maybe this time apart, even years worth, is producing good for others?

    Maybe I’m focusing too much on my own experiences or am misapplying the teaching and if so, please forgive me, but I really am interested in this subject and thought it wouldn’t hurt to add my two cents.

    🙂

  2. R N Frost

    I’m not sure I’ve caught all of what you’ve touched on here, Leanne. I agree with you that the point of the verse is not so much our immediate benefit from God. That was why the verses from Hebrews were so important; and why the broader frame of gaining a post-this-epoch view of things is where real joy will come (i.e. when God’s ‘promise’ is completed).

    So let me add a thought that may be what you’re sensitive to: that the comfort we will have in eternity will come because we will finally gain a full realignment of values so that we will, at last, have God’s point of view, even in matters of real hardship and disappointment. So it’s not about “us” but about God. Yet, as those who come to be in full communion with Christ, we will finally share in his joy without any hesitation.

  3. Dorie Halsey

    Ron, I’ve been reading your blogs. Thank you. Here is a response.
    A friend in Africa asked, “can you meet and pray individually with my women?” (struggling, previously brutalized and raped women) I have been pondering this question all year: “What can be offered that is helpful in the presence of deep suffering and lost hope?”
    Two stories have continuously come to my mind.
    One story is yours, of helping a suicidal girl in a psychiatric unit, years ago. There was something compelling in the way that you introduced her to Jesus. It was in your care and listening and the questions that you asked her. I’ve thought, “whatever Ron said to that girl is the answer.”
    The other is a story of my own. Years ago, I treated a young man in a nursing home. An accident left his body with little motion except uncontrolled spasms. He longed to die and soothed his pain with street drugs. I remember sitting with him one afternoon. I think I prayed with him. What I really remember is crying. His pain, his life, his loss mattered.
    In the middle of suffering questions may rise. “How can God be good? How can any good come of this circumstance?” Sometimes words to offer are lost or feel trite.
    Ive wished that I could remember what you said to the young girl. I am convinced that your words were wise. But maybe what I -can- remember, is most important. I remember that you brought her to Jesus with tender compassion.

    There is something beautiful and healing in a lack for words or simple tears at the feet of Jesus with a friend in pain, that can never quite be explained.

  4. R N Frost

    Thanks, Dorie, for the reminder.

    The story of Carrie [my name for her in my book, Discover the Power of the Bible, where I recount that occasion] was based on the power of hope and comfort. She, as a 16 year old, had suffered a sequence of tragic losses and was suicidal. After weeks of suicide prevention efforts our hospital team was at a loss on how to help her. In my Bible reading the morning before my next workshift I came to 2 Cor 1:3-5 and realized that it offered a way forward.

    I asked her if it would be helpful if we could bring in an 18 year old who had experienced similar losses but who now had a sense of hope and meaning. Carrie said “YES!”

    I told her we didn’t have anyone like that … but in two years she could become that person for someone else if she was open to finding hope and meaning herself. “How?” she asked. I offered my Bible text to her & said, if you receive the comfort Christ can share with you, you’ll have that comfort to share with others. After two days, with more questions about Jesus, she embraced that prospect (another Christian on staff, a nurse, introduced her to a living faith). It made all the difference.

    A couple of years later she wrote me: “You can say ‘I told you so!'” By then she was in a long term care center and was helping younger girls through their deep hurts. The staff, she wrote, called her “the miracle worker” as she offered comfort to others. Carrie went on and earned a doctorate in counseling and is now a professional care-giver.

    As a reminder, this principle is also evident in any of the major recovery ministries (e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous) as a person who has had the experience of despair offers hope to those presently in despair like no one else can do. So, to restate the theme of this week’s post, pain has a providential power as we love God and allow him to transform our experience of pain into a bridge to others to escape despair. It’s a reorientation of life-values, of course, because the pain may never go away; it simply becomes useful in helping others

  5. Dorie

    Thank you. That is the story I meant. May your wise words and care continue to bless others.

  6. L Morgan Reynolds

    ahh! my life verse..i shared this at rosemont a few weeks ago, it resonated with the girls as evidenced by their reactions. a question often asked is why? why me? i know now! and so will they!
    2 corinthians 1: 3-5

    “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.”

    scholars tell us that the book of Job is a book on “how to suffer” with all due respect, i have silently (till now) thought it to be a book on how to be with one who suffers. it appears the only thing Job’s friends did that was right was to spend the first 7 days in silence, in sackcloth and ashes!
    hence, in celebrate recovery one of our rules is to silently listen to the burdens of our comrades. and of course, Pray.
    speaking of prayer..this seems as good a time as any to request prayer..i’ll be speaking again at rosemont this sunday; my request is that God’s word would be forthcoming with the full power of his Holy Spirit!
    …and thanks

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