It is a perennial question for me whether God wants those experiences which we perceive to be negative to play a part in our lives.
I know many people who will vehemently deny this. God, they say, created all things perfectly and thus that is the state he intends and desires for humans to experience now. Some go further, basing their claims not only on the creative intention of God but also on Christ’s finished work on the cross by which, according to Isaiah 53, he bore our sicknesses. God, they say, does not want believers to experience sickness or discomfort or pain.
This usually prefaces and is the foundation for ‘prayers of faith’, seeking healing or restoration. Such prayers tend to refer to God’s creative intention and to the cross. And, in some cases, we see answers to prayer, situations turned around and life restored. What joy to celebrate those interventions of God!
But, you know, I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as we want to make it. OK, sometimes God does choose to remove the difficult circumstances in our lives, the ones that we claim are contrary to his creative intention for us, the ones over which we declare the victory of Christ.
But sometimes he doesn’t.
And I don’t think that is actually such a terrible thing always.
I look forward with the rest of the church to the day when all things will be restored, when Christ’s victory will be consummated and when we will be glorified along with him. Of course I do! On that day, there will be no more sickness, no more crying and no more pain.
But until then, we live between the times. We know from experience that we do not live whole and healed lives right now. We are as much affected by the fall as the rest of creation. And we groan with the whole cosmos, longing for the day when the children of God will be revealed.
Because that is the day of hope. That is the day when negative experiences will be chased from my life just like darkness is chased away by the dawning of day. But until then…
…until then, I live with ambiguity. I live with the tension of a God whose creative intention is for me to be healed, fulfilled, experiencing good things, yet who also is sufficiently committed to his work in me that he will allow thorns in my flesh if they produce holiness in me.
We would rather ‘nice things’; God sometimes seems to allow ‘not nice things’. And, in fact, if I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest that, more than just allowing it, God even desires my life experience to include ‘not nice things’. Not because he’s nasty. But because gold can be refined only by fire.
Meister Eckhart puts it like this:
Listen, all rational souls! The swiftest steed to bear you to your goal is suffering. Only those who stand with Christ in depths of bitterness will ever taste eternal bliss. Nothing is more bitter than suffering, nothing so honey-sweet as to have suffered.
(Meister Eckhart collection – ed. Halcyon Backhouse)
Depression was part of my experience for four years. In the global scheme of things, it is nothing. But to me, it was everything for a time. It was bitter to me. I lost count of how many times well-meaning Christians told me that this was not God’s will for me. I know what they meant. They were trying to sympathise, trying to show solidarity, trying to bolster my faith in God.
But throughout that time, and since, I have been convinced that for that time, this was the will of God for me. I met a God who loved me so much that he was not afraid to let me suffer if it would refine and strengthen me. No longer the God of pink candyfloss and happy days out, I came to know the God who knew my soul and would lead me through fire yet would not let me be burned, who took me through waters of difficulty yet did not let me drown.
To suffer was not sweet nor do I look forward with anticipation to future suffering.
Yet, to have suffered, even if only a little, is sweet.
And so I worry: when we trumpet a gospel of healing on demand, of God’s creative intention for a great life, without also recognising that at times God has sent the suffering as strange and often unwanted gift, do we rob those who hear our confident proclamations?
When we assure believers that God wants them not to experience this emotional pain, or this physical difficulty, or these circumstances which they perceive to be negative, are we sure that we speak with the voice of God?
Or are we sometimes so keen to establish a theology of healing, of miracles and of happiness that perhaps we miss the gift which is a theology of suffering…