A brief devotion I shared for my class on the prophets based on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s chapter on 2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) in The Prophets.
I want to begin by reading a portion of the lyrics to a worship song that the worship band at my church played a few weeks back that got me thinking about suffering and God’s relation to suffering. It’s called “Though You Slay Me” and its by Shane and Shane.
I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You struck down to bind me up
You say You do it all in love
That I might know You in Your suffering
Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the one who’s all I need
This song is based on Job 13:15 where Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.” It was written after one of the artists lost his dad to a sudden heart attack. He talks about the way God brought joy and praise in a time of great suffering for him and his family. But Is this song a cry of faith and trust in God’s sovereign will or is it harmful theology that makes God into an arbitrary tyrant who kills our parents to teach us a lesson?
Throughout Heschel’s work, the reality of suffering and God’s relation to suffering has come up often. As I’ve shared in our class discussions, this has created a struggle for me. In the chapter we read this week on 2nd Isaiah, we find that Israel is called to suffer as God’s servant on behalf of the nations, for the salvation of the nations. Think Isaiah 53. However, Heschel also makes what I think is a crucial distinction between different kinds of suffering. He says, “Not all the evils that befell Israel go back to the will of God” (p192). Yes, Israel was God’s chosen “Suffering Servant” but some of the suffering Israel experienced was pure evil at the hands of a wicked Babylonian empire. There’s a difference here: one kind of suffering comes from God; another kind comes from evil.
When I think about my life and future in ministry, I fully expect to face suffering as I try to be a faithful follower of Jesus. I’m learning to take Jesus seriously when he asks me to come and die. However, I’m also learning to recognize the powers and principalities, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms, that are wholly aligned against the redemptive, healing, restoring reign of God. These are the forces on full display as Jesus is murdered on the cross; these are the same forces that are shamed and disarmed as Jesus rises victorious from the grave. While they are utterly defeated, these same forces are the ones that steal, kill, and destroy our world today.
As we proclaim God’s reign of hope and justice in our world, we must recognize the difference between the suffering we are, on the one hand, bound to experience as we confront the powers and principalities that inhabit and empower evil, sinful structures and, on the other hand, the suffering meted out on the billions of poor, marginalized, and oppressed people by those same evil structures. In fact, all creation suffers and groans under sinful, evil structures inspired by the powers and principalities. The suffering we experience as we work for the salvation of others, as we follow the way of Christ as a community in a hostile world, is the only kind of suffering given by God; it is the only kind of suffering that can be called redemptive. I think we need to be careful, to seek discernment of the Spirit, so that we do not confuse this kind of suffering for the sake of others with the suffering caused by sinful structures or natural disasters or tragic accidents.
What we must remember is that God is always present and bringing comfort in all our suffering because God loves us with an eternal, unending love. God even suffers with us. However, God’s comfort in our suffering does not mean that God condones it or that God has caused it. When Job said, “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him,” God was not happy. Why? Because Job got it wrong. God didn’t slay Job – the enemy did (Job 1:11-12). Here’s what God says back to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!… Would you [Job] discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:2, 8). Job thought he was being pious but he had wrongfully accused God of being the source of the evil and suffering he experienced. By accepting this suffering as if it was ordained by God, he had called God’s justice into question.
Before we glorify in your sufferings, or tell someone to praise God for the suffering “God is putting them through,” let’s be very sure that we’re not accusing God of injustice. Instead of accepting this suffering, God may be calling us to oppose it, to cry out for God’s justice and mercy. Maybe the praise God is calling us to is the praise of lament: “lamentation is not the opposite of praise but a form of praise in which God is rightfully held accountable to God’s promises: to comfort the widow, heal the afflicted… lament is expressed not as an accusation but as… a call back to fidelity to the terms of the original covenant, and includes an appropriate expectation or longing, not a demand, the very possibility of which was created when love and covenant were first enacted” (Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us, 341, 342). We lament because God loves us with an everlasting, covenant-keeping love. When we suffer – whether it comes from God or not – God does not require us to simply accept the suffering and act as though it were good a priori, as though God were “slaying us” so that we would “know God”; I think God calls us to lament.