Suffering in Light of God's Big Plan
I am currently reading a book by Mike Wilkerson entitled “Redemption” in which he draws parallels between the New Testament believer’s salvation and Israel’s Exodus. He observes that during the Israelite’s 430-year sojourn in Egypt there was a period of time spanning generations when the Israelites cried out to Yahweh because of their suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. Although deliverance did eventually come, delay and prolonged suffering was the experience of many who cried out. This is a shared experience of God’s people - crying out for God to intervene and yet having no deliverance from unjust circumstances. In the midst of my reading I felt like God connected some dots for me regarding how we process our suffering in a way that builds rather than erodes our faith in God.
A new story
I want to start by considering a description Wilkerson uses for the Exodus as well as Christian salvation - that being saved can be understood as giving up our life story and being added into God’s big story. Therefore, making sense of our life can only really happen in the context of God’s big story. This idea reminds me of the struggle astronomers in the 15th century experienced trying to find an mathematical explanation for planetary motion. It wasn’t until they put the sun, rather than the earth, at the center that a coherent explanation was possible. Similarly we struggle to explain our lives until we find the correct center from which to view all of life. It is in losing our old, individually-focused life that we actually find true life (Luke 17:33).
And what is God’s big story? It is summarized in various ways in scripture including 2 Corinthians 5:18-20,
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
If we see ourselves as being added into the big plan of God, then we understand that we have become a part of God’s big story of reconciliation. This reconciliation came at great cost to Jesus, and it should not be a stretch to imagine that while living in our broken world that injustice will at times prevail and suffering will result. When we experience injustice there is going to be a need for mercy and forgiveness, not just from God, but also from us as individuals as well – so that through forgiveness, evil ends with us, or as Tolstoy said, let us forgive, for to forgive is to swallow evil and prevent it from going further (Wilkerson, p.81).
By choosing to “swallow”, as Tolstoy said, the cost of injustice done to us we follow in the footsteps of Jesus who also paid the price and took the punishment for the injustice we perpetrated on others. I think this idea is what Paul is trying to communicate when he writes in Colossians 1:24
“… in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions …”.
Paul is not saying that the redemptive, atoning sacrifice of Jesus is somehow incomplete, he is speaking of tribulations that are inevitable and necessary as God’s kingdom faces the opposition of the dominion of darkness (v. 13). As members of Christ’s own body, his people participate in the sufferings of Christ himself. (Douglas Moo, The letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (p. 152), Pillar Commentary Series).
In the next post we will bring these thoughts back to the Exodus and our own salvation where we began.