Taking Comfort in Our Suffering
During one of my daily readings of Scripture, I stopped at Genesis 15:13 and realised something I had never noticed before after the many times I’ve read it. The verse says, “Then the LORD said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be slaves there, and they will be afflicted for four hundreds years.'” I’ve probably read this verse several dozen times, but I suddenly realised: We can take comfort from this. Now, you might be thinking, “How could we possibly take comfort from this? Are you crazy?” First of all, I’m not crazy; I’m mentally unrestrained. Second of all, allow me to explain how we can take comfort in these words God spoke to Abraham.
In our trials and sufferings, we seem to forget we are children of an omniscient God who loves us. Because He’s omniscient, He knew the Israelites—His people—would suffer for 400 years in slavery. And what did He do? He brought His people out of suffering. This might bring up the question, “Why did He wait four hundred years to save His people?” I’ll get to that in a little bit. First, I want to talk more about God’s omniscience—that He is all-knowing and because He is all-knowing, He knows the perfect time when something needs to happen. Consider briefly Galatians 4:4, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son…” The key phrase here is “when the fullness of time had come,” which is just another way of saying, “When it was now time for this thing to happen,” which is given in the subsequent clause: God sending His Son. For what purpose did He send Him? In a nutshell: to die for our sins and thus save us from eternal damnation.
Certain events on earth had to happen before Jesus’ incarnation came to fruition. Likewise, certain events on earth had to happen through His providence before He could free the Hebrew slaves. (This is not the silly idea of “fate”—the idea that every person has an unavoidable fate they cannot control that is guided by some mystic sentience like God. God’s providence, to put it simply, is Him using good and evil to enact His will. This does not mean God approves of evil, but simply that He is so good that He can even use evil events to bring it to a good end. But this is a topic for another day.) Before I get to why God “waited” 400 years to save His people, remember Peter’s point, “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). The joke on the left captures God’s infinitude that Peter is describing. To us finite beings, 400 years is an extremely long time. To God, however, 1,000 years is the same as one day. Time is irrelevant to God because He is not bound by time; rather, time is bound by God, since time was created when He created everything, after all. We can only say “in the beginning” (a sense of time) at the start of Genesis because God made it so. That’s why I put “waiting” in quotations because God doesn’t need to wait; He’s already completed the work. We are the ones who need to wait.
So, why did God “wait” 400 years to deliver His people? God may not be bound by time, but we certainly are. He either cannot or will not fast forward time for us just to get to the end—indeed, the fast forwarding concept is irrelevant since time technically does not exist. Remember that certain things have to happen on earth through God’s providence before His work comes to fruition. In this instance, with the Hebrew slaves, that was Moses. Our God being omniscient, infinite, and therefore existing outside of time, He not only saw but He also knew what He was going to do with Moses. God wouldn’t free His people until Moses was born, hidden for a while to evade Pharaoh’s edict to kill all Hebrew male infants, until his mother laid him in a waterproof basket in the river; until he drifted upon Pharaoh’s daughter and was, for the first few years of his life, ironically raised by his mother who “happened” to be the servant of the Pharaoh’s daughter (Moses was later adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter); and until he was raised as a prince, murdered an Egyptian soldier because of an injustice being done to a Hebrew slave, fled to Midian for 40 years, and then revealed Himself to Moses as a burning bush. (I say “wouldn’t” instead of “couldn’t” because God could have freed His people by totally annihilating the Egyptians and been completely merciless. Instead, we have a merciful God, and He brought Moses before Pharaoh multiple times, giving him multiple undeserved chances to repent and forsake his ways by freeing the people of God. Unfortunately, the Pharaoh hardened his heart against God.)
God knew that in order to do this work through Moses—and for the ultimate purpose of bring the birth of His Son Jesus—His people would have to suffer for 400 years in slavery. Just because God knew this was going to happen doesn’t mean He approved of it or was indifferent to their suffering. How would you feel if you knew your children—or your descendants—would suffer for 400 years in slavery? By the time God started His work through Moses, he was in his eighties! God “waited” 40 years for Moses to begin His work because, as Moses murdered an Egyptian soldier, there was likely a bounty for his head. By the time the new Pharaoh had come to power, forty years had passed, and the bounty on Moses’ head died out. And as we know, Moses did great things in the name of God, God freeing His people and bringing them to the Promised Land.
But why did God even allow His people to suffer? If He hadn’t, His people would have no reason to trust Him after bringing them out of Egypt. Since He brought them out of their long suffering, certainly they can trust Him in anything else. The psalmist captures this when he writes, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it” (Psalm 81:10). Of course, Israel still failed to trust Him, yet the point remains that if God could do something as amazing as their exodus from Egypt, certainly He can do anything else for them, which God made this point to them many times.
So, how do we take comfort from this? Consider the times we’re in. We can draw similarities between the godlessness of America and the godlessness of ancient Babylon. (Revelation actually depicts Babylon as an adulterous whore, the image being symbolic of people who follow after false religions, which is committing spiritual adultery and prostitution against God.) Additionally, Christians are increasingly being persecuted by enemies such as ISIS and even in America by its own citizens because we refuse to submit to their ungodly ways, and we are groaning in pain for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Then there are our own personal sufferings to varying degrees. This is where we can draw our comfort: hundreds of years before the Israelites’ 400-year enslavement, God knew it was going to happen, and because of His promise first given in Genesis 3:15, God brought His people out of it. Sure, it was a long time (for us), but He still fulfilled His promise.
Therefore, since God knew about their 400-year suffering before it happened, then certainly God knows of our current suffering, whether personal or global. Not only that, but He knew what’s going on right now in the world thousands of years before it even happened! Likewise, He knows what’s going to happen in the future before we even know about it and suffer from it. So how can we take comfort from this? Examine closely the words in Exodus 2:23b-25, “…and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” God hears our groaning in our prayers and our cries for deliverance!
Even more, we have a new covenant with Jesus Christ fulfilled through the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God’s promise to save mankind from his sins has been fulfilled in Christ. Here’s one way this new covenant is delineated: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). Another way Scripture delineates it is Romans 5:10, “For if while we were enemies [of God] we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.” God knows of our sufferings; He’s known about all our sufferings before the foundation of the world, which is exactly why He sent His Son to die for us, that we may not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
The Kingship of Christ
Now, a necessary digression. When evil happens in the world, many people automatically resort to blaming God. They believe that because God did not intervene (such as recent terrorist attacks on Paris and Orlando as well as other locations), that must mean He’s either hateful, indifferent, or just doesn’t exist in the first place. They expect God to swoop in like a king with His army every time something bad happens to people. I have two points to make. First of all, the Jews thought the same thing when Jesus came! The Old Testament Scriptures speak of the Messiah who will come and save mankind, and it’s depicted with awe-inspiring righteousness. The Jews expected that when the Messiah came, He would come as a king by slaughtering the wicked and thus saving the faithful from this world. And when Jesus came prophesying, healing the sick and demon possessed even on the Sabbath, socialising and dining with ragamuffins, all the while calling Himself the King of the Jews and the Son of God, He was not the king the Jews had imagined for so long. This King of the Jews did not come with an army of angels ready for battle against the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Instead, this man came as a humble carpenter claiming to be the Messiah, saying, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). He was not at all the king the Jews had imagined for so long, and thus they did not believe He was the Son of God—the promised Messiah.
This foolishness of the unbelieving Jews is no different than the foolishness of unbelievers today, even some Christians. We think that because God does not come down with an army of angels or some other means of righteous, divine judgement to stop evil that it must mean He’s indifferent or doesn’t exist. Such thinking has never been more wrong, and such thinking is nothing new. This is not the kind of God our God is. Christians quote John 3:16 like an expired cliché, but the words are so powerful! Read carefully John 3:16-17, “For God so loved the world [note: it does not say only the elect], that He gave His only Son, that whoever [note: it does not say only the elect] believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, and He’d rather have them turn from their wicked ways and live (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9). The fact that God has not sent His armies to judge the wicked is really an act of His mercy.
This brings me to my second point. The power of God’s wrath that we desire to see occurs when Christ returns. When He returns, then we will see Him exercise His wrath as King, and let me tell you: it is an awfully powerful, bloody, and even frightening image (at least for unbelievers). We see this in Revelation 19 where John describes Jesus as “Faithful and True” as He sits on a white horse (v. 11) and continues with a symbolic description of Jesus’ power. Then he writes this bloody image, “He will tread the winepress of the wrath of God the Almighty” (v. 15b). If that doesn’t illustrate it enough for you, John used this same imagery of God’s wrath against the wicked in 14:20, “And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horses’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.” A horse’s bridle is approximately 6 feet and 1,600 stadia is about 184 miles… of the blood of the wicked; and a trodden winepress gives us the imagery of feet stomping upon grapes being mashed for wine, the grapes being the wicked and the stomping feet being God’s wrath. After John describes the destruction of the beast and its false prophets (which are symbolic representations of a collective people), John writes, “And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of Him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (19:21). In other words, Christ the King will simply speak to kill the wicked and the birds will feed on their dead flesh. That’s quite the image of being talked to death.
So we see quite the bloody image of Christ’s kingship. So when we demand God’s judgement and wrath, I wonder if we really know what we’re asking for. When Jesus comes, He will come glorious, slaughtering all evil. So when this doesn’t happen, I say it is really God being merciful because He is giving the wicked another chance to repent, forsake their ways, and to know Him. The time will come for the judgement of the wicked. That time just isn’t now.
God hears you. If you’re in pain, no matter what the pain is, God knows. He will deliver you a way of escape. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you maybe able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Whatever it is you’re going through, God has brought someone else through it before. Your problems are nothing new to Him. Even if you’re somehow the first person with a unique problem, God knows about it and knows how to bring you through it. If God can come down as a man and die for our sins, He can certainly deal with your problems. He knows what He’s doing, so He’s more than capable of helping you endure the pain. Notice the verse above says God will help us endure it, not that He will make it magically disappear. The literal Greek definition of “endure” is “to face and withstand with courage.” God gives us that ability to face our suffering with courage, which enables us to endure.
So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise [which is us] the unchangeable character of His purpose, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain [the sanctuary of Heaven], where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:17-20).
No doubt, if you are Christian, you flee from your troubles and suffering into the refuge of God so that you may receive encouragement from Him, holding fast to our hope that is set in Christ, who came before us. This hope in Christ is the anchor of our souls—it sets our hope firmly in place, unable to be moved. What is this hope? It is our faith in Him—His fulfilment of the Law, the death of our sins as they died with Him on the Cross and left in the empty tomb at His resurrection, faith in His ascension, and ultimately our salvation that is in Him alone—the salvation that is coming at His glorious return.
If you’re hurting, God knows it. What sets the Christian apart from the rest of the world is that the anchor of our soul is our hope and faith in Christ. Many Christians are quick to quote Philippians 4:13 like another cliché, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me,” without realising the context of this verse is about Paul’s suffering—his persecution. This isn’t a promise about finals week or finishing that 5-mile run. These words are about suffering and persecution. Have faith; deliverance is coming. In due time, God will bring you through your suffering and pain. Just have faith that He will bring you through it His way, not your way. Just as God was working in bringing about the freedom of His people from slavery as they were unaware of His actions, so God is working to bring your suffering to an end. I was depressed for 12 long years. I sought therapy and even medication, and neither of them worked. It’s not that these things can’t help people, but God’s will to heal my depression was simply through His love as I experienced it through His people the Church and interacting with His Word. His providence had guided my experiences to lead towards His love in His people and His Word. He was there all along, even though I couldn’t see Him. Just because we fail to recognise when God is present and working does not mean He’s absent.