by Dr. Wade Paschal
Here’s a follow-up article to our Suffering & Faith article published on June 2, 2015.
In the midst of suffering, if we could choose, most of us would have the suffering simply stop. Or, failing that, we would like to find some meaning in the suffering so that what we were experiencing somehow “made sense” or had some purpose.
Isaiah offers a somewhat different approach to suffering, which doesn’t promise an immediate release from suffering or tell us how suffering “makes sense.” Instead, Isaiah suggests that suffering will someday become part of something bigger and extravagantly different—and that will change everything.
While Isaiah sees a day of judgment coming because of the sins of Israel, he also sees a day coming when the people of God will feast together and celebrate the victory of God. And at that feast this will be the main course:
Isaiah 25:7-8 (NIV)
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.
Is there any more powerful evil in life than death? Death robs life of meaning. But at the victory feast of God death becomes just a pork chop on the table. The image grips me: God will deal with death and evil by swallowing it up. God will not so much make the bad into good, but will engulf it and overwhelm it.
Isaiah is not trivializing suffering. He is not saying, as we sometimes do, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” Quite the opposite—death conquers every nation and every person. No one can stand up against it—it is the “shroud that enfolds all people, the sheet that covers all nations.” Pain and suffering and death are beyond our control and more than we can stand.
But, in the end God will swallow death (and with it suffering) forever.
God will take the pain and suffering of life and transform it into one of the courses of the feast. There is a suggestion there that our pain and suffering will not simply someday make sense, but will become a point of celebration.
I have a deep appreciation for Timothy Keller’s book on suffering, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering. Over and over again Keller both wrestles with the idea of God and the reality of suffering. Keller believes deeply that God is both good and sovereign—good and possessing of absolute power. And he knows that, in the midst of suffering, it’s hard to see how those two facts can be true at the same time in the midst of an unfair and painful world.
At one point Keller quotes one of his favorite authors, John Newton, who said, “Everything that is needful, [God] sends; nothing can be needful that [God] withholds.” The implication for Keller is that, if God is both good and sovereign, the day will come when we will see that even the suffering that God allows in our lives, as evil as it is, is an essential part of the goodness God plans for us. As one of the people who narrate their own story of pain and suffering says, “Tim Keller once said that God gives us what we would have asked for if we knew everything that He knows.”
What Isaiah shows us is an amazingly creative God who can take the ugly and the awful and transform it. The prophet asks us to look at our suffering in the light of a God who makes the worst of the world the stuff of a feast. If God is good, then God will find a way to take pain and evil and make them part of the feast.
We want to understand—and that is natural and sometimes possible. But when we cannot understand, it is still possible to be full of God.
This is what happened in the book of Job. Job wanted God to tell him why all his suffering happened. In the end of the Book of Job, God appears to Job—and God does not answer Job’s questions. Instead, being in the presence of God, Job stopped asking questions. The presence of God overwhelmed him.
There is a beautiful book that I recommend to any person in the midst of suffering by Amy Julia Becker entitled, A Good and Perfect Gift. Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny. Becker’s first child was born with Down Syndrome. The book walks through the shock, pain and renewal that came through that experience. At one point her husband, Peter, turns to her and says, “I never thought this would be my life, but I love it.”
Is that possible? Could we all someday look at our lives and think, “I never thought that would be my life, but I love it”?
Maybe Isaiah is saying to us that we can look at the pain and suffering and say, “Someday, this will be part of the feast.”
I don’t know how much comfort that would give to the mother of a child who is dying. I wouldn’t insult them by suggesting they think that way. But I think I would have them read Isaiah and pray that God would make those words real and hopeful to them.
Dr. R. Wade Paschal, Jr. is the Senior Pastor of First United Methodist
Church. Educated at Princeton University, Asbury Theological Seminary, and Cambridge University, Dr. Paschal has written two books and a number of articles on the Bible and on ministry. He is married to Sandi and they have three children and two grandchildren.