I have this burdensome opinion that everyone has their cross to bear, the thorn in their side, their unique struggle, just there to test them—even if this is not the full picture. It’s difficult to look someone in the eye and convincingly say that everything’s going to be all right, when what I really want to say is, “God, why this? Why this person? Why this?”
We know that God does work through trials (see James 1:2-4, 12-16). He does not send temptation but teaches us to fight the obstacles in our lives—something which is meant to grow us and liberate us can look, feel, and be hardship. So my mantra of “just a cross to bear” and others that go along the lines of “God has a plan” are bad reductions of a greater truth.
So why does it seem so unfair? As believers, we declare the omnipotence of God, but His all-powerfulness is something that is really hard to reconcile with in the face of suffering. I want to barter, I want to compare. This person doesn’t deserve this. Take it away.
Sometimes I find that, if I’m being honest about my lack of faith, I think God’s trials are unnecessary. It’s a pretty arrogant, heretical thought, really. Put it this way: I tend to imagine circumstances as a sort of see-saw—and if only God would just tip it a little bit in my favor, we could all get along fine. But sometimes He doesn’t. And sometimes it feels like He’s tipping it in the other direction (perhaps for some great goal that I can’t see). When the Almighty could fix things instantly and does not, I may not want to shout “Foul play!” but I’ll certainly want to debate it. After all, humans can be malicious, neglectful, or just have a poor idea of how to deal with us—and when I feel desperate I seem to attribute these attributes to God too. If there is going to be suffering, I arrogantly feel I have the right to at least know why.
“Our Father Who Art in Heaven…”
I have been reading through 1 Samuel (it would be great if you could familiarize yourself with chapters 1-3, if you have time), and I was struck by the attitudes of both Hannah and Eli. They were both going through immense emotional difficulty. Hannah was unable to have children, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, her husband’s other wife bore him many children and tormented Hannah about her misery for years, until Hannah couldn’t eat for weeping (1 Samuel 1:7). So in “great anguish and grief” (1 Samuel 1:16), Hannah pours out her heart to the Lord:
“O LORD Almighty, if you will only look on upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life…”
1 Sam. 1:11
What a prayer. There is no such thing as too personal a prayer. There are many things that our ‘practicality’ insists we should just get over, no need to bother about praying for that. In the New Testament, Jesus encourages us to pray to God as we might talk to our father. We can talk to Him and ask Him for anything in Jesus’ name (which ought to shape what we pray for) as easily as a child might request a piggyback ride or breakfast. It is in the Father’s power to grant His children that which is good, and He is glad to do so. This Father is delighted to hear every little thought, and to have long conversations, even in the early years when communication is mostly incoherent. A loving Father will not be unwilling to give His children anything good. What a thought! He delights to have us come to Him.
Hannah is living out this version of prayer. Her words demonstrate her belief that God will be moved to act because she is unhappy. This is the security of the child: that her Father is willing to hear her pleas and act. She goes to the temple in prayer because she believes the Almighty is the One able to receive her prayer. She then does two things which amaze me. She promises to relinquish the child that she prays for, and having merely unburdened herself to the Lord, she is able to go her way “no longer downcast” (1:18). Hannah’s actions don’t instruct us to make bargains with God, but they draw the attention to this surprising vow. It has startling similarities to Abraham's submission to sacrifice his long-awaited son (see Genesis 22). This is not merely handing anxieties over to the Lord, but everything. Surely she hoped for many children eventually, but if she were only given one, she shows she would be willing to give up even the one she had. Because Hannah knew God, and she trusted, deeply trusted, that He is good, in her prayer she was able to cast off her own burden and leave everything in His hands.
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done
Eli, on the other hand, a God-fearing man who served in the Lord’s temple, is facing the death of his two sons because of their wickedness and contempt of the Lord and the people they served. They were not only self-serving, but as priests they were inhibiting the relationship of God’s people towards Him (and also rejecting their role in the history of Israel’s Messiah, which then fell to Samuel—see 1 Samuel 16:1).
Yet, though his sons were very dear to him, his simple response is, “He is the LORD; let Him do what is good in His eyes” (3:18). Eli’s response points to a larger truth: God is the only good being who can do exactly as He sees fit. This is because He is the only one whose actions are not inherently tainted with wickedness, selfishness, cruelty, wretchedness, incompetence, futility or weakness. We see in the Bible when people do exactly as they see fit (see Judges 17:6), chaos and calamity reigns. Man cannot do as he sees fit; we know this, because his judgement is clouded by selfish and subjective motives. But the Lord knows all and is able to act throughout all. He is the only One whose means and ends are both unfailingly good, all the time.
For Thine Is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory
Here is one of the most beautiful trip-switches in our belief: God is both sovereign and good. It is a trip-switch because we can never seem to hold both in our heads at the same time without the lights all going out. Like an infant who cannot believe in the existence of a toy when it is out of sight, there are still things that from our limited perspective are beyond our understanding or acceptance.
But here’s the thing: God gives us exactly what we would ask for if we knew everything He knows.
Think about it: if God was all-powerful without being good, we could expect neglect and inconsistency. If He were good without being all-powerful, we might only have trite happy thoughts to “shield” and bear us through hardship. But because He is both almighty and good, we can have absolute trust that He knows best, no matter what we see. This affects our faith and hearts and motivations. This means that no matter what God says, no matter what He ordains, no matter how exceptionally difficult it can sometimes feel to live out your faith as He’s directed, that He remains steadfastly the God who is good. We can embrace every thing the Bible says, every life experience, knowing that God is good. We don’t want to pick and choose what to believe of God’s Word. If He is the One who revealed it to us, we know it can be trusted. We need not whitewash calamity, but are encouraged to look beyond.
This is how both Hannah and Eli were able to entrust themselves to His care. While neither of them knew the outcomes they faced, nor fully understood their trials even afterwards, they could have absolute faith to trust the outcomes to God. With the same certainty, we can be liberated from concern, and guilt, and anxiety. I can say to myself, He is good. I may not see it now, but I know that despite this, God is still good. And He is never out of control. We can take Him as the final authority and have no fear.
It is the ultimate truth to drive you to your knees with confidence, through Jesus, to entrust your all to Him because He has the power to respond, to know that in holding to Him you are clinging to the only worthwhile thing to say with Eli, even in the face of judgment, that the Lord knows best and His works are good towards His children (Romans 8:28) and above all, to praise Him! Psalm 118:1 encourages us: “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever.”
May Romans 3:4 be our rallying cry: “Let God be true though every one were a liar.”