Navigating Suffering When We Want to Understand

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When I was little, my mom used to tell me that God knew me better than I knew myself. I protested, “No, He doesn’t. No one knows me better than I know myself!”

My mom gently tried to persuade me otherwise, but I couldn’t understand how this could be true.

Now, as an adult, I understand through reading God’s Word and evidences in my life just how well God knows me. Not only does He know me, He knows what is best for me. However, I still struggle to let go of control when the decisions He wants me to make are not those that I would choose for myself. Even though I know from experience that I am not adept in making wise choices, I still struggle to let God have full control. I want to pick and choose the assignments He gives me. I don’t like or understand some of the directives He gives me.

Lessons from Job When We Don’t Understand

Recently through a series of circumstances, God revealed this tidbit to me: I think my way is better sometimes. If I can’t understand what He is asking me to do (it doesn’t make sense logically to me), I struggle to obey. But faith requires that I step out even when I don’t understand why, trusting that God has a purpose in what He asks of me.

Job 42:2-6 says this:

I know that you can do all things, no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

Job says these words to God after Job accuses God of being unjust. God answers back with a series of questions revealing His sovereignty over the universe and freedom to do as He pleases. Job accuses God earlier when his home, wealth, and family are destroyed in a day. Shortly after losing what he does, he breaks out in painful boils. His wife emotionally abandons him. His friends try to comfort him but make him feel worse when they accuse him of sin he didn’t commit.

What Job doesn’t know when he is hit with misfortune is that God gave permission to Satan to afflict Job to test Job’s faithfulness. Job doesn’t turn against God, but he naturally tries to understand the mishaps that befall him. In chapter 38, God answers Job, but does not provide a reason for his suffering. After hearing God’s response, Job realizes the holy nature of God in a new way. He changes his position and utters the words recorded in the passage above.

What can we learn from Job in this passage about times of suffering when we want to understand?

1. We will not understand all that God allows or asks us to do.

Job says this to God, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (v. 3). Essentially, Job acknowledges that there are some things that he will not understand. For many of us, we may wear ourselves out wanting to find out why, demanding God tell us why. However, at times, He will choose not to reveal the answers to our questions.

We should ask questions in our suffering, and it’s not wrong to do so. Yet, if God doesn’t answer us or explain the way we want, will we accept what He has allowed and do what He says without understanding? For many of us, we are OK with stepping out in faith as long as the action makes sense to us, but if God doesn’t explain the whys to us, we may balk and hit a stopping point. God, I am not doing this until you tell me why. God, I am not going to act in this way towards this person unless you explain x, y, and z.

Job learned in his situation that while God chose not to answer his questions, God did let him know He was aware of what was going on. I have found that to be the case. We may not get the exact explanations we hoped for in our situation, but if we keep pressing in, God will give us what we need to keep going. And — we have His presence even when we don’t have His answers.

2. Affliction teaches us self-awareness.

Job says, “My ears had heard of you, but my eyes have seen you” (v. 5). While Job is still left in the dark in many ways, even at the end of Job, he discovers a deeper awareness and revelation of God in His situation. Not only that, he gains a greater self-awareness.

While at the beginning of Job, he considers himself extremely righteous — perhaps more righteous than other people — he repents and sees what is in his soul: presumption and sin like that in the heart of any other person.

Similarly, as happens with Job, the hardships we go through will bring to the surface what lies within us. I mentioned that God revealed to me that I think my ways is better on occasion. This revelation came after a series of hard God assignments that appeared like sheer lunacy to me. One such assignment, I responded with a half-hearted, halfway obedience because I thought His direction to me was a very bad idea. Then, he revealed my reliance on my own wisdom in the aftermath.

However, when He revealed what He did, I repented and asked for help in this area. Did I even know before this that this ugly reality was true about me? No, I didn’t. Maybe it was obvious to other people, but not to me. When we walk closely with God in our affliction, not only will we see Him more clearly and learn more about Him, we will see ourselves more clearly.

3. Affliction reveals what is in us, so that we can repent.

Suffering comes for different reasons. Suffering doesn’t always come in our lives because of God’s discipline and a need to repent of sin. However, at times, God does want to point out something we need to change. In those instances, we can learn humbly from Him during our affliction and repent.

For many, the word “repent” means walking around with our head down in guilt and shame, feeling bad about ourselves. While such feelings can lead us to confess our sin and allow God to forgive and restore us, repentance is about changing our mind and thinking differently about what God has pointed out to us.

Job says in the passage, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (v. 6). He says what he does about despising himself because he wants God to know he abhors the evil in himself and recognizes his wrong in accusing God and trying to stand on his own merit before God. He makes a change by confessing his sin to God and deciding to go a new way. By stating that he repents “in dust and ashes,” he is outwardly displaying what he feels inside. In this time, people who were grieving would sit in ashes and cover themselves with ashes to show outwardly their inward emotion. In saying what he did, Job wanted to express his turn away from his previous attitude.

Job’s actions here teach us that God doesn’t send affliction to make us feel bad about ourselves and stay there. Through affliction, we can learn what God wants to teach us, and we can emerge a better person. Joseph Benson says on this point, “The more we see of the glory and majesty of God, the more we shall see of the vileness and odiousness of sin, and the more we shall abase and abhor ourselves for it; and repent in dust and ashes.”

Conclusion:

Is there a situation in your life that has you tied up in knots, and you have told God you won’t proceed until He explains to you what is going on? Or is there an action He is nudging you towards without disclosing the reasons why?

Job teaches us that God doesn’t have to explain everything to us because He is God. Sometimes, He chooses to answer our questions, but understanding shouldn’t be a prerequisite for obedience. In addition, even when we can’t immediately see how the bad God has allowed will lead to good, we shouldn’t give up.

Like Job, we can trust Him even when it looks bad and feels bad — not because He has explained everything to us — but because He is trustworthy and cannot ever make a mistake. God Himself is the very standard of truth and justice. He cannot slip up or lie, ever!

When things are going sideways and we’re caught in a circumstance we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, we can accept what God has ordained and surrender to Him — believing that, like Job, when we cling to God in the midst of our affliction, we will come out of it stronger and more blessed than before.

Related Resources:

Ever worry that you won’t ever be able to feel joy again and get out of your current slump? Join us for the next few weeks as we look at how to experience joy in seasons of suffering. In Part 1: “Joy in the Midst of Trials,” we look at how the biblical mandate to rejoice in suffering is not insane or bad advice, but is actually helpful in uplifting our mood and changing our perspective — even if our situation doesn’t immediately get better.

Want to look at another resource on Job 42 and suffering? Check out the following article on the same passage: “Where Is God When We Suffer?”

*Revised and updated February 23, 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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Joy in the Midst of Trials

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“Oh no!” I groaned when I heard the clanking sound. I rushed upstairs and looked in the laundry room to find the error light blinking on the dryer and the lint screen lying close by on the ground. I had forgotten to put in the lint screen, and my dryer was making strange sounds.

Appliances breaking down aren’t a huge deal — not like a cancer diagnosis, a death in the family, or a relationship fallout — but nonetheless, even small everyday trials can irritate us and even more so when they come in clusters. Often, the appliance dies, the kid gets sick, the relationship conflict escalates, the unexpected bill arrives — all at the same time — so we are literally drowning in a sea of trials.

Certainly, we can attribute these trials many times to the work of Satan or the fallen world we live in. However, there is another reason we can experience trials. This reason is much harder to wrap our minds around, but at times, God orchestrates trials in our lives to accomplish His purposes.

Note what 1 Peter 1:6-7 says on this point: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even through refined by fire — may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

We might be shocked at the idea that God sends trials at times (Really? How could He?), but when we look into what the passage says regarding the reasons behind what God allows, we can begin to understand why God allows what He does and even, as the verse advocates, rejoice in our trials — whether big or small.

What can we learn from this passage?

1. A posture of joy in our trials helps us experience joy.

The verse tells us to rejoice. Other verses such as 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 and Philippians 4:4 echo the same idea. Most likely, Peter knew that his audience at the time suffering from persecution would focus on their hardships and be drawn into a negative mindset as a result. Rejoicing in our trials doesn’t mean we forget what pain we have; rather, it tells us that joy is possible in the midst of our suffering. Maybe for many of us, we are praying for the situation to go away and looking to the removal of the suffering to bring us joy.

But Peter advocates that we can still experience joy in the middle of our hard situations by choosing to rejoice in the darkest of nights — not pretending our pain doesn’t exist or waiting for it to pass. Instead, we choose not merely to focus on what’s wrong in our lives — but to focus on what is right and good. What is right and good even in the hardest of situations? Peter tells us what we have to rejoice in earlier in 1 Peter: believers can look ahead to an inheritance that will never fade or be taken away.

Peter doesn’t advocate that we don’t feel or acknowledge our pain. He merely advocates rejoicing knowing that such a change of perspective would help to bring joy to suffering Christians in desperate circumstances. Alexander MacLaren calls this cultivating joy and refers to it as a “roundabout way” that we can encourage ourselves, saying:

A man travelling in a railway train can choose which side of the carriage he will look at, the one where the sunshine is falling full on the front of each grass-blade and tree, or the side where it is the shadowed side of each that is turned to him. If he will look out of the one window, he will see everything verdant and bright, and if he will look out at the other, there will be a certain sobriety and dullness over the landscape. You can settle which window you are going to look out at.

Choosing what we focus on in our lives will have a direct affect on our feelings. We don’t have to fake joy or put pressure on ourselves to feel a certain way. Rather, when we focus on the good God has done for us and rejoice in that, the feelings of joy follow.

2. Trials prove the genuineness of our faith.

When we say that something is proven, we mean that it demonstrates a particular quality through evidence. A political candidate with a proven track record of honesty can point to examples in his public service. A company making a claim about a product “proven to remove stains” can point to examples where it has lifted stains as it claims.

Similarly, God tests the genuineness or our faith through trials. A faith not tested is a faith that is not genuine. It hasn’t been given the opportunity to show what it claims. Theologian Albert Barnes says on this point:

Religion claims to be of more value to man of anything else. It asserts its power to do that for the intellect and the heart which nothing else can do — to give support which nothing else can in the bed of death. It is very desirable, therefore, that in these various situations it should show its power; that is, that its friends should be in these various conditions, in order that they may illustrate the true value of religion.

In other words, what Barnes says is that only in adverse situations can the strength of our faith rise to the occasion. My brother-in-law joined the Navy Reserves after serving in the Navy for 6 years. However, he decided that the Reserves were not for him. He had superiors who had never been out to sea teaching about being out at sea! My brother-in-law found it difficult to respect superiors who didn’t have real experience in the subject they were claiming to be experts in.

Similarly, we are not meant to have a faith that merely observes from the shore. The trials we are experiencing are helping us experience a vibrant, real faith on the open sea. While we may not love the trials that come in our lives, we can be encouraged to embrace what comes our way knowing that a faith not tested is no faith at all.

3. Trials purify our faith.

Not only do trials prove our faith, they purify our faith and bring to the surface impurities that exist. In the passage, Peter compares the process of our faith being tried with the process of refining gold. He stresses that gold, although valuable, will perish whereas our faith will not. Before gold can be fashioned into jewelry or any other object, it must first be purified. It goes into the fire and the fire causes the impurities to rise to the surface, and the refiner removes the impurities.

Impurities mar the image, so the refiner must plunge the gold into the fire multiple times, scrape off the impurities, and repeat. Over and over again. He continues this process until the metal is shiny and he can see his reflection.

We are not aware of what impurities exist in our lives until God plunges us into the fire, and the heat exposes what He wants to remove. The end goal is to mold us into the character of Christ, but the process if painful. We scream in protest forgetting that God has a beautiful end goal in mind for us, and while we only feel the pain of the flames, He is perfecting us through the process. The result of us going through our trials will be that we resemble more and more the qualities of Christ.

I am borrowing this from a blog post I read on this verse, but athletes building muscle actually do so through a breaking down process of the muscle. The muscle subjected to weights suffers macro-tears and then builds itself up to become stronger. The muscle enlarges in order to handle the stress of the weight. In order to continually build muscle, a weight lifter has to continually increase the stress placed on the muscle by increased weight, repetitions, and different exercises. Similarly, through our many trials, we are being torn down and rebuilt stronger and better than before though we may feel broken, uncomfortable, and weak while going through our difficulties.

In my own life, God has been working on me and making me a bold witness by giving me very demanding multi-step assignments. Recently, I will step out in response to God’s nudge to pray for someone or witness to someone while running errands. Once I walk away, I will feel oftentimes a nudge to go back to the same person. Sometimes multiple times. Each time I go back I worry that the person will view me as irritating or weird or slightly unbalanced. I feel humiliated and silly.

Each time I hear God’s voice to go back, I have to fight my desire to escape to a place where I don’t stand out. I feel like God has been taking a sledgehammer to my gut and pounding away. I want to be braver. I want to be radical in my witness, but the process to become this person that I am not naturally at the moment is so painful and uncomfortable. It leaves me breathless and spiritually and emotionally exhausted in a way that I cannot even explain. I just want these tests to go away, but God keeps sending them. I know it’s for my good, but it does not feel good. Can you relate?

Conclusion:

On the way home last night, I heard on a Christian program that the feeling of joy and the practice of joy are two different things. I was struck by the definition because I often read verses such as 1 Peter 1:6, 7 on trials and think, “What’s wrong with me? I need to feel joy in this situation.” But that is not what Peter is saying. We may feel great sorrow and shouldn’t fake our feelings and pretend happiness. But when we practice joy, feelings of joy come even in the midst of and at the same time as feelings of sorrow.

What can we practice in regards to joy? According to Peter, we can focus on what lies ahead for us because of Jesus’ work on the cross and what our trials are accomplishing for us. They are making us better. They are making us stronger. And, most of all, we can reconcile how a loving Father can be behind those not-so great times when He allows circumstances we wouldn’t choose for ourselves.

God is good and wants good things for us, but the good things may come through things that don’t feel good. But that is a reality that helps us make sense of our pain and find hope and encouragement despite what we face.

I don’t know what you’re going through, but I do know this: God loves you. He’s got you. And He has a plan to get you through.

 As long as I look at my sorrows mainly in regard to their power to sadden me, I have not got to the right point of view for them. They are meant to sadden me, they are meant to pain, they are meant to bring the tears, they are meant to weight down the heart and press down the spirits, but what for? To test what I am made of, and by testing to bring out and strengthen what is good, and to cast out and destroy what is evil. We shall never understand … the mystery of pain until we come to understand its main purpose is to help in making character. And when you think of your sorrows … as bettering you and building up your character it is more possible to  blend the sorrow that they produce with the joy to which they may lead … So they are not only to be felt, not only to be wept over, not only to make us sad, but they are to be accepted, and used as means by which we may be perfect. And once you get occupied in trying to get all the good that is in it out of grief, you will be astonished to find how the bitterness that was in it was diminished. — Alexander MacLaren

Related Resources:

Ever worry that you won’t ever be able to feel joy again and get out of your current slump? Join us for the next few weeks as we look at how to experience joy in seasons of suffering.

*Updated February 11, 2020.

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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