[Eds. note: This post discusses God’s intentions when we are facing failure and heartaches, and how we should respond.]
I have heard a good anecdote about a boy who “enjoyed” eating the candy that made his teeth rot, and he was “hurt” by the dentist who repaired his teeth.
Such is the human experience.
In addition to the pain of the experience, these trials are more difficult to endure because we have all seen God bring love, blessings and miracles to so many people around us. We are impatient and resistant under hardship, and we naturally want to bypass the suffering and obtain the blessing. Such a reaction is typical for the human nature, especially in those who don’t understand what God intends to accomplish in them, and who think it impertinent to ask God for such understanding. (But actually, it is more impertinent NOT to ask!)
I once argued with a Pastor about this. I kept telling him that there was something about my relationship with God that was necessary for me to understand, but I couldn’t figure it out. He always got irritated whenever I brought this up this question, and he maintained that if you could understand all that God was doing, then it wouldn’t be faith.
He also remarked that he was confused about why I could not feel God’s love. Looking back, I know that if I had been more familiar with experiencing love and acceptance in my life, then the silence of God would have been easier to understand and endure.
I didn’t know it at the time, but what I meant to ask my Pastor was, “How is the process of redemption and sanctification typically manifested in the life of the believer?” I naturally received a lot of resistance, because this is a question that tests the mettle of any person who claims to be an authority of theology, and of course, most people, including Pastors, are annoyed at being “challenged” by a novice. I presented this question to a lot of Pastors, and I think many of them simply pretended not to understand what I was really asking. (I say this because if they truly did not understand my question, then they were not very spiritually “in-tune” Pastors.) So as a result, my crucible lasted another ten years.
The crucial point that I needed to understand, was God’s purpose of recreating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Believers life, and some specific points about how that purpose might be manifested in the life of the individual believer.
That Pastor never helped me resolve this issue in my life, but many years later, from the Biblical examples of Job, Jonah and Lazarus, and especially through hearing the testimonies of other Christians, I began to experience a renewal.
There are (at least) five Biblical examples of men who experienced a type of spiritual death and resurrection.
- Moses (Exodus 2-4)
- Job (Job 1-42; James 5:10-11)
- Jonah (Jonah 1-2; Matthew 12:39-41)
- Lazarus (John 11:1-44)
- Jesus (Matthew 24:1-2, Matthew 27-28; Mark 15-16; Luke 22:47 – 24:43; John 18-21)
To someone who is currently experiencing the silence of God, all of these scripture verses deserve a thorough study. But here I will discuss the story of Lazarus in detail, and Jonah in passing.
St. John reports that Jesus received word that Lazarus was sick and nearing death, but He delayed going to see Lazarus until after he died. In other words, Jesus failed to respond in a timely manner. He was “silent”. (It is noteworthy to add here that Jesus was also silent at his own trial, just before his crucifixion.)
All the way through Lazarus’s final sickness and death, neither Lazarus, nor his sisters, Mary and Martha, received any response from the One who said He loved them. After Lazarus died, Mary and Martha went through the funeral process, preparing his body, putting him in the grave, and covering it with a stone. They experienced the emotional pain and mourning of losing a loved one. Still, God’s silence continued.
Finally, Jesus said to His disciples, “Let us go to him.” But by the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been dead four days and Martha said he must be stinking by then.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother Lazarus would not have died” (John 11:32). It is noteworthy that Lazarus, Mary and Martha fully believed in the miraculous powers of Jesus. They knew that Jesus could have healed Lazarus, because they saw Him heal people many times before.
Upon reading this, I felt like I could identify with Lazarus. I know that many people hope and pray for the power of God, love, security, happiness, contentment, financial blessings, etc. to come into their lives. But remarkably, God does nothing as their condition plummets.
Some people might call it faithlessness to “question God”, but I think it is reasonable to ask “Why?”, at this point, knowing that God holds us accountable for our lives, but is then unwilling to aid us through every juncture, and as a result, we experience catastrophe. (In other words, I believe that “trusting God” is an autonomous function of humanity, not an automatic one.)
So why is God silent (at certain times in our lives)?
Later in the story, Jesus tells his disciples His purpose for allowing Lazarus to die. In vs. 14-15, Jesus says, “Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe.” In Jesus’ prayer, He states, “Father, I thank You that You have heard me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” (v. 41-42)
In other words, Jesus is saying, “I want you to know that God loves and cares for you, and that this suffering is NOT because God has rejected you, or is absent from your life, but because God is working in you and through you, to transform your life into something better.” This is the experience of Jesus as the Death, Resurrection and the Life.
For those of us who are not very familiar with God’s love, it is easy to miss this message upon reading our Bible. So, asking “Why?” at this point, leads us to realize that our faith has already been firmly established, and so it is no longer a question of faith. Now, it is a question of relationship, and then one of purpose.
How so? Oswald Chambers stated it well.
“God’s silence, including an unanswered prayer, is an indicator, not that you trust God, but that He trusts you; that He has recognized that you are ready for a deeper understanding of Himself.”
It is just as silence is sometimes enjoyed in human relations, as words can only cheapen the most special moments of life.
But sometimes, as in the case of Lazarus and his family, God’s silence is not very “enjoyable”. Instead, it is tortuous.
Why must it be so?
God’s silence is often meant to punish the proud will and to bring one into a state of absolute dependence on God. Or sometimes, at the opposite extreme, God’s silence is designed to motivate you out of a dependent complacency and push you towards making some necessary changes. Also, if you do not feel secure in God’s love, then His silence will invariably bring lots of doubts and questions.
Of course, the human standpoint will naturally experience this as meaning that God should make them learn hard, costly and difficult lessons, and give up the hope of finding love in a fulfilling relationship, suffer heartbreak or financial ruin, experience rejection and failure, and live one’s life out of desperation.
We naturally assume that a “loving” God has our own strength, security, happiness and well-being as His purposes for our lives, but we often fail to understand that it is God’s will that we must enter into a refining fire, and to undergo a process of purification and renewal, before we can go on with our lives. We must endure the crucible of living in this world, in order to purify our faith, fully realize God’s Truth, and attain those attributes.
I wonder how long Lazarus struggled to get out of that tomb! I think it is noteworthy that Jesus ordered the bystanders to unbind Lazarus from his graveclothes (v. 44), so that Lazarus did not need to struggle too much. Are we in the habit of unbinding those who are rising from the decay of their previous lifestyle, or do we tend to shove them back into the grave of their past identity?
The book of Jonah says that, after his calling to evangelize Nineveh, Jonah was “running from God” by taking a ship to Tarshish. When the men on the ship found out about Jonah’s plight, they threw him overboard, and it was assumed by all that he would drown to death. But God preserved his life for three days in the belly of the whale, and then God commanded the whale to spit him out on the beach.
I wonder what Jonah’s appearance was like at that time? (I suppose a lot of superficial “Christians” of today would frown on him, with the assumption that he had been “carousing with the pagans” or some such thing.)
I began to realize what it meant to personally experience the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. I recognized that the same transcendental phenomenon was happening to me, and when this dawned upon me, I began to understand why it seemed like God wasn’t listening to me. God’s long, wintry silence, while I endured these hardships, meant that my life was being transformed. I quit feeling like I was on trial, and that I was condemned. I started to feel God’s love at times. My confusion and discouragement were no longer overwhelming. I understood that God was doing something far out of my conservative-Church-taught expectations. (I also gained the impression that many Churches are rather “worldly”. I was disappointed to find this, because I never had this perspective while attending Church all my life.)
I made a major attitude adjustment to one of expectation, faith and trust, and looked forward to the hope of a new Life in Him. Then, I began to recognize a deeper purpose in my life, and the significance of knowing God in a much different capacity. I began to realize other ways I could respond to the events in my life, and do things that would speed up the process. Eventually, my confidence in God was restored, and I was able to stop all my soul-searching and worrying about my spiritual condition.
A scientific analogy of this process is the butterfly, which begins life as a caterpillar, crawling about. At the right time, the caterpillar forms a cocoon, in which it hibernates and transforms into the butterfly. Biologists claim that when the newly transformed butterfly emerges from his cocoon, its long struggle to break free from the shell is critical in building the butterfly’s strength and endurance.
The Bible states that, after his conversion, St. Paul spent 14 years alone, implying that he was in a spiritual “cocoon” before beginning his ministry. Moses had a 40 year-long “hibernation” in the desert, before being called to lead the Israelites out of Egypt!
On this point, I think I can relate to the butterfly in my own experience. During my own times of difficulty, the seeming absence of God forced me to do many things for myself, which served to build up much of my spiritual capabilities.
Many times in my prayers, I would ask God to do certain things for me, and God would respond by telling me, in so many words, “Do it yourself!” Of course, people would not help me either. It was exasperating.
For a long time, I thought to myself, “God doesn’t help me at all! What do I need God for?” But after a few years, I learned how I could do many of those things myself. I learned that I am not nearly as “helpless” as I once believed.
God is certainly capable of “snapping His fingers” to produce an immediate renewal, but it is obvious that God prefers to allow us to grow and change at our own pace.
I do think I learned the spiritual posture of “weakness” from not experiencing the presence of God in my formative years. Furthermore, the Church I grew up in did nothing to help my condition, because it openly encouraged people to “wait on God” and to be “weak” and “helpless”, as a way of encouraging them to be more humble and trust God. So I waited and “waited”… But it was not at all what I needed in my own life. I was already weak, and I needed God’s strength.
But at last, from God’s silence, and from His promptings for me to “be decisive”, “take initiative” and “get action”, I recognized that God wanted me to become a more capable and responsible individual. Since then, the Lord has brought into my life a greater revelation of Himself, specifically His truth and His life, than I have ever known before.”
As this process has gained momentum in my life, I have learned to anticipate what God continues to teach me about Himself. I have come to believe that the “greater revelation of God” that I have discovered through my own experience, has resulted in me gaining a spiritual charisma, a transformation of my self-consciousness which has greatly improved my social skills by giving me the insight to know others more deeply, and the power to speak out and make decisions, which all enhance the efficacy of my life.
Do you know what set me free? It was NOT my religious disciplines of studying the Bible, going to church, living a life of obedience, etc. It was comprehending God’s Truth in my heart, and learning to apply it in my life, which involves a much broader involvement of myself. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” So, God’s Truth is the Person of Jesus, who is actively involved in my life.
I’m also learning that this deeper and more personal knowledge of God is necessary for one to recognize the opportunities that God gives to us every day, and to take action on them. I believe that this is part of what God wants to produce in us: Responsiveness, Decisiveness, Self-activation, and Efficacy. With these qualities, we gain the ability to become “partners with God” in His work, and interact with life in a whole new way, with a readiness and anticipation of LIFE.
Whenever God is silent, continue to recount the things that God has told you in the past, and continue to practice those things while you watch and wait for a fresh encounter with Him.
I urge you to study the books of Job and Jonah in the Old Testament. The examples of these two men are given to us as a type of Christ Jesus in His death and resurrection.
James 1:1-12 also gives a passing mention of the death and resurrection in the life of the individual believer, with admonishments towards enduring the process, only he refers to the experience as “trials and temptations”.
Also, the study book, “Experiencing God” by Blackaby and King, points out one account of God’s will toward the individual as being one of experiencing the death and resurrection of Christ. This book is a very good text to study, in order to clearly ascertain the workings of God in one’s life, and I encourage everyone to take a course based on this book, which is offered at a lot of churches.