“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
As a person who tends to romanticize literature, I am inclined to always try and find a moral within a story. For example, this past summer a huge boulder I was climbing beneath broke away and crushed my legs underneath it. The pain was excruciating and my legs instantly turned white and looked dead and lifeless because of the weight of the rock. By some miracle though no permanent damage was done to my legs and I escaped (with the help of 8 other people) with a few punctures and a laceration.
In all of this I tried to draw out a moral, or some lesson that I felt God was teaching me. I felt like I learned about God’s protection, healing power, and mercy. Most importantly, I felt God nudging me to open my eyes to the idea of submission to authority. Respecting my authority has always been a struggle for me, and the day the boulder fell on me was no different. I had been given very clear instructions by my friend, boss, and co-instructor not to climb the rocks! But I did it anyway. There was definitely something to be learned about how I view God’s authority too.
To give a more tragic example, my Grandpa died almost four years ago because of an unexpected brain aneurysm that burst. He passed away within 24 hours. It was unfair and unjust and a whole host of other words that I probably shouldn’t repeat here. But I soon convinced myself that He died for a reason; that out of this tragedy I could learn something about myself and grow from it.
In retrospect, I realize that the things I learned were good, but they all fell short of the true meaning of my suffering. Getting crushed by a boulder hurt like hell and not being able to climb because of it taught me nothing good about myself. It just taught me that I am really selfish and wished that I could have filled my time up with more climbing rather than with the Lord.
Even worse than that was trying to convince myself that my Grandpa’s death was all about me; that he died so God could show me something. I tried to create a moral for that story so I could be comforted, so I could feel like his death was not in vain and that because I was learning, and that my life was progressing based on what I learned, that his death then had a purpose.
But, I am going to say with conviction that this way of thinking is wrong. Of course I can’t say that it somehow invalidates the lessons learned from suffering and difficulty or makes them not true. However, I do believe, even though I fall into this mentality and will continue to until my mind is transformed, that I think it is selfish. This is what I have said before; it is making suffering all about me, the one who is suffering.
If all things are for God’s glory, suffering included, how can I demand that there always be a lesson learned, a moral, or victorious sense of perseverance in suffering, through it and after it? This expectation now makes cringe, especially when I consider the demands that I have put on God.
If my call is to decrease so that He may increase, why do I always put my character before God’s plan? Sometimes our sufferings are not resolved so we can become better people, they are resolved because it is God’s will; they are resolved because resolving suffering, healing strife, and redeeming fallen humanity is God’s business.
I can recall one particular story we are familiar with. Jesus Christ, the one who suffered more than any of us, suffered so that He could reveal God’s glory, love, and God’s character to the world. He did not suffer so that He could become a better man, which tends to be the cliché of many churches, counselors, and leaders whose advice is always, “Just persevere, through your suffering you will grow.” No. Through suffering, God perseveres. God proves to us that He is faithful and that the Cross is still and will forever be the point of victory for all of God’s people over sin.
“Then the LORD said to Satan, ‘Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” (Job 1:8) Job was, according to God, a righteous man. Yet, if you remember the rest of the story God hands Job’s possessions, physical body, and relationships over to Satan and allows Satan to have the power to afflict him as he wills. He was righteous before he suffered.
But this is the opposite of many teachings of our contemporary Christian Church. Suffering is somehow supposed to make us more righteous as we experience it. It is gift from God intended to refine us and make us better. But that is not what is happening in Job. He was already righteous and God had no say in the affliction that Job experienced. For me to assert that my suffering is simply God putting me through a trial so that I can become more righteous is absurd! That is not what we encounter in Job. But what we do encounter at the end of Job is still God’s miraculous intervention into one man’s situation. God speaks personally to Job and vindicates neither Job nor his friends, but Himself. Job’s perseverance is not a matter of his faith in God, but God proving to be victorious in the end.
Doesn’t this reflect our lives too? Doesn’t God already call us righteous on account of Jesus’ victory? But we do still suffer, yet we treat suffering as if it to bring us glory! To make us bright, shiny and sinless christians here on earth, as if God already didn’t view us that way.
Suffering happens according to the will of God, not for us, but for Him. When I am rescued from the pit of despair it does not prove that I have more faith in God, but that God is faithful to do what He promised. “God will not abandon His people on account of His great name” (1 Samuel 12:22).
His great name! God, the jealous God, the merciful God, who sent His only Son to die for our sin, doesn’t do it for us; He does it because of His name. In our suffering, the “Name above all Names” is at stake. And if it truly is the “great name” that it claims to be, His name will prove to be victorious every time. He who has promised is faithful.