Thursday, September 5, 2013

Perspective in Pain: Why God's Laws Are a Gift, Not a Burden

It was probably the most excruciating pain I've felt in my life.

At the tail end of my vacation this past month, at the precise moment when I was truly beginning to relax, it began. Who knew that one tiny part of my body, a little gland with a big infection, could escalate to the point of causing such traumatic physical and emotional stress? Swelling quickly to the size of a golf ball, overnight it went to a pesky discomfort to an inescapable prison. It kept me (and so also my poor husband) from sleep for days with its constant stabbing pain. No positioning of myself removed the pressure, and no pain medication could dull it. When I finally relented and went to the urgent care center, the sweet doctor sympathetically admitted, "I'm so sorry, until we can get you in the operating room, it's just going to hurt." And so, for five days and five nights I wrestled, waiting for my desperately longed-for remedy.

It is in moments like this, moments of constant, nagging physical and mental discomfort, when we are alone in our anguish, that we are tempted to cry out to God in despair. We find out what our faith is really made of. We hear a small, angry voice echoing over and over, begging us to invite its poison into our hearts:

"God, are you even there? Don't you care about me?? Why are you doing this to me???"

When difficulties inevitably come and, in response to our prayer for relief, the mountains don't quite move the way we expected, we can wrestle with understanding God's character, intentions, or worse - His very existence. Becoming aware of our tendency toward uncertainty and mistrust in difficulty is important. It can lead to a strengthening and healing in our hearts, if we choose the right perspective.

Beloved, we can respond to that voice in one of two ways. I'll be honest with you. This trial around, I surprised myself. There have been plenty of moments in my life - health issues, insurmountable hurdles, emotional hurt, career disappointments - when I let that poisonous doubt in, when I allowed it to drive and embitter me. But something was different this time. When that small voice whispered in my ear, telling me to blame God and to rebel, I overcame it. Want to know how? Read on!

An Ancient Perspective

In the week that followed, I remembered an ancient Mesopotamian poem I heard a pastor reference, written at about the time of Abraham in the Bible lived:

A Penitent Prayer to Every God

May the wrath of the heart of my god be pacified!
May the god who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the goddess who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the known and unknown god be pacified!
May the known and unknown goddess be pacified!
The sin which I have committed I know not.
The misdeed which I have committed I know not.
A gracious name may my god announce!
A gracious name may my goddess announce!
A gracious name may my known and unknown god announce!
A gracious name may my known and unknown goddess announce!
Pure food have I not eaten,
Clear water have I not drunk.
An offense against my god I have unwittingly committed.
A transgression against my goddess I have unwittingly done.
O Lord, my sins are many, great are my iniquities!
My god, my sins are many, great are my iniquities! . . .
The sin, which I have committed, I know not.
The iniquity, which I have done, I know not.
The offense, which I have committed, I know not.
The transgression I have done, I know not.
The lord, in the anger of his heart, hath looked upon me.
The god, in the wrath of his heart, hath visited me.
The goddess hath become angry with me, and hath grievously stricken me.
The known or unknown god hath straitened me.
The known or unknown goddess hath brought affliction upon me.
I sought for help, but no one taketh my hand.
I wept, but no one came to my side.
I lamented, but no one hearkens to me.
I am afflicted, I am overcome, I cannot look up.
Unto my merciful god I turn, I make supplication.
I kiss the feet of my goddess and [crawl before her] . . .
How tong, my god . . .
How long, my goddess, until thy face be turned toward me?
How long, known and unknown god, until the anger of thy heart be pacified?
How long, known and unknown goddess, until thy unfriendly heart be pacified?
Mankind is perverted and has no judgment.
Of all men who are alive, who knows anything?
They do not know whether they do good or evil.
O lord, do not cast aside thy servant!
He is cast into the mire; take his hand.
The sin which I have sinned, turn to mercy!
The iniquity which I have committed, let the wind carry away.
My many transgressions tear off like a garment!
My god, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins!
My goddess, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins!
Known and unknown god, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins.
What a terribly heart-breaking poem, right? I hear such desperation in its tone. I'm sure your first thought was "Wow, this is long!" And it is. But look at why it's long: it is because the afflicted writer is addressing every possible god or goddess that could potentially be responsible for inflicting the pain. The ancient Mesopotamian world was polytheistic. For every land one entered it was believed that there were a unique set of gods and demi-gods ruling and reigning. These gods were thought to be very capricious, temperamental and unstable. There was no way to prevent offending them because there were no consistent rules. Worship of these deities was mostly centered around manipulating their behavior through their offerings, to win their favor and prevent calamity. You'll notice the offense of the writer is unnamed, and in all probability that is because he has no idea what he has done to offend in the first place. Can you imagine living a life like that? To have no idea what God is up to or what you did to provoke His anger? You would live in constant fear about every decision you made, there would be no sense of security or safety. You would cower and worry and in times of struggle, you would collapse in hopelessness and desperation.

A Perpetual Problem

As old as this poem is and as foreign as it might seem, we find that very mindset in the world today. When we don't really know the one true God, YHWH, intimately, then encountering disaster, hardship or struggle can lead to a reaction of confusion and frustration. If we aren't familiar with His personality or His expectations, we have no sense of why things happen, of God's intentions or of our responsibility for what we have experienced. We cry out to the creator, to whatever god is listening, begging for mercy and forgiveness for offenses we can't define.
Now imagine if the writer of this poem had only been able to see the Law of Moses, the spoken words from God to His people outlining His expectations. He would see a merciful God taking the time to reveal Himself to His people. He would see the kindness of being allowed to know what God expects from man. He would have seen opportunity to discover how to avoid calamity, how to please God, and he would see that He is knowable, merciful and just in all His doings. He would have learned that man does not have to fear or live in confusion. I bet that Law would have been welcomed by this writer. He would probably wonder why it is that we have been given all the keys we need to understanding God's likes and dislikes, and yet we continue to disregard and even to disdain it, to regard it as a curse. What irony that is to me.
Beloved, when we close our eyes to any of God's Word, it is to close our eyes to developing more intimacy with Him. It is to reject certain aspects of His character. I cannot ask my husband to never talk to me about what pleases him in our relationship, nor can I totally disregard the things he has revealed to me about who he is (if I truly love him). For example, knowing that my husband is allergic to cats, let's say I decide that I really want one. I like cats, but isn't it more important for me to please him than to satiate my own desires? How frustrated would he be with me if he had told me repeatedly that he didn't like cats, yet I brought one home anyway, and then acted shocked and inconvenienced by his negative reaction to my decision? What kind of marriage would that be? Yet in our divine covenant with the Lord, we continue to do just that - we ignore His revealed preferences and character, insisting that we are not 'under the law' and so have no obligation to know what He values.
What happens as a result is that when faced with that voice of doubt in those dark moments, we don't know God's character enough to stand against it. He has revealed Himself to us, yet we choose to live as that ancient Mesopotamian poet. We continue to respond with the shock and confusion of a people who do not know God when we are put to the test. We are unprepared for the darkness because we have hidden ourselves from the light of His revealed person and character - and so we doubt, we blame, and we curse God in our hour of tribulation.


A Light in the Darkness

So I told you I'd share with you what got me through those five days and five nights. And while I won't go in to great detail, I want you to know that I was able to draw on the knowledge I've gained in times of health and comfort and diligent study in order to understand that God is certainly present and He is not picking on me. There were three major points that came up as I went to the Lord's throne in search of comfort:
A Teacher Who Tests His Students
As I lay awake at night, I thought of Job. I imagined how he must have felt in his ash heap. I remembered that his entire body was covered with painful sores, that he had no family to comfort him, and his discomfort went on not for days, but months. It made me so grateful for God's provision of my husband. At the very least, I had an attentive and sympathetic caretaker. I had doctors caring for me. I had friends checking on me. When my mind wanted to ask God why He would allow me to go through this, I thought of how God used Job's distress to reveal his issue of pride, which ultimately led to personal growth and a richer blessing and relationship with God. There are character flaws and sins hidden under the surface of who we are that only adversity can bring into our zone of awareness. In my remembrance of that, I began to search my responses - was I reacting with faith or doubt? with humility or pride? Would I take this opportunity to search introspectively, or would I lash out?
For you have tried us, God, and you have proved us like silver is tried.
Psalm 66:10
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ;
1 Peter 1:6-7

A Father Who Disciplines His Children
After this, I gained momentum and confidence. If God was allowing it, perhaps it was to teach me. And so I would be a diligent pupil. But I know that there are some problems that come our way that are the divinely ordered consequence of our own bad behavior. We are most certainly disciplined that we might become more holy. So was there any hidden sin that needed to be repented of in my own heart? I began to pray for God to reveal to me, to humble myself and examine my life before the Father.

But it shall come about, if you do not obey the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you...
Deuteronomy 28:15
My son, do not reject the discipline of the LORD or loathe His reproof, For whom the LORD loves He reproves, Even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.
Proverbs 3:12
He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
Hebrews 12:10-11

A Creator Revealing the Brokenness Sin Has Caused
I also recalled the writings of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. He expressed his utter frustration with life in its entirety. He confirmed for us that there is no satisfaction in this life without God, and reminds us that the consequences of sin's entrance into the world renders all things broken. We can only find hope and restoration in Him. He didn't create an imperfect world for us - He called it good. It was as a result of man's rebellion that the world became a darkened place. So in my pain I realized the great consequence of sin, and longed for the God who will one day restore all things.

In the end, my knowledge of God through the scripture I've studied finally brought me to a place of utter humility in knowing my place in the presence of the Master, as well as a complete gratitude that He is my father, my teacher and my hope in this broken world. After all that reminding, there was no chance that I was going to let that little voice steal that light from me. I opened my arms to Abba and said, "I'm here, your student, your clay, your redeemed, sin-filled child. I submit to you, I will not reject you or blame you for this. I know that in YOU is my only hope!" I claimed God's victory over my mind, my life and my problem. And when I came to the other side of that surgery I realized, I had learned a great deal. Most importantly, He has given us His word that we might be victorious, if we will only learn to wield it as a sword and not place it on temporarily like a bandaid.

It's Not About Me

This is not a story about my personal ability and strength of will. I am not sharing it so that you applaud me. This is about the burden God has laid on my heart to share with you the perspective that helped me to hold to my trust in the Lord. Wouldn't you like that kind of strength?

My prayer for you today is that you never buy in to the lie that God's words are obsolete, unimportant or invalid. Know that none of the scripture is irrelevant to your life, Beloved. These Words reveal God to us. The enemy wants to rob you of your victory in your own personal struggles by keeping you from investing in the book that brings intimacy with our Creator. I pray that we learn to reject the lie that God's words and laws are a burden and a curse, and instead to have the eyes to see that they are precious gift, ears to hear the Father revealing His heart to us, and a heart to obey and live victorious lives for our King.




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