Some nine years ago I sat on a weight bench at the Wolf Creek YMCA in Toledo listening to some new music by Sara Groves. (Has it really been nine years that I’ve been working out? I really should be in much better shape.) The opening song to her All Right Here is “Less Like Scars,” which brought me to tears as I sat there with my classic white iPod. I tried to keep my head down, lest the gym rats see me and mock. “Too much weight,” I’m sure they would’ve reasoned.
I’d been going through a difficult time in ministry when the church I’d been a part of had just been torn in two. Factions gossiped about one another, as they aligned with one pastor over another. I resonated with the Sara Groves’ song, which speaks of finding redemption in our suffering. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate her lyric as I’ve come to terms with difficult seasons in my life that have been harder than the one when I cried there in the middle of the YMCA.
Lately, I’ve been reading books on the subject of suffering, and one I’ve appreciated greatly is Randy Alcorn’s The Goodness of God: Assurance of Purpose in the Midst of Suffering, which is a sort of Reader’s Digest edition of a longer tome of his: If God Is Good … I loved his Heaven when I read it a year ago.
It’s interesting how the books I’ve read, not just in the past couple years but going back even further, continue to shape my understanding of certain issues. For instance, a half dozen years or so ago, I read Gary Thomas’ Sacred Marriage, the principle theme of which is, “What if marriage wasn’t meant to make you happy but to make you holy?” Alcorn says something similar in Goodness:
Unlike the average person in earlier centuries, we today have a far higher assumption and expectation of comfort, health, and prosperity. … What if knowing God and growing in faith and becoming more Christlike is the point of my existence? What if the universe is not about human comfort and happiness?
Alcorn helps us to understand that, while God doesn’t orchestrate evil, he uses all manner of suffering to accomplish his purposes. This is evident in the life of Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, and even more powerfully in what Jesus accomplished at the cross. God is deeply concerned about suffering in the world, which is a product of sin. Alcorn reminds us that we are all a part of the human race to which God has given free choice, which has in turn led to sin. But God works redemptively through the sinful choices of men and women. We are assured that “even when we don’t see any redemptive meaning in our suffering, God can see it — and one day we will too. We can trust that God has a purpose for whatever he does and whatever he permits.”
While Satan intends our suffering for his evil purposes, God has a greater purpose, which has to do with shaping our character into the image of Jesus. We have some say in determining whose purpose will prevail. Will we become embittered, or will we welcome trials as opportunities for growth? Alcorn encourages us to (1) look to God’s promises for comfort, (2) anticipate God’s rewards, (3) lighten the load through prayer, and (4) share our lives with others who suffer.
I heartily recommend Alcorn’s book, and I plan to read the fuller version soon.