Because You Are Suffering

Because You Are Suffering July 19, 2020

I see that #JesusMatters is trending on Twitter this morning, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean what I wish it would mean and I’m afraid to scroll around to find out. These are linguistically strange times. Instead of that, I want to think about something nicer—this song. You may have seen varieties of it floating around the internet. The first one I saw was at the very beginning of covid, done by a group of churches in the UK. This one is from NYC and I like it because I know someone in one of the little boxes, so that’s pretty fantastic.

O goodness, you might be saying, it’s so schmaltzy, aren’t you too curmudgeonly to like a song like that? To which I reply, ‘O Go Away and boil your head.’ I can like what I want to. Not everything has to be super sophisticated and full up to the brim of complicated theology.

Moreover, I like this song for a perverse reason, and one that even many of the singers may not be entirely happy about, and that is that God has already heard this cry, and answered it.

But first, here are the lyrics (abbreviated, the song itself repeats each section several times):

The Lord bless you
And keep you
Make His face shine upon you
And be gracious to you
The Lord turn His
Face toward you
And give you peace

Amen, amen, amen

May His favor be upon you
And a thousand generations
Your family and your children
And their children, and their children

May His presence go before you
And behind you, and beside you
All around you, and within you
He is with you, He is with you

In the morning, in the evening
In your coming, and your going
In your weeping, and rejoicing
He is for you, He is for you

So first of all, it’s a totally reasonable thing to go around giving blessings. ‘May God do such and such,’ you can say, not in a demanding way, but as a prayer. It’s a gracious and useful option for when you can’t find words to respond to someone else’s difficult circumstance. ‘May God bless you.’ ‘May God work it out.’ ‘May God remove the stones from your path.’ ‘May God hear and answer.’ Sometimes, when terrible things are going on, Christians feel inclined or even obligated to provide big, important, theologically profound answers to the existence of evil not only in the world, but in that other person’s own life. And, I suppose, some occasions might call for it. But when confronted with another person’s grief and trouble, the sympathetic listener might do better to say, “I’m praying. May God do something.” This song feels a little bit like that—the griefs of the world right now are piled up so high. No one person can even understand all of them. A better thing to do is to repeat a blessing. And lots of churches coming together to do it is fantastic.

Second, this song of blessing is full of stuff that all people need. We need God’s blessing. We need him to turn his face towards us. We need him to give us his peace. We need him to keep us and be gracious to us. We need him to take care of both us and our children and our children’s children. And we need this all the time—in the morning, in the evening, every moment, every hour. This prayer is not—or at least should not—count as some kind of nice but unnecessary candy. ‘Oh well, I’m doing fine right now, but it would be great if God would give me a little attention at some point.’ No, if God turns away from you, that is darkness and despair. The person who doesn’t think he needs God’s attention and love and blessing is in a bad way—deluded in the short run, lost in the long one.

And finally—and this is the bit no one will like—if you are a Christian suffering in the time of covid and you ask this of God, you can trust that he has already answered it. He is for you, he has blessed you, he is keeping you, his face shines on you. How can you know? Because you are suffering.

I’ve been reminding myself of this all week and wishing it were otherwise. The true and incontrovertible favor of God in this life is a painful experience. If God is “for you” you can expect that all kinds of trouble and problems will mount up, will crowd around. You will wake up in the morning horrified by the number of all the things that are wrong and bad. You may even stagger through the day crushed to earth and unable to see the light. You may constantly be astonished by your own unhappiness and sense of desolation.

The whole world, of course, suffers. That’s what it means to be human. That’s why every single person endures so much disappointment—because no one wants to experience suffering, and yet every single person does. For the person who turns his or her face against God, who shakes a fist or just doesn’t even pay attention, suffering turns out to be pointless. There’s no reason for it. You might as well give up and be existentialist.

But for the believer, all the troubles of life necessarily drive him or her further into the arms of Jesus. If you never had any problems, you would never remember to go running back, you would never seek his face, you would never cry out in terror and anxiety. You would go on in your own strength, forgetting that you cannot live even for an hour without the blessing and mercy of God.

And of course, when you go running back to Jesus, he never turns away from you. He is for you, for a thousand generations, he will hear your cry and answer your prayer, giving you an eternity of his own goodness.

Covid, in other words, is for everyone—the whole world endures this terrible time. But for those who love God, covid is actually good. It is God’s blessing; it is his favor and goodness for those he loves. If you can’t see or feel this, that’s ok. It’s an objective reality. God doesn’t give bad things to those he has called, to those he loves. A lot of his gifts feel awful, but they are not awful. All of them are good. So go ahead and sing this song, and pray it for everyone—that everyone might come within the reach of God’s saving embrace.

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