Should We Ask God To Get Us Out Of Tough Spots?

I’ve heard it said before that we should never pray for God to deliver us from suffering or tough situations, but that we should pray he would give us the strength to make it through them. I’ve also heard it said that God is more interested in what he is producing through our pain than he is in getting us out of our pain.

There is some truth in both of these statements as well as untruth. God does work in suffering to bring about character transformation and perseverance. He is interested in helping us through it. He does not promise rescue from it. However, these truths must be balanced with a counter-truth: God is a Deliver. A Savior by nature rescues.

Deliverance language is prominent throughout Scripture. Take the Psalms for example. More than 65 times the Psalmist uses this language. Psalm 107 is the quintessential deliverance psalm. This refrain structures the entire Psalm occurring 5 times (Ps 107:6, 13, 19, 20, 28). “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”

Crying to the Lord for rescue is not only welcomed, it is prescribed. It is one avenue Scripture gives us for engaging our suffering. The Psalm is clear. God hears our cries and God acts upon them. Deliverance is connected to crying out.

In fact, it could be argued that the history of Israel pivots on the cries of God’s people. The Exodus is a clear example of this reality (Ex 2:23, 3:7-9). Israel cries. God delivers. We should never underestimate the ear of God. Cries move him.

This should encourage us to cry to him in our pain. It should push us to challenge the “overly spiritual” notion that God is not interested in removing us from our pain or taking our pain from us. He is a Deliverer. We must acknowledge the mystery in his sovereignty and the other biblical truths regarding pain. He does not always remove us from it or it from us.

Nevertheless, the biblical model we find in the Psalms is to cry with all our might for deliverance. We would do well to take the words of the Psalmist as our own. “Look on my affliction and deliver me” (Ps 119:153).

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The Garbage and Glory of the Universe

Blaise Pascal, theologian from the 1600’s, captured in his writings the paradox of being an image-bearer and a sinner in a cursed world. Look at what he says.

What sort of freak then is man!  How novel, how monstruous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious!  Judge of all things, feeble earth-worm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe… Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness! (Quoted in from Pascal’s Penseesin God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom[Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009], 53).

In other words, both realities exist side by side. The height from which we have fallen along with the damage of the fall point to the glory of a previous held position and the goodness of being a creature. Sin itself speaks of humanity’s glory.

Perversion has a way of pointing to what is pure—it points to what we were and what we can be again through Christ. The helpful truth of what Pascal is pointing to here is that we must always recognize this paradox in humanity. The paradox demands that all are treated with tremendous dignity and that all stand in need of tremendous grace.

Love Alone is Credible

The following are insights from Hans Von Balthasar, influential Catholic theologian and author.

“Above all we must not wish to cling to our suffering. Suffering surely deepens us and enhances our person, but we must not desire to become a deeper self than God wills. To suffer no longer can be a beautiful, perhaps the ultimate sacrifice.”
 

“No fighter is more divine than one who can achieve victory through defeat. In the instant when he receives the deadly wound, his opponent falls to the ground, himself struck a final blow. For he strikes love and is thus himself struck by love. And by letting itself be struck, love proves what had to be proven: that it is indeed love.”

“For all his gentleness and humility unto death on the Cross, God does not relinquish his attribute of being judge and consuming fire. Nothing is more majestic than his Passion; even his anxiety is sublime. And God never denies his attributes to those who are his light in the world. They shine like stars in the cosmos, and even their anxiety, if God allows it, bears the marks of their divine destiny.”

“Faith’s table is always laid, whether the invited guest sits down or stays away with a thousand excuses and pretexts.”

“Love alone is credible.”

Luther’s Ministry to His Mother

Luther is known as a bold reformer. What is often missed is his pastoral heart and compassionate approach to people. In this post, there are two letters that open a window into his love and care for his mother on her death bed.

“My dearly beloved Mother! I have received my brother James’s letter concerning your illness. Of course this grieves me deeply, especially because I cannot be with you in person, as I certainly would like to be. All your children and my Katie pray for you; some weep.”

“Dear Mother, you also know the true center and foundation of your salvation from whom you are to seek comfort in this and all troubles, namely, Jesus Christ, the cornerstone. He will not waver or fail us, nor allow us to sink or perish, for he is the Savior and is called the Savior of all poor sinners, and of all who are caught in tribulation and death, and rely on him, and call on his name. The Father and God of all consolation grant you, through his holy Word and Spirit, a steadfast, joyful, and grateful faith blessedly to overcome this and all other trouble.”

 

Triune Compassion

From one angle, the storyline of Scripture is a story of grief. We are born into grief, grief is not something we only enter into when a loved one dies, it is what we enter into at birth. Grief is always linked to loss—consider then the magnitude of humanity’s loss. We are born east of Eden, separated from God, alienated from others, enslaved to our sin, and heading to hell.

After the fall we know vertical and horizontal, internal and external fragmentation. We have lost so much. We may not be able to articulate the heaviness of living in a cursed world, but we feel it. WE ARE GRIEVING.

Pain is humanity’s common ground—it is the air we breathe. Sorrow is the norm, loss the expectation, suffering the status quo. All creation groans, it quakes, it grieves under the weight of sorrow and the pain of sin. The ache for redemption is almost audible.

The sorrow of this world runs deep. It is like the depths of the ocean…when you press down into it, it is a vast, rugged world all its own. A sorrow, that without Christ would know no end—an eternal grief, an everlasting loss, an existence without hope and without comfort for all eternity.

Into this heavy darkness enters the God of all compassion. When Paul considers the compassion of God he breaks forth into praise. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the compassionate father and God of all comfort!” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Blessed be the Triune God who does not leave us languishing in sorrow, but engages this world of pain with fierce compassion and mighty gentleness.

God engages us with compassion and comfort that reaches the very the depths of the sorrow this world knows—He gets up underneath it, shoulders it and provides the redeeming comfort humanity needs. The Triune God of the universe is compassionate: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Compassionate Heart of the Father

When the Father opens his mouth to speak of his heart, what comes out? “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, who keeps lovingkindness for thousands forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:6-7). Compassion is the first word that comes out of his mouth.

The Old Testament is filled with references to the compassionate and comforting presence of God to his hurting people. “Comfort, Comfort my people says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1)—this is the consistent and steady message of God “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted” (Isaiah 49:13).

The classic story of the Prodigal Son is a window into the heart of the Father. The story mentions says that when the son was far off the father saw him and “had compassion on him” (Luke 15:20). He rose to his feet, ran to him and embraced him. This was unheard of for a father in the first century context. Compassion compelled the Father to run to the hurting and lost.

 The Compassionate Wounds of the Son

Compassion comes walking in the incarnation. In Jesus, we see what compassion looks like, tastes like, smells like, and sounds like. B.B. Warfield wrote a book titled, The Emotional Life of our Lord. In it, he explores all the emotions we witness in the life of Jesus. He makes an important point, the emotion most often expressed by Jesus was compassion. The word used to describe “compassion” speaks literally of a sensation in the guts. To engage with compassion is to engage a suffering world from the gut.

Jesus was moved by compassion when he encountered these various situations.

  • A man with leprosy (Mk 1:41)
  • The death of a widow’s son (Lk 7:13)
  • Two blind men (Matt 20:34)
  • Hungry crowds (Matt 15:32, Mk 8:2)
  • A demon possessed boy (Mk 9:22)
  • Harassed and helpless sheep without a shepherd (Mk 6:34)

This examples show that Jesus was moved by compassion when encountering bodily ailments, individuals who were outcasts, death and loss, individuals assaulted by satan and his cohorts, physical needs, and spiritual lostness.

In Jesus, we see compassion. It looks like a tear stained face that aches over death. It tastes like fire-seared fish in the mouth of men who had disowned him days earlier. It smells like broken bread and poured out wine. It sounds like a Roman hammer pounding nails into flesh and a rock rolling away from a rich man’s tomb.

Jesus shows us compassion. He shows us that compassion…

  • is a posture that refuses to back down from pain
  • does not hide from suffering
  • runs head long into the sorrow of others
  • does not deny, minimize, or numb pain—it shoulders it
  • is not a mere emotion, it is a posture, a way of being in the world
  • is love when it meets pain

Compassion is rebellion. It refuses to lay down to pain. It wades right into the heart of suffering and wages war. It seeks to absorb and shoulder the pain of another. It inserts kindness, love and patience into the darkest of places.

This truth about Jesus has been deeply life-giving…and to be honest has kept my faith intact on many occasions. This world desperately needs a compassionate God—a God with a tear stained face, a man of Sorrows, a God with dirty feet, and bloody hands. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had it right, “Only a Suffering God Can Help,” and He has!

The Compassionate Presence of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the Great Comforter—compassion is integral to his character and activity. He comes to bring the comfort of Christ. It is his role to communicate the compassion of God through Christ to us.

He is deeply compassionate as he enters into our sufferings with the comfort of God, shares our pain and journeys with us through every hardship we face. If we have trusted Christ, we have never walked through anything without him. Since he took up residence within us, he has known our every grief. The pain beyond words, that hurt outside the scope of speech, He knows, He understands, He groans over, and He communicates about it to the Father for you. Where would we be without Him!

The Triune God engages in our sorrow, he brings us comfort through his gospel. He does not take away our pain…he walks with us in it, serves us, loves us and enables us to persevere through it. This is the movement of the Triune God toward the world—a costly compassion that brings comfort to a ruptured world. Blessed be this great God!

Sin is like Addiction

Gerhard Forde wrote a challenging piece on sin and addiction in his book, On Being a Theologian of the Cross. The entire section below is from the book.

“As sinners we are like addicts – addicted to ourselves and our own projects. The theology of glory simply seeks to give those projects eternal legitimacy. The remedy for the theology of glory, therefore, cannot be encouragement and positive thinking, but rather the end of the addictive desire. Luther says it directly: “The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it.” So we are back to the cross, the radical intervention, end of the life of the old and the beginning of the new.

Since the theology of glory is like addiction and not abstract doctrine, it is a temptation over which we have no control in and of ourselves, and from which we must be saved. As with the addict, mere exhortation and optimistic encouragement will do no good. It may be intended to build up character and self-esteem, but when the addict realizes the impossibility of quitting, self-esteem degenerates all the more. The alcoholic will only take to drinking in secret, trying to put on the facade of sobriety. As theologians of glory we do much the same. We put on a facade of religious propriety and piety and try to hide or explain away or coddle our sins….

As with the addict there has to be an intervention, an act from without. In treatment of alcoholics some would speak of the necessity of ‘bottoming out,’ reaching the absolute bottom where one can no longer escape the need for help. Then it is finally evident that the desire can never be satisfied, but must be extinguished. In matters of faith, the preaching of the cross is analogous to that intervention. It is an act of God, entirely from without. It does not come to feed the religious desires of the Old Adam and Eve but to extinguish them. They are crucified with Christ to be made new.”

― Gerhard O. FordeOn Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518

The Church is a Community of the Cross

John Stott wrote a well known book on The Cross of Christ, in it he speaks about the cross as the shape and focus of the church. The strands he pulls from in the quote below are helpful for centering our understanding of the body of believers on the cross.

“The Christian community is a community of the cross, for it has been brought into being by the cross, and the focus of its worship is the Lamb once slain, now glorified. So the community of the cross is a community of celebration, a eucharistic community, ceaselessly offering to God through Christ the sacrifice of our praise and thanksgiving. The Christian life is an unending festival. And the festival we keep, now that our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us, is a joyful celebration of his sacrifice, together with a spiritual feasting upon it.”