Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, ” declares the Lord.
Then Job replied to the Lord: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted…Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know….My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.
(Job 42. 1-6)
Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
(Habbakuk 3. 17&18)
Has it ever struck you that many of the stories contained in the biblical narrative are of people in really horrid situations? The bible is not shy of confronting us with the brutal realities of life – war, torture and destruction; famine and starvation; murder, rape, abuse, enslavement and humiliation inflicted by one human being on another; abuse of power and status – and we recognise them all around us today.
Why are the stories there? It is not because in every case, God intervened to make everything right again and to create some fluffy happy endings. There are individual examples of particular provision, miraculous escapes, healings and even resurrections, but they are the exceptions not the rule. Why?
I believe that one of the main reasons we have these stories, is to help us to face our own realities with faith – not in a God who makes everything ok at once, or even in our own lifetimes; but a God who is big enough to see from beginning to end, to see the roots of the trouble and to be willing to deal with it. This is what the bible narrative reveals – a God who never gives up. Many generations of Israelites died in abject slavery in Egypt before Moses arrived to lead them out. Countless, nameless thousands died over the centuries in wars and famines, just so much collateral damage in the power games of nations.
And yet, we have the testimony of prophets like Zechariah, that in the midst of the apparent chaos, lawlessness and despair, God is not absent, that he is and is good, and that justice, healing and wholeness will come. We have the examples not only of the psalmists, but also men like Job, who when things appeared to have gone hopelessly wrong and God was surely absent or even powerless, chose to respond by passionately appealing to him for justice, and lamenting their wrongs.
We don’t need to have faith in something when we can see and understand how it works, we need faith when there is a mystery, when we cannot make sense of what is going on. The stories of the bible show us what such faith looks like – the faith that says with Habakkuk that we will rejoice in the God who is our Saviour even though there is no sign of his salvation.
In our time, the pride of man in his achievements has made it hard to accept that anything can or should remain mysterious, and it is common for people to use the mystery of suffering as a condemnation of a just and loving God. But, as Job learned, who are we to put the creator upon the stand and accuse him of being inscrutable? Am I willing to accept that God is beyond my understanding, with all that implies? Indeed God has revealed himself to us in Christ Jesus, and there we see love and purity and so many of the wonderful characteristics of God. But surely it is only to be expected that a God who can create on the scales that we now perceive, a God who is outside time and space, must be utterly other than we can comprehend?
In the face of suffering and evil in all its dreadful manifestations, as the hand of God in judgement is still withheld and creation groans, I have a daily choice. Either I allow the inexplicable darkness to poison my mind and spirit, and bitterly reject any notion of a sovereign and good God; or I turn to him in faith, in that trust which says, “I cannot begin to understand this Lord, but I see your love laid bare upon the Cross of Christ; I see there the pain that this darkness causes you, and I will choose to believe that none of it is wasted, and that you know what you are doing. You will not delay a moment longer than you need, and in the end, the judge of all the earth will surely do right!”