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The Temptation to “Lessonize”

March 6, 2010

“What is God teaching you?”

I must admit, this is one of my least favorite “Christianese” questions, and my internal response is usually “none of your business!”

Whether it is the death of a friend, physical illness, the loss of a job, or the loss of a dream, as well-meaning Christians, we have the temptation to immediately help one another glean from our struggles. On a global scale, certain Christian leaders take on the responsibility of “revealing” the purpose behind specific natural disasters. Like the companions of Job, we feel called to assist God in clarifying His lessons. 

On the receiving end, we may feel a pang of resentment: our suffering  is reduced to a parable that demands an on-the-spot interpretation, and God is reduced to a cosmic Dr. Phil asking, “and how is that working out for you?”  If we do not to go along with seeking to answer that question, we feel wholly unspiritual and fear that God may smite us with another “object lesson” until we get it.

It strikes me, however, that this is not one of God’s FAQ’s.  If it were, the book of Job would be much shorter: “What am I teaching you Job?” Instead, God remains silent. And as is so often the case, when He finally speaks, He does not explain the reason for suffering, but reveals His own character: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding…” (Job 38:4)

God does not demand that we understand our pain, only that we know Him. As St. Augustine writes, “let him also rejoice and prefer to seek Thee, even if he fails to find an answer, rather than to seek an answer and not find Thee!” Surely God can and does teach us through our suffering, but those lessons unfold themselves when the fruit is fully ripened and ready for harvest.

But now, O Lord, [the death of my friend is] past and time has healed my wound. Let me learn from Thee, who art Truth, and put the ear of my heart to Thy mouth, that Thou mayest tell me why weeping should be so sweet to the unhappy. Hast Thou–though omnipresent–dismissed our miseries from Thy concern? Thou abidest in thyself while we are disquieted with trial after trial. Yet unless we wept in Thy ears, there would be no hope for us remaining. How does it happen that such sweet fruit is plucked from the bitterness of life, from groans, tears, sighs, and lamentations? Is it the hope that Thou wilt hear us that sweetens it?…” -St. Augustine, Confessions.

When we force “lessons” from unripened sorrow, we risk plucking sour fruit, and making ourselves out to be, as Job’s friends became, “sorry comforters”.  What is God showing us? How do we know the purpose of our particular suffering? As Theologian Dr. R.C. Sproul shockingly tells people who are trying to discern the hidden will of God in their lives,

“You ought to stop trying to find the hidden will of God, because really, it’s none of your business. The reason why it’s hidden, is that God has not been pleased to reveal it: that’s liberating, rather than scary…My job is to understand His revealed will in sacred scripture, and apply it to my life, and let the hidden will of God take care of itself.”  

So often the best way to show love to those going through trials is to follow the example of Job’s friends prior to them opening their mouths: “…they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.” (Job 2:13) And the greatest gift we can give ourselves is simply the permission to sit in the ashes for a time, scraping our wounds as Job did. We can leave the lesson planning to God. He is good at it.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Malouf permalink
    March 7, 2010 9:40 am

    It is liberating to let go and just try to live according to His will, rather than requiring understanding of each trial. Terra, I am so pleased to have accidentally, or perhaps not, found your thoughtful words.
    Steve

  2. alisha permalink
    April 9, 2010 7:36 am

    “So often the best way to show love to those going through trials is to follow the example of Job’s friends prior to them opening their mouths: “…they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.” (Job 2:13) And the greatest gift we can give ourselves is simply the permission to sit in the ashes for a time, scraping our wounds as Job did. We can leave the ‘lesson planning to God. He is good at it.” <—good word sister 🙂

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