THE PRUNING GROUND

Gugu / 20 Mar, 2019

Consider it wholly joyful, my brethren, whenever you are enveloped in or encounter trials of any sort or fall into various temptations. Be assured and understand that the trial and proving of your faith bring out endurance and steadfastness and patience. But let endurance and steadfastness and patience have full play and do a thorough work, so that you may be [people] perfectly and fully developed [with no defects], lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4

Moreover, let us also be full of joy now! Let us exult and triumph in our troubles and rejoice in our sufferings, KNOWING that pressure and affliction and hardship produce patient and unswerving endurance. And endurance (fortitude) develops maturity of character (approved faith and tried integrity). And character of this sort produces the habit of joyful and confident hope to eternal salvation. Such hope never disappoints or deludes or shames us, for God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 5:3-5

Trials and tribulations are everyday occurrences. Pain, sorrow and suffering are par for the course in the human experience. Much (muuuch!) has been written about this aspect of our earthly experience, especially framed against the proposition of a good, loving God. We believe that such deity having those characteristics would exclude Him from allowing, orchestrating and even partaking in the calamity, chaos and disorder that result in our suffering. And, yes, fallen world and all that, ergo calamity, chaos and disorder. But also, we believe that this God is complex and that DESPITE the fallen world we find ourselves in AND his ‘goodness’, He is not beyond orchestrating events that will hurt us for a greater/good cause. I have spoken about this before in my post title You Got Issues – that this good God watches and often is responsible for bringing about our pain. We tend to think that He must be a God of good ends AND good means. NOT. And if He were that simplistic, wouldn’t He just be one of us? Yes, the concept of God is premised on Him being cleverer, all-knowing and generally mostly un-figure-outable. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” And a large part of the Christian faith is submission, including submission to this declaration of God. Because we only get to use our thinking, reasoning and rationality so far. At some point, faith gets complicated and ceases to follow lines and turns we can comprehend or even accept, rationally speaking. And this is when we surrender to God’s plans, ways of doing things and Word. We just do and choose to believe as He says or we’re going to hit a serious faith dilemma. And I don’t think that those are bad. Au contraire: I believe they are also the testing and proving of our faith. When you experience a faith crisis is when you really get to see and know what’s in your heart and what you’re choosing to choose. Because at that point, you’re usually “done with God” and you often couldn’t care less how things go/end. You simply gravitate towards what’s in your heart, what speaks and makes sense to you most. And that’s OK, really, whatever you end up choosing because choice.

A lot of folks rightly take umbrage with this aspect of a good and loving God – this whole allowing bad things to happen and causing our grief and suffering. Like, “God, where are you? Especially because I believe in you”. Of course, me believing in something doesn’t make it exist, but you get my point; it’s faith. This kind of dilemma is so grave and so meaningful to the extent that it is usually a make or break situation where one’s faith is concerned. It’s also the same thing non-believers argue when making their case for the non-existence of God: a good God wouldn’t allow this hot mess of a world? Why didn’t He just call it a wrap right after the fall? Why would a good God allow hundreds of thousands of years of suffering for His people? Why did “Christ-centered salvation” matter so much to Him? Better still, why did He create a species He knew would never live up to His standards? Seems pointless and unnecessary – expecting perfection out of imperfect beings. They got a lot to say – rightly so. Yeah so, sad to say I don’t know too. Like, I don’t convincingly know all the answers to those questions.  Is it really love that would allow all this evil to perpetuate for the purposes of an eternal life? Why? Why weren’t we just transported to the eternal life after Adam and Eve proved we wouldn’t get it right in this current form? Would it have been so bad if we’d not been created? We didn’t know any better, so? Does anyone remember the time they were not alive? My point exactly. But then you also remember that you are just that – a creation. That is if you believe in creation of course. You are just like a robot that a human being creates, only that you have waaaaay more consciousness than it does. And at any given point in time, regardless of circumstances, it would be your prerogative to do with it as you wish, including destroying it. No explanations and no hard feelings right? Like, it’s not that you owe it anything. It’s YOUR creation after all. But our creator chose not to destroy us after we failed to function optimally, for reasons known only to Him. Instead, He introduced and allowed us (to some degree) this thing called choice. I say to some degree because, did He really give us unencumbered choice though? I don’t know. The options presented all look bleak to me. It seems to me that He was pretty much like “OK. You messed up. So out the Garden you go and into the big, bad world. Live. Let’s see you try and prosper on this wretched and cursed earth”. Yeah, this is what it feels like happened. So, what choice? It’s kinda like being in a simulated reality where you have choice, but really that choice is an illusion because all other conditions have been pre-set and your choices are limited and not only that, those choices you can make have limited impact. Because if you know what Christian canon says about not choosing the Christian faith, you’re most likely going to choose it. Cos, hello? Jesus or eternal damnation? Yeah. Ok. It’s His game and we’re all just rat racing it. The whole thing just gives me such Black Mirror vibes. And also, you still don’t get certain choice, like being born/alive or not. See why that choice just seems like an illusion really?

And so maybe this specific existential dilemma is only a problem of Christians. Look, I don’t believe that Muslims believe they’re on the wrong path. I just don’t. Because they believe as fervently as we do. So do Bhuddists and Hindu. So maybe the choices we do get to make, limited as they may be, have real meaning to the extent that we can function as creations. They are meaningful enough for our capacities and our make. But keep in mind that this is a “valid” proposition only within the creationism belief system of our origins.  But it’s still complicated because there are maaaaany other things beyond my control that will influence whatever faith choice I make. Things like when I was born, where I was born, to whom I was born, and, and, and, and, and. From how creation is framed within the Judeo-Christian faith system, certain choices are already made for us by whoever or whatever we believe is responsible for the human race. So, again, as creations, our choices are limited. We must accept that. All this existential talk is going to send my head into a tail-spin! But whatever the case, faith works on human choice. You choose what you want to believe in. You wholeheartedly believe whatever canon (i.e. suspend most of your sense, rationality and logic) you choose or you’re not really in it. That’s not to say you can’t question it. But you don’t get to cherry-pick the parts you like and dump the parts you don’t. In the case of Christianity, when questioning, you tend to go around in circles, and you usually end up where I started above, with Isaiah 55:8-9: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”.

So, when things don’t make sense within the faith, what do you then? Do you suspend your faith? I mean, it’s tough. Because we need faith. As humans, we just need something bigger to believe in. And we especially (paradoxically) tend to need faith when things don’t make sense. Lately, it seems that I am having these conversations with close friends and family of “Where is God in the midst of our suffering” a whole lot more. These questions stem from personal tragedy and also more broad/wider scale tragedy. The suffering of many in this world; many we are disconnected to in terms of personal relations but feel so very broken for given the nature and magnitude of their suffering. I watched a short testimonial clip of a lady who spoke about being a quadriplegic for 50 years and how her circumstances lead her to understand that in working suffering into our existence, God intended/intends to accomplish bigger goals and aims. We have all heard that suffering is where we get our wings, our stripes, pass our tests, and become better, bolder, more humble, and, and, and, and. It is not on the mountain top that we become better in the spirit man. It is not through winning, easily receiving that which we pray for or in excellent, fulfilling and happy times that we grow. It just isn’t. And just this morning, I was listening to a brief sermon by Dr Tony Evans in which he states that God’s ultimate intention with the saved (and all really) isn’t just that we make it to eternal life; it is that we grow; mature. Yeah, that stuff.

Furthermore, God desires that we find joy in suffering, even the very unfair and inexplicable kinds of suffering. Even though we believe that He has the power to overcome all evil and He promises to protect His own, we still go through suffering and must reconcile that suffering with the idea of a good and loving God. We don’t often have convincing enough explanations for this why, but the Bible urges us to understand that what is going on around us and to us is often bigger than us and our minds cannot comprehend the “perfect” plan that is unfolding. God’s Word says these often painful circumstances are meant to create perfect people, and I think we’d all agree that people who maintain their joy and faith in God even through the most heart-rending tragedies are near perfect. The Bible teaches us that it pleases God when we joy in sorrows and build up perseverance and character. Faith basically. Maintaining belief even when it seems improbable or irrational and nonsensical to do so. That pleases God. Trials and tribulations are our pruning ground; where our chaff is whittled away and the Refiner puts us through the fire to further bring out His likeness. So, if we strive to be more like Him, apart from being born again in the Spirit, we must be submitted to seasons of suffering and we must go through them graciously, not forsaking our faith. The Bible is littered with examples of men and women who’ve experienced all sorts of tragedies and there are a litany of scriptures, such as the ones atop, which encourage us to glory in our suffering and keep the faith. Like Paul says, run the race (well) so as to receive the crown. And I believe those scriptures are available to us because God knew that this is what we would need as hope to keep in the race. Because He is in charge and knows best, He gave us what He knew we could use and the rest, all the big whys, He has kept hidden from us because He knows they do not serve us in this life. And there is a lot of teaching that attempts to explain big whys and they may help but they often aren’t entirely convincing, especially when you are going through it, dealing with grief, sorrow and a broken-heart. But believing in God’s Word is what will keep us afloat in times of trial and tribulation; continuing to profess it and to believe it, everything it says about the experiences we should expect to have on earth and how we are to respond to them. Other things will and may also help, but the thing that will keep you centered and facing The True North vis-à-vis your faith is the Word. Psalm 138:2 says “You have magnified your word above all your name”. Now, if God being who He is has exalted His Word above His holy Name, I think you can take it to the bank. Jesus, the Son of God said heaven and earth would pass away, but that His words would by no means pass away.

I think only God can redeem Himself. He says He is near to the broken-hearted. We can (and should) encourage and pray for each other, but resolution often comes when one is alone, in a still small voice, some kind of flicker of hope or an epiphany. That is only found in His presence. It may not happen overnight, but persistence also pleases God. And that doesn’t mean you persist like an overly playful puppy dog, brimming with excitement. No, you just wait, in tears, in silence and/or with your broken heart. He searches and knows the heart better than anyone. So even when you can’t pray, He knows what’s moving in your heart. I would encourage those that are going through it to just keep their hearts there. I think we often think God wants us to deny our pain. Not true. When we are in pain, He wants us to come to Him with it. He is not offended by our taking umbrage with Him and the unfairness of life. Loss, suffering and disappointment can often lead you away from God, but He desires that it bring us into closer, more intimate, more revelatory relationship with Him. Like Jada Pinkett-Smith would say on Red Table Talk, “THAT part!

The other purpose of suffering as a Christian (besides refining and perfecting us) is that when we are facing tragedies of any kind, He is readying us for more. That more requires us to be tough as nails, seasoned believers and people of tried and tested faith. And it can take years before the more manifests and I believe much of it may not necessarily be in this life, but it is the spirit man that is being trained. The spirit that has accepted Christ will not die. So post-resurrection, our diligence in this life will still count for much. As a Christian, suffering also stretches our faith to encompass more of after-life thinking and framing. And that’s connected to keeping in mind that we won’t understand all the whys now and that perhaps then the best way to make it through this life with as little anger, resentment and bitterness is to count it all joy and make peace with suffering, to TRY and remain rooted in your Source and His LIVING Word.

I think it is also in suffering when the scripture “The joy of the Lord is my strength” can become real. Because in grief and sorrow, this God says to double down and increase the faith and the JOY! Uhm, if you are a grieving mother that has lost her only child to senseless teen-on-teen violence, a heinous shooting in a place of worship, or a rural dweller that’s lost their home and livelihood due to extreme weather, it’s only the good God, the originator, the one we believe performs miracles, that can give you any kind of joy. Real joy that is. You aren’t likely to find it anywhere else. No words of comfort from even the most loving and supportive friend or neighbour can be enough really. It is only His joy that sustains us and can give us strength from day to day or just breath to breath when we are grieving; when all seems lost. We find Him in the chaos, even if we believe He is responsible or complicit in it all. It’s a little messy…but we’ve now discovered that not much is linear with God. And I don’t know that the joy looks like jumping up and down, buzzing with excitement or denying/numbing our pain or reality. No. In my little experience, I am starting to think that maybe joy is just not losing your faith – knowing that He’s “got it’, a plan, the plan, and that even if it doesn’t make sense for the next 5 years, in YOUR mind, He hasn’t stopped being God – loving, caring, present, omniscient, able, willing, forgiving, understanding, all while being holy and perfect. I feel like joy is maintaining your faith in Him even when you have had the wind knocked out of your sails, sucker-punched or literally just dealt the worst hand ever. You cry, you vent, you question, you hurt, but through it all, you believe that He’s still God. I feel like it should be ‘the knowledge of God being God is my strength”. Cos I don’t know about you, but I take GREAT comfort in believing that there’s someone bigger than me, bigger than this; someone hella smart, fair, mightier and someone who’s ultimate resolution of it all will be just and enough and right and thoroughly satisfactory. Yea, though I be going through it, it helps to know someone’s got it and is going to fix it, somehow at some time.

As a parting shot, I would like to share a link to a conversation held between Jim Daly and Lysa Terkeust, founder of Proverbs 31 Ministries in the US, talk about her experience with disappointment (after disappointment, after disappointment, after disappointment y’all!) and what shored her up and saw her through to the other side. It’s in two parts, so DO make sure you go onto the second installment after viewing the first. The nexus between suffering and disappointment is often very cause and effect. Our suffering leads us to disappointment with God. Lysa’s story (and tender but resolute faith) may encourage those of us who may need to see someone else, someone we may consider a giant in faith, go through the same kinds of grief, sorrow, loss and disappointments we are experiencing or have experienced. Revelation 12:11 says “And they have overcome (conquered) him by means of the blood of the Lamb and by the utterance of their testimony…” Reading about how to get through suffering isn’t quite the same as hearing someone talk about it, someone so visibly cut up, with tears streaming down their face. That delivery tends to hit home more. For me, it made me feel like God had been hearing my cries all along and was actually in it, still with me. It lit a flicker of hope that all will/would be OK eventually and that the pain and disappointment were all for a greater, more nobler cause. For the sake of the wonderful work Christ has begun in you, I hope it will encourage you to keep on believing and to remain rooted in this crazy, wild faith of ours, so that He may see that work to completion and that you may be perfect, lacking in nothing. Whatever you do, do not give up. He promises it is worth it, and you can believe Him.

prune definition: 1. to cut off branches from a tree, bush, or plant, especially so that it will grow better in the future. 2. to reduce something by removing things that are not necessary.

You can also find me at twitter.com/honeybmissg.

3 thoughts on “THE PRUNING GROUND

  1. Thanks Dee. So profound. Amen to all these deep truths which so aptly make sense of many of life’s whys.
    Thanks for connecting us to Lysa’s story. What a testimony.

  2. Great article, very relevant. I would say that the premise of our perspective of pain and suffering should come from knowing that this is a fallen world in which we live. It’s important for us to understand (i) the true state and nature of our own human existence; (ii) realise that God is not the source of the pain we see and experience in the world; and (iii) know that truly knowing God (as you say) gives us the strength to persevere (Daniel 11:32b). In fact, God is so good and loving that from the moment man fell, (falling from life in the garden in the presence of God to a lower existence in this world we now know) God already put His EPIC redemptive plan into action – the Lamb of God was slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). In addition to James telling us to count it all joy, Jesus also helps us manage our expectations and how we perceive pain and suffering by telling us that in this world we will have trials and tribulations but we should be of good cheer because He has overcome the world (John 16:33). So we ought to have this eternal perspective as we navigate the ups and downs of the world; as God’s people we should take comfort in Jesus’s words (and work on the Cross) and know that all things (good and bad) work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

    1. Thank you for sharing this Lai. I think that, as you say, maintaining as complete a perspective as possible vis-à-vis our ‘humanity’ helps and is important in contextualising our experiences, particularly the difficult and painful ones. It is not always easy when in the throes of sorrow or grief, because emotions tend to lead, but it is good base/foundational knowledge to have and fall back on as Christians when life knocks us down, so to speak. It steadies us, even if it may not necessarily provide the comfort or respite we need.

      With regard to your second point, I agree that God isn’t the source of pain as experienced in the brokenness and evil of the world, nor is He the reason for the state of the world. However, He has allowed us to continue to live in it, albeit making a “way out” through Christ. Additionally, my understanding and belief based on a holistic reading of the Word, is that God does chastise, God did punish and He scourges. He is all these things and yet and still. He is also love. He also does engineer what we may experience as painful circumstances, for our profit and for His purposes (Hebrews 12:5-11). I think it’s important to speak about God in this way too, because too often we paint Him as just a soft, all-prayer answering, teddy-bear genie, which He is not. He empathises with and understands our pain, but if He were that genie, then none of us would suffer, because He loves us too much for that. He would just be constantly bailing us out. But He is complex. He does get cross and because He is a God of principle, when there is sin or refining to be done, He corrects, as according to the principle of discipline that operates in the parent-child relationship. As a parent, the fact that you smack your child does not mean you love them less. These all operate together…and I suppose in an even more complex and mysterious way where God is concerned. Sometimes, it’s not even that we need disciplining or have sinned, it’s just that it’s time to grow, and we only grow through painful experiences, which He engineers or allows, for our good.

      Perhaps, it is good for non-Christians to also know and understand this complexity of God so that they don’t keep asking, “Well, if your God is so good, why did He allow X or Y?” They ask that because most of the times, us Christians speak as though grace through Christ means we shall never be rebuked, chastised or refined and taken through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus says, “In this world, you WILL have tribulation” and it’s important to acknowledge that God very often, has some kind of hand in those. We may not know exactly what His influence or role is, but He is often a feature in those tribulations.

      And I get that because we fell, and chose to be somewhat autonomous, we are now exposed to the ‘vagaries’ of that choice in a fallen world. So, in a perfect world, one where sin hadn’t entered, we surmise that there wouldn’t have been a need for God to steer us and correct and chastise…and so we are experiencing the nature of God through this earthly experience (fallen world), and as a result we know suffering and He also works through it. BUT, like you rightly say, at the core/root of it all, He actually isn’t the source of our pain. He is just working according to the “rules and regulations” of this sphere, because He is a God of principle.

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