The stumbling block of suffering

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. ’” Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test. ’” (Luke 4:9-12)

Why does the devil use Psalm 91 in his strategy to down Jesus? Read the psalm and see what it says. It is, on the surface, a very encouraging psalm that speaks about the love and protection of God for those who put their faith in Him. It reads a little like a divine insurance policy. Why does the devil draw attention to God in this way if he is seeking to discredit Him?

The answer seems simple. The devil knew, as Jesus knew, that the claims of Psalm 91 do not always eventuate, at least not in the way we would naturally imagine after reading it. History and simple observation show us that being a believer is no guarantee for the safe, secure, happy and prosperous life that is promised in Psalm 91. Suffering seems to be as often the experience of the believer as the non-believer. Indeed, even the Bible in other places laments the prosperity of the “wicked” and the suffering of the believer. The book of Job is an extensive argument about this very question.

The devil is simply exploiting this conundrum, this apparent paradox. He uses it to tempt Jesus to doubt the love and the power of God. He uses it to tempt us to his desired outcome – doubt, leading to unbelief. Psalm 91, and passages like it, have been a stumbling block for many who have put their faith in God, and indeed even a barrier for some to putting their faith in God in the first place. The devil knew it then and he knows it now. It is no wonder he used this strategy to attempt to destroy Jesus, and it is no wonder that he uses it now to try to destroy us. It is not suffering per se that the devil draws attention to here, but the reality of a God who does not always react to situations and events in the way we think he should.

As we read passages like Psalm 91 we can fall into two traps, traps that the devil would gladly see us caught in. The first is the prosperity gospel, the belief that being a believer is all about having a comfortable life, free of pain or suffering or struggle, rejoicing over the misfortune of our enemies. There is no doubt that many have become believers down through the ages for simply this reason, because they perceive that faith may lead to greater financial, economic, or social success. A simple reading of Psalm 91 can easy lead to such a perception.

The second pitfall is to fall into cynicism and unbelief as we compare the apparent promise of immunity from pain with the observed reality of believers who suffer. Pain and suffering is a part of reality, and any who work in healthcare are very aware of that reality, a part of the human experience that they observe every day.

We do not just observe the suffering of others. Often the suffering and pain we encounter is our own. We look back at how we gave our life to Jesus, we remember the very great blessings we experienced in one way or another, but we see the way the wheels have fallen off, as things have gone wrong in our lives, often for no apparent reason. We go from an overwhelming feeling of blessing to an equally overwhelming feeling of being cursed. It happened to Job in the Old Testament account. It happens to some of us. And in the meantime we see the “wicked,” the unbelievers, around us, apparently prospering. We begin to doubt God. There are those of us who abandon him altogether.

I read a novel recently which explores this question in painful detail – Silence, by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Christian of the last century. It is soon to be released as a film by Martin Scorsese. It will be interesting to see what he makes of it. The novel does not offer any easy answers, but it is not a story without hope. Its strength lies in its willingness to not avoid the question. Interestingly, Shusaku Endo, despite his struggles in life, many of which are expressed in the book, did not abandon his faith. Just as Jesus did not abandon God in response to the temptation of the devil. But this strategy of the devil is and always has been a powerful weapon in his struggle against God, and all of us who have chosen to put our faith in God need to come to terms with the question in some way if we are to weather the storms of life with our faith intact.

How did Jesus deal with the devil? On the surface it would seem he simply sidestepped the question, refused to be drawn into the debate. And perhaps that is a good way for us too sometimes, to avoid being drawn into a debate that can be so fraught. But I believe there is more to Jesus’ response than just burying his head in the sand. He said no for a number of reasons. First, he thought about who was speaking. Could he be trusted? Should he be drawn into the devil’s games? What effect would that have? Second, he thought about the possible outcomes if he gave in and did what the devil had suggested. How might the Father act if Jesus threw himself off the temple? Would he rescue him? Or wouldn’t he? What would be the effect of a spectacular rescue? What would be the effect of no rescue? Third, he thought about whether he needed to prove the Father’s love, for himself, or for others. Was this kind of “proof” the kind of proof that he wanted to base his mission on? Was it the kind of proof that God desired?

I have previously written that Jesus recognised the devil’s voice and did not trust him. He also resisted doing the will of the devil, which in this case was to test God. Jesus was only interested in doing the will of the Father and since it was not the Father who had challenged him to jump off the temple he was not willing to do it. Jesus knew the devil’s voice and he rejected it, and he knew the devil’s will and rejected that too. We should follow Jesus’s lead in this.

But how did Jesus think about Psalm 91, the psalm so cleverly quoted by the devil? Jesus knew, as we know, that things do not always turn out the way we might expect after reading such a psalm. He knew, as we know, that suffering is a part of the reality that we live in, just as prosperity is. The prosperity of believers is true, but so is the suffering of believers. But what does it say about God? How did Jesus deal with the knowledge that part of God’s will was for him to suffer, indeed that Jesus’ suffering was absolutely central to God’s plans for the world? How do we deal with the fact that suffering may well be part of God’s will for us?

I believe that Jesus knew from a very early age that he was on the earth to suffer, but at the same time he never doubted the depths of love that God had for him or for the world. He questioned certainly – it is recorded in the account of Jesus’ crucifixion. “Why have you forsaken me?” he cried out from the cross. As we ourselves sometimes cry out in desperation. But he did not abandon God, even in his hour of ultimate suffering. He believed in God’s love and power to the very end. But what is the proof of God’s love? What did Jesus base his trust in God’s love on? How could God allow Jesus to suffer if he loved him? How can he allow us to suffer if he loves us? How can we be sure of his love?

The challenge is to stop looking at circumstances as being the determiner, the indicator, of God’s love. It is natural do do so, but we are challenged not to. I believe that we need to stop looking at circumstances as indicating truth. Suffering does not negate God’s love. Prosperity does not prove it. Suffering may be part of God’s will and prosperity may be a sign that we have surrendered to the devil. But if we don’t look at circumstances to know whether God loves us or not, what do we look at?

The answer, I believe, is to look at what God says about himself, and what God shows about himself and his purposes in this world, and finally what God does.

These are hard questions and I cannot say that I have resolved them in my mind. I struggle. I bumble along. I make mistakes constantly. I hold onto the love and power of God, some would say blindly, but I don’t believe that I have shut my eyes to reality. I am a doctor and I see the suffering of the world in its many forms. But I choose not to see that suffering as a sign that God doesn’t care, or that he has abandoned us, or that he doesn’t exist. I choose to believe, with Jesus, that God does care, that he is all powerful, and that despite the suffering I see that God is working his purposes out for the good of the world that he loves.

I believe that when he recorded this account of Jesus’ temptations Luke was also aware of these questions. He did not sidestep the issues. Luke wrote his book because he wanted people to know that there was a God that had come to earth in human form in order to show his love, and his power against sin and suffering and death, through an extraordinary life and an even more extraordinary death, followed by the apparently most extraordinary thing of all – the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But even here at the beginning of Luke’s account the age old questions start to appear. We see the devil at work, we see him striving against God, desperate to discredit him, and we see the way God responded. We become aware that Jesus walked the same difficult path as us, confronted by the same painful questions, struggling with the same difficult choices.

Jesus shows us that the key to walking this difficult road is to hold onto what God says about himself, to believe first in what he says, not in what we interpret circumstances to be saying. This is faith. It sometimes (but thankfully not always) goes against “evidence.” We base our faith on revelation – what God has said about himself – and one ultimate “proof” – what he has shown about himself through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. We hold that ultimate proof above all other lesser circumstantial evidence. We are tempted by lesser things – material prosperity, safety and security. We want these because they feel good. But they are not reliable sources of the truth about God. We rejoice when we prosper, we weep when we suffer. But we see neither prosperity nor suffering as the ultimate indication of God’s nature and character. Rather we cling to the cross and the resurrection as the foundation for our understanding of God and the world, as difficult as that often is. That is what it means to be a Christian.

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