Making Sense of the Senseless

JKBcircleIf you haven’t ministered beside a hospital bed in an ICU, or near the graveside of an innocent child, and had to struggle with the helpless feeling that comes to Christians when the wounded sceptic demands to know “Why?”- just wait, your turn is coming. It’s much easier to work through the question, “Why?” in a Bible study with other Christians, when most of the participants are predisposed by faith and a Christian worldview to accept a certain level of mystery. It is much tougher when an angry, hurting cynic leaves you feeling like the destiny of their soul depends upon how you answer the unanswerable. And while there is no simple answer to the tragedy of suffering, there are examples of people whose lives are heroic through the devastating setbacks of real life. Their testimony of steadfastness through the kind of suffering that appears to make no sense at all during the worst of it, speaks to us about how to live through trouble we can’t control.

God hasn’t revealed everything to us and we still “live by faith and not by sight” but the drama of the Old Testament Joseph is shoulder deep in wisdom, revealed through the life of a man who endured enormous, and what could have appeared to be senseless suffering. His testimony near the end of his life was unnervingly simple: God had a plan.

He was only 17 and living a highly favored life when he became the victim of human trafficking at the hands of his own brothers! He was sold into slavery and through no fault of his own was almost immediately the victim of sexual harassment in the work place. Then, to make matters worse, the woman harassing him falsely accused him of attempted rape for which he was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. Through it all God continued to show him favor even through his troubles- but his situation only got worse! While in prison he assisted some white collar criminals who had powerful political connections. As a result of his help, their convictions were overturned – but they forgot to help Joseph as he suffered for several more years in an Egyptian prison.

Why does God tolerate any, let alone allow so much suffering? When the question is reduced to the narrow focus of a demand for an immediate, sensible response, it is virtually impossible to answer. But when viewed through the panorama of an entire life it is obvious God allows some of us to walk through incomprehensible personal tragedy, in order to bring us to a point of extreme value in His larger plan for history. Of course, that can only be known in part, and from the rear view mirror of life because, as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest…” (Hebrews 12:11 NLT) It is the “afterward” that we want quickly and less painfully, and sometimes we start to think we will never see the “afterward” that makes sense of our seemingly senseless suffering. Looking back on some of the most painful times of my life I have to honestly ask myself if I was faithful through the suffering, or have there been times when the undesired circumstances of suffering led me to pursue shortcuts to avoid the pain, loss, humiliation, or difficulty and thus, I missed the good God was bringing into my life through the trouble. In other words, if you have been called to travel the back road of suffering, don’t stop short of your destination, or you might miss the goodness God is leading through pain to receive!

Finally, Joseph’s faith in God was rewarded. He rose quickly -in fact he skyrocketed-through the ranks of the Egyptian kingdom, and his integrity and highly developed leadership gifts took him to the top of Pharaoh’s government. It was a strange career path but one day it all made sense at once! His brothers came to Egypt in need of help, and Joseph was the most powerful man, under Pharaoh, in the ancient, wealthy country.

Joseph was older now, and the years had changed him dramatically. His brothers had no idea the CFO of Egypt was the pampered little brother they ruthlessly sold into a life of unknown terror and misery years earlier. But Joseph helped them, and by doing so he rescued God’s small, chosen tribe of Israel’s household from starvation and annihilation.

The brothers, however, were living with secret guilt. They couldn’t look their brother in the eye without remembering the terror in those same eyes the day, so long ago, when they threw him in a deep, dark pit, and sold him without mercy to desert slave traders. So, after several years of living under the favor of Joseph, when they could stand the suspense of fear and dread no longer, they went as a group before their powerful brother and begged for their lives. Joseph, at that point, rises from the pages of Scripture as one of the truly great men who has ever lived. He forgave them. Then he said something that might help us when we are walking through the terrible times. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20 ESV)

It is clear that Joseph hadn’t forgotten what had happened but his faith had reassigned the significance of what happened. In other words, he didn’t view his difficult journey as something terrible but as something good. He no longer viewed what happened to him as senseless suffering. Instead, he saw the hand of a sovereign God orchestrating the details of his life to use him for something greater- to save his family- the family God had chosen to be a blessing to the world!

Joseph died in Egypt at the age of 110. From 17 to 110 would be an insufferably long time to wait, wondering if God had a plan! Yet, we never hear Joseph ask God how long he had to suffer. He never blamed God or hated any of the people who betrayed him. He is a role model for us. He trusted God and became a man seasoned by trouble, but who was never outside of God’s will. In the end, he could see for who, when, and why his life turned out as it had. God had a good purpose for many others, and Joseph’s suffering was part of the process of God using him in a meaningful way to help them. It was all part of a plan! images

Suffering may never make sense to the man or woman who insists that “if there is a God He wouldn’t allow his children to suffer”. But to His faithful followers, who do endure through unimaginable hardship, many find the destination to wholeness and purpose is the path of brokenness and mystery. And through it all God’s grace proves to be more than enough.



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