Steve Chalke on why following Christ does not bring us an escape from pain, complexity or doubt
A man lived a life of humble poverty. Every single day for some years, he faithfully prayed the same prayer: “Lord, take pity on me and grant me a life of wealth and comfort,” all the while remaining ever confident that God would eventually grant his request.
However, after many years, his priorities began to change. Slowly he became far less interested in wealth or comfort and much more concerned with learning to serve others and meet their needs. Indeed, he devoted his life to prayer and service and even took to the habit of giving the majority of his small income away. One day, as he prayed, he heard the voice of God.
“I have decided to grant your prayer,” God told him. The man looked shocked. He thanked God for his generosity but explained that his interests had now changed, and he no longer wished for either wealth or comfort. “But, there is one thing I would really like to know,” the man ventured. “Why has it taken you so long to hear my prayer?”
“I knew your prayer even before you prayed it,” God replied.
“But out of my love for you I have refrained from granting it.” And the man understood exactly why God had done so.
In Psalm 37:7 we are told: ‘Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.’
It is easy to assume that a life lived well is one where we attain a perfect and permanent state of inner peace and unbroken communion with God. But this misguided notion fails to reflect our experience of reality, where life’s daily struggle is often madeeven harder by what seems to be God’s silence, indifference or perhaps even absence, in the very moments we most need him.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”
The words of Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, describing his reaction to his first night in the Nazi camp of Birkenau, ‘reception centre’ for the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Those who failed Birkenau’s rudimentary ‘selection’ procedure, including Wiesel’s mother and his little sister, didn’t even live long enough to make it to Auschwitz. With his own eyes, Wiesel saw children being thrown into ditches from which gigantic flames leapt up.
The 15-year-old Wiesel, whose passion for God had been his whole life in his Hungarian home town, saw his faith evaporate in those same flames. He had once spent his nights eagerly studying the Jewish scriptures. But, in the concentration camps, he found himself unable even to join in with prayers for the Jewish New Year.
“This day I had ceased to plead. I was no longer capable of lamentation. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused...How I sympathised with Job! I did not deny God’s existence, but I doubted his absolute justice.” The view that real spirituality brings with it a sense of unbroken communion with God fails to take seriously either the nature of the world we live in, or the painful experience of Christ. Jesus’ anguish in the garden of Gethsemane in the hours leading up to his arrest, torture and public execution, became the dark night of his soul as he battled with the intense agony of choosing God’s will over his own comfort. The next day, hanging on the cross, in the agony of both physical and spiritual pain, he cried out for all to hear: “My God, my God, where are you?” (Matthew 27:46).
This cry of raw honesty and anguish from the cross is echoed by countless millions of people who suffer oppression, depression, enslavement, abuse, rejection, disease, poverty, starvation or violence every day. “If God is really love, then why has he abandoned me?” However, while our struggles often cause us to believe that God has abandoned us, the reality is that he is always there with us – just as he was with Jesus – in the middle of our suffering. Look at Psalm 22, from which Jesus’ cry “My God, my God, where are you?” is a direct and intentional quote. It is a poem with a twist: “Why are you so far from saving me? Won’t you listen to my groans and come to my rescue? O my God, I cry out day and night, but you do not answer, and I can never rest,” the writer complains.
But then, even in his pain, he acknowledges; “Yet you are enthroned as the holy one…In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed…I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing. But you, O Lord, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me … You who fear the Lord, praise him!... For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
Following Christ does not bring us an escape from pain, complexity or doubt – nor does it ensure a constant sense of God’s closeness and his immediate answers to our prayers. The apprentice’s pathway will sometimes be that of isolation and aloneness that Jesus himself felt. But, even in Christ’s darkest and most disturbed moment, he reminded himself, through quoting from the ancient Psalm so well known to him and many of those who overheard his cry, that beyond the horizon of his emotions remained a greater truth – “he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (Psalm 22:24).
God is there – even at the cross. So it is that, even in the desolation of this moment, perhaps through the remembrance and recital of the famous psalm, Christ clings to God’s presence as he goes on to demonstrate through his cry: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” and, finally, in his words of peaceful surrender and extraordinary intimacy:
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.