"The Hardest Thing About God"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts February 5, 2006
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Exodus 2:23-25; 3:7-10
2:23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
3:7 Then the LORD said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt."
What's the Hardest Thing About God?
What would you say is the hardest thing about God? What's the hardest aspect of God's character for you to accept? What's the hardest part of faith in God?
I expect some of us would say that the hardest part of faith is believing in a God we can't see, hear, or touch. How much easier it would be, we might think, if we could only perceive God with our senses? This is an age-old desire, of course, which has led people throughout the centuries to form idols to make faith easier. Yet God is abundantly clear in rejecting that option. We're stuck with a God whom we just can't perceive with our five senses, and sometimes that's hard.
I remember when, as a boy, I struggled with believing in God. I actually begged Him to show Himself to me, visually, rather like what happend to Paul on the road to Damascus. When this didn't happen, I asked for other miracles. Once I remember praying in all seriousness that God would help me to fly around my room. I know this sounds silly, but I was that desperate for something that would prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God was really there.
I think others of us would say the hardest thing about God is letting God be God. We acknowledge God's utter sovereignty over all things, including ourselves. And we recognize His unimpeachable wisdom. Yet sometimes we struggle to submit to God or to trust God's ways. We want to run our own lives, if not the lives of those around us. In a sense, we want to be God. This is also an old, old problem. In fact, it's the root of human sin as revealed in Genesis 3.
As I've gotten older, I don't wrestle as much with believing that God exists. Even in my darkest hours I still believe that there is a God. Now, my biggest challenge is letting God be God. I want to run my own life. Submission to God doesn't come easily to me. Nor does trust.
But neither God's sovereignty nor His imperceptibility are, for me, the hardest thing about God. Instead, the hardest thing about God is something that, ironically, is wrapped up with some of the most wonderful things about God, namely, His compassion and kindness, His grace and mercy. We see this throughout Scripture, but perhaps no more clearly than in Exodus 2 and 3.
Good News from Exodus 2 and 3?
The passages I read from Exodus a few minutes ago seem at first glance to be full of good news. The last verses of chapter 2 announce that God "heard" the groaning of His people. He remembered His covenant with the Israelites and "took notice" of them (2:23-24). That's great!
The next story in Exodus, from chapter 3, adds to the goodness. God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and explained that He had "observed the misery of [His] people." In fact, God knew "their suffering" (v. 7). So He chose to deliver His people from Egypt, sending Moses His representative.
This wasn't good news from Moses's point of view, of course, because he didn't the job of deliverer. But, in the end, the Lord prevailed, and Moses went to Pharaoh to tell the king to let the people go. I expect you know the rest of the story, with plagues, Passover, and a dramatic rescue through the Red Sea.
The good news in Exodus is obvious and encouraging. God hears our cries when we hurt. God sees our struggles. God knows our suffering. And He cares. He cares so much that He acts to save us. What God once did for Israel in Exodus He has done for us through Jesus Christ, the Passover lamb slain for us, the One in who delivers us from slavery to sin and death.
With all this good news, you might wonder what I find to be so hard in the early chapters of Exodus. Well, it's what's assumed in these passages rather than stated. Yes, God did hear and act . . . finally! He did send Moses as deliverer . . . eventually! He did demonstrate compassion for His people . . . after a long delay!
I can't help but wonder: Why did God wait so long? I can't figure out how He could have heard the agonized cries of His people for years, yet without doing anything to help them.
We don't know exactly how long the children of Israel were slaves in Egypt. They spent 430 years in exile there. For part of this time, they lived well, as the Pharaohs remembered how Joseph had been a source of divine blessing for the Egyptians. But at some point, as Exodus 1:8 puts it, "a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." He was envious of the Israelites and fearful of their power. So this king began to enslave them, oppressing them and treating them ruthlessly. Exodus suggests that this went on for several generations at least, since the oppression began before Moses was born, and it continued until Moses was eighty years old.
Feeling the Pain of the Israelites
Now it's easy for us, separated from Israelite slavery by more than three millennia, to minimize the horror. It's easy to focus on the good news of God's deliverance. And, in the end, that's the right emphasis. But I would confess that I'm bugged by the fact that God waited so long to set His people free. Surely, for generations God heard the desperate cries of the Israelites. Surely, for generations He saw their horrible suffering. Surely, for generations He watched as His chosen people were forced into decades of hard labor, terrorized and tortured by their vicious taskmasters.
Standing back at a distance, it's easy to say, "Well, God's ways are not our ways. God's timing is not our timing. God waited until just the right time to deliver His people from Egypt." Yes, yes, I believe all of these things. But if you use your imagination to consider what life was like for the Israelites, for generation after generation, what it must have been like to experience the horrors of slavery, what it must have been like to feel utterly helpless and hopeless, then, I suggest, it gets harder and harder to understand God's delaying tactics.
Now if God were not the sort of God who cared, if God didn't hear the cries of His people, if God didn't know their sufferings, then this wouldn't be a problem. We'd simply have an emotionally cut-off God who, in the words of the once-popular song, "is watching us from a distance." But when you consider the compassionate heart of God, when you acknowledge His mercy, when you celebrate His grace, when you confess, as Christians do, that God is love, then God's willingness to let His people suffer is more than just a mystery. It's a source of frustration, of anger with God, and, often, of excruciating doubt.
Why Won't God Do Something?
Many of you here today know what I'm talking about from your own experience. There have been times in your life - maybe even right now - when you've been gone through terrible things: physical pain, family crisis, the suffering of loved ones, the death of a child or a spouse. In these times, you've cried out to God, again, and again, and again, and again. Yet it has seemed as if God didn't hear. In fact, it would be easier if you could believe that God was deaf, because at least then God would have a good excuse for appearing to be so insensitive, even so cruel.
One of the toughest nights of my life happened about thirteen years ago. My son, Nathan, was a baby, only a few months old. He became sick, with what at first it seemed like a bad flu. Yet, after a couple of days, he wasn't getting any better. In fact, he was getting much worse. One night his temperature spiked to around 105 degrees. Linda and I were terribly worried, thinking maybe we should take him to hospital. But we weren't sure. Of course, we had even scarier unspoken fears, that Nathan had something far worse than a bad case of the flu.
I spent most of that night awake, watching Nathan, cooling him off with wet cloths, monitoring his vital signs. And praying. And praying. And praying. And praying. I don't' think I've ever prayed so intensely for such a long period in my whole life. I cried out to God with many tears, asking Him to heal Nathan. For hours, it seemed as if my prayers simply bounced off the ceiling and fell back to earth. I had no sense of God's peace or presence. And Nathan didn't get better. In fact, by morning, his fever was almost 106, so we rushed him to the doctor, and then to the hospital.
As you know, Nathan survived, and without any apparent harm. He's kinda crazy sometimes, but I think this is more a matter of his genetic heritage than brain damage from a fever. So, you could rightly say that God answered my prayers. But I still remember that night of anguish as I cried out to a God whom I believed to be compassionate and kind, but who seemed unconcerned and hard-hearted.
Moreover, like many of you, I have friends who were once in my place, crying out to God for a sick child, yet their story didn't end as mine did. Their child died, introducing them to emotional suffering more horrible than anything I can possibly imagine.
This is true, by the way, for parents of young children and grown up children. I remember when my dad was dying of cancer. My grandmother - his mother - said that no mother should ever have to endure such a thing. She begged God to take her life instead of my dad's. And then she begged simply to die before my dad did. But He didn't do what my grandmother asked. And she saw my dad, who was really still her little boy in her heat, shrivel up to nothing before her eyes, and then die.
Meanwhile, God, who loved my grandmother, and who, I believe, was with her in her suffering, and who loved my dad and was with him in his suffering, and who loved our family, and who is merciful and kind, and all of that . . . this God chose not to heal my dad, not to relieve my grandmother's suffering. For me, this was one more example of the hardest thing about God.
If God knows our suffering, and if He sees our pain, and if He is so loving, why doesn't He do something?
If God cares so much, why doesn't He do something to keep millions of children in Africa from being orphaned because of AIDS, or from dying of this terrible disease?
If God cares so much, how can he let millions of children die from starvation each year?
If God cares so much, how could He stand back and let six million of His people die in the Holocaust?
If God cares so much, why is it that sometimes His most faithful disciples suffer the worst kinds of persecution and torture?
My mind can answer those questions, following the lead I gave you last week. This world isn't the way God meant it to be. It's broken. And God is in the process of mending the world. But a quick fix isn't right. I can accept this, and even understand it in the abstract. My mind is satisfied, for the most part, with this theology.
But my heart is not. At times I can do no other than call out in the words of Psalm 77:
Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?"
And I say, "It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed." (Psalm 77:7-10)
Feeling a Bit of God's Own Heart
Every now and then God helps me, not only to see, but also to feel in some tiny way why He lets suffering happen. There have been a few times in my life when I've been able to experience something that, begins to resemble God's own heart when it comes to the suffering of His people.
The first time this happened to me was, ironically enough, the day after my night of begging God to heal my sick baby. As I mentioned, Linda and I took him to the doctor the next morning. The doctor tried to be reassuring, but he was also concerned. So he sent us to the hospital so Nathan could have some blood work done.
We didn't have to wait very long at the hospital. Linda and I took Nathan into a small, sterile room. Soon a nurse came to draw his blood, and not just a tiny bit, but several sizable samples. Linda offered to hold him during the ordeal, but I said I'd do it. Of course Nathan had been crying pretty because of his illness, so I figured it couldn't get much worse. But when the nurse stuck him with the needle, it did. His crying intensified, getting louder and more frantic. I had to hold him so tightly I think I was probably hurting him too. Then came the second needle. And the third. Holding Nathan that way was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I wanted more than anything in the world to make the nurse stop, to quit grabbing Nathan's arms and legs, and to hug him forever. But I knew that wouldn't be right. So I kept on holding him, trying not to lose it completely myself, as tears welled up in my eyes and rolled down my face.
I figure that that whole trial lasted about a minute, though it felt like an hour. It wasn't long before the needles were gone and I could cradle my little boy. His blood work turned out to be okay. And by the next day his fever began to subside.
I've often thought back to that experience, to the time when I made my child experience such pain, to the time when I didn't embrace him because I just couldn't, to the time when pinned him so tightly that I actually hurt his little body. I remember this experience when I wonder why God doesn't intervene more often, why He doesn't take away suffering, why He even seems sometimes to pin us down and make matters worse. I did what I did to Nathan out of love, I know that, and it was the right thing to do. So, once in a while, I can feel the love of a God who, in His wisdom and compassion, lets us suffer for a season, even when it seems like a very long season to us.
I even believe that our suffering is like Nathan's in that hospital room. Though he couldn't feel my love for him because of what he was experiencing, every bit of me was focused on his best, and every bit of my heart was filled with love for him.
Yet, I still confess to you that I find God's inaction in the midst of His people's suffering to be the hardest thing about God. It's still the part of God I just don't get sometimes. Yet I can trust in the God who exceeds my understanding and who doesn't always satisfy my heart.
Why do I trust Him? For sure, it's a result of grace, God's grace at work within me. But it's also a response to the way this grace was fleshed out on the cross. If God's lack of response to human pain is the hardest thing, then the cross is the hardest thing times ten. You see, on the cross the beloved, only Son of God suffered. His physical suffering was, arguably, one of the most painful of all human experiences. But, more than this, the Son suffered as the Father placed upon the Son the penalty for Sin, the penalty that should have been yours and mine. The Son experienced the agony of being separated from the Father, the essence of Hell.
You and I can barely begin to comprehend the agony of God, God the Son being forsaken by His Father, God the Father regarding His Son as if He were sin itself. One of the most moving representations of this truth is found in Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ. It comes right near the end of the movie, as Jesus is nearing death on the cross. As a single raindrop falls from heaven, we look from above through the drop at the horrible scene unfolding on Golgotha. As we do, we realize that this isn't a raindrop, but a teardrop, God's teardrop. In that tiny bead of fluid we sense the mystery and the majesty of the compassionate, aching heart of God.
Today we remember the cross as we come to the Lord's table. None of us comes having figured it all out. None of us comes without questions we cannot answer. Yet we come because we know that God does indeed hear our cries for mercy. We come because, like the Israelites in Egypt, we too need to be set free: from our sins, our fears, our feebleness, our doubt. We come because at this table we don't find easy answers, but we do find life, because here we find God.