Have you ever witnessed a close friend or relative that seems to be doing everything right, yet continues to get the rougher deal? You know this person is the most honest in his industry, the best at his trade, yet he just doesn’t reach the top. Almost as if you want to think: ‘God does this person not deserve better?’ ‘Where are You?’ Or maybe you feel you are this person…
Sometimes the things that happen in everyday life can seem so senseless, as if we are all at the mercy of random chance and people with power. It is easy, then, to start rationalising these things, or even spiritualise it as a coping mechanism. I’ve heard people find ways to ascribe circumstances to God’s greater plan, when sometimes we just bear the fruit of our own, or others’, bad decisions. They eventually end up living out their own self-fulfilling prophecies – and these self-fulfilled prophecies can look very much like a relationship with God.
I want to hazard an opinion, that the truth probably lies somewhere between two extremities with total chaos on the one side and ‘God – the master of puppets’ on the other side. When Jesus explained the discipleship life to His disciples, He used the metaphor of a vine; and you can only be one of two things: a branch withering on the ground or a branch in the vine. (1) The withering branch is the one that was cut off as punishment and it means separation from God, lifelessness, hopelessness, burning together with other lifeless branches. If you are suffering and wondering whether you are being punished, that is what you would be feeling if you were punished. You would be God-forsaken. I understand that some might feel God-forsaken, but the chances are very scarce that this is true of you, as you are indeed alive. Now the branch in the vine still has the potential to bear fruit, and sometimes it does. It can grow in any direction. So much random potential. Exposed to the elements of nature. But at times it gets seemingly unnecessarily cut off. Just as a break through is on its way, comes the Vinedresser and takes it away. It almost seems counter-intuitive, because the idea was to grow and get bigger. If life feels like this you are in a good place. You are alive and free to grow in any possible direction; and if you have entrusted your life to God, He comes and shapes you. It will be the ones truly desiring God and who bear fruit that would be pruned.(1) It is those who do good works (2) in response to the good works of God who will be shaped even more. It seems as if there is a rhythm to this discipleship life – started by God by creating us, teaching us, loving us; and we responding in obedience and trust. He opens a door, we enter; He provides employment, we work hard and honestly; He promotes us, we work even harder; He provides education, we study hard; He brings us into contact with influential people, we testify; He waters, we grow; He prunes, we get shaped into a beautiful fruit-bearing, God-glorifying tree with routes so deep that the driest of winters cannot take us down.
This gospel is one of grace and grace is more than receiving what we want – it is receiving what we need. It is grace that kept the thorn in Paul’s flesh (3). Because of grace, it was not removed for the bigger picture looked different than what Paul saw.
So, what should our attitude be towards suffering and hardships? Are we to pray the suffering away or are we to trust the Vinedresser? Are we to declare that no trials will sweep over us or are we to seek how our trials are shaping us? Are those going through tough times forsaken or are the tough times giving the direction?
- Joh 15
- Eph 2:10
- 2 Cor 12:7