When God’s Hand Burns

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“Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.”

– Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Suffering, p. 30 –

I watched the searing iron come down. The goat kid squirmed and begin to gasp, and yet the iron stayed.

Have you ever been burned? Has the iron stayed so long that you wondered what God was doing, why He was making you suffer?

Why Lord?

We always take our new goat kids to get their horn buds removed, when they are only days old. The process takes only seconds. Held by a firm, practiced hand, the kids are one by one laid across a lap. Then a hot iron, specially made for the purpose, is held to each horn bud for 10 seconds. The heat burns away the forming horns.

The soft hair on their heads singes and smokes. It stinks. They struggle and kick and cry, but no one lets them up.

To them, the pain is purposeless and cruel. All they wanted was a nice pile of straw and a warm bottle. Was that too much to ask?

But I had a purpose in their pain: I dreamed for them — when they were unable to dream for themselves — of a future with no horns. They, had they known what I was taking from them, might have complained. “Hey, those are mine! I need those. They look dashing, I’ll be popular with the lady goats, and I’ll be the king of the pasture.”

When I pulled out of the disbudder’s driveway, I thought about the whole painful process. A friend riding with me asked why their horns had to be removed. I started listing the benefits of hornless goats. They wouldn’t get their heads stuck in fences as easily. They wouldn’t be hurt in the occasional “status” fights that goats use to determine who is boss. They wouldn’t gore another goat. They couldn’t poke people with the sharp tips.

So I pondered this too. It was love, I realized. We loved them enough to give them pain, because there was a purpose beyond it. Even though the kids couldn’t see it, I brought pain into their lives for their ultimate good.

Recently, a friend finally got me to listen to a song she’d been telling me about for over a week. When I finally did, I couldn’t believe the beauty in it.

Singer Elliott Park writes about a young sapling whose trunk is doubled over when a dying Rebel soldier hangs his gun on it. Watered by pain and tinted by blood, this oak grows that way — bent over, ruined in the eyes of most. But…just listen to the song “The Soldier and the Oak.” There was a purpose beyond the pain. The reality became better than the dream. The suffering can transform you into something even lovelier.

In the recent film Cinderella, after she long endures the hatefulness of her stepmother and sisters, Ella finally stands before the Prince, who still doesn’t know her name. “Who are you?” he asks.

“Cinderella,” she replies, using the name of derision that others had used to mock her. But she said it with a smile — a smile that showed that not only had she survived the suffering, but she was stronger for it. Her pain wasn’t a shoved-away corner of her identity. She embraced it, along with the change it wrought in her. Not Ella anymore. No, the pain had made her lovelier. She was Cinderella.

Keller says,

“In the secular view, suffering is never seen as a meaningful part of life but only as an interruption.” (Ibid., 26)

I’ve definitely seen pain that way — an entirely unpleasant interruption to my otherwise-happy existence.

But that night driving back toward the farm, I caught a new vision of suffering. In a strange shifting of roles, I found out what it was to be on the “knowing” end of things, the one that knew it would all be okay and the pain had a point (John 9:3; Rev. 21:1-7).

Every other day, I’m on the “not knowing” end of things. But…the uncertain cries of baby goats taught me a lesson that night.

“I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18, CEB)

Sinful and weak as I am, I know better than my goats. How much more does our Heavenly Father know better than us where a moment of pain might lead (Isa. 55:8-9)? To what heights might it allow us to soar?

Could it be…that after this long enmity, suffering might turn out to be a friend?

Or that when God’s hand burns, we can trust after all?


“Tears are often the telescope by which men see far into heaven.”

– Henry Ward Beecher –

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When God Doesn’t Show Up

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“Our sorrows are all, like ourselves, mortal. There are no immortal sorrows for immortal souls. They come, but blessed be God, they also go. Like birds of the air, they fly over our heads. But they cannot make their abode in our souls. We suffer today, but we shall rejoice tomorrow.”
– Charles Spurgeon –

She didn’t have John 11 in her Bible.

And she didn’t understand.

Maybe, as the quiet, cold countryside air drifted through the house, she leaned against the wall and held her breath, waiting for her sick brother to inhale one more time.

A slow breath just beyond the thin wall.

She exhales, waiting for the next sound of air in fragile lungs.

It doesn’t come.

Her throat tightens. Hands go still where they’ve been digging a thin place in the hem of her skirt. Oh God, let him breathe.

It still doesn’t come.

A thin, reedy wail bubbles up from her chest, rising into deep sobs.

It didn’t come.

And neither had Jesus.

Other cries begin–her sister’s weary, husky choking, the softer wails of watching friends, a baby stirring on her cousin’s hip.

She closes her eyes and tastes the hot salt wetting her lips. “Why didn’t you come?” she whispers in the dark. “You could have stopped this.”


Have you seen a night that dark?

A death that tore out your heart. A friendship that melted away in the forge instead of being tempered by the flames. A dream that withered again and again.

We all ask this question, don’t we? “Why weren’t You there, Lord, when that happened? Where were You when I needed you?”

There’s the theological voice in our heads, telling us that God is omnipresent, that Jesus promised to never leave us, that He sent us the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and be our Comforter.

But…honestly? You can’t always feel truth. That theological voice can tell me all it wants, but there’s no doubt that sometimes we cry and it seems like there is no reply. No comfort. No easing of the pain. Just silence.

I think that’s how Mary felt.

She sat, perhaps, in the dark and wept for her lost brother Lazarus, and wondered why, why on earth, did Jesus fail them.

He could have stopped this. He’d done it before–healed so many. Healed those that didn’t even follow Him, healed beggars on roadsides, healed servants of Gentiles long-distance.

But the man he loved, whose sisters he loved? He didn’t show up for him.

Don’t you know that Mary cried in the dark and couldn’t wrap her mind around the lostness. It was bad enough that her brother was dead.

But the ache of Jesus failing them…that must have been a thousand times worse.

She’d sat at his feet (Luke 10:39). She thrown her soul into following Him. She’d tossed everything aside as unimportant, secondary to knowing Him.

And yet He hadn’t come.

So Mary buried her brother, perhaps helping her sister Martha wrap him in spice-soaked cloths. So Mary cried until her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen, until her heart felt drained of tears, and then she kept crying.

It was another four days, four days after the tombstone was shoved across the cave’s mouth, when Jesus finally showed up.

Late. Too late to heal. Too late, even, for the funeral. Just too late.

The Bible records Jesus’ reaction to Lazarus’ illness this way:

” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was” (John 11:5-6, NKJV).

Wait…what? This seems like a bad joke.

He hears about Lazarus…and stays away?

So, when he comes four days after the funeral (John 11:17), I wonder if Mary had stopped looking for Him? The passage doesn’t say. It only records,

“Now Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house” (John 11:20). 

Did Mary hear? Why did she stay at the house? Perhaps she she was too swallowed by her grief. Maybe she didn’t know Jesus had arrived. Or maybe she had given up on Jesus, because He hadn’t been there when she needed Him most.

But Martha–strong, capable, warm–went running in her tears and met Jesus as He approached:

“Now Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21).

But then, as Matthew Henry suggests in his commentary on the passage, she seems to regret her hasty, grieved words. Thought probably still asking “why” inside, she corrects herself:

“But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You” (John 11:22).

This is a grief-stricken, somewhat-shaken faith. “Lord, I don’t understand,” she seems to be saying. “I still believe in you. I still know you have power. But I don’t understand.”

Under Jesus’ gentle questioning, she affirms her conviction that He is the Messiah, even the Son of God.

Then he sends for Mary.

Remember, Mary hadn’t read John 11. She didn’t know what would happen. We who have the whole Bible, who have grown up with the narratives, become numb to it.

But this wasn’t a flannel graph, two-dimensional story for Mary. This was real.

Her brother was dead. Her Savior had abandoned her.

Then He called for her and she hurries to meet him.

“Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).

The same words as her sister–this same theme that resounds in our own hearts when God doesn’t show up in our pain.

“If you had been here, God…If only You had been here.”

And what does Jesus do? He had given Martha the theological answers. For Mary?

For Mary, He cries.

With Mary, He cries. Yes, God in flesh sees her tears, the tears of her sister, and He openly weeps (John 11:35).

What comes next?

A glorious rising. A heart-stopping, mind-blowing resurrection right on the fringes of Jerusalem. The world was shaken up that day.

Because Lazarus rose and walked out of that tomb!

But if we walk away from Mary’s story with the idea that Jesus will immediately come along and undo all our griefs, set it all right, make it not hurt anymore–then we’ve not learned our lesson.

You see, Mary didn’t know what Jesus was going to do. 

But, behind Mary’s grieving, Martha’s questioning, Lazarus’ dying–behind all this was a much larger Story at work:

The Story of God glorifying His Son in the world (John 17).

In fact, in the very next chapter, we see the results of Lazarus rising:

“Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. 10 But the chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, 11 because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus” (John 12:9-11).

The Bible never tells the end of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha’s story.

But that passage–rather than scaring me, or making me worry about Lazarus’ safety–reassures me.

See what God did?

The whole mess of grief and then wonder, death and then life–all of it was a master-design to point the world to Jesus. Lazarus was such a testimony to His God that the Jews wanted him dead just to get people to stop believing!

God doesn’t always ride in and fix our problems. He doesn’t always come and heal our loved ones, raise our dead dreams, or mend our broken relationships. (One day, yes, He will! He will make all things new!)

But Mary’s story teaches me to hope.

Because whatever God is doing in the pain–however silent He seems to be–I know two things.

I know He knows my sorrows and is moved by my pain.

And I know that He is up to something glorious.

Grief is hard.

Pain hurts terribly.

Prayers don’t always feel like they’re going through.

But whether my Lazarus rises or not, I know that “God’s absence”–when He decides not to intervene in my hurt–is part of plan that makes God look amazing.

When He doesn’t show up, I will cling to the knowledge of His love and presence. He won’t always tell me why I have to hurt. He doesn’t owe me an explanation.

But I will believe.

And then I will watch His beauty be put on display.


 “And He’s kneeling in the garden, as silent as a Stone

All His friends are sleeping and He’s weeping all alone

And the man of all sorrows, he never forgot
What sorrow is carried by the hearts that he bought
So when the questions dissolve into the silence of God
The aching may remain but the breaking does not
The aching may remain but the breaking does not
In the holy, lonesome echo of the silence of God.”

– Andrew Peterson, “The Silence of God”  –

* All Scripture verses come from the New King James Version

 

Grace Holds

tree in the light

Life sometimes presses down hard.

I feel this weight one morning, alone in my room. It seems that everything I am is being deconstructed, piece by piece. I feel alone.

And I sense my own failure and can’t see through it.

The pressure of expectations, of obedience, of the gap between what we want to do and what we end up actually doing.

It’s a mixture. Guilt when every caring person’s words stick in painful, a dart to the soul. Loneliness, when it feels like no one quite understands–and the people my heart longs to see just aren’t there. Anger–anger at myself for feeling down, for letting comments bother me when I know only love was behind them.

The weight stuck in my chest, closed off in my throat.

And for a little while, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

I began to write.

The feelings started to unkink in little jerks at first. Then my fingers flew faster as the tears spilled over.

And, almost before I knew it, each tear-washed phrase became a prayer.

I felt so lost in a mountain of pulling-down emotions that I knew only One who could dig me back out.

Was He there? Did He care?

I lay on my back and prayed, tears squeezing from my eyes and dripping down the sides of my face. “Hold me,” I told Him. “If there’s anything between us, please, please forgive me.”

More than anything, I just wanted to be held by Him. To know He was there and understood. To remember that He has washed me and the only One I must please is Him.

I could let go of the people-pleasing.

I could let go of the self-inflicted pressure for good grades.

I could let go of being anything other than what He made me to be.

I don’t have to do anything but what He wishes.

And–better still–He will carry me through that as well.

So there, in my room, swiping at the tears, I began to pray for strength.

Not for my whole life.

Not for the rest of my schooling.

Not for the month.

Not for the week.

But for that day. Just that one day.

So after those minutes of tears and whispered prayers and comforts that crept around me like Everlasting Arms, I plunged into the day.

And I survived.

The next day, a thought twinged.

“He helped me. I stayed focused better yesterday. I got more done. He actually was there! I was able to rest in His arms, and I was able to get past all those fears and guilt-bogs and pulling-down thoughts.”

Because I got so desperate that I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.

Because I cried and He saw.

Because I crawled up into the lap of my Abba Father.

That’s when I could go on.

That’s when I could start living.

That’s when others faded and He became my only Audience.

There’s a man who knew that power. Charles Colson, a criminal turned saint, had this to say:

“Only when I lost everything that I thought made Chuck Colson a great guy had I found the true self God intended me to be and the true purpose of my life.

It is not what we do that matters, but what a sovereign God chooses to do through us. God doesn’t want our success; He wants us. He doesn’t demand our achievements; He demands our obedience. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of paradox, where through the ugly defeat of a cross, a holy God is utterly glorified. Victory comes through defeat; healing through brokenness; finding self through losing self.”

– Charles Colson, A Dangerous Grace, page 85

We often repeat the verse about God’s strength being made perfect in our weakness.

But do we believe it?

Do we live it, on those days when everything comes crashing down and we just want to cry forever?

Sisters, I’m on this road with you. You’re here with me.

It’s okay to be weak. Let’s remind each other of that.

He didn’t come so we could boast in how put-together we are.

Or so we could swagger around with our Super-Christianity t-shirts, thinking we have it all together on our own.

He came to lift the burden, ease the yoke.

Jesus came to walk with us, to lighten the load.

And He does, when we’re desperate enough to cry to Him and tell Him we just can’t do it ourselves.

So today, if the thought of doing it all again is making your bones ache and your heart fall and the tears start to well, just fall to your knees.

He’s here.

He’s here, just like when Peter took his eyes away from Jesus. That’s when Peter began to sink.

Isn’t that when we all start to sink?

But Jesus didn’t laugh and walk away from the sinking man.

“Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.”

– Matthew 14:29b-31a, NIV –

If you haven’t ever felt Him catching you in your free-fall, you’re missing out.

Because those tears, those running-over emotions, the frustration–all of it was worth it.

Because He caught me.

John Piper wrote on his website Desiring God:

“One of the reasons we don’t know God deeply is that we don’t venture much on his pledge to carry things for us. Knowing God with a sense of authentic personal reality, is not merely a matter of study. It is a matter of walking with him through fire and not being burned. It is a matter of not being crushed under a load because he carries it for you at your side.”

Sisters, I want to know Him, really know Him.

So, I don’t know about you, but today, I’m letting Him carry the load.

When I let go, Grace holds.

“Cast your burden on the Lord,
And He shall sustain you;
He shall never permit the righteous to be moved.”

– Psalm 55:22, NKJV, emphasis mine-

Thank you to Petr Kratochvil and Public Domain Pictures for the lovely “Rays of Light” photo.