“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you.”
[Isaiah 43:2 NAS]
The word “ordeal” came to mind as I was dealing with medical issues for the past few months (see “Lessons from Surgery” posted 4/12/11). It’s a plain-sounding word, so I didn’t expect to find anything “poetic” or “prophetic” on www.dictionary.com – but I looked it up anyway, because I enjoy the flow of insights that often comes from looking at etymology and various definitions. I was pleasantly surprised to find this bluntly simple word is rich with spiritual meaning.
1. a severe or trying experience
2. history a method of trial in which the guilt or innocence of an accused person was determined by subjecting him to physical danger, esp. by fire or water. The outcome was regarded as an indication of divine judgment.
Old English ordāl, ordēl; related to Old Frisian ordēl, Old High German urteili (German Urteil ) verdict. deal, dole ]
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
Of course I don’t believe in the archaic practice of torturing people as a way of determining their guilt or innocence, and I question the spiritual / psychological soundness of interpreting anyone’s afflictions as intentional condemnation or punishment by God.
Human interpretations of events are as varied as individual worldviews. Although I don’t agree with atheists and agnostics for whom all is random or coincidental (with the possible exception of natural or scientific laws, like physics or mathematics) - I’m a little embarrassed by Christians who seem to think that, if their car or their washing machine breaks down, it’s always an intentional act of God or the devil. Even more so by many who publicly declare "God's judgment" in the midst of great suffering or tragedy.
We (human beings in general) often deal with questions of “divine justice” when we encounter “a severe or trying experience.” We wonder if we did something to bring difficulty upon ourselves, or protest (inwardly or outwardly) that we don’t deserve it – we try to make sense of experiences, and we resist what seems to us like senseless pain. We process thoughts and emotions based on limited information; and, unfortunately, we often form judgments about other people’s trauma.
I have a few basic beliefs, from my understanding of the Bible, that anchor my approach to this complicated subject: (1) God is Love, so what He does is always good; and (2) human information is usually incomplete and fairly short-sighted, so our perspective on who is responsible for what, as well as our personal definition of “good,” may not be fully accurate or consistent with God’s truth.
People who attribute everything that happens to "God's will" ignore many things the scriptures teach about who we are and what God desires for us. Human beings were not created to be puppets or robots - we are free to choose good or evil, to walk with God or turn away from Him and His ways. The Bible also reveals a variety of interconnected forces that impact our lives: God, human beings (ourselves and others), angels, demons, and the complex operation of both natural and spiritual laws.
It’s difficult to imagine how any of us could even pretend to fully understand “why bad things happen,” apart from divine revelation – which is itself a pretty murky proposition in this lifetime. The apostle Paul points this out, along with the importance of Love as both context and motive for all our imperfect efforts to understand what is so unclear to us here & now.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing...
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears...Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
[I Corinthians 13:1-2, 9-10,12]
[I Corinthians 13:1-2, 9-10,12]
What I like about the meaning of this word "ordeal" is that the trial itself is not the verdict - it's how you come through it that matters. Kind and loving people who eat their vegetables get cancer, lose loved ones, experience natural disasters, etc. - so do nasty, bitter criminals, and all types of people in between. Our impulse to understand and explain everything in terms of simple cause & effect is probably a natural desire to "make sense of" senseless pain, or control what feels out of control at the time - but it's not something we generally do with great accuracy or effectiveness. We may learn a lesson, identify some specific changes we need to make for the future, but overall our perceptions and abilities are too limited to comprehend or interpret the whole. We see only part of the picture, and not very clearly.
An “ordeal," as I see it, is an opportunity to find God and His goodness in the midst of difficulty. Have you ever considered how unexpectedly some people step up and show amazing goodness to one another during illness or trauma? Or how many people respond to a crisis by taking stock of their lives and changing for the better? Even if our own actions somehow contributed to the situation - God offers forgiveness & healing, and leads us into greater wisdom, as we seek and follow Him.
I don’t believe, for example, that God gives people cancer. If an earthly father did that to his children “to teach them something,” we’d probably call it child abuse.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
[James 1:17 NIV]
But He’s always teaching, turning even errors into opportunities for growth and blessing.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
[Romans 8:28 NIV]
As we look to Him in our times of deepest need, He displays His glory and the greatness of His Love. The verses I quoted at the end of my previous posting (4/12/11 "Lessons from Surgery") describe how His strength fills our weakness - He is glorified in our lives as He gives us “beauty for ashes.” The Book of Job (to be discussed next week) shows us how small-minded we can be in our perceptions of suffering; the real prize is knowing Him, and He’s so much bigger & better than we think.
As we find God in the midst of our "ordeals," the winning verdict is an ever-deepening revelation and relationship with Him.
But now, God's Message, the God who made you in the first place, Jacob, the One who got you started, Israel: "Don't be afraid, I've redeemed you. I've called your name. You're mine. When you're in over your head, I'll be there with you. When you're in rough waters, you will not go down. When you're between a rock and a hard place, it won't be a dead end - because I am God, your personal God, The Holy of Israel, your Savior. I paid a huge price for you…That's how much you mean to me! That's how much I love you! I'd sell off the whole world to get you back, trade the creation just for you. So don't be afraid: I'm with you…”
[Isaiah 43:1-5a MSG]