Finding a pathway in the desert of suffering

I think in ink. For years I have collected and used antique fountain pens and composed in leather notebooks using various colour of inks, mostly blues, rarely black.

My fingers are often stained with the inks that are stored in bottles in my Pastor’s study. I treasure each pen, bottle of ink, and speciality fountain-pen friendly paper.

I'm a bit of an old school geek. The smell of antique pens, inks, and old books is therapeutic. Yet, my study is full of Apple products: iPod, iPad Air, iPhone, MacBook Air, and a 27inch iMac Computer.

As a professor of Church History and Theology, I reach back as far as I can into the intellectual heritage of the Church and, as a pastor, I have been consumed with the desire to reach as far forward as possible so that the ancient Scriptures can still be heard.

There is only one life given us to do that. One only has so many gifts to use. And, it is only this very moment that is available to us to do it. As one ages, one is aware of the urgency to do well so that the “well done” is heard at the very end.

As one prepares for the last chapter of ministry, one wishes for “flowery beds of ease.” But, often there are “foes for me to fight.” Apologies to Isaac Watts.

The Christian life as a journey

Our spiritual forebears in Christianity and Judaism conceived of life from birth to death as a journey through the desert to the Promised Land.

Medieval monks, following the lead of John of the Cross, used the “Dark Night of the Soul” as an image of desperate times along the pathway.

Spiritual writers stressed that the way to the glorious hope of the empty tomb was through the pathos of Gethsemane and the terror of the Cross. One couldn’t get to Easter Sunday without experiencing Calvary.

When Jesus prayed in the garden, he knew his end was near, but he didn’t lay blame on anyone for his troubles. He didn’t speculate what he might have done or said to have avoided the cross.

True, he asked, if it were possible, to be spared, but he resigned himself to God’s will. Various groups get charged for his death: the soldiers, the religious elite, and the angry mob. Yet, it all happens under the sovereign oversight of God. That’s in the Bible, too.

If God is overseeing everything, there must be something good about it. But, in the moments of a desert storm, a dark night, or a Good Friday, nothing seems to be good. It’s hard to tell the difference between the good and the bad. Sometimes we just don’t know.

Is this storm God’s work or the devil’s work? Should I be rejoicing in my suffering (Romans 5) because it will produce perseverance, character, and hope. That’s what we want anyway. We want the strength to endure the storm. We want the storm to make us a better person. And, we want some kind of insight that tomorrow the weather will clear.

Or, should I be rebuking the enemy, using prayer as a spiritual weapon, exposing the tactics of the enemy and his cohorts, smite the foes of God, and take victory in the name of Jesus?

Or, if our situation is seen as an injustice, may we not appeal to Caesar, like Paul? Who knows?

Which path do we take? How long do we stay in a discernment mode when we do not know what is good or bad about our situation?

Trying to find meaning in suffering

Is it possible that the quest to find spiritual meaning is itself part of the problem? Do we have to analyze the situation like a team of secret agents?

Is it possible that the compulsion to discern God’s will or God’s hand, or the devil’s doings, is the cause of much spiritual anguish rather than the path to a cure? Am I responsible to figure out the lesson God is teaching in the moment? Or, is the lesson something that emerges much later?

In Philippians 1:12 Paul wrote, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.”

This was not something he was aware of in the moment of suffering, but much later as he reflected on his journey.

Gerald G. May, in the introduction to The Dark Night of the Soul, suggests that our preoccupation with finding relief from our suffering leaves us very little opportunity to search for meaning.

Interesting thought!

Christians are so used to bumper stickers, trite sayings, Facebook memes, and thin spiritual gruel. From the “no pain-no gain”, to the austerity of asceticism which glorifies suffering as inherently good for the soul, we have succumbed to the ideas that God orchestras the evil in our lives.

“It’s His will” is the default position to explain everything so that nothing is outside of God’s will. Why then, even bother to pray “Thy will be done?” Is there any need of a devil if God is the author of all?

Maybe, the best option in suffering is to keep faithful, maintain composure, face the rough road ahead, and be steady at the wheel. Once the weather clears and the dust settles, we can reflect upon the journey and see the hand of God all the way from the Red Sea, through the desert, to the Promised Land.

Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause
Or blush to speak His name?

Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease?
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?

Sure I must fight, if I would reign
Increase my courage, Lord!
I'll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy word.

Thy saints, in all this glorious war,
Shall conquer, though they die;
They view the triumph from afar,
And seize it with their eye.

When that illustrious day shall rise,
And all Thy armies shine
In robes of victory through the skies,
The glory shall be Thine.

From, Am I a Soldier of the Cross? by Isaac Watts.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Dr. Garry E. Milley is an ordained PAOC minister, author, and speaker.

About the author