Before Christmas, in my daily devotions, I read the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, I’ll call them Zee and Liz, the married couple featured in Luke, in the prelude to the announcement of Jesus’s birth. We find out a lot about them in just a few sentences. They were seniors–“very old” is how they’re described. Zechariah was a priest by vocation. In fact, both he and his wife were descendants of Aaron, Levites who, according to the Word, “were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” They were also childless.
So, Zechariah was at work doing his priestly thang, sniffing the sweet fumes of incense in the presence of the Lord and an angel appeared. Of course, Zechariah was startled, probably questioning the nature of the incense, and rightly so. We see a lot of crazy things in movies these days, but can you imagine? Not only was Gabriel the Angel of the Lord standing there, radiant, in all his heavenly vestments, but he had a mind-blowing message to deliver. Hey, Zechariah, guess what? Elizabeth isn’t barren after all.
Isn’t that a curious thing? A couple who was so devoted to God, the Bible says they were above reproach, God Himself deemed them good and yet they were unable to experience God’s blessing when it came to children. This couple lived in a culture where having a family was the ideal. No doubt, when Elizabeth was getting on in years and pregnancy had eluded her, there were tongues clucking around her. It could be that the gossips went on to fresher, juicier stories when Elizabeth had slipped past the point of conception, but it was evident she still felt the shame of her failed body. The Bible said she existed in a state of disgrace. An article I read recently said barrenness was considered a curse. How could these two shiny folks be cursed? Now, we know the end of the story, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Gabriel effectively told Zechariah, ‘Your prayers have been answered’. These devout folks must have been praying for a child for years. Were they ever tempted to give up? Did they grow to resent God, as their prayers were met with silence, as the deepest longings of their hearts were denied, as they watched their peers raise their families? When Gabriel shared the news, is it a wonder that Zechariah doubted? Zechariah’s response was to state the obvious, ‘We’re old’. He was trying to reason it out. It almost seems unfair that he was penalized when he was being asked to believe the unbelievable. I’m sure there weren’t too many old, pregnant ladies going to the market for pickles in that day.
It sounds like these good people suffered for a long time. There’s suffering that we create ourselves, the consequences of our misguided or bad behavior, suffering that happens to us, as in Zee’s and Liz’s case, where there isn’t much we can do but rail against it or shrug our shoulders and accept it, and suffering at the hands of others. Natural disasters are a little harder to understand, though I’m certain the way we treat our planet has a lot to do with such catastrophes, but suffering meted out by others shouldn’t be a shock. If one wants free will, then suffering via other human beings is inevitable. There are people who believe suffering in general is unfair and shouldn’t be part of a world created by a God who calls Himself love. How could a loving God allow people to suffer so, especially the innocent ones? They’re ok with a bad guy getting the bad that he deserves, but not with the good guys not getting the good they deserve, but the bad they don’t deserve.
First of all, I’m not sure we deserve anything except fair pay for the work we do. We’ve become so entitled in this culture, yammering about our rights. When we get stepped on, we’re sure to let everyone know about it, but few are as concerned about the rights of others as they’re their own. It might do us good to get what we deserve and then some. We might change our attitudes. We’d be better to approach life in a spirit of humility and gratitude and be thankful for what we have and whatever good comes are way. Matt. 5:45b says, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” God blesses everyone. He also allows us all, in his benevolent wisdom, to suffer. He allows it. He doesn’t cause suffering, nor does he punish us with suffering. We’re more than capable of bringing it on ourselves. Read the Bible and you’ll encounter a suffering extravaganza! From Adam to Job to Noah to Abraham to David to Jesus to the disciples, they all suffered. None was exempt. The book of Hebrews says Jesus learned obedience through His suffering. If the Son of God had to suffer, why would we expect not to?
A podcast I was listening to by Timothy Keller said that Christianity is the only religion to intimate that good comes from suffering. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t say suffering was good. It’s not. It’s at its best challenging and at its worst hell! Suffering is an admittedly wretched part of our fallen human condition. The Bible tells us in James 1:2-4 and Romans 5:1-5 that we’re to revel in our trials, which is such an odd command, most unnatural, especially when one suffers due to evil perpetrated by others, experiencing deep wounds that are difficult to heal. (I encourage you to read these verses in case you think I’m making this up!) Our response to any sort of lack or crisis or hurt, depending on the severity and the day, usually ranges from minor irritation to unhelpful ruminating to overwhelming sadness and deep depression to shock and distress to fits of rage to exasperated breakdown and in many cases, rightly so. We’re not throwing a party when something stinks around us, we’re more likely to light the place on fire or quell our emotions until we blow up on some poor unsuspecting soul at the grocery store. Rather than overreacting or withdrawing or lashing out and hurting others or becoming hardened and bitter or enthusiastically embracing victimhood, we’re to recognize suffering as the teacher/personal trainer that it is and label it a joyous opportunity to depend on God more fully. It’s a chance for growth not a “situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful” which is the partial definition of the word ‘problem’ according to Oxford Languages. We’re to welcome suffering as the doorway to strength, good character, and maturity. This is hard stuff! This would seem an impossibility in many circumstances and yet, there are people in this world who have triumphed in the face of unthinkable suffering demonstrating the indomitability of the human spirit and, as Christians, we believe what the Word tells us that nothing is impossible with God.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a minor incident where these verses applied. One of our vehicles wouldn’t start the day before I had planned to go hiking. I was instantly disappointed, before we even knew what was wrong with our van. We had called the Alberta Motor Association to come give us a jump to see if the battery was the problem and were waiting in a hamburger joint. Over my burger and fries, my disappointment began to escalate. I talked about renting a car, a costly endeavor, and not really an option financially, but I was so frustrated. When my husband became perturbed with me and my agitation, I took a pause. I remembered that I was supposed to be taking joy and I was not. As it turned out, it was just the battery and my upset was pointless and ridiculous, a first world problem, to be sure. I’ve got a lot to learn. Lord, have mercy.
I will say this, it’s never good to compare ourselves to others in any way, suffering included. I’ve had my own struggles, some of which I haven’t shared here, and they’re as valid as anyone’s. I’ve seen the deleterious effects of my suffering on my husband and children. Do I wish it hadn’t happened? Yes, I wish my suffering didn’t cause others to suffer, but no, because I can’t go back and what I learned from suffering was valuable and made me who I am, and I’ve come a long way. So, suffering isn’t good, but learning from mistakes and growth and healing and letting go and forgiveness is. I do recognize, though, that I live a very cushy life. I see what’s happening currently in Ukraine, Turkey, and Syria and my heart is broken. Whenever we see suffering, it’s our job as human beings to relieve it. I pray for God’s love, provision, strength, and healing to be present in those situations and for the cessation of suffering for all those involved.
Thankfully, the God of love doesn’t give up on us, even when we aren’t quick to learn the lessons any amount of suffering has to teach us. Philippians 1:6 says, “being confident in this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Transformation isn’t like taking a pill and expecting the effect twenty minutes later, it’s a process. We’re transformed as we draw near to God and yield to Him in every moment of every day, be it good or bad. He is that good. He can use the rotten to turn us into something glorious (2 Corinthians 3:18).
According to scripture, it seems that Zee and Liz handled their suffering, their want, with patience and faithfulness. They waited on God, trusting He had a plan for their lives they couldn’t see and were blessed in their old age with a son who the angel promised would bring them “joy and delight” (Luke 1:14). Not only this, but, according to Jesus, “among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11) and John would be a catalyst for good leading people to repentance and renewed faith. God gave this couple much more than they could’ve imagined and it seems fitting considering their exemplary way of life, but we mustn’t make inferences based on their story. The bible never promises that if we follow Jesus, if we obey, that we won’t suffer, and that we’ll be certain to get what we want. It does tell us about people of faith like Moses who didn’t get what they longed for but remained faithful regardless. It also assures us that we belong to a comforting God who comes to us in our pain and equips us, through our own suffering, to comfort others in turn. When my oldest daughter was a baby, she used to get ornery in the evening. Sometimes, when my husband had a meeting and it was only she and I in the house, I would turn down the lights and play a beautiful, soft song and hold her close to me and we would sway to the music, and she would invariably settle down. I like to think that God is with us in this same way in our suffering, holding us in our distress, bringing us to blessed rest and peace.
The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is read at Christmastime, but it’s a lesson I need oft repeated. Suffering is inevitable no matter who one is, but suffering is redeemable. Good can spring from the unlikely ground of suffering, if we give it to God and wait on Him. I believe this and have experienced it. Heavenly Father, you who made us and love us and want what’s best for us, we trust you. Comfort and relieve our suffering. Help us not to be crushed by it but give us the grace to bear up under it and bring about your intended good for us and the world. Prepare and spur us on to alleviate the suffering of others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Good can spring from the unlikely ground of suffering, if we give it to God and wait on Him.
Pictures from this post were made by combining/editing my pics and AI generated images from Picsart, except for the last one where I combined one of my images with an image from Pexels. AI generated art is all the buzz now. It seems people are afraid that it will get so good that no one will want art made by mere human beings. When making these images, even when feeding the generator very descriptive detail, I still found many of the images to be mutated, creepy or scary, but I have seen accounts on Instagram where the images are rather incredible. We shall see! Posts come out when I feel like it. 😀 Scroll down to the bottom of the page to follow me or sign up to receive my posts via email. Listen to my posts on Spotify. Follow me on Instagram. Take a peek at my Redbubble store: Pollyeloquent.redbubble.com. Thank you for giving me some of your precious time!