In September of 2018, the community of Redding, CA found themselves walking through the aftermath of a firestorm that had consumed over 1100 homes, taken 7 lives, and scorched over 164,000 acres of beautiful northern California landscape. Two months later the CAMP fire struck the community of Paradise, CA and surrounding area. Ranked as the most destructive fire in California history and the world’s costliest natural disaster in 2018, this fire took the lives of 85 individuals, destroyed nearly 19,000 structures and consumed over 150,000 acres of wildlife. Following both these events, residents were left dealing with the emotional toll this has taken on their lives.
These events cannot be spun into anything different than a tragic and even horrific experience for those suffering the effects. Events of this nature cannot be whitewashed in our attempts to bring solace and comfort to those suffering from them. The works of the devil, whose sole purpose is to kill, steal and destroy, must be fully recognized, even when manifested through what would be deemed natural catastrophes. People suffer at the hands of evil every day and no amount of “spiritualizing” these events can take away the personal pain, grief, and wrong that evil produces. The Bible calls us to weep with those who weep. We are called to empathize – to share in the suffering of others.
“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (Hebrews 10:32-34)
The pain and suffering which befalls us and others in this world is real and should not be minimized. There is a time to grieve. It is important to respect the need and time for others to grieve – to process their pain. Often the best thing we can do for those in pain is simply be with them – to stand by their side.
But God does not leave his children as victims to the effects of evil. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John16:33) At once, the children of God stand between two conflicting realities – trouble and triumph. Jesus never promised a pain-free, suffering-free existence in this life. That was not Christ’s experience as a man, nor has it been the experience of any of his followers since. However, he did usher in a greater reality through his death and resurrection. Christ triumphed over evil and he continues to do so in each of our lives by taking what the enemy intends for harm and working a far greater glory from it. Paul puts it this way, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Cor. 4:17)
A favorite verse quoted by many is Romans 8:28; “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.” Granted, we can offer this verse as a shallow platitude to someone going through a difficult situation hoping to bring comfort. Applying scripture in this way in a time of grief can miss the point altogether. In the immediate moment those suffering may just need us to sit quietly with them in their pain.
But this verse can also be wrongly construed to mean something it doesn’t – that God will work out every situation for good as I envision what good looks like for me circumstantially. In other words, this verse is often interpreted as though God will step in and change the bad circumstance to be in line with what I think is good. Now granted, what I think is good in the moment may very well be in line with the will and purposes of God. God is in the business of stepping in and reversing bad situations, manifesting his Kingdom and his will on earth and in my life, as it is in heaven. As followers of Christ we are called to believe, pray and act to see this become a reality. But in everything, God is always leveraging the bad, painful, challenging situation, for a deeper, internal work in my life.
This is the good Paul unfolds for us in the verses following Romans 8:28. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30). The good God is working for us is something he is doing in us. God is at work in every situation, good, bad, and ugly, to bring about a greater conformity of his Son in me. God’s heart is that his glory in my life would progressively increase as I am being transformed into his likeness through a deepening experience of him. In perspective, the light, momentary troubles we experience in this life are achieving an eternal, far greater glory for us.
But this divine exchange of trouble for glory does not happen automatically – without my participation, feeble and weak as it may be. I must lean in to how God is at work in my temporary circumstance to develop a greater measure of his glory in my life. I do this by bringing my heart to him, pain and all, in surrender. I authentically engage my heart with him. I position myself as his child, simply to receive from him. I come to him honestly, in my need, in my pain, in my grief. I caste my care on him and accept my weakness. I don’t need to know exactly what he is doing or how he is doing it. I just need him to create his version of good in me out of the fodder of a crappy, bad, or tragic situation. Something he is so very good at. I need to meet him in my pain and experience who he wants to be for me that only he can be in this situation.
You see, to live in the Kingdom now means to live in the tension of trouble and triumph. God wants me to prosper in every area of my life, including my circumstances. But unless I have a heavenly grid through which I view suffering and loss, I will flounder and perhaps miss the very thing God is using to achieve an eternal glory in me that far outweighs them all.
Christ in me, the hope of glory!