While I am writing this essay, I am still under the spell of last night’s magnificent performance of the Elijah in the Marktkirche, of Hanover, Germany. Listening to the choir brought memories of past days, when as a member of the Andrews University chorus, I, too, was singing Felix Mendelssohn’s famous oratorio in the Pioneer Memorial Church. “Blessed are the men who fear Him,” “Baal, we cry to thee,” and “Thanks be to God!” These were unforgettable moments in my life, and even more so in the history of God’s ancient people.
Fighting with God over a name? The actual outcome of the struggle between Jacob and God was a name change, from Jacob to Israel. Is this the expected outcome when we commit to struggle with God? A name, your name, particularly in Hebrew, ancient near eastern ways was a key thing (that is, it defined your history, your character). Jacob meant liar, cheater, usurper, the one who deceived his brother and father.
My early life on a farm taught me that there is only one way to control a large bull. Even an animal that is quite feisty will follow submissively if you lead him around by clipping a rod to the ring in his nose. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. The trick, of course, is to remain safe while you’re getting close enough to clip onto the ring, let alone getting a ring into his nose in the first place!
The year was 608 before the Common Era. Jehoiakim was king of Judah. Judah was a little jewel that the kings of the south (Egypt) and north (Syria, Assyria, and Babylon) coveted. To keep his head and his throne Jehoiakim, had to play diplomatic games with his greedy neighbors. Babylon was more than a thousand miles away, whereas Egypt was only three hundred miles away. The smart move would be to play footsy with the Pharaohs.
I am troubled by the general thesis of this week’s lesson that God purposefully leads us into situations that God foresees will cause us suffering, because God also sees how such situations may provide some greater benefit. A woman who worked with children once told me a story about one of her small clients that set forth the general tenure of my difficulty with such suggestions as well as any I have ever heard.
The task set for us this week is to examine the causes of the difficult times that we experience through our lives.
First we will sharpen the idea of “difficult times,” for not all difficult times are unpleasant and painful. Some might be readily endurable if not enjoyable, as, for example, what we endure when we see that we are accomplishing a desirable goal. We suffer pain to avoid further pain, as when we submit to the dentist or undergo painful medical treatment. We welcome some difficulties as a challenge to our strength and an opportunity for progress.
Suffering is a funny thing. It may sound strange to use the word funny as an adjective to describe suffering. Actually, the two words are oxymoronic! Suffering is often coupled with words like hard, painful, and difficult. The concept of suffering is totally contradictory to the first law of nature: self-preservation. No, funny is not a word that generally comes to mind when we think of suffering. However, I would like to offer a perspective that will, indeed, support the use of these two words in the same vein.