God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life.
That message isn't mentioned in pass-along tracts or in bestselling books. It isn't proclaimed in praise choruses or PowerPoint sermons. We've heard plenty about the god-of-the-wonderful-plan and the god-of-possibility-thinking. Recently we've been told to follow Our Bliss, which is another god disguised as the True God. And in every age, lots of people follow the god-who-will-do-well-by-me-if-I-do-well-by-him.
But the God who plans to make our lives difficult? And if he really loves us, he makes our lives really difficult?
Yet according to the Gospels, especially Mark, this seems to be "the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ" (Mark 1:1, NRSV).
The Hazards of being loved
Good news seems to be written all over this beginning. According to Mark's account, the first remarkable event in Jesus' life is awash with affirmation. "You are my Son, the Beloved," says the heavenly voice. "With you I am well pleased" (1:11).
This voice literally "ripped open" the heavens to say this, as if he could hardly wait to visit a blessing on his Son. And then something heavenly settled on that tender frame. It looked like a dove—maybe like the dove that let Noah know that the drowned planet was getting a fresh start. Whatever it looked like, it was like the Spirit who hovered over the original creation, like something new, fresh, and vibrant was about to begin.
On top of that, Mark says that the words spoken to Jesus were very personal, very intimate. The Father speaks directly, perhaps affectionately to his Son: "You are my beloved."
"With you I am well pleased."
Again we hear echoes of the voice that looked over the splendor of the new creation and, on the bright dawn of the seventh day, pronounced, "It is very good."
Mark seems to be saying that Jesus is the beloved, upon whom heaven is showering blessing upon blessing, before whom the future spreads out in unimaginable possibility.
Is this not how the spiritual life begins for many of us?
We are "baptized" into the spiritual dimension. We discover God for the first time, or we accept Jesus as our personal Savior, or we are confirmed in the church. And for weeks, months, or even years, it's as if the heavens open up and the Spirit descends upon us. We relish Bible reading. Prayer is a continual joy. We gain deep insights into spiritual matters. And we actually enjoy going to church! In sermon and song and in the depths of our souls, we hear, we feel that we are loved, treasured, God's own—beloved!
Most Bible versions put a visual break—an extra space or new heading—after Jesus' baptism. As a result, we don't usually connect the baptism with what comes next. But there is no break in the ancient manuscripts. Immediately after the glorious baptism comes this:
"And immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness."
This is the same Spirit who just a moment earlier is the visible image of the Father's love, sent by the Father to show Jesus he is beloved, pleasing, a splendor to behold, symbolizing the pristine beginning of something wonderfully new.
Now this Spirit drives the beloved Son into the desert. Literally, in the Greek, Jesus was "cast out" from the warmth of home and friends, from comforts of town and village. He was denied even moral and spiritual support—the Torah, the synagogue, the wisdom of the town elders, even, it seems, the comfort of the heavenly Father's presence. He is driven into wilderness, deserted by love, to face a hostile adversary alone.
And not just any adversary, but the most powerful and sinister of enemies. Mark's version of Jesus' temptation doesn't tell us much about the strategy of this Evil One, at least as directly as do those of Matthew and Luke. For Mark it is enough to describe his fearsome incarnation: If the Spirit comes to Jesus in the form of a dove, Satanic temptation comes to him in the form of wild beasts.
This temptation was severe—40 days and 40 nights of fasting, that is, a thorough and complete period of rigorous self-denial. On top of that, there were those beasts. But what exactly were they? They could have been physical—boars, snakes, or whatever. But it could be that the beasts were not merely outside Jesus' body but also inside Jesus' head, like the experience of Antony of the Desert.
Antony was a young Egyptian Christian who, upon hearing the Scripture about forsaking wealth and family to follow Christ, did just that. Sometime around A.D. 285, he sold his possessions, put his sister into the care of friends, and walked out into the desert to pray and meditate to learn the spiritual life.
Athanasius, his biographer, describes not only his triumphs but also his most severe temptations. In one series of hallucinations, it seems that Antony's sanity was on the line: "The demons … were changed into forms of beasts and reptiles," Athanasius writes. "The place was immediately filled with the appearance of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, and serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of these moved in accordance with its form. The lion roared, wanting to spring at him; the bull seemed intent on goring; the creeping snake did not quite reach him; the onrushing wolf made straight for him—and altogether the sounds of all the creatures that appeared were terrible, and their ragings were fierce."
Don't many of our temptations take such forms? Do we not sometimes hear the roar of condemnation for past sins, feel gored by remorse, and sense hope itself slip away because of the terrible and fierce ragings within? Indeed, if Jesus was tempted in every way like us, he was surely tempted by wild beasts just as fierce.
Be that as it may, Mark seems to be saying something startling in his stark account: God so loved his Son that he sent him into a kind of hell.
He did this to Jesus, his beloved?
The mind reels. A love that casts out? A love that withdraws all loving presence? A love that drives us to the limits of sanity?
During World War II, a Russian brigadier commander called a captain to his headquarters and immediately asked him for his pistol. The captain suspected nothing and handed it over to him. Immediately from a corner of the room, two counterintelligence officers bounded across the floor and grabbed the captain, tearing at the star on his cap, his shoulder boards, his officer's belt.
"You are under arrest!" they shouted.
"Me? For what?"
Indeed, for what? He was the son of a patriot, a man who had served his nation in World War I. He himself had served with distinction for four years, having just ten days earlier led his reconnaissance battery nearly intact under heavy fire.
All he had wanted to be in his youth was a writer. The early death of his father required him to be of more practical help to his mother, and he earned a mathematics degree. He had been teaching physics in a high school and taking a correspondence course in writing when he was called up for service in 1941. The war was now drawing to a close, and he looked forward to returning to his teaching, to his writing, and to his wife. For what, then, had he been arrested?
Usually, the reasons for arrest remained unspoken, but as the captain was being led away, the commander ordered him to come back and hinted at the charge.
"You have a friend on the First Ukrainian Front?"
The captain immediately knew the problem. He had written a school friend criticizing Joseph Stalin. And given the oppressive climate of 1940s Russia, his hopes for a normal life vanished. He was to face eight years in prison and then decades of exile from his homeland.
The habitually severe commander, realizing what lay before the captain, mustered up a measure of pity, saying, "I wish you happiness, Captain."
The arrested captain became Nobel Prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, arguably one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, the author of the massive The Gulag Archipelago, which brought to the world's attention the ravages of Soviet communism.
In volume two of the book, he described a moving encounter with a Christian inmate and his subsequent murder, and how that startled him out of his self-pity. In a poem, he depicted his life before prison as one of pride and self-assurance, and then he noted how close he came to death, both physical and spiritual. He admitted that it wasn't because of "good judgment" or "desire" that he became aware, but only by "the even glow of the Higher Meaning." He concluded,
"And now with measuring cup returned to me,
Scooping up living water,
God of the Universe! I believe again!
Though I renounced You, You were with me!"
Solzhenitsyn believes that the most significant consequence of his suffering was a renewed relationship with God. But he also mentioned something more that God's angels did for him.
"It would seem that in this situation," he wrote, "feelings of malice, the disturbance of being oppressed, aimless hate, irritability, and nervousness ought to multiply. But you yourself do not notice how, with the impalpable flow of time, slavery nurtures in you the shoots of contradictory feelings.
"Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. And you praised people with equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your uncategorical judgments. You have come to realize your own weaknesses—and you can therefore understand the weaknesses of others.
"Your soul," he concluded, "which formerly was dry, now ripens from suffering."
Much suffering indeed grants us a renewed spiritual vitality and strengthened character—this is a commonplace almost, though one that has to be learned again and again. The shortcomings of this view of suffering are two-fold. First, some suffering, like painful disease that leads to death, doesn't always fit neatly into the character-building theme, and so remains a deep mystery. Second, this view of suffering, if left by itself, makes suffering ultimately about us. But there is a better way.
In a New York Times opinion piece, Tom Downey defended the hazing that firemen endure when they enter the ranks of that noble profession. Downey is a documentary filmmaker and a writer who studied New York City firefighters to prepare for a project. New recruits earn the respect of veterans, he explained, "by enduring the silent treatment, tolerating jeers about their masculinity and bravery," and performing menial tasks like taking out the garbage and cleaning toilets.
Like soldiers, he explained, firefighters see things that nobody else wants to: burnt bodies, anguished people who have lost their dearest possessions, best friends dead at an early age—and then these firemen have to somehow put these experiences on a mental shelf and go home and be good husbands and fathers. "Make no mistake," Downey said, "this is a job that exacts a tremendous psychological toll."
Add to that the physical toll of smoke headaches, sore joints, cuts and bruises from smashing in doors and windows, lungs filled with black mucus, and a nausea that can make a man bend over and vomit. He described one veteran who dragged a crib out of a room so hot that the crib melted in his hands, and another who badly scorched his lungs when he ran into a burning room without an air tank to save a young man.
Communities need men like these, men willing to risk life or serious injury in order save others. "Amid all the hazing," Downey wrote, "firefighters are really seeking an answer to a simple question: Is this the guy I want coming down the hallway for me if I get trapped in a burning building?"
The banter that flies across the kitchen table at firehouses can be crude, and no doubt hazing in general can step over the line. But, Downey argues, the taunts strengthen and prepare the men for working in danger.
"A firefighter who can keep his cool in the kitchen," he said, "is more likely to remain level-headed when things go horribly wrong at a fire."
To Rescue the Perishing
It is not an accident that right after Mark notes that the angels minister to Jesus, he tells us that Jesus goes forth into Galilee preaching, teaching, and healing. In other words, by God's design, his misery prepared him for his ministry.
The writer of Hebrews put it this way: "Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested" (Heb. 2:18).
Paul talks about this in one of his letters: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction" (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
It's one reason Solzhenitsyn was able to go on to write and speak and embolden millions to fight tyranny despite insufferable conditions and insurmountable odds of doing so from the heart of the Gulag.
Suffering is our preparation for ministry in a world of suffering—all manner of suffering: from the trivial irritations of daily life to paralyzing accidents, from family squabbles to church splits, from the ravages of sexual slavery to the countless deaths of innocents at the hands of cruel dictators. This is not a world for shallow people with soft character. It needs tested, toughened disciples who are prepared, like their Lord, to descend into hell to redeem the lost.
Many of the difficulties that God sometimes directs and sometimes permits in our lives are not about us. God's got the whole world in his mind, and he is looking for people who are keeping that world foremost in their minds, as well.
Often when I present this line of thought to friends, when I emphasize what suffering does for us and others, someone will invariably joke, "Ah yes, but who really wants to grow in character and love?" We all chuckle, but we are only relieving the tension of having just recognized again the selfishness that grips us.
Paul had a deeper perspective: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death" (Phil. 3:10). That first part I love: to know the power of Christ's resurrection. But how casually I ignore the truth that I can never know Christ's life and power unless I come also to know suffering and death.
This is part of what it means to become holy, to be refined by fire. Difficulties and sufferings are God's form of hazing. Sometimes it gets so bad, we think him cruel. But he's only looking for men and women who will keep their cool when things go horribly wrong, a people prepared to dash into burning rooms to rescue those about to be engulfed in flames.
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today. The article is a condensed excerpt from his forthcoming book, Jesus Mean and Wild: Why We Need the Holiness of Christ (Baker, 2005).
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today and other magazines to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
Verses referenced in this article are available on this BibleGateway page.
The Catholic Encyclopedia has a biography of St. Anthony of the Desert.
Our sister publication, Christian History & Biography has an article on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The website Pegasos, a literature resource site, also has a biography of Solzhenitsyn.
The Gulag Archipelago is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
"Hazing and Heroism" by Tom Downey is available on the author's website for his book, The Last Men Out.
Other Christianity Today articles on suffering include:
Wind of Terror, Wind of Glory | We cannot know God's majesty without his terrible holiness.
The Joy of Suffering in Sri Lanka | How Christians thrive in the land where ethnic and religious strife is always just around the corner. (Sept. 29, 2003)
Why Suffering? | A young director's documentary is thin on theology but rich with compassion. (June 13, 2002)
Reflections: Suffering & Grief | Quotations to stir the heart and mind. (May 20, 2002)
Reflections: Suffering | Quotations to stir heart and mind (Sept. 13, 2001)
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