When Happiness Comes

Rick Ritchie
Friday, February 28th 2014
Mar/Apr 2014

Not long ago, I taught an online apologetics course for a Christian college where class was held in a chat room. The students were required to attend for a specified period of time and then were free to leave, though they were also free to stay around if they wished. Often, two or three would continue discussion with me after class. When it got down to one student, the subject was always some version of the same topic: the problem of evil. And these were not abstract questions. The students were really struggling with something difficult’perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime difficulty, something set apart from everyday life. This impressed upon me just how important a subject this is. And from observation, I know it is often handled poorly. Now there are a couple of sides to this. The first is whether the answers given are good ones’solid, biblical, cogent. The second is whether the answers given are helpful’pastoral, sensitive, timely. They should be both. Poor answers are common, often in both categories: bad theology given in insensitive ways. Scripture warns us against both kinds of errors.

Unhelpful "Helpers"

The unhelpful answer can often be identified by its tone. I get the impression that some who try to "help" fancy themselves to be like the kid on the playground who knows there is no Santa Claus and wants to spread the word to others. There's a self-congratulatory presentation of personal toughness. Now if only the listener could embody the same toughness, then everything will be okay.

This flies in the face of what has been revealed to us of the human condition. The Fall of man occurred when the first couple tried to make a power grab that would have placed them outside of any need for God. They were not created for it to work this way. The solution to this problem involves, among other things, a recognition of need. To try to make toughness the solution is to try to avoid the recognition of the problem. The "realistic" solution is actually a denial of reality, and the reality is that we are needy. We need things to be good and they aren't, and suffering makes us more aware of this. "Tough" people are often those who have found ways to mask one or another kind of pain that reality has thrown at them, and so imagine they can do this in the face of any kind of pain. Or at least they imagine they can do this in the face of your pain, which to them is probably less than that with which they have dealt. They think they know what you're going through, and this usually involves a lack of imagination. Healthy people imagine they can live without their health.

The Other "Answer": Happiness

Often what makes the problem of evil easier to bear is just the pain going away. We want answers to our questions so that we can bear up better. But when the pain ends, or is mitigated by happiness from a new source, our need for an answer might go away with the pain. This seems like a trick’or a sham. At the end of the book of Job, we find him getting all sorts of good things in his life once again. Modern readers point out that this doesn't make sense. You can't just replace people with other people. Maybe this helped an ancient person who never bonded with anyone very deeply, but it won't work for us!

But as correct as that is, I think there is truth in the account. When we're happy, we stop questioning’or at least our questions recede to the background. The question may still exist, and it may still exist unanswered for us. But we don't need the answer as badly. I do not say this as an answer for those in the midst of suffering. At least, it is no answer for them now. But it is worth knowing that this is sometimes how things get resolved. The universe no longer looks so dark.

Happiness is like this. It sounds less serious than an answer to our questions, but it changes things. Most of us have seen this in lesser ways’say, after the stomach flu. It seems as if we've been sick forever and nothing will ever feel right again. Then we're better and food is good again, and maybe even tastes better than before. Again, I don't think this is why things happen’to recharge our appetites’but this is often how we are. New happiness salves old wounds, and it comes out of the blue. This is as much part of human experience as the evils we endure. And it does say something about the goodness of God, even if we still have questions of justice.

In some ways, happiness as an "answer" to the problem is fitting. Ultimately, the answer to evil will be that God abolishes it. So in the short run, having evil fade when happiness comes is a sign of the shape of the final answer. When God wipes away every tear on the last day, we will be satisfied. While I think all will be explained, I think many of us would be happy at the restoration of all things, even without an answer. And our current experience seems to suggest this.

Happiness in this life is a sign. It is not all we need. It is a pointer to the fulfillment up ahead. There are some who may not have much earthly happiness before them. This is not a sign of disfavor, but rather an opportunity for God to show his power later. The biblical stories point to this. Zacharias and Elizabeth appeared to be cursed: his lot to serve in the temple never came up and she was childless; the neighbors must have asked themselves what notorious unconfessed sin they had committed. Did God do this to show disfavor? No, this was to show his power, that he is mighty to save, and they were given a child in their old age. But in a fallen world, even these signs have a bad side to them: they have a son and are blessed; he is famous and dies a horrible death.

Any good thing we have in this life will probably be tainted. While earthly happiness is a sign, it is not the solution. God's perfect gifts are up ahead. If you have had earthly happiness withheld, it was not out of divine miserliness. God had his reasons to make you wait. They probably had little to do with you. They probably had little to do with anything you were being taught (in my thinking, most people's ideas of lessons that God might be teaching us seem hardly worth the cost). They had to do with out-workings of mercy I won't venture to imagine, because I know I'm too clumsy and small minded to do so.

Hebrews tells us that he would be ashamed to be called our God if he didn't do better than what we see in this life. He has good plans, and since they are past finding out, none of us can imagine them. So if they seem a little unreal to you, it's because you cannot picture them. None of us can, beyond the glimpses given in Scripture. You may go to your grave with only the dimmest sense of this. God may even prefer it that way. This is not about your faith. Many pictures of faith are like the "toughness" I mentioned earlier. They really amount to a disguised picture of a human lack of neediness, an ability to feel good even when things are awful.

No, when things are awful, we need them to be better. Faith holds onto the God who can make them better, but not in such a way that we don't need anything. It doesn't fulfill our needs in the present; we do need things to be better. God is faithful and he will make it better for you, if not in this life, then up ahead. The worse your lot, the bigger a challenge he will have in doing this. He will live up to it.

The Fellowship of Loneliness

One surprising passage is found in Hebrews: "In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety" (5:7). Some might be tempted to say this was mostly about Jesus' intercession for us, which is possible. But we do know that in Gethsemane we have a recorded prayer in which Jesus asks the Father if there might be another way out. This is worth pondering at length. We often hear about the resignation, "Nevertheless, not my will but thine." This is a prayer we are asked to pray.

But as with so much teaching these days, the immediate move is to ask how we can be like Jesus before seeing what he has done for us. That should not be our first focus. To do so is to adopt what Martin Luther called a "theology of glory." Peter did this earlier that night when he announced his resolve to follow Jesus, even to death. He did indeed do that, but first he had to fail. Jesus is Savior before he is example. Hebrews is also clear on this and offers the passage as a comfort rather than a formula. It tells us about our High Priest, who does for us what we cannot do. And look at his humanity: Jesus enters his trial without an absolutely clear map of what will take place. On some level he does know, but I think we err when we imagine he's dipping into divine knowledge directly to find out how this will all happen. Rather, I think, he learned about it as we do’from the Scriptures.

Consider how Jesus had to grow in wisdom (Luke 2:52). As the Second Person of the Trinity, he possessed all wisdom. Yet as the second Adam, he had to grow in it’likewise with knowledge. There are some things he did not know (Mark 13:32), though his divine nature knows all. His human nature was limited and went through a process of learning, as do we. The natural reading of Jesus' prayer to the Father in Gethsemane suggests limited knowledge. He seemed to know how some things must happen, but without certainty. The Father knew what was possible (Matt. 26:39) in a way that the Son did not according to his human nature.

According to Jesus' own reading of the Scriptures, he could not see another way, but he knew this was not definitive. This tells us a lot. When he became our substitute, Jesus signed on not only to the physical suffering, but also the psychological suffering.

There were two parts to this. The first was an ability to hope for better than what would happen. This sounds good, but it also involves disappointment when the false hope fades. The other part was being in the dark, not knowing what was in store. When we endure evils, this is often the worst part. We can also imagine further evils that never come to pass. As bad as the cross was, Jesus was likely tortured with many imagined scenarios that never took place. And how vulnerable he was to the loneliness!

There is loneliness in suffering that most of us know but often forget. When suffering hits, we're suddenly alone. Even when surrounded by a caring congregation, we feel alone’perhaps more so. While in the past we've been able to come to church and join in the praise of God, we are no longer able to feel caught up in it. God has abandoned us to something we never pictured. The words of praise we now either feel to be false or, worse yet, only true for others. God is beautiful to them, but not to us. God is with them, but not us. We feel apart. Something is wrong. How did we get so removed from those gathered, and so quickly?

I suggest that this should be seen as a part of what Paul terms the "fellowship of his sufferings" (Phil. 3:10). This sounds like a happy thing: fellowship is togetherness, something we all desperately long for. We think of it as a happy bond that we've known around the campfire at summer camp, or during some church gathering after a major event in the life of the church. No, we don't fail to note a spiritual dimension. We might feel this most strongly after preaching. Some text brings to light our unity in the Lord.

But as true as this is of fellowship, it appears that the fellowship of sufferings is something else. I don't think St. Paul knew what he was praying for when he prayed. Did he know that he would later be reporting, "At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me" (2 Tim. 4:16)? His prayer was to be part of a fellowship, and it took the form of being deserted. This is no sign of divine disfavor. If there is a fellowship in this, things are very different from how we picture them. And it goes further. In Jesus' cry of dereliction, we find that he knew not only what it was to be forsaken by men, but also how it was to be forsaken by God. When we have times of feeling forsaken by God, in a paradoxical way, we have been let into a fellowship of suffering, a fellowship of suffering with the God we imagine we are far from.

To the Reader

To my happy readers, this may sound grim. Should you be searching for ways to make this happen? No, don't look for unhappiness. Perhaps the Lord has a different course in mind for your life. I will say, however, that on the Last Day there will be a bond of fellowship that the sufferers share.

To my sad readers, this may or may not make things better for you now. "I could believe this might be true of me if it made me feel better." It doesn't matter. You can go to your grave bitter and still find that something was working for you that you could not see. The Father knew that the sufferings of this life were not worthy of being compared to the glory up ahead. And part of that glory, for you, will be the fellowship of suffering. Your earthly afflictions, and even your feelings of being abandoned by God, will be a bond with your Lord.

Photo of Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy. com.
Friday, February 28th 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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