Misreading our Pain

The story of Balaam is one of those accounts that we have a hard time learning from simply because of the strange miracle that occurs. WE find ourselves fascinated by the events, and we focus on the supernatural rather than considering the principles.

As I was reading through this text, I found myself considering, not the talking donkey, but the circumstances of Balaam, his anger, and the Lord’s providence. And I believe that such a consideration would be good for any of us.

If you do not recall the story, a pagan king sent for Balaam to ask him to pronounce a curse over the people of Israel. As Balaam travels toward his meeting with the king of Moab, the Lord sets an angel in the pathway. Balaam’s donkey, enabled by God to see the angel, moves off the path to avoid the angel two separate times. During one of those detours, Balaam’s foot gets squished up against a wall. Finally, the donkey sees the angel in a narrow place, and refuses to carry Balaam any further forward, refusing to walk him to his death.

So, as is familiar, Balaam begins to beat his donkey for its supposed disobedience. And God allows the donkey to speak to Balaam. That Got Balaam’s attention, and then the Lord allowed Balaam to see the angel in the path threatening his very life.

Numbers 22:31-35 – 31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. 32 And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live.” 34 Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.” 35 And the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.” So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak.

OK, we could get really excited debating the merits of talking donkeys. But how foolish is that. If you are willing to accept the presence of an angel, if you are willing to accept the existence of God—a God who once spoke to Moses through a bush—you should have no problem accepting that the Lord could speak through a donkey to a stubborn man. But the method of God’s speaking here is not the main point. The fact that God will be in control, the fact that God will not allow Balaam to accomplish a task outside of God’s parameters, the fact that God will sovereignly protect his people from Balaam’s curse, that is what is at stake here.

But I also think there is a lesson for you and me living our Christian lives today. Three times in this account, Balaam experienced painful inconvenience. He was frustrated. He was angry. He did not understand. It made him want to lash out. But the moment Balaam was allowed to see what was really happening, he fell on his face and confessed sin.

I wonder how often you and I experience painful inconvenience. We get mad. We get depressed. We want to lash out. But we also seldom get to see what the Lord is doing behind the scenes. In Balaam’s case, God was protecting his people, and in a way protecting Balaam, from Balaam’s folly. What God was doing was good. What God was doing was loving and kind. And just because Balaam was not in a position to see that does not change the perfection of God.

What pain and struggles are you facing? Do you actually think that you know all that the Lord is doing through your pain? From what is God protecting you ? Toward what is God shaping you? Be careful wanting to get out a stick and beat on something that the Lord may be using to save your life or strengthen your soul.

Balaam misread his pain. He did not understand, and he lost his cool over it. You and I often do not understand what the Lord is doing behind the scenes either. May we trust the Lord enough to believe that he is using all things for our good, even our frustrations. May we remember that the goal of our lives is our being conformed into the image of Christ. But may we also remember that sometimes a little heat and a little pain is often needed for that form to take shape.

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Only Eternity Helps

There are many promises made in Scripture, promises of the great care and kindness of God. We see promises that the Lord makes that his people will have life and good days. We see promises of healing and preservation.

But, what about the world we live in? We do not, in our world, always see the rescue that the Scripture promises. What then do we do?

If the Scripture promises us a rescue from God, but then we do not seem to experience that rescue, we have a couple of choices. Primarily, we can choose to believe that something is wrong with the Scripture, or something is wrong with our understanding. Since Scripture is the revelation of the Holy God, inspired, inerrant, true in all it intends to teach us, we ought not assume that the problem is in the word. And that leads us to measure our understanding of and interpretation of that word.

Take the words of David here as an example. Consider what appears to be said. And then consider what we really must take from the text.

Psalm 34:19-22

19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
20 He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
21 Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Take this first on the surface without attempting to consider context or reality. It looks like the Psalm is promising us safety in all circumstances. God will not let the bad guys get us. God will not let our bones be broken. God will judge the wicked and rescue the children of God.

But, is that the experience of folks living in a fallen world? No, it is not. Pain crosses the path of the evil and of those who seem to follow the Lord. In many countries, Christians are brutally persecuted. Their bones are surely broken, and often their lives are forfeit. And it looks like the bad guys are getting away with everything.

One side note on the interpretation of this text, by the way, is that it prophesies Jesus. He had none of his bones broken. John noticed this and highlighted it for us in John 20:36. But we cannot say that Jesus did not suffer. What we find out is that, though Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sins of others, Jesus rose from the grave and lives eternally. His eternity of glory is the rescue that the Psalmist was writing of.

And for Christians living in a hard world, the concept of rescue in eternity is the key to dealing with these promises. If we do not have forever, if this life is all there is, then it looks like something is untrue in the promises of Scripture. But if we have forever, if we will live again after we die, if there is an eternity on the other side of this life, we can see the promises intact. How are we redeemed and kept from harm? In Christ, we are preserved. None of Christ’s bones were broken. In Christ, when we are raised from the dead, we will apply that text to ourselves, knowing that we live because of Christ. WE will see that, even if we die at the hands of evil men bent on persecution, we were not eternally harmed.

Christians, the Lord delivers us out of all afflictions. That does not mean that he keeps us from harm or death. Instead, it means something far better. He preserves us eternally. In Christ, he forgives us, keeps us, and brings us a resurrection. That resurrection will be to perfection, an eternity of joy without any sort of failing or sin. How can we know this will be ours? The fact that God raised Jesus from the dead is one piece of evidence. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is another evidence. Our hope is not in comfort and protection in this life. Our hope is in the promise of eternity. That is Christian hope. And that hope helps us to see that all of God’s promises in his word will come to pass, even if this world is hard.

Two Thoughts on Comfort and Afflictions

A passage that has always been beautiful to me is the opening of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. There Paul speaks, in that first paragraph after the greeting, of the comfort of God that is ours in affliction. And there Paul reminds us that God comforts us so that we too may comfort others with the comfort we have received.

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 – 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 7 Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

Let me quickly remind us of one lovely and one hard truth that we should see in this passage. On the lovely side, we have our God comforting us and letting us comfort others with the same comfort we have received. When you hurt, when you struggle through something to the glory of God, when God helps you, one thing you can know is that the comfort he has given you is not yours alone. Your pain, even when it seems to have no purpose, can at least be to testify to the comfort of Christ and to share that comfort with others who are going through similar pains. This is good. It is good to know that our pain is never useless. It is good to know that our comfort is part of how we can be connected to the people of God.

But then there is the harder side of this. If this is beautiful; if it is a good thing that God’s children are comforted by God in their afflictions, the truth must be clear that Christians will face afflictions in which they will need comfort. In short, we will hurt in this life. Being a Christian does not put that to a stop. And we are foolish if we think that being saved is somehow going to be our way out of hardship and pain in the here and now.

The reason that I highlight this harder truth is that I know that, for myself at least, when I hurt, I really want to cry out against it. I want to let God know that he shouldn’t be letting me feel this way. He should not let me go through hardships. After all, I am his child. But the Lord, when we read Scripture with honest and open eyes, shows us that, lives surrendered to him are lives that will walk through pain. After all, how can we rejoice in being comforted in all our affliction’s if the Lord does not allow afflictions to touch us?

Friends, sometimes God is more glorified when he comforts us in times of affliction than when he keeps us from pain. This is a truth that we need to keep alive in our brains so that our hearts are not bewildered when pain comes. But the great news is that, in all afflictions, the Lord does comfort us and give us the ability to use that comfort to proclaim his glory and spread his healing in the church.

Suffering and an Eternal Mindset

In Romans 8, Paul speaks to us about hardships. He knows that people in this present age are suffering. Christians are facing and will face persecution. Believers will, at different seasons of history, be impoverished by their inability to participate in sinful activities in the lands in which they live. And, of course, believers, like all other people, face the hardships of living in this world: crime, disease, natural disasters, war, poverty, etc.

How are we to deal with knowing that this life is often so hard? Note what Paul said in his letter.

Romans 8:18 – For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

One answer to surviving the hardships of this life is what we see Paul say right here. The suffering we face, sufferings that are real and tremendously painful, are not worth even comparing to the glories to come. We have here a simple analysis of the pain of the present as compared to the glory and peace of the future. And Paul tells us, God tells us through Paul, that the glories to come will so far outstrip the pain of today that there is simply no comparison.

If your pain could be measured on a scale, it might reach some pretty high numbers. Let us pretend that there is a scale for human suffering that tops out at 100 points. You may have experienced some 75 point pains. Some of you may have reached something near the top of the scale. Others of you may have barely hit a 10.

Now imagine that there is a glory scale where one point of glory is equal in value to a point of suffering. What would it mean, when you look at your suffering score, to know that a million points of joy and glory are yours in the future? What would it mean that the score is even greater, a billion, a trillion, an infinity worth of joy and peace and life? This is what God wants you to get. No matter how much pain you face in the here an now, that pain will be dwarfed by the immeasurable joy and life you will have with God.

Christians are a supernatural people. When we think properly, we have our minds set on the eternity to come far more than on the pain of the present. We do not pretend that pain in this life is not real. But, when we get it right, we also remember that there is no pain in this life that can even put a dent in the joy of eternity. We live for the joy of the infinite glory of God. We are promised that we will experience his heart-filling, joy-inducing, perfect presence forever as we live lives of absolute bliss after this life is over. Our hope is there, not here. And when we have our minds properly set there, the pains of this life, though very real, fall into perspective and we survive in hope of what is to come.