Suffering and the seemingly cold hand of God

I almost missed it. Repeatedly, I had read the text I would be preaching this Sunday; reading and re-reading it until the details were firmly etched in my heart and mind. This was what I had been taught to do. Pastor Tom always implored me to so thoroughly saturate my head and heart with the text that when it came time to preach, the message would flow.

This repetition clarified the major themes of Mark 9:14-29. The message of faith, humility, and grace are strong in this account. I was encouraged as these trickles of truth fed the streams that became tributaries to the message of the Gospel. Feeling very good about it all, I settled into the task of taking truth and developing a sermon.  In that moment though, I was hit with a detail while small and seemingly insignificant, began to unravel the entire process. Read the text and see if you can spot it…

Mark 9:14-29 (NASB95)
14 When they came back to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them.
15 Immediately, when the entire crowd saw Him, they were amazed and began running up to greet Him.
16 And He asked them, “What are you discussing with them?”
17 And one of the crowd answered Him, “Teacher, I brought You my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute;
18 and whenever it seizes him, it slams him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth and stiffens out. I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it.”
19 And He answered them and said, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me!”
20 They brought the boy to Him. When he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth.
21 And He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood.
22 “It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!”
23 And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.”
24 Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”
25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was rapidly gathering, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You deaf and mute spirit, I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again.”
26 After crying out and throwing him into terrible convulsions, it came out; and the boy became so much like a corpse that most of them said, “He is dead!”
27 But Jesus took him by the hand and raised him; and he got up.
28 When He came into the house, His disciples began questioning Him privately, “Why could we not drive it out?”
29 And He said to them, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.”

In case you didn’t see what brought my study to a halt, let me help you.

20 They brought the boy to Him. When he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth.
And He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?”
And he said, “From childhood.

What was Jesus doing? Here is a boy who is suffering. According to the gospel record, he isn’t merely suffering; he is being tortured by a demonic power. The boy is suffering mental and physical anguish, not to mention the humiliation of being a public spectacle. Yet, in spite of this, Jesus looks on with only minimal concern (at best) while resuming His conversation with the boy’s father.

Just like that, grace, kindness, and mercy seemed to vanish. Who is this Jesus that can idly watch a young boy suffer, while at the same time engaging in apparently unimportant conversation? At the very least it would be quite natural to judge Jesus that His priorities are just a bit out of kilter. It is a picture that needs addressed as we routinely ask the same question, “Jesus, don’t you care that I am hurting?”

As I begin to examine this further, some points came into focus with crystal clarity.

1)            The boy was not in any real danger.

Jesus had the situation completely under control. Jesus had commanded for the boy to be brought to Him, not to be made a spectacle of, but for healing (vss. 17-19). Jesus had previously demonstrated there was nothing that couldn’t be redeemed, healed, and corrected by His command. With Jesus, not even death was permanent. Whatever the damage the demon could do would be fully nullified and restored to wholeness by the Savior. As a former colleague used to remind me, there is no safer place to be than in the place God has you.

2)            Jesus sees what is eternal. We tend to be distracted by the temporal.

There was something much bigger, something more at stake than earthly, human suffering. The issue for Jesus was one of faith. When Jesus arrived on the scene his disciples were arguing with the scribes, presumably about their inability to cast out the demon that was terrorizing the stricken child. The father himself, having brought his son to the disciples without any success, began questioning Jesus’ ability to relieve his child of his tormentor.

The priority for Jesus though, was one of faith; both for the father and the disciples. The child’s suffering was temporary and earthly. Jesus was concerned with drawing out faith from the father because it is only through faith that his eternity would be secured. Too often we see Jesus as first and foremost the healer of our earthly pain. We tend to think of the outcast, hurting, needy, and afflicted that Jesus came to save simply within the time-space continuum. Jesus came not because that is our physical state, but is our spiritual state.

The disciples needed a faith lesson as well. Their inability to deal with the demon was their own crisis of faith. It was imperative for them to see their need in the same way the father did. If they were going to follow Jesus and be faithful in “taking up their cross” (cf. Mark 8:34-38) they had to be as dependent upon the Lord as the father had to be. They needed to learn the lesson of humility of faith expressed by the father when he cried, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

3)            Jesus used the son’s suffering to bring his father to faith.

An overwhelming burden for those who suffer is that of waste. Those who suffer want to know there is value and profit in their suffering.  Suffering can seem much like the person who sacrifices, scrimps, and saves for retirement only find they have been swindled out of it all and their sacrifices were for naught and now they have nothing.

As precious moments slipped by and the boy continued to suffer, Jesus brought the man to the point of faith. What probably felt like an eternity of interrogation by Jesus as the man watched his beloved son writhe in anguish bore eternal fruit as the man was brought to the point of humility before Jesus and confessed his need. Recognizing that his faith in Jesus was weak and inadequate, He begged Jesus to supply what was utterly lacking in him. At that moment, when saving faith was secured, Jesus mercifully intervened on the child’s behalf, fully restoring life to him.

Whether the child ever understood what had transpired is open only to speculation. On this side though, we see that Jesus used the child’s suffering to bring his father to faith.

When we suffer, there is no promise that we will see the “why”. Faith says even if we never know all the details or have all our questions answered, our suffering is not because God is not good, that He is unable, or that He doesn’t care. God’s eternal purposes are bigger than our earthly existence can ever imagine, and as Peter wrote years later, “…he who believes in Him will not be disappointed…” (1st Peter 2:6).

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