The School of Suffering
November 8, 1992
For me the most poignant scene of the recent presidential campaign took place last Monday night in Houston where George Bush was speaking in the final rally of his political career. During a long day that started in New Jersey he had hip-hopped across the mid-section of America, rallying the troops for one last charge to the finish line. Never mind that the polls showed him hopelessly behind, never mind that most people had already decided how they would vote, never mind that he was 68, dead tired, and running on sheer adrenalin.
Now the end had come in front of a cheering crowd in a rented hall. First there were the athletes and the entertainers—Arnold Palmer for one, and country music star Ricky Skaggs, and Moses himself dropped by in the person of Charlton Heston, all leading up to a brief appearance by Bob Hope.
Then the president took the stage. His words spoke of a come-from-behind miracle victory but his body spoke the language of defeat. His face lined, his voice a little hoarse, his eyes tired, he looked like a fighter who had been on the losing end of a 15-round heavyweight match.
He thanked many people, his voice breaking when he spoke of his wife Barbara. After only a few minutes he was finished. Then the cheering began—heart-felt and emotional, I thought, but not the wild elation of the winner’s locker room. Turning to Barbara, he hugged her and said something. Although we couldn’t hear the words, the whole nation could read his lips—”It’s all over.”
He looked relieved when he said it—like a man who has finally admitted the truth. Within 24 hours it would indeed be all over.
Reasons and Lessons
What happened? Why did he lose? It has been well said that “success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan.” When victory comes, how quick we are to take credit. But defeat? That’s another story. No one likes to stand up and say, “I blew it.” It’s easier to point fingers and play the blame game. When life begins to unravel at the seams, we frantically begin looking for a scapegoat … or at least for a reason. And if not for a reason, then for a lesson.
That’s what we’ve been hearing this week. Reasons and lessons. “Here’s why it happened and this is what we need to learn from it.” Without intending any political implications, I tend to think that the battered elephant has learned more than the triumphant donkey this week.
Life has a way of bringing us down, doesn’t it? Just when we think we’re riding a wave of success, it suddenly breaks, sending us crashing into the jagged rocks on the shoreline of hard reality. Some lessons endure, being repeated from one generation to the next:
Life is hard.
No one stays on top forever.
Into each life some rain must fall.
Perhaps the most important observation is this: We learn very little from success, but failure is a wonderful teacher. Ask anyone who’s ever gone bankrupt … or anyone who has gone through the agony of divorce … or experienced the pain of losing a job … or watched a loved one die slowly. In the dark moments of life, when time slows down to a crawl, when we sit in the waiting room while the minutes become hours, it is then that we begin to learn what life is all about. The rest is just fun and games.
I. Jacob’s Troubles
Jacob learned that in spades. Not once … or twice or even three times … but six times over he faced serious personal suffering. Each occasion came unannounced, unsought and unexpected. Each one brought its own unique and deeply personal pain. Through it all Jacob persevered in his faith. He proved in his own experience those famous words of Job, “He knoweth the way that I take. When he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” (Job 23:10)
All God’s children eventually enroll in the School of Suffering.
No one is exempt.
No one can “test out.”
No one can transfer to another school.
As his life drew toward its climax, we find Jacob facing a long series of personal crises—one right after another. In studying these crises, one is struck with the fact that all of them involve his family—his only daughter, his father, his wife, his oldest son, and ultimately his favorite son. Jacob was pre-eminently a family man, and his personal sorrows came very close to home.
A. Family Crisis 34
The first crisis started when Jacob decided to settle his family near the Canaanite city of Shechem. Dinah was Jacob’s only daughter; Shechem was the son of Hamor, king of the Hivites. Genesis 34:1 says that Dinah decided to visit the women of the land. When Shechem saw Dinah he slept with her. The text says he fell in love with her and wanted to marry her. This may well be the first case of date rape in the Bible. In retaliation Jacob’s sons deceived the Hivite men into being circumcised and while they were recovering, Simeon and Levi entered the town and slaughtered every male, plundering and looting as they went, and carrying off the women and children.
Jacob’s response is hardly noble: “You have brought trouble on me.” His only concern was that if the Canaanites heard about the slaughter of the Hivites, they would retaliate by attacking his family and wiping it out. To which the brothers reply, “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?”
To be honest, no one looks good in this sorry episode. But let’s note one point: It happened because Jacob dwelt too closely to the Hivites in the first place. Dinah was fascinated by the Hivite women, which is why Shechem noticed her in the first place. It’s a picture of what happens whenever believers begin to “love the world.” Our call is to be in the world but not of the world.
When we are in the world—that’s good.
When the world is in us—that’s bad.
Jacob’s family is now in crisis because he ignored that simple principle.
B. Three Deaths 35
Now Jacob is back in the Holy Land. His first act is to return to Bethel, build an altar and order his family members to get rid of their foreign idols. God speaks to him once again and reaffirms that he will be the father of a great nation and that “kings will come from your body.” He is also promised that he would inherit the land God had promised to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. All of this was God’s way of saying, “Jacob, you’re not perfect, but you are still my man. I chose you for a purpose and I’m not through with you yet.”
At this—the moment of great spiritual victory—the very moment when God once again speaks to Jacob, tragedy strikes:
First, Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, dies and is buried at Bethel. (35:8)
Second, Rachel dies in childbirth. With her last breath, she names him “Ben-oni” which means “Son of my trouble,” but Jacob names him “Benjamin”—”Son of my right hand.” Jacob buried her not far from Bethlehem and set up a pillar over her tomb. (35:16-19)
Third, Jacob’s father Isaac dies at the age of 180. He was living near Hebron and that’s where Jacob and Esau buried him. The Bible says that when he died he was “gathered to his people, old and full of years.” That thought of being “gathered to his people” is an early hint of life after death. This, incidentally, is the last recorded time that Jacob and Esau meet. Many years earlier they had separated because of their father; now they had come together to bury him. (35:27-29)
There is nothing remarkable in all of this, save the solemn reminder that if you live long enough you will attend a lot of funerals. No one lives forever. If you live to be 80 or 90, you’ll end up burying most of the people you know.
C. Reuben’s Sin 35:21-22
This story is told in simple terms: “Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder. While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.” Here we have a shocking breach of family values. The oldest son sleeps with his father’s concubine. Let pass for a moment the trouble we have with the whole subject of polygamy. God permitted it even though it was never his ultimate will for mankind. Wherever you find polygamy, you eventually find heartache and sadness.
Never mind all that. Concentrate on what Jacob’s oldest son did. He slept with a woman who belonged to his father. More than that, he slept with the mother of two of his brothers. We would like to know more … but the Bible is discreet as to the circumstances. It appears at first glance that Reuben has gotten away with it. All we are told is that “Israel heard of it.”
Dad knows what his son has done. He can’t forget the disrespect his oldest son has shown him. Years pass, then more years, and the incident is forgotten. No one ever brings it up. Now Jacob is on his deathbed. In his dying moments, he calls his sons to his side and blesses them one by one—blessings that will indicate their inheritance and their place in God’s plan for many generations. He begins with Reuben the oldest—who should receive a double inheritance. Listen to his words (Genesis 49:3-4):
Reuben, you are my firstborn,
My might, the first sign of my strength,
Excelling in honor, excelling in power.
All seems to be well. Perhaps the old man has forgotten Reuben’s evil deed. But, no …
Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel.
For you went up onto your father’s bed,
Onto my couch and defiled it.
There it is! He’s hasn’t forgotten. He knows his son … knows his strength, loves him as his firstborn, knows his turbulent, uncontrolled, untamed nature. A wild and undisciplined man, he never mastered his own impulses. In spite of his greatness, his power, and all his admirable qualities, Reuben has dishonored his father. Jacob never forgot what Reuben had done. On his deathbed, Jacob takes away Reuben’s birthright and leaves him with nothing but shame and humiliation.
D. The Loss of Joseph 37:1-11
The story is so well-known that it needs little repetition. More years have passed and Jacob has settled in the Promised Land. All is well and at last Jacob seems to be at peace with himself. The long years of difficulty have given way to prosperity and some measure of happiness. Although his beloved Rachel is gone, Jacob can console himself in the fact that God has given him 12 fine sons.
Then one day, wholly unknown to Jacob, there is trouble in the field. What begins with parental favoritism and sibling rivalry quickly escalates into envy and outright hatred. At length Joseph’s brothers conspire first to kill him and then to sell him into slavery. That done, they plot how to deceive their father into thinking that his beloved Joseph is now dead. They do it by taking the famous “coat of many colors” and dipping it in the blood of a goat. When Jacob sees the bloody coat he concludes that Joseph has been eaten by some ferocious animal. No one steps forward to tell him the truth.
(There is a sad irony in all this. Years earlier Jacob had deceived his father Isaac by offering him goat meat. Now his sons deceive him with the blood of a goat—yet another example of God’s hand at work across the years. “The arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”)
Jacob would not be comforted. He truly believed his son was dead. “All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. ’No,’ he said, ’in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.’” Only those parents who have lost a child can fully understand the next sentence: “So his father wept for him.”
Jacob has now reached the lowest point of his life.
First his daughter sleeps with a pagan.
Then his sons butcher an entire town.
Then his mother’s nurse dies.
Then Rachel herself dies.
Then his father dies.
Then his son Reuben disgraces him.
Now Joseph is dead (or so he thinks).
The pain is unbearable. How could God do this to him? How could God take Joseph away? He was only 17 years old. He was so young, so vibrant, so full of life and joy, the answer to so many prayers, the first son born to Rachel. So many hopes and dreams were wrapped up in that young man. Now he is dead and Jacob will not be comforted.
Years later, he will discover that Joseph is alive … but that’s another story.
For the moment, when Jacob looks up at the face of God, he sees only the black clouds that mark the path of the man enrolled in the School of Suffering.
II. Our Consolation
What can we say to an experience like this? Is Jacob unique, like Job, a man chosen by God to suffer in extra-ordinary ways? I think most of us would not be satisfied with that suggestion. If anything, we have seen that Jacob is a man whose struggles are ours. Unlike some Bible heroes, he is intensely human. At so many points, we see him struggling with the same things we deal with every day.
What lessons should we draw from Jacob’s troubles? Let me suggest five lessons.
A. No one is exempt from suffering.
We all learned that years ago when we were taught that “into each life some rain must fall.” But the Bible says the same thing in different words: “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7) “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) Isaac Watt’s famous hymn “Amazing Grace” reminds us that “through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come.”
Being a Christian brings many blessings, but it does not bring you an exemption from the School of Suffering. All God’s children must spend some time in the School of Suffering—whether we like it or not.
B. God uses suffering to teach you many lessons you couldn’t learn any other way.
Three positive things happen when you go through hardship and difficulty—no matter what the cause:
You slow down … and begin to think.
You calm down … and begin to listen.
You look up … and begin to learn.
Why doesn’t that happen every day? Because we go so fast that we don’t have time to think about what we are doing. God has to slow us down, and often the only tool he has is suffering. It’s not that God isn’t willing to speak to us in the midst of life; we’re usually too busy to pay attention.
C. God is at work in your suffering to produce Christlike character in you.
When the ancients wished to separate the wheat from the chaff, they used an instrument called a tribulum. By beating the grain with the tribulum, the heavier wheat was separated from the lighter chaff. Our English word “tribulation” comes from this word. Tribulations truly separate the wheat from the chaff in human character. That’s what Paul means when he says that “tribulation produces patience; and patience, perseverance; and perseverance, hope.” (Romans 5:3)
A minister once visited the famous china factory in Derby, England. While there he saw artisans applying various colored paints to the china—yellowish-brown, bluish-black and dirty-looking red. They circled the edge of the china with black paint. The end result of the painting was an unattractive mixture of dark colors. But when the china was placed in the furnace, the fire worked an amazing transformation. To the minister’s surprise, when the pieces were removed, they were exquisitely beautiful. The black had become bright gold. The blue and red had become lustrous and gleaming.
In the unerring wisdom of God, some of his choicest saints are subjected to the fiery trials of life. What seems on this side to be all dark colors will one day come forth as the brightest colors of the rainbow. And those who amid suffering seem to be common earthenware will eventually be transformed into the very image of Jesus Christ.
D. Your suffering can never separate you from the love of God.
No question plagues the mind more than this: “If God loves me, how can he allow this to happen?” In moments of great anguish we are prone to think that God has forgotten us. But it is not so.
Does God still love you when your marriage breaks up?
Does God still love you when your career takes a wrong turn?
Does God still love you when you end up in jail?
Does God still love you when your wife has an affair?
Does God still love you when the doctor says, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do”?
If you are a parent, you already know the answer. Do you still love your children when they get into trouble? Do you love your daughter when she lies in bed writhing in pain? Do you love your son when he loses his job? Every Mom and Dad knows the answer. Of course you do. If possible, you love your children even more when they are in trouble.
Let Paul ask and answer this question: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35,37)
E. God intends that those who enroll in the School of Suffering should someday graduate Summa Cum Laude: With Highest Honor.
Most universities offer special awards to those who pass their courses with distinction: You may graduate cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude. That means
With high honor
With highest honor.
God has a dream for you, my friend. His dream is to someday see you graduate from the School of Suffering summa cum laude—”With Highest Honor.”
The courses are difficult, the teachers sometimes seem cruel and the assignments are progressively more diffi-cult. Not everyone makes it. Some get stuck in a freshman class and never get out. Others get angry and quit. But for those who stay in school, there is a great reward.
“With Highest Honor”
The scene is the throne room of heaven. The time is somewhere beyond tomorrow. Multitudes are gathered for the commencement exercises. Friends and family members eagerly wait for the ceremony to begin. The angelic concert choir sings “Glory to God in the highest.” A massive chorus of 500,000 men and women rise to sing “Crown Him With Many Crowns.” In come the dignitaries—Abraham and Isaac leading the way with Jacob limping behind them, Moses, Joshua, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, the apostles James and John, and Peter who was crucified upside down. Following them are the martyrs from across the centuries—men and women who paid the ultimate price for their faith. Look! There is Jan Hus who was burned at the stake. And over there is Jim Elliot who was killed by the Auca Indians. Hundreds and thousands strong, they march in one by one.
Then at last a voice cries out, “All rise.” In comes the Lord Jesus Christ—clothed in pure white, dazzling in beauty. Look! He’s smiling. This is the day he has been waiting for. Now the names are called:
“Shirley Banta. With Highest Honor.”
“Skip Olson. With Highest Honor.”
“Milt Seifert. With Highest Honor.”
“Louise Lavenau. With Highest Honor.”
“Della Renecker. With Highest Honor.”
“Robert Bruce. With Highest Honor.”
“Gene Kammerling. With Highest Honor.”
There is a pause as the Lord Jesus waits before calling the next name. Then he smiles. In the corner an old man stirs. He looks to be 90 years old. He walks slowly, carefully, unsteadily.
“Fred Stettler. With highest honor.”
On and on they come—bright saints of God, entering into the joy of the Lord. On this earth they suffered in so many ways. No one had an easy passage to heaven. Some knew sickness, others broken dreams and others were abandoned and forgotten. But the Lord knew what they had done for him. And he never forgot them. No, not for a moment. Now they are entering into their eternal reward.
Oh, I want to be there in that day. I want to cheer for my friends and give a standing ovation for my loved ones. And more than anything else, I want to live so that when that great moment comes, I can hear him say: “Ray Pritchard. With highest honor.”
Is it possible? Yes, God intends that all of us should pass through the School of Sorrow. But thank goodness, school doesn’t last forever. Those who stay in school and learn their lessons well will one day be greatly rewarded. In the end, no one will regret the sufferings of this life. The blackest moments will be transformed into eternal light and we will shine like the sun forever.