Of Shells and Suffering

I recently returned from our annual family holiday to the beach.  I’m a country boy and I’ve spent many vacations in the mountains, but my wife has taught me to love the sand and the surf.  One reason I’ve come to love the beach is that I’m always inspired to think of God there.  The vast expanse of the sea by day and the starry sky at night, all set against the aural backdrop of relentless waves, remind me of the power and omnipresence of our Creator.

This year, we visited the beach a week after Tropical Storm Lee had plowed through the area.  Vestiges of the storm remained.  The strong surf simultaneously tried to suck us out to sea and send us back to shore.

I enjoy shell hunting, and in recent years I’ve taken to snorkeling to find the real gems.   Lee’s rough water pushed in some great finds this year. Unfortunately, the shells collect where the waves break, and Lee’s strong tide made snorkeling in this region almost impossible.  Often, I’d be floating on the surface, head down in the water, and I’d see an intact specimen of my favorite shell, the netted olive.  Just as I would begin to push under to reach it, a wave would wash over me, filling my snorkel and stirring the sand, taking my treasure away and rolling me back to shore.

After one such session, I stood on the shore, hunched over and dripping, looking at the collection of netted olives in my dive bag.  For some reason, it struck me that my simple and innocent experience was a picture of suffering.

A few years ago I spent a long time contending with the issue of suffering.  It started not as a result of some life experience, but rather from a reading of Psalm 44. At that time my personal Bible study was reading through all the psalms, and on the day I read Psalm 44, I hit a brick wall.  It was this verse that troubled me:

Yet for Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
(Psalm 44:22)

Reading the full psalm, you can see the author recounting God’s activity with Israel in the past, that he drove away their enemies; now, the author feels that God has abandoned them.

It struck me for the first time that following God, being on the “winning team” so to speak, doesn’t spare one from trouble and suffering.  Indeed, if you have this fact in mind and read through the New Testament, you will see in sharp focus the suffering of the saints;  Stephen, for example, was stoned to death.  Church history, down to this very day, is replete with God-followers being slaughtered for their faith.

As a result of this troubling read, I began a study of suffering.  You can’t research suffering in a biblical context and not come across the account of Joseph, as recorded in Genesis chapters 37, 39-48 and 50.

God allowed Joseph to be hated by his brothers, then nearly murdered by them.  If not for his brother Reuben he would have been killed, but his brothers’ dark hearts instead led them to sell Joseph into slavery.  Joseph was taken to Egypt, where he found some success as chief of Potiphar’s home.  Sadly, Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of rape, and Joseph was sent to prison.  There, he again rose to the position of overseer, yet he was forgotten in prison for years.  Joseph was not only innocent but also intelligent and successful, yet freedom eluded him.  I imagine it was demoralizing to him, to edge toward freedom and then watch it slip away, time and time again.  These experiences lasted 13 years.

Yet those difficult experiences molded him into a wise, strong leader, and most importantly, a man who submitted himself to God.  The cultivation of these qualities was completed at just the right time.  Seven years of bounty were to be followed by seven years of great famine.  Joseph was chosen by Pharaoh to supervise preparations during the seven years of plenty, in order that Egypt might survive the seven years of famine.

This position also brought him back into contact with his brothers.  In his reunion with them, Joseph gives a speech of reconciliation and explains the reality of what happened:

Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life…Now therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:5, 8)

Later, after their father Jacob (aka Israel) dies, the brothers become afraid that Joseph will kill them, as retribution for their evil treatment of him.  Joseph then utters what I think are some of the most powerful words in all Scripture:

But Joseph said to [his brothers], “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place?  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” (Genesis 50:19-20)

Joseph recognized that God had used his suffering to help many people.  Joseph himself was a ruler as a result of it.  In other words, God had redeemed his suffering.  It had meaning and purpose.  Joseph’s accurate view of what happened to him protected his heart from bitterness or despair, a state that is often the result of suffering.

So there I was, hunched over and dripping on the beach, looking at my netted olives after being pounded by the waves.  For some reason I thought of suffering.  I thought about my God–the God who uses a storm to bring in beautiful shells, the God who redeems all our pain.