You and I need to learn to recognize the invitation of the Spirit when it feels as though our lives are on fire. If we have eyes to see it, we will discern God’s adoring love in our agony, reaching out to us to perfect us. It is a terrible honor he pays us, loving us the way he does. C. S. Lewis wrote:
You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way . . . but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes . . . It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring.[i]
That fire, says Lewis, reaches to us most clearly and profoundly in the great and painful places of our lives. “God,” he says, “whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[ii]
The hard things that you and I walk through—it can be literally anything: the struggle with habitual sin; the loss of a job, of a relationship, of our health; the price we pay for standing for what is right in a world filled with injustice; the times when we feel desolate and alone and forsaken by God, or when the story of our lives takes a turn that we did not expect—all carry within them the potential for deeper transformation. Will we let the sting of circumstance lead us to greater surrender, greater yielding? Will we let pain lead us to penitence? Will we let the fire of adversity and hardship be a sacrament of the great Fire that is God?
The choice, truly, is ours. No one can or will make it for us. It belongs to us and us alone, and our futures—their everlasting blessedness or damnation—literally depend on it.
And, just to clear up any confusion, it is not a matter of ferreting out who precisely is responsible for the fires, who is to blame for the pain. Is the devil responsible? Are we responsible? Are others responsible? Is God responsible?
Such questions are often a strategy we employ to evade the ongoing invitation of the Spirit. Should we seek truth and justice in our situations? Of course we should. But we must also realize that the appropriate search for justice can often give way to assigning blame and finger-pointing, which entrench us in the state we found ourselves in when the fire started burning. And they are theologically incorrect, in any event. God is not one “thing” among other “things” in the universe that we have to account for. According to the apostle Paul, God is the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.”[iii] That means, in part, that he is always present, working his will in, with, and under the movement and flow of history, subverting errant human wills, outpacing the enemy’s diabolical stratagems, leading us to glory. The attempt to assign blame may not only block the possibility of our transformation; it tragically misses the larger story of God’s activity in and around us.
Do you remember the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis? Subjected to massive pain and injustice, Joseph yielded himself to the Lord of his life, such that he could look back over all that had happened to him and say to those who had wronged him,
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”[iv]
The gracious divine intention saturated, overwhelmed, and finally subverted all evil human intention. Joseph’s recognition of this allowed the conversation to transcend the logic of blame, lifting it up into the light of redemption, the logic of salvation. Yes, human beings did this, and it is not wrong to name that. But surely the more important questions are:
What was God doing behind it? Who is God in the midst of it? Where is God taking us through it?
[i] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), 39–40.
[ii] Lewis, Problem of Pain, 91. Emphasis mine.
[iii] Acts 17:28.
[iv] Genesis 50:20. Emphasis mine.