Blessed or Cursed? Our Confusion on Suffering

During this Easter season, I have been thinking about the immense suffering Jesus endured on my behalf. That has led me to reflect on my own response to and understanding of suffering. It has made me think of an ancient Chinese story I once heard called The Old Man and His Horse. Some of you might have read it before, but if you haven’t, it goes like this:

There once was an old man who owned a beautiful white horse. He knew he could sell the horse and amass a large fortune. However, the old man chose to keep it in his stable and refused to sell it. His neighbors thought he was crazy, and told him that there might come a day when the horse might be stolen, leaving him with nothing.

That day came. Waking up one morning, the horse was not in its stable and was nowhere to be found.

The man’s neighbors rushed to tell the man he was now cursed because he had lost everything.

But the man’s response was profound: “Don’t speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”

The people were offended by what the man said. “How can you say this?” they asked, “It is clear that you are cursed no matter what your perspective might be.”

The old man spoke again. “All I know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest I don’t know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say. All we can see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?”

What a fool, the neighbors thought.

After several days the horse returned. He’d not been stolen, but ran away. On his return, he brought with him a dozen wild horses.

Now the neighbors came out to tell the man that he was right all along and in fact, was blessed because now he had a whole herd of horses.

The man responded again: “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. State only that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not? You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read only one page of a book. Can you judge the whole book? You read only one word of one phrase. Can you understand the entire phrase?”

The man’s neighbors found it hard to argue with this. “Maybe he’s right,” they said. But deep down they knew the old man was wrong. He had one horse now he had thirteen — how could he say he wasn’t blessed?

The old man had a son — his only child. The son went to break the wild horses and one of them bucked him off, breaking both of his legs.

The neighbors were awestruck at the man’s wisdom. “He was right, we were wrong,” they thought. The old man no longer had his son to help him work the land. With no one tending the farm, he would likely lose his income.

Not long after this, a war broke out in the old man’s country. All young men were called up to serve in the army where most would perish, leaving many fathers without their sons.

This was true for the old man’s neighbors whose sons would never return home. They went to the old man weeping, “You were right, we were wrong. Your son's accident is a blessing and, while his legs are broken, you will have many more years with him,” they said. “We will not, our sons are gone. You are blessed, we are cursed.”

The old man responded once again, “It is impossible to talk with you. You always draw conclusions. No one knows. Say only this. Your sons had to go to war, and mine did not. No one knows if it is a blessing or a curse. No one is wise enough to know. Only God knows.”

This is an expanded version of the original Chinese story.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had a clear perspective on suffering and hardship. In my own life, when I have experienced periods of suffering, I tend to make judgments about what the unfortunate events mean or even why they happened in the first place. During these seasons I am typically short on patience and quick to blame. Seasons of difficulty, hardship, and suffering tend to reveal a lot to me about me. When hardships or suffering happens, my initial response has provided a really clear indicator of my spiritual health. These seasons have provided insights about my view of God, and it’s also helped reveal whether or not I actually am trusting God.

There are three questions that I go to which serve as a barometer of my faithfulness and trust in God. These questions are especially helpful in seasons of difficulty.

Do I really believe these things, and how faithfully? These questions are directly connected to whether or not I am trusting God, and hardships provide an amazing window of insight into the degree of my faithfulness.

When my son Zane was born, he had to spend three months in the NICU. To cope with the trauma of watching my son struggle to survive, undergoing multiple surgeries, I wrestled with God and his goodness. In order to cope, my conversations with God were about this question, “If Zane dies tonight, will I be thankful for the gift of having a few precious weeks with him?”

I wrestled with the questions, “God if you let Zane die today, will I still really believe you are a good and loving father, that you know what's best for me, and that I can trust you with my life?

And harder than trusting you, God, with my life, can I trust you with Zane’s life?”

Zane turned the corner at six months, and by the grace of God, is a miraculously healthy 12 year old who is now looking me in the eyes. I remember being at his one year birthday party crying about the richness and joys of getting a year with that kid. And now 12 years. And I still think of the question, that if Zane dies tonight, will I be grateful for the gift of 12 years with this kid, and still believe that God is good and loving, that he knows what’s best for me, and that I can trust him with my life?

One more story that I’ve been thinking about for about a year and can’t get my head fully around. It is the story of Peter meeting with Jesus and having breakfast together on the beach after Jesus rose from the dead. This is captured in John chapter 21. In verse 18 Jesus says,

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

Think about this: Peter is one of Jesus’ closest friends. Peter watched him do all kinds of miracles, and after rising from the dead, Jesus is giving him a heads up that he will die a martyr’s death. After a life of faithfulness, he will experience suffering and be killed violently. Now honestly, at that point, I would be like, “Hey bestie, how about you wave your hand, say a prayer, and let me die peacefully in my sleep after a life of being the rock the church was built on?”

But he didn’t.

This is wild. For purposes beyond our understanding, Jesus, who is love, and loved Peter, didn’t give Peter an easy journey. In the mystery of suffering, Peter dying a martyr's death became the path of love. Jesus loved Peter, knew what was best for him, and therefore Peter could trust him, even when it came to incredible suffering.

I want to trust God like that. I want to look at hardship, suffering and difficulty through a lens of grace. Just like the old man in the story, I want to see the events of my life without judgment. I want to watch for the wider story unfolding, to see how suffering shapes our lives and how God uses it to transform us. Just like Peter, I want to trust God and follow him with the full assurance that He knows what's best for me. I want to trust more deeply that my father loves me too much, knowing what's best for me, to let me miss out on some of the richness of increasing trust and experiencing of his love that accompanies difficult times. I want to be quicker to see hardship, and difficulty, and suffering, as a gift of grace.

James 1:2-5 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

Amen God. Let it be so in my life and all our lives.

I want to leave you with a couple questions to think about.

  1. God, where is an area of fear or control in my life where you’re inviting me to trust you?
  2. God, which of those questions do I struggle believing the most, that you are good and loving, that you know what’s best for me, or that I can trust you with my life?


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