Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Where is God when we suffer?

Statue of Anne Hutchinson at Boston
© Christy K. Robinson

Why does God allow suffering, even with children? Why aren't God's people shielded from persecution and death?

That's the current question in the novel I'm writing on Mary Barrett Dyer. On August 20, 1643, Mary's mentor and close friend, Anne Marbury Hutchinson (the antinomian religious leader exiled from Puritan Boston), and five of her children were massacred by the Siwanoy Indians they'd come to evangelize. One daughter was abducted by the Indians and returned a few years later in a negotiated settlement.  (More on Siwanoy history.)

Mary Dyer heard about it a few weeks later, and the news may have brought on labor and childbirth. She named her newborn son "Maher-shallal-hash-baz," and called him Maher. (The other children had "normal" names like Samuel, William, Mary, Henry, and Charles.) I went digging for the meaning of Maher's name. It comes from Isaiah 8:4, and means, in Hebrew, “suddenly attacked, quickly taken” or “swift to plunder and quick to carry away.”

Mary Dyer named her son in a time of grief and despair over the deaths of Anne and the children, in a sudden and vicious attack where an innocent girl was carried away. Mary's question surely would have been, Why did God allow such a tragedy, when Anne was such a strong witness for him?

“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. Hebrews 10:32-36 NIV

What was the promise?

Long before Mary Dyer died on a gallows in 1660 for civil disobedience and in the cause of religious freedom, she had found the answer for herself. Mary knew what sustained Abraham, Job, Moses, David, Solomon, and all the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews chapter 11. She understood that God is sovereign, and we are his trusting children. And she knew the Bible promises were not of a mansion or riches in heaven, not of a bubble of safety and prosperity, but of intimacy with God, for all eternity. Intimacy begun in a garden where Adam and Eve walked with God and talked face to face. Intimacy restored in part by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the temple veil to the Holy of Holies being torn to allow us access to God's mercy, and the miracle of the Holy Spirit speaking in our hearts. And intimacy restored fully by the reunion we'll celebrate when Immanuel, God With Us, tenderly wipes away our tears and takes us to his heart forever.

Mary Barrett Dyer knew that although suffering in this life is terrible for both victims and the survivors who love them, that God brings us through it together with him, that one day we'll know why the pain was allowed, and that because of the surpassing glory of that day, we'll look back and consider our human suffering as a split-second of learning and growing deep in trust.

Mary was already experiencing the bliss of that intimacy while she was lying on a prison's dirt floor before her execution, when she wrote "he gloriously accompanied with his Presence, and Peace, and Love in me, in which I rested from my labour..." 

Where was God? Inside her. All around her. Holding her in his arms. Welcoming her to eternity with him.

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