I want to suggest a principle for you to consider. It goes like this:
When God does a work, He makes preparation first.
Think about it: Before God made the first human being, He prepared an environment for him to live in first, as we read in Genesis 1. When God wanted to build a tabernacle in the wilderness, He laid out the blueprint for Moses in great detail, which we can find in Exodus 25–31. Later, when God wanted Solomon to build a temple, he once again he provided a blueprint. This one appears in 1 Kings 6 but, according to 1 Chronicles 28:19, He gave the actual details to David.
But if we look at the stories in the Bible, we will notice that God often intermingles an unexpected element into the preparation—suffering. Look at the all the hardships Moses endured with God's people in the wilderness. Why? Because God was doing something bigger than Moses. Think about it: Moses wrote about 20% of the entire Bible while he was stuck in the wilderness, leading around a bunch of miserable Israelites who challenged him and his brother Aaron constantly. Not my idea of fun, but the lives of countless multitudes are still shaped today by the words he wrote in those wretched conditions.
Look at the suffering Naomi endured, recorded in the book of Ruth, losing her husband and both her sons, having no heir to the family. The suffering was so intense that, according to Ruth 1:20, she changed her name to Mara, which means bitterness, saying, “Yahweh has dealt bitterly with me.” In all fairness to her, it sure looked like it. But by the end of the story, she has an heir who is placed at birth on her very knees. But the bigger story is profound. The last word in the book of Ruth is “David.” In the end, her suffering eventually led to the birth of the greatest king to ever rule over God’s people.
When we are suffering, it is important to remember that, while God does care about us and our suffering, He is often working on a master plan, and we occupy only a small space in that overall plan.
Fast forward to the time when God’s people were sent into exile, into Babylon. More than any other book in the Bible, the book of Daniel gives us a window into that historical period. There we find Daniel and his three friends serving as eunuchs in the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Lest we forget, eunuchs were men who had been castrated when they were young. In the ancient world, the tragedy of castration was not the physical pain or the humiliation of the aftereffects. The crushing reality of this condition was that a man could not produce an heir. Society as it was then accepted death as an unfortunate reality, but it was believed that there was a way around death. If a man had an heir, he lived on through his offspring. But this was impossible for a eunuch. A eunuch’s only hope of a meaningful life was to do the best he could to serve the very king who had put him in this condition. If a eunuch served faithfully, he would be honored for all the days of his short life.
So, Daniel and his three friends were eking out their existence by serving the king who had ended all hope of them having a normal meaningful life. But we hear no complaint. We pick up on no resentment. They served the king of Babylon faithfully—the very one who had ordered that their hopes of a normal life would be terminated in such a savage way. Strikingly, these four men are among the very few heroes that never show signs of weakness or error in the revealed text of Scripture. Not only are they faithful to their king, they remain unshakably steadfast to their God and to His commands. Their track record is even more stunning when we realize that the entire book of Daniel covers the darkest chapter in the history of the people of God, when they were in effect being held hostage in a foreign land against their will. If there was ever an era of hopelessness in the history of the people of God, this was it. And here they were, suffering, but faithful.
Somehow, they seemed to know—God is at work, even in our intense suffering, but for us to see it today, we have to lift our eyes from ourselves. We are not the center of the universe. The sooner we grasp this truth, the sooner we will begin to understand the ways of God and the less we will resist Him. There will always be some things that are beyond our comprehension. It is probably best to simply reconcile to this reality and stop banging our heads, trying to figure out the full scope of His plan. Truthfully, it cannot be done. We are not wired to completely understand His ways. It is like someone trying to explain quantum physics to an ant.
Significantly, this same savage king, Nebuchadnezzar, eventually had a reckoning with reality. Because of his inordinate pride, he was deposed, experiencing his own exile into the woods, living like an animal for seven years until he acknowledged God’s supremacy. And in the end, he declared the praises of the true God and proclaimed His fame throughout his kingdom, as we can read in Daniel 4. What is more, after Daniel persevered through the experience in the lion’s den as recorded in Daniel 6, the Persian king Darius, who by now ruled much of the known world, proclaimed that Daniel’s God was to be feared throughout the entire Persian empire. God was making Himself famous, even in exile.
So this entire era of intense suffering had a broader purpose. As the fame of the true God spread throughout much of the known world, people were being prepared for Him who was born the King of the Jews. For the wise men came, tellingly, from the east, which was toward Babylon, searching for the King of the Jews. The fame of the God of the Jews had spread generations before, during a time of intense suffering, to prepare the world for the coming of One who would be called a Light to the Gentiles. Incredibly, the wise men falling down and worshiping the Christ Child in Matthew 2:11 was foreshadowed by King Nebuchadnezzar doing exactly the same thing before the God of the Hebrews in Daniel 2:40.
Christmas was set up by Babylon. The Savior was preceded by suffering.
So, in your unexplained circumstances, lift up your eyes. You are not the center of the universe. It may be that God is doing something much larger. So often, the more intense the suffering, the bigger a work God is doing. Remember Moses. Remember Naomi, who changed her name to Bitterness. And remember four Jewish men who were thrust into a hopeless world, not by their own choosing. If the people of God endured hardship and misfortune, and if the Messiah Himself did not escape this earthly life without intense personal anguish, do we really think we deserve special privilege? And do we really think that God is so cruel that He allows suffering with no grand design behind it all? We can’t possibly fathom all that God is doing, any more than Daniel and his friends could have. But we can learn from them and determine to be faithful.
So, take the blinders off and refuse to focus only on yourself. God is doing something big. Trust Him in your suffering. Greater suffering may be a marker of a greater work of God. Watch for His hand and you will begin to see traces of a grand design. The pathway from Babylon to Christmas has much to say to us. The only question is whether or not we are listening.