Some conversations just make me sad.
I recently spoke with a young man who was thinking of leaving the Christian organization where he was employed. Being a mid-level manager, he had to deal with a boss who berated him in front of others. Those who witnessed the verbal abuse asked him why he continued to take it. While he appreciated their compassion, their comments also felt like a temptation to insubordination. He struggled personally and spiritually to understand why all this was happening. What was God trying to teach him through the ordeal?
He suspected that he wasn’t being faithful enough, or trusting God enough. Was this God’s way of teaching him to be more humble, of purging pride from his character? He needed some way to make sense of his situation, and “God must be trying to humble me” seemed plausible.
Part of him expected me to confirm his suspicion, while the other part hoped I wouldn’t. Neither response seemed appropriate. Instead, I asked him to consider what he was implying about God’s character. Was this the God in whom he truly believed? And did it sound more like the Jesus of the gospels, or the boss that haunted his nightmares?
Scripture says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6, 1 Pet 5:5, NRSV; see also Prov 3:34), and we are repeatedly counseled to humble ourselves before God. But that’s not the same thing as assuming that every instance of humiliation–particularly rude injustice at the hands of another Christian!–comes because God is trying to teach us a lesson.
We live in a sinful world, and as God’s people, we must acknowledge and repent of our own complicity. At the same time, we are right to be offended by injustice and inhumanity wherever it occurs–including in our Christian workplaces, from our Christian supervisors.
That doesn’t authorize prideful revenge or retaliation. But we don’t want to bring coherence out of our confusion by making God out to be a stern taskmaster whom we would rather avoid.
In his torment, the young man wondered if his prayers were inadequate, as if God were sitting back with his arms crossed, waiting for him to get it right. In place of that image, I asked him to consider Romans 8:18-27. We suffer in the present, because we live in a broken creation that still awaits its full redemption. Glimpses of that future glory awaken a deep longing in us. Because of that, and in hope, we wait and groan. Our prayers are sometimes inarticulate.
How does God respond to such bumbling, broken prayers? God’s Holy Spirit, Paul says, “comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans” (Rom 8:26, CEB).
God calls us to humility and faithfulness in the midst of even the most trying circumstances. Suffering is always an opportunity to learn and grow. But we shouldn’t make God out to be someone who continually drops spiritual pianos on our heads until we shape up. This is the God who, when we suffer injustice and don’t even have the words to pray, gives us his own Spirit to pray through us.
The groaning will not end until God’s work of restoration is done. But until then, we have hope, because we have the Spirit of a gracious God.