Dave Lamb and his wife, Shannon are two of my real life heroes. I had the pleasure of observing them in life and ministry during their time in Oxford. Dave’s recent book, God Behaving Badly, on the character of God in the Old Testament was instrumental in helping me re-fall in love with God after a long time of questioning. His blog is one of the finest out there: he teaches the Bible with a contagious enthusiasm, a pastoral heart, and a great sense of humour. His tendency to make ‘Dad-jokes’ is to be forgiven due to the fact that he is a Dad, and they are actually quite funny. It’s an honour and pleasure to share his story:
When I was in tenth grade I ran cross-country. I did well at first. Practices were difficult, often painful, but I saw progress and my times were improving, so the pain was worth it.
Then I became injured. Shin-splints. Every step hurt. Even though we were still doing the same things, the pain of practice felt more severe. My times slowed down drastically. I stopped pushing myself. The pain wasn’t worth it.
I was elated when the season finally ended. I stopped running on a regular basis. My running hiatus lasted 22 years. Why run? Running meant suffering.
As I began my doctoral program in Old Testament, I found myself getting easily discouraged, restless and despondent. I still remembered the pain from tenth grade, but I thought after 22 years, it might be worth giving it another try. I started jogging, slowly. Running helped me.
It was still painful, but I could see good coming out of it. After a few months of running a few times a week, the training was paying off. I no longer felt miserable during the run. I definitely felt better after the run, and I was able to focus and concentrate.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a blog about how all suffering disappears if you just start running. But reflecting on running can help us understand suffering better.
When I relax and focus on the good coming out of running (better sleep, less anxiety, a focus while working), then the pain isn’t quite as severe. When I focus on the pain, it gets worse. I need distractions.
This has been a fall of suffering for me. I went to see an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor (ENT) in August with a hoarse voice, but otherwise feeling great. I came away with three prescriptions that quickly made me feel bad. I began to have stomach reflux (like heartburn). My voice problems got worse.
My vocal cords were damaged, which meant I couldn’t talk unless absolutely necessary. As an extrovert and someone who talks for a living (and for pleasure) this was brutal for me. My anxiety and stress levels rocketed up, which made the reflux worse. I had a busy teaching schedule which didn’t help the stress. It was difficult to run. I started having trouble sleeping.
I realize many people struggle with more severe problems for longer periods than I, but my suffering consumed me, making everything worse. Even writing about it now my stress levels go up.
But because of my own health crisis, I have become more compassionate toward people in pain, and have spent far more time praying for and with people who are suffering. God has been using my suffering to train me to be a more loving, sympathetic and compassionate person. And as I reflect on that, I feel blessed to have received this training. The suffering is still real, but it becomes redemptive, which reduces the pain slightly. Just like running, there’s good coming out of the pain. As I become more compassionate, I’m slowly become more like Jesus. To use, Tanya’s imagery, the training God is taking me through is the gold in the midst of my thorns.
Yesterday, I taught at my seminary for 6 hours, which was exhausting. I had to eat while teaching over both lunch and dinner, which is both stressful and bad for my reflux. During one of the breaks in my evening class, a woman came up and told me about a difficult situation at her church where she felt rejected. I prayed for her right then. Immediately after class, I prayed for a man who is concerned about a granddaughter in crisis.
In both situations, I didn’t really want to care for them. I wanted to care for myself. “Hey, I’m the needy one here!” But I sensed God wanted me to pray, and they both seemed blessed by the prayer. And I was blessed too. While praying for them, I was distracted from my own crisis, and the suffering wasn’t so bad. God’s suffering training is starting to bear fruit.
In my Genesis class yesterday morning, we reflected on Joseph’s suffering. It’s a familiar story (Gen. 37-50), but here are the main points. Joseph starts out as a lowly shepherd, but then because of a special coat and two dreams his brothers decide to sell him into slavery, where he served Potiphar until he was falsely accused of rape by Mrs. Potiphar, and is thrown into prison. Joseph languished as a slave and prisoner, alienated from his country and his family for 13 years. Eventually, after two more dreams, Pharaoh promotes Joseph to vice-regent of Egypt.
During his 13 years of pain, he doesn’t complain much, but we get a taste of his suffering as he explains the names of his two sons, Manasseh: “For God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house” and Ephraim: “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortune” (Gen. 41:51-52).
What prepared Joseph to run the most powerful nation on the planet? Taking care of first sheep, then slaves, and finally prisoners. None of these jobs were prestigious and all of them involved suffering of different types. But his suffering was training for what God had in store for him later. Not many of us are probably being trained to rule an empire, but all of us can share Joseph’s perspective on God’s role in our suffering.
After his reunion with his brothers, Joseph informs them that he knows God was behind it, “It was not you who sent me here, but God” and “What you meant for evil God meant for good” (Gen. 45:8; 50:20). Joseph was confident that God was behind his suffering training and that he would bring some good gold out of it.
Dave lived in Lexington (KY) long enough to become a Wildcat fan (age 1), lived in Downers Grove (IL) long enough to become a Cubs fan (age 5) and lived in Ames (IA) long enough to learn how to walk beans and detassle corn (age 18). Against her better judgment, Shannon agreed to marry him (1991), and together they created Nathan and Noah. One can never have enough advanced degrees, so got an MDiv (Fuller Seminary), an MPhil and DPhil (University of Oxford). Since 2006, he has taught Old Testament at Biblical Seminary. He loves to give others a love for God’s word. He blogs at davidtlamb.com – do check it out.
Over to you:
- Can you identify seasons in your life where you have been ‘trained’ by suffering?
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