Blessed be God who lives forever, because his kingdom lasts for all ages. For he scourges and then has mercy; he casts down to the depths of the nether world, and he brings up from the great abyss. No one can escape his hand.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that bears no fruit he cuts away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes to make it bear even more.
If you sat down with a list of all my favorite verses in Scripture, you’d notice a common theme: they make me feel good. Like many people, I have a tendency to use God’s word as a security blanket, not as a scalpel. I ignore Paul’s warning that the word of God is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12) and look only for love and comfort and peace.
But if I’m being honest with myself, I know that there is no love and comfort and peace without the Cross. Without the Cross of Christ, we are not saved, and without our own crosses we can’t be Christians. We all know this, of course: you will suffer. Whether you follow Christ or not, you will suffer. It’s just life. The question is whether or not your suffering has meaning. Is it united with his suffering? Is it an opportunity for you to surrender to him? Has it made you more humble or patient or loving?
These are all helpful ways to approach the suffering that life heaps on you, the evil God allows to touch his beloved. But what about when God makes you suffer? Because there are times, it seems, when God doesn’t just allow suffering, holding himself back as he watches you get pummeled by the world, the flesh, and the devil. If Tobit and Jesus are to be believed, there are times when God himself inflicts suffering on you.
It doesn’t quite mesh with our image of a friendly, grandfatherly God who’s happy to indulge our adolescent whims. This, instead, is the coach in every good sports movie, the wise parent showing tough love. This is a God who knows us well enough to know when we need to be scourged and when we need to be shown mercy, a God who loves us so much that he bothers to prune us.
Reading these lines about God scourging and pruning doesn’t exactly make me want to know him better—until I read the context. Tobit isn’t grumbling over God’s harsh treatment, he’s praising him with joy. And Jesus follows this a few verses with a proclamation that he loves us just as the Father loves him (John 15:9). This discipline, then, is an act of love. If we really understood what was going on, we’d be grateful even for the suffering.
We’ve all seen it in other areas of life, shots or workouts or rehab or court-ordered community service that were literally lifesavers. It stands to reason that the trials God sends us must be the same, not tests so that we can prove ourselves but challenges so that we can become stronger, formative rather than summative assessments (for the teachers among us).
If this is true—and God’s word says that it is—then what matter’s here isn’t just that we can trust God to be working in our suffering. That’s encouraging, of course, knowing that our suffering has value and God is using it for our good and the good of the world. But think of the image of the vinedresser. Tobit’s casting down and raising up might sound arbitrary (though a quick read of the whole story will show you God’s Providence working very deliberately), but Jesus isn’t talking about a God who works in grand, sweeping movements, a mercurial God who punishes when he wants and rewards when he wants.
This is a God who owns trillions of vines and from his throne in heaven; he sees your impatience or arrogance or envy. So he climbs down, grabbing his pruning shears, and comes close, right down into your mess. He peers deep into your heart, seeing what needs to be cut away and what cuts would be too deep. He sees you and knows you and thinks you’re worth fighting for. And in that fight, you will come out with some scars, but (like his) those scars will lead to glory.
I guess the thing about Scripture is that while it challenges and terrifies and demands, it’s all at the behest of a God who loves you more than you could ever love yourself. So in the end, even the verses that cut like a scalpel leave you wrapped in his comforting love—if only you can trust him to love you all the more when his love hurts.