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  • Daniel Botkin

The Necessity of Non-Punitive Suffering

“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” -Romans 15:4


For disciples of Yeshua, the events of the Hebrews’ Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent forty years in the wilderness are supposed to be more than just a collection of interesting stories. These stories are written to give us hope and to teach us important lessons about our walk with the Lord.

One very important lesson to be learned from all this is the inconvenient truth of the necessity of non-punitive suffering.

We all experience suffering to some degree at different times in our lives. Some suffering we bring upon ourselves by yielding to temptation. If we sin against the Lord, we suffer negative consequences as a direct result of our sins. “He that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption” (Gal. 6:8). This suffering is punitive. It is the penalty we suffer for our wrong-doing. This suffering is unnecessary, because it can be prevented by resisting temptation. But some suffering is non-punitive but necessary. It is not the result of any wrong-doing. On the contrary, it is suffering that comes as a direct result of doing right. It is suffering that our heavenly Father plans for our own good. Our heavenly Father deliberately leads us into this non-punitive, necessary suffering.

We see the truth of the necessity of non-punitive suffering in the story of the Exodus. The forty years of wandering in the wilderness was punitive suffering. It was the direct result of the people’s refusal to go into the Promised Land after the ten spies brought back an evil report and discouraged the people from going into the Land. All the suffering from the time of the revolt at Kadesh-barnea until the end of the forty years was unnecessary suffering that could have been prevented by obedience to God’s will.

But much (perhaps all) of the suffering in the wilderness that preceded Kadesh-barnea, everything from the Red Sea to Kadesh-barnea, was non-punitive and necessary. We can say this because the people were walking in the heavenly Father’s good and perfect will. They were following the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. They were exactly where God wanted them to be.

Immediately after the glorious crossing of the Red Sea and the Hebrews’ celebration of this great deliverance, “they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water” (Ex. 15:22). The very next verse says: “And when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter.”

When they took this three-day trek into the hot desert without water, and then came to a pool of bitter, undrinkable water, they were walking in the perfect will of God. There can be no doubt that this was exactly where God wanted them to be at this time, because He led them there by the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire.

From this we learn that we can be in the perfect will of God and still suffer spiritual thirst and bitter disappointments. If you are suffering, don’t assume that you are suffering because you are being punished for being out of God’s will. It’s possible that you are suffering because you are in the exact center of God’s will for you. If you have been following the written Scriptures and the leading of the Holy Spirit, like the Hebrews followed the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, then the suffering you are experiencing is not punitive. It is non-punitive but necessary.

Moses says that Yahweh allowed the Hebrews in the wilderness to suffer hunger, and states that the reason for this suffering was “that He might make them know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of Yahweh doth man live” (Deut. 8:3).

Non-punitive suffering is necessary to teach us by personal experience to rely on our heavenly Father. Apparently we cannot learn this lesson any other way. Apparently we cannot learn it by listening to a sermon or by reading a book - not even by reading the Book of books, the Bible. Apparently we can only learn to rely on our heavenly Father by undergoing some real, non-punitive suffering. God can do whatever He wants and He can do it however He wants to do it. If He wanted to teach us this lesson without causing us to suffer, He is smart enough to figure out a way to do that. Yet He chooses to teach us through suffering.

I’m sorry I don’t have a more cheerful message for you for this Passover season. I wish I could tell you that there are other ways that you can learn to rely on your heavenly Father, without having to experience some suffering. But I can’t, because Romans 15:4 says “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning,” and what we learn from the three days of thirst and the bitter waters is that we have to experience some non-punitive suffering to learn to rely on our heavenly Father - even if we are in the exact center of His will for us.

But there is some good news. Romans 15:4 goes on to say “that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” So where is the hope in this story of thirst and bitter disappointment? The hope in the story is in the rest of the story:

“And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? And he cried unto Yahweh, and Yahweh showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet” (Ex. 15:24f).

The “patience and comfort” part of the story is the part that tells us that the bitter waters can be transformed into sweet waters. But we have to have patience. When the Hebrews discovered that the waters were bitter, their immediate reaction was to blame Moses for bringing them there.

How often this is repeated in the lives of believers! Believers sometimes feel spiritually thirsty. Even though they are walking in the will of God, they feel unfulfilled. They feel a thirst for some elusive missing piece. Like the thirsty Hebrews looking for water in the wilderness, these unfulfilled believers look for something to quench their spiritual thirst. There ahead on the horizon they see it, something that they think will satisfy their spiritual longings. It might be a new job, a new home, a new church, a spouse, or something else. As soon as they see that their goal is within reach, they are filled with expectations, like the Hebrews were when they saw the sunlight shimmering on the surface of the waters of Marah. But when these thirsty believers reach their goal and obtain that thing which had filled them with so much hope, they suffer bitter disappointment. The waters in this place do not satisfy their spiritual longings like they expected them to do.

How do believers react to bitter disappointments like these? Usually the same way the Hebrews reacted to the bitter waters at Marah. They blame their spiritual leaders. “And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?”

But Moses was not the one who chose the route that led them to Marah. They had all followed the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire. It was Yahweh, not Moses, who had brought them to the bitter waters of Marah after three days without water. If you have been walking in the will of God, it is Yahweh, not your pastor or elders, who has brought you to your place of bitter disappointment.

It is not your pastor’s job to satisfy your spiritual longings. So instead of blaming your spiritual leaders and murmuring against them, look for the solution that will transform your bitter waters into sweet waters. Moses cried unto the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree to cast into the bitter waters and turn them sweet. So cry unto the Lord and He will show you a tree to transform your bitter waters into sweet waters. That tree is the cross of discipleship.

Embrace the cross of Messiah not only as the instrument that delivers you from the penalty of sin. Also embrace the cross of discipleship as the instrument that will deliver you from the power of sin. The blood of our Passover Lamb on the cross of Messiah takes you out of Egypt. The cross of discipleship will take Egypt out of you. Then your bitter waters will become sweet.

After the bitter waters of Marah were made sweet, God gave the promise to put none of the diseases of Egypt upon His people if they would diligently hearken to His voice and obey Him. What could be sweeter than that?

Then the next stage in Israel’s journey was a season of rest and refreshment: “And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters” (Ex. 15:27).

Twelve wells, one for each tribe. Seventy palm trees, one for each of the seventy nations. Plenty of sweet waters and sweet dates to satisfy everyone.

Your spiritual hunger and thirst will not be satisfied if you blame others for your lack of satisfaction. Don’t have unrealistic expectations of your spiritual leaders. Even Aaron and Moses were powerless to prevent the non-punitive necessary suffering that God had planned for His people. So don’t expect your spiritual leaders to prevent the non-punitive suffering that God has planned for you.

This Passover, focus on Yeshua, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, and let the sweetness of Redemption turn your bitter disappointments into sweet waters.

“For Messiah our passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Cor. 5:7f).


| DB

 

Image: Moses with Aaron and Hur, an original painting by Daniel Botkin from his Monochromatic Monotheistic Gallery on his art website, DanielBotkin.com

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