Past the Pain to the Purpose!
by Paul Anderson
Doubt can look innocent-or even the honest way to go. In fact, doubt can devastate us. Look at Zechariah. He should have believed. He and his wife were…
- From good stock. They were both from priestly families (Lk 1:5).
- Mature believers. Both were blameless in their walk (v.6).
- Sensitive to God’s direction. They prophesied when filled with the Spirit
- Knowledgeable in the Scriptures. They knew something of the ways of God.
But Zechariah doubted instead. When the angel announced the birth of a child, an appropriate response would have been, “This is wonderful. Elizabeth and I have been praying for years. God has heard our prayer, and at last we will be parents.” He probably rehearsed his less than acceptable reaction a hundred times over during the next nine months of his silent retreat. What were Zechariah’s faith busters?
Time – “They were both well along in years” (v.7), and time can turn belief into skepticism. It’s not easy to wait. Prayer can lose its grip and turn into faithless complaining. And time becomes our adversary.
Wounding – Doubt often comes from a wounded heart. The barren in biblical days were shamed for their failure to produce.
The silence of God – They didn’t know why they hadn’t had a child, and God hadn’t told them. The silence of God is one of the most difficult realities we deal with in times of sorrow. It makes Him look indifferent to our suffering. Doesn’t He understand? Why doesn’t He do something? He is powerful enough, isn’t He? The pain of not knowing is grievous. Understanding makes hardship bearable, but meaningless suffering amplifies a trial.
God could have given the elderly couple the child without announcing it ahead of time, but He was gracious to reveal the plan. They had been appointed for a special assignment. Finally it was clear; God was waiting for the right time. Zechariah could have said, “Now I understand why we had to wait. God, your ways are good. Thank you for showing us.” But he spoke out of his wounding. He chose to doubt and thus insulted God’s messenger. His response was not appropriate in light of his maturity and his prayers. It was most likely the only visit he had ever received from an angel. The plans were astounding. They should have stunned him into speechless adoration and humbled him into willful submission.
Instead, he opened his mouth. Mistake number one. Then he expressed his reservation based on their condition. As if Gabriel were clueless concerning their age. As if this baffled the Almighty. Zechariah’s response was less than optimal.
God had revealed His purposes. A child, filled with the Spirit from birth, would bring a revival in the spirit of Elijah. What an exciting time for Israel-and for Zechariah: “In our home, in the womb of Elizabeth, a son-and not just any son, a Nazarite. He will need strong parents. What an honor. Far from being cursed, we are the objects of a special blessing.” A high-risk pregnancy becomes the occasion to praise God for His good plans. But unbelief prevents the vocal praise for nine months. And two lessons surface concerning unbelief.
Unbelief is an Insult – “I am Gabriel,” the angel responded. “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you the good news” (v.19). Then the bad news followed, a time of forced silence. There is discipline for unbelief, blessing for belief. Jesus marveled at two things during His days on earth-great faith and the lack of it. I want God to marvel at my faith, don’t you? I want to be prepared to believe Him for astounding things if He should speak them to me. I want to please Him, not insult Him, but “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). Doubt slaps God in the face.
Unbelief Steals Joy – Zechariah’s poor response to the angel meant that he could not share his joy with Elizabeth.
And what about Elizabeth? What can she teach us? She had come from a strong family. She had a rich heritage and a good husband, and they had good morals. So one would expect good favor. After all, don’t good things happen to good people? That was the accepted theology of the day. But something went wrong. No baby. No answer to prayer. Why did God withhold this gift? In times of pain, we may question God or ourselves. Either response can hurt us. It can lead to depression as we turn in on ourselves or to resentment as we close off our hearts to heaven.
Though Elizabeth had felt cursed, she obeyed God. “Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (v.6). But even if we obey, we can allow the heart to be wounded–by the unknown, by people and their questions: “Why didn’t you ever have a child? Was it anything you did?” The Scriptures set the record straight for us, describing Elizabeth’s integrity, but she didn’t have the information we have.
She, however, allowed the news of the birth to heal her heart: “‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people'” (v.25). She always had the favor, but it didn’t feel like favor in the mystery of God’s silence. Even though God was silent, people were not, and they made God’s quietness all the more deafening. When the angel told Mary about the miracle with her older relative Elizabeth, he said, “She who was said to be barren is in her sixth month” (v.36). She was not just “without child.” She was “barren,” and she didn’t know why. God’s ways are beyond our ways-and often beyond our knowing. We must trust His character when we cannot trace His paths (see Romans 11:32). God had a good plan, but it didn’t look that way. And God didn’t feel obligated to correct the wrong assumptions of people who made Elizabeth’s life more difficult. God is confident in His plans, even when they are misunderstood. He is not intimidated by our confusion. He looks for people who will rest in knowing that He is God and that He is good. He is purpose-driven, even when we don’t see the purpose.
God could have given John to young and active parents. Apparently He wanted a mature couple for this unique challenge of raising a forerunner. God could have told them, “I’m waiting because I need parents with strong character, and that is what I am producing during this desert time.” He could have told Joseph, “You’re getting ready for a prime minister position, so do your homework.” But God seldom chooses to pull back the curtain that far. He reveals enough for us to obey Him today. It’s a faith walk because we don’t know our tomorrow. When our circumstances say that God is not good and yet we trust His character over against our situation, good fruit is developed. Those who persevere when they feel like they are stumbling in the dark are making investments in a fruitful future.
Gabriel made a second trip for another birth announcement, not to Jerusalem but to an obscure town in Galilee. Instead of an old man, a young woman. Instead of a priest, a lay person. No life experience to make her ready. No seasoned knowledge of God’s ways. Gabriel’s report was even more impressive than in the first visit. He had said that the first son to be born would “go before the Lord…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (v17). But Gabriel spoke in a different tone about child number two: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (v.32,33).
Then Gabriel reported the trip five months previous and told the young girl about her expectant relative to encourage her faith to believe this astounding news, adding, “For nothing is impossible with God” (v.37). The angels had witnessed creation-the word spoken, the deed done. They had viewed the exodus and the giving of the law. They had seen it all. They could only worship the greatness of God, for whom nothing was impossible. They knew that God’s plans were often hidden behind the veil of human impossibilities. It was not hard for Gabriel to believe. But he had seen many in the history of the human race choose not to believe. The latest in his personal experience had been the old priest in Judea. But the young girl from Nazareth was another story. Gabriel had a different ride home this time. Not frustrated with the disbelief of a veteran, but marveling at the tender faith of a pious girl. God had made a good choice. She had described herself as Gabriel would describe himself: “I am the Lord’s servant”(v.38).
Young Mary traveled to Judea, knowing she would need the council of an experienced, and now pregnant, relative. She received far more than she had bargained for. God is more than willing to encourage the heart that trusts in Him. Elizabeth had been wounded, but she chose to let go of it. Wounding is a choice-and so is healing. As Graham Cooke says, “We don’t have a right to be wounded, but we have a right to be healed.” Some choose to stay wounded and thereby clog up the flow of the Spirit. Broken hearts that we allow God to heal become a powerful place for grace. Our greatest sorrow, when transformed, can become our greatest source of blessing, even as the wounds of Christ bring healing. It should encourage us to seek healing, not primarily for ourselves but so that we can be a conduit of divine grace. We need to remember that it is not illegal to experience sorrow. God is setting us up for something wonderful. What a privilege for Elizabeth to minister to the mother of the Messiah at the time of Mary’s greatest need. And both women teach us about faith-faith that takes us past failure (supposed or real) to the future, faith that trumps doubt and says, “Let it be.”
Elizabeth discovered what trusting hearts find–that pain has purpose, and that as we align ourselves with God’s redemptive plan, we become conduits of His mercy. We see that God doesn’t waste anything. The level of pain is now balanced by a compensating level of grace. Elizabeth had come into a fresh awareness of God’s kindness and wisdom, and she was in a new place of surrender. She realized that she was not under condemnation; she was under favor. And her affliction was the very soil God used to grow the fruit of the Spirit. But it wasn’t for her alone. It was now meant to be shared with Mary, who needed God’s perspective on her young life.
The meeting was the most remarkable encounter of two expectant mothers ever. Elizabeth showed rare discernment, possible only by radical openness to the Spirit of God. Elizabeth blessed Mary with the highest praise ever given a woman. But both women knew that Mary was not the great one. That was reserved for the baby growing within her womb. Yet her confidence in God’s ability was praiseworthy. Her humility made her open to trust in God. Her simplicity matched well with the mighty one she sang about. Listen to her song and remember that it was spoken spontaneously by a Jewish girl-and that it has been sung ever since. She didn’t aspire to greatness; she wished instead to exalt the one about whom Gabriel testified. She began, “My soul glorifies the Lord,” or as the Latin reads, “Magnificat” (v. 46).
Elizabeth delivered at home, while Mary was ninety miles from her town. Mary’s child was greeted not by friends and relatives but by shepherds and angels. And angels would play a significant role in His destiny, and He would one day become a shepherd, in fact, the Great Shepherd.
Will you join me in marveling at such an awesome plan? Will you praise the God who is confident in His plans? Will you believe Him to fulfill every good plan for you, even though you may now be in a place of pain or of not knowing? Zechariah had doubted, but Mary had said, “Let it be.” He had years to his advantage; she had faith. Elizabeth said it right: “Blessed is she who believed…” What did she believe? “…that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (v.45).
We can easily put limits on God: “She’s too old. I don’t have the finances. He’ll never be saved.” We forget that the God who created nature can bypass it with super-nature. We should not tell God what He is capable of doing. Gabriel knows better: “Nothing is impossible with God” (v.37). So we need not doubt His capacity to do anything. Healed wounds allow us to believe God for what He wants to do for us. And they also enable us to become channels of grace so that others can marvel with us at the goodness and power of God. What are you trusting in God for this Christmas?