For When You Don’t Know Why

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Today I told the story of Moses and the bronze serpent on a stick to my Sunday school class.

They’re four, so we started off class by slithering on our stomachs and hissing for 30 seconds and ended with some solid coloring time, but in between we talked about complaining and faith and consequences and grace.

I told them that the Israelites complained (again) and that God sent poisonous snakes to bite them.

That when they realized they were dying from these snake bites, they cried out to their God to save them.

The God whom they had just shaken their fists at, wishing he’d left them behind in Egypt before he broke the whole world open with miracles like they had never seen before. Wishing he’d left them alone when he’d been working his redemption out through them all along.

But something, maybe seeing the glory of God on the face of Moses, perhaps the pillar of fire that had led them by night, or the manna that appeared every morning to nourish them, something reminded them that this was the God who had cared for them this far.

Hearing the stories back to back, week to week, my little class is no longer surprised by the complaining or the provision. The Israelites complain and God provides, and that’s the story week in and week out.

They even know about consequences for sin, so the snakes weren’t necessarily a surprise. They knew that God would provide a way out, like he always has, like he always will.

Does God always take care of his people? has been a consistent question in this class, and the resounding refrain is, “Yes! No matter what.”

So I told them that Moses went before God on behalf of God’s own people. I told them that God had him make a bronze snake and put it on a stick and that those bitten by the snakes could look on it and live instead of dying. We talked about how the snake itself wasn’t magic, that God was the only one with power to heal like that, that he was showing his power and love for his people, again.

God had cared for his people again, just like he always did. It wrapped up neatly (especially because our 4 year old audience had by this point become more than a little wiggly).

We split into smaller groups to talk and pray, and one precious girl tapped me on the shoulder as I sat down.

“Did God take away the snakes?”

I thought for a moment, looked back at the passage.

Well, no. It says that the people were still being bitten, but they could look at the snake on a stick and live.”

“Do snakebites hurt?”

“Yeah, I think they do, I think they hurt a lot. Some people were dying from them, so these must have been pretty bad snake bites.”

“But why wouldn’t he just get rid of the snakes?”

Why wouldn’t God just get rid of the snakes?

Somehow, for some reason, God’s grace and mercy here was not to remove the suffering of his people, but simply to change its outcome.

 

“I don’t know, honey.” I said it pretty quietly at first, not wanting to draw the whole group into this mess, but she asked again, louder.

“But why would God hurt his people even after he forgave them?”

 

I took her tiny hand in mine and looked around the circle at the other littles, all fixated on me for perhaps the first time all morning.

“We don’t always know why God does what he does. We know there are consequences for sin, and we know that God always wants to show his power and glory to everyone, but I know that those answers don’t really understand why he would let people he loves get hurt.”

I took a deep breath.

“There are still times today when it feels like God is allowing the people he loves to get hurt, even when we know he is powerful enough to stop bad things from happening to them. I promise you, there will be times in your lives when you will wonder why God let something happen to you. And I don’t know why, and I’m not sure we’ll ever know why here on earth.

“Instead, I think the question we need to answer is, ‘Even if I don’t know why, do I believe that God is always caring for me?’”

I released her little hand and she slid out of her chair, onto the floor, and smushed an ant. “There are millions of ants down here!” she exclaimed.

She’s four. That seems like about the right response.

 

She won’t remember this day, or these words, but she will remember the stories. She’ll remember the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, all the way back to the promise to Abraham. She’ll remember that they wandered in the wilderness, and she’ll remember the bronze snake.

And so maybe she will remember that even when we don’t know why or how, that the real question isn’t why or how but the same question the Israelites forgot over and over and over again.

Does God always take care of his people?

It’s the question I wrestle with more than any other. In the face of death and disease, heartbreak and famine, anxiety and loneliness, how can it be that this is how God cares for his people?

Why doesn’t God just take away the suffering?

Does God always take care of his people?

And it’s the answer I see most clearly in hindsight, in the stories of the Israelites, in the weaving of a love story, in the redeemed pain and remade world.

Does God always take care of his people?

The answer has to be a resounding yes. It has been until now, surely he will not leave us here.

I forget, just as we all do, just as the Israelites did.

And yet he provides.

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