[For the IVP Authors’ Lenten Blog Tour]

God’s rescue operations can feel like assault operations. At times, it is hard to distinguish between salvation and affliction.

Mark Chagall: "Exodus"

A sea was parted for my family about a year and half ago. After ten years of collecting airline mileage points in hopes of me doing a PhD program in England, my wife was finally on the phone with a ticketing agent. While accumulating mileage points, though, we were also accumulating children. Four of them. We only had half the necessary mileage points, and no real funds to make up the difference. The ticketing agent then mentioned that for the first time in its history, the airline was accepting points for one-way tickets, not just round-trip. “Would one-way work?”

We had 165,768 points. The amount required was 165,000. “Oh, yes, one-way will work.”

The evidence of providence was surely in the close figures. We stepped forward for the exciting trek ahead.

Then came the most distressing season of our adult lives—months of juggling insane schedules while plodding on toward wider, stormier seas left unparted. We were not sure we would board that flight until three weeks before departure. But we did. Another sea was crossed—literally. Thank You, Lord….

….And then an even more difficult season ensued.

All these partings seemed to be leading not to deliverance but to disaster. I complain a lot. I pelt desperate prayers skyward. I just want to follow God’s lead. Why must he complicate and obscure the path at every turn?

I find myself echoing a rather unheroic voice in Scripture: the voice of Israel in the wilderness.

The Exodus out of Egypt is the Old Testament prototype of God’s salvation. It must have seemed an odd way “to save” for the Israelites. In many respects, it was a botched rescue op from the beginning that felt more like oppression. Moses to Pharaoh: Let them go. Pharaoh to Israel: Make more bricks… and get your own straw. Israel to Moses: “You have put a sword in [Egypt’s] hand to kill us” (Ex 5:21).

This was a deliverance marked by a river swollen with blood, by heaps of rotting frog-flesh, by eerie nighttime wails in the homes of unbloodied lintels—

What kind of rescue plan is this? You call this “salvation”?

To be sure, when the sea parted, there was singing and dancing. Worship. Finally, amidst nightmarish plagues, there was the taste of freedom.

But not the taste of food. Or water.

Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full… (Ex 16:3).

Egypt’s oppression seemed better than God’s deliverance. Divine rescue felt like divine attack. This “salvation” seemed too painful, too risky, too costly. What kind of salvation is this?

And what kind of Savior is this?

The hope of Canaan seemed pathetic consolation. God advertised the place as flowing with milk and honey… and also with Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites and Amorites. This is a salvation that lands you in a desert, that thrusts you before the spears of unknown enemies.

And yet the Exodus is the paradigmatic portrayal in Israel’s Scriptures of the salvation of God and of God as Savior.

How does that affect our soteriology?

God’s salvation requires intense acculturation. To be extracted from Egypt and acclimated to life before YHWH, intense seasons of painful re-orientation must follow the dramatic ripping of seas. We must be wary of rosy depictions of salvation as the Christianized “good life.” Salvation sometimes hurts.

Lent, however, reminds us that salvation ultimately hurts the Savior more than the saved.

When Jesus talked on the Transfiguration Mount with Moses and Elijah about his upcoming “departure” in Jerusalem, the Greek word used is “exodus” (Lk 9:31).

What kind of salvation is this? One that requires a lot of ripping. The ripping of a sea, of the sky, of a curtain veil. One that requires the death of a lamb… and of a King’s Son. Not Pharaoh’s son this time. The Son of the Saving God. What kind of Savior is this? One who gives blood and water better than milk and honey. It’s not the Nile that turns to blood this time. It’s the wine. This is a Savior who may lead us into barren wastelands… but one who has endured himself the full brunt of salvation’s pain. The wider sea left unparted now has an inaugural gash. The open hole of Jesus’ tomb is a puncture-wound in the sea of Death.

I am not sure what sort of salvation this is. But it is the only kind strongest enough for me. And for you.

[Past installments in this series are written by Rachel Stone, Margot Starbuck, J. Brent Bill, and Logan Mehl-Laituri. The next posts will be from Valerie Hess, Beth Booram, and Chad Young.]

7 thoughts on “When Salvation Hurts

  1. Oh so true. But one wonders how many of the potentially saved fall away at the price of the salvation. Yes the price that Jesus paid is so much more than what we can ever give, but the limits of human endurance is not so great as what God can endure. I do not see the truth in 1 Corinthians 10:13: God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
    The only escape for some it seems is to walk away from God.

  2. Hi, Donna. I just appreciate your honesty so much. Falling away “at the price of the salvation…”—wow. And, of course, that is just what happened to many of the Israelites. The book of Hebrews is written to urge us onward in the midst of terrible suffering since Christ can relate to being stretched to “the limits of human endurance.”

    I think 1 Cor 10:13 gets misinterpreted a lot. It becomes “God will never give you more than you can handle.” I write against that interpretation in my book on disillusion and cynicism, because in reality it seems as though God gives us WAY MORE than we can handle (and 1 Cor 10:13 is written in the context of resisting sin, specifically idolatry). Paul actually writes about God allowing him to experience more than he could handle in 2 Corinthians ch. 1. God sometimes permits suffering beyond the limits of our endurance that we feel “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor 1:8). In the darkness, though, Paul lunged helplessly toward God rather than away from Him. That lunge in the dark is probably the greatest act of faith we can ever muster in the human experience.

    You are not alone in thinking this way. I am so glad you voiced it. Feel free to keep up the comment stream, or you can email—byers.andrew3@gmail.com.

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