If you make the Most High your dwelling--
even the LORD, who is my refuge--
then no harm will befall you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. (Psalm 91:9-12)
Let's level. How many times have we been reassured by our parents, pastor or Bible that God will look out for us, that he will not allow a hair on our head to be harmed, that "no disaster will come near our tent". How many of us have taken deep comfort in these verses...
Until we got cancer. Or lost a baby. Or were injured in a car wreck. Then (c'mon, admit it) such words sound like mockery and we have to ask ourselves what we are to make of these promises of protection which pepper the Christian faith? Are they, after all, just bunk? Are we somehow lacking in faith when something terrible happens? What sort of protection is it that allows God's chosen ones to get beat up on a regular basis?
Let's take a good look at this Psalm 91--one of the classic biblical assurances of protection for God's faithful. All the typical promises are there:
Surely he will save you from the fowler's snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday. (Psalm 91:3-6)
It would seem the case for God's protection is stated about as plainly as could be here. If you are a child of God, it appears, "no harm will befall you... it will not come near you." You'll be shielded from trouble by spiritual plexiglas. You won't feel a thing. God's protection is protection from evil, pure and simple...
So it seems. Lots of TV preachers tell us so. What's more, a very famous biblical figure endorsed this one-sided view of God's protection.
Trouble is: his name is Satan.
Then the devil took [Jesus] to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: "'He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'" (Matthew 4:5-6)
Now Jesus did not agree with the Sinmeister's spin on Psalm 91. "It is also written," he replied, "'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'" He seemed to feel that being Son of God did not guarantee him carte blanche protection from pain, psalm or no psalm. Why might this be?
Jesus, of course, is Jewish. So a good place to begin answering this question is with the Jewish Scripture, the Old Testament. In its pages we find a striking understanding of God's protection. Look, for example, at the very first description of the human drama of good and evil, embodied in the words of God to the serpent:
"I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel." (Genesis 3:15)
Note what this doesn't say. It does not say the serpent will never strike our heel. That is, it does not say God will always necessarily protect us from pain. But it does say the serpent's head will be crushed--that is, that we will (by God's grace) be protected through pain.
Protection through pain? An odd concept, so let's see some more biblical pictures to get the hang of it. Check out Exodus, one of the classic tales of God's protection. The Ten Plagues, the Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, all the Cecil B. DeMille stuff we all remember. The Israelites came through without a scratch, protected from evil by the divine plexiglas. But look again, is that the only kind of protection they were given? No. They were not only protected from suffering, far more often they were protected through it as well. They were protected through years of slavery, through the brutal reign of Pharaoh just before the Exodus, through the grueling years of wandering in the desert. God was with them, saving them from destruction, but not in the easy way we might have thought.
Now the Exodus is the model for the biblical understanding of God's protection. As such, we find echoes of this experience of protection both from and through suffering throughout Scripture. Look at Isaiah. On the one hand we have the story of God's miraculous defeat of Sennacharib's vast Assyrian army--another classic picture of protection from evil (Isaiah 36-37). This mob of thugs had stomped over every town between Nineveh and Zion on its way to camping on the doorstep of Jerusalem. Things looked pretty grim as these ancient Nazis sent messengers out to brag to the Israelites about all the kings they had killed and cities they had crushed. But Isaiah prophesied that Sennacharib would not enter Jerusalem nor shoot an arrow there. And he didn't. Instead his army was mysteriously decimated by plague within a short time and Sennacharib limped back home--to be assassinated by his two charming sons.
But protection from evil wasn't all Isaiah prophesied. He (and all the prophets) also warned of disaster for Israel. Terrible suffering was imminent, they cried, because of Israel's sins. But, the disaster was not going to be the end for Israel. Yes, they would face conquest, deportation, captivity and humiliation, but they would not face final, utter rejection by God. Israel would be protected through these things and be brought at last safely home.
Now let's return to the New Testament. The same pattern can be seen in Christ. On the one hand, Jesus was, on several occasions, saved from evil. He was miraculously protected from Herod. He somehow walked safely through the mob at Nazareth who wanted to toss him off a cliff. He escaped a stoning at Jerusalem. But lest we start thinking Old Scratch was right about this protection stuff after all, just recall the other side of the coin. For Son of God though he is, Jesus was not always protected from suffering. He was, Isaiah reminds us, "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." He "had nowhere to lay his head", he endured hunger, poverty, thirst, misunderstanding, whispering campaigns, hatred, betrayal and a horrifying death. Indeed, all the divinely-engineered escapes from suffering had as their goal the terrible rendezvous with the scourge, the crown of thorns and the dull iron spikes. As he himself said a few days before his crucifixion, "What shall I say? 'Father save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!" (John 12:27-28). In the crowning moment of his life, the Son of God was not protected from death, but through it to Resurrection and endless Joy.
That is why he answered the devil as he did. Jesus, knowing where he came from and where he was going, knew what protection is and is not for. Knowing the words of Psalm 91:13 (conveniently overlooked by the old serpent), Jesus knew that protection was given so that he could, for our sake, "trample the great lion and the serpent" by his death on Calvary. He knew that God's protection is not for the salvation of our checkbook or our comfort. It is not a force field for fools who want to leap off tall temples in a single bound.
God's protection is for getting us safely to Heaven. Period. For Christ, the central question wasn't "to suffer or not to suffer" but "to love or not to love". That is why he taught us to pray "lead us not into temptation"--temptation both of God and ourselves. For it is temptation, often occasioned by suffering, that imperils love: the temptation to experiment on God like he was a bug ("If you are the Son of God, see if you can get away with this!") and the temptation to think God regards us as bugs when things get really tough ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). Thus, the question for us is not "Will I suffer?" (I will.) The question is: "Will I remain faithful to love, trust and obey God as Christ did when things get bad?"
At the heart of the Faith, then, is the Cross of Christ, his command that we bear it, and his promise that he will help us. For the Cross is, quite simply, the only way to Heaven. If you imitate Jesus you may very well be protected from evil in some amazing ways. Peter found this out when an angel escorted him from the slammer on the eve of his execution. But, more importantly, Peter experienced protection through evil. For the same Jesus who sent the angel also prophesied the crucifixion by which Peter would glorify God. Likewise, with some of us, God's love will be manifested in protection from evil that we may grow in love this way. For others, that same love will be manifested in protection through evil so that some great gift of love may be given in this way (2 Cor. 12:7-8). For still others, suffering will visit us as it visited Christ, not because of our sin but because of the sins of others, that we may become, not just recipients, but agents of love and forgiveness. (An enormous amount of suffering is of this kind. Had we our wits about us when it comes, we would recognize it as a divine compliment. We are being treated like God's own Son.) Thus we may, like Peter, be miraculously rescued, yet we must remember that all these things are done to put us on a trajectory for heaven. Sooner or later we will not and must not be "rescued" from the Cross because the Cross is our only hope of rescue from the Death that is worse than death.
Pray then (and fight) to be led not into temptation and delivered from evil. Know for certain that, sometimes sooner and sometimes later, you shall be. Make war on suffering (especially your neighbor's) at every turn, as Jesus does. But recognize as well that the Cross stands at the intersection of Heaven and Earth, good and evil, life and death. For it is with a nail that we are marked as God's own children--"heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory" (Romans 8:17).