Often the love we need most is the love we want least. The love feels so harsh, so blunt, so unpleasant in the moment that we often don’t even recognize it as love.
Sometimes the Lord’s love for us feels like the opposite of love, but that’s only because we can’t see everything he sees. Behind the real pain he allows is an even more real love for those for whom he sent his Son (John 3:16).
The world would never call any kind of pain “love.” The world simply does not have categories for God doing whatever necessary to draw us to himself — his strength, his righteousness, his help, his peace. But his love for us explodes the world’s small categories and far surpasses its weak expectations.
We see this kind of unexpected and painful love in Amos. God has done everything reasonable to awaken his people to their sin and to rescue them from their rebellion against him, but they simply will not relent.
He withheld food to make them hungry: “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6). God was willing to watch them hunger if that’s what it took for them to hunger for him, again.
He stopped the rain to make them thirsty: “I also withheld the rain from you when there were yet three months to the harvest; I would send rain on one city, and send no rain on another city; one field would have rain, and the field on which it did not rain would wither; so two or three cities would wander to another city to drink water, and would not be satisfied; yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:7–8). God was willing to let them thirst if that’s what it took for them to thirst for righteousness.
He corrupted the fields to ruin their harvest: “I struck you with blight and mildew; your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured; yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:9). God was willing to compromise his people’s livelihood if that’s what it took for them to look to him for all they needed.
Most devastating of all, he even killed their loved ones: One last time from Amos: “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses, and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; yet you did not return to me. . . . I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:10–11). God was willing even to see them die if that’s what it took for them to truly live.
He withheld food, “yet you did not return to me.” He withheld water, “yet you did not return to me.” He ruined the fields, “yet you did not return to me.” He even killed their loved ones, “yet you did not return to me.” God’s purpose was not destruction, but reconciliation. His motivation was not revenge, but compassion. He wasn’t wielding his power and justice mainly as punishment, but as invitation. In every ounce of suffering, he calls to his people, Come back to me.
We see this kind of love throughout the prophets. God is willing to withhold anything to bring his people home to himself. Again and again, the pain he allows is designed to lead us to comfort and hope and healing, not despair.
He allows us to suffer so that we would turn and receive compassion: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7). The pain may feel like God’s fierce anger in the moment, but it actually serves to reveal his warm compassion toward us. Joel writes, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13).
So that we would return and be healed: “The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them” (Isaiah 19:22). The Lord does take away. The Lord does strike. The Lord will tear. All that he may heal. Hosea sings, “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up” (Hosea 6:1).
So that we would return and be redeemed: “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22). When we return to the Lord, we don’t meet resistance or reluctance. This Father runs to receive his prodigal (Luke 15:20). We finally find redemption.
So that we would return and find rest: “Thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’ But you were unwilling” (Isaiah 30:15). When we suffer, enduring disappointment or rejection, wrestling with disease or disability, losing someone we loved, we may want rest more than anything — rest from the pain, from the questions, from the doubt, from the anxieties. Tragically, many of us run away from God to try and find rest, when the suffering is designed to lead us into real rest with him. God hangs the same banner over every trial: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28–29).
So that we would return and rejoice: “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10; 51:11). Satan prowls like a lion, waiting to devour the vulnerable. And because he preys on the weak and vulnerable, he often focuses on those who are suffering. The devil wants your life to be all sorrow and no joy, but God means for you to find deeper, more durable joy in your sorrow and suffering (2 Corinthians 6:10). When we begin to see all that God does for us through adversity, we not only learn to tolerate our weaknesses and afflictions, we “boast all the more gladly” in them (2 Corinthians 12:9).
So that we would return and have God: “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart” (Jeremiah 24:7). In the end, the sweetest gift God gives us when he wounds us is that he gives us more of himself. When we return to God, we get God (1 Peter 3:18). He is not some unnamed supernatural postman delivering what we need, and then being forgotten behind his gifts. He is the first and greatest gift he gives to any of us. And he is worth whatever we must lose or suffer to have him.
God pleads for his people to return — to come home — but the passage in Amos 4 ends ominously. The Lord himself warns Israel,
Whether we return to God or not when we’re wounded, we will meet him one day. The suffering we experience now is designed to bring us to him as a precious son or daughter. But if we refuse, we will meet him as an enemy, and our suffering will be far worse forever. An eternity apart from him, and against him, will make years of pain and heartache look strangely light and momentary by comparison.
Don’t be afraid to feel the pain in suffering, and to grieve the pain, but let it lead you to God, not away from him. He is wounding you with love, and pleading with you to run to him.