Have you ever noticed that whenever you go to the beach, half the beach comes back with you? Sand has this unique property of being able to get absolutely everywhere. It seems particularly attracted to sandwiches. And even weeks after a trip it still shows up in items of clothing and all around the house.
Imagine then what it would be like to live in the desert, spending every moment of every day permanently surrounded by sand. Everything you eat, everything you wear, everywhere you look, all covered in sand.
This is the life God’s people lived for forty years. Things had been going so well – they’d made their escape from Egypt and were heading towards the Promised Land, and then, disaster. The Israelites started complaining when things got tough. Complaining turned into disobedience and rebellion, which led to a whole generation struggling to survive in the harsh desert wilderness. The sand was their nemesis, an impossible to escape picture of the daily suffering they faced.
But maybe there was more to it than this. The sand was a reminder of hardship and a promise not yet fulfilled. But it was also a reminder of another promise already fulfilled in abundance: that God would make the descendants of Abraham more numerous than all the sand on the seashore. Blessings and suffering wrapped up into one. Promises now and not yet.
This is the mystery of the God whose ultimate victory came in a humiliating, lonely, excruciating death on a cross.
Jesus turns the world upside down – the last will be first, in our weakness He is strong, forgiveness overcomes bitterness. All these ideas are brought together in one supreme act of love and loss – and dismissed as foolishness by an onlooking world. It’s obvious when you meet someone who has suffered, and yet not let their suffering overcome them. The peace and the wisdom they carry seems somehow more weighty, more grounded, more real. It may not have been part of the original plan, but remember, Jesus turns everything on its head: suffering has a profound part to play in God’s purposes for the world.
So what in your life feels like sand? Perhaps its fallout from broken family relationships; mourning for past loss; struggles with your body image or identity in the world; insecurities as a son, daughter, parent or spouse; guilt or regret for past mistakes. A struggle you just can’t escape whichever way you turn, that shows up in the most unexpected corners of your life: reluctance to commit because of past hurt; unresolved anger vented on those we love; a chronic lack of confidence leaving us feeling trapped.
But, as with the literal sand of the Israelites’ desert wanderings, it is God’s way for there to be blessings wrapped up in your sufferings, and promises that God is going to fulfil. We are not defined by our suffering, and no one would deliberately choose the hardest path. But our difficult times can become part of what makes us the unique people we are, able to serve each other in ways no one else can.
This is the power and the grace of God. The same power and grace that eventually brought the people to the Promised Land; which raised Jesus back to life; and which stirs now in us, transforming us into his likeness, restoring us to wholeness, and propels us out into the world to bring blessing wherever there is suffering.