When the Bible talks about the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 23:26-32, it speaks as follows: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people. And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your Sabbath.” In reading this passage, it ought to be obvious that this day is about afflicting our souls, most obviously through fasting. Obviously, affliction is something we generally do not seek for ourselves, but often despite our best intentions and most strenuous efforts, sometimes against our wishes we happen to find it anyway. It may seem odd that a Holy Day of God would deal so strongly with the subject of affliction , so let us look at least a little bit today at the subject of affliction, and its implications for our lives.
The Bible itself speaks about affliction in a variety of ways. At times, as in Exodus 22:21-23, there is a solemn warning not to afflict the vulnerable in the society, lest one face God’s wrath: “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. “You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry.” At other times, there is a statement about the sad state of wives who are neglected by their husbands, as in Genesis 29:31-33: “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. So Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben; for she said, “The Lord has surely looked on my affliction. Now therefore, my husband will love me.” Then she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon.” At other times affliction can be physical disease, as in Deuteronomy 7:15: “And the Lord will take away from you all sickness, and will afflict you with none of the terrible diseases of Egypt which you have known, but will lay them on all those who hate you.” Here we can see that affliction itself can refer to any sort of burden, from exploitation and slavery (it is also used of Israel’s slavery in Egypt) to relationship problems to sickness and illness, in addition to fasting. Anything that causes us to feel low, to feel frustrated or downhearted in any fashion is an affliction, whether it is an ailment of the body, the heart, the mind, or the spirit.
Often, affliction seems to carry with it the concern of judgment. In Ruth 1:21, Naomi wishes to be called Mara (bitter) because of her feeling that the losses of her husband and sons were part of the heavy hand of God to her, not realizing that God intended to bring her comfort and a family through Ruth’s marriage to Boaz. Similarly, the friends of Job viewed the obvious affliction he was suffering as a sign of some deep and secret sin, because a righteous man would surely not suffer that way from God’s hand. Yet God restored life and health and family and blessings to Job and even restored a sense of awe, even if he never explained to Job exactly why that suffering and affliction was necessary in the first place. We are often too quick to judge ourselves or other people in the face of affliction. To be sure, some affliction is judgment, brought on ourselves because of our follies or vices, but other affliction appears to be given as a way of increasing perseverance and (ultimately) building trust and faith in God. This appears to be related very strongly to the affliction that we are to suffer on the Day of Atonement as well. This is a day of mercy rather than judgment for believers. To be sure, there is judgment laid on the hands of two goats, one of whom is to die for the sins of Israel so that they may be reconciled to God, and another goat who bears the sins of Israel alive into the wilderness. Yet this is also a day of great mercy, whether it was seen by the High Priest’s ability to enter the Holy of Holies without condemnation or the restoration of lands on the Jubilee to families whose ancestors had been forced to sell due to their poverty and need.
Ultimately, the afflictions of the righteous are for our benefit rather than for our sorrow. Our present suffering and anxiety, as considerable as it is, is designed for a future of glory and honor. It is not pleasant to afflict our souls for a day, or to be afflicted by some ailment or crisis of life for years upon years without resolution. Yet sometimes we lack a vision of how the present afflictions we face can end up to our benefit. I recently finished reading a book that was about half a dozen founding fathers of the United States , and the book showed these great men to have had a nature not unlike myself. Some of them came from abusive and broken family backgrounds, dealt with severe difficulties because of their mental and emotional burdens, and yet they were great men. Some of them developed legendary capacities of self-restraint to preserve their dignity, despite their considerable anger and frustration, others found close friends (sometimes even their wives) with whom they could unburden their souls and build respect and intimacy in conversation and letters. The fires of adversity and the afflictions suffered ultimately served to refine their characters and allow them the strength of character to make history (in a good way). Some of us have had to face burdens and difficulties that cannot help but afflict us, sometimes for life. We have heavy burdens that we bear as bravely and well as we can as long as God’s hand is heavy on us, and yet these burdens often carry with them growth in persistence, in virtue, in empathy and understanding and compassion for others who suffer, and in an intense fire for justice and truth that cannot be quenched. For we know that however difficult our lot in life, someday the affliction will be over, but the glory is eternal.
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