Category Archives: suffering

‘A star in the jaws of the clouds’

Never in human history has such goodness encountered such evil.

On a Friday a man was condemned to death. This man was marked by more love than the world had ever seen—read the stories of how he treated the sick, the social outcasts, women, children, his enemies. And marked by more truth than the world had ever known—he more than anyone else is universally acclaimed as the greatest teacher ever. Most remarkably, his death sentence was orchestrated by leaders of the most enlightened religious system of the day—its Scriptures recount the moral failings of its heroes and judge the rich and powerful by how they behave toward the poor. And his execution was carried out by the most powerful empire of that day using the most barbarous means ever devised—no death is more humiliating, agonized and prolonged.

Surely evil had won. The reigning powers had joined in its deeds. The brilliant pinpoint of light, the beautiful ideal seen in this man seemed, as Victor Hugo wrote, “small, isolated, …threatened on all sides by the dark forces that surround it.” Surely it would soon be extinguished. Never! That light, Hugo continued, was “no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds.”

There is a Power far above and beyond the powers of empire and religion. In some way, full of mystery, this crucified man was the embodiment of that Power. empty tomb“In him was life, and that life was the light for all people. The light shines and the darkness cannot lay hold of it” (John 1:4-5). The darkness cannot catch this light, cannot comprehend it or overpower it! And so those who were his followers, first women and then men, witnessed this man alive on the third day.

We wonder why God didn’t stop Friday with its overwhelming unfairness and ugliness and horror and go right to Sunday. Surely suffering is pointless, right? But as James Stewart, the great Scottish theologian, writes,

They nailed him to the tree, not knowing that by that very act they were bringing the world to his feet.

They gave him a cross, not guessing that he would make it a throne.

They flung him outside the gates to die, not knowing that in that very moment they were lifting up all the gates of the universe, to let the King of Glory come in. …

He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it.

When life seems unfair and people heartless and death near, when evil seems to threaten all hope and our hearts start to crumble in confusion and sorrow, let us remember that this One who came among us and loved us is also a Power far above and beyond all the forces of hate and darkness. On that Friday, contrary to what things seemed, good was winning. Somehow evil was being used to gain an even greater good. In the end, this One—and those who align with him—will always win.

Monument to a good tragedy

Did you know there is a monument dedicated to a pest?! It stands in the center of Enterprise, Alabama, 13 feet high.

A hundred years ago the South’s economy depended almost entirely upon one crop: cotton. But the boll weevil, a beetle that feeds on cotton buds and flowers, made its way—at the rate of 100 miles a year—up from Mexico. It reached southern Alabama in 1915, destroying much of that year’s cotton crop and plunging the region’s economy into depression. The next years farmers lost their entire crop of cotton to the beetle.

But not everyone was losing all their crop. In 1916 one farmer decided to plant peanuts. This was the time when George Washington Carver was researching and popularizing new uses for the peanut, so the crop sold well, and the farmer paid off all his debts. Soon all followed him. What’s more, planting a different crop was good for soil which had been depleted by years of cotton crops.

Very quickly the people were able to recognize that the boll weevil plague was one of the best things to ever happen to their agricultural-based economy. They might never have considered peanuts, and eventually crop rotation, if they had not been forced to do so by the pest. monument in Enterprise, AL A local businessman named Bon Fleming came up with the idea of a monument in the heart of the town’s business district, and helped to finance the cost. It was dedicated in December 1919. The oddity of a shrine to a pest has brought tourists out of their way to see it.

Two lessons for us:

● When disaster strikes in our lives, we can react in complaining and despair, or we can respond in trust and hope, waiting to see how God might use our troubles for our good. Somehow as we look back over our life, we see a pattern of growth as we go through hard times.

● When we begin to glimpse some of the goodness that has come our way through a trial or tragedy, let’s pause and give thanks. Maybe even find a creative way to memorialize the tragedy and the corresponding goodness. A way that will draw others to give thanks too. Maybe even for generations.

Arranged marriage and an arranged life

Philip Yancey, one of my favorite authors, wrote about a friend from India. When Vijay was 15 years old, his parents decided to find Vijay a wife. They considered all the young girls they knew in their social circles and decided that Martha was the one for Vijay to marry. At this point Martha was 13; she and Vijay had met, briefly, only once.

The four parents got together and agreed on a wedding date eight years away. newlyweds in IndiaOnly then did they tell the two who they would be marrying. During the next eight years, Vijay and Martha saw each other only twice, with close supervision. They moved in together, husband and wife, as virtual strangers. Yet, Yancey says, their marriage is as secure and loving as any he has known. Many marriages in Asia and Africa are like that.

I read that story while preparing a couple sermons on suffering. And the thought struck me: is Vijay’s trust in his parents a picture of the trust we can have as God arranges our life?

We Westerners tend to approach life the same way we approach marriage—we act like we should have the final say in choosing our life circumstances as well as our mates.

Indeed, we do have control over much of our life. We make many real choices which determine much of our life situation. Nonetheless, much of life is out of our hands. Elections may or may not go our way. We may not be able to stop accidents or loss of health. We cannot always get the job we want or the income we need. In those moments is our attitude one of trust in God? Do we approach life placing the kind of trust in God that Vijay placed in his parents?

It’s not that God directly orders all the things in life that we don’t choose. People around us also shape what happens. And the Bible talks about Satan affecting our life (think of the story of Job). Yet God somehow remains in charge (again think of the story of Job). In some way, God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). We read many stories of this in the Bible (e.g., Genesis 50:20; Acts 2:23, 4:27-28), many examples of God working all things, even horrible things, together for good (Romans 8:28).

Can you and I have the same attitude of trust in our heavenly Parent that Vijay had in his parents? When we are permitted to make a life choice, we will seek to choose well. But when our life situation is beyond our control, we will trust in the One who oversees all and is able to arrange our life to fit into the plan that is best.

An indomitable mood in our suffering

Our culture can give us the idea that we are entitled to a life without hardship and struggle. Persons around us assume, for instance, that we humans have the right to end our life if all seems hopelessly overwhelming, that we must free singles to find a sexual partner if celibacy seems a burden too hard to bear.

But often periods of agony and loss and depression are what deepen our life and faith so greatly. Indeed, walking a hard road can be refining and rewarding as well as hard, building deeper character and compassion and reliance on God and the church.

There is an Author Unknown poem that captures the indomitable mood that this faith gives us. Read it aloud and you’ll not only see it in the words, but hear it and feel it in the sound of the words!

When God wants to drill someone, and thrill someone and skill someone,
When God wants to mold someone to play the noblest part,
When He yearns with all His heart to create so great and bold a one
That all the world should be amazed,
Watch His methods, watch His ways:
How He ruthlessly perfects whom He royally elects;
How He hammers them and hurts them,
And with mighty blows converts them into shapes and forms of clay
Which only God can understand,
While our tortured heart is crying and we lift beseeching hands;
Yet God bends but never breaks when our good He undertakes;
How He uses whom He chooses,
And with mighty power infuses one,
With every act induces one to try His splendor out,
God knows what He’s about.

Especially as Thanksgiving season approaches next week, let’s be giving thanks to God “in all circumstances” (1 Thes. 5:18) and “for everything” (Eph. 5:20). As we live our lives in faith and obedience, even loss and pain will eventually make us better, not bitter!

Bits of wisdom and passion

Enjoy two pieces that I collected over the years. First, some wisdom. Then some Christian passion!

I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright, and enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive, and enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting, and enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.

[adapted from “I Wish You Enough” by Bob Perks, in one of the many Chicken Soup books.]

Now here’s someone passionate in our faith!

I’m part of the fellowship of the unashamed. I have stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still. My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, my future is secure. I’m finished and done with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, mundane talking, cheap living, and dwarfed goals. I no longer need preeminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded. I now live by faith and lean on His presence. My face is set, my road is narrow, my way rough, my companions few, my Guide reliable, my mission clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, deterred, lured away, turned back, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of the adversary, or meander in the maze of mediocrity. I won’t give up, shut up, let up, till I have preached up, prayed up, paid up, stored up, and stayed up for the cause of Christ. I am a disciple of Jesus. I must go till He comes, give till I drop, preach till all know, and work till He stops me.

[Found in many forms on the web; one site attributes it to “David Guinn, FBC Waco college ministry, 1987-89.”]

Don’t tune out the good things

Interested in a simple exercise that can boost how you relate with God and with persons around you?!

At any moment in our lives, there are many more things going on around us than we can consciously focus on. So we must “tune out” wide swathes of life so our mental circuits don’t overload.

Unfortunately, one class of things that we “tune out” are the recurring good events or elements in our life; we tend to go through our days ignoring that whole group because we are used to them. Even more unfortunate, these are the most valuable parts of our lives – good things so consistent that we depend on them and expect them to be there for us. Here we are, taking some of the most important blessings in life for granted! Instead, what we notice most are the events that disrupt their occurrence!

The simple exercise that can reverse this whole unfortunate pattern is the discipline of gratefulness. This is a choice to notice and remark on some of the multitude of good things that happen so consistently that they can pass unnoticed, a choice to fight our natural tendency to “tune out” such things. Instead we deliberately “tune in” to them (1 Thes. 5:18).

Think of a difficult relationship, perhaps a co-worker or family member. This person is a mixture of both good and bad. If we continue the natural pattern (automatically noticing the bad, not the good), our emotions about the person are more negative than necessary. Without the discipline of choosing to look for and affirm the positive, we give ourselves a diminished person to relate to: we go into interactions with them with our mind full of how they disappoint us but not full of what they do right.

Similarly, God seems a mixture: regularly giving good gifts that we count on (and take for granted) and then at times taking those good things away (which we notice). We have a choice: do we dwell on the pain and loss? Or do we choose to focus on the many instances of God’s goodness present even in the midst of suffering? Giving thanks does not eliminate our questions about God. But it does fill our minds with the overwhelming indications of God’s love, and move us toward joy and trust!

Can I sing in the rain

The cat at our house is a gorgeous calico whose sole job in life is to lay there and look beautiful. Her hair is quite long and perhaps because we don’t brush her enough—or because our dog uses her as a chew toy—her fur sometimes forms into clumps that her tongue can no longer subdue. So Karen or I put her on our laps and try to untangle the mess with our fingers; if that fails, we cut it out with a scissors. Neither process feels pleasant, as she tells us by her tail. But she stays put. She somehow chooses to trust us, to act like—in spite of the pain—we intend her good.

Most of us would say that we trust God as much as our cat trusts us. But do we act like it when we find ourselves in uncomfortable, unpleasant, and even painful circumstances?

The other morning I read Psalm 57, a song David sang “when he had fled from Saul into the cave,” a time when “those who hotly pursue me” seemed like “ravenous beasts—men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.” But David chose to continue to trust God. Intermixed with his lament and pain, there is also an upwelling of trust and praise that inspired a worship song I have often sung:

I will give thanks to Thee, / O Lord, among the people…
For Thy steadfast love is great, / Is great to the heavens.

Author Bob Reccord writes about a time of severe neck injury when the only way he could relieve the pain was to use a strong, prescribed narcotic and to lie on bags of ice. In the middle of that experience, on a cold, rainy day, he was sitting in a screened-in porch. Suddenly a bird landed on the railing and began to sing. Bob couldn’t believe any creature had a reason to sing on such a day. He wanted to shoot the bird, but had no choice but to listen.

The next day was bright, sunny, and warm. As Bob again sat on the porch, tempted to feel sorry for himself, suddenly the bird returned. And was singing again! Then a truth hit Bob: the bird sang in the cold rain as well as the sunny warmth. His song was not shaped by outward circumstances but by something inside.

May we all let an inner sense of trust in God form our attitude rather than let it be set by our external circumstances.