Or what is good about any day that includes suffering?
“You are known to have a bottle Lord, that’s holding all my tears,”
and only you can know the scope of all those yester-years
I spent them all in agony forging out my life,
Thinking that the things I did would give me more than strife.
Looking back on scenes of old, I hide my face in shame,
to see the sorrow I often brought upon your holy name.
But tears still flow from un-shamed eyes because I see that now,
Instead of bad you meant for good and my heart I humbly bow.
Those tears do mingle in that jar, the salt and sweet combine,
Because from sorrow you have giv’n joy that now alone is mine.
Mary R. Castillo (1953-1996)
It was a head on collision. The teenage girl that caused the accident and her three friends were drunk, but they survived. The sweet old grandmother in the other car did not. Her grandson Tab Jordan took me to see the pick-up truck that she and his grandfather were driving. It was nothing but a wad of bent metal. It was a miracle that the grandfather had survived. Tab desperately wanted to see some good come from this horrible death. He decided that he wanted to be the one to tell the teenage girl and her family that his grandmother had died in the crash. He wanted to soften the blow. He wanted to somehow communicate the good love of God in a bad situation. He explained how they had found the strength to forgive. They were not going to press charges. But the girl’s family couldn’t understand. They were just nervous about him being around. He sat by the girls’ bedside for many hours over a period of weeks waiting for her to come out of a coma. When she finally came-to, he tried to explain and communicate his own and his grandfathers’ forgiveness for what she had done. She was a captive audience. None of it really seemed to sink in. Tab told me later that he was just not sure that any of it had been of any value. It was just a terrible tragedy and that was all.
Yes a good God can and does allow suffering and evil, but opens the door for us to go to Him for answers. The truth is that is the only place we can go! It is OK to ask God why. All though we won’t be able to understand everything, he does give us way more than we need for each pain we bear. We know that although suffering has occurred all down through history and in every corner of the globe, it is of no help to you individually to speak of answers that are generic and theoretical. I need to know specifics to be able to find comfort for my own sorrows. So what are some of the “why’s” God gives us when we cry out in the middle of our pain.
Pain makes us Depend on Others
This is country with a proud and independent heart. We exalt the spirit of self-made individualism. “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps” mentality. ‘Mother I’d rather do it myself.” “I don’t need anybody, I can handle it on my own.” The lonely cowboy riding his mustang into the desert. Or driving it. He is his own man. He don’t need nobody. It is an image that we are presented all the time as a great thing to aspire to.
And in this new millennium we have a whole slew of “I am Woman” types who claim they can do it all. They can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan. ‘cause I’m a wooooman.’ Well friends that is not the way the system is supposed to work. We are not designed to be lone wolves and solitary creatures. It is easy to see that despite all the talk of men not needing women and women not needing men, couples are still marrying at a huge rate. And people will go anywhere that they can find relationship and community. Bars, sports arenas, coffeehouses, clubs, and even churches, all qualify as places that attract community. They are most often superficial and in the end un-satisfying but “people” as Barbara Streisand so nasally put it, “need people.”
Suffering helps us see our need of other people. The very ancient and Biblical concept of “loving your neighbor” does not just mean that you keep your dog out of their yard and mend the fence when it needs it. We are to really care about others. We really are affected by the hurts and sufferings of others. Listen to how Paul described it in the book of I Corinthians “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” I Corinthians 12:26,27 ( The Message)
I really love John Dornne ‘s poem, No man is an Island. Listen to this section of it.
“All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one Man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but Gods hand is in every translation; and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again”
God told His story through a community of his people. He began this community with the descendants of a man called Abraham, and the people were the Jews. They were to really care for each other and meet each other’s needs. They learned this lesson pretty well. All throughout history the Jews have hung together knowing that if they did not, they would hang separately. We can take many valuable lessons from them not the least of these is leaning on each other as a community of faith. We need each other. Everybody, and I mean every body, has a valuable contribution to make to this community. You may feel that you have no skills or talents or abilities that are of much use. You may consider yourself a failure, or at least not worth much. You may suffer with bouts of discouragement or depression because of past events or present conditions. May I suggest to you that God may be allowing pain into your life to cause you to seek out community.
Suffering also helps us to reach out to others with the comfort that we have received from God. II Corinthians 2:1 tells us that “He is the source of every mercy and the God who comforts us. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When others are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NLT)
And in many of the passages in the New Testament we are told to reach out to and help each other through the tough times. This is what makes community. Galatians 6:2 tells us to carry each others loads.” and “Romans 12:15 to “Rejoice with those who rejoice and cry with those who cry.”
Dr. Paul Brand, an expert in the disease of leprosy, wrote about those who diagnosed with leprosy in his book Fearfully and wonderfully Made. First they were flattened by the shock of the news. Their friends marched to the hospital for visits and tried to mumble cheerful words. But when Dr. Brand asked his patients to tell him “who helped you the most in your suffering?” It was not the bubbly, cheerful ones who were pointed out. It wasn’t the pastors or the ones that had all the spiritual answers. It was the ones who themselves had gone through hard times.
“The quiet ones who listened more than they talked, ones who did not judge or even offer advice. It was someone there when they needed them. A hand to hold, an understanding bewildered hug. A shared lump in the throat.”
I counted about 14 books in my library by people who either went through great suffering or had a close loved one who did. One of the recurring themes in every single one of these books was the deepening appreciation of relationships that came about because of the suffering endured. Here is a quote by JoAnn Kelley Smith who wrote her book Free Fall as she was dying of cancer. “It is a great tragedy that only when you fall on your face will you realize that you are human and must depend on other persons.”
Everybody is going to suffer. Everyone is going to die. I would recommend to you to build those relationships now so that when you must depend on others they are your friends. Lastly we have,
Pain Warns Us
Pain and suffering can be the warning of impending danger. A cut, a burn, a bruise, are physical warnings pointing to the danger of a knife, hot stove, a fall. But God often uses suffering and pain to warn us of wrong choices, bad decisions and spiritual rebellion. The God we believe in is a God of righteousness. He created us in a world that has natural laws when broken put us in danger. He also set up moral and spiritual standards and guidelines based on His own character that we are supposed to uphold. Just in the same way that there is physical danger in a physical world, there is emotional and spiritual danger in the spiritual realm. Danger that we might do damage to ourselves, or others. Danger that we are crossing boundaries that we should not cross. Danger that a severe judgment exists for those who rebel against Him and his standards. This often appears in the form of discipline for those that are called his children. This discipline comes during our lifetime for some of our behavior.
“So don’t feel sorry for yourselves. Or have you forgotten how good parents treat children, and that God regards you as his children “My dear child, don’t shrug off God’s discipline, but don’t be crushed by it either. It’s the child he loves that he disciplines;
the child he embraces, he also corrects.” Hebrews 12:5,6 (The Message)
Notice here that it is His own children that are receiving the chastening and the gentle loving hand of discipline is specifically to bring about a good result. Discipline is to bring about loving instruction; punishment is retribution or judgment. Parents you should never punish your children. It should always be discipline with the intent to bring about growth, wisdom or change. That sort of discipline can be done with a spanking but it should always be administered without anger and couched in love.
This danger is also manifested in times of judgment brought about on those who are evil. It is important point to remember that although suffering is used by God as discipline and punishment. Not all accounts are settled this side of the casket. Some people who have committed horrible crimes seem to get away with them but there is a solemn warning to those who break the rules. “Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest.” Galatians 6:7 (The Message)
We have to point out something that should be obvious, but it is important enough to be worth repeating. God loves us. God loves all his creation. He loves us not in a senile old grandfatherly way that would say about his creation as they kill, murder and pillage all over the landscape, “well I guess its OK as long as they are having a good time.” No, his love is much more like the passion that an artist would have for his great masterpiece. Working and reworking it. Changing, scraping, twisting, bending it, until it is conformed to the image that He has chosen. We are that work, and the artwork in progress, the sculpture that he is working on, like Job, he was not always happy with the process
Let me add a little side note here. Because of the spiritual nature of doing wrong, we can be damaging those we love even if they do not know about what we are doing. If you are married and mentally involved in an affair, you are damaging your relationship with your spouse and probably causing them pain. Men, wives know when you have withdrawn your spirit from them. They try to communicate their pain. It is an indication that something is wrong. Mothers, your children can be damaged by the bitterness or anger that you are carrying around, even if it is for someone else.
This suffering pointing out danger can be a road sign pointing us back to God. If your body is hurting you might need to find a physician. But in many cases the spiritual profoundly affects the physical. If your soul is hurting you need the great physician. Pain intentionally allowed by God can bring us back to Him when we stray away. David, one of God’s favorite singers and songwriters wrote of a time when he had gotten into danger and needed to be brought back.
“When I refused to confess my sin, I was weak and miserable, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.” Ps. 32:3, 4 (The Message)
So, in many ways, suffering can be warnings of impending danger and need for correction. C.S. Lewis put it this way, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
But we should not be the megaphone announcing to someone that God is disciplining them for sin. We are not called upon to do that. That was the mistake that Job’s friends fell into.
And remember there is a great body/spirit connection. If one is hurting the other might be the culprit. Breakdown in the physical body can be indications of breakdowns in the spiritual realm.
Secondly we find another purpose of suffering is to bring about:
Pain Transforms Us
Aha! Here is the lynch pin, the most valuable insight, the ‘piece du resistance’, which is French for the most important, great big fat hairy deal. I call this “Divine Alchemy.”
It is in this truth, that even if nothing else works, in this you can find solace and comfort.
Alchemy was a medieval belief that somehow base metals like lead could be transmuted into gold. You may have seen the woodblock engravings of some wizened old man dressed like Merlin the magician hunched over his work-bench with all sorts of vials and powders working like mad to discover a way of turning lead into gold. They never did find out how to do it, until just a few years ago. And guess what. Modern science has actually found a way of taking lead, Pb which has an atomic number of 82 and turn it into gold Au, atomic number of 79 only three spaces over on the Periodic elements chart. Poof! Instant riches. The rub of course is that the process is pretty complex and would cost more money than it would take to walk down to your local ‘gold-chain-by-the-yard’ store and just buy it. But it can be done.
Well God has been performing Divine Alchemy for centuries with the sufferings of his children. Examine with me a passage that I am sure you have probably heard before but I would like to expose it in what might be for you a new light.
In the book of Romans chapter eight we find that “We who love God can be sure that every detail in our lives is being worked into something good.” Romans 8:28 (Personal Translation)
What we find here then, is this amazing transformation. This is the Divine alchemy, where God is taking the ugly, sordid, tragic, and painful affairs in our lives and metamorphing, or transforming them to produce good results. He is not saying that evil or suffering is good, but he is saying that, as it says in the King James translation, all bad things “work together for good.” The lead is being transformed into gold. The worthless is changed into what is of great value. And He is able to take a single solitary evil and turn it into multiple goods. In this way suffering can be redeemed. The pain of surgery can give a cruel man a new heart and a new awakening, giving him the chance to change and go on to accomplish much good. The tragic death can change many lives for the better.
God in his wisdom has filled the earth with analogies of this very thing. Diamonds are the result of great heat and pressure over along period of time. Jewels and precious metals are found and enjoyed only after a lengthy process of mining and cutting and polishing. Think about anything in this world of great value and it is almost always the result of hard work and effort and in most cases suffering.
But, and yes there is always a ‘but’. One little phrase gets often overlooked in this verse. It is the phrase those for those who ‘love God’. We must look to Him and see our suffering through His eyes.
Before the Divine Alchemy can take place, we must bring the suffering to Him. Trusting God with the most tender, painful, vulnerable of all our feelings. The most gut wrenching emotions, the knife piercing grief that has poured hot tears down our face, must be lifted and with all our doubts and anguish, placed at the foot of His throne. This is the step of faith, believing that He knows what he is doing. It is the humble acknowledgment that He is God. It is the trust that enables us to allow Him to produce the outcome. It is then, that He is set free to transform the sorrow into joy. It is then that he takes are emptiness and fills it. He takes our leaden hearts and makes them into gold. Listen to how the ancient prophet Isaiah put it down as he experienced it. “He exchanged my beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the robe of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” Isaiah 61:3 (Personal Translation)
And in this process He changes us as well. Through this “Divine Alchemy” he makes us into better people. He builds depth and character into us and makes us into his masterpiece. Think with me again of the analogy of the artist working on the clay. It is so hard for the worthless and ignorant clay to understand and appreciate the work that God is doing in turning it into something of great value. And God the consummate artist is not satisfied with a mediocre job. Like Pygmalion the sculptor who falls in love with Galatea, his work of art. God has fallen in love with us. He is carving and sculpting us into a masterpiece.
The work, alas cannot be all done at once. It can be a painful process and will not be completed here in this life. This is fallen and broken world. Since the time mankind disobeyed a loving God and fell under the curse, we live in a world that is beset by difficulties that were never part of the original plan. If we think otherwise, we are placed in the impossible situation of trying to explain pain in the context of a good God. But God made it clear that this is not the end. A new heaven and a new earth, is what we look for. What this world does, is prepare us for the next. We cling to this life, because it is what we know. It is familiar. Heaven seems so distant, so ethereal. I can count on very few fingers, those who have spoken to me candidly of being in such a difficult situation here, that they truly wanted to be released from this life. Three of those actually made the decision to end their life. Very few advocate it. It is such a difficult and painful choice. Difficult, because we really don’t know what it is like beyond that final door. Painful because the anxiety, pain and guilt left behind, affects everyone who knew them. In the same time Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you.” He also spoke of leaving behind His spirit to guide us and prepare us for that place. And wrapped in that promise is the assurance that the spirit of God is able to comfort us in everything we will go through here on earth.
We are being transformed. We are being prepared for heaven. Divine alchemy is transforming the dross into gold.
Remember Tab Jordan losing his Grandmother in that terrible wreck? Well that was not the rest of the story. I called Tab to refresh my memory of what had happened. I asked him if he felt that any good had come from the accident. Looking back on an event that had happened many years ago he now saw it in a different light. His mother Camelia had healed her strained relationship with her father the man in the accident who had lost his wife. As a result, her marriage, which was on very shaky ground was strengthened and restored. Tab saw a reuniting and bonding in his entire family, which had not existed before the crash.
But even that does not complete the story. Two years after that fatal car accident, I was called for court duty. The case being tried, was an accident that was being bitterly fought in the courts. After we had heard all the arguments the jury was sequestered to decide the case. What came about was most surprising. One of the female jurors started talking about how sad it was that after a sad accident, people had to add to the sorrow by fighting about it in court. She began to describe an accident that had happened two years earlier. She told us that although her teenage niece had caused the accident by driving too fast and under the influence of alcohol, the family of the woman killed in the wreck had not sued. The amazing thing she said was that the woman’s grandson had come to the hospital to comfort the girls’ family in their grief. Because of his incredible tenderness, the entire family was influenced. The girl who was headed for a life of wild rebellion was completely changed. Her family began to heal long-standing rifts in their relationships.
I sat listening to this woman tell her story to the other 10 open mouthed jurors until I just couldn’t resist. “That young man” I began to tell them “is Tab Jordan, He worked for me, and the reason he and his family could respond with such love is because of the Love they had received from God.” Then I had the opportunity to pass some of this goodness of God’s Divine Alchemy on to them. They didn’t have any choice. They were a captive audience.
“And yet, Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We are all formed by your hand.” Isaiah 64:8 (NLT)