Saturday, March 07, 2009

Letter to a Friend who's Suffering

Recently I wrote a letter to a friend who's going through some hard things. I decided to post the letter here because I thought it might be helpful to others as well. It's quite long, so I apologize for that. Also, please keep in mind that I've removed all personal references from the letter so it may come across a little more cold or distant than the letter I actually sent.

Dear Freind,

First of all, I want you to know that my heart goes out to you because I know what it is to feel the sting of suffering and death. And more than that my sense as I’ve prayed is that the Lord's heart goes out to you, as well, and that he’s with you. When Lazarus died Jesus wept. Why did he weep?--he knew the end from the beginning. He knew he was going call him back to life. He knew that, even though Lazarus would die again someday, he would have eternal life and joy at the right hand of God. So why did he weep? I think it was because he was sympathizing with the pain of people who were experiencing death and suffering but did not have the eternal perspective he had.

Jesus wept because he loved, and as I’ve prayed for you I’ve sensed his great love for you. The Lord is with you and he’s for you and for reasons only known to him he’s thought it best to let you share in suffering. So above all, my heart is to say this: trust him. As my spiritual “father,” Doug Goodno, used to tell me, “Trust his heart when you cannot trace his hand.” Believe his promises when you don’t get what he’s up to. Remember all he’s done, for all of his people throughout time and for you personally over the years, and trust him for what he will do.

Psalm 77 is the record of a man preaching to himself in the midst of a difficult time, and one question he asks is this: “Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” It’s as if he’s saying, “Soul, do you really think that after all these centuries of faithfulness to his people the ability or willingness of the Lord to remain steadfast in love has run out in your lifetime and with your case?” The obvious answer is “no,” and so he goes on to plead with himself to remember the works of the Lord.

And above all, this is what’s on my heart to say to you: remember what he’s done and trust him for what he will do! The steadfast love of the Lord has not ceased, and in time he’ll work all things together for your good and you’ll see with your own eyes why it was wise to allow you to suffer. You’ll see why it was wise to allow you to feel the force of heaven and hell. I will be praying for you, that our Father will be merciful and help you to have faith and hope in him because, “If God is for you who can be against you?” (Rom 8:32-39)

Though the ways of the Lord are mysterious, and sometimes difficult to understand, I’ve have striven over the years to keep several truths in mind, especially when dealing with suffering and death. First, God is the Creator of all things and therefore he has absolute rights over life and death. This is why Job said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). He acknowledged, in the midst of terrible tragedy, that the Lord is not unjust to take life when he so chooses.

Second, God is holy, absolutely holy. There is no darkness in him at all. There is no scheming or deceit in him, and he takes no joy in suffering itself. Therefore, all he does, and allows, must have some greater purpose that will work together for his glory and the joy of those who love him because he is literally not able to do anything from an evil motive. He is holy. Therefore, it is so important that we learn, in the midst of suffering, to tremble before him and acknowledge the purity of his being. It’s important, crucially important, that we not allow ourselves to slip into the temptation of the devil and accuse God of wrong-doing or injustice. Read the latter chapters of Job and you’ll see what I mean. He is so far beyond our ability to comprehend, and therefore we must learn to trust him when we cannot trace his hand.

Third, God is good, absolutely good. One thing this implies is that all he does is good. As the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 119:68, “You are good and you do good.” The order here is important: all that God does flows out of who he is, and therefore since he is absolutely good everything he does, and allows, must of necessity be good. We must preach to our souls and learn to believe this because it’s true--the Lord is good and he does good! When we discipline ourselves to believe in and look for the goodness of the Lord in all things, he sometimes gives us insight into why he’s doing what he’s doing. Or at least he begins to give us the peace that passes understanding so that we’re not overly burdened or perplexed. At least he begins to give us the confidence that, even though we don’t understand, he has done the right thing.

Fourth, God is wise, absolutely wise. He has knowledge and perspective that we can’t even imagine. He knows our coming and our going, our getting up and our lying down, our past and present and future. He knows the beginning of our days and the end of our days (Psalm 139). He knows where we fit in the grand scheme of life and he means to use our lives, every one of our lives, for the glory of his Name. This means, in part, that our Father had reasons for connecting you with your relative when he did and in the way he did—reasons you may never know or understand this side of heaven because his will is not always to give us understanding but sometimes his will is to give us faith when we don’t understand.

Fifth, God is just, absolutely just. This means that if your relative did not repent before he died, God will pour his wrath out upon him, in perfect measure, because justice demands that God punish sin. I say this, not with a cold theological mind, but with a feeling, compassionate heart. Some of my own relatives are probably experiencing this same wrath even now, but I trust that my Father is dispensing his justice in accordance with his holiness, wisdom, and goodness. And for those parts of my soul that are not at peace with the wrath of God, that might even accuse God of injustice for punishing sin forever, I go to Romans 9:20-24 and then pray for forgiveness:

“20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”

Sixth, God is merciful, immensely merciful. The Scripture says repeatedly that our God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Think of that wicked King of Israel, Manasseh. For the majority of his life he followed after other gods, and what is more, he led an entire people astray. And not just any people but the one God had chosen to receive the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ. Oh, no one will ever know how great the sin of Manasseh was! And yet at the end of his life, in the face of impending doom, he humbled himself greatly before the Lord and the Lord heard his prayer:

“12 And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. 13 He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God” (2 Chron 33:12-13).

And our Father poured this same mercy upon the likes of these as well: King David after he conspired to kill Uriah and take his wife, Bathsheba; the prophet Jonah after he spit in the face of God and ran like a coward; the entire nation of Israel who was ever whoring after other gods despite God’s repeated attempts to be merciful to them and call them to repentance; the thief on the cross who believed only when his life was at an end and he had no hope of escape; Peter who walked hand in hand with Jesus Christ, the Lord of the universe, and then denied him not once or twice but three times, and the last time with a curse; Paul who sought to kill those for whom Jesus Christ gave his life; Philemon who was a thief but found the mercy of God in a prison cell where, lo and behold, the great apostle Paul was his cellmate. And as the author of Hebrews said, what more shall I say? Time prevents me from raising the names of so many thousands who came to know the mercy of God in most unexpected ways. History is awash with portraits of the graciousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

And the point is this: it’s possible that the Lord used you in your relative's life to bring him to faith at the last moment—you never know. Even though his death was sudden, it doesn’t take hours for the mercy of God to be poured out, it can happen in a moment. I’m not trying to give you false hope here, I would never do that, but I am trying to help you trust and hope in the mercy and purposes of God. He really knows what he’s doing and so, as I said earlier, we must learn to trust his heart when we cannot trace his hand.

In the end, life and death are about God and his purposes, not about us and our purposes. He is the blazing sun at the center of the solar system, and we’re not. Therefore, sometimes the things he does seem strange and mysterious and even perplexing to us, but this is not because he’s less than holy or wise or good, it’s because he see things we don’t see and he knows things we don’t know and he has purposes we don’t comprehend. So we’re left with a choice: will we trust him or not? I know you will choose to trust him, and I’ll be praying that the Lord will help you to do just that. It may be that Satan has requested to sift you like wheat, but may the Lord instead strengthen you and crush Satan under your feet (Rom 16:20).

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones” (Prov 3:5-8).

With compassion and hope in Christ,
Pastor Charlie

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