Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve posted prayer requests on Facebook for a young single mom who was critically ill and near death with a respiratory distress syndrome like that seen with COVID-19, and more recently, a young father who contracted the virus working as an ER nurse in the very same hospital where he now lies in intensive care, connected to a ventilator. A former coworker posted this reply to my prayer request:
This might be a controversial comment, but please don’t judge. I struggle with the topic after my husband passed away from a sudden heart attack when my boys were 7 and 9 yrs old. So if God is great, all knowing, all powerful…how do these things occur? Please delete, as it might be inappropriate. I pray, however for Travis and this family.
Earlier this week, I saw in my news feed that another young mom who serves as a mental health advocate within the Christian community and her husband lost their young child eight days after he was born. Families everywhere are in great distress as parents lose their jobs and businesses, kids with disabilities lose access to support services they depend upon and the medical precautions necessary to control the spread of the virus has left those who are ill desperately isolated and alone when they’re most in need of the presence and support of family and friends.
How should we respond to the question posed by my former coworker? Or parents who have lost a child? Or the family in which the care and support needs of a family with a disability become so overwhelming that the marriage falls apart? The Bible teaches us that we’re to be prepared to share with others the reason for the hope we have in Jesus, but the first question we’re likely to encounter when doing so is often some version of how can a loving and all-powerful God allow a young father to die and leave a wife and two little boys behind, or allow a child to grow up in a home where they experience ongoing physical and sexual abuse or allow millions of people in Third World countries to die of starvation, war or curable disease?
Here’s the message I sent to my coworker (privately) in response to her post:
I’m not sure I heard about your husband. Facebook can be rather selective in who sees what. I am so sorry for your loss! I saw the question you posed in responding to my friend’s prayer request. I’ll try to answer based upon my understanding of the Bible.
There’s an entire book of the Bible (Job) written on the topic of suffering. Job had suffered unjustly, but he never learned the reason for his suffering while he was alive. I suspect that’s true for most of us – we’ll never fully understand the reason for our suffering or the suffering of our loved ones on this side of Heaven.
A central theme in Christianity demonstrated through the Easter story is that God responds to suffering not by sparing us from it but by entering into it with us and by experiencing it for us. If you’re interested in the Christian perspective on why suffering exists, take a look at this conference talk from John Piper. He’s a retired pastor from a church in Minnesota who has written extensively on suffering. I’d encourage you to watch from the beginning but if you only have a few minutes, start at the 31:55 mark. His key point…
“The reason that suffering exists in the universe is so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God in himself as he suffers, by entering into it, suffering himself, that he might by grace deliver us from everlasting suffering.“
Upon further reflection, trying to put myself in the shoes of someone who hadn’t been immersed in Christianity for years and years, the response I sent to my former colleague felt inadequate. Piper’s quote sounds very narcissistic upon first hearing.
“that suffering exists in the universe is so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God in himself as he suffers”
If God allows suffering so that he might be glorified, why is God’s glory of such great importance that the unimaginable suffering necessary to achieve it is justifiable?
Dr. Piper addresses this question in a blog post explaining why God’s passion for his own glory isn’t selfish. I encourage you to go back and read the whole thing because he does a wonderful job of explaining how God’s insistence on glorifying himself justifies the presence of suffering in the world and demonstrates why the death and resurrection of Jesus that we celebrate this weekend is truly the most wonderful event in the history of the universe. Here are some key excerpts:
How is God’s passion for his glory not a sinful form of narcissism and megalomania? The answer is that God’s passion for his glory is the essence of his love to us. But narcissism and megalomania are not love.
God’s love for us is not mainly his making much of us, but his giving us the ability to enjoy making much of him forever. In other words, God’s love for us keeps God at the center. God’s love for us exalts his value and our satisfaction in it. If God’s love made us central and focused on our value, it would distract us from what is most precious — namely, himself. Love labors and suffers to enthrall us with what is infinitely and eternally satisfying: God. Therefore, God’s love labors and suffers to break our bondage to the idol of self and focus our affections on the treasure of God.
He goes on to illustrate this principle through Jesus’ act of resurrecting his friend Lazarus from the dead:
Oh how many people today — even Christians — would murmur at Jesus for callously letting Lazarus die and putting him and Mary and Martha and others through the pain and misery of those days. And if they saw that this was motivated by Jesus’s desire to magnify the glory of God, many would call this harsh or unloving. What this shows is how far above the glory of God most people value pain-free lives. For most people, love is whatever puts human value and human well-being at the center. So Jesus’s behavior is unintelligible to them.
But let us not tell Jesus what love is. Let us not instruct him how he should love us and make us central. Let us learn from Jesus what love is and what our true well-being is. Love is doing whatever you need to do — even to the point of dying on the cross — to help people see and savor the glory of God for ever and ever. Love keeps God central. Because the soul was made for God.
Piper’s key take-home point:
Oh how we need to help people see that Christ, not comfort, is their all-satisfying and everlasting treasure. So I conclude that magnifying the supremacy of God in all things, and being willing to suffer patiently to help others see and savor this supremacy, is the essence of love. It’s the essence of God’s love. And it’s the essence of your love. Because the supremacy of God’s glory is the source and sum of all full and lasting joy.
It’s easy for us to not see beyond our circumstances and fail to consider God’s perspective on our suffering. If God created us to be in relationship with him forever, anything that advances that purpose, including allowing us to suffer for a time is justifiable as the most loving thing God could do. At the same time, our ability to remain steadfast in our faith while suffering with anxiety represents a more powerful witness that draws other people to God. In another sermon, Dr. Piper said that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Is it possible that the works of God are most on display in us when we demonstrate contentment and joy in the midst of distress?
May you and your family experience a blessed a joyful Easter as we worship and reflect upon a savior who didn’t leave us to suffer alone, but enters into our suffering with us.
Many speakers who planned to attend our disability ministry conference have put together an Easter Sunday service for families affected by disability without a church. Most contributors have a disability themselves or a family member with a disability. Our teaching pastor for the morning is on the autism spectrum. We seek to inspire families and give them hope while calling attention to the gifts and talents the church misses out on when families with disabilities are excluded.
Our Not Alone Easter Service will be streamed at 9:00 AM Eastern Time on Easter Sunday on both the Key Ministryand Not Alone Facebook pages. The service will be available all throughout the day on Easter Sunday, and we’re encouraging our followers to host watch parties for friends and neighbors on their individual Facebook pages.