There are many really great days being a pastor. I get to share the gospel with people, counsel couples as they prepare to get married, train up new leaders, teach the Bible, and celebrate alongside people as God works in their lives. And there are many incredibly tough days too. Days where I see apathy destroy someone’s faith, addiction ruin relationships, infidelity damage marriages, and even days where I’m confronted with the real and deep sting of death.
In the past months at Hiawatha Church, we’ve had to say goodbye to two children whose premature deaths rocked our world. For many of us, the reality of death is all too real right now. And even if you knew neither of these families, if you look around you’ll see that pain, suffering, heartache, and death are everywhere. Absolutely everywhere.
If this doesn't seem right to you, know that it shouldn't. The world wasn't meant to be like this. Death and thorns and brokenness were not part of the perfect world that God created. They are a symptom of our rebellion.
So how should we view life, the world, and God when we encounter crippling pain and suffering?
We live in a fallen world
When our first father and mother rebelled against God and thereby declared themselves their own "god", all humanity (and all creation) fell with them. And because of this fall, our world is marred. We're no longer in perfect relationship with God. The Earth is now cursed, filled with thistles and weeds, hardship and brokenness, blood and tears. Disease, sickness, and death are now the new reality.
Another effect of the Fall is that we are now enemies with our creator and each other. Relationships are damaged, people abuse each other physically and emotionally, and brokenness is common. Jesus promised us that as his followers, we'd receive trials and tragedy, persecution and suffering. Even though it isn't fun, we shouldn't be surprised when it comes. If our savior went through the most horrific suffering, pain and death, we should expect that in this world we will experience some of the same as his followers.
Despite the hardship we'll face in this life and world, we're reminded that as Christians we have hope. John Calvin writes, "Eternal life is promised to us, but it is promised to the dead; we are told of the resurrection of the blessed, but meantime we are involved in corruption; we are declared to be just, and sin dwells within us; we hear that we are blessed, but meantime we are overwhelmed by the untold miseries; we are promised an abundance of all good things, but we are often hungry and thirsty; God proclaims that he will come to us immediately, but seems to be deaf to our cries. What would happen if we didn't rely on hope, and if our minds did not emerge above the world out of the midst of darkness through the shining Word of God and by his Spirit?"
We have a foretaste of eternity now
Despite having to endure a fallen world in our broken, mortal bodies, we are given a foretaste of eternity now. We get glimpses of what the new heaven and earth will be like. We experience gracious communion with God and his people that, albeit veiled, is still a small glimpse of what eternity will be like.
In Christ, we've been given his Spirit as a guarantee of our salvation and life with him. We've been sealed through the Holy Spirit for the day when we'll be fully redeemed and it is his promise that he'll protect us as his own until he returns and make us a part of his family. Not only is the Spirit a guarantee of our salvation but the author of Ephesians also uses a word that describes that the Spirit is a first installment of the future glory we'll receive. It's like being let into the kitchen to have a taste of the glorious feast that is being prepared.
Not only does Christ's Spirit live in us, empower us, comfort us, and use us, we are also graciously given the communion with Christ here on earth through the Church. The Bible describes the church as Jesus' body, visible and relational. In the book of Matthew, Jesus taught that essentially when we give, serve, and love other believers (others from the Church), that we're doing it for Jesus. This is just before he is crucified and leaves his disciples. He is reminding them that even though he will leave them, in a very real and tangible way, he will be with them as the gathering of believers.
This is not the end
Those who put their faith in Christ do not put their hope in this life. Christians believe This is Not the End. We know that this world is not "it"; that this life is just the beginning. Jesus promised that if we put our faith in him we will spend eternity with him and his people in paradise, a new recreated, restored and renewed earth.
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:“Death is swallowed up in victory.” - 1 Corinthians 15:51-54
Tim Keller reminds us that “resurrection is not just consolation — it is restoration. We get it all back — the love, the loved ones, the goods, the beauties of this life — but in new, unimaginable degrees of glory and joy and strength."
Not only is this not the end, but our enemies will also be defeated. Everything that brings, creates and produces our pain and suffering will be destroyed! Sin, Satan, and death are all defeated by Jesus through his death, resurrection, and second coming!
"He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more," neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. - Revelation 21:4
The cross helps us understand pain and suffering
Jesus left his throne in heaven and "emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:7) on a mission to become our savior. At the cross God took the most horrific and unjust evil and made it into the most beautiful and glorious good this world has seen. What the enemy wanted to use for destruction, death, slavery and oppression, God used for the greatest joy and blessing humanity could ever receive. Through the cross (the most evil act in history), God brought the greatest news ever: people can now be reconciled to their creator, have their sins forgiven, and receive life everlasting.
"Jesus lost all his glory so that we could be clothed in it. He was shut out so we could get access. He was bound, nailed, so that we could be free. He was cast out so we could approach. And Jesus took away the only kind of suffering that can really destroy you: that is being cast away from God. He took so that now all suffering that comes into your life will only make you great" - Tim Keller.
Don't be surprised when (not if, but when) you are flooded with pain and suffering. Remember that we live in a broken world that is this way by our own making. Remember that we get a glimpse and foretaste of paradise and eternity now through the Spirit and the Church. Remember this world is not the end but for those who have faith in Christ, this is the closest to hell we will ever get. And finally, understand your pain and suffering by looking at the cross: the pinnacle act of God defeating our ultimate enemies and bringing life out of death.
*Tim Keller quotes from Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering.