If Sorrow Is Stalking You

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Sometimes God presses us right up against the wall of what we can endure.

And sometimes God smashes us right through it.

I sat down with a friend recently whose 62-year-old wife, fit and vivacious and brilliant in her work as a physician, suffered a stroke a couple of years ago. Last month, he came across her weeping in front of her laptop. She couldn’t figure out how to order their daughter a birthday present from her favourite online shop.

This was a sign of how they will spend their remaining years together.

So last week he was helping her complete a trans-Atlantic trip home to see her relatives, almost certainly the last such trip they’ll ever take together. He thought he’d better stop into a walk-in clinic because he was so strangely tired, and they ran a few tests.

He starts intensive chemotherapy on Monday for a cancer that is so far advanced he may not see Christmas.

Meanwhile, another friend and I had a few precious few moments of conversation together at a conference. She smiled in greeting, but her eyes were shrouded in pain.

A few years ago, she buried her husband of 31 years after nursing him through the ravages of a slow-moving cancer. Late last year, she fell in love again and had been looking forward to getting married this past weekend.

But two weeks ago, her handsome, vital fiancé, with whom she had planned travel and ministry and fun with all their far-flung grandchildren, was cut down by a heart attack. He spent two days semi-conscious in the hospital, and then he died.

Injury upon injury. Outrage upon outrage. How does faith survive a seemingly mortal blow…and then another?

Martin Luther, like any other sixteenth-century European, was immersed in suffering. Child mortality was high—Luther and his wife lost a baby and then a beautiful teenager. Luther never seemed to be without at least one, and sometimes several, illnesses. Life was difficult for everyone, from paupers to princes.

Pain upon pain was common, but no less terrible for its frequency. So Pastor Luther needed somehow to cope with his own grief and to counsel those in his charge. And he gave them this advice.

Don’t try to figure it out.

Remember, Luther was not only a pastor, but a theologian. Figuring things out was his job. And he knew, as we theologians generally do, that there are Bible verses and Scriptural themes and theological concepts that can help us understand God’s ways with the world. (I’ve set out some of those in my book, Can God Be Trusted?)

When we have gone as far as we can in our reasoning, however, we come to the edge of a yawning darkness, as wide as the Grand Canyon but seemingly bottomless in its depth. Luther warned us: Do not go farther. Do not attempt to survey that valley of the shadow of death.

Don’t try to figure out why God allowed this particular suffering into your life, if God hasn’t seen fit to tell you.

Why not?

Because, Luther said, you will lose both your reason and your faith.

You will lose your grip and fall into the abyss. Down and up will be lost to you. Clear categories of right and wrong will seem to change position, and good and evil will trade places. You will not be able to sort it out. And you will end up cursing God in the process.

My friend who lost those two wonderful men stared back at me and said, “I know exactly what Luther meant. After I lost Jim, having already grieved so badly over losing Richard, I felt I was falling, falling, falling in utter blackness. I grabbed all the theology I had gathered over the years and used it as well as I could, and it seemed only to spin me around in the dark.”

What then?

“Cling to Christ,” Luther counseled.

And my friend said the same thing: “As I was falling, though, suddenly I sensed that Jesus was falling with me!”

If in our pain we try, as we are sorely inclined to do, to figure out “God and evil,” we risk losing it all. But if we will consider this startlingly simple syllogism, we may well keep our faith:

Jesus is good. (That seems believable enough.)

Jesus is God. (All orthodox Christians believe that, too.)

Therefore: God is good.

Jesus is what and who we most need: the human face of God. We might look at our lives, or watch the evening news, and conclude that God-in-general is doing a terrible job of running things and is therefore unworthy of our allegiance, let alone our faith and love. God-in-general can sometimes seem simply terrible, and terrifying.

But Jesus? Who can doubt that Jesus loves me? Who can question whether Jesus means the best for me and for all of us?

If we Christians are serious about this Trinity doctrine that we profess, then we can rest in the company of Jesus, no matter what hell is breaking out around us.

Jesus is good.

Jesus is God.

So God is good.

In due course, God will end the wretchedness of life in this world. And nothing but peace, prosperity, health, and wholeness await us.

Hang in there—which is to say, as the Bible does, persevere unto the end.

But the only way to do that is to hold on tight to the hand of the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That’s the Christian answer, the Christ-ian one, to every question we want to ask in the depths of deep pain.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).