Death and Suffering are Weird Things


Death and suffering are weird things.

Because, they are awful, wrong, and even evil things, but, they are also the things out of which meaning, beauty, and strength can grow.

This is the strangeness of death, suffering, and difficulty. It’s both terribly awful, and also the place of some of the deepest transformation I’ve ever seen.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is one of the best known writers on the subject of death, suffering, and grief. In fact, she was the one who made known the “Five Stages of Grief.” She writes this…

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

I love that last line: “Beautiful people do not just happen.”

So often, beautiful people, with strength, sensitivity, and compassion, have gone through the crucible of suffering. They have faced hurt, suffering, and evil, and have not let it turn them bitter, but rather let it turn them into someone better.

And, to say this isn’t to make light of the suffering people face. Instead, it’s to realize that suffering doesn’t have the last word.

Because, what Kubler-Ross is getting at is something that is actually biblical. We read this in Romans 8:28…

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God.”

We should be clear with something: The text does not say everything we go through is good. Some things are evil. Some things are hellish. Some things are so full or darkness and difficulty that we yearn to be free.

What this verse is promising is that evil, suffering, and even death do not get the last word. That God works all the evil we go through toward good. That even the worst parts of our lives don’t get the final say.

That, in the words of Kubler-Ross, beautiful people don’t just happen, but rather they are made.

I saw this especially with my dad.

He suffered in pain with cancer for years and years. I saw him struggle, and walked with him as his health slid and pain increased. My dad always said that cancer had made him a better pastor, but was quick to add that he would have been fine remaining a mediocre pastor without the cancer.

So, death and suffering are wrong. They are to be fought against. And, they are an enemy. But, as Paul says, they also don’t get the last word.

Because, out of the ashes of death, suffering, and hurt, goodness can grow. In the end, grace, life, and God get the last word, not the difficulties we face. The question is…

Will we trust in a God who is working things toward good, even in the midst of the darkness of our lives?

The Resurrection Doesn’t eliminate Suffering

barbwire-1315925I’ve been preparing for a series on Mental Health that’s coming up. And I came across this one line from a book called Darkness is My Only Companion, by Kathryn Greene-McCreight.

It just so resonated with me, and it’s something to sit and ponder because there is power in its simplicity.

Suffering is not eliminated by the resurrection but transformed by it.


The Problem of Evil, Theodicy, and the Power of Story

dark-cloud-1539729-1599x1066The problem of “theodicy” (evil, and cruelty in the world) is a problem that theologians have wrestled with for decades. I read this one line a little while ago and it really resonated with me.

What do you think of it?

We don’t have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story – Francis Spufford

Finding God on Your iPod: Finding Your Way Through Darkness and “No Longer Slaves”

A few Sundays ago we changed up our schedule. I strongly believe that God’s Holy Spirit can prepare and prompt you well ahead of time. By that I mean that planning and preparation are pretty important to me, and I believe God uses those.

But I also believe in listening to the Spirit in the moment as well.

So I have this little rule – plan for everything you can – and listen and change as you God’s Spirit leads in the moment.

So that’s what we ended up doing a few weeks ago. I had a great sermon planned, but in light of some significant health challenges our church was facing it didn’t feel it was the right one. Instead, the church leadership felt we should share on why difficulty happens and why it’s happening right now in our church.

So here is the audio of what I shared. I don’t have teaching notes like normal, or blog posts pre-prepped but I think that’s okay. Because when God’s spirit is moving, the only option you have is to follow it. Hope the audio is helpful.

A Suffering God and the Cause of Suffering

1302970_23184595I read this a little while ago, and it’s stayed with me. It deserves a lot of unpacking, but first it deserves some time sitting with it, thinking it through, and wrestling with it.

Paul Fiddes in his book, “Participating in God”, says this:

“Belief in a suffering God forbids us to structure any theological argument where God directly causes suffering.”

What do you think?

Seven Last Words of Jesus: “Father Into Your Hands…” Lenten Reflection

sevenlastwords-7On Sunday we looked at this saying of Jesus on the cross: “Father into your hands I commend my Spirit”.

There is a lot to be said about this statement, but we just focused on a few details. First, that this is a prayer that quotes Psalm 31:1. This is important because on the cross it was virtually impossible near the end to speak. You died of asphyxiation so speaking was not only difficult, but excruciating. So Jesus, for his last words, prays the first line of this Psalm. And here is the rest of the verse:

I entrust my spirit into your hands. Rescue me, Lord for you are a faithful God. Psalm 35:1

When we take Jesus’ words in light of the rest of the verse we see that Jesus’ prayer is both a prayer of trust, and rescue.

The second thing we noticed was that while the translation of the word, “spirit” is correct in English, it is lacking. When we hear “spirit” we think of soul or the opposite of “body” or the material world. But the word in both Greek and Hebrew has earthy roots. Jesus here is not praying to hand over his “soul” but his entire being. This is why Eugene Peterson’ in his translation, translates this verse as, “I’ve put my life in your hands”. And this gets at the heart of what is happening. Jesus is trusting the Father, not just with his soul, but his entire life.

And what is so remarkable about this, is that Jesus at the end of his life turns to faith. We sometimes cheapen this moment by thinking, “Well Jesus…was Jesus he knew he would be resurrected”. But we are saying that on this side of history. Jesus hasn’t lived it yet, and so while he has faith the Father will rescue him, it simply put hasn’t happened yet. So Jesus is starting into death, darkness, and the weight of sin knowing he is about to be abandoned but in his last moments he doesn’t give up on faith, he gives in to faith. He says “Father I trust you even now”, you are all I can hold onto.

What is beautiful is that because Jesus prayed this prayer so can we. We will never know what Jesus experienced, nor will we ever go through the depth of what he experienced. But because of Jesus, even when we are at our worst, in our deepest struggle, because his spirit lives and moves within us – we can pray this prayer like him. When we come up against darkness that doesn’t quit, death that steals our life, we can choose to trust in God. To say, “Father I trust you with my life” which is where we ended on Sunday.

It was a prayer of unquestioning trust…Uncalculating trust. A no-questions-asked readiness to leave everything in the hands of the Father. Eugene Peterson



Sermon Notes:

Big Idea: That if Jesus prayed this prayer, so can we.

Teaching Points:

  • Challenge for Lent: 1) Pray Weekly Prayers of Repentance, 2) Pray Daily Corporate Prayers 2 Chronicles 7:14, 3) Fast Something for Lent
  • There is cosmic significance to what is happening.
  • I entrust my spirit into your hands. Rescue me, Lord for you are a faithful God. Psalm 35:1
  • Jesus’ prayer is both a prayer of trust, and rescue.
  • That if Jesus prayed this prayer, so can we.
  • It was a prayer of unquestioning trust…Uncalculating trust. A no-questions-asked readiness to leave everything in the hands of the Father. Eugene Peterson

Adult Discussion Questions:

What stuck out to you from the sermon? What was challenging to you? How did God speak to you through it? What was new? Have you practiced Lent before? What can you fast or give up this year? Is there any difficulty you are facing right now? What is it? Can you name it? Can you trust God in the midst of it? What might that look like? Can you pray the prayer Jesus prayed?

Discussion Questions for Young Families

Read the story today with your kids. Talk to them about how Jesus, in the most difficult moment, trusted in his Father. Remind them they can always trust in God.

Challenge for the Week: Pray, “Father I trust you with my life”

Seven Last Words of Jesus: I Thirst, and Woman Behold Your Sun ~ Lenten Reflection

On Sunday we began our series of Lent, “The Seven Last Words of Jesus”. We are looking at the seven last sayings Jesus utters prior to his death. For Lent we want to pause, reflect, repent, and not rush through the dark to Easter. Instead, we want to pause with Jesus and reflect on what his death means before entering into the joy of Easter. Without pausing before Easter, Easter can seem like any other day. This is why the practice of Lent, and the focus on Jesus is so crucial.

So we began our series by looking at the first two sayings in the book of John: “Woman, behold your son. Son, Behold your mother.” (John 19:26–27) and “I thirst.” (John 19:28).

The first of Jesus’ saying is really quite moving. Pain has a tendency to shrink people’s worlds’ to just their own needs. But this isn’t what we see in Jesus. While he is in pain, he is seeking to take care of his mother. He wants to ensure that she is protected and supported. Jesus, as he is dying, is still thinking of others. And this is beautiful.

William Barclay the great commentator wrote:

There is something infinitely moving in the fact that Jesus in the agony of the cross, in the moment when the salvation of the world hung in the balance, thought of the loneliness of his mother in the days when he was taken away. Jesus never forgot the duties that lay to his hand.

And that is true.

From there we hear Jesus cry out, “I thirst”. John makes it clear that this is connected to two prophecies in the Psalms, and this is true. But one cannot simply focus on the fulfillment of the Psalms without also acknowledging that Jesus’ thirst was not metaphorical. Jesus was thirsty, Jesus was in agony, Jesus was suffering. Sometimes we jump over Jesus’ humanity, and think only of the “spiritual suffering” he must have experienced or that Jesus was spared from human suffering. But the incarnation and John here reminds us of something important: our God suffers.

And this matters tremendously. This matters because if you suffer, God knows that same feeling. This matters because it teaches us that while there is suffering in the world, God himself is not exempt from suffering. God does not remain a distance from suffering, but enters into it to free us from it.

So it is crucial to remember that the thirst Jesus feels not only fulfills prophecy, but is also real. He suffers with us, so that he can free us.

From here we landed on the main point for this sermon: That Jesus knows what it is to suffer, and while we suffer reminds us of his love.

This is what these two words of Jesus remind us of. That Jesus is one who knows what it is to suffer, but he also in suffering gives love and protection. That’s what Jesus does for  Mary, in his suffering and in hers, he gives her a tangible reminder of his love – a disciple to support her.

The point is that Jesus knows what it is to suffer, and he knows how, while we suffer, we need a reminder of his love.

We ended the sermon with a time of prayer and contemplation – because I firmly believe that while we are studying the “Seven Last Words of Jesus” these are not his last words. Jesus still speaks, and can still speak. And if while he is dying he notices those he loves and cares for them, he can surely do that now and today. So we ended with a time of prayer to simply listen for what Jesus might say to us. To imagine we are there with Mary and to simply notice Jesus noticing us. To notice Jesus noticing us, and to listen because our God who died, is still speaking, still caring, still entering into suffering, and changing lives. And it begins by noticing him, noticing us, and listening.

Sermon Notes:

Big Idea: Jesus suffers with us, and in our suffering gives us a reminder of his love

Teaching Points:

  • Challenge for Lent: 1) Pray Weekly Prayers of Repentance, 2) Pray Daily Corporate Prayers 2 Chronicles 7:14, 3) Fast Something for Lent
  • Jesus death was a political death
  • Another important point is that Jesus’ death was a political death. If you ask the crucial theological question – why was Jesus killed? – the answer isn’t “Because God want us to love one another.” Why would anyone kill Jesus for that? That’s stupid. It’s not even interesting. Why Jesus gets killed? Because he challenged the powers that be.    Stanley Hauerwas
  • Pain seems to shrink people’s worlds, but not Jesus’.
  • There is something infinitely moving in the fact that Jesus, in the agony of the cross, in the moment when the salvation of the world hung in the balance, thought of the loneliness of his mother in the days when he was taken away. Jesus never forgot the duties that lay to his hand.   William Barclay
  • Jesus was and is human.
  • Jesus knows what it is to suffer.
  • God is not exempt from suffering.
  • God is a suffering God
  • Even as Jesus is suffering he is also caring and protecting.
  • That in suffering, Jesus suffers, and reminds us of his love.
  • Suffering does not mean God is not with us, It means God is suffering with us.
  • Jesus cannot suffer with you, and change your suffering unless you let him in.

Adult Discussion Questions:

What stuck out to you from the sermon? What was challenging to you? How did God speak to you through it? What was new? Have you practiced Lent before? What can you fast or give up this year? What must Mary be thinking as she sees her son on the cross? Have you ever thought about Jesus’ suffering before? What does it make you feel when you think about it? Why do you believe the fact that God suffers is meaningful? What did Jesus say to you?

Discussion Questions for Young Families

Rather than just discussing this story with your kids, why not put it into practice a little bit. Think of a tangible reminder of your love you can give your kids: maybe a ring, necklace, a book, a teddy bear – something that will mean something to them. And give it to them, and share how you care for them, and how it’s a reminder of your love. Then remind them of how God does the same thing for us when we are hurting.

Challenge for the Week: Listen for Jesus, and notice him, noticing you.

The Anger of God and Our Indifference to Injustice

275160_8265Often in the prophets we read of God’s anger and his wrath. I know a lot of people for whom the language of God’s wrath makes them uncomfortable. I know it often makes me uncomfortable sometimes. Sometimes we seek to explain it away, put it into context, or find more gracious interpretations for it. I think that’s all fine and good as far as it goes, but sometimes I think we need to sit with the language and read and understand the depth that God cares about some things.

God’s anger in the prophets is because of the injustice around Israel. God is standing up for the hurting, oppressed, and those seeking hope. I actually think our uncomfort with some of God’s strong language reveals our more passive feelings to injustice around us.

While studying the prophets recently I read this from Abraham Joshua Heschel. I found it brilliant, true…and very convicting. He says this:

The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God, it is a disaster. Our reaction is disapproval; God’s reaction is something no language can convey. It is a sign of cruelty that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, when widows and orphans are oppressed? (The Prophets, 65)

His point for us is that we do not take the exploitation of the poor nearly as seriously as God does. Our uncomfort with the strong language of God in the prophets may be an indication of our passive acceptance of the exploitation around us.

So for me what this means is this. Have I become indifferent to the suffering I see around me, and around the world? Am I active in seeking to stand up for those who are hurting, and having the same passion God does about injustice?

I think these are important questions to think about, and even more important questions to act on.

God is Moved By You

1295779_44452649On Sunday we are going to be having communion, and exploring an interesting passage in Exodus. The passage we are going to be looking at is this Exodus 3:7:

Then the Lord told Moses, “You can be sure I have seen the misery of my people. I have heard their cries for deliverance from their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. So I have come to rescue them from the Egyptians and lead them out of Egypt.”

I think this is a beautiful passage because it reveals who God is.

In this passage God is one who hears, and who acts.

I think this is so crucial to so many of us, because when we are in difficulty our temptation is to believe we are alone. Our temptation is to believe our prayers are futile. Our temptation is to believe that nothing will change. Our temptation is to believe that the God we worship is distant and unmoving.

But here in this passage we see a totally different God. We see a God who is intimately involved with his people. We see a God who hears the cries of those who are suffering, and is then moved by them. Our God is not some unmoving, uncaring, distant deity. Our God is someone who is involved in the world being moved by injustice, not just to hear the cry but then to act.

So this passage gives me hope that whenever I feel alone, and hurting I know God is not removed but listening and acting.

On Sunday we’ll discover how God acts, and what he promises to us. But today why not simply rest in the fact that your prayers are heard by God. Your prayers and cries do move God. You are not alone but actually connected to the Creator who hears and responds. Hopefully that gives you hope, because it gives me hope.

Lent, Suffering, and Bonhoeffer

“Only the suffering God can help.”  Dietrich Bonheoffer.

1208573_69660271This is brilliant, true and full of hope for us during Lent. During Lent the disturbing reality is that we focus on a God, who in the person of Jesus Christ, was beaten, broken, and buried. This is the God we follow, one who died. Is it any wonder Paul said preaching the cross was foolishness…The world follows power, display, and strength; our God demonstrates sacrifice, weakness, and a willingness to enter even into death.

This though is why only the suffering God can help. We do not follow a God who is above suffering, empathy, and distantly removed because of his power. Instead, we follow a God who knows what it is to be beaten. We follow a God who knows what it is to be broken. We follow a God who knows what it is to be buried.

So if you have ever felt beaten down by life…have hope. If you feel broken in body or soul…have hope. If you have lost someone, or feel like you yourself are being buried under darkness…have hope. Because our God felt all those things, but broke through them to show us the way. Our God didn’t stay in heaven removed from the muck and mire of humanity and our struggle. Our God chose to enter into our struggle, to empty himself of all power and privilege to join us. This is why only the suffering God can help, because only the suffering God can understand what we go through. So you are not alone. God knows what it is to feel betrayal. He knows what it is to look forward and see darkness. He knows what it is to die. But the message of Easter is he also knows about resurrection. He is the resurrection and the life. It is through him that all of the world is changed, in a blinding moment of new creation, new life, and a new future. He enters into suffering to lead us out…so may we reflect and remember that this Lenten season. Let us not rush past the suffering to the resurrection of Easter. Let us remember that only the suffering God can help…