Comfort & Security in Times of Suffering

“Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?”

Amos 3:6

This isn’t a very popular sentiment. I know a lot of you will disagree with it; many of you will find it offensive. But it’s a great comfort to me. Not only is it a great comfort, but I believe it’s the only solid ground to stand on during these anxious times. If you’re looking for those things — comfort and a firm place to plant your feet — then I recommend resting in the providence of God.

When Becca was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2017, our world was rocked. In many, many ways we’re still struggling to get our feet back under us. I’m a reader, so the first thing I did was turn to books about suffering in an attempt to wrap my head around what was happening to us and why; I never expected my bookshelf to have a whole section devoted to suffering. The books that gave me the most comfort were ironically, unexpectedly, the ones that insisted that suffering is part of God’s good purposes, that he wills it for his own glory and for our ultimate good — even though we may not understand it or like it.

I’m not saying it’s easy to believe these things. At first, the idea that God might be responsible for suffering (for Becca’s epilepsy or the coronavirus or anything else) was repulsive to me. But as I kept pressing in, I became convinced that this is the plain testimony of the Bible. (Kevin DeYoung has an excellent post summarizing this.) Once I saw in the Bible that God exercises his sovereignty for the good of his people, even in painful ways, I couldn’t un-see it. But I still didn’t find it comforting.

The comfort comes when I consider the alternatives. I would rather rest in the arms of a God who loves me and who has promised to work all things for my good, even if I can’t understand how this particular thing is truly for my good, than turn myself loose into a world where God is either too impotent or uncaring to do anything about the suffering he didn’t intend. If this is only of the devil, or merely random and meaningless, or simply the way of the world — none of these can give me more comfort than the truth that there’s a Father in heaven who loves me, is watching over for me, intends all things for my good, has promised to be near to me in my suffering, and has reconciled me to himself through Christ so I will one day enjoy him forever.

And the thing is, I can see it. I don’t need to imagine ways that God might eventually use Becca’s epilepsy for her good — I can see many of the ways he’s already using it even now. Her faith and character are stronger. Her testimony is beautiful. Our family is being refined and improved. Our children will be better men and husbands and fathers than they would be without this. And while I may not be able to identify ways, yet, that he’s using coronavirus for good, I absolutely trust that he’s doing something in and through it that couldn’t be done any other way; and if it could be done in a better way, I trust that he’d do it that way instead.

None of this is to say that I can wrap my head around all the ins and outs of the dilemma. How can God be providentially sovereign over suffering without himself being responsible for sin? I don’t know, exactly. How do we balance God’s providence with free will? I’m not sure I can adequately answer that question. I honestly don’t like all the implications of this; if it were up to me, I’d often choose differently — but if it were up to me, I’d’ve made a wreck of the whole thing a long time ago; I can hardly manage a family of four, much less a whole universe; and I certainly wouldn’t have given my wife a disability, which means we would’ve missed out on the blessings and growth that have come from our suffering together.

So, yes, there is comfort and security here. If you do not yet know the love and care of the one true God, consider this your invitation: Repent of your sins and turn to Christ. He died to save sinners like you and like me. And, having done so, he blesses us with the assurance that he is caring for us and that all things work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.

Abraham, Isaac and Jack

I read novels to my oldest son, Jack, nearly every night. He’s 6. Our favorite stories are tales of imagination and high adventure—Narnia, The Hobbit, The Green Ember, Half Magic—but as good and beneficial as they are, I realized some time ago that the Bible was missing from our reading regimen. Not collections of Bible stories (we’ve been reading those for years), but the actual word of God.

I’m convinced that the Bible offers something that no other book can give: An encounter with the living Christ. So we bought Jack his own Bible in an easy-to-understand translation (NIRV) and started in Genesis 1 with plans to go straight through to the end. Little brother Ollie (age 2) listens in.

It’s been sporadic and slow-going, so far, but I think that’s okay. The point is that Jack will grow up in the habit of making time to read his Bible regularly, and he’ll see the priority Becca and I place on it. I’ve set a long-term goal: By the time Jack is 10, he’ll have read the entire Bible. Sure, there are some parts I’ll leave out this first go-round (Lot and his incestuous daughters, for example), but my philosophy, with very few exceptions, is: If it’s in there, I read it. Then we’ll talk about it.

This “most anything goes” approach has led to a lot of interesting conversations. Some are funny, like when Abraham died: “Abraham dies? He’s the main character!” and “He was 175 years old? If he had that many dollars, he’d have enough to buy the Smaug Lego set.” Some are difficult, like the covenant of circumcision or Sodom and Gomorrah. (You know, those.) Sometimes I don’t know what to say aside from, “Good question. I don’t know. Let’s find out together.”

Then there was the story where God tells Abraham to kill his son, Isaac—that story was trickier than most.

They reached the place God had told Abraham about. There Abraham built an altar. He arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac. He placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand. He took the knife to kill his son.
(Genesis 22.9–10)

Jack interrupted: “Wait, he’s going to kill him?”

“Well, God told him to offer his son as a sacrifice, but no, wait for the end—he’s not going to kill him.” (Spoiler.)

“What’s a sacrifice?”

“Remember I told you that the Bible says the punishment for sin is death? People used to make sacrifices so the animal’s death would pay the price of their own sin. The animal would die so they wouldn’t have to. But watch what God does here.”

I finished the story.

Abraham looked up. There in a bush he saw a ram. It was caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram. He sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
(Genesis 22.13)

I tried to wrap it up: “This is a tough one, Jack. In fact, this is one of your mom’s least favorite stories in the whole Bible. And I almost agree, because without Jesus, this is a really horrible story. But we have Jesus. It’s not horrible, because part of the reason the whole thing happened is so that Israel would know who Jesus was when he came. God gave this story to his people as a gift.”

That confused him.

“Look,” I said. “A dad took his son onto a mountain to offer him as a sacrifice for sin. Can you think of another time a son went on a mountain and died for sins?”

“Jesus?”

“Yes, Jesus. Look at what happens: God gave Abraham the sheep to be used for the sacrifice to save Isaac; and later, God provided another lamb, Jesus, to be the sacrifice to save you and me. Did you know they call Jesus the Lamb of God? This is why: Jesus was the sacrifice for our sin, so we don’t have to kill a sheep like Abraham did. Does that make sense?”

“Sort of.”

(Good enough for me, so I kept going.)

“That’s why this story is actually good news. God saved Abraham’s son, but later on he gave his own son to save us—to save you and me. God never actually wanted Abraham to kill Isaac, he just wanted to show his people about Jesus. They knew this story so they could remember it when they saw what Jesus did.”

Jack was quiet and crawled into my lap and snuggled into me for a hug, not looking at me. He never gets like this.

“Are you okay?”

He nodded.

“Are you bothered?”

Another nod.

“Are you afraid that God will tell daddy to kill you?”

Another nod.

“No, God won’t tell me to kill you. I promise. I promise a thousand times over.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because God already killed Jesus. He took all of our sin and put it on Jesus, so we don’t need to have another sacrifice for any of our sin. Abraham was pointing forward to Jesus, but we get to point backward to Jesus. Jesus died so that you don’t have to. God doesn’t want me to sacrifice you, because God already sacrificed Jesus instead. So he’ll never, ever tell me to kill you.”

Another hug, a better one this time, then we ended with a short prayer:

Thank you, God, for providing the sacrifice for Abraham to save his son. And thank you for providing your own son, Jesus, as a sacrifice to save us—to save me and mom and Jack and Oliver. Thank you that we don’t have to pay for our sin with death because Jesus already did. Amen.

I don’t know that I got the answer right, but I think I did okay. And I hope that, if you have children of your own, this dialogue encourages you to pile on the couch or gather around the dinner table or sprawl on the bed with your kids. Open up God’s word and jump in with them. Tell them the story of God. All of it. It doesn’t matter that you get all the answers right, or that you have answers at all, or that you do a good job pronouncing all those names and places. What matters is that you read it to your children, confident that in those pages they’ll find Christ—and trust that God will do the rest.

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NOTE: I’m grateful to The Jesus Storybook Bible and the Gospel Transformation Bible for pointing the way on this one. If I got lost en route, the mistakes are my own; these two guide maps are excellent, and I highly recommend them.

Spurgeon: Rejoice in creation (old and new)

This is a guest post by the Prince of Preachers, C.H. Spurgeon. I would say it’s my favorite excerpt from his sermons, but that’s not entirely accurate, as it’s the only Spurgeon excerpt I’ve ever read. Still, I can’t imagine finding one I like more than this.

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I must confess that I think it a most right and excellent thing that you and I should rejoice in the natural creation of God. I do not think that any man is altogether beyond hope who can take delight in the nightly heavens as he watches the stars, and feel joy as he treads the meadows all bedecked with kingcups and daisies. He is not lost to better things who, on the waves, rejoices in the creeping things innumerable drawn up from the vasty deep, or who, in the woods, is charmed with the sweet carols of the feathered minstrels.

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The truth incarnate

artofthehobbit1Jack often asks me why I like The Lord of the Rings so much, and I usually tell him it’s because I think it’s one of the best stories ever told. What I really want to say is that I think it’s one of the truest stories ever told, but I don’t think he’s quite old enough to get the difference between ‘true’ and ‘real.’

Earlier today I read an essay called “In Praise of Stories” (one of the many excellent essays in The Christian Imagination) that touches on the same topic:

But what do we mean by a true story?… In what helpful sense is a fictional story about a boy and a slave on a raft, or, worse yet, a story about hobbits and wizards, true? Here is the answer: Any story is true, fictional or otherwise, that testifies accurately to the human condition.

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But for the grace of God

The other day, while discussing some not unsubstantial family problems, someone asked me, “How is it, Josh, that you turned out the way you did?”

I assumed this was meant to reflect positively on me, and replied, “Only by the grace of God.”

In retrospect, my response sounds a little trite; it’s the sort of insincere response that people often give without thinking much about what exactly they’re saying. But I meant it. I mean it. I’m not sure of much in this life, but I am sure of this: I could very easily have walked a different path to end up in a much darker place and as a far worse person. And I’m not on my current path—a path of faith and hope and grace and life—because of anything I did. No, I’m walking this path in spite of anything I did. Left to myself, left to my pain, my past, my family, my circumstances and the natural consequences of my too often foolish decisions, I would not be here. But for the grace of God.

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When life hands you Lemonade

When I pulled up to the parking lot of Engedi Church last night, I was surprised to see how many cars were there. Certainly more than I had expected for a Monday night — nearly as many as I find for a proper Sunday morning service. We had shown up at the abandoned strip mall-turned church building-turned temporary movie theater for a screening of Reparando, a documentary film about Guatemalans who are “embracing the pain of their past to repair the next generation.”

After watching the trailer, I had planned on seeing a powerful film. What I hadn’t planned on was seeing such a moving testimony about the power of the gospel to transform lives. The documentary follows the stories of Tita and Shorty, two Christian leaders who work passionately to improve their community, La Limonada (‘lemonade’). La Limonada is an asentamiento, an urban slum community that, if I remember correctly, is home to some 60,000 people. It’s the largest slum in Central America. This is a story that needs to be heard.

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Out with the Old, in with the New

Yesterday, after nine months of determined devotion, I finally finished my first entire read-through of the Old Testament. Genesis through Malachi. “In the beginning” all the way to “lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.

I won’t be stopping here, of course. The New Testament is on the other side of the page, and I’m eager to get started — but it’s worth reflecting on what I’ve noticed while reading through the L. and the P.

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