The Very Best Humans Are Formed Through Pain
As I write this, I am keenly aware of a groaning creation and of what Albert Camus called “the bitter taste of the mortal state.” I turned 52 years old this year, which means I am one year closer to the inevitable day of my death. It is also not long after Easter, which presents me with an ironic (and most welcome) paradox: Though I die, yet shall I live, because Jesus is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25).
For those who are younger and less accustomed to entertaining such brooding, morbid thoughts, the world – even their world – is still overcome by a viral pandemic that has thrown everything and everyone off center. Some people fear for their financial future, others, for their health. Some fear for their loved ones, others, for themselves. Some pastors fear that their ministries might not survive this crisis.
It’s quite troubling, isn’t it, how a microscopic organism can alter the landscape so quickly and drastically? It reminds us that being in control of our lives and future is an illusion, and nothing more.
Whatever our situation at this time, and however COVID-19 ends up impacting us personally, one thing is certain: eventually, we all will die. In fact, we have all been destined to die, and after that to face judgment (Hebrews 9:27).
Along with the promise of death, we who are in Christ also possess a hope that transcends even a mortality ratio of one person per every one person. In Christ alone, we have an eternal perspective, a “weight of glory,” as it were, that far outweighs even the loathsome sting of death that will eventually come to bite us on the heel.
The big picture tells us that the lives we live now are merely a temporary, middle chapter of the Story of God. The last chapter of this same Story – a chapter that, like all those before it, has already been written and cannot and therefore will not be revised – pledges a coming, eternal reality in Christ. We sing of this reality often as we contemplate our Lord’s promise of a coming New Heaven and New Earth:
No chilling words nor poisonous breath
can reach that healthful shore, (where)
sickness, sorrow, pain, and death
are felt and feared no more.
I am bound, I am bound,
I am bound for the Promised Land.
“Felt and feared no more” sounds like a wonderful new normal when we’re talking about sickness, sorrow, pain, and death, does it not? This, of course, is a deep wish that is out of reach in the present, fallen world. No matter how hard we try to delay and fight off death, it will come for us. And before that time, there will also be many dangers, toils, and snares through which we must travel. In the midst of this reality, our Father tells us – 365 times, to be exact – that we need not fear, for he is with us, he is for us, and he will never leave or forsake us. This includes the down and out seasons, as well as the dreaded and dreadful day of our eventual death.
Another hymn, written by George Matheson (1842-1906) brought a similar refrain:
O Cross that liftest up my head
I dare not ask to fly from thee
I lay in dust life’s glory dead
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be
That shall endless be.
As the Apostle Paul said confidently in the face of famine and nakedness and sword and as he faced death all day long, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39).
In a world tattered and torn by a deadly virus, a crashing global economy, canceled schools, closed restaurants, unemployed workers, the deep loneliness of social distancing, and all else that goes with it, we too can share Paul’s confidence and solace in a future that is lovely and bright.
It turns out that Tolkein’s prophetic instinct that everything sad will come untrue…is true. No matter how difficult things become in this present and temporal world, the future and everlasting world promises “no death, mourning, crying, or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Indeed, our best days and years – our Golden Years – are never behind us and always ahead of us. Jesus will make all things new, continuously so, and in such a way that every day will be better “newer” than the day before. We will no longer grow older. Instead, we will grow younger. We will no longer grow weaker. Instead, we will grow stronger. It will be like death in reverse, and my friend and Nashville singer-songwriter, Jeremy Casella, has said.
World without end. Amen, Amen.
Jesus Christ who died, who has risen, and who will come again has told us so. “These words,” said the Alpha and Omega, “are trustworthy and true” (Revelation 21:5).
At Christ Presbyterian Church, the family of believers in Nashville that I get to serve as pastor, there are numerous saints who have endured sorrow and disorientation and loss and who have done it all exceptionally well – including during this pandemic age. Our people continue to give generously and cheerfully, even as many watch their retirement accounts evaporate. Those who are able bodied and healthy look out for those who are not. They make grocery runs and check in regularly on the homebound elderly, people with disabilities and special needs, the infirm, and those with fragile immune systems. Systems have been developed to care and cheer for the heroic and over-worked healthcare professionals who are tending to this crisis from the front lines. Small groups and prayer groups are meeting weekly online – connecting even more during this season than ever before. Our staff and volunteer leaders are as engaged as ever, creatively helping our people worship, connect, and serve in a socially responsible yet deep and meaningful way. Our Sunday “attendance” via livestream is more robust, strong, and steady than it’s ever been in the history of our church. Our people message us regularly, telling us how much they long to return to gathered worship and to the Lord’s Table.
Our crucified, risen, and returning King is clearly up to something. I hope we all get to see some of the fruit of it when this crazy season comes to an end. But even we don’t, we know that he is faithful. We know that we can thank him for the good that we cannot see, even as we thank him for the good that we can. For it is not our circumstances that tell us the truth about God’s character, but God’s character that tell us the truth about our circumstances. For “we know that for those who love God all things” – even awful and disruptive and disorienting things – work together for good” (Romans 8:28).
George Matheson wrote every verse of “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go” (the second hymn, quoted above) out of deep pain from the worst kind of “social distancing.” At age 20, he was engaged to be married, and found out that he was going blind. When he broke the news to his fiancee, she ended the engagement because she could not imagine herself married for the rest of her life to a blind man. Matheson’s sister then became his caregiver, but only until she got engaged and married herself, leaving her disabled brother to face the darkness all on his own. Matheson, isolated in affliction and sorrow, proceeded to write the beloved hymn. He later said that it only took him five minutes and required zero editing.
“O Love That Will Not Let Me Go,” just like every book of the Bible and almost every priceless work of art, was born out of pain. When we’ve sung this hymn as a church in the past, my worship of God has been deepened as I’ve looked around and observed, without fail, that the ones who sing the hymn with the most gusto are the sufferers. This includes John with his ALS, Rob who lost his wife to cancer, Jan and Susan and Al as they battled cancer, Sarah with her chronic fatigue, many as they fought addiction and anxiety and depression, prostitutes in recovery as they fought venereal disease and shame, and others who, like George Matheson, live with great pain and sorrow brought on them by circumstances beyond their control.
As the grief expert, Elisabeth Kubler Ross has said, “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.”
What enables these afflicted souls to keep going, even to keep singing? What empowers them to keep hoping, to keep believing, and to keep pressing forward in the face of gut wrenching, heart-breaking, life-busting circumstances? It is the truth that every Christian has in her/his possession when the days of sickness, sorrow, pain, and death come knocking.
We have the Father whose love will not let us go, the Savior who is coming for us, and the Spirit who will carry us through these middle chapters and get us Home to the final, everlasting one.
World without end. Amen. Amen.
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