My favorite hymn - one that I want sung at my funeral, among other places - is “It Is Well.” Perhaps you know the story of its composition, of a man's discovery that his wife and child have drowned while crossing the ocean to meet him... of his own struggle with grief and anger and all of the emotions that must come with a moment like that... of his ability to understand the comfort of God enough to say "Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control: that Christ has regarded my helpless estate.... It is well."
I think that an experience with the comfort of God has to be a part, if not the central tenet, of the testimony that most of us have to offer.
That does not mean that all of us have faced the tragic death of an infant child. Thankfully, I have not had to face that pain.
It does mean that we live in a world where bad things happen. God's comfort is only necessary because we are uncomfortable, battered, sick, sore, grieved, alone, abandoned, or desperate. I have seen clients go bankrupt. I have seen partners, clients, and my own company lose trials worth millions of dollars. I have seen colleagues belittled to their face.
But what I have seen as a lawyer pales in comparison to what life has shown me elsewhere. I have sat in the hospital with my very sick child. I have seen my own dreams dashed. I have waited through my mother’s cancer surgery. I have attended my father-in-law’s funeral.
And I am one of the lucky ones. I have not had to face a fraction of what many of you are facing right now.
I do not think there is a person on this earth who has not grappled with the questions that arise when we see reality - OK, God is all-powerful, so He could have stopped that bad thing. God is all-loving, so He must have wanted to stop that bad thing. God is all-knowing, so He must have known that the bad thing was happening. Yet, despite His knowledge and His love and His power, the bad thing still happens... and we cry, and maybe we get mad and shake a fist at heaven, or maybe we just shrug our shoulders and decide that God is not nearly as interested as He was back in Biblical days, when He always seemed to be appearing to folks and healing their leprosy.
Since people a lot smarter than I have turned this question around every possible way for centuries, my thoughts on it are unlikely to shed much new light. Still, they work for me. They may not work while I am at the funeral, or in the hospital, or struggling to pay the bills. But when I take a step two back, these thoughts make sense to me.
To start with, we live in a world where bad things undeniably happen, so the question “Why do bad things happen to good Christians?” assumes that Christians are entitled to some special shield from the rain and the shipwrecks. I choose to look at the question of “Why?” this way - Why not? Who better to receive and endure what life has to offer than those who are gifted with the Holy Spirit and who know the comfort of God? Now, I know that does not provide much of an answer to you when it is your child lying under the oxygen tent - believe me, Gena and I were there in the fall of 1996 while our 4-month-old Carolyn struggled to breathe under the watchful eyes of the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital staff. I think it is part of God's answer nonetheless to know that we Christians are the ones best equipped to handle life’s dangers and struggles.
If our world contained no pain, no evil, no suffering - if there were no opportunities for sin and no storms - how much less valuable would the comfort of God be. How cheap would be the free will given us. What a waste would be the peace that passes all understanding, and the incredible fellowship of the believers would never find a place. It is the black in the picture that makes the colors brighter, the rest in the symphony that makes the crescendos more musical, the choice to take the wide road that makes the narrow way more victorious. God is a brilliant craftsman, artist, composer, and director; His gifts are perfect. The phrase “no pain, no gain” is ridiculously overused, but it is true; there is a reason that we honor those who conquer Mount Everest more than those who can climb the hill around the corner. In facing, enduring, and conquering the challenges - the storms - we prove how much we have been given and what our true worth is.
If that is the world God has created for us in His love and omniscience, why should good Christians be, or even want to be, exempt from all it has to offer?
Additionally, I believe in a real, active Satan who is working evil in this world. One reason that bad things happen is because there is powerful bad that has a foothold in our world. Jesus discusses him throughout the gospels, and the prince of this world is still possessing, foiling, seducing, and corrupting God’s creations. I am in the middle of teaching a six-seek Sunday School series out of Job. Whether the Book of Job is a myth or a symbol or accurate history, the Satan it describes represents a palpable force in this world. You know the story... Satan shows up at a heavenly roll call, and God offers up Job. Satan is not allowed to kill him but is allowed to do pretty much whatever else he wants. As Job loses his livelihood, his family, and his health, his friends show up and tell him that all of this must have happened because of his deep-seated sin. Since we have read the first two chapters of the book, we know that Job is not being punished for sin but rather is being afflicted by a dark spiritual attacker.
Next, we may not always know what is bad. This is a hard lesson for litigators like me to learn - too often we are sure what a case is “worth,” and then a jury surprises us by bringing back a verdict that is a small fraction of what we predicted or that is orders of magnitude greater than the worst we feared. What that tells us lawyers is that we have become arrogant and lost perspective on what the real world thinks is good and bad and valuable and worthless.
It is the same thing with our human perspective of what is good and bad. We do not have the eyes of God or the perspective of the Everlasting One; and it borders on arrogant for us puny humans to declare that we know everything about what is good. I believe that there are things that happen that are absolutely for the best in the big picture. The problem is that we have no concept of the big picture. To use the words of a wise member of my Sunday School class, God is continually creating and painting and perfecting a huge mosaic, and even with scripture and prayer and experience, we see only a small corner. Or, to paraphrase a song from “The Prince of Egypt,” one thread has no idea of how the whole tapestry will look. Our view makes certain things appear certain ways, and we call them “good” or “bad”; from a heavenly viewpoint, those events may be good, bad, or neither.
I know that still does not answer many of the questions, and there are some things that are bound to be bad from any perspective: I do not believe that God thinks it is good when the four-year-old is killed by a drunk driver. Still, I do think that there are many times that we have no idea what the “good” result is.
A point that we cannot overlook is that sometimes God sends, or allows, calamity because we deserve it. I am not a proponent of the theory that we serve a wrathful, vengeful God hurling thunderbolts and conjuring up new diseases to punish the popular sin of the week; on the other hand, I do not believe you can read scripture honestly without recognizing that God often disciplines those He loves and that He sometimes punishes the evil.
Perhaps the toughest to accept but the deepest and most meaningful of the responses to our struggles is found in God's response to the complaining of Jeremiah: “If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, How will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?"
If you have been wearied running with the footmen, then how will you ever run with the horses? You have to face and conquer the problems that come to you now, in a land of peace, so that you have some chance of victory when you face the swelling of the Jordan. If you did not recognize it, Jeremiah's words are Hebrew for “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” The phrase “no pain, no gain” is ridiculously overused, but it is true; there is a reason that we honor those who conquer Mount Everest more than those who can climb the hill around the corner. In facing, enduring, and conquering the challenges - the storms - we prove how much we have been given and what our true worth is.
Don't you see? God wants us to run with the horses. He desires for us to mount up with wings as eagles. His plan is for us to walk on water.
We cannot automatically and immediately run with the horses. We are not the gold that we need to be until we have first gone through a refiner's fire, where impurities and weaknesses are removed and only the finest and most valuable to the Kingdom remains.
It was the Apostle Paul who wrote that we all must suffer if we are to be joint heirs with Christ. We join in His suffering so that we can be glorified together with Him. I do not understand that, and I do not welcome it, but I believe it. You may well know real suffering right now. Maybe it is in your body or in your family. Perhaps your business or your farm is in such a state that you are truly experiencing travail. If not now, you will know it in your life, if you are lucky enough to live that long.
That is where the comfort of God comes in. There is no question that bad things happen. At least they are bad as far as we can figure. The fact that those happenings may be coloring our world so that tomorrow will be brighter does not help, for the moment. The idea that an evil person is being punished or a good person is being disciplined is irrelevant to us as we experience what seems like yet another crushing blow. As even more lightning seems to strike us, the thought of being able to run with the horses sometime in the future could not matter less to us.
How fortunate that we serve a God who does not leave us there! God, like God always does, seeks us out. He comes to us. At Christmas time, we call His coming “advent.” In truth, advent happens repeatedly - our God seeks us and finds us and comes to us.
Before we can run with the horses, we need once again to welcome and to wait upon Him.
It is then that the comfort of God takes over. We stop asking why bad things happen and start resolving to move forward despite the bad things. Then the colors of the great mosaic sparkle brightly around the black that has been recently painted.
Then, when we have waited for the Lord and been renewed with His strength, we are ready to run with the horses.