Jesus And Our Loneliness
From Paul’s letter to the Romans, the 5th chapter, I am going to read for you the first five verses – perhaps as magnificent a statement of the Christian understanding of suffering as can be found in all of Scripture. This is the Word of the Lord:
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Through Him, we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand. And we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, which has been given to us.”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory. Let us pray.
Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
In the first year of my first pastorate, I chose to preach a sermon on the subject of suffering. Afterwards, one of the men in that congregation, a man whom I dearly love, came up to me and said, “Howard, you have not yet lived long enough to have suffered enough to really be able to talk about it.” And that was true then, but that is true no longer. I now know, to some degree at least, what it means to suffer. Oh, to be sure, there is more, perhaps even greater, suffering out there ahead somewhere. But I have suffered enough at least to know that this world is not the kind of place where a jaunty tune is always appropriate. This world is not the kind of place where every story ends happily ever after.
And so, today, some 14-plus years later, I come to the subject of suffering once more. I do not see it now as I saw it then.
For I have come to the discovery in my own life that only Jesus, only Jesus has the power to conquer suffering.
Only Jesus. And that leads me to the first point that I wish to make this morning. It is simply this: it is not good enough for us to try to explain suffering using all kinds of clever theories and propositions. Some people, for example, will say to the sufferer, “Your suffering is a result of divine impartiality and natural law.” The rain falls on the just and the unjust.
And, of course, that’s quite true. There’s no mistake about that. The law of gravity, that natural law that holds this building to the Earth is the same law that pulls a child who leans too far out of a window so that the child falls and is hurt, or perhaps even dies. And yet, we would not think for a single moment of repealing these natural laws. They are necessary for our living. And yet there are some Christians who seem to feel that those natural laws ought to at least be suspended in a moment of need for those who are Christians so that those who are Christians can somehow avert the sufferings and the pains of this life.
Well, let’s just suppose that that were true. Let’s just suppose that Christians, simply because they were Christians, managed to escape all of the hardships and the sufferings of life. Why would people become Christians? Because they love Jesus or because they were looking for some kind of divine insurance policy that would see them safely through life’s hard places?
Oh, yes. It’s absolutely true that natural law and divine impartiality sometimes bring us pain and grief. And yet, if we are honest, we will admit that it’s true that both of these are necessary for the ongoing process of life. Yes, that’s true. But I want to tell you something. You try to tell that to a man who has just buried the child he lost in a tragic accident. Say such a thing to such a person, and I promise you, the words will turn to ashes in your throat. I know because I’ve tried.
And then there are some who would say to the sufferer, “God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.” And, of course, that’s quite true. You and I, no doubt, can point to instances in our own experience where God’s mysterious hand managed to bring some good, some marvelous work to bear in our lives. We know that’s true. And yet, I ask you, would you be willing to blithely make that comment to one who lies terminally ill with cancer? Chances are, that person would say to you in reply, “In my circumstances, it appears that God moves in malicious ways, His wonders to perform.”
And then there are those who would say to sufferers, “You must understand that your suffering will make you a more sensitive, a more compassionate, a more understanding person.” And usually, that’s also quite true. I’ve suffered enough to come to the belief that, yes, the suffering I have known, I believe has made me just a little bit more sensitive to the needs and the hurts and the pains of other people. But then, you and I both know individuals who, in the midst of their own agony, have simply reached out to bring a greater agony upon the people who are around them.
Do you get the point I’m trying to make? It’s just not good enough to try to explain away suffering using all sorts of clever little theories and propositions. It’s not good enough. Because, you see, whether suffering produces character or not, as Paul suggests; whether suffering draws you closer to God or not; whether suffering builds you up or tears you down is not dependent upon clever theories and propositions. It is dependent upon whether or not you have Jesus in your heart.
Look at that. Do you know that I’ve come right back to where I started? Only Jesus, only Jesus has the strength to conquer suffering.
Ah, but there is a second point that I wish to make, and it would be this. We need to remember, when we suffer, that Jesus is with us.
That’s what the Cross is all about. Why do you think that we, as Christians, glory in an instrument of death? It is simply because the Cross tells us that God has immersed Himself in every tear that’s ever been shed. The Cross tells us that God takes upon Himself all of the pain and the agony and the suffering that has ever been or ever will be, all of it.
How can we illustrate that? Well, one preacher does it by pointing to the scene in Charles Dickens’s classic, Tale of Two Cities, the scene where the horse-drawn cart is carrying a group of condemned political prisoners to be executed on the guillotine. Amongst those in the cart, there is a young man who actually is dying in the place of his friend. There’s also a young woman there, condemned to die, terribly frightened. And yet, as she looks at this young man, she sees a strange strength and calmness in his face. And so she reaches out to him, and she says, “Would you give me your hand so that I may have some of your strength?” He offers her his hand, and she takes it, and they ride on together. Hand in hand, they ride on to die. When they arrive at the place of execution, the young girl leans over to him and says, “I think you were sent to me by heaven.”
And this preacher says, “That’s what happens to us when we encounter suffering in life. God reaches down out of heaven and stretches out His hand, and says, ‘Here is my hand. Take hold of it.'” Now, that’s great, at least as far as it goes. I just don’t think it goes far enough because, you see, the Cross tells me that God does more than simply hold our hands as any good friend would do. The Cross tells me that instead, God completely identifies Himself with our suffering. Every pain that we feel, He feels as we feel it. Every heartbreak that we know, He knows as our hearts break. The loneliness that chokes and smothers us, chokes and smothers God at the same time. When we suffer, God suffers. Reach up and take hold of this. When we encounter suffering in life, God does not just offer us His hand. He offers us His heart. He offers us Himself in Jesus Christ.
A very sad story came out of the first World War. A young French soldier boy longed to see his commander-in-chief, the great war hero, Marshal Foch. But he never saw the general because, you see, Marshal Foch was the kind of general who commanded not at the front lines but far back in the rear guard. The young man never saw him. And then, in the course of battle, the young man was wounded, grievously wounded. He lost both of his legs. He was transferred back to a military hospital. He thought, surely, now, perhaps the general would visit the military hospital, and he would at last get to see the man whom he served, the man for whom he is suffering. But, you see, Marshal Foch was the kind of general who did not wish to be exposed to the horrors and the sufferings of war, and so he wouldn’t visit military hospitals; and the young man never saw his commander-in-chief.
And then, just after the war, the young man read in the newspaper that there would be a victory parade through the streets of Paris, and Marshal Foch would be leading the parade. “At last,” he thought, “this would be the chance.” He knew, of course, that he would never be able to see the parade from the street level because of the loss. And so he rented a hotel room that had a window that looked out over the parade route. And on that day, he went to the hotel room, and he opened up the window, and then, because he was a bit weary from the exertion, he stretched out on the bed for a few minutes to rest until the parade began. He knew that he’d be able to know when the parade had started because he could hear the bands playing. He could hear the music coming. He knew that would be the signal, and then he would get to the window, and, at last, see the one for whom he had suffered so.
While he was resting there, he leaned his crutches up right against the wall, close to the bed, so that they would be within easy reach.
Then, after a while, he heard in the distance the bands begin to play. He knew the parade was headed his way. He was trembling with excitement now. Trembling, in fact, to such an extent that, when he reached out to take his crutches, he accidentally knocked the crutches over. They toppled over, hit the hardwood floor, and skittered out across the floor beyond his reach.
He leaned out over the bed, stretching as hard as he could, and he couldn’t reach them. The music was growing louder now, and he knew that he had to do something. And so, in desperation then, using only his arms, he began slowly to lower himself down off the bed and onto the floor. And then, inch by inch by agonizing inch – the music louder now – inch by inch, he moved across the floor until the point where the window was. And there, the music was deafening now. He knew the parade was there. He reached up and grabbed hold of the windowsill, and with all of the strength that he had left, he pulled, and he pulled, and he pulled until, at last, he just managed to get his face up above the windowsill and he looked out. He was too late. Marshal Foch had already ridden by. The young man never saw the one whom he served, the one for whom he suffered.
But thank God, thank God that’s not the way it is with us as Christians, for the Cross of Jesus Christ tells us that Jesus – our commander-in-chief, our leader, the one whom we serve, the one for whom we suffer – Jesus is right here in the trenches of life with us. No part of our suffering is apart from Him. Everything that we know and experience in life, He knows and experiences with us. And that’s why all that I can ever say to someone who knows crippling infirmity is, Jesus. All I can ever say to someone whose memories are too heavy to carry is, Jesus. All I can ever say to someone whose back is against the wall and whose heart is breaking is, Jesus. When remorse gets you down, Jesus. When you face the surgeon’s knife, Jesus. When guilt takes a stranglehold on your experience, Jesus. When death’s dark shadow falls, Jesus. When the world goes mad in war, Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t just sit back looking pretty, no matter how ugly the world may be. No. Jesus comes right into the midst of this sin-sick, sorrow-torn world. He is with us. And the Cross teaches us that the great, beating heart of God beats right next to our own. And in Christ, we can feel it there. And when we feel it there, then we begin to get a grip on the suffering that is gripping us. For heaven’s sake, I just keep coming back to it. Don’t I? Only Jesus has the strength to conquer suffering.
But there is something else that I must say here. When we suffer, we need to remember that not only is Jesus with us, but in our suffering, in a very special way, we are with Him.
Do you catch the distinction? It’s very important that you do. He is not only with us, but when we suffer, in a special way, we are with Him. And that means that the victory that He won on the cross is a victory which is ours as well. Make no mistake about it. Jesus triumphed over that cross. Near the end, He cried, “It is finished.” A cry of defeat, yes, but not the defeat of Jesus. Rather, the defeat of sin and evil and suffering in the world. For there on Calvary that day, evil was as evil as evil could be. But there on Calvary, Jesus stretched out His great, bloody hands and dealt a fatal blow to sin and suffering and evil in this world.
And that’s why the victory that He won is a victory which can be ours as well. Because when we suffer, in a very special way we are with Him, and He comes to us in the midst of that suffering and He says to us, “I love you. And just as I won over My cross, so now you and I together will win over yours.”
You have to understand that in order to understand why that lady answered me as she did. She was in the Indy Anderson Cancer Institute in Houston. I was returning from a speaking engagement in another city and arranged for an afternoon layover in Houston that I might visit her. She was suffering, suffering as few of us will ever suffer. The cancer had spread to a number of parts of her body, but particularly, particularly in her mouth and her lips and her face. Her suffering was intense, would only grow the more intense until her death just a few months later. She was as great a Christian lady as I have ever known. My heart still aches that she is gone from this life. I suppose it always will.
But I want to ask you to do something. I want to ask you to go back with me to that hospital room in Houston. There’s something that I want you to see there. I can’t show you a photograph of it. All I can do is to try to paint for you the picture in words. But there’s something that I want you to see. In that room, there was warmth, and there was love, and there was great laughter. That’s right. I said laughter. That’s always the way it was wherever she was. Depression couldn’t stay in the same room with her. You had to leave it at the door when you came in. We had a great visit that afternoon, both of us knowing full well that we would never see one another again this side of glory.
As I prepared to leave, I leaned down over the bed and said to her, “Miss Ruth, I love you so much. I just wish that I could help you carry some of that pain.” And she looked up at me with a smile, a great, big, bright smile that must have been an agony. And she said, “I know you love me. But I don’t have a single pain to spare. I’m going to carry it all so that I shall know all the victory.” That’s what I want you to see: that there is no darkness so dark that it cannot be pierced by the white wings of angels; that there is no burden so heavy that it cannot be made light by the power of God; that there is no pain so deep that the soothing hand of the Master cannot touch it; that there is no suffering so intense that King Jesus cannot conquer it.
But you have to have Jesus in your heart. If you’re suffering now, He will give you the strength to conquer it. If your suffering is still out there ahead of you somewhere, He will give you the strength to conquer it, but you have to have Jesus in your heart. I can’t seem to get away from it. I keep coming right back to where I began. Only Jesus, only Jesus has the strength to conquer suffering.
Out on the mission field, a little boy who was won to Christ by one of our missionaries lay dying. His pagan father, even in his last moments, sought to force him back to a pagan faith. The father said to him, “Where will you go when you die?”
The little boy said, “I will go to heaven to be with Jesus.”
The father said, “Suppose Jesus isn’t there?”
The little boy said, “Then I will go to be wherever Jesus is.”
The father wouldn’t give up. He pressed on. “Suppose Jesus is in hell?”
And the Scripture verse says, “A little child shall lead them.”
The little boy said, “Father, there can be no hell where Jesus is.” I think that that is what God is trying to say to you through me this day, that there can be no hell where Jesus is.
Let us pray. O merciful Father, we claim the gift of Jesus Christ, who not only gives us joy in life but gives us the power to move through all of the difficulties and the sufferings of life as more than conquerors. We sing praise to His holy name for the blessed assurance which He gives to us. In His name, amen.