The Greatest Strains Come From The Greatest Strain
September 21, 1986 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Romans 8:26-39
I remember reading about the epitaph which marks the grave of a man named John Breshear and his wife, Phoebe. John Breshear grew up in poverty and he had to drop out of school at the end of the sixth grade. However, what he lacked in the things of this world, he made up for with the things of God. Driven by his great faith, he began to teach himself. He took up a trade. He became a grinder of lenses. By sheer determination against overwhelming odds, he became one of the most skilled lense makers in this country. The supreme example of his work is the Allegheny Observatory telescope in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is considered the leading astrometric telescope in the world. If you visit that observatory today, you will see nearby the graves of John Breshear and his wife. Carved into a stone there are words which John Breshear himself wrote: “We have loved the stars too fondly to ever be fearful of the night.”
That’s a beautiful thought, and the more I have rolled it about in my mind, the more it reminds me of what Paul has to say in this eighth chapter of Romans. Paul didn’t live always in the sunlight. Not every day for him was filled with the brilliance of success and victory. There were times of darkness and days of tragedy. There was wearing away at him all of the time the hard, harsh edge of suffering. Paul knew the “nighttime” experiences of life—the dark times of suffering and difficulty. But Paul also knew that the night is the time when the stars shine—the stars of God’s grace and truth. Therefore, Paul knew that if you love the stars, you can never fear the night. That’s the message he delivers here in Romans—and it’s a message with two great affirmations.
The first affirmation is this: Paul affirms that God is with us in the dark times of suffering and difficulty.
He says in verse 26: “Likewise the spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Do you remember the great scene in Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, when the horse drawn cart is carrying the political prisoners out to the place of execution? Sidney Carton, the man who lost his soul and then found it again, is in the cart. There’s a young girl there, too. She looks at Carton and sees the courage and the confidence in his face. She says: “I am not afraid, but I am very weak. Would you mind if I held your hand?” Carton responds and they go on to face death hand in hand. Just as they come to the scaffold she turns to him and says: “I think that you were sent to me by heaven.”
Well, Paul is saying to us here in Romans 8 that when we are in the cart of suffering, when there is no sunlight but only the darkness of the night about us—at that precise moment, like a star shining in the night sky, there is sent to us from heaven nothing less than the presence of Christ Himself. That means that God’s presence is most all-encompassing, most uplifting, and most powerful at the very moment when we feel most weak.
There have been many occasions in which I have had to watch great saints suffer—and I have noticed a couple of things about them.
I have noticed that there is a silence about them in their suffering. Oh, there are people who whine and complain in suffering. They are bitter against everyone and everything. But not the greatest saints. They have about them, in their suffering, silence. Why? It’s because the spirit of Christ is within them at a level too deep for words. And it’s because they walk with Jesus through their suffering, and He was silent in His suffering. There were the long interrogations before Pilate and Herod. He said nothing. There were the lashings with the whip and the hideous tortures of the soldiers. He said nothing. There were the jeers on Calvary, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross and we shall believe in you.” He said nothing. Not only did priests rail against Him, but thieves shouted obscenities at Him. He said nothing. In the midst of His suffering, Jesus Christ was silent. And those who walk with Christ in suffering discover this blessed silence from the Savior who is at their side.
The other thing I have noticed about the great saints is that there is a steadiness about them in their suffering. You cannot tell me that as Jesus hung on that cross and looked down and saw those who would die without knowing Him, that He didn’t want to come down from the cross and preach to them at least one last time. You cannot tell me that as He looked down and saw little children who had come because this was a spectator sport in those days that He didn’t long to come down from that cross and take them into His lap once again to whisper in their ears words which could mean for them eternity. You cannot tell me that as He suffered there and saw His mother fainting at His feet that He didn’t want to come down and catch her and hold her tight. And if these things were not enough to want to come down from that cross, then surely the awful pain and agony of it would have been. And He could have come down. Remember that, please. He could have come down. Twelve legions of angels stood by awaiting His command. But He didn’t move. There was steadiness there. And the great saints I have seen in suffering walk so profoundly in His presence that the steadiness which was His in suffering becomes theirs. Paul says that the spirit of Christ helps them, strengthens them, steadies them in their weakness.
That’s the first star of truth shining in the dark night of suffering and difficulty. God is with us in our suffering. We are not alone. His spirit is within us.
Now here’s the second affirmation: Paul affirms that not only is God with us, but we are with God in the dark times of suffering.
Paul writes in verse 28: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him.”
In other words, Paul is saying that in our suffering and difficulty, God works to lift us up to Him and to His good for us. Paul was not saying that everything that happens is good. It is not. Human freedom and human sin prohibit that. But he is saying that God can use everything for good. God can turn the scars into stars.
Understand, please, that Christians are not exampt from the hardships of life. Christians go bankrupt. Christians get divorced. Christians have automobile accidents. Christians are rushed into intensive care units. St. Teresa knew God so intimately that she sometimes spoke to Him in ways that startle us. In one of her journals she recorded a conversation she had with God. She prayed: “O Father, why is it that thou dost strew our path with such obstacles?” God answered: “Do not murmur for I always so treat my friends.” And St. Teresa replied: “Ah, yes, Father, and perhaps that is why thou has so few of them.” But that’s true you know. If having faith made life all sunlight and roses, then people would have faith for all the wrong reasons. So God says: “No one will sneak into heaven by any other road than that of conflict and pain.” But He also says that in the conflict and the pain, He will work to bring His glory.
That’s what separates Christians from others, that’s what make Christians grandly and gloriously different, that’s what gives Christians the courage in life others do not possess. Christians believe with Paul, that God can take the pain of our lives and work with it to bring His glory.
God can work through suffering to build our character. The great virtues of courage and fortitude and endurance often arise out of the darkness of hardship and suffering. You don’t sharpen a knife by rubbing it against a sponge. You rub it against a stone. It’s the hardness of the stone that sharpens the knife. That’s what James meant when he said: “Count it all joy when you suffer various temptations.” For out of those defeated temptations there comes a new depth and strength of character.
And God can work through suffering to build our spirits, to make us more Christ-like. I read not long ago of a new young opera singer from Europe who came to make her operatic debut in New York. One of the critics wrote afterwards: “She has a beautiful voice which she uses to technical perfection. What she needs is for someone to break her heart.” What he was saying was that she needs tenderness, softness, mellowness, sensitivity. She needs those things which only suffering can bring.
Isn’t it interesting that in our English language the word “strain” can have two meanings. It can mean “stress” or “pain” or “difficulty”—and it can also mean “a piece of beautiful music,” the lovely strains of a song. Could that mean that the two things are related? I think so. The greatest strains come from the greatest strain. The most beautiful music arises out of the deepest pain. The darker the night, the brighter the stars. In everything God works for good. It was true even of Jesus Christ. One of the most remarkable sentences about Jesus in all of Scripture is this: “Son of God though He was, yet learned He by all He suffered.”
That means that no matter what sackcloth of pain we wear in life, God can weave it into robes of glory. No matter what wintery moments we encounter in the harshness of life, God plants within it the promise of the springtime. Nothing can happen to us in pain which does not bring with it the possibility of gain. So never say about life “Anything can happen.” Anything cannot happen! God will not allow anything to happen which has in it more evil than He is able to rise above and transform into good. That’s what Paul means in Romans 8:28: “We know that in everything God works for good to those who love Him.” That’s the second star of truth shining in the darkness of suffering and difficulty.
Look to those stars from God which shine through the dark night of difficulty. When suffering comes, God is with us and we are with God in a special way. Therefore, nothing can separate us from God—not tribulation or distress or famine or persecution or nakedness or peril or sword—not death, not life, not angels, not principalities, not powers, not things present, not things to come, not height, not depth, not anything—nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. When we love the stars of God’s peace and truth, we need not fear the night of suffering and difficulty.
Permit me the privilege of adding a P. S. to this sermon.
These sermons go out on television and radio and in printed form. I get many letters in response. But I have to say that I am most grateful when I get letters from those who are shut-in or confined to beds or wheelchairs. They are God’s greatest saints. This message is for them, those who who live each day in the night, in the darkness of suffering and pain and difficulty. Know that God is with you and you are with God in a special way. He can transform the prisonhouse of your pain into the palace of His glory.
The battle is hard, I know. Little things annoy. People chatting away outside your door. Visitors who shake the bed or drum their fingers on the nightstand. Pictures hang crooked on the walls, and no one notices to straighten them. Insufferable little objects that lose themselves in the bedclothes. It becomes almost more than you can bear. But in those moments of darkness, please look for the stars of God’s grace.
Henry Francis Lyte lived in that kind of darkness. He suffered terribly. He was an orphan. He was poor. He managed finally to make it into the ministry. But he so spent himself trying to do the Lord’s work that he broke his health. He suffered rejection by those who fought against his ministry. He had to resign his pulpit. Late in the afternoon on the Sunday he resigned—physically he was near death—he walked down to the harbor of the town where he lived. He sat on the rocks and looked out over a sea that was molten in the setting sun. There he jotted down some words which have become an anthem for all God’s suffering saints:
Abide with me: fast falls the eventide,
The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide,
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes,
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies,
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee,
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.